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FIVE INTERVIEWS: Introductory
These five cameramen represent a cross-section of the scores of outstanding craftsmen who have made films in Hollywood for the past sixty years. Three are pioneers who started with the industry; one began with the talkie era; and one is among the younger breed of cinematographer.
Cameramen are naturally technicians, but these five are also artists. In our conversations, we tried to cover the important technical aspects of their work; how they learned their craft, how new developments affected them, their work with color and widescreen, etc. It is hoped that their thoughts will provide an insight into each man's individual talent and create a better understanding of their artistic endeavors.
If some of the conversations sound more anecdotal than technical, one should remember an important point: filmmaking is a human experience, involving a large number of individuals who must somehow work together on one product. If films were made by machines, one could talk about how a movie was programmed, without worrying about personalities and working relationships. Such is not the case, however, and interaction among cameramen, directors, actors, writers, producers, and others has always been responsible for what eventually showed up on the screen. The reader will find apparent contradictions in the five interviews, but these are not discrepancies at all. They are honest, personal reactions of how each man viewed his working experiences. And just as no two people are alike, no two reactions to an individual or situation will be exactly the same.
It is hoped that these five interviews, spanning the length of the motion picture business in Hollywood, from the turn of the century to 1970, will provide a rounded picture of the filmmaking process, both yesterday's and today's.
Interview with ARTHUR MILLER
Arthur C. Miller's status among his peers can be best described by relating an incident that occurred during our interview in Miller's office at the American Society of Cinematographers, of which he was vice-president. At one point George Folsey, a fine cameraman himself, joined us and said, "I couldn't go by without stopping in to say hello to the Master."
To most cinematographers in Hollywood, Miller was the Master, not only because of his exceptional photography, but because of his intense dedication to his craft. As Miller himself put it, "This has been my whole life." Although prevented from shooting films since 1951, for health reasons, he worked tirelessly at the ASC, as administrator as well as supervisor of such projects as the important handbook published periodically by the organization.
Photography was the dominant factor in Miller's life from boyhood, and during his peak years in Hollywood, no one was more devoted to his work than he. In the 1940s, he won three Academy Awards, for his work on HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, and ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM. When Sam Spiegel and John Huston formed Horizon Pictures in 1950, they signed Miller to a contract as a cinematographer. His first picture was to have been THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but a medical examination caused his doctor to forbid his working from that time forward. It deprived the industry of one of its great cameramen, but it did not stop Miller from becoming the leading figure at the ASC, always working for the improvement of motion picture photography, as well as preserving its heritage through the ASC archives and publications. In 1968, he collaborated with his original mentor, Fred J. Balshofer, on a book, One Reel a Week, which is one of the most informative and instructive volumes ever written on the early days of filmmaking.
A ready conversationalist, Miller did not hesitate to give us his candid opinions about his career and colleagues. The interview reveals the intensity of his interest in cinematography, and if it tends to ramble at times, it is worth noting that Miller's ramblings have more value than what a lot of other people may say more concisely. Unfortunately, this is the last interview Arthur Miller ever granted. He died on July 18, 1970, a few weeks after speaking with us.
LM: One thing that astounds me is how someone like yourself just suddenly "became" a cameraman. You started off, like so many others, at the very beginning of the business, and became in such a short time a person of rare ability. This certainly didn't just happen, did it?
