×

John Bailey Urges Cinematographers to Embrace Story Over Technology

It’s safe to say John Bailey does not miss the trappings of the president’s office at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Speaking at a retrospective celebrating his five decades of cinematography work at Poland’s EnergaCamerimage festival, where Bailey will be honored with a lifetime achievement award this week, he told an audience in Torun that his Academy presidency was not always rewarding. “I was not particularly enamored of the internal politics.”

Bailey’s two terms atop the institution, which ended this year, coincided with turmoil the 92-year-old Academy faced over the #oscarssowhite and the #metoo movements – including a sexual harassment allegation against Bailey himself for which he was exonerated – and scandals focused on the over-budget Academy museum project.

But the DP of “Ordinary People,” “The Big Chill” and “Cat People,” who was the first member of the Academy’s cinematography section to be president, is satisfied he made progress in the areas of film preservation and restoration, in diversity and in the widening of membership, and of the Oscars to embrace more international filmmakers, he says.

“I was able to do something positive,” Bailey told a crowd gathered for a career retrospective talk organized by Panavision. The 1996 film was adapted from the award-winning 1991 Ron Hansen novel that explores the confusion between religious epiphany and madness.

Popular on Variety

In an interview moderated by journalist and author David Heuring, Bailey said now, at age 77, “I’m at a point where I’m able to move on with my life.” That will include filming many more movies, he adds.

Discussing the challenges cinematographers face while trying to spend their careers making meaningful films, Bailey described one key part of that process is simple: “I always read the script.” Even as a camera operator early in his career, Bailey said, story and characters that were compelling were key to choosing projects.

He recalled that while working under Nestor Almendros to film 1978’s “Days of Heaven” for Terrence Malick he also learned a lasting lesson. The veteran DP, he said, was so focused on creating art and capturing moving performances that he was almost completely uninterested in new technology.

The lesson is one Bailey still passes on to young filmmakers today, he says. “Do not get seduced by the equipment – it will distract you from being able to dialogue with your own brain.”

While certainly no Luddite – Bailey for years pushed Panavision to improve its lenses, leading to anamorphic ones that are good for wide vistas but also for close-ups, among other advances – he said filmmakers today are now drowning in technology. “I feel there’s too much equipment there.”

Bailey confessed that while wandering through the halls at Camerimage’s festival center, currently packed with the newest cameras, lenses, monitors, high-tech lighting and stabilizer systems made by Red, Sony, Canon, Arri and others, “my eyes glaze over – I don’t know what to look at.”

Camerimage will screen six films Bailey shot at its 27th edition: “Ordinary People” (1980), “American Gigolo” (1980), “In the Line of Fire” (1993), “Mariette in Ecstasy” (1996), “Incident at Loch Ness” (2004) and “Burn Your Maps” (2016).

More Film

  • Lamia Chraïbi Teams With Hicham Lasri

    Lamia Chraibi Teams With Hicham Lasri on Pan-Arab Supernatural Series 'Meskoun' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Lamia Chraibi, a leading producer of daring films from the Middle East and North Africa region, is developing “Meskoun,” an ambitious pan-Arab genre-bending series with Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Lasri (“Jahilya”) on board as showrunner. Chraibi (“Mimosas”) will produce the 14-episode series with her Moroccan banner La Prod, along with Mohamed Hefzy’s Egyptian company Film Clinic, [...]

  • Leap! first draft picks

    ATF: Leap! to Discover the Next Generation of Singapore Talent

    Singapore has launched a scheme to help find the next generation of filmmakers from the South East Asia region. Local content producers Blue3Asia and CreativesAtWork, with the support of Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority launched the Leap!, a short film production scheme at the ongoing Asian TV Forum & Market on Thursday. Seven filmmakers from [...]

  • Mikhail Red

    ScreenSingapore: Mikhail Red Announces Philippines Western ‘Arisaka’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cult Filipino filmmaker, Mikhail Red will direct “Arisaka,” a film named after a World War II Japanese bolt-action rifle. “It’s a Western based on a famous massacre that happened in the Philippines,” Red told Variety. Philippines production house Ten17P, whose credits include Lav Diaz’s “A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery” and Paul Soriano’s “Mananita,” will [...]

  • Stephen Graham Venom 2

    'Irishman' Star Stephen Graham Joins 'Venom 2'

    Stephen Graham is set to join Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams in Sony’s “Venom 2,” with Hardy returning as the titular anti-hero. Andy Serkis is set to direct, and Naomie Harris and Woody Harrelson are also on board. Sony had no comment on the casting. The original film was a huge hit for the studio [...]

  • Sundance Winner Eugene Jarecki Prepares ‘Tuareg

    Sundance Winner Eugene Jarecki Prepares 'Tuareg Project' in Morocco

    Eugene Jarecki – two times winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize – for “Why We Fight” (2005) and “The House I Live In” (2012) – is preparing an untitled “Tuareg Project,” that he will shoot in Morocco. The pic will be produced by Addison O’Dea (“Discovery TRVLR”), and line produced by Moroccan producer Zakaria [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content