The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Tom Sigel
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Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC



When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
There was no single film that wowed me — it was the medium. As a child, seeing Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and even The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. (1953) were mystical experiences.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I admire so many it feels unfair to name only a few. I watch the work of [ASC members] Gregg Toland, Conrad Hall and James Wong Howe and still have no idea how they did what they did. Today there are so many brilliant ones — [ASC members] Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki and Robert Richardson are just the first who come to mind.

What sparked your interest in photography?
From the very beginning, I was entranced by the power of images. I drew, I painted, and by the time I was in high school, I had bought a Super 8 camera and was making little movies. Although I still loved painting, the power of moving images was taking over.

Where did you train and/or study?
I spent a year at Hampshire College and then was granted a fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I think my biggest education came when I traveled the world making documentaries. I learned not only about cinema, but also, more importantly, about life.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Initially, painting and avant-garde filmmaking. Of course, I love Vermeer, de la Tour and Carvaggio — like every other cinematographer! — but I was also influenced by Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren. Today my biggest influences are my children, Kiana and Milo.

How did you get your first break in the business?
My transition into narrative storytelling was catapulted by the brilliant Haskell Wexler, ASC. Haskell wanted to make a feature, Latino, based in part on my documentaries. He was gracious enough to ask me to photograph it, in spite of the fact I had virtually no feature experience.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Three Kings. It was a very risky recipe of cinematography, and there were those who said it would be a disaster. When I finished timing the answer print, and the ideas worked, it was greatly satisfying. I guess I could say the same for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
So many they are no longer memorable. I like to live on the edge and take risks. That’s great in the case of something like Three Kings, but when it doesn’t work, oh, boy, can it be ugly. On one of my first movies, I tried putting colored nets on the back of the lens. A little more testing was in order!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Find a way to keep shooting, no matter what. That is how I have learned and how I have grown.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I was fascinated with Beasts of the Southern Wild and loved The Intouchables. At the moment, I am re-reading The Once and Future King.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I love science fiction. There’s something very alluring about being able to create your own world, with its own rules. I’m also attracted to period films because they allow you to explore another time in history. At the end of the day, whatever the genre, it’s the content that matters most.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I can’t imagine doing anything else; it’s been my whole life. But I would have loved to be a musician.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Haskell Wexler, Sandi Sissel and Roger Deakins.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I think it is critical that we have an organization like the ASC. Cinematographers don’t usually work with other cinematographers, so we need to be proactive about coming together as colleagues and as friends. The role of the cinematographer is changing rapidly, and we need the ASC as a haven to discuss and promote our ideas.

 

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