New Cinematographers by Alexander Ballinger

by Shandy Casteel

4 January 2005


Lens Crafters

There is a sense of wonder which film can inspire, an insightful labor of magical realism uncoiling its precariously balanced spell of enchantment into darkened theaters at every global recess. Like others of varying forms, it is an art which is at times enduring, but increasingly disposable. This variance, the thin line between masterwork and trash, is at the heart of every film, coded into the collaborative process required of such an undertaking. And, while most may understand it does indeed take a village to raise a movie, their attention for details is consigned to box office receipts, dating rumors and wardrobe malfunctions. But, beyond those occasional pithy gossips and conversational factoids is a seldom seen underbelly, the knotted mess of inspiration, technology, politics, talent, economics and luck which is the stuff of film school lessons, DVD extras, film geeks and the occasional entertainment article or television segment. Sporadically this side of filmmaking gets its due, such as at the Academy Awards or the intermittent review that is compelled by the sheer force of a particular contribution to spend a few words mentioning the costume design, set decorations or visual style (which the director’s are almost single-handedly credited for anyway).

It is the details and artistic collaborations of film that Alexander Ballinger lays bare with his lavishly illustrated volume New Cinematographers, a compendium of six visually innovative cinematographers and their work in contemporary film. Conducting over forty hours of interviews and producing thirty-four separate discussions, Ballinger lets the directors of photography (Lance Acord, Jean-Yves Escoffier, Darius Khondji, John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey and Harris Savides) speak for themselves, giving somewhat jargon-laden first-person narration to their daily struggles bringing life to a screenwriter’s words and director’s vision. Using photos, charts, sketches, lighting diagrams, storyboards and most fascinating, reference images from paintings and other films, Ballinger presents each cinematographer the opportunity to discuss their craft, giving technical specifications on lighting techniques, lens selection and location difficulties.

cover art

New Cinematographers

Alexander Ballinger

(Harper Design)

The selection by Ballinger is suitably varied, representing each section with at least four films, offering an assortment of uniquely original cinematic experiences richly imbued with the cinematographer’s own style and artistry. Beginning every chapter is a brief Curriculum Vita, also noting their essential tools, advice for aspiring cinematographers, key films and books, and their own first break into this line of work.

Ballinger unearths a treasure of details in his interviews, getting the subjects to unlock their archives and present images and items that relay the immense technical challenge that each film separately presents its creators. Lance Accord, whose first major project was shooting Peter Care’s R.E.M. documentrary RoadMovie [1996] opens the book with a discussion of his work on Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ‘66 [1998], the influence of early sixties and seventies NFL films and an Elmer Batters’ foot fetish book on the final look of the film, and an the ingenious low-budget trickery required to shoot a frozen moment effect using blown glass replicas of splashing liquid commonly used in cranberry juice commercials to simulate blood. Accord’s other works here are equally taxing and inspired, including the astonishing Adaptation. [2002], and a return to working with Care on his The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys [2002]. Ballinger’s talks with these artists allows us a peek at their influences and inspirations, how the work of others and situations give them rise to a creative charge that leads, in the end, to a better film. Accord tells us that the first ten minutes of the 1947 noir film Dark Passages provided needed inspiration for solving the tricky POV issues on Being John Malkovich [1999], while Tokyo proved perfect for night photography on the set of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation [2003].

Tragically, the book’s second subject, Jean-Yves Escoffier, died during the latter stages of the compiling the information, but is represented in two of his last films, Possession [2002] and The Human Stain [2003], by interviews with their directors Neil LeBute and Robert Benton. Escoffier’s accomplishments are numerous, enough for his own book, so more commercial ventures like The Crow: City of Angels [1996], Excess Baggage [1997] and Rounders [1998] are ignored in favor of more artistic endeavors such as Boy Meets Girl [1984], Gummo [1997] and his other collaboration with LeBute, Nurse Betty [2000]. Unfortunately, Ballinger’s most notable omission from the entire book is any discussion of Escoffier’s sublimely gritty photography on Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting [1997].

The others all get their due from Ballinger. Darius Khondji’s work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Delicatessen [1991], The City of Lost Children [1995] and Alien Resurrection [1997] is given space to flesh out diverse influences such as Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, older Hollywood films like 1942’s Cat People and the lighting of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven [1945]. Talking about his work on David Fincher’s darkly iconic Seven [1995], Khondji says he finds the relationship between cinematographer and costume designer to be extremely important, noting that the clothes not only have to look good on the actors, but must also translate well on film. This is an interesting reminder echoed in other talks throughout the book, that there is no escaping the overwhelming complexity of capturing a world that is both false and true simultaneously, and the tiniest of over-looked details, the smallest misstep or muddled-thought could disarm the spell, and if that happens, the film has failed in its only obligation, to be true to itself.

John Mathieson is left to discuss his collaboration on projects like Hannibal [2001], K-PAX [2001], Matchstick Men [2003] and the disheveled Gladiator [2000] where the completed script arrived one week before they finished shooting. The book’s concluding chapters focus on Seamus McGarvey (The War Zone [1999], High Fidelity [2000], Enigma [2001], The Hours [2002]) and Harris Savides (The Game [1997], Gerry [2002], Elephant [2003]).

With his interviews and strikingly reproduced imagery, Ballinger opens up the roles a director of photographer must assume on a movie set, letting others in on the sometimes cumbersome but richly rewarding craft of cinematography. The downside of all this beauty and artistry is that reading a paragraph or two and looking at a few stills will rarely supplant walking into a theater or renting the movies and viewing the fluid results, and to his credit, Ballinger states in his preface that such a screening is needed to complete any understanding of cinematography. Perhaps the biggest thing missing here is a subscription to a movie rental service. Now that would be a perfect appendix.

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