CAMERA DEPARTMENT - Job Title: Cinematographer Or Director Of Photography (dp)
Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in Film and TelevisionCAMERA DEPARTMENT - Job Title: Cinematographer Or Director Of Photography (dp), Job Title: Camera Operator, Job Title: Steadicam Operator
JOB TITLE: CINEMATOGRAPHER OR DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY (DP)
During preproduction, the cinematographer meets with the director to discuss his overall vision for the film, and the specific needs of individual scenes. Based upon these discussions, the cinematographer selects the necessary cameras, equipment, and film stocks, and preps the lighting and grip departments for anticipated needs.
Throughout production, the cinematographer determines how each scene will be lighted; what filters, lenses, and film stock will be used; the position and movement of the camera; and composes each shot of the picture to achieve the look he envisions.
The cinematographer works closely with the processing labs to make certain the film is developed correctly, preserving the colors and moods he has created, and supervises the transfer of image from film to tape to ensure quality control.
Cinematographers must possess a good photographic eye and know how to light a scene properly to achieve their vision. They must be good technicians, with an understanding of cameras, lenses, and film stocks. “You have to have the technology down,” says cinematographer Allen Daviau. “You have to have it at your fingertips so that you don't even think about it.”
Richard Crudo, another cinematographer, agrees. “Study as hard as you can,” he says. “The technology is evolving constantly; it never stays still. More so than ever before, the technology changes every week.
“Study film,” Crudo adds. “You've got to go back and look at old films; look at the work of the masters. It's never been easier. You can go down to Blockbuster and get practically any movie that has ever been made. Take it home and look at it back and forth. Study the work of great directors and cinematographers. Break it down. Understand why you like that and why this works and that doesn't work. You have to be relentless.
“Look at light in your real life, in your house, in your car, on the street at daytime and nighttime; in the bank, in the supermarket, in a restaurant—you have to look at light. You have to see how light creates feelings. It's a thought process that goes on constantly if you're engaged in it.”
Crudo says that these technical skills can be learned, but what sets the best cinematographers apart from others is their innate taste. “Taste, and application of technical facility. It is an art form. We all use the same cameras and lenses, film stocks, and laboratories, but if you take one scene and have 100 people shoot it, it's going to have 100 different looks … some will innately be better.”
“This is the world's most collaborative art form,” says cinematographer Clark Mathis. He discovered his people skills an asset for “being able to assert my own creative ideas in a nonthreatening way.”
“The most important skill that you need to be successful in the film business is to be able to play well with others,” says cinematographer John Schwartzman. “It's probably the single most important thing.”
Daviau echoes the charge that “The most important thing is how you deal with other people. Getting their trust and becoming their partner in what they're doing. That, to me, is what is really gratifying about film. Your colleagues are so important… One of the most wonderful things is simply the appreciation of the variety of people there are in this world and that they all can work together for some amazing results.”
“The next skill is that you bring yourself to the job,” says Schwartzman. “Bring whatever it is that you have to offer that makes you unique. It doesn't help the world for somebody to be able to copy John Schwartzman's work. What is important is that you bring your own sense of authorship to what you do.”
Advice for Someone Seeking This Job
“Everybody comes to filmmaking by a different route,” says Crudo, “which makes it so interesting, but you have to study and apply yourself constantly. It's not an easy thing to do, so you have to have a certain amount of passion just to get through the process. You need to make personal connections with people that are in the industry, so that they will help you get work. Learn from them. Learn something new every time you're on a set, regardless of whether you're a production assistant or on the camera crew.
“I came up through the system as an assistant,” Crudo says, “so I have a certain bias toward that route. When I was an assistant, I worked with some of the best cinematographers in the world and that was an education that you couldn't afford to pay for … Many young people get out of school and want to start at the top as a cinematographer. It doesn't quite work that way. People forget that on every set the cinematographer is going to be the most experienced person there, almost without exception. You are much better served to start out as an assistant, work up to operator, and learn the job from the inside out. Otherwise, you shortchange yourself.”
According to Crudo, you must be tenacious to succeed as a cinematographer. “Tenacity, more than anything—more than anything: tenacity. I really do mean that. I cannot emphasize enough to people how difficult a pursuit this is. Unless you're born in it or touched by a silver spoon, it is an incredibly, incredibly difficult pursuit to get the work and keep the work going. The opportunities are fleeting and it's a capricious process. In many ways, it doesn't have anything to do with you personally or your abilities. It's a very capricious process, the way jobs will come to you, and there is no rhyme or reason.”
“Contact people whose work you admire and ask their advice,” says Daviau. “Come and watch them on the set. Come and be an intern when you can. Work a lot for free. You need to find allies … It's what I call the art of being persistent without being a pest.”
