When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I was 10 or 12, we spent the summer out in the country. It was midnight and my parents had long gone to bed. I was watching The Body Snatcher [shot by Robert de Grasse] as a severe thunderstorm moved right over our house, and the power kept going in and out. I was frightened to death — and glued to the TV screen — as Boris Karloff dug up bodies and lightning came crashing down around me.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
The first time I saw Gregg Toland, ASC’s cinematography in Citizen Kane and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s in The Conformist, I was stunned. Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jordan Cronenweth, ASC’s in Blade Runner left deep impressions as well.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Watching my dad produce and direct commercials in Munich, Germany, was instrumental. One day they were on a go-cart racetrack promoting fountain pens, the next day they were filming a fire inside a coal stove, trying to cope with the black smoke filling up the stage. It seemed the cinematographer continuously faced new challenges and never had a dull day. Years of experimenting with black-and-white still photography in my little lab in my parents’ basement and experiencing the never-ending visual possibilities made cinematography the only career choice for me.
Where did you train and/or study?
I spent two years at the Bavaria Film Studios and Lab in Munich as a trainee in every department, including processing, color-correcting, printing and visual effects. I was working on optical printers and animation stands and worked on front projection for movies like Avalanche Express, shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC, and TV commercials.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Once a week a retired cinematographer took us trainees under his wing and taught us shooting and editing. There is no better way to learn than from your own mistakes, and at the time it seemed we made them all!
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The 1920s movies Nosferatu, Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The visuals are quite unique and memorable. But every one of my job assignments demands new artistic research. Recently, while prepping the film Parasomnia, I came upon the mesmerizing and nightmarish images of Zdzislaw Beksinski, which became a stimulating inspiration for us.
How did you get your first break in the business?
When I moved from Munich to Hollywood, I had no connections in the industry. Anybody willing to endure my five-minute demo reel got his chance! Finally I was recommended for additional camerawork to Wolfgang Obst for a nature film about the last California Condors. He recommended me to others, and since then I’ve been able to pay my bills doing what I love. Thank you, Wolfgang!
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Watching actors transform into a character holds a never-ending fascination for me. I still sometimes have tears in my eyes after witnessing a gripping, emotional performance. The moment everything comes together on camera live, in front of my eyes, just as planned or maybe even better than that, is what draws me back behind the camera every time.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Yes. I didn’t follow my wealthy godfather’s advice: ‘Kid, never take a job where you don’t get paid residuals!’
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
My dad told me: ‘Always be prepared, do your homework.’ I can only do my best if I know what a scene is about, what the purpose of every shot is, how it needs to advance the story and how it fits into the overall editing puzzle.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I collect art and photography books, and I find Nick Knight’s photography quite remarkable. I also find inspiration by watching the magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a stage production of The Lion King, Bill Viola’s digital high-speed art, Cirque du Soleil’s O, and the creatures at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I always admired the many French and Italian films I grew up with, but I quickly fell in love with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, so add me to the list of cinematographers who want to shoot a Western!
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Mikael Salomon, Steven Poster and M. David Mullen. I very much admire their work and will forever be grateful to them!
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Some of the most distinguished cinematographers in the world are members of the ASC. Being invited to join was humbling, but also one of the most exciting moments in my life — a dream come true. I have always been impressed by the kindness and generosity of ASC members, and by their tireless efforts to advance today’s film and digital technologies. It’s my turn to help in any way I can by sharing what I have learned.