The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One

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The end pages of the 1930 Cinematographic Annual published by the A.S.C. feature full page ads with headshots of society members, first generation pioneers of Hollywood motion pictures: Hal Mohr, John F. Seitz, Alvin Wyckoff, Victor Milner, John Arnold, Charles Clark, Guy Wilky, Charles Rosher, as well as “best wishes” ads from director Ernst Lubitsch and actors Joan Crawford and George O’Brien. The body of the volume contains several dozen articles, mostly on newly emerging movie sound systems and cameras, on lens filters, color and lab sensitometry, even make-up. The volume offers a window into new equipment and techniques at the cusp of film’s transition from silents to sound. An arresting, forty-page mid-section highlights photographs made by the society’s members. A few are dramatic, moody set stills such as aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer’s from the 1930 Hell’s Angels.

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Or Ned Van Buren’s personal desert nature studies. He gave up cinematography early in his career to work for Kodak Hollywood. Continue reading ‘The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One’

John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Three


On Saturday evening, September 17, 1966 at 9 pm, CBS-TV aired the pilot for a series that was to become one of the most successful in television history. Over seven seasons, ending in 1973, its 171 episodes followed a set format yet, like a chess game, seemed to have infinite options. Each week the Mission Impossible crew were recruited for a cat and mouse skirmish against clandestine forces and dangerous criminals threatening the United States, a sobering reality in an era still boiling in the decade’s cauldron of confrontation called ironically, The Cold War.

In the pilot’s opening scene Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) exits a freight elevator, walks into a shop, and asks the young woman standing at a file cabinet about a specialty phonograph recording. The proprietor enters, dismisses her, and asks Briggs, “Exactly what recording were you looking for?” Briggs replies, “Pavanne in G by Ernest Vaughn and the Pan Symphonic Orchestra, 1963.” The man gives him a red parcel, then leaves, closing the door behind him. Briggs unwraps and places a vinyl disc on a nearby player. Music begins. He moves the tone arm toward the center, resets it and listens:

Good morning, Mr. Briggs. General Rio Dominguez, the dictator of Santa Costa, makes his headquarters in the Hotel Nacional. We’ve learned that two nuclear warheads furnished to Santa Costa by an enemy power are contained in the hotel vault. Their use is imminent. Mr. Briggs, your mission, should you decide to accept it, would be to remove both nuclear devices from Santa Costa. As always, you have carte blanche as to method and personnel, but of course, should you or any member of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your action. As usual, this recording will decompose one minute after the breaking of the seal. I hope it’s “welcome back,” Dan. It’s been a while.

Continue reading ‘John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Three’

John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Two

Dolores Hart touches up John Alton on set of “Lonelyhearts.”

Dolores Hart touches up John Alton on set of “Lonelyhearts.”

At the end of the preface to his book, Painting With Light, cinematographer John Alton (a master of darkness) says he wrote the book not as a technical work, but from

a desire to share the fruits of his experience with kindred souls who also delight in capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty.

I don’t know whether this oft-times enigmatic man is playing with his readers or if he is dead serious. He does expend considerable ink in the book explaining his theories of beauty lighting, especially describing his “test light” wand:

This device, a new combination of existing electric lamp parts, can be assembled by the student at home. It consists of a two-foot aluminum tube at the end of which is an electric socket holding a frosted bulb. Over the bulb is a shade to keep the light out of the photographer’s eyes. Through the tubing passes an electric cord long enough to reach the nearest electrical outlet, where it is plugged in. Continue reading ‘John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Two’

John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part One


In a much-contested field, he was the original “Prince of Darkness.” Yet, his book on cinematography is titled Painting with Light. On the basis of his many Westerns and film noir features, you would imagine he’s a quintessentially American “guy,” but he was born in Hungary. His first dozen credits are Spanish language Latin American features and he was widely regarded by his Hollywood peers as a foppish elitist. He was a singular master of inky black and burning white lighting, yet his only Academy Award was for the stunning color palette of An American in Paris, a movie for which he photographed only a single dance sequence. His Imdb page lists over 100 pictures, yet all are features save one—and that’s the pilot for the TV series Mission Impossible which he photographed a half dozen years after his de facto retirement. Yes, John Alton was a cinematographer of contradictions.

Last year, Mary Francis, Executive Editor of Music and Film Studies at UC Press asked me to write a foreword to a new paperback edition of Alton’s book. The existing edition included a comprehensive biographical introduction of Alton’s career by critic Todd McCarthy, who had been a writer/producer on the 1992 documentary Visions of Light. That film had included a discussion of film noir and Alton’s work on The Big Combo, a late masterwork of the noir decade. Continue reading ‘John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part One’

Fotographía de Gabriel Figueroa

The cathedral bells toll, signaling the end of the battle for the town of Cholula in the title sequence of the movie Enamorada, a passionate love story set during the Mexican War of Independence.

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The film’s credits spill over the unfolding action. A single title card emerges through the thicket. The year is 1946; it is unusual, even here in Mexico, for a cinematographer to be allotted a separate card. But Gabriel Figueroa is a very unique cinematographer. This is the fifth film that he has photographed for the charismatic director/actor/ military hero Emilio Fernández, but still an early leg of the long journey the two have begun.

