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Haskell Wexler on HD


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#1 Lindsay Mann

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Posted 01 November 2007 - 09:03 PM

I was fortunate enough to work with Haskell Wexler, ASC recently on a shoot in Maine. It is a feature based on Kaiulani Lee's one-woman play about the environmentalist Rachel Carson, it is called "Sense of Wonder."

In fact, they rented my Panasonic HVX from me and I worked as a sort of AC/DIT. It was the first time Haskell had worked with the camera, though he had been shooting video fairly recently for documentary work. There was a bit of a learning curve with the HVX. He was quite fond of saying that my camera was, "for the birds." He's pretty old school and is spoiled by film's latitude, so he and the gaffer weren't too thrilled about shooting bright daytime exteriors. He shot pretty low light inside, which I was worried about because the HVX is pretty terrible in low light, but the lens actually looks best when it's open wide and Haskell was able to get, by far, the prettiest images my camera has ever shot.

Naturally, before I went up there I read my Masters of Light, my Reflections book, watched my ASC dvd's, and also watched a bunch of his movies. I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" "In the Heat of the Night," "Bound for Glory," "Medium Cool," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Oh and I watched about 10 minutes of *61, which I had to turn off because the screenplay was so bad. Looked good though.

Most were brilliant screenplays and very well directed. I feel like I need to watch Medium Cool again to wrap my head around it. And I can appreciate it's originality, merging documentary with narrative. I guess my question is what makes this man one of the most celebrated DP's in the ASC?

I think his work on In the Heat of the Night was pretty astounding because you could tell it was low budget and he didn't have a lot of lighting. But they lifted the ceiling and lit through a silk so they could shoot fast and I find it distracting and unrealistic visually. The zoom on the bridge is a cool shot, but obviously it's dated. In Bound for Glory he went with a low contrast dustbowl look, and I congratulate him for being able to shoot through all that dust. But at times I felt it went even a bit too dark and flat. My guess is that A) it was a terrible transfer to DVD and B) he didn't have a lot of lighting on location.

Cuckoo's is great, but the story and acting are really the highlights of the film. It was nice how the cinematography supported them and didn't get in the way. I think that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? is one of his best works (I say this not having seen Matewan for which he was nominated for an ASC award, I should probably see that). He got close to the actors and was able to keep a stage play interesting for 2 hours. It was loose and quirky and his use of focus on two subjects foreground and background was amazing.

But what do you think makes him great? Because he served the story well? Because he was able to do a lot with small budgets? Because he knows a lot of dirty jokes? I feel like he's sort of a mystery. So highly respected, but never a real big hit after 1975, barring of course "Canadian Bacon" in 1995. Part of it is because he's so into documentary.

Just curious about your thoughts...
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#2 Chris Keth

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Posted 01 November 2007 - 09:45 PM

I like his work because he doesn't seem much of a "pretty pictures" kind of guy. He's not torn when the story calls for ugly images. He just does what he think is right for it.

Dirty jokes are always good, too. Care to repeat any? ;)
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#3 Greg Traw

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Posted 01 November 2007 - 09:54 PM

Talk to me when you're eighty-something and have been a maverick in the film industry for over fifty years and have revolutionized cinematography with your style specifically pertaining to camera operation. You probably don't notice the greatness in his work because so much of what he has contributed has become commonplace and part of the vocabulary of cinematography. On top of all that, no other cinematographer has even touched Wexler's contribution to documentary filmmaking. But then again, ignorance is bliss...
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#4 Lindsay Mann

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 10:57 AM

"Whistling is for cocksuckers and boatsmen. And you're not a boatsman."

"You know what really burns my ass? Fire up to here (holds hand at waist level)."

I suppose that's just it. He is about 82 years old and whatever he did that was revolutionary he did it 50 years ago. Like the long zoom. I think his compositions are great and his camera movement is unique. But I think his interior lighting does not match the realism of his exterior work. Even including that, he's a pretty amazing guy.
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#5 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 11:34 AM

"Tell Them Who You Are" is a great documentary if you wanna learn about the man, in contrast to his work.
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#6 Tim Partridge

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 12:02 PM

What about THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR?

