When Allen Daviau deliberated over the early-period ambiance of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” which is set in Baltimore circa 1948-52, he didn’t just consider the look and lighting for the film’s 1917-21 flashbacks, he shot the scenes at 16 frames a second and then stretch-printed them at 24.
“That creates a bit of movement in the film,” says Daviau, “a ‘judder,’ we call it, which gives the audience the sense that what they’re watching is a reshot silent film.”
With that simple improvisation, without anyone asking or perhaps even knowing about it, Daviau set a viewing precondition that put the audience in a period mood before it even knew how it got there.
Another cinematographer might have taken a safer, tried-and-true route. But Daviau is not just another cinematographer; that’s why he’s receiving this year’s American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award.
“He has a great sense of texture, lighting and creating a mood that gives a great deal of specificity to a film,” says Levinson, who also used Daviau for “Bugsy” (1991). “If you can’t get the mood you have in mind, the scene is affected. You can’t make it up on the spot or change the print. Allen not only delivers, he helps you accomplish certain things by creating a context first.”
In the general hierarchy of importance — especially around awards season — the cinematographer is shoved far back in the red-carpet paparazzi flash that attends the celebrity anointing of any given year. On a movie set, however, the pecking order is different. The director hovers around the cinematographer like a jealous spouse.
The movie star knows, consciously or not, that the most famous of his or her predecessors — be it Garbo, Dietrich, Cary Grant, Brando or Marilyn Monroe — achieved their immortality partly by the way they were shot. And the efforts of every set, lighting, costume designer and makeup and hair specialist all come to rely on what the camera will make of them. The cinematographer is the eye of a movie; he or she takes everything in and helps tell us what we need to consider.
“Don’t call us techies!” Daviau says in a rare display of pique. Otherwise, at 64, he’s a genial character of Falstaffian girth with a thick corona of curly gray hair and beard — a gourmand who can hold his own at the table. But besides food, he can talk Musco lights, film stock emulsification rates, digital-DVD transfers and the wonders of technology that do not cease.
In the end, it’s the creative process that intrigues him most. One of his favorite movie assignments was 1993’s “Fearless,” because director Peter Weir showed up on the set with an open mind, expecting that what he achieved would come out of rehearsals with the actors.
“I do best when I can watch actors perform,” Daviau says. “They act for each other and the camera — that helps determine how a scene is blocked. Some directors don’t like to rehearse because they really don’t know what to do. Sometimes they fall in love with scenes that are unfilmable. Peter Weir works organically.
“A cinematographer has to have a good idea of the look of a film before going in, but you have to be responsive to the relationship of actors and director. ‘Fearless’ was a great experience for that.”
Where most young people save up for a car, Daviau — who grew up in L.A.’s Baldwin Heights and never went to film school (“I didn’t have the grades for UCLA or the money for USC”) — worked in camera shops and photo labs to save up for a Beaulieu camera. “An incredible instrument that could go from two to 16 frames a second,” he says.
He learned to design and run lights at Loyola High and later for the Fresno Opera. He remains a devotee of the theater and laments the demise of Sunday afternoon live TV theater, which eventually fell under the cleats of the NFL.
He did a lot of what he calls “gate-crashing” at the studios while learning his craft and shooting TV commercials. His first full-time break came from shooting promos for radio station KHJ. When RKO decided to produce DJ Sam Riddle’s “Boss City” as a live TV music show, Daviau took a $50 pay cut from his camera store job to shoot rock ‘n’ roll promos. He went on to shoot four TV movies before moving to features in 1968.
It was during this period of transition that Daviau met Steven Spielberg, for whom he acted as camera operator on an early unfinished work, “Slip Stream,” that was ruined during its shoot by a monsoon. They would end up collaborating a year later, with Daviau graduating to d.p. on another short, “Amblin,” about two hitchhikers who hook up in the desert.
The film, after which Spielberg named his production company, dispensed with dialogue in favor of images, music and sound effects. It also led to three feature assignments with the wunderkind: the Gobi desert sequences of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “Empire of the Sun.”
“It’s never dull,” says Daviau of his work with Spielberg. “He’ll always challenge you to do something impossible, and you’ll do it.”
If winning a lifetime achievement award augurs a certain inevitability in an industry that prizes youth, Daviau’s not biting. Even with all the young talent in the d.p. ranks seemingly nipping at his heels, he remains philosophically upbeat.
“Historically, cinematographers have worked a long time,” he says. “I think it’s important to have a vast age range. Our union has been very good about that. You can work for as long as you have ideas.”