Richard Crudo, ASC on ‘Being a Working Cinematographer’

Flashback, throwback interview close-up.


World-Renowned DP Shares His Experiences, Insights, and Discusses the Changing Production Climate, including Digital Technology


Interview conducted by Jacqueline B. Frost

Richard Crudo, ASC, President of the American Society of Cinematographers from 2003-2006, has been shooting films for over twenty years. He began his career as an assistant cameraman in New York working with master cinematographers Gordon Willis and Michael Chapman. He also worked as a Steadicam operator on Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and as a camera operator on Donnie Darko. His credits include American Pie, Outside Providence, American Buffalo, Federal Hill and more recently, Brooklyn Rules with Alec Baldwin and Freddie Prinze, Jr., Marker with Steven Seagal, and My Sexiest Year with Frankie Muniz and Harvey Keitel. He often collaborates with director Michael Corrente.

I spoke with Richard at the ASC clubhouse, and he very honestly and frankly talked about being a working cinematographer and the climate of production today.

What do you advise students to do in order to learn more efficiently?

Richard Crudo, ASC: One of the great things a student can do is to go to E-Bay and find a manual 35mm camera and a hand held meter and start taking still photographs. They’re very affordable today, and what they’ll get out of learning to use them will be priceless. I find training with 35mm still cameras preferable to using digital cameras because there’s more of a discipline involved. And in the long run that discipline will serve the student, regardless of what medium they use in the future. I’d advise them to shoot Kodachrome or Ektachrome – reversal films – which in both cases will render whatever they shoot in the actual way they expose it.

It’s never been easier to learn about cinematography than it is now… There are just so many schools, publications and resources available. When I was coming up, you really had to dig to find anything substantial. It was really esoteric, obscure stuff, as it pertains to motion pictures, especially if you didn’t live in Hollywood. Today, practically every movie ever made is readily available for study. You can actually take the DVD home, freeze frame it, and analyze the cinematography along with everything else.

I also encourage students to watch all kinds of movies – not just the ones they automatically like.

The internet has tons of information, too. I tell them to talk to people who are working, get on the phone, email people, write letters. You can’t be shy – be aggressive! I have a very vigorous email exchange going on with kids all over the country asking me questions about cinematography. They really want to get into it, and you can clearly see that they’re passionate. This is also a great part of what we do here at the ASC. To have direct access to Hollywood professionals is a wonderful gift. It would be stupid not to take advantage of it.

On being mentored by Gordon Willis when he was shooting for Woody Allen…

Richard Crudo, ASC: Mentored is too strong a term. I worked as an Assistant Cameraman on some of his features and a number of commercials he photographed. They were incredible learning experiences, and I still refer today to many of the lessons I picked up during that time.

Gordon and his directors had an interesting way of doing things…and it was also the best and smartest I’ve ever seen. They’d block everything out through the finder – often, the 40mm was his favorite lens in 1:85 – watching the actors play it through until they were happy with the flow of what they were supposed to do. At the same time, Gordon and the director would be breaking the scene down to its component shots.

The grip would be there with a measuring tape and a little piece of camera tape, and along with the Assistant Cameraman would mark off the actors and camera positions. Then they’d send the actors off to make-up and wardrobe, and he’d proceed to light the set for however long it took. This could often stretch into hours. Sometimes you wouldn’t get a shot before lunch. But when the set was ready, it was ready. You could knock out the day’s work in an hour or two and end up going home early. More times than not, we worked less than 8 hours. It was economical and efficient and extremely orderly in execution.

Back then, there seemed to be a different ethic in place across the industry. The studio would bring someone like Gordon in because of what he brought specifically to the movie. They didn’t want just any cinematographer; they wanted him specifically because of what he contributed to the production. That ethic seems to have almost completely disappeared. More often than not, the studios now want a guy because he’s fast or doesn’t cause any headaches. If he’s also done some nice work, well, that’s a bonus. Today, the sad truth in many quarters is that you’re in many cases instantly replaceable, totally dispensable.

But working with Gordon, the other thing was that I was a young kid at the time. The kind of person he was and continues to be, I always felt like I was working for my father. There was a certain level of respect and distance from yourself and him as the boss, and the directors fell into that category, also.

I was really spoiled by Gordon’s way of working. My first impression in the business was that everybody worked like that, but did I find out different. On Gordon’s set you always had the sense that serious work was being done. I’ve been on a thousand movies at this point in my career, and the ones with Gordon are really the only ones where it felt like an important effort was taking place – that these guys are thinking, they’re trying to do something in an orderly fashion so that it will mean something to people. And they took it very seriously, everyone took it seriously. The tone was set at the top, and you could hear a pin drop on that set while Gordon was in there lighting.