More than two dozen features together are their cinematic legacy; many of them will become key markers in the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema.




Fernandez was nicknamed “El Indio.” He was not only of a volatile temperament, but  was widely feared as a “pistolero.” According to Bunuel biographer John Baxter, Fernandez “killed four men, including an extra on one of his films, and was jailed for shooting a journalist in a trivial argument over a Cannes festival prize.” Later on, in the 50s, Fernández fell out of favor with a younger generation, and retreated back into acting, ending his career playing the Mexican heavy in American studio films like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Like the equally colorful Surrealist director Luis Buñuel, with whom Figueroa made seven films, Fernández cut a wide swath through the lore of film culture; it is even said that he was Cedric Gibbon’s nude male model for the famed Oscar statuette. Continue reading ‘Fotographía de Gabriel Figueroa’

The Camera(s) That Changed the World

Richard Leacock and his converted Auricon.

Richard Leacock and his converted Auricon.

Michel Brault and his Eclair NPR.

Michel Brault and his Eclair NPR.

During four days of early April 1960, four documentary cameramen photographed a young politician’s presidential primary campaign in Wisconsin. The man was 43 year-old John F. Kennedy. The cameramen were a team working with ex-Life magazine producer Robert Drew. They were: veteran Flaherty cameraman Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker, Al Maysles, and Terry McCartney Filgate.

Don Pennebaker with Bob Dylan.

Don Pennebaker with Bob Dylan.

Al Maysles with his Aaton, successor to the NPR. HIs brother David is in the background.

Al Maysles with his Aaton, successor to the NPR. HIs brother David is in the background.

Terry McCartney Filgate.

Terry McCartney Filgate.

Kennedy was soon to become the 35th President of the United States; the five filmmakers were soon to become major figures in a new era of documentaries labeled direct cinema or cinéma vérité. Continue reading ‘The Camera(s) That Changed the World’

“Casino Cinema” and “The New Abnormal”: Lynda Obst

Lynda Obst

Lynda Obst

If there is anything axiomatic in the motion picture business, it is this: the only constant is change. It’s present in many guises: aesthetic and formal change– even in the embedded grammar and structure of movies, eruptive technological change, driven by intersecting equipment and information transformations, but most ominously for those trying to stay “ahead of the curve,” it is the unpredictable, disruptive change in  distribution and exhibition models—the very how and why our movies are shown. It is the last of these, the how and why, that author Lynda Obst addresses in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, subtitled Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. Continue reading ‘“Casino Cinema” and “The New Abnormal”: Lynda Obst’

My Morning with John Ford: Through a Pilsner Glass


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If a film historian/archivist were tasked to tell the story of the United Sates of America through motion pictures, there is only one director who could answer the call: John Ford. From the Revolutionary War tale of Drums Along the Mohawk, and the legendary decades of the “Winning of the West” with his signature Westerns and his trilogy of the U.S. Cavalry, the 1930′s Dust Bowl of The Grapes of Wrath, to the 1950s mayoral contest of The Last Hurrah, the saga of American growth and triumphalism is told in his more than 140 films, most of which address the “American Experience.” Ford’s six Academy Awards, four for feature film direction, two for documentaries, remain the greatest of any filmmaker. His career spans six decades, from his earliest employment in Hollywood by his brother Francis in 1914, and his uncredited bit role the next year in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as a hooded clansmen, to his final film, a documentary about U. S. Marine General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, released several years after Ford’s death in 1973 at age 79. Continue reading ‘My Morning with John Ford: Through a Pilsner Glass’

George Steinmetz: Up in the Air

Steinmetz in his 100 lb. "flying lawn chair."

Steinmetz in his 100 lb. “flying lawn chair.”

His view to the desert below, hanging from the Kevlar lines of his motorized paraglider, can be so ethereally beautiful in early morning light that photographer George Steinmetz may for just a second forget that his life hangs on the whim of an uncertain gust of wind.

Steimetz after paraglider crash in China.

Steimetz after paraglider crash in China.

The above photo, a bandage covering seventeen facial stitches, is the record of Steinmetz’s encounter with a few trees at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Continue reading ‘George Steinmetz: Up in the Air’

Patricia Knop: Dreams of Flying, in Clay and on Canvas

Escape from the Prophecy

Escape from the Prophecy

Many years ago, when I was a girl and had just fallen in love with the boy I was going to marry, I fell asleep one night and dreamed that I was approaching a strange silo-shaped building. Before it, a frail gray man stood smiling. Behind him, on steps that spiraled into the building, bigger-than-life figurative sculptures were mounted, one after the other. Intrigued, I picked one up and found it light as a feather. I asked the old man if he knew whose sculptures these were. He answered, “they’re yours, if you want to claim them.”

Patricia’s Knop’s recounting of this dream epiphany, rich in allusive depth and metaphor, was a guide into her future life as an artist. Continue reading ‘Patricia Knop: Dreams of Flying, in Clay and on Canvas’