“Try to support yourself and just go out and shoot,” advises Mathis. “In the absence of having trucks full of lighting and actors, when your resources are limited, take still photographs. Pick a movie whose visual style you like and try to emulate a few frames. I used to pause the VCR on certain frames and try to diagram what I thought the lighting was, then set it up with the crudest household lamps.
“Take stills on slide film so you can project them, much like the environment that a movie is shown in. I have filing cabinets full of slides and ring binders of scrawled notes. It goes back to my scientific background; it was almost like an experiment for me, trying to dissect what was going on … Only after mastering the craft aspect, getting to where exposure, lens selection, and lighting ratios are second nature, can you turn your attention towards the more emotional and artistic side. A simple analogy is learning where the keys on the typewriter are. You spend a couple of weeks learning and then one day you realize you're not thinking about where you're putting your fingers, you're thinking about what you're writing. That's what it has to be.”
Although Mathis did not move up through the camera department to become a cinematographer, he points out the advantage of that route as “being able to watch other cinematographers work.” The down side is that it not only takes longer to become a cinematographer, but that many find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the leap. “I have seen so many career assistants try to make the next leap and they have not gotten any practice. An assistant does not prepare you because you're attending to completely different duties.”
“If you want to be a cinematographer,” says Schwartzman, “find a way to shoot as much film as you possibly can, whether it's film or video … Obviously, if you want to get into the film business you have got to be in either Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Texas, or Wilmington, North Carolina—places where they make movies … If you're enthusiastic, people will respond to that. Perseverance pays off in this business.”
Professional Profile: Richard Crudo, ASC, Cinematographer
“The cinematographer is the director's closest collaborator. You help him turn what's on the page into reality.”—Richard Crudo
“I always loved movies as a kid growing up, but it never dawned on me that people actually do this for a living,” recalls Richard Crudo. A gifted baseball player, he caught the eye of a Red Sox scout while still in high school, but elected to attend St. John's University instead of pursuing a sports career.
Unable to decide on a major, an instructor who was also a director/producer/writer, helped Crudo discover his passion for filmmaking. “He needed some bodies to help out on a commercial job he was doing one day. I went and helped and got attached to the camera department. That was my first exposure to it. I was enamored. It immediately sparked my passion.”
Crudo immediately began pursuing filmmaking as a career, working on student and nonunion films while going to school. Having no friends or family in the business, the relationships he made early on were essential to his being able to obtain work and experience. After completing his bachelor ‘s degree in communications in 1979, he went on to earn a master's degree in film from Columbia College in 1981. He served as an assistant cameraman for two to three years before he was admitted into the union.
What do you like least about your job?
“What I like least is the time off between jobs.”—Richard Crudo
What do you love most about your job?
“What I like most is the job; doing the work. The job itself is fantastic. It's always different, stimulating, and exciting. The people you work with are always fun, always interesting. It's never twice the same. No matter how long you've been working, there is always something new to learn.”—Richard Crudo
For 12 years, Crudo worked in New York as an assistant cameraman on numerous features, including Broadway Danny Rose, Field of Dreams, Ghostbusters II, The Money Pit, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Raising Arizona. Moving up to camera operator, he spent only a couple more years in that capacity before making the leap to cinematographer. Along the way, he gained experience shooting whenever he could, working on student and nonunion films, “whatever I could get my hands on. I shot tons of things, going back to day one as an assistant, just trying to learn. The only way to learn is to film, film, film.”
A film called Federal Hill, directed by friend Michael Corrente, proved to be a break in Crudo's career as a cinematographer. “We'd known each other for quite a few years. He'd been trying to get this thing up on its legs for no money. Finally, he scraped the money together.” Corrente, a native of Rhode Island, where the picture was shot, garnered immense support from the community. Shooting with 35mm black and white film, and calling in favors from people Crudo had developed relationships with at Panavision, Kodak, and the DuArt laboratory in New York, enabled the filmmakers to put the film in the can for $80,000. The picture's critical success brought notice to Crudo's work, legitimizing his status as a cinematographer in the eyes of the industry.
In 1991, Crudo relocated to Los Angeles, where opportunities were more abundant. “If you want to shoot and be a cinematographer, you have to be tremendously connected. I wasn't.” Over the next few years he worked on a variety of projects, including the 1997 film Music From Another Room, written and directed by Charlie Peters. “It remains my favorite movie. Charlie is one of the best directors I've ever worked with. He and I spent a lot of time prepping that movie, and consequently we were very well prepared. Charlie is the type of director that doesn't know or care which end of the camera you look through. He's really smart and a great communicator. He doesn't need to know technology and lenses. The director needs to know how to communicate what it is they want to get out of the scene, and Charlie was really good at that. I had a good understanding of Charlie and the script. Together, we came up with a very good plan for the movie. It's the closest I have ever come to putting on the screen exactly what the director and I intended to do. Not necessarily in a virtuoso photographic sense, but in the sense of servicing the story. It was an enormously rewarding experience and remains very close to my heart.”
