StudentFilmmakers Magazine conducts an exclusive interview with master cinematographer Ron Dexter, ASC. Mr. Dexter shares his experience building camera equipment and systems. He discusses camera movement, techniques and camera effects. Mr. Dexter also shares his advice and insights on cinematography and animation.
Could you talk with us a little bit about your experience building cranes and dollies, and what goes on during the creative process of building?
Ron Dexter, ASC: The first dolly I made for a US information agency, the USIA Film called Harvest for overseas propaganda. Carroll Ballard and I did the film. Carroll directed – he shot about half, and I shot about half as one-man crews. A lot of it was just scenic farms – we shot dawn and dusk all the time. A lot of it was a move, especially at almost ground level. It was just phenomenal to make a shot look 3-D.
So the first dolly I made, I copied from a design that came from RKO Fox. There was a cameraman I was working with in special effects in Hollywood, who had this design for special effects, and I just modified it – put a motor on it, ran on a camera battery, and I could, as a one-man crew, shoot dolly shots in the field.
And, I feel that especially scenics are just phenomenal. If there is a perspective change – you know, when you move side to side, the perspective change, and especially in video, it’s just makes the shot so much better.
So that was the beginning of the dollies, and then, I went to model one that would take a Fisher dolly and Chapman dolly and so forth later. It fit a track size that I established. The record track was two-feet wide, the Elemack track. And for me, that wasn’t very stable. But I went out to 30 inches, and used larger pipe, and used wooden ties which are easy to work with. And, it’s called the Dexter dolly. There are all kinds of versions of Dexter dollies. I made a lot of different versions. But I was not the one who thought up using skate wheels. We’re not sure exactly who came up with that. I used steel ball bearings and the same configuration. But somebody else thought up the skate wheel bearings. And now, that is pretty much standard.
Do you remember the first crane you built?
Ron Dexter, ASC: The first crane I made, I was working for a director, Joe Hanwright. Joe wanted a crane move. Well, I took a section of ladder, made up speed rails, figs, and so forth, and used a box for counterweight. I laid down on it, so I could start right at ground level, and then – hand held with an Arri, with a light bank, with a 200-foot magazine – could make crane moves.
That worked pretty well, operating laying down and so forth. I didn’t tighten some of the joints, and it would shoot down and make it move – and someone would say – ‘Yeah, but can’t you do that faster!’ Well, we made it a little faster, and it ducked me off the front end of it when a fend screw wouldn’t tighten down.
Then I went into much larger cranes. Most of them you could ride, some of them, not.
One thing, the Germans in the 30’s used to make moves up side buildings. Imagine an eight-frame ladder that a weight box would go on one side and a cable up a top to a pulley that went down the other side. We could make about an 18-foot move at a diagonal, and it’s possible to take where you couldn’t get a crane normally. You know, a courtyard, supposedly, where there just wasn’t room. And then, we’d put that on track, sometimes circular track. And make moves that just weren’t possible.
Now, today with remote cameras, cranes have gotten much simpler. Well, I wouldn’t say simpler – they certainly got very big. And, with light cameras and so forth, you don’t really need what was needed in those days when you had to have an operator and a pretty heavy camera, tripod head, and all that stuff. But things have changed.
The problems I find in cranes especially are learning how to use them. I found that people go, they buy one, they go out on jobs and expect to get good results. Well, it takes practice. True of everything. To learn to drive, you have to learn in a parking lot, you don’t get on the freeway.
With cranes, to know where to put the post, you know, the center post is very crucial, and to know when to make a certain move – if it’s going to work well, and when it doesn’t. I’ve watched people just struggle with not practicing. Dollies are easier. But cranes, it takes a lot of practice.
What advice would you share with aspiring cinematographers who have a special interest in building their own jibs, cranes, rigs, and camera mounts?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Well, let’s start with dollies. What I used to do is, I would make some cross ties, you know, the wooden cross ties, and ship them to locations, with screws and so forth, and buy or borrow pipe on location so I can make dolly track. Now, usually, you only find 10-foot sections which my standard was 20 to 25 feet, which not having joints makes life a lot easier. But that’s what I would take on location, and I was always careful to order metal pipe, metal conduit – not plastic conduit, which will not work except on very flat floors. So, I don’t recommend using plastic pipe except if you have a perfect floor, because otherwise, it’s really difficult.