The crew would be tip-toeing around… There was an enormous respect for what we were doing. The best part was that you could actually have a conversation and communicate with someone three feet away without having to scream and yell. Most sets are like a circus today, and that’s something I find very unpleasant.

I’m a no nonsense guy on the set, and I treat my people really well. I’m respectful to the people I work with. But there’s not the same level of respect back that there was when I was coming up, for all the department heads really. Now everybody’s your pal, and there isn’t the distance that’s needed to get the respect. And the moviemaking process has been hurt by that.

Regarding the collaborative relationship between the director and cinematographer, how do you like to work with a director?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Simply put: as closely as possible. Every one is different, but they’re all the same, to a certain extent. Personality is important, but you must communicate and keep those lines open and actively engaged. Theoretically, we’re trying to take somebody’s idea that’s on a page and turn it into a representation of physical reality on screen. That requires a lot of communication because everyone has their own idea of what it should be and it’s not necessarily the right one for the movie.

The director has a huge responsibility to keep everyone on the same page. Sometimes that requires a very light hand, sometimes much stronger one. We’re all well aware of the movies where the people who made them were firing on all cylinders. The opposite examples are plain, as well. For the good ones, they’re all of a piece.

The palette, the “mounting” of the movie – that’s a term I use a lot that refers to the combination of writing, acting, music, editing, costumes, makeup, photography and so on – it’s all of a piece. It’s not like one department is off making a movie about hip-hop, and the other one is making one about opera, because it’ll come out like that if you’re not all there.

The Godfather is the classic example. Probably the finest example of everyone involved working at the top of their game. And from all reports it was not an easy shoot, either. There was a lot of struggle and stress and strain, but somehow Francis Coppola’s strong hand on the wheel kept everyone on the road. It just requires attention and application and the demand that everybody does their job to the best of their ability.

What would that initial meeting be like for a potential project with a director?

Richard Crudo, ASC: A lot of that is personal response, seeing how you feel about each other. As I said earlier, guys like Gordon Willis, ASC, Owen Roizman, ASC and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC were hired in their time because the studio specifically wanted what they brought to a film. And that, by the way, was something nobody else could do. Beyond that, whether or not they got an assignment depended on temperament… How well they’d be able to work with the director. Like anything else, people mesh or they don’t, and you can usually tell that in a two-minute interview, even with twenty other guys sitting in the waiting room outside.

But once you have the job, your exchange with the director should be about how you’re going to lay the movie out. What’s it about, really? And how can we represent it onscreen in a way that will support the story and have meaning? By no means should the early meetings with the director be about technology or lights or lenses, or any nonsense like that. It’s meaningless at that point. How do you want to structure this thing? That’s what’s important. Where are the beats? How are we going to break this up and make it achievable yet still have it all hang together?

The director doesn’t necessarily need to know anything about technology. ‘In this scene, I want the camera to come in through the window and across the full length of the table,’ can be plenty enough in that department. And I say ‘Fine,’ and I don’t even know how to do it yet. But that’s not important at that early stage. What is important is to establish the why’s, not the how’s.

A trap many people fall into though is to do all this great conceptual work and then lose the courage of the conviction when it comes to the shooting. All the great discussions and great exchanges with the director have taken place during prep. You’re both invigorated, excited. You’re dusting off the mantelpiece for the Oscar you’re going to get for doing all these great things, and then on Day One or Day Two or even Day Ten of the schedule, it all goes into the dumper because the director loses his or her focus on whatever it is you’re trying to do. Making a movie is hard work, both physically and mentally. There are a lot of distractions that will take people off their game. And fatigue is a killer of dreams, too, because after a long series of 12, 14 or 16 hour days, people get worn down by the little things. But you have to push through and do it… Keep your eye on the ball, so to speak.

What do you look for when choosing a project?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Very simply, a good script with a passionate, committed director. Beyond that, there’s the possibility – the hope – that you’re actually going to have the chance to do something decent… That you’ve got some good people involved.

Unfortunately, a lot of times you’re subject to the pragmatic realities of life – you just have to go to work. Not many people will admit that, but it’s absolutely true. This is what we do. It’s our job.

When something comes along and you haven’t worked in five or six months, you’ll tend to think that whatever comes along is the best script you’ve ever read, regardless of it’s true worth.

