The American Society of Cinematographers

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Caleb Deschanel
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Caleb Deschanel, ASC is honored with the Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award amid his still-thriving career.


Photos by Ron Grover; Sidney Baldwin; Bruce Herman; Brian Hamill, SMPSP; Takashi Seida; Andrew Cooper, SMPSP; and Philippe Antonello
On The Black Stallion (1979), his first feature as a director of photography, future ASC member Caleb Deschanel had an opportunity to collaborate with a director, Carroll Ballard, whose goal was the kind of visually poetic feature cinematographers long to shoot. After wrapping the project, however, Deschanel was far from certain that an illustrious career awaited him. The production was difficult; many of the Canadian crewmembers were deeply skeptical of Ballard’s improvisational approach, and the director and cinematographer had begun to have their own doubts. Deschanel was reassured, however, when his wife, actress Mary Jo Deschanel, saw the finished film. “She was blown away by it,” he recalls, “and she got so mad at Carroll and me for having been so cautious, so negative.” He went on to win the Los Angeles Film Critics’ cinematography prize and earn BSC and BAFTA award nominations for his work on the film.

Deschanel’s cinematography career, which so far includes such memorable films as Being There (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Fly Away Home (1996), The Patriot (2000), The Passion of the Christ (2004), National Treasure (2004) and Ask the Dust (2005), has indeed been impressive, and it’s still going strong. Next month he will accept the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, the latest honor on a roster that includes an ASC Award (for The Patriot), two other ASC nominations (for The Passion of the Christ and Fly Away Home), and five Academy Award nominations (for The Passion of the Christ, The Patriot, Fly Away Home, The Natural and The Right Stuff).

A native of Philadelphia, Pa., Deschanel became interested in photography as a boy after receiving a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye as a gift. He took up the hobby in high school, shooting photos for the school newspaper and yearbook, but when he began considering colleges, he decided to pursue a career in medicine. He enrolled in Johns Hopkins University, thinking he would become a doctor, but his interest in the visual arts soon took hold, and he began studying art and photography. A meeting with New York-based photographer George Pickow led to an opportunity to work as his assistant during summer breaks from Hopkins. “I knew I wanted to be involved in photography, but at that point I hadn’t thought of it as a career,” says Deschanel.

Working in the darkroom and watching Pickow shoot the eclectic assignments that were typical of a successful photographer’s shop in the mid-1960s helped push Deschanel closer to the idea of pursuing photography as a profession. “George did all kinds of stuff — catalogs, album covers, magazine covers,” recalls Deschanel. “He’d take six models and some wigs out for a couple of days and shoot a year’s covers for one of the murder magazines that were popular at the time. He could use each model at least twice by changing her wig.” Deschanel spent his free time in New York’s revival houses, where he mainly watched foreign films; the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism made a strong impression. “Those films just felt more accessible to me than the big studio movies of that time, and I really liked the themes and stories,” he recalls. “They were much more naturalistic. There was a certain casualness to them, and it made me realize you could actually do a movie like that instead of Ben-Hur. The French filmmakers didn’t have the budget for 20 arc lights to fill all the shadow areas. Even now, the big studio films of the 1950s and ’60s seem artificial to me.”

After graduating from Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, Deschanel decided to follow two friends and fellow Hopkins grads, Walter Murch and Matthew Robbins, to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television. “I wasn’t going to USC necessarily to study cinematography, but I knew how to use a light meter, so I got enlisted to shoot a lot of student films in my first year.” He also applied his experience to documentary work for companies such as Encyclopedia Britannica and Churchill Films. After completing the requirements for his USC degree, in 1968, Deschanel enrolled in the first class at the American Film Institute along with such aspiring filmmakers as David Lynch and Terrence Malick. “Today it’s a real school with real classes, but at that time it was more of a place to hang out,” he notes. “There was a great screening room, and we could drink hot chocolate, watch films by Hitchcock and John Ford, and trade ideas.”

He shot quite a few films at the AFI, including Malick’s first directorial effort, the short film Lanton Mills. The school agreed to grant him a small stipend so he could intern on a professional movie set, but Deschanel’s choice of cinematographer proved unacceptable to the powers-that-be: he wanted to observe New York cinematographer (and future ASC member) Gordon Willis. At that point, Willis had only two features to his name, End of the Road and Loving, and “the AFI had never heard of him,” recalls Deschanel. “But I’d seen those movies and decided that was the kind of work I wanted to do, so I stuck to my guns.” He paid his own way to intern with Willis on The People Next Door. “I observed every aspect of what Gordon did on that film. I spent time with him at the lab, and I could see how he exposed film and where the printer lights were. I would go around the set and read all the lights, and then Gordy would call out, ‘2.8,’ and I’d think, ‘Wow, that seems gutsy!’ He talked to me about his ideas on every aspect of the job. I realized that he’d set his exposures so that nobody could print it any differently than he wanted.

“The important thing I learned from him, though, was how important it is to conceptualize the way you’re going to shoot a film,” Deschanel continues. “Think about All The President’s Men. It’s about the minutiae that build and can bring down an entire government, and the whole visual approach contrasts the small with the large, focusing on the finest details and then widening out to a broader perspective. If you conceptualize something like that and stick to it, the audience may never realize what you have in mind specifically, but your choices can still communicate it to them on some subconscious level.” Willis remarks, “As a cinematographer, I’ve tried to do what I thought was appropriate for a given story, and I think Caleb has always shared that perspective. If I’ve helped, in some small way, to focus his thinking over the years, I couldn’t be happier. He understands the elegance of simplicity, and I think his visual choices have been superb.”

After shooting more short films and documentaries, Deschanel wrote, directed and shot Trains, a short film that won the Silver Bear at the 1976 Berlin Film Festival. The next year, Ballard, a neighbor and collaborator on some documentary films, brought him aboard The Black Stallion, Ballard’s first feature. The production was filmed in Sardinia and Canada. “Back then, the Toronto crew was used to TV productions and that fast mode of working — they were used to directors who’d shoot from a list of shots,” says Deschanel. “Carroll hated call sheets. He wanted to be able to change his mind and shoot what he felt like shooting. I’d say, ‘Guys, Carroll is a really wonderful filmmaker,’ but they didn’t believe it.”

Ballard credits Deschanel for his perseverance and ingenuity throughout the shoot. “Caleb has a tremendous eye, and he can invent things right on the spot,” he says. “For example, there was a scene where the boy [Kelly Reno] is supposed to get on the horse that’s standing in the water, and we just couldn’t get the horse in the water. We decided to shoot the scene from underwater, where you could just see hooves and feet, so we could use a different horse. Neither of us had ever done any underwater photography, but Caleb got this very old housing for the clair and just did it with the most rudimentary equipment imaginable. Really, some of the neatest shots in the movie are things I didn’t even know he was shooting.”

 

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