Monday, August 22, 2011

Doug Slocombe*

  If any of you ever wondered who shot Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a British DP named Douglas Slocombe. When I was a young boy, still enamored with movies and the way they looked, I would scan movie posters and memorize the names of the Directors of Photography. Even before I knew exactly what the job entailed, I somehow knew that these names were responsible for how the movies looked. As I got older, I knew who my favorites were. Douglas Slocombe was my first favorite. I devoured every book I could find on filmmaking and before I even knew what a light meter was, I knew that he believed that a good DP didn't use one outside.
   While most high school kids my age were idolozing names like Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson, I was reading everything I could about Haskell Wexler and Alan Daviau. I guess that makes me a little bit of a nerd. I remember in college I saw Dangerous Liasons, and suddenly I wanted to know everything I could about Philippe Rousselot. A college friend and I (he now is a very successful producer of reality shows for the History and Discovery Channels) would discuss Rousselot's techniques and how we could recreate them. Movies were still a very magical thing to this fresh, skinny going-on-twenty-year old. Here is now a pretentious list of films that that beer infused (and this Captain Morgan infused) young (forty-something) man counts among his favorites photographically:

ET-  Smoke. That's what first caught my attention. And it's the first time I remember it being used. It blew my mind. Now, it (smoke) just pisses me off and makes my face break out. Seriously though, this was one of the first times I began to notice photography as a way to establish mood. I was mesmerized. I remember wondering if they actually blew smoke onto the set on purpose. I soon learned the answer.

Empire of the Sun- Daviau again. A flawed story still beautifully told in light and smoke. This Daviau guy was getting my attention. You get the feeling while watching it that Spielberg is attempting to do "serious" work. And there's a hole or two but still a beautiful movie.

The Abyss- Spielberg seemed to always hire the coolest guys. Mikael Salamon was my new favorite. I know that Spielberg didn't do The Abyss. I think I was connecting Salamon with Always. Where I first noticed his work.

Do the Right Thing- Ernest Dickerson brought Spike Lee's New York to life.

The Navigator- I saw this with my college girlfriend to make myself look cool and intellectual. Shot by Geoffery Simpson (who I would work with years later), lit mostly with torchlight. She thought it was cool. I was, by association.

  At this point I had actually broken into the film business as a young grip, toiling away on movies that often involved biker gangs and robot mutant serial killers.

A River Runs Through It- Philippe Rousselot won the Academy Award for this one. The guy just blew me away. Later on, he became my regular DP. A true gentleman. I dropped his name every chance I got. And still do. I once told Mr. Rousselot how much I had enjoyed his work when I was in college. He said something along the lines of, "I don't understand that." If Philippe reads this he'll probably roll his eyes and send me an email telling me to find a hobby.

Tequila Sunrise- A mostly forgotten, and forgettable film except for the work of Conrad Hall, whose work I was first introduced  to on this one.

Mississippi Burning- Peter Biziou won the Academy Award for this one. Flawed story, beautiful to look at.

A Little Princess- To this day, one of the most gorgeously photographed films I've ever seen. Emmanuel Lubeski became my new photographic hero.

Road to Perdition- Every frame is like a painting. Mr Hall's final masterpiece. I can watch it over and over. Even with the sound off. A perfectly photographed film. Watching this movie makes me inexplicably want to punch Robert Rodriguez  in the face.

Heaven's Gate- Yes, that  one. It's long, boring, and has an immigrant roller rink. The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is pretty unbelievable. It's worth sitting through just for that. Some shots will literally make your jaw drop. Mainly possible because they had the audacity to do thirty takes of a train pulling into a station to get it right. And Michael Cimino told the studio to pound sand. Cimino also hasn't worked in thirty years. He actually has. Just not anything anyone actually watched.

The Natural- Caleb Deschanel. Caleb Deschanel. If you say it a bunch of times, it loses all meaning.

Thus ends this exercise in pretentiousness brought on by too many beers and too much idle time.These are some of the movies that I can watch over and over just for the photography. But what do I know. I'm just a dumb old Dolly Grip (with a Southern accent yet).

*This includes the NDSR (Next Day Sober Rewrite). I didn't actually change anything, it was actually not bad. I just made some clarifications and additions. I hate reading it and hearing my own voice in my head reading it, but it's honest and I already got some good emails and one good comment so I'm leaving it up.


  1. Anonymous2:33 AM

    A dumb old Dolly Grip you may be, but at least you have taste:-) Great choices, great article.

  2. "Watching this movie makes me inexplicably want to punch Robert Rodriguez in the face."

    As always, the vodkas liberate the poet in you, and you write something that is pure genius !!!

  3. I'd put "Blade Runner" (Jordan Cronenweth) and "Chinatown" (Robert Alonzo) in that category as well.

    When "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (Sven Nykvist, 1981) hit the theaters, it had some of the best night exteriors I'd ever seen.

    Then there are the forgotten gems like "Thief," a beautifully shot movie thanks to Donald Thorin, who went on to have a solid if unspectacular career.

    There's lots of good stuff out there...

  4. Michael- I'll certainly agree with "Blade Runner." Although "Alien" actually strangely made a bigger impression on me. "Thief" is another solid choice. A great early Michael Mann picture.

    Gripworks- Yeah I'm always a little surprised at what I find the next day.

    Stephen- Thanks!

  5. Great post. I'll add those movies to the list of stuff to watch. I find that I watch movies more often based on the DP than the Director nowadays. Then, I'm also the jerk that yells at people that give a director credit for a great shot when it was obviously the DP that came up with it. Not to say there aren't visually talented directors. I just like for DPs to get their due.

  6. i've worked with caleb. i love that man. he's amazing.

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  10. Steve, that's completly right! Raiders of the Lost Ark is the story. I'd add "want" and "need". Not only, he overcomes what he wants, he gets what he needs like in information technology essay. So, it make this episode look very bad, because it asumes that Dr. Farrah-Fowler is not intelligent enough to see the subtext. Ok, maybe she doesn't have it with movies or stories.
    But she's a women (and you know how she wants to be a woman in whole) and so it's unbelievable that she also doesn't see the impact on the life and love of Marion and Indy. Marion would probably be dead without Indy, maybe really early, maybe at the opening od the ark.