The irony of it is though, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good script or a bad script or a good director or a lousy director. Every time you accept an assignment, you go in there and do the best job you possibly can. It’s like a baseball player. He may hit a routine ground ball to shortstop, but every time he does, he’s gonna run hard to first base – thinking he’s gonna beat it out and get a base hit. Well, we do the same thing. We put so much of ourselves and our time and energy and effort into a project that it’s astonishing. You’re always hoping that maybe this director gets it, maybe this story can work. But it’s always a crap shoot.

What specifically do you look for in a director?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Above all, that he or she is passionate, energetic, into it. In terms of temperament, the director must be a good communicator. If a person communicates and collaborates well, that’s a great start.

What’s the worst kind of director to work with?

Richard Crudo, ASC: The uncommitted, the egomaniac, the non-collaborator. If you can imagine this, I once worked with a director who was more concerned that we’d be finished shooting by 4 o’clock so that he could get nine holes of golf in before it got dark. There’s a whole strain of directors who are more worried about the fact that directing a movie will get them a good seat in a hot restaurant, or get them a date with a model. Those guys, I tell them, ‘If you shut up and for the next ten weeks pay attention and do a good job here, they’ll back up dump trucks full of that s–t to your front door. So put it out of your mind while you’re working, and let’s try to make a good movie.’ And very often, it doesn’t sink in, you know? Most of them you never hear of again after their first movie flops.

Like everyone else, I look for a story that grabs me on some level. Good, strong, interesting characters or some situation I might find some identification in. Hopefully it’s competently written, and not just narratively or thematically. If I see a script with a lot of typos and misspellings, it’s never a good sign. Because if the people who sent it to you can’t take enough care to get that little bit of business right, the question then becomes, ‘What will be their approach to the bigger and more expensive matters as they pertain to my own job?’ The answer is always plain.

Once you are on a film how do you prepare with the script? What kind of notes do you make for yourself on the script?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Generally, I’ll read it a couple of times, trying to do it without thinking about anything technical. I want to get familiar with the story and the characters. Then, on subsequent readings, things will begin to come. Impressions will begin to form. Images will start to take shape. I’ll start to make those notes and then begin to go through the script on a logistical, practical and mechanical level. I’ll start to think about how we’re going to do certain things. If the whole movie takes place on a mountaintop at night and we only have fifty dollars, that’s certainly going to affect your approach.

The tone has to come from the director, in the best scenario, although it sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes it’s even better if the director says, ‘Bring me a concept…what do you think here?’

Sometimes you don’t know. It can take time to come up with these things, and that’s alright, too. But it’s nice when the director has solid ideas on how to approach things.

For example, maybe certain characters should be shot a certain way to indicate something about the story…certain sequences, segments and so forth. Then it’s good because things start to develop in a conceptual way.

On the other hand, the practical aspects will come once the conceptual aspects are settled.

Generally, that’s the easier part to deal with. Even if we have to go through complex means to make the result on screen look easy, that’s just mechanics – and anybody can do that. But the conceptual notion of how to approach a film, once again, that’s what’s important. It can be a little abstract, and you can talk about it with the director. You can use drawings, storyboards, computer pre-visualization, tear-sheets from magazines, older movies… You do all of that to establish a common ground of communication, even if you ultimately end up throwing it all away – which happens very often, by the way.

What I hate to do is to have no concept going in and then be forced to shoot wide shots and single coverage of all the characters around the room. It’s the most boring, meaningless way to make a movie. There’s no point of view and virtually no chance whatsoever of using cinematography to help support the story or the theme of what you’re doing.

Translating a director’s vision on the page to the technical aspects…

Richard Crudo, ASC: What I always like to do is turn the expected, the obvious way of doing something on its head, and see what it gives you.

There was a cameraman I worked for when I was an AC, and I remember this vividly. We were somewhere in upstate New York, and we had a shot of this kid getting off a train. The tone of the scene was lonely, morose. We’d been talking about European movies for some reason all week, so he sets up a very wide shot that really minimized the kid in the corner of the frame. The train pulls out, and he’s just left there on one side of this huge empty space and we go, ‘Yeah, that’s alienation for you,’ and we all had a laugh. But it’s because we all recognized the cliché in terms of what that technique meant. And it’s a cliché because its true and it works.

Now let’s assume you talk to the director about it, and maybe there’s another way we can indicate that, instead of something like the wide shot, which has been done ten thousand times before.