Then I would take just the truck, you know, the things that ride on the track; I’d just take four of those and get a piece of plywood on location, cut up and make a platform, and bolt the truck onto that – and there was your dolly. Off and overseas, I’d give the dollies to the crew. Usually it kind of blew them away. My budgets were good enough. I’d say, ‘Hey, it’s yours, do what you want with it.’ The things that you also have to take are the couplings to join the track, which are a little bit tricky. So that’s about dollies.
Cranes – I had shipped by air freight some of my cranes before, but it’s pretty hard. One of the things that somebody just asked me, they wanted to shoot out in the desert in some sand. The problem with pushing dollies is they don’t have much mass. They need some kind of dampening, something to keep the speed constant, because it’s very difficult to push cameras when you’re walking at a constant speed if it’s not very heavy. If it’s heavy, like a crab dolly on a stage, it makes nice starts and stops because they weigh so much. If you don’t push all continuously at the same speed, they make a pretty smooth move. That’s also true with the mass of the crane of itself, makes for smooth moves. It’s a matter of physics.
I always ship my Dexter high hat. I manufactured those for a while, but I think there are some better ones out there now. A high hat on a board is just 1920s technology. It’s awful. I started making six lengths on them and went to adjustable lengths on them and to work on a hillside or whatever.
How about rigs and camera mounts?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Rigs and camera mounts. I was not the one to start with speed rails. But I sure exploited them and used them a lot. We made up all kinds of stuff out of speed rail. Unfortunately, the standards around the world are all different. It’s really difficult to take fitting somewhere that will be usable elsewhere. It’s really rough when it comes to rigging.
Generally, I just ask the grips to do their own rigging and tell them what I want. I rarely took very many tools other than maybe chain pliers, which they don’t often have overseas. And some racket straps for tightening things down. It matters what you’re trying to do – if you’re doing a window rig, almost everybody has a window rig. If you’re trying to do a hood rig, people fairly often have those. One of the things that’s crucial of rigging wherever, you’ve got to know a little bit about physics and a little bit about engineering. The first job I remember a rig on, they took a station wagon and put a high hat on top, and put a big O’Connor head on top of that, an Arri on top of a high hat on top of that. And they’d go out and chase racing cars, you know, on a figure-eight track. And I said, ‘Guys, you’re gonna have a problem with that.’ And they did. Nobody understood the physics of something stacked up that high. Where if you go with a low base camera and spread out the untacked with whatever the surface is, it’s pretty stable. You remember, Easy Rider, they just stuck the tripod on hard plates on the convertible, and they went out and shot all those really nice-looking scenics.
Rigging can be dangerous. And if people don’t know what they’re doing, people can get hurt. The best riggers are car builders, you know, rig car builders. They’re phenomenal. They’re the guys that know how heavy something should be, how strong something should be. Anyway, that’s about location rigging.
You had mentioned the potential dangers. Are there any reasons why aspiring cinematographers should not go DIY on rigs, mounts, and camera equipment?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Unfortunately, today, most kids don’t learn mechanics. They don’t have a shop at home, and they don’t learn some of this stuff. I’ve seen stuff which is laughably stupid. To find somebody who knows that stuff to make it safe is a problem. So often there’s the – ‘Oh, we’ve got to get the shot!’ And you’re scrambling to do something, and somebody tries something and so forth. And, hey, people can get hurt. People especially get hurt when they’re trying to help you get the shot, and the sun’s going down.
The closest things that I’ve been involved with where people were hurt was, people trying to help you get the shot because of other problems we had no control over. Got it to the point where guys violate their own safety rules to help get you the shot. So often, that is the problem. There’s that, ‘Well, you got the shot, didn’t you?’ Or, we were trying to get the shot when indeed somebody should’ve said, ‘No, it’s too dangerous… No, we don’t have time to do it right.’ And talent has to say, ‘Sorry, you guys, we said we’d go out and do that, but you’re pushing it, it’s dangerous.’