The work on that was more or less unheard of at the time, especially on mainstream Hollywood popcorn. The sand dune buggies, the camera crawling through the bank, the DIALOGUE tracking shot that focuses on window pain reflections of the principals-

Yet the movie has tons of CONTROLLED, hard, classical portraiture and composition- Wexler was part of that new wave that learned all of the old techniques (including black and white to award winning level), could do them in his sleep, but was pushing the envelope with all of the new technology/form that was bursting out circa 1965-1975 (faster lenses, film, zooms, verite influence). For me personally that era is the peak of this artform. Before or after there's never been such an exciting threat to the conservative old school (and we are badly overdue one now).

For what it's worth, even if your experience was sour, at least Mr. Wexler took the time to even LOOK at HD. There's a very well known "name" over here who dismisses all electronic photography as "automatic" and therefore not valid.
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#7 John Holland

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 12:15 PM

Hi Tim care to share that "well known name " ? i agree we do need a large change in film lighting its become to lazy and looks [not all the time] boring .
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 04:08 PM

People talk about the greater realism of soft light, but the truth that half the time on some shoots, it's actually less realistic -- think about it: a standard cloth lampshade is a, maybe, 2'x2' soft source, with some added softness from the raw (hard) spill bouncing off of the ceiling and back down again, and what bounces back up from below -- yet many of us simulate the soft light from it with a 6'x6' frame of diffusion, or larger!

For day scenes, it makes more sense, realism-wise, because we may be lit by large windows off-camera, but for night work, it sometimes strikes me clearly as a form of stylization when we light someone in a parking lot at night with a 12'x12' frame of diffusion or bounce, or larger. Looks pretty, of course, which is the real reason we do half the stuff we do.

This is why I feel that realism is just another form of artiface and every generation defines it differently. Someone today will say that the look of "Bourne Ultimatum" is the ultimate in realism, yet 30 years from now, someone will say that it is very stylized in its approach (at least, camera movement-wise, not lighting-wise, which is pretty natural).

But I don't know what a "new" lighting style could be, other than a movement away from exclusively soft-lit movies. But that just gets us back into the soft+hard look of late 60's/70's movies. Nothing is new. Afterall, 1930's movies were often lit with lights through silks, through spun glass, etc. and then 1940's movies used hard fresnel lighting. We just cycle through trends as we get bored with the previous one, only to end up full-circle every couple of decades or so.
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#9 John Sprung

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 05:22 PM

People talk about the greater realism of soft light, but the truth that half the time on some shoots, it's actually less realistic --

I'd agree with that in most cases. There is one place where light can never be too soft: fill. The little bit of light we add to keep the darkest regions from falling below the toe of the system's dynamic range really should look like we didn't do anything at all. It bugs me when I'm aware of the source of fill light. (Of course I have to be out of the story before I start looking at the nuts and bolts like that....)



-- J.S.
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 06:33 PM

Regarding Haskell's legacy to film history, you have to remember the stylistic stagnation to some degree in Hollywood due to an aging generation of DP's, many of who started shooting in late Silent Era or early sound era and were still working in the late 1960's. This would be fine except that the unions were shutting out younger cinematographers for the most part, creating an age gap between the noted cinematographers of the 1930's-60's to the famous generation of the 1970's.

There were exceptions of course, with people like Robert Surtees doing innovative work from the 1950's thru the 1970's, changing with the times.

It's not a knock against these studio cinematographers, many of whom are my heroes, just that it is not unusual for a certain percentage of working cinematographers to get locked into a certain style at the end of a long career. Plus they were still shooting for studios that insisted on a conservative house style.

People like Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall represent that break from tradition, when new shooting techniques from European countries (and the U.K., for those who don't think of it as European...) were seeping into Hollywood, before the European (and U.K.) cinematographers themselves actually started to also "seep" into Hollywood productions. Wexler's "Medium Cool" in particular is an example of trends like the French New Wave and Cinema Verite finding their way into an American narrative movie.

It would also be unfair to compare Wexler's films of the 1960's and 70's to current movies to see how they succeed or fail to match modern cinematography trends, as if the more a movie back then looks like it was shot today is a sign of how great the cinematography was.