Maybe we can find something that’s only been done ten times, or even not at all. That comes down to the structure and the mounting of the movie. You can just show up on the day of the shoot and go, ‘Okay. Jack gets off the train, and he’s supposed to be sad, so let’s do a wide shot.’ Sure, it works. But it’s like getting up every day and putting on a grey shirt or a grey suit, dressing in grey every day. Certainly, there are better choices. You want to get at something deeper than what’s on the surface, you know?

And you have to remember that nothing stands by itself in a movie. Everything you do is affected by what goes before and what comes after. Everything is relative on some level, in other words. Playing with that in order to support the story is part of the great fun of what we do. Otherwise you can approach it in the lowest way imaginable – just put a camera on a tripod and make a literal recording of whatever happens in front of the lens.

Do you decide shots and angles with the director, or do you expect the director to come to you with these decisions already made?

Richard Crudo, ASC: It varies. I much prefer to let the director worry about the actors and leave the rest to me. Of course, I’ll work with the director on staging and blocking, breaking it out into shots. In a lot of cases that can be a very fruitful relationship because we can get from A to B a lot quicker and a lot more efficiently when we both understand each other. Done the right way, this allows the director more time with the actors. It also leads to less time lighting and a lot less time standing around waiting. We can be much more economical that way.

But if the director has really strong ideas and wants to kick them around, that can be really interesting too. Ideally you should each have great ideas of your own. Then, when you both come together on set, you should put your heads together and come up with an idea that’s better than what either of you had alone. That’s the ideal to strive for. Through collaboration, hopefully you can create a spark and hopefully get something that will really sing onscreen.

Do you work with the director on composition and blocking?

Richard Crudo, ASC: If they’re inclined to do that, sure. But the problem with storyboards is that people tend to get too attached to them. This can inhibit real creativity on the set. I prefer not to use them too much, except for action scenes where because of time, scale and expense you have to be sure to touch certain bases. In those cases, they’re helpful as a guide to get you through what could potentially end up as mass confusion. But ordinarily I don’t like to use them. You’ve got to be flexible, otherwise its sucks all the air out of the movie. Certain movies today almost feel like a filmed storyboard, and I just hate that.

Do you like to use shot lists?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Well, you have to start your day with some idea of what you’re up against, if only to help the AD keep track of things and keep the day moving. But a shot list can be as simple as this: ‘I want a wide shot of this scene from the opening to this line. Then I want such and such coverage.’ Or, ‘I need a two shot, and I want to start with the camera out the window and pull back into the room to reveal something.’ It’s a list of talking points that gives you a place to start. But hopefully you’ve had these talks a long time ago. It’s the absolute worst when someone shows up in the morning and says, ‘Oh, what are we doing today?’

Do you operate your own camera?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Not anymore. I have operated my own camera in the past on any number of occasions. On really low budget productions early in my career, I’d certainly operate. I was a full-time operator for a brief period before I became a cinematographer. And there’s one thing I know very well about it – operating is a full-time job that requires one person’s total attention to do it properly. A lot of people don’t feel that way, and that’s fine…I’m speaking for myself. They feel detached from their work if they aren’t actually looking through the camera while the shot is unfolding. But having done it on any number of occasions, I always felt that if you’re paying the necessary amount of attention to one job, most of the time you’re short changing the other.

There are a great many practical concerns an operator needs to worry about – just executing the shot, keeping the composition properly framed, watching for boom shadows, etc. If a cinematographer is operating and paying full attention to these things, they take away from your paying attention to the lighting or the drama of the moment.

I’ve got great operators that I work with. I’d never want to work without one again. Once in a blue moon, I might jump on a B-camera and operate for a quick shot or two. But for the length of a movie, you’ll find that the majority of cinematographers want – indeed, demand – an operator.

So that would have you with the director looking at the monitors (video village)?

Richard Crudo, ASC: In ‘vidiot village?’ I don’t go near the monitors. I stay near the camera. And it’s a disgrace that a director sits fifty yards from the set and yells to the actor, ‘Do it again… do it funnier…do it bigger.’

To me, if I were an actor, I wouldn’t put up with that. It’s insulting. I always stand next to my A-camera during the shot, and I’m the closest impartial observer to the actor while the scene is actually happening.

Funny thing is, actors eventually – and this has happened quite often – will look at you first for approval because you’re right there and you’re going to get the effect most directly. In those cases, you have to be very diplomatic because you run the risk of usurping the director, and you just can’t do that. You’ve got to be very careful and very political in how you deal with those situations.

