Observations on 10 Years of Teaching

Includes a short list of things for the cinematographers to carry in their kit.


By Thomas Ackerman, ASC

Driving Interstate 40 to North Carolina in August of 2008 was a stupefying experience, 2,528 miles of tedium as I rarely left the main road. Without the distraction of touristy side trips, there was more than enough time to consider the consequences of my recent decision to teach. Having flirted with academia for a couple of years, mostly “safe haven” events like guest screenings and occasional lectures, I had finally decided to get serious.

In July, Jordan Kerner, who had recently become Dean of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, alerted me to an opening on the school’s cinematography faculty. I subsequently met with the Search Committee via teleconference from the production office of “Mardi Gras”, a Screen Gems comedy I was shooting in New Orleans. It went well, and days later they made an offer which I accepted immediately. Forgoing what would have been an unsurprising (and prudent) inspection trip to the campus, I left for California as soon as we wrapped and started packing. My reasoning was simple. If UNCSA met Jordan Kerner’s standards, it must surely be a good bet. I had shot “George of the Jungle” and “Snow Dogs” for Jordan and found his integrity beyond reproach.

There was plenty of time to think on the long drive to Winston Salem. I was feeling good about life in general. Even the prospect of spending most of the 10-month school year away from home wasn’t daunting. My family was used to long location stays, although, it must be said, with the added perks that accompany location work. They attended the American School in Rome for a semester. Vancouver became a second home, and there were the two wonderful summers we spent in Chicago shooting movies for John Hughes. London  became home for several weeks when I was directing a special venue film that would be the opening attraction at Volkswagen’s Autostadt. It was all very nice, but overall there was a tremendous amount of time we as a family would never recover.

This is a factoid I like to bestow on my 4th year students as they approach graduation. Have a talk with your significant other, or if there’s no one who fits that description, sit yourself down and think about what a career in the motion picture trade means. The interruptions to your life will be significant, probably in direct proportion to your success. This is not a job for the timid, the insecure, or those averse to living out of a suitcase. Or who relish the idea of schlepping out to LAX Sunday night to catch the last flight to Vancouver, having spent roughly 28 hours at home.

If there was a clincher mandating the decision to teach, a smoking gun that closed the deal with never a second thought, it was the fact that I had just completed two teen comedies with plot lines as follows:

Comedy #1  – Two high school football stars eschew summer practice for a chance to attend – wait for it – CHEER CAMP so they can hit on girls.

Comedy #2 –  Three college friends drive down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, hoping to – you’ll never guess – MEET GIRLS and, well, just act crazy. One of them meets Carmen Miranda, and although he’s a feckless loser, we believe for roughly 30 seconds that she is attracted to him.

It must be said that I have worked on my share of comedies. Some were average films, some were interesting, and a few turned out exceptionally well. All presented a range of photographic challenge, sometimes out of proportion to their supposedly lightweight narrative. Anyone who thinks it was easy to shoot “Beetlejuice”, “Jumanji”, or the great road trip movie, “Rat Race,” is making an assumption that there’s a “one size fits all” look that fits everything in the comedic genre equally well.

For example, shooting the live action original of “Frankenweenie” for Tim Burton was a journey into the vision of a true artist. This 28-minute live action short, intended to accompany one of Disney’s animated features, was a body blow to the studio. They totally didn’t get it. Its hybrid genre was a shock to the system. What kind of  movie was this kid making???  During two weeks of prep and three weeks of production, I had a chance to put Tim’s quirky way of seeing the world on film. That project got things going. I “moved up” in the Union (Local 659) to Director of Photography. And rarely looked back. My crew and I, most of us Hollywood newcomers, took an unexpectedly positive step to bigger things.

Students today graduate into a different world. In some ways it is better than the late 70’s / early 80’s when my friends and I came to town. True, there was an energetic indie market, but it was small in comparison to the major studios who were still adjusting to the impact of television. There were three major networks and PBS. Period. The movie studios and unions were closed to newcomers. In short, my friends and I had made a grave mistake in coming to Hollywood. Fortunately, we didn’t know that when our impossible plans were hatched in Kansas, Iowa, and other outlying provinces where people should know better. When I got out of the Air Force, I had no particular expertise other than shooting training films on electronic warfare, sentry dog veterinary training [be sure to see, without fail, the classic “Sentry Dog Support in Sea” (Southeast Asia)]. Its numeric ID is TF 6105. Seriously, don’t miss this extraordinary film. It will establish a drastic low water mark for cinematography. And it’s all mine. Even though shot in a war zone, with the restrictions that would imply, the project verified that I had no possible future in film.

Then came my first lucky break, shooting for Charles Guggenheim. Winner of 4 Oscars and nominated for 12 Academy Awards, Charles was a tireless taskmaster who was intolerant of anything but hard work and pictures that meant something. By then a lover of cinema verité, Charles insisted on shooting life as it was – but depicting it artfully. This we did with two or three 1 K open face quartz lights. It was often impossible, and although not as excruciating as revisiting one of my Air Force movies, I see so many things now that could have been done better.