One time somebody wanted to hang glide into a jeep. I turned the job down. And didn’t know anything about until some time later – that they had killed one hang glider, and they just brought in another. …They were shooting it with a helicopter, and I said, ‘It’s too damn dangerous.’
It’s pushing things beyond the rules and good sense. A lot of it is good sense. On my first 16mm job, the producer was driving the car, we were on a very well traveled road, with no permit. It’s lucky we didn’t have a head on crash. This guy, he wasn’t a professional driver.
I always use professional drivers in anything where there’s any concern, because anyone else – a director, a producer – or anybody else is distracted, and it’s really dangerous.
Could you talk about the difference between a dolly shot and a pan with a long lens?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Often can look almost identical. You’re following two people walking. Either you’re pushing, you’re right alongside of them, or you’re working with a long lens, and you’re panning with them. The longer the lens, the more difficult it is to make a really smooth pan following them. Well, it’s also a difficult thing to dolly in sync with them, unless you’ve got somebody that’s really good at that. If you’re operator has a lot of experience panning with people, it’s a much, much faster way to get the shot.
What are your thoughts on the dolly zoom in-house camera effect – when it should be used, and examples of how it’s used to good effect?
Ron Dexter, ASC: There are a few classic movies that have used it. You see the cigarette smoke going backwards. You keep the people the same size, and you go from a telephoto to a wide angle, but the people in the frame are the same size.
I think it’s a gimmick unless there’s a really good strong story reason to use it. It’s a very difficult shot to do. Because of the speed of zoom motors or pan zooms or anything else. It’s really tough to do right. And it’s the kind of thing that I think often doesn’t add anything to the story and too often takes too much time when other stuff should’ve been done.
Could you share with us your most favorite experience using backpack dollies and cranes, and how that was used to good effect?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Well, those are for, first of all, very light-weight cameras. There’s two thing you can do. What they are – to make the ability for somebody to carry the camera in a backpack, and some of the materials in the backpack, and then the crane part in your other two hands. And what it is, is a very light-weight system where you use a bag of rocks if you have to for counterweight. And you can make moves that just aren’t possible otherwise.
The camera looks up when it’s on the ground, and looks down when it gets up. It’s a really neat move. Because when you’re low, you wanna look up, and when you’re high, you wanna look somewhat down.
It’s especially for scenic shots, a reveal, when you come up over a hedge, you go by flowers, and you go and look at the, ‘Wow, here we are overlooking the Caribbean’ or whatever. Pretty spectacular.
Then also you can make pan shots. If you stand in one place and pan the camera, there’s no perspective change. If you walk and have a little bit of an arc, or just even lean over a ways and pan, you’ll see perspective change and things the relationship each other change. And it’s an incredibly better move. And the dolly does the same thing except in a line.
So, that kind of shot can be so much more interesting, especially on small formats on video.
Often you can shoot a story with standard vision and so forth. But when it comes to your scenics, that’s where a little dolly move or little crane move can be just phenomenal.
Could you talk a little bit about cinematography and animation?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Well, it’s more in the vein that photography is photography. When you’re shooting miniatures, depth of field is a problem. The smaller the format you shoot it on, the more depth of field you have. Now we’re using digital still cameras, which is a bigger format, and 35mm film. But increasingly, they’re not FLRs, they’re digital cameras with very small chips that turn out pretty darn good images that make getting much more depth of field possible. The problem is, they don’t have wide angle lenses on them, and you usually want to get kind of wide in there, so you have to put on an attachment. And, so far, I don’t think anybody’s making the exact camera that we would like to be using for that.
Here’s something that’s really important, I believe. When you’re doing wider shots, especially exteriors, you want thing to look like they do by eye. You want everything as sharp as possible. When you’re doing a close- up for something, then you can allow the background to be out of focus. But when you’re trying to do a wide shot, you want to stop down as much as possible.
In Davey and Goliath, we did that. And, Gumby, the same thing. Davey and Goliath was shot on film. I made the motors and lens mounts and so forth. And for Gumby, we did shoot him with digital still cameras.
Could you describe the workflow and collaboration between a cinematographer and director on an animation or claymation?
