King of the second-unit cinematographers, Rexford Metz is second to none when it comes to getting shots on the ground, in water or high in the sky.
He operated the camera during the famed 10-minute chase sequence in “Bullitt” on the streets of San Francisco in 1968, and it was his coverage of muscle cars — and stuntman Bud Ekins’ motorcycle slide — that viewers could feel on the seat of their pants.
Metz was born in Los Angeles in 1937 to Glen and Mildred Metz. His dad built race car engines, and Metz graduated from Fairfax High School in 1955 with knowledge of two things: fast cars and using his 4×5 Graflex camera to photograph them.
On “Bullitt,” Ekins, who raced motorcycles with Metz, introduced his friend to star Steve McQueen, who got him hired on the film as a background actor. But after Metz shared his passion for cameras with DP Bill Fraker, the cinematographer helped him change jobs.
Picking up commercial advertising gigs with Shell Oil and Goodyear Tires, he moved from “Bullitt” to bombs on Richard Fleischer’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Hired to mount cameras on helicopters for Tyler, the company that made the mounts, he soon convinced second-unit DP David Butler of his abilities behind the lens. Flying off the coast of Pearl Harbor, Metz helped shoot the picture’s re-creation of the Japanese attack. The work took six months to complete, and was a highlight of the film.
Metz says the movie taught him a valuable lesson: “When it comes to action pictures, the most important thing for a cinematographer is capturing the director’s vision.”
Putting out word of his scuba certification in late 1974, Metz was trawling the Universal backlot when he was picked by DP Bill Butler and Steven Spielberg for “Jaws” in early 1975. Metz handled the wet stuff, including trombone shots and inverse tracking of the mechanical shark the crew dubbed “Bruce,” as well as live footage of fish with shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor. At one point during filming, Metz was sitting at the bottom of a lighted diving tank with a film-loaded camera when the effects crew accidentally triggered Bruce’s forward movement. He instantly framed the shot while the film rolled: The image in the monitor was poster-shop perfect -— eyes, teeth and dorsal fin enveloped in the dark water as the monster glides past.
From there, Metz worked on Stuart Millar’s “Rooster Cogburn” and collaborated with director John Huston on “The Man Who Would Be King.” He says Huston’s storytelling was first-rate, but there was no middle ground to working with him. “If he was curious about you, he wanted to know everything you did,” Metz says. If not, “you were hard-pressed to get a hello.”
For TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” later syndicated as “Black Sheep Squadron,” the Stephen J. Cannell production used a half-dozen converted AT-6 trainers as Japanese Zeros and a quartet of Corsair F4Us that together filled the morning skies above Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Southern California. Metz worked with flyers Frank Tallman, Art Scholl, James Gavin and Steve Hinton while making the aerial sequences for the show, which ran two seasons (1976-78) and starred Robert Conrad. Getting close enough to film the planes while operating on drastic cutaways and sheer turns, Metz endured G-forces that weren’t for the faint of heart.
In a more than 50-year career that included the visual effects magic of “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” and the off-the-charts brutality of “Black Sunday,” he also worked on “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “U-571” and “Total Recall.” His final film was “Left Behind,” helmed by stunt expert Vic Armstrong, in 2014.
Retired and living in Los Angeles, Metz is thankful for his moment in the sun.
“My career was the perfection of live-action shooting in a pre-CGI world,” he says. “That’s a Tinseltown story not likely to be seen again.”