While Peters was editing the film, Orion Pictures, who owned the project, was bought by MGM. The new studio released the picture with no advertising, promotion, or support.
* “Passion is the most important thing, because without it you'll never survive. This is a very, very difficult pursuit. It's very hard to get started and it's very hard to maintain and keep going.”—Richard Crudo
* “Be passionate; be passionate. I cannot emphasize that enough. Everybody has come into the business by a different road, but the passion is what sees everybody through. That's the one thing they have in common. Your passion will lead you to the right decisions and the right route to take.”—Richard Crudo
* “You have to study and apply yourself constantly. We have members of the ASC, guys who are in their 70s, a couple of guys who are over 80, that are still working, and they will tell you they are learning new things all the time. You have to keep yourself open to that. When you think you've learned it all, it's time to do something else, because you haven't; you're only fooling yourself.”—Richard Crudo
* “You just have to work hard and be relentless. You have to have tremendous passion and commitment.”—Richard Crudo
* “Study cameras, lenses; go to school and shoot every chance you can. Get a manual still camera down at the hockshop for 50 bucks and a cheap light meter, and go out and learn how to expose film. You'll learn about exposure, color, and composition by shooting film.”—Richard Crudo
The first of Crudo's films to achieve commercial success was American Pie, directed by brothers Chris and Paul Weitz. “I love them dearly. American Pie was shot for Universal, very much under the radar for not a lot of money. It was a short schedule, with first-time directors. It became a minor cultural phenomenon and an overwhelming success. It's one of those movies that could last forever because it's a timeless theme.”
Since the late 1990s, Crudo has taught filmmaking courses at UCLA Extension, Cal-State Northridge, and American Film Institute (AFI), on the rare occasions when he is not working on a film. Although he has done a number of commercials and some television work—and if the right series came along, he wouldn't say no—Crudo has always been primarily drawn to feature films, his first love. “Features offer more of a challenge in almost every way; they allow you to develop a closer relationship to the material; you take more care with images.
“I've been a lucky guy, in that this has never seemed like work to me. The hours and conditions can be brutal. You can be working 16 to 18 hours a day for months and months and months on end, in all kinds of horrible climatic conditions. It's physically demanding in many ways, but it's never seemed like work. My feeling is: whatever they pay me when I'm working is money for the time off in between jobs. The work is always a pleasure.”
Professional Profile: Allen Daviau, ASC, Cinematographer
“The cinematographer is there to put the director's dream on the screen.”—Allen Daviau, ASC
It is almost unfathomable that despite five Academy Award nominations for best achievement in cinematography, Allen Daviau had to fight for more than a decade to be admitted into the union, but he did.
Raised in Southern California, Daviau does not remember a time when he didn't love movies. “My parents were moviegoers. We had a neighborhood theater, The Baldwin, right down the street from us, so I went to movies from the time I was an infant.” When he was six, his father bought a black and white television and Daviau reveled in studying the older movies broadcast at the time.
His fascination with film continued to grow. In high school he became acquainted with students who were into foreign, old, and silent films. “I just became a student of [film]. I really love film history.” He began “gate crashing” the many movie and television studios in the area to get a look at production. At the time, live television was the norm and Daviau was intrigued by it. He was just 16 when he determined that “the director of photography is the best job in the world.”
Daviau graduated in 1960 and briefly attended Loyola University, but his heart was not in schoolwork. Instead, he preferred working in camera stores and labs, devoting his off time and energy to making films. Determined to become a cinematographer from the start, he purchased a 16mm camera to start shooting. “I used the idea that the kid who owns the football gets to play quarterback.” Over the next few years he worked for free on several student projects, including one for director Nick Frangakis, who went on to work on educational films and employed Daviau to shoot them.
In the mid-60s, he freelanced for KHJ Radio making rock and roll promotional films. The work evolved into a television series called Boss City. Meeting with the show's producer, Daviau showed the promos made for KHJ and the film he shot for Frandokis to land the job as cinematographer. While continuing to work at a camera store, he shot and edited three or four films for Boss City each week.
When the show ended, Daviau began working on commercials and low budget features, connecting with Peter Deyell on a short film that never came to fruition. When Deyell discovered that friend Ralph Burris was putting up money to finance a 35mm short called Slipstream for up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg, he recommended Daviau for the job. Spielberg and Burris arranged to meet Daviau at the Sherman Grinberg film library, where they viewed some of his rock and roll promo films. Feeling he did not have enough 35mm experience, Daviau suggested they hire French cinematographer Serge Haigner instead, and use him as the B camera operator.
The film's theme was bicycle racing and was to be shot entirely outdoors in just two days. Unfortunately, the weather conspired against the project, which quickly ran out of time and money. Slipstream remains unfinished. “It was heartbreaking. You could see it then; you just had to meet Steven Spielberg and you knew exactly what was going to happen.”
