James Wong Howe Replies to Comment on Cameramen

Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that "brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business" in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title "The Cameraman Talks Back," Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It's one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading:

I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that "dumb cameramen" are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don't come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don't understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye. For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman's part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders. His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a "brilliant cameraman." A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story. He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

[ continued on page 2 ] © 1999 ASC