A more useful comparison would be to other movies of their day, particularly the bulk of movies being made and how they looked.
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#11 Stuart McCammon

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Posted 02 November 2007 - 09:03 PM

Dear Lindsay,

To better understand Haskell Wexler's reknown you might try the following: take your HVX-200 out in the hills with a friend, and recreate the opening sequence from "Cuckoo" (just the landscapes and the car driving through the hills), then come back here and post your footage -

Best wishes,
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#12 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 03 November 2007 - 03:12 AM

I saw "Bound for Glory" for the first time a couple months ago, and thought it was gorgeous...besides the fact that it's one of the worst DVD transfers ever, and that with a film that used a lot of lens diffusion is never a good combination.

I hope a cleaner version comes out soon, because the lighting is just gorgeous.
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#13 Tim Partridge

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Posted 03 November 2007 - 05:01 AM

There is one place where light can never be too soft: fill.


Unless we're shooting through a net wide open on a long lens...

By the way, correct me if I am wrong but BOUND FOR GLORY was another first, in that it was the movie debut of the steadicam. That's a pretty significant first!


Regarding Haskell's legacy to film history


The other thing not mentioned is how with MEDIUM COOL, Mr. Wexler showed that a cinematographer could be much more than just a hired gun for a film. Oscar winning Hollywood DP taking up the directors/writers reigns and going out to tell a liberal, politically minded narrative drama- and with such a relaxed albeit derivitive) approach to form. That was definitely a first and totally unheard of at the time. It also emphasised the gap between the older studio cameramen (that David mentioned) and the up and coming of the era.

By the way, the Zappa party sequence from MEDIUM COOL is a favourite.
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#14 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 03:51 PM

By the way, correct me if I am wrong but BOUND FOR GLORY was another first, in that it was the movie debut of the steadicam. That's a pretty significant first!


IMDubious sez: The first film to use a long Steadicam tracking shot. Note LONG.

Release date was 12-05-76.

However 'Rocky' was released 11-21-76.

That makes 'Rocky' the first Steadicam movie released.

Garrett Brown operated Steadicam in both, so one would have to dig through the production schedules to see which one actually shot Steadicam footage first.
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#15 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 04:08 PM

"Marathon Man" (released on 10-8-1976) also features some early Steadicam work by Garrett Brown himself.
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#16 Michael Nash

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 04:27 PM

People talk about the greater realism of soft light, but the truth that half the time on some shoots, it's actually less realistic...
For day scenes, it makes more sense, realism-wise, because we may be lit by large windows off-camera, but for night work, it sometimes strikes me clearly as a form of stylization when we light someone in a parking lot at night with a 12'x12' frame of diffusion or bounce, or larger. Looks pretty, of course, which is the real reason we do half the stuff we do.


The "greater realism of soft light" is that we see a mix of direct, indirect, and ambient light in real life, and only direct light from a source is hard light. Everything else is soft.

Where soft lighting becomes "unnatural" in movies is when we soften what would realistically be a hard source for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons. The most horrendous example we see all the time is the wide shot in hard sunlight, and then the closeups all flattened out under a big silk. Yuck.

But the flip side of this is that we can choose to key the scene by indirect and ambient light "sources," which are always soft. A night exterior like the parking lot example that uses a soft key to bring a face to "proper" exposure would be stylized, since the parking lot lights are hard sources. But a soft light kept to a much lower level starts to read realistically as a mix of indirect and ambient light (a big "composite" of all the other surrounding light sources, plus nearby bounce, etc.).

I think the part of the equation that gets left out of the "hard vs. soft realism" argument is the choice of the key "source." All too often cinematographers approach lighting as though the key light has to come from a direct source, rather than from indirect or ambient light. The "reality" of light is that much of the time we see subjects lit by indirect and ambient light; usually a composite of multiple light sources and "bounces" that becomes multi-directional soft light.
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#17 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 05:41 PM

IMDubious sez: The first film to use a long Steadicam tracking shot. Note LONG.

Release date was 12-05-76.

However 'Rocky' was released 11-21-76.

That makes 'Rocky' the first Steadicam movie released.

Garrett Brown operated Steadicam in both, so one would have to dig through the production schedules to see which one actually shot Steadicam footage first.