Ron Dexter, ASC: I started directing Davey and Goliath because at the time we really didn’t have anybody who had the mileage. Not that I had done a lot of stuff on animation. It became obvious that the art director who knew film inside-out, and slept three hours a day or four hours a day – working with him has been quite a joy – but he didn’t understand everything about film, so he’d design a shot, and say, ‘Hey, I don’t see any way to do that.’ We figured out a way to do it, or get the same effect. That’s the key to being a good cinematographer, is being able to give the director the feel that they want.
When steadicam first came out, everybody wanted to use steadicam. There were instances where, hey, it would be fine. And there are other instances a dolly would really work a lot better. Every time we’d get a new piece of equipment, everybody would think that they’d get something really terrific if they use that special piece of new equipment. Well, not always true. The question is, what do you want to say, and what’s the best way to do this? And, today, most steadicam shots, you don’t know they’re steadicam shots. But, the time they save in shooting is phenomenal. And they get you in places where it would be very difficult to lay track or whatever.
Could you share a little bit about shooting animation versus live action?
Ron Dexter, ASC: [Laughs] Six seconds a day. Seconds a day. That’s one part.
You’ve got good animators, you tell them roughly what you want, and they give you a lot more than what you asked. Really good animators are guys and gals who don’t just shoot the storyboard – and some of them don’t even tell you until you see the shot. They gave you want you asked for, but they also gave you a bunch more stuff like that.
On Davey and Goliath, we were working with a twenty-three year old kid, who now is up in Portland at a big animation place. Incredibly inventive and easy to work with and so forth. The kid did really well. He worked on stuff before, but boy, did he blossom with us, and he’s just phenomenal.
Because animation is so slow, it takes so much time – it gives you time to, if you could shoot somewhat sequences at least at sequence, it gives you time to improve things as it happens. To storyboard it out and go out and shoot the same thing, probably would be very good. And then these bigger budgets you hear, oh, they threw that whole sequence away because they didn’t like it or they re-shot that whole sequence. When we did Davey and Goliath, we used about 99% of the film we shot. There was almost no re-shoot. And the reason why we didn’t go digital at that time was I didn’t feel comfortable yet. I was certainly comfortable with film, but didn’t feel comfortable enough with digital.
The other thing is, we were doing exterior snow stuff with miniatures. And I think we did much better on the look of the film. Because film can handle the highlights a lot better.
What changes have you seen through the years in relation to animation and claymation?
Ron Dexter, ASC: Historically, lunch box made it incredibly easier because in the old days, you didn’t even see what you were doing until the film came back. Those guys were really good. Then, the lunch box was a simple computer that showed you all the shots up to the one you’re doing. And then it showed you the next one before you shoot it. And then you push button, and it played it in regular speed. So that you could see smooth, how whatever, whatever – or did you move too far or not far enough? It made life incredibly easier. Now, a laptop and Frame Thief or one of the other systems – you’ve got that solved. With digital cameras, you don’t wait and see the film, you could see it right then and there, it’s all recorded. You make backup copies of it, and it’s done. And the quality is excellent. So that’s one of the big changes.
I think that computer animation is kind of a different ball of wax. Say, Happy Feet. So incredibly well-done with moves that just knocked your socks off. I think some of those were real backgrounds. But anyway, just phenomenal stuff. And you really start to believe you’re really in the location and there. And yet there’s real cheap animation like The Simpsons, and there’s one a lot even simplier than that. The story is so good, the characters are so good, the voices are so good that, who cares, it works. But some of it is a lot of potty humor that a lot of people continue to laugh at.
But we’ve been discussing for years the differences between clay and the other types of animation. And I have no answer on that, but some of the theories are, that clay looks not perfect. It’s a little bit funky which might add to it. Something I’m pretty sure of is I think Gumby is so well known and liked by people into their adulthood is that most people were exposed to Gumby while they were still working with clay and painting in school. That connection in the brain, that ‘I can do that, that’s something that I could really relate to.’