That’s why I’ve learned to try not to look the actors in the eye when the AD calls, ‘Cut.’ I don’t want them looking at me first. I’m only concerned with the lighting. But sometimes actors will approach you on the sly and say, ‘What did you think?’ Then you can be discreet and give them an opinion.

But nobody should be standing in ‘vidiot village,’ except for maybe the continuity person, because they’re doing what is essentially a mechanical job. But to my mind, in almost every instance, the director has no business being there while an actor is acting. I don’t have to be looking at a monitor to know how my operator is framing the shot or whether they blew the shot. I can see that out of the corner of my eye and know from experience what they’re doing.

Good operating is not necessarily about having everything framed perfectly all the time. To me, good operating is more about having a sensitivity to what’s happening in the frame and what the cinematographer is trying to achieve. A good operator has to be able to go with the flow and have a good eye and be good enough on the wheels or whatever to save those moments where things don’t go according to plan, or to turn them into something usable or something better.

An operator also has to watch for all those other mechanical concerns: boom shadows, a stray lamp that’s made it into the shot, a sand bag or an apple box, a production assistant. Then there’s focus, which the operator can hopefully see during the shot.

This individual is an absolutely pivotal part of my kit. They save tremendous amount of time when you’re lighting and setting up shots, so I don’t have to be running back and forth to the camera when I’m in the middle of the set. Many producers don’t even realize just how much time and money they save over the course of the day.

I’m one of those guys who lights through the lens; my eye is constantly to the camera when I’m lighting a shot. But when I step away, it’s great to have someone else’s eye to the lens, too.

Have you known directors who know focal length, depth of field and use that to communicate with you?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Some directors are good at it and it only behooves them to have a basic understanding of these things. I often tell directors to take an adult education class or a weekend still photography course. At the end they’ll know all they need to about what I do.

On the other hand, you’ve got guys like director Ridley Scott, who are brilliant and have been doing it for forty years. He knows as much as any of us about cinematography, and that’s terrific.

But to know what depth of field is, the difference between a long lens and a short lens, these are indispensable things for a director. It’s always helpful for the cinematographer if someone understands the basic technical information.

Directors should also have some understanding of editing and how things will flow and cut together. Where are you going to use music? You need to know about acting, production design, sound… You’ve got to know at least a little about all these things.

How specific do you like directors to be about composition?

Richard Crudo, ASC: With only the rarest of exceptions, I would much prefer they let me compose, because I‘ve got a better eye than they do and I’ve got more experience.

Composition is a very personal, intuitive conceit. Most of us can’t explain why something feels right or wrong composition-wise, but it’s definitely a palpable sensation. Often it’s just something you take out of the air in the moment you’re doing it.

Sometimes I like to short-side people in close-ups. Usually that means something relevant is going on behind them. Then, when you cut to the other person, there’s less screen space for the viewers’ eyes to wander.

Most of the time, when I asked Gordon Willis why he did something a certain way, he’d say, ‘It felt right,’ and I always thought he was giving me the brush. But as I learned and started to do the job myself, I realized he was right. Often it just feels right to compose something a certain way. That’s all you have to go by, and you have to be true to that whenever you can.

Do you prefer working with primes or zooms?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Whichever is appropriate to the task at hand. In the broad sense I prefer primes. I can’t tell you the last time I zoomed when the camera wasn’t moving. If the camera is moving, and it’s on the dolly or Steadicam or any moving platform whatsoever, generally you put a zoom on because it just helps you with the focal length. You might have arranged your tracks three inches shy of where you really need to be, and it’s just easier to zoom in or out. Plus, you can bury your zoom in the move, and it becomes much less obtrusive and much more versatile. In 99 out of 100 cases of standard application though, I’d want to use a prime. There’s just more discipline involved in using it.

What format do you prefer to work in?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Hands down, 35mm anamorphic is my favorite. I’ve done a couple of anamorphic movies in a row over the last few years, and it’s just an exquisite format… really cinematic in nature. You see that big wide image up there onscreen, and for me it replicates very faithfully the way our eyes see. It’s just a great graphic. You put that wide frame 2:40 aspect ratio out there, and when the camera falls off the truck, there’s a good composition waiting almost wherever it lands.

Anamorphic also has the potential to be a less cutty format, which I also like. There’s a lot of information there on the wide screen, and you can let things play out. You can stage actors in depth and not just cut – cut – cut, like some MTV-style pile of crap. I have no stomach for that stuff anymore. It was interesting for about an hour a long time ago, then everybody jumped onboard, and it broke out everywhere like the plague. A real failure of style over substance.

