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Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers at Work

by Jon Danziger

Awards season is upon us, but here's a reason not to run out to the fridge when the Best Cinematography Oscar® gets passed out. Benjamin Bergery's Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers at Work sheds a generous amount of light on the tightly knit fraternity of directors of photography—they're rarely if ever seen on screen, but with this publication from the American Society of Cinematographers, they're ready for their closeup.

Benjamin Bergery
ASC Press, 2002
268 pages

The movies are a star-driven business, but we all know about the teems of talented artisans and craftsmen off camera who make leading men and ladies look so fine—a tremendous amount of work and skill go into making the whole enterprise seem effortless, whereas in fact it is anything but. And we're all affected by pictures in powerful ways—our responses to films are engineered with great care, especially by the men (and they usually are men) operating the cameras. This book is an opportunity to visit with some of the most accomplished cinematographers in the history of film, best appreciated not by reading it cover to cover, but by picking it up time and again, digesting bits and pieces here and there, and getting a greater sense of just how those guys behind the cameras do their jobs.

The launching point for the book was a series of seminars conducted by noted cinematographers; most of the seminars occurred at the film school at the University of Southern California, though not all—some at UCLA, some in Paris. Each of the cinematographers did some sort of workshop with film students—re-creating a shot from one of their features, say, or demonstrating the qualities of different film stocks and laboratory processes, or showing the best ways to light a beer bottle for a Budweiser ad. And even though this was the germ of the idea, Benjamin Bergery's recountings of the workshops are probably the weakest part of the book. A generous number of color photographs appear with the text, but neither they nor Bergery's prose go very far toward giving the reader a nuanced, sophisticated sense of just what these D.P.s are up to, and the subtle gradations they're after in their work. (Greedy, I know, and demonstrating the prejudice of this website, but how about an accompanying DVD, with clips from these workshops?)

So the pleasures of the volume come from elsewhere, principally from the personal reminiscences of the cinematographers. What's especially great is how much ground gets covered, ranging from Henri Alekan discussing how, while he was the cinematographer on Beauty and the Beast, director Jean Cocteau was hospitalized with eczema, caused by the incredibly bright lights used on the set, to Michael Hugo, who shot many episodes of Dynasty, talking delicately about the effort that went in to showing off Joan Collins and Linda Evans to their best advantage. (The budget for pink filters alone on that show must have been staggering.) A lot of it is shop talk, as you might expect, and it can get a little wonky—I admit to referring with great frequency to the useful glossary at the back of the book, especially when laboratory techniques are the hot topic, or the variances in new and discontinued Kodak film stocks. One of the best chapters, though, is about a visit that Bergery takes to the venerable ?clair Laboratory in Paris, which discusses the various processes that the film goes through between the Panavision camera and your local multiplex, and the variations that unfortunately and inevitably creep in when a studio prepares thousands of release prints of a film.

A couple of case studies are included, too, and they're useful, really, only if you've seen the movies in question recently. The best is probably about Fearless, in which cinematographer Allen Daviau discusses the problems inherent in a location for a scene between Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez; his solutions to the problems presented by director Peter Weir were artful, and he talks us through them with great good sense. Darius Khondji discussing a crucial chase sequence in Se7enis well done, too, though unfortunately Vittorio Storaro's chapter on his work on The Last Emperor feels a little thin.

The roster of seminar participants and chapter subjects is by no means exhaustive—I would especially have liked to have seen more on the late Conrad Hall, and on Gordon Willis. Also, I know that these are picture guys and not word guys, but the volume could have used a serious, good going-over by a copy editor. There are numerous typographical errors, bizarre word hyphenations at the ends of lines—"cameraperson" is hyphenated as "camerap-erson"—and strange word inversions: e.g., "the magic as these beings two confront each other." Bergery's prose style is workmanlike and serviceable, and works well enough for the task at hand; but it's a terrible distraction that little things like this slid on by.

But overall the book does its job well. For a first primer on cinematography, I'd recommend either reading A Man With a Camera, by the late Nestor Almendros, one of the most gifted cinematographers, or tracking down a copy of Visions of Light, a documentary about DPs released on DVD by Image. But after some paging though Reflections, you'll be looking not just at movies but at everything throughout your day with an eye for the light sources, the natural bounce provided by the environment, and if you had to shoot it, how you'd light it and where you'd want to put the camera. We all may not be Michael Ballhaus, but you'll have a greater appreciation as an audience member for the art of cinematography, and you can even tyrannize your friends and family with your newfound craft the next time you pick up your video camera.