MILLER: Well, at the time I started, in 1908, I would say there were no more than a dozen men, at most, who knew how to make a motion picture—how to take a camera, photograph with it, go in and develop the negative, make a print, and run it on a machine. Learning to be a cameraman then wasn't anything like it is today. We had two films: Eastman film, that nobody could get but the Patents Company, and we used Lumière film, which was manufactured in France. It came to us unperforated, we had to perforate our own film. My first job was in a laboratory; I'd perforate as much film as we needed the next day. We didn't shoot a half million feet of film in those days; if we shot eight hundred feet in a day, this was a lot of film. A picture ran anywhere from $5 to $1,000. I had been interested in photography as a little bit of a kid, with my brother; we had a Brownie No. 1, which made 2 ¼ by 2 ¼ pictures. That was the first camera to use film, or celluloid. They sold MQ2 tubes, and in my mother's soup plate, my brother and I would mix eight ounces of developer; there were six pictures on a roll. You'd dip it in the soup plate until it was developed, with a ruby-red light, then into the hypo, and then you'd put it into the wash and fix it. There were fancy beer trucks in those days that used to deliver the beer kegs to the saloon; every corner in Brooklyn had a saloon. The fellows that drove these trucks were very proud of their teams of horses—the brass shining, and the harness and everything. When the guys would untie the horses and go into the saloon for a short beer, my brother and I would take pictures of the horses drinking in the trough, and then when the guys would come out, we'd ask them to stand by the front wheels and get a shot of them. And when they'd come around the next week, we'd sell them prints, three for fifteen cents. That way we'd buy more material, and make more pictures. I had some wonderful stuff made with the Brownie No. 1. When I was thirteen, I went to work for a horse dealer, delivering horses. Coming home from delivering some horses one day I saw this crowd gathered outside a German beer garden, and I sat there astride this horse bareback. A guy came over and asked if I wanted to work in moving pictures. I said, "Doing what?" He said, "You can ride a horse bareback, can't you?" I said, "Yeah, I can ride anything with four legs." He said, "Could you be here tomorrow morning at eight o'clock?" I said yes, and I went to work for this fellow. The first day we went out to a golf course in Brooklyn, and I rode this horse all over, got chased, and all. It always intrigued me, how did they develop this long piece of film? When we got home that first day, the boss told me I could help the man with the camera—well, I couldn't even lift one of the cans —I weighed less than a hundred pounds. But I told him about the pictures I had made, and he didn't quite believe me because he thought I was working for the Patents Company—I was asking him all about the camera. That was Fred Balshofer, and he didn't tell me until we were doing our book together that he'd thought I was a spy for the Patents Company. But I was fortunate; the business was young, and it was a gradual thing. You learned that three-quarter light was the best coming over your shoulder, not directly, as Eastman said, and putting reflectors on the dark side. If you're shooting against a dark background, you open up a little more; if you're shooting against a light background, stop down a little. I've got tapes of thirty cameramen, and in those tapes the same question arises: How did you judge your exposure? And you get thirty different answers. Some say, "I looked through on the ground glass and stopped the lens down until the detail started to disappear in the shadows." Well, if you think that through, if he was on the desert, the pupil of his eye would be down to nothing. If it was a nice day like this, the pupil would be larger. So it was never constant—never. So how could he judge when the detail was beginning to disappear? Others say, "Oh, I don't know, I just look up and make a guess at it," and that's what I think most people did. We had latitude in the film; we only had one film.
LM: Did you feel restricted at this time as a cameraman?
MILLER: Well, the Biograph had a standing rule that all their exteriors would be shot in back-light. They liked the sun coming through Mary Pickford's hair, and Lillian Gish's hair. So cameramen were copycats; one copied the other, I copied someone, someone else copied me. A fellow sent me a review of a picture I did, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. It said, "If Gregg Toland invented depth of field"—of course he didn't—"it was Arthur Miller who perfected it in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY"—which is also false. But this is the way this critic saw it. What Gregg Toland did in CITIZEN KANE was to use wide-angle lenses on the longer shots, and as he got closer, he never used wide-angle lenses, because the distortion would become too great if someone leaned forward. He worked f.9 inside, and that takes an awful lot of light. But there wasn't anything new, because this had been done in another picture I saw, and I used it myself in a picture called MAN HUNT. I'm not sure that was before CITIZEN KANE or not, although I didn't go for the distortion with the lenses, where a guy takes three steps and advances 150 feet. That's what you see in television pictures today; you look at a guy up at the well and he walks down to the entrance of the house, just count how many steps he travels that distance. To me this was never real. My opinion of a well-photographed film is one where you look at it, and come out, and forget that you've looked at a moving picture. You forget that you've seen any photography. Then you've succeeded. If they all come out talking about "Oh, that beautiful scenic thing here," I think you've killed the picture. A good picture, as we all know, starts with a story. The next thing is to tell that story pictorially. And the next thing is to put dialogue in it that doesn't annoy people—just enough, and the way people talk. That's my opinion of a moving picture. I saw one the other night, THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS. This is my idea of entertainment. Fast-moving, pictorial, not overloaded with dialogue. You could see that picture without dialogue and you'd know what it was all about. This was the secret of John Ford's pictures. You could run any of his pictures silent, and you'd still know what they were all about. Most pictures you can't. So the whole secret is, to get down to one word, realism. Realism at its prettiest: a girl looking her best—not overdone, just looking her best, without makeup, looking that way. Then you've got photography. I made a picture in 1920, PETER IBBETSON; it had depth of field, it had all the things.... For instance, we had a hanging scene, where the guy goes to the gallows, and you just figure these things out. I thought, "A guy going to the gallows in the sunshine is no fun; this affects nobody. So get the atmosphere to fit the scene." Hell, I'd never done any great pictorial things, at that time I'd just been starting to get some lessons in art; so I made it an early morning fog scene, and it came out gorgeous—you know, early morning, daybreak, this guy going to the gallows. I wouldn't claim I invented anything—it was necessity. I used Nujall Oil, out of a spray gun. Today they use what they call a B-gun, which gives smoke, but I didn't know this, so I just had a couple of guys with spray guns full of Nujall. Everybody was sick for days afterward from breathing this Nujall all day. I needed something, and I said, "I wonder what a lot of thin oil in the air would do," and at least for three years after that everybody used Nujall. Now I'm not saying I did it first, some other guy might have done it elsewhere, because the guy that tells you, "I did something first" in the movies, just cross it off. Nobody knows who did what first, and most people can hardly remember why they did it. When they talk about "Who made the first moving shot?" up in 1911 in the Biograph company, you came out on the stage, with a camera and tripod, set the tripod down on the floor, and a stage-crew was on the tripod—you screwed it into the floor. You screwed your camera down onto the floor solid—it didn't move. The actors were in the back of the set, and they would move up to the camera. Now who was the first one to take the screws out of there and say, "Let's move the camera"?