In anamorphic, you’re also using the largest piece of real estate on the negative. That translates into a richer image since the largest negative makes for the best print. Super 35 is smaller, 1:85 is smaller, except for 65mm everything else is smaller. Even if I was going to a DI, I’d still want to shoot anamorphic because there is more information for the scanner to pick up, more silver to turn into pixels. Scan it at 4K, and you’re off to the moon.

You’re not concerned about the slower lenses and the limited depth of field?

Richard Crudo, ASC: People always comment about that, and I haven’t found it a problem at all. So you light one stop deeper, big deal! Put one less scrim in a lamp…flip on another bulb! With today’s beautiful 500 speed films, it’s really nothing. Even rated at EI 400 or EI 320, it’s still no problem.

With a good set of lenses – I’ve been partial to Panavision’s C-series. You get a fantastic look. In terms of depth of field, let’s say that if I light to a T2.8 in 1:85, I’d be lighting instead to a T4 in 2:40. The lenses perform appreciably better at that stop. And then I’m right back to the same depth of field I would’ve had in 1:85. A 50mm lens in anamorphic has approximately the same depth of field as a 100mm lens in 1:85. So you light a stop deeper and basically gain it back at the same depth of field. Owen Roizman, ASC and I were talking about one of the films he photographed, Wyatt Earp. An absolutely beautiful anamorphic movie. He shot the whole thing wide open. So it goes to show you that everyone has their own approach. And he has the Oscar nomination to prove how correct his way was.

The camera you would choose?

Richard Crudo, ASC: I’ve always been a dedicated Panavision guy, but Arriflex makes a wonderful product, too, and I always carry a few of their cameras on each job. Their 435 is an absolutely fantastic, versatile camera, especially for high speed or ramping applications. The Arri 2C is my personal all time favorite camera. I own one, and it’s great. You can do any thing with it. But for mainline production work, it’s Panavision…generally a Gold-II. They’ve been very, very generous to me over the years. They make great equipment and their support is amazing. They have a very well thought-out system. They listen to the people who use the stuff and the improvements show up in every subsequent generation. Panavision has just recently introduced a whole line of new equipment, and it’s great to see that their commitment to film – along with Arri’s – is still very strong.

What about picking film stock, that’s all on you usually? The director doesn’t tell you what kind of stock to shoot?

Richard Crudo, ASC: I’ll do tons of testing and might have a discussion about stocks with the director in the broadest sense, but the thing about it is that Fuji and Kodak both make wonderful negatives that each have their own application. But in every case, I’ll ultimately make the choice of film stock. I’ve never been told what to do in this area.

I am one of those guys who sticks with one stock throughout the run of a show. I know there are lots of people who carry every stock available, and if a cloud comes in, they start shooting with something else. I never understood that way of thinking. If nothing else, it causes more logistical headaches than anybody reasonably needs.

One stock across the board guarantees a consistency to both your look and the way you calibrate your eye to the sort of lighting you’re doing. You don’t have to change any of your working methods, and I defy anyone to look at a movie and identify one stock as different from another, under normal applications. In order to get that much of a different look, you need to go a lot further in a number of ways than just changing stocks – forced development, pull processing, flashing, filtration, whatever. Although you can get a radically different look just by playing with your lighting and filtration and your development and your printing, ideally you can get any kind of look you want if you really know how to use whatever single particular negative is at hand.

Do you think there is a time of day that can’t be recreated on set?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Given enough time, equipment and people to move it around, you can recreate almost any look you can imagine. We’ve all had situations where you start with day exteriors that all of a sudden become night exteriors. And, of course, you still have an unforgiving schedule and a great deal of work to do. Well, then you do what you have to in order to keep the illusion of continuity intact. And hopefully you have enough of what you need to do it. But certainly, except for the most extreme cases, it can always be done if you have the resources to do it.

Do you think its’ easier to light if you have more gear?

Richard Crudo, ASC: It’s never about having lots of gear. It’s about how you approach using the gear that you have in a way that’ll serve what the movie’s about.

Once again, I’ll go back to Gordon Willis, who is one of our greatest cinematographers. I once heard him say that it took him thirty years to learn to be simple. I spent a lot of time pondering that, and again, he’s brilliant and he’s 100% right.

