The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents August 2011 Return to Table of Contents
The Tree of Life
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Tom Houghton
Tom Houghton, ASC


When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), epic stories unspooled on the large canvas of an exotic location enhanced by spectacular photography.
 
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

One of the first I noticed was Conrad Hall, ASC, for his ability to do stunning black-and-white work with an emotional impact within the constraints of a TV schedule. More recently I’ve admired the work of ASC members Roger Deakins, Rodrigo Prieto, Caleb Deschanel, Vittorio Storaro and John Bailey, and Christopher Doyle, HKSC.
 
What sparked your interest in photography?
My uncle, an economist for the Federal Trade Commission, was a serious amateur photographer who took his 16mm Bolex all over the world. I was captivated by the way he was able to entertain people by setting up a projector in his basement theater.
 
Where did you train and/or study?
At age 12, I began helping out on weekends at the radio station KVIP in Redding, Calif., and later at their TV station. When I was in high school, they hired me to shoot, develop and edit news film. In September 1963, I had the privilege of filming President Kennedy dedicating the Whiskeytown Dam and Reservoir. I spent a college semester at the Slade School of Fine Arts, University College, London, and received my MFA from New York University’s graduate film program.
 
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I learned an enormous amount from George Abbott, my journalism teacher at Shasta High School; Doug Watson, a cameraman at KVIP-TV; and Jim Vestal, an award-winning local newspaper photographer. As an undergraduate at Mackinac College, I was greatly influenced by my professor Jack McCabe, a Shakespearean scholar and film buff.
 
What are some of your key artistic influences?

I look at the Dutch masters for their shadow and luminosity, and I’m always influenced by foreign travel for the distinctive types of available light everywhere on the earth: on the Alps, on the plains of Central Africa, on the sands of Egypt, against the ochre walls of Tuscan villas, on fishing boats in Vietnam, gleaming up from rivers in Laos, and illuminating jewel-toned saris in India.
 
How did you get your first break in the business?
I was called in to take over Fire Down Below, which became my first credit on a major studio feature.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
The Rescue Me Season 5 premiere at Radio City Music Hall. You don’t often get to see TV in a room like that.
 
Have you made any memorable blunders?
We make mistakes all the time, but the important thing is to try to keep them small and take corrective action the next time around. 
 
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I received early encouragement from Woody Omens, ASC; and Walter Lassally, BSC taught me many crucial concepts over the course of several projects. I also appreciated the opportunity to be on the set of Fat City, where Conrad Hall was executing innovative ideas like using 8K (4x2K) umbrella lights for the fight scenes. In dailies, John Huston would just put his head down and listen, trusting Conrad to deliver their visual plan.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I admire The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Biutiful, True Grit and 127 Hours for their innovative approach to drama. I’m also deeply affected by the blend of modern and historic architecture my distant relations have created at our Lancashire family seat, Hoghton Tower. Running a 16th-century estate in today’s economy takes monumental effort, but the de Hoghtons have managed to preserve the Banqueting Hall, which is lined with 2,000 panes of Flemish glass, and drawing rooms where William Shakespeare worked as a tutor’s assistant.
 
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I’ve always been a fan of film noir, and after getting to know one of its masters, John Alton, ASC, I studied his films even more intensely. I also enjoy filming music, and it was great fun to shoot the musical segments for Rescue Me in Busby Berkeley style.
 
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’ve never really thought about it, because being a photographer and cinematographer has been my quest since childhood.
 
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Ron Fortunato and Dean Semler.
 
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It’s a great experience to be able to commune and compare notes with my friends and heroes and attend events where I can pass on what I’ve learned to others.

 

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