LM: A cameraman had to be a technician in those days, didn't he? He could also be an artist, but ...
MILLER: First he had to be a technician.
LM: But you did become an artist.
MILLER: You can't help it, if you're interested in your work. In 1915 I went to Detroit on a job, and I had evenings to myself, so I went to an art school. I didn't go to learn to paint or draw, I just went to learn composition. Then I was fortunate enough to work with Henry Stanlaws, as I tell about in my book; I learned more from this man—you could never pay for what I learned from this man being by my side, day after day. He rubbed off on me, and that's the way I got it. I think all cameramen develop a sense of composition. Whenever you go in an automobile with a cameraman, they always see everything in that frame line; they say, "That'd make a swell shot," or if they're driving across the country they say, "Gee, this would be a location you could use for the Sahara Desert." They're always thinking that way. You know all this business with making a frame out of your hands ... well, a cameraman looks and he judges. I could tell you what a two-inch lens would take in, what a three-inch would take in, without any of this business. I've worked with the best and the worst of the directors, and the best of them never looked through a camera. Jack Ford, who I think is not only the best director that I ever worked with, but the best director in the picture business—film ran in his bloodstream—not only didn't he look through the camera, he never looked at the rushes. Never looked at them a day in his life. I'd go in with the editor and look at the film. He'd say to the editor when he'd show up, "How was the photography?" The editor would say, "It looked good." He'd say to me, "How was the action?" I'd say, "It looked fine."
One day I asked him, "Why don't you ever go in to see the rushes?" He said, "If I don't remember what I shot yesterday, then I don't belong in this business."
LM: Did technological advances make shooting films more enjoyable or less enjoyable for you?
MILLER: More. Competition was always the thing. You see, cameramen are a funny breed of zebras. They all gather here [at the ASC] and have drinks together, and have dinner together, and run films. It isn't the way it used to be, but competition was really vicious—but on a friendly basis. It's a hard way to put it. I never asked a cameraman in my life how he did something that he didn't tell me himself. We used to do all our trick lap dissolves and things in the camera. The last time I ever did this was a picture I did with Ricardo Cortez for C. B. DeMille. In the picture this guy got shot, they brought him in the operating room, and as they put him to sleep, he goes through the whole story in his mind. I had an assistant by the name of Clarence Shleifer, who'd won a contest, he'd come from somewhere in the Middle West, and the winner of this contest was to come out to the Pathe Studio and get a job as assistant cameraman. Clarence arrived, and on that picture, I went down to the backlot and rigged up a little darkroom, and had a lathe bed set up, from the machine shop, and on one end of it I had a Bell and Howell camera, and at the other end I had a Pathe camera, sort of an optical printer, and we did all sorts of things. We made slides of hardener and hypo and then held a candle under it; the thing would run, and we'd fade out on it, put another one in, take back the film and fade in on it, make a smear. Crazy things. And he got hooked on this. When I went over to Fox to work, he went along with me. I was there about a year, and he met a fellow by the name of Cosgrove, who was making glass-shot paintings. He got offered a job by this fellow, came to me and said, "Would you feel bad if I left you to work for this fellow Cosgrove?" I said, "No, Clarence, it'll be fine if he'll give you more money and a year's contract. Show me that first and then I'll tell you how I feel." So he came back and he said, "He'll give me a year's contract and so-much money a year." I said, "Sign it," and he turned out to be quite a guy; he did all the trick stuff on GONE WITH THE WIND. He became an expert at that. Another kid that I had was Fox's still cameraman, and he was inclined the same way. He came to me one day and said, "I've got a chance to get a job down in the special effects department." I said, "Billy, I know that's what you want, go ahead." His name is Billy Abbott, and he's the head of the place. George Folsey used to be my assistant, Harry Stradling was my assistant—I've had many of them.
Excerpted from THE ART OF THE CINEMATOGRAPHER by Leonard Maltin. Copyright © 1978 Leonard Maltin. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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