This brings us to the “what if” scenario that was sure to confront me in lining up film work after my Air Force discharge. The most likely choice would have been shooting fire department training films for Film Communicators in North Hollywood. It’s not a bad offer and was, in fact, much better than shooting TV news in Cedar Rapids.

Fortunately, my good friend and fellow Air Force project officer Peter Vogt had recently become Production Manager at Guggenheim Productions. He arranged an interview with Charles, leading to my being hired as Assistant Production Manager. With a Bachelor of Arts degree, the recently discharged Air Force captain embraced duties which included packing equipment cases in the company’s creepy sub-basement to making coffee runs and projecting dailies. Only Peter Vogt was aware of my desire to shoot.

It was Jim Signorelli, a New York cameraman who eventually directed the Saturday Night Live spoof movies, who handed me a 16 mm Bell and Howell on one of Guggenheim’s political shoots – coverage of Ted Kennedy marching in Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Shooting what we would now call “B Roll,” I obsessively managed the 2.8 minutes of film I had been given. Dailies, modest as they were, met with approval and my foot was now firmly in the door.

After a 24-year-old, wanna-be cinematographer took that teeny baby step long ago, good stuff happened. I have been fortunate. However, the rest of this piece is about you, not me. It arises from an experience I have had with regularity during the spring semester. A soon-to-graduate, 4th year cinematographer schedules a meeting to talk – not about technique but their future. It’s a perfectly reasonable question that, in fact, is addressed continually in the UNCSA curriculum. In many ways, our students graduate with a number of hardcore skills. They are informed, trained, and pragmatic in ways that – at their age – I was not.

Their apprehension is not a bad thing. In class, I occasionally remind them that on the biggest production, equipped with virtually all the stuff any shooter needs to make their images happen, there can be a moment of doubt. A little tinge of concern. Yet a moment of actual worry here and there is entirely warranted. What filmmaker should be oblivious to the money and resources placed at their disposal?  My own technique is to fight the qualms with self-assurance. “I’ve been here before and it’s always worked out. By the way, if you were hiring somebody to do this job, you’d hire yourself.”  Blatant self-promotion? Yes, and nothing you’d want to share with others. But it works.

Now a very short list of things for the cinematographers to carry in their kit, if not included already:

  • Do not make unreasonable demands of the sensor on your camera. No question, they are profoundly advanced, with tonality and latitude that were unheard of when I started shooting movies. At that time, using a light meter was for many of us somewhat of a fetish. Nobody wanted to hear two dreaded words from the lab – “thin negative.” There was no remedy, no digital workflow magic that could possibly resurrect badly underexposed film. However, the fact remains that underexposure is still a bad thing that can potentially wreak havoc with your pictures. Here’s a practice I adopted long ago, learned from fellow Directors of Photography whose gutsy, dark work I admired. Consider your chip to at least one stop SLOWER than its “normal” rating. ISO 800 becomes 400. You can then print the image down in post. If the scene is made up of predominantly dark tonal values, with nothing at the high end of the scale to protect, you can be a bit more aggressive. Maybe expose 2 stops hotter. The resulting values will be wonderfully rich, with noise a non-event.
  • Insist on carefully blocking the actors BEFORE you light the set. Rehearse them with a Director’s Viewfinder, mark their positions, use stand-ins to rehearse and light. Many of you have been trained in this process but when you’re out in the world, your counterparts may not know or respect this vital step. Failure to make it happen is ALWAYS a time-sucking mistake.
  • The Director of Photography and Assistant Director need to become best friends, if only temporarily, who are joined at the hip from the first day of prep until the show wraps. Both of you will be shooting the same schedule, with the same requirements. So, each must understand the other’s turf. It should not be a struggle and with mutual respect, it won’t be.
  • Re: working on a low budget project. If the money is bad, the project has to be good. Low or no budget doesn’t have to sabotage quality. However, it doesn’t take much to steer an otherwise well-meaning production straight to Bad Dream City. Be wary of dubious claims and insincerity in your first meetings.

5)  Giving yourself away. Have you ever interviewed for a small feature or music video where they expect you to throw your camera package into the deal…for free??? Followed by a ridiculous pay rate for you and your crew. Never give anything away.

That’s the list for now. Expose correctly but dream wildly. Treat actors as artists, who need camera rehearsals to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Cinematographers and AD’s need to forge an unbreakable alliance. Work ultra low-budget with your eyes wide open. Never give away your time and equipment.

As mentioned earlier, I grew up in Iowa and made it to the movies. I still do the work I love. There’s been a lot of good luck, and many people who mentored me along the way. Without their support, it would have been a much harder road to travel.

As we start a New Year, I wish all of you happy trails.



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