If you ask any cinematographer about the “perfect” movie that left an indelible impression on their soul, you’ll undoubtedly hear a long story.
DP (Woody) Omens, who has earned several Emmys for TV MOWs and crafted some visually memorable features (“Harlem Nights”), now heads the cinematography department at USC. He echoes the memories of countless lensers who remember cinema as more than just a hobby.
“When I was growing up in Chicago, I’d go to the (movies) twice a week,” he says. “There are black-and-white close-ups from those films imbedded in my memory. I didn’t know I was so influenced by them until I began lighting my films.”
Omens recalls vivid images from “Mrs. Miniver,” shot by Joe Ruttenberg. “A well-lit close-up is the single most delicious gift you carry away from a movie,” he says. “And it’s not just one film. It’s a body of work.”
Omens also cites “Suna no onna” (Woman in the Dunes), a 1964 Japanese film photographed by Hiroshi Segawa. “Its about survival and how you choose to spend your life,” he says. “The black-and-white images of this woman, whose destiny is spending her days bailing sand in the desert, are so tactile they are like 3-D.”
Omens also calls the black-and-white photography by Michael Chapman in “Raging Bull” “exquisite,” and also adds “Seconds,” photographed by James Wong Howe in black-and-white, to that list. “Great images lay dormant in your mind,” he says, “but they are always fertile and can come to life at anytime. Sometimes you don’t know for years what the impact will be. ” ‘2001’ and ‘Blade Runner’ have defined our vision of man’s destiny, because the stories are powerful and the images are so unforgettable,” he adds.
Classics aren’t the only worthy attention-grabbers for Omens. “Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork in ‘Amistad’ falls into that category,” he says. “It is the perfect color complement to his black-and-white work in ‘Schindler’s List.’ His use of deep desaturation to reduce certain colors at the right times is brilliant.”
While Omens offers an eclectic view of movie memories, three films commonly find their way onto most cinematographers’ lists. “The Godfather,” photographed by Gordon Willis; “Blade Runner,” crafted by Jordan Cronenweth; and “Il Conformista” (The Conformist), shot by Vittorio Storaro are seminal movies in which cinematographers blazed new trails. It’s an integral footnote that none of them received Oscar nominations for their efforts.
Five-time Academy Award-nominee Owen Roizman (“Wyatt Earp,” “Network”) recalls that he had just wrapped “The French Connection,” his first major film, and he and his wife celebrated by going to see “The Conformist.”
“I remember looking at those images and saying, ‘I’ll never be able to do work like this. I better get out of this business right now.’ I felt totally intimidated, especially when I found out that Vittorio and I were around the same age (30).”
Another of Roizman’s memorable pic experiences was “Blade Runner.” “Jordan won the BAFTA (British version of an Oscar). I got an Oscar nomination for ‘Tootsie’ that year and felt embarrassed because Jordan wasn’t nominated.”
Roizman thinks Cronenweth’s main achievement in “Blade Runner” was the overall style of lighting, camera movement and composition that executed director Ridley Scott’s concept. “I think people assumed it was all Scott because he’s such a great visualist, and his pictures always look great,” he says. “I think this is the best-looking movie Scott has done — and that’s saying a lot. Every time I watch it, I see something new that inspires me.
“It’s the mood that comes from the balance of lighting, tones and the details he chooses to reveal in the shadows,” Roizman says. “It’s not about magic hour and sunrises and sunsets. It’s about how you control light.”
Cinematographer John Bailey (“As Good As it Gets”) recalls a time at the start of his own career when he was still undecided about his future. Like many, he too uncovered a revelation upon watching “The Conformist.”
“It was like a veil lifted,” he says. “After I watched it for the first time, I called a cameraman I was working with on commercials and told him it was amazing. We watched it together, and then I saw it for a third time. It was revolutionary and I could see the possibilities. I thought he must be a master cinematographer, and was amazed to find Vittorio was only a couple of years older than me.”
Constantly lauded for “The Conformist,” Storaro’s decision to shoot the Bernardo Bertolucci film came with some degree of hesitance. Storaro had shot one film for director Bertolucci, “Strategelia de Ragno” (“Spider Strategy”).
He read the script for “Il Conformista” only a week before they began shooting, so Bertolucci insisted that they watch Gregg Toland’s rendition of “Citizen Kane.” “We had some doubts,” Storaro recalls of “The Conformist,” which depicts events leading up to the rise of the Mussolini dictatorship in Italy.
During the 1970s, it was commonplace for cinematographers to describe their work as painting with light. Storaro expressed a more complex idea. He said he was writing with light in motion. It was more than a semantic difference.
“It is the real meaning of what we are trying to accomplish,” he says. “We are writing a story with light, the absence of light, motion and colors. It is a visual language with its own vocabulary and unlimited possibilities for expressing ideas and feelings.”
Also nominated for an Academy Award five times, DP Allen Daviau (“E.T.,” “Bugsy”) calls the failure to nominate Willis for an Oscar for “The Godfather” “a miscarriage of justice. … What makes it really remarkable are the stories about the studio hating what he and Francis were doing. One of the myths is that you can’t see Marlon Brando’s eyes, but there was plenty of eye light. Gordon was selective about the times he concealed what Brando was thinking by obscuring his eyes in shadows.”
Willis created a golden amber patina, which was integral to the structure of the film. That technique quickly became a visual metaphor for a period look. “I don’t know where that idea came from,” Willis says. “I just know it felt right.”
Willis used other counterculture techniques, such as allowing windows to “blow out” with glaring exterior light to establish moods.
In the 1984 edition of “Masters of Light,” Willis says, “The art comes out of the craft. For example, you might have a great idea for a painting, but can you paint? If you say no, then your idea is worthless, because there’s no way for you to project that idea. It is being able to execute the idea that sets you free.”