A year later, when Spielberg was preparing to direct another short called Amblin’, he invited Daviau to shoot it. “We shot that film in 10 glorious days in 1968.” When Spielberg showed the completed film to executives at Universal, they signed him immediately. Attempts were made to sign Daviau as well, but the union blocked his admission into the cinematographer's guild.
“It was a slow year in the industry … Somebody may have pushed a little too hard because years later, I found out that my file got red flagged at the union, which means ‘he never gets in!'” Daviau took the high road and assured Spielberg he would get in the union through one of the commercial houses he worked for. But it was 10 more years before he was admitted.
Spielberg went on to work on Jaws, and Daviau returned to work on educationals, industrials, documentaries, and commercials. “I stayed in touch with [Spielberg]. We would see movies and talk. While he was doing Jaws, I talked to him every Sunday. He was going through hell because again, the weather was working against him.”
Daviau went on to amass a large body of work, but was still unable to get into the union. In 1975, he filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all cinematographers, and asked Spielberg to sign the petition. Even after the suit was settled, it took an additional two years of submitting paperwork and pay stubs, which more than once mysteriously disappeared, before Daviau finally gained admittance into the union in 1979. Not long after, Spielberg called upon him to shoot some additional scenes for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
What do you like least about your job?
“What I like least are the compromises. But, you have to be a good compromiser to make movies. You have to know what is really valuable. Every second you're on a motion picture set, you're making decisions about what is most valuable to you at this given moment. You may have to give up something that was really important to you three weeks ago because something else has become more important … The schedule and the budget sometimes force you into a compromise … You make decisions second by second, and then you live with those decisions forever … You have to sacrifice some things to get others.”—Allen Daviau, ASC
What do you love most about your job?
“Steven Spielberg said something along the lines of, ‘I'm paid to dream’ … I love harnessing a complex technology in the service of art, in that you make art using a lot of technologies.”—Allen Daviau, ASC
In the spring of 1980, Daviau shot his first union film, a made for television movie called The Boy Who Drank Too Much, with director Jerrold Freedman, whom he had previously met on a documentary. When Freedman's first cameraman asked to be released from the picture because he had gotten feature work, Freedman acquiesced and offered the job to Daviau. “[Jerry] took me into Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises and said, ‘You've never heard of this guy, but don't worry; he'll do a great job or I'll kill him.’” Daviau went on to work on other television projects before landing the feature film Harry Tracy, Desperado.
Shortly after getting into the union, Daviau had signed with Randy Herron at the Herb Tobias agency. When Spielberg wrapped Jaws and began preproduction on E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, producer Kathy Kennedy telephoned Herron looking for possible cinematographers for the film. Daviau was suggested.
Herron wanted Spielberg to see some of Daviau's recent work that weekend, and set out on a crusade to get his hands on the footage. With Harry Tracy still in editing, The Boy Who Drank Too Much was selected. When Herron called the studio to get a 35mm print, he was informed that it was still in New York. “Randy proceeded to call a friend at CBS, a gal who owed him one … Breaking a lot of rules, she went to the vault, got the air print, and snuck it out to him in the parking lot.” Herron next had to take the footage to a film house to have it put on reels and into a carrying case, before personally delivering it to Spielberg's home on Sunday afternoon. (Daviau is still represented by the same agency, now known as Skouras Agency.)
That evening, Daviau received a call at home from Spielberg, inviting him to come read the script. Daviau received his first Oscar nomination for his work on E.T.
Over the next few years, Daviau went on to shoot two segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (one of which was directed by Spielberg), reunited with Jerrold Freedman for the film Legs, then on to The Falcon and the Snowman with John Schlesinger, and the California unit for Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
* “Learn film. It's still here. It's going to be here for quite a while. Learn it. Learn to see what photography can do. If you learn to see and think and previsualize with film, you'll be so far ahead of the game compared to people who only know how to look at a monitor.”—Allen Daviau, ASC
* “The good thing about film school is you're hanging out with people with the same insanity as you have.”—Allen Daviau, ASC
A friend introduced Daviau to the book The Color Purple. “I remember reading it on the plane back from New York. I thought it was a remarkable book …” Spielberg directed the film with Daviau as cinematographer, earning him a second Oscar nomination.
Two years later, Daviau earned a third nomination for cinematography on Empire of the Sun, also directed by Spielberg. “I remember the first day of shooting. We were in Shanghai … I remember standing and looking down at 5,000 extras milling around and saying to myself, ‘I'm really glad to be here, because they're not going to make many more of these.’ Today, those extras would be digital.”
The success of Empire was followed by the Barry Levinson directed Avalon. Daviau had met Mark Johnson and Barry Levinson during the shooting of The Color Purple, when they came to North Carolina to show Spielberg a cut of Young Sherlock Holmes. Johnson later suggested Daviau to Levinson for Avalon.