I was lucky enough to do my steadicam workshop with Garrett, and was also lucky to hear a lot of the great stories and history of steadicam.
Bound for Glory was indeed the first film to use steadicam, according to Garrett. It's also the first to use steadicam in conjunction with a crane (Garrett stepped off the crane in the beginning of the shot (and was extremely nervous about doing it)). It also happens to be the first movie Garrett ever worked on (he had been working in commercials for years). If memory serves, Rocky came next and then Marathon Man. The release dates were not in the same order as their shooting dates. Kubrick saw Garrett's original demo footage and called him directly to ask him to work on The Shining, which is considered to be the first "breakthrough" of steadicam.
It's staggering to look at all the films Garrett has worked on over his 30+ year career. I would guess that IMDB only lists about 1/2-2/3rds of his actual credits because many films didn't credit steadicam specifically in the early days, as can be seen in his credits for Marathon Man and Rocky. And all the while he was improving steadicam and developing different camera platforms and systems.
I tried to make this the abridged version of some of that early history (of which I wish I knew more), since it's hijacking the thread a bit. To hear the stories about the early days of steadicam from Garrett himself, who is an extremely charismatic and funny guy, is a real treat. And of course, his work speaks for itself!
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#18 Michael Nash

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 05:56 PM

To hear the stories about the early days of steadicam from Garrett himself, who is an extremely charismatic and funny guy, is a real treat. And of course, his work speaks for itself!


I had the pleasure of finally meeting him at Cinegear this year, and was surprised that he's even taller than me! Yes, very personable and funny. A true gentle giant.
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#19 Christian Janss

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Posted 06 November 2007 - 12:18 AM

It's not a knock against these studio cinematographers, many of whom are my heroes, just that it is not unusual for a certain percentage of working cinematographers to get locked into a certain style at the end of a long career. Plus they were still shooting for studios that insisted on a conservative house style.




Can some one give me some examples of cinematographers (and good examples of their work) who WERE from the classic Hollywood studio era? The kind of "lit" look that all the new cinematographers were rebelling against in the late 60s/70s. I seem to know only the Roizmans/Kovacs/Willises who were active in the realism or American new wave or whatever you want to call it. I can only think of Gregg Toland off hand as an example, but that's too obvious.
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#20 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 November 2007 - 12:47 AM

That's a rather broad question -- I mean most of the cinematographers working in the studio era were working in that studio style. The best were the ones who were either pushing away from studio convention (like Gregg Toland) or doing the most glossy work in that style (someone like four-time Oscar-winner Leon Shamroy, for example, who was the top cinematographer at 20th Century Fox and the only cinematographer besides John Toll to win an Oscar two years in a row.)

Leon Shamroy's particular gift was for using rich colors in his work, which can be seen in his 3-strip Technicolor movies like "Leave Her to Heaven" or "Forever Amber". His first DP credit was 1926 and his last was 1969 ("Planet of the Apes" was one of his last movies). He did a lot of big movies of the 1960's like "Cleopatra", "The Agony and the Ecstasy", and "The Cardinal". "Cleopatra" has some great use of colored lighting.

A good starting point would be to watch the Oscar-winner for Best Cinematography from every year (and for awhile, they had separate awards for color and b&w.)

Just pick a year, any year. Let's say, 1955:

Best B&W Cinematography:
Blackboard Jungle -- Russell Harlan
I'll Cry Tomorrow -- Arthur E. Arling
Marty -- Joseph LaShelle
Queen Bee -- Charles Lang
The Rose Tattoo -- James Wong Howe (WINNER)

Best Color Cinematography:
Guys and Dolls -- Harry Stradling
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing -- Leon Shamroy
A Man Called Peter -- Harold Lipstein
Oklahoma! -- Robert Surtees
To Catch a Thief -- Robert Burks (WINNER)

Now even I have to admit that I've only seen parts of "Blackboard Jungle" and "Marty", none of the other b&w movies, and I've only seen parts of "Guys and Dolls", not seen "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" or "A Man Called Peter".

I have seen "Oklahoma!" and "To Catch a Thief" a number of times. For one thing, "Oklahoma!" was the first 65mm Todd-AO movie, and "To Catch a Thief" was Hitchcock's first VistaVision movie, I think.

Harry Stradling Sr. was another glossy studio cinematographer. "Funny Girl" is a good example of his style.

I think a lot of Robert Burks' films for Hitchcock were very artistic -- "Vertigo" is one of my all-time favorites.
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