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.

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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).

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