I find that the more deeply involved I become with our work, the more I‘m trying to simplify what I’m doing – and that usually means taking away. I work with fewer lighting units now than I used to. In fact, I work with less of everything. It’s just a mindset that comes out of maturity, I guess.

Once you get into it a little bit, it’s amazing how little you actually need to do your work effectively. It depends on what you’re trying to do, and there are extreme situations and exceptions to everything, of course. But ordinarily you can get away with far less than you’d ever imagine at first.

That’s due to the improvement of the film stocks, too…

Richard Crudo, ASC: Only in part. That’s a question of relativity. What is it you’re trying to do? That’s what brings us to all our conclusions. The number of lighting units you use is relative to what you’re photographing. Is it a macro insert of a thimble on a table top or a 17mm shot of a cavalry charge over the Great Plains at night?

How extensively do you test the film stock before you shoot?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Extremely extensively. It depends on what look you want to bring to the movie, but there is a certain battery of tests you would do no matter what. Basic emulsion tests – over and under exposure – printing in the lab and so on. You might be searching for a specific look. You might be testing filters. Flashing, pulling, pushing… There are so many ways to go. Then there’s the standard battery of mechanical tests, which are done by my assistants: registration, lenses, focus leader for your dailies, and so on.

How much work do you do with the Production Designer?

Richard Crudo, ASC: I wouldn’t be lying if I said that probably 75% of what the movie looks like is contingent upon what the production designer does. What they do is create textures and surfaces, and it’s always hard because at the bottom of it you’re trying to bring a certain taste to the fore. And good taste – hard as it is to come by – trumps all. Not a lot of people have it, and if they do, not a lot of them have the technical skills to pull it off. So you spend a lot of time collaborating, especially on the colors, textures and materials they’re going to use… how these things are going to photograph.

This is a very important part of what we do and one that’s not given enough of the right attention on many movies.

With production design, too, less is more. When it’s overdone, you feel something is off, and you can’t quite figure out what it is. I did a movie a couple of years ago that was supposed to take place in 1985. We had a hard time thinking of it as a period piece – pardon me, but 20 years is not that long ago. And especially in that time, not much has changed as opposed to say, 1965 to 1985. So rather than just go, ‘Okay, lets use a light touch,’ every time you turned around you were being beaten over the head with something that reminded you that it was 1985. I was really bothered by that, and I think it got in the way of the movie. Subtle is always better to me. Sometimes the cinematographer and production designer have to get together and save the director from him or her self.

What is the difference between what a dolly shot will give you and what a Steadicam shot will give you?

Richard Crudo, ASC: The camera on the dolly is rock steady when it moves. With a Steadicam, as good as the operator may be, there’s still an element of floatiness or uncertainty to it. There’s a distinct difference to the two in that they’re not at all interchangeable. They most certainly do not have the same meaning in similar applications. They do what appear to be the same things, but are very, very different in essence and effect. Sometimes the Steadicam is just an ingenious solution to a nagging practical problem, i.e. going up and down stairs in an efficient manner.

Would you ever suggest a format to a director?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Suggest? No. Tell? Yes. 35mm anamorphic. Whether or not they go for it depends on a variety of things, but I’m going to lobby for anamorphic in the most strenuous way almost every time out. Certainly there are exceptions. Super 8mm might actually be the correct choice once in awhile. But in my ideal dreams, it would always be Scope.

What do you think about the digital technology today? The HD cameras?

Richard Crudo, ASC: That’s a complicated question. Clearly, digital technology is the future of what we do. There’s no question of that. Unfortunately, the future isn’t here yet. And the industry has been sold an enormous bill of goods with regard to what this technology’s currently capable of doing.

Historically, cinematographers have driven an enormous number of advances in motion imaging – since the very dawn of the industry, in fact. In the early days, if one of them wanted to get some look or effect onscreen that they couldn’t get with the current technology, they’d go home and tinker around at the workbench until they found a way of achieving it.

Eventually, things became industrialized and mass produced, and we evolved (some would say, de-evolved) to the world we know today. And until very recently, these technological advances were always driven by creative demands. Thus far, a great deal of digital technology has come along as an answer to questions that nobody ever posed.

Consider this: what cinematographer ever asked a consumer electronics manufacturer to slap a “cine-” sticker on the side of an ENG camera? Idiocy incarnate! And that’s precisely what has happened in many cases. If digital technology had existed all along in its present form and somebody suddenly introduced photo-chemical technology, the response would be overwhelming.

It’s simpler, more versatile, archival, lightweight, consistent, measurable and repeatable. In other words, everything that digital is not at this point. But it will get there, inevitably, some day.