“I had to meet with him and talk about multiple cameras … before he would give me the script. Then, I took the script home and went, ‘Wow.’” For certain flashback sequences, Davaiu worked out a stretch printing technique. “You shoot in silent film speed, which was 16 frames a second, and then you take it and print every other frame twice. That gives you 24 frames. That's how silent films are updated for showing at sound speed. You've seen this many, many times, but you don't see it very often in color. I did tests and showed them to Barry and he bought it immediately.” Daviau earned a fourth Oscar nod for his work on the film.
He went on to work on the Albert Brooks picture Defending Your Life, then reunited with Levinson for Bugsy, which brought Daviau yet another Academy Award nomination.
Over the next decade he added Fearless, Congo, The Astronaut's Wife, The Translater, Sweet, and Hearts in Atlantis to his résumé.
Professional Profile: Clark Mathis, ASC, Cinematographer
“My job is to collaborate with the director in developing a visual look for the film and carrying it out,” says Clark Mathis.
Filmmaking was not part of Clark Mathis's original career plan. “I was sort of destined for a life of science,” he says. Both his parents worked for NASA and several relatives were in science and engineering. In preparation to enter the family business, Mathis studied science and mathematics throughout high school.
His first inclinations toward filmmaking surfaced in his senior year, when home video equipment became readily available. “I was enamored with it instantly. My friends and I made the most superficial photo plays and movies.” Instead of writing a term paper about Captain John Smith and colonial customs, he was allowed to make a video about the subject. “By the time I finished shooting and editing it on the crudest interfaces, I spent probably 10 to 20 times more hours doing it than if I'd just sat down and written a paper. And I couldn't have been happier. I realized for the first time I had found something that when I was doing it, I completely lost track of time.” Although he loved the idea of filmmaking, he still only considered it a hobby.
Mathis entered a magnet school program outside his high school, to study science and physics. “One of the requirements of that program was that I intern with someone in the general professional community.” Most students interned with a scientist; many went to NASA. “Having just had an amazing experience getting out of a paper by doing a video, but at the same time frustrated by the crudeness of my tools, I had an idea to use the leverage of this science program to get me into ABC, which had an affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia.”
Since nothing in the program literature stated he had to study with a scientist, the school reluctantly agreed to let Mathis intern at ABC. “That was the catalyst for the rest of my career, because I got in with professional people and was able to learn all about cameras and editing equipment.”
After school, each day of his senior year, he made the hour and a half round trip from his high school to the television station. While the college communications students interning at the station were relegated to answering phones and making photocopies, Mathis asserted himself, looking for opportunities to learn and get his hands on equipment. His investment of time paid off when the chief editor became gravely ill and was out for one week. Mathis was promoted to editor of the local nightly news, at just 17 years old.
What do you like least about your job?
“I don't like the long hours or the high probability that a job will take me away from my family.”—Clark Mathis
What do you love most about your job?
“I love telling a story in a purely visual sense; in a way that compliments the words, but enhances them beyond any point that they would be if they were simply spoken. I like taking the audience on an experiential ride. I love photography and I love making images that aren't just beautiful, but really stir someone's emotions.”—Clark Mathis
He was accepted into the engineering and physics program at Duke University and scored high enough on certain tests to allow him to take a semester off, while still receiving credit for his first semester's work. He stayed on at the station as an editor, but after his 10-hour shift was over, he would go out for another six hours with the cameramen on their evening assignments. Initially he hauled batteries, heavy cases, and fetched coffee, but eventually the crew taught him how to shoot. “Only after spending hardcore time at the news station did I realize that shooting was the aspect that appealed to me most.”
Come January, Mathis entered Duke full time and “for the next two years pretended I was going to have a career in engineering.” He returned to the television station during summer vacations and in his junior year transferred out of engineering and into art history.
Mathis took a semester off to work on Sean Penn's directorial debut film, The Indian Runner. “Thom Mount, one of the producers, has roots in Durham. He came to speak at the University and I asserted myself as someone who was really interested in a career in the film business. He allowed me to come and be a film loader/second assistant cameraperson on the movie … That was my first taste of Hollywood filmmaking.”
In his senior year he met producer Bill Hayes, a Duke alumnus, who had landed a series for the Discovery Channel called The Operation and would be shooting in the area. Mathis submitted his résumé and was hired as cinematographer. While working on the show, he managed to finish school, earning a bachelor's degree in art history in 1992. He stayed on with the series for another year.
In 1994, Mathis relocated to Southern California and took work shooting segments for Entertainment Tonight, while looking for feature and series work. He submitted his résumé and reel en masse to independent productions, and for the next couple of years worked for free or for little money to gain more celluloid experience. “I had done some 16mm and video, but I hadn't done a lot of 35mm production.” During that time he also cold-called agents.
