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Operating is drawing and lighting is painting

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Camera operating is a heavenly job
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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First of all operating is... is... I don't think there's any question that operating is far and away the most wonderful job – acting aside – the most wonderful job in the movies because it's... it combines aesthetics and athletics and everything at the same time, you know. I mean you have to be very good and you have to make choices at 24 frames a second at the same time, and always put her head there, and his shoulder here, and make that, you know, make that composition work, and you have to be able to do it – like that! – at the same time, and it's... if you're good at it... it's incredibly satisfying and exciting and sexy and... and you don't have to talk to the director and everything all the time, and you can flirt with the girls, and it is just a wonderful, wonderful job. And I often... and I... and I will say, I really was very good at it. I'd always been athletic and I'd always been interested in art and... and thus composition and framing and those things, and the two just went together in... in my hands and my head, and I just, oh, I loved it.

And I... and I... I think I said earlier, I... I worked for Gordon Willis for about, I can't remember now, six or seven years, whatever it was, all of his early movies, Godfather, Klute, all the rest, and so we really... and Gordie took this stuff extremely seriously and we talked endlessly and drew diagrams and argued and drank too much and drew more diagrams and talked more, for month after month, year after year, about exactly that, about framing and... and how, how it should go and how it should look, and we worked out a system together, or worked out a kind of aesthetic of it together, that we were very happy with. And so every day I would get up and... and frame pictures, I mean, what more could anyone ask, it was heavenly. And yes, it very much influenced my work as a DP, because I, well, on the simplest level I, whenever I could, I operated my own movies. We would pay somebody and he would, you know, maybe he could do the B camera, or he would just go away and... and let me do it. And that's in... in the most satisfying and, I think, the best way to go if you possibly can. Obviously you can't sometimes, when you've got a big explosion or something where there are 17 cameras and you've got a lot of special effects and you've got to watch, but if they're... if they're just in a normal course of things, you shoot the master and the over the shoulder and the two shot, and this and that, it's wonderful to be able to do it yourself, because you can see, once you're used to it, you can see that the... the little nuances of light, how it changes when he turns his head to her, or when she, you know, looks like that at him, and you can... you can see whether it really works, and also you can, when you operate for yourself, you can take chances that you couldn't take as an operator for someone else, no matter how much you and he loved and respected each other, as Gordie and I did.

But, when I would operate for myself, I could take real chances, because who was going to yell at me, you know, if I made a mistake, if I screwed up? I... I... only I could yell at myself and so I would do really outrageous things, and get away with them. Such as? I mean I would not worry about whether the frame was on the top of her head or whether it would cut off here or there, and I would really go for what felt, just intuitively felt wonderful. Plus I got to do lots of handheld stuff, which I love. Handheld is... is one of the most... it's, you know, it's the closest sort of to acting and dancing and being with them that there is, and like, for instance, Jaws, and once they got on the ocean, almost entirely handheld, and... and wonderful, because I had... it was such fun to do, such great fun to do. And in those days they didn't have any monitors or anything, and so I... I was the only person that could tell Steven [Spielberg] what was going on, because I was the only person who could see it, so they had to do what I said, it was wonderful. I mean, they had to, you know what I mean, they didn't really do what I said, but they had to... they had to listen to me and... and be guided by what I could see, because we were out in the middle of the ocean, and bouncing up and down, and I was hammering the camera on my shoulder. That was... it... operating is a heavenly, heavenly job.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: The Godfather, Klute, Gordon Willis, Steven Spielberg

Duration: 4 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008