Primarily, digital needs to improve in these areas: color space, contrast, quality of the blacks and resolution. We need a universally interoperable system of color management. We also need a widespread adaption of Technicolor’s Digital Printer Light System, which is an absolutely brilliant way of returning control of the dailies process to the cinematographer.

The ASC has gone a long way in driving a lot of efforts in these areas, and we will continue to do so. In many cases today, you’ve got digital technology – a brand new way of doing the same thing – reinventing the wheel. But the trouble is that the wheel is too often surrounded by a flat tire. The unfortunate thing for us is that rather than starting at a point at least equal to the best of what the existing technology delivered (i.e. 65mm), digital started at a point 40 notches down the pole.

Through a massive wave of diabolically smart marketing, people (some producers, studio executives and others who don’t know any better) were taught to believe that anything new is automatically better. And they bought it, no questions asked! Just the same, we use it, and in the right hands it can render some very effective results. It’s another tool in the box that has its own applications. But to me the downside still far outweighs the benefits. For the thinking cinematographer, digital technology is still not at the point where we need it to be. And it’s not going to be for a very long time.

In terms of image capture?

Richard Crudo, ASC: In terms of everything! It’s funny that you use that term. It really represents the dividing line between people who think digital technology is the answer to every question and the people who think it represents an incomprehensibly poor way of ‘improving’ things. In its simplest terms, it comes down to this: people who favor digital technology above all always use the term ‘image capture’ in relation to what we call ‘original photography.’ People who have come up through the filmic tradition, who have that discipline in their bones, will use the term ‘image creation.’ The best way to think of the schism is to imagine a bunch of engineers dictating to artists what they think the artist will need instead of the other way around. This is one of the biggest factors that’s slowing the actual maturation of digital technology – which we’re all As far as I’m concerned, the Digital Intermediate is the best application of digital technology to date. It allows the cinematographer to do some amazing things that couldn’t be done before. It allows us to
do take our traditional methods to a whole new level of creativity.

There are a lot of television shows that are being shot HD now to save time and money – do you think that it does?

Richard Crudo, ASC: That’s a misnomer, also. Because if you need to go to technology to save money and time – rather than going to the thought process behind what you’re trying to do in the
first place – then you really don’t know what you’re doing. There’s an enormous, unconscionable amount of waste that goes on across the board during the filmmaking process. Whether you’re using film or digital technology has very little to do with it.

You know what really makes me laugh?

To date there hasn’t been a movie I’ve shot where I haven’t walked across the set at some point and thought this much to myself: ‘If I were running this show, we could’ve done it for half the money.’ And that just comes from practical experience and at least having an idea of what’s most important and how to structure things.

Bean counters have ruined this business.

For the most part, they have zero practical experience on set and are the least qualified people to be making decisions about and riding herd over movie budgets. So if you think digital technology is some sort of panacea that’s going to save money and time, you’re not just severely misguided in your judgement, you’re wrong. On the surface it may indeed solve one set of problems, but for all that assumed genius, it brings a whole new set of problems along with it, too.

Has the Digital Intermediate changed the way you shoot a film?

Richard Crudo, ASC: Not me, personally. The DI experts at all the major facilities will tell you this, too: you should do as much of your image creating incamera – just as you always have. DI isn’t a
cure for sloppy cinematography on set. DI should be something that you know enough about to be able to use as the tool to take your cinematography across that extra 5% through the goal line.

Occasionally, you can take a little less time and use the DI process to help you do something. But as
a rule that can’t be a serious part of your thought process. If you don’t at least begin to approach your movie this way, you’re going to end up with a really raggy looking show. Because letting one thing go breeds letting another go and so on. You’re always trying to compensate in the post-process for something you didn’t do right in the first place during principal photography. So DI
is a tremendous tool, but you still have to get it on that negative – as always. Chisel it in stone on the set, then go into the digital suite during post and turn it into a Michelangelo.


Jacqueline B. Frost teaches cinematography and advanced film production at California State University, Fullerton, and regularly teaches cinematography for directors through the UCLA Extension. Jacqueline has shot numerous short films, independent feature films and documentaries that have screened in film festivals around the world. She has also taken on the role of Producer, Director and Editor on many projects. Jacqueline continues to freelance as a Cinematographer in the Los Angeles area. Her upcoming book, “Creative Collaborators; Cinematography for Directors” will be published by MW Productions.


Related Articles

Related Articles

Scroll to Top