“I didn't want to go the assistant cameraperson route because having a taste of that during Indian Runner, I realized that I wasn't good at it. Having been a cinematographer, I found myself on the set just stopping and watching what Tony Richmond was doing, much to the chagrin of the other assistants I was supposed to be supporting and helping … While [working as an assistant] would have meant the most immediate financial stability, my wife and I decided to just eat peanut butter sandwiches and live in a 20 × 20 apartment in Burbank and try to tough it out.”
* “I think a key to anybody's career is a generous dash of luck.”—Clark Mathis
* “[Cinematography] is a demanding discipline on your time and on your emotional and physical being … The jobs are very grueling and long. My acid test, looking back, was the fact that when I was doing it, I lost track of time and forgot to eat. If those are things that happen to you while you're experiencing filmmaking, you're in the right place.”—Clark Mathis
By 1997, Mathis had garnered enough credits to resume cold-calling agents, connecting with one who was looking to diversify her client roster to include cinematographers. She submitted his reel to Tollin Robbins Productions and secured him work on three one-hour youth programs called Sports Theater. Through the experience, Mathis developed a relationship with Brian Robbins, which led to work on the Nickelodeon series Cousin Skeeter and later, the pilot for Popular.
Mathis's first big studio feature, Ready to Rumble, was also due to Robbins. “Each step of the way, Brian gave me a chance to work on bigger and bigger projects with more mature subject matter. He really went to bat for me with the studio. They were understandably reluctant to let a 29-year-old guy with just television and independent film credits do a $30 million studio movie.”
Ready to Rumble wrapped just as pilot season was starting. Mathis quickly found himself directing two pilots and then picking up the series The Fugitive. The show was cancelled after one season and he went on to shoot the pilot for Birds of Prey, directed by Robbins.
“One thing I'm particularly proud of in the pilot [for Birds of Prey] was that I attempted to pay homage to one of my idols, Gregg Toland, who did Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. As opposed to doing very shallow focus photography that a lot of folks are doing, I pitched to Brian, the director, and the studio about doing it with a wide angle and lots of depth of field, almost theatrical tableaus and compositions …”
In the summer of 2002, Mathis returned to features, shooting The Perfect Score.
“I have been very, very lucky, and cannot overstate the fact that I have been very lucky to meet people who are interested in giving me a chance … I used to read about guys like Allen Daviau and dream of the day when I could do this for a living.”
Professional Profile: John Schwartzman, CSA, Cinematographer
“The cinematographer is responsible for translating the written word to film images.”—John Schwartzman, CSA
Like most successful filmmakers, John Schwartzman parlayed his relationships in the industry into opportunities that launched his career as a cinematographer. The method he used to achieve success translates to anyone starting out; the difference is that his contacts were Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and friends Michael Bay, Michael Lehmann, and Gary Ross.
“I grew up around the film business. My best friend's father [Lawrence Turman] was the producer of The Graduate. He had offices at Warner Brothers. He or his secretary would pick us up from school and take us to Warner Brothers, where we would do our homework at his office and run around and elude the studio security … It was kind of my playground as a kid.”
From the beginning, Schwartzman's parents supported his artistic interests in painting, drawing, and photography, even helping him build a darkroom and equipping him with supplies.
His father was an entertainment attorney whose clients included prominent producers and directors such as Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin. From a young age, Schwartzman became familiar with these great filmmakers in the casual setting of his family's home. When he was 16, he spent a summer working as a gofer for Hal Ashby. “He used to edit movies at his house in the Malibu Colony. I remember he showed Coming Home at his house. I was probably one of the first to see it all put together.”
What do you like least about your job?
“The thing that I like least about the job is the hours. Because filmmaking has become so expensive it requires a huge commitment in terms of time. The idea of a 40-hour week in which you can get home at night and go out to dinner with your friends is something that does not exist in the film business. On a typical movie I work on, in a five-day week I will put in somewhere between 70 and 80 hours. If you do the math, that is between 15 and 17 hours a day. It is all consuming. You don't see your family much. You have to have the kind of friends that understand, when you're working on a film, you're probably not going to call them back right away. If I could change anything, it would be that we work more days and less hours, instead of longer hours and less days. But, it's the economics of filmmaking.”—John Schwartzman
What do you love most about your job?