But I do think that today that audiences do expect much more story content. Not just for the kids but also for the adults. To say, ‘Wow, I remember when that happened to me when I was growing up.’ It’s the kind of stuff that taps into things in our brains that were put in there many, many years ago but are still there. And when you’re reminded of those, you say, ‘Ah, yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Dad was bugging me about that, and he still bugs me once in a while.’ That’s what makes magic I think in animation today.
If you could share a piece of advice for cinematographers around the world, what would it be?
Ron Dexter, ASC: First of all, cinematography is basic photography. The only difference is you’re dealing with time and maybe the camera moves. There are incredible books out there on basic photography. I think that if people are going to be cinematographers, they should shoot, shoot, shoot all the time, all the time. Both with a video camera so they can perfect their moves, and with a digital still camera if necessary to learn how cameras respond to light.
And, what is difficult is for people to get their work judged. When I teach, I send three or four people out with one camera and one tripod, and they shoot still shots. They all have to approve the shot. Then we bring it in, we put it on the big screen, and then I have some rules to judge the shot to see if indeed there’s stuff in the shot that belong and so forth. Then it’s group responsibility instead of personal responsibility, and people can take criticism that way. If each person shows their own shot, it actually takes so more time, you know – ‘You’re telling me my baby’s ugly.’ Well, people don’t like to hear that. But after a while then the other people in the class will start picking up on the same mistakes. And next time, they don’t make those mistakes. When a person’s working alone, I think it’s very difficult to judge your own work.
Photography – it’s all basic photography. I start people outside. Not on a stage with fancy equipment. Because outside lighting is difficult, and once you can master that, then you could start working inside with existing light and learning what to do to make it shootable. You have a light on at night, you have a light on a table, and it’s way too bright there, and the rest of it is dark. Well, you gotta learn how much light you have to add to the rest of the room and how much to reduce from that. Once you get that down, then if you go get some hardware store lights, the stands are pretty bad, but I recommend highly that people get three grip stands, and learn how to start using soft lights like bounced off a white card or through some kind of fabric. And, a little bit of hard light. Keep shooting, and test and test and test. Learn an awful lot about it.
If you just read the books or listen to too many teachings about three point lighting, people are not lit with three point lighting normally. In maybe 1940’s and 50’s movies, but most the rest of the time, that’s not the way natural and existing and realistic lighting is.
People can also study movies. Frame by frame, sound off. Just look at 10 seconds, 20 seconds at a time over and over and over. And see exactly how people did things. You start to learn, ‘Geez, there must have been light from over here, and then, they go over there coming from the other side… Well, that’s not proper, the light should be coming from…’ You notice in movies, they jump all over the place at where the lights were in the last shot. Well, only some people will notice that. But if the next shot, you have to keep the key on the same side but it looks bad, that’s not good. So studying movies is really very helpful for people to learn how other people do it.
Before Connie Hall [Conrad Hall, ASC] died I asked him what his lighting theory was. He said, ‘Well, I lay in some base light and then I just put a little extra light on the things I wanna see on the frame that I wanna make a point of.’ And American Beauty is quite a good example of that.
Could you share some advice in relation to special effects cinematography?
Ron Dexter, ASC: What you need to know in special effects, aside from the safety part of it – just the stuff you need to know is phenomenal. And I found in the business when I was just a cameraman working for other directors in different companies, they bring in a special effects wizard to do something. They’d show up in the morning, and they had worked all night. And they finally got it to work once, and they it never worked on the take where the talent was doing the right thing. So, special effects is something that takes a lot of time and testing and fine-tuning. I’ve had some of these people say, ‘Well, you got the shot, didn’t you?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, on a terrible take.’ It only worked once. And they charge you a lot of money and all that.
So, what I did was start building my own stuff, and I had, for example, Bill Bennet and Jim Jackson. I had some people working with me who were really great mechanics, too. We did some pretty phenomenal stuff. But people need mileage to do good effects. Stuff might look simple on the screen, but it’s not.
Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis. Associate Publisher for StudentFilmmakers Magazine (www.studentfilmmakers.com), HD Pro Guide Magazine (www.hdproguide.com), and Sports Video Tech Magazine (www.sportsvideotech.com). “Lifelines, not deadlines. Motion Arts. Fusion Everything.”