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Lensers find helmer’s chair filled with challenges

Semler, Salomon head growing list of crossover specialists

Dean Semler (“Firestorm”) and Mikael Salomon (“Hard Rain”) head a growing list of notable cinematographers who have successfully recast themselves in the role of director. Others who have taken turns at the helm during the past few years include Jack Green, Janusz Kaminski, John Bailey and Jan De Bont.

Salomon has around 50 narrative credits (“The Abyss,” “Backdraft,” “Far and Away”) as a DP. He has spent the past two years directing Paramount’s “Hard Rain.”

“The director of photography has the best job on the set,” he says, “but I wanted a bigger challenge. I’ve directed a ton of commercials and people were encouraging me to try features. I didn’t want to regret not trying years from now.”

Salomon says his DP experience gave him the know-how to make tough decisions on the action pic, which stars Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater. “I always had a clear concept of the story and characters,” he says, “but I had to convince the studio we could shoot it on budget and make it look believable.”

For the film, Salomon built a replica of a Midwestern town in a tank that was flooded with 5 million gallons of water. The set was on a hydraulic lift that was lowered into the tank to create a realistic illusion that flood waters were rising.

The director also used a 2,000-foot-long, 75-foot-high painted backdrop to establish the setting, a technique some called a step back to the past. When asked why he didn’t shoot it the modern way — on location and filming characters against bluescreens — Salomon’s response had more to do with common sense than technology.

“A lot of bluescreen shots would have tied my hands creatively. We’d also have to shoot background plates, and do a lot of costly compositing. We did some image enhancement and other things, like replacing the sky and making it darker and more ominous, but that didn’t involve characters. Our approach gave us more time to concentrate on the story and performances.”

A good choice

Salomon chose Peter Menzies Jr. (“Die Hard With a Vengeance”) to shoot “Hard Rain.” “I like his work, and he was at the right point in his career to shoot a really tough film,” he says. “It was easy to let Peter do his job because I was focused on the cast. Their performances are the biggest part of the movie. You have to be there for them if you expect something back from them.”

Salomon still keeps his feet firmly planted in the advertising arena, and he still shoots the commercials he directs; keeping his cinematography skills sharp while satisfying his appetite for camerawork.

Salomon says his next film doesn’t have to be a big movie, so long as it’s good writing. He’s currently reading scripts looking for a character-based story that he finds satisfying. In the meantime, his TV commercials give him the freedom to be selective.

“I don’t think directing is a natural progression for every cinematographer,” he says. “You make a lot of hard decisions alone, and everyone has an opinion. It’s a huge commitment. You better love the material and project, because you’ll have to make some sacrifices.”

Dean Cundey is another cinematographer reading scripts in search of his next project as a director. The first was 1997’s “Honey We Shrunk Ourselves,” a Disney comedy produced for homevideo release.

Cundey subsequently had commitments to lens three films, including “Flubber,” but he’s determined to direct. “I’m interested in the opportunity to work from the beginning with the script, actors and other departments,” he explains.

What qualities does he look for in a cinematographer? “Someone who understands both visual story-telling and the fact that you’re there to serve the story and the actors,” he says.

Cundey, like Salomon, remains busy within the commercial world as well. He has been directing and shooting commercials for years, which keeps him on the leading edge of imaging technology while it fills the spaces between films.

Other outlets

Michael Watkins has compiled an ample share of credits while photographing episodic TV and MOWs along with some impressive feature credits.

Having begun his directorial efforts lensing episodes of “Quantum Leap,” he finds satisfaction in his new role as executive producer-director. Last season he worked in that capacity on “NYPD Blue” and this year it’s another Steven Bochco creation, “Brooklyn South.”

“I love the fact that I get to impart my feelings about the spirit of the script and that I’m affecting the quality,” he says.

Watkins selected Bill Roe to shoot “Brooklyn South.” “He’s as creative with camera movement and lenses as anyone I’ve seen,” he says. “I wanted a talented cinematographer with dignity, perseverance and a solid job ethic. I can talk to Bill about the emotional aspects of the story and be very succinct about the look and coverage.”

Watkins still is asked to shoot, but he isn’t tempted. “I really like what I’m doing,” he says. “And I have more angst for cinematographers’ problems and more glee for their exuberance than most directors.”