“What I love most about my job is my office changes every day. One day my office may be the beach and the next day it may be the 35th floor of an office building. How great is that? There is this constant newness to the job. The other thing I love is, how many people can get up in the morning on a rainy day and say, ‘When I go to work today, I'm going to make it sunny'? Or on a sunny day, say, ‘I'm going to make it rain outside the windows.’ It is a lot of fun. It's so creative.”—John Schwartzman
Although Schwartzman's father approved of a career in filmmaking, he insisted that his son go to college and earn a degree, to ensure he had “something to fall back on.” Following his father's advice, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Colorado and planned to go on to law school. Prior to graduation, he participated in a program for photographers called “Semester at Sea,” sailing around the world on a freighter equipped with a darkroom, stopping at exotic ports of call. “Photography became a real means for me to express myself. On that trip, I really got into photography and began to understand it on a graphic level.” When not taking pictures or developing them, he read books and studied about light, exposure, and composition, then applied what he learned to make his photographs better. When he returned to school, he did not yet know that he wanted to be a cinematographer, but had decided that if he were going on to graduate school, he should attend the USC film school.
When he was 16, Schwartzman's parents divorced and his father married actress Talia Shire, making Francis Ford Coppola his uncle. “So I hit up my uncle, who is a wonderful guy, for a letter of recommendation to film school and he said, ‘No.’” Explaining that he received thousands of requests from friends of his own and friends of the family, Coppola had determined to say no to all of them. Undeterred, Schwartzman later found another way to get a letter of recommendation from Coppola, and one from George Lucas as well.
During the 1981 Thanksgiving holiday, Schwartzman was one of the many family and friends who celebrated at Coppola's home and vineyard in Napa Valley. “Thanksgiving evening, George Lucas was there … George and Francis were bragging about what great Risk players they were. So around 11:00 at night, we sat down to play a game and made a friendly wager: If I lost, I would be their slave for the next four days. If I beat them, they would write me a letter of recommendation to film school.” Around 3:30 in the morning, Schwartzman won.
Although he possessed a high GPA and test scores in his own right, the letters from Lucas and Coppola earned him a personal welcome call from the dean of the university. But after partnering with director Phil Joanou to make The Last Chance Dance and breaking too many of the film school's rules, he was asked to leave. Even though the film was banned by USC and Schwartzman was given a failing mark in cinematography, The Last Chance Dance won national recognition and received that year's Focus Award (now called Student Academy Award) for cinematography.
In the mid-1980s, “behind the scenes” video press kits for feature films were becoming a popular way for cable outlets like HBO and Showtime to fill the 15 or 20 minute gaps between when one program ended and the next started on the hour or the half hour. Supplying this type of programming were former USC students Les Mayfield and George Zaloom. When Schwartzman left USC, they immediately tapped him to shoot the specials. Just 25 years old, he was making $500 a day as a working cinematographer. By living modestly, he could support himself on a few days’ work and continue his education by seeing movies, going to museums, and reading books.
To supplement his income, Schwartzman often worked as an electrician on various productions. “I knew I was going to be a cinematographer, but the world didn't know it yet … I felt whatever I could do to either be on a set or get a camera to my eye, whether shooting Betacam or film, was an opportunity I was not going to miss.”
Schwartzman's first feature film came as a direct result of the student film The Last Chance Dance and doing a freebie for someone who said, “If I ever get a job, I'm going to pay you back.” Screenwriter Richard Martini wanted to direct, but Columbia, where he was signed, denied him the opportunity. Finally, he decided to put up $10,000 of his own money to make a short film he had written and would direct. Impressed with The Last Chance Dance cinematography, he contacted Schwartzman to shoot the project. Although he could not afford to pay, Martini promised that if he ever got to direct a film, he would hire Schwartzman to shoot it. Schwartzman accepted and rallied friends from film school to assist. Six months later, Martini called to say that he was slated to direct You Can't Hurry Love and offered him the job of cinematographer.
For the next two years, Schwartzman picked up work on “slasher” movies, using them as vehicles to further develop his skills as a cinematographer. When he realized that he was becoming typecast as a cinematographer of really bad movies, he consciously began looking for ways to transition his career into working on better films. Reading that legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was coming to America to shoot Tucker: The Man and His Dream for Francis Ford Coppola, Schwartzman determined to find a way to intern for him. “His work is so extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated. He is a very brilliant guy … I needed to understand why Vittorio Storaro's movies looked better than everybody else's. He's using the same camera, the same lights, and the same film as everybody else. Why does his work look so much better?”
Using his experience making video press kits for other features, Schwartzman convinced one of the film's producers, George Lucas, to hire him as a documentarian for the making of Tucker. “As a crew member on the movie, I was getting paid to be in San Francisco while they made the movie, and getting to hang out with my idol, Vittorio Storaro. Needless to say, I spent a lot more time talking to Vittorio than I did shooting behind the scenes footage. But it was a wonderful experience to be mentored by a master. He was very gracious and took a lot of time explaining to me why he was doing certain things. It was about emotion; it wasn't about technique. To understand that where you put the camera or the choices you make is how the audience relates to the story that is being told. It was a wonderful four months for me.”
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Schwartzman's friend since elementary school, Michael Bay, was preparing to direct his film school thesis project and asked Schwartzman to shoot it. The day after Bay graduated, he was signed to Propaganda Films: a young, hip, burgeoning production company. Bay and another young director named David Fincher were making names for themselves directing cutting edge music videos, and both used Schwartzman to shoot them. Soon advertising agencies were clamoring for the hip filmmakers to direct and shoot their commercials.
For a couple of years in the late 1980s, Schwartzman was working 200 days a year. Every week, he would scout locations on Monday, prep, and shoot Thursday through Saturday, and start all over again on Monday. At just 28 years old, Schwartzman was earning a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and was one of the hottest commercial cinematographers in the business.
* “Part of my job as a cinematographer is to keep the attitude on the set positive. When you find out that lunch is a half hour late because the cook screwed up and everybody is hungry—we've been working in the rain and we're cold and all we want is to take a break—that's when you start to hear grumbling. What you try to do is keep everybody focused … That's part of my job—sometimes it's a lot of my job.”—John Schwartzman
* “Listen to your subconscious, because your subconscious knows a lot.”—John Schwartzman
Contacted by a company who wanted to reinvent the image of director Jeremiah Chechik, Schwartzman was hired to shoot commercials for him. When Chechik was later hired to direct the feature Benny and Joon, he turned to Schwartzman to film it. “The last movie I had shot was Red Surf, a low budget genre movie … Benny and Joon had a real story; I loved the script.” In 1991, he went to Seattle to shoot the project. The union came in during filming and organized the crew. Schwartzman and the film loader, being the only two nonunion crew members, paid their $5,000 admission fee and were added to the union roster.
When Schwartzman returned to Los Angeles, he married and made the commitment to work on movies only on alternate years, spending the intervening years making commercials, so that he could build and maintain a personal life. “I just didn't want to be the guy who went from location to location, living out of hotel rooms … The nice thing about commercials is you can pick and choose your schedule … On a movie, you can't even go to the dentist or the doctor. As a cinematographer you cannot be sick. Unless you have a 105 fever, you're there, wrapped up in a blanket, sitting in a chair, shivering. You don't get a day off, because they can't make the movie without you.”
The next feature was Airheads, directed by college friend Michael Lehmann. Between feature films, Schwartzman continued to work on commercials, often with Michael Bay. When Bay directed his first feature, Bad Boys, he asked his friend to shoot it. Schwartzman graciously declined, opting to stay in Los Angeles to spend time with his father, who was battling cancer.
The success of Bad Boys earned Bay the opportunity to direct The Rock, and Schwartzman was hired to shoot it. “For my career, The Rock was like getting fired out of a cannon. I had done respected films, but nothing that would be considered flashy, in terms of visibility … I am very thankful that Michael gave me the opportunity to do The Rock, because that suddenly put me in a whole new category. Suddenly I had done a movie that was the number one movie of the summer in terms of box office.”
Conspiracy Theory with Richard Donner came next, followed by Armageddon with Michael Bay, whom he would later work with on the epic Pearl Harbor. In between the two pictures, he shot Edtv, for director Ron Howard.
“On Edtv, we shot the film and the video simultaneously. That was the deal I made with Ron … I knew it was going to make my job a lot harder, but I also thought it was going to give the film a certain amount of energy. I was excited about working with Ron Howard. He is a very good director.”
Schwartzman's favorite film is also his most recent work: The Rookie. “I was so happy with the way the movie turned out.” In discussing shots with director John Lee Hancock, Schwartzman pointed out, “If we shoot baseball late in the afternoon with the sun low and all those long shadows, it will be beautiful, but it's going to be false. Look at all these baseball fields … the grass is dead, the ground is rock hard, and there are kids out there playing baseball. This is what it is: it's those bleachy skies and it's hotter than hell. That's what we need to shoot.
“As a cinematographer, I think right now, The Rookie was the culmination of my life's experience. I think it's the best work that I've ever done. It's not the most beautiful—I would say Pearl Harbor may be the most beautiful, photographically—but I think The Rookie has the most photographic truth in it of anything I've ever done … The director, John Lee Hancock, to date in my career, is the most talented director I've work with. He is amazing. He's got a great sense about storytelling and he brought so much to the table.”
At the request of President Bush, arrangements were made for a special screening of The Rookie at The White House. Schwartzman became the first cinematographer invited to attend such an event.
He is currently prepping a film based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Gary Ross, another friend since high school, will direct the film.
An especially inspiring aspect of Schwartzman's career is that he has managed to succeed in a business that requires excruciatingly long hours and travel to sometimes primitive locations, all the while dealing with the fact that he is a type one diabetic. “I'm the guy who travels with food and insulin everywhere he goes, but I never let that stand in my way … I love what I do, and although I may not always do it as well as somebody else, I try my hardest. I always give 100%.
“There is a line in The Rookie, when Dennis Quaid's character says, ‘You know what we get to do today? We get to play baseball!’ I can certainly relate to that.”