Interviews from "Expanded Cinematography":
"Still Fooling Them: Life as a Director of Photography"
Interview with Oscar Winner, GCI Guest Instructor Dean Semler, ASC, ACS
(Credits include: Dances with Wolves, Apocalypto, Mad Max 2, Secretariat, and more)
Q) What training / education did you recieve to become a Cinematographer?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: Born in a little country town in Australia I’d never had any interest in learning photography, although my parents had given me a small ‘Coronet‘ stills camera when I was 14. The few rolls of film I did expose (it was very expensive) were developed at the local chemist shop, and I must admit it was quite a thrill to see the results, as good or as bad as they were. I still have the very first photo I took on that little camera, and often use it as a screen saver just to remember my beginnings.
For some totally unknown reason I was given a job as a props boy at Rupert Murdoch’s newly opened TV station in Adelaide, the big city. Promotions and new positions came pretty rapidly in this embryonic stage of television, and by the time I was 19 I landed a position as a news cameraman - wow! I thought all my Christmases had come at once. The senior cameraman showed me a light meter and said “whatever number the needle points to match it on the lens sonny - no worries!“
With my trusty Bell and Howell camera three fixed lenses and a few rolls of 16mm black and white film I was literally shoved out of the newsroom door as the news editor called out “you’ll get the hang of it!“ I soon learned and fell in love with telling simple news stories on film.
From that modest beginning I continue to be behind the camera today. I have never attended a film school or done a photography course, I also have never assisted or operated under another cinematographer. I operated all of my early work, just experimented and learnt a bit more on every assignment, whether it was news, documentaries with anthropologists in New Guinea, high gloss commercials, TV or feature films, I still keep learning - every day can be a day of new discovery!
You know somehow, without a formal education in the film process or filmmaking I feel like stealing the title to Billy Crystal’s new book - “Still Fooling Them”.
Q) Do you expect in the future some kind of convergence between "traditional" DPs and special effect / virtual cinematography expert into some kind of new profession or activity?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: Before the influx of other high-end digital cameras I had started shooting with Panavision’s brand new state of the art 'Genesis‘ digital camera. A good friend and Oscar winning cinematographer said to me, “Dino, this is the beginning of the end of the cinematographer“. I had to disagree at that stage, but in a way he was right. Now only a few years later with the introduction of so many great digital cameras and post production facilities, and with studios favoring digital cinema release, the traditional cinematographer, as we know it, has to take on a new role, although I salute those who have stuck to their guns and still expose celluloid film.
The new role now encompasses the world of pixels as opposed to film grain, and along with it a shit load of ‘gobbly gook‘ technical dialogue. Sorry folks - I’m still catching up.
Q) What technical invention(s) affect the profession mostly? How did it affect you creatively?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: There have been scores of fantastic new inventions that have affected the way we shoot: steadicam, super telescopic cranes, new lenses, spectacular flying rigs, space cam, spydercam and many more…but to me the one that has affected the profession most is the friggin video tap!
Once upon a time there were just two filmmakers - in my case a Director and a DP, with total trust, a bond with little or no discussion after a take. Sometimes it was just a look. An understanding. And the same with an operator respected by the Director and DP.
A light meter, a good eye, knowing the film stock, trusting the lab, that 6 am dailies call, and of course the truly great tradition called “dailies“. Viewing, learning, discussions with all departments, and probably a beer or a glass of wine. Then the timing sessions in a small theatre with just the DP and timer, then, after corrections, a screening for the Director’s notes, then the movie was ready for the world to see.
Video tap is important, I agree, but now with spectacular high def monitors it’s gotten to a stage where the shot may be framed and lit by committee…suggestions! Suggestions! Suggestions! I once had an actor ask for a spot light on him and much less on the audience…go figure? Here I am grumbling and complaining, but I must admit that the video assist equipment and my good friends the operators are a lifesaver in today’s film making. What would we do without them?
Q) What do you enjoy most about being a cinematographer?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: Being a cinematographer has to be the greatest job on the planet…(although I must admit the guy who sprays the sun block on the bikini babes on Bondi beach in Australia comes a close second!). Of all the movies I have photographed it’s difficult to remember many bad experiences, there are tough times of course - running out of light, maybe difficulty with an actor, fighting a schedule.
I’m often asked about shooting Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto“ and how difficult, dangerous, unhealthy, and tiring it must have been fighting the jungle beasties and the extreme heat, humidity and torrential rain storms for many months in the jungles of Mexico…my friends, this was by far the most enjoyable shoot I have ever undertaken, I was a cinematographer given a great director, spectacular locations and giant sets, a native cast with extraordinary make up and wardrobe, a super crew, American and Mexican, the Genesis camera (still very new to me) which allowed me to shoot in the dark. Every day was totally rewarding and generally fun. To choose between this film and a Hollywood studio based film - no comparison!
I love Cinematography because it's what I am... it's what I do... it's what I love.
Q) What do you consider the greatest professional challenge?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: There are many hurdles, stumbling blocks, or let’s just call them challenges, that confront cinematographers every day. The obvious one is matching weather in a scene shot over a day or even weeks. That decision that we all have to make first thing in the morning on a mixed weather day. Is it going to be easier and therefore more efficient to create the sun when the clouds roll in or vice versa? Which option will be more cost effective? Somehow we all face this situation, and you know somehow we all get through.
We try to avoid the obvious excuse by saying “we can fix it in the DI suite“ but sometimes, when the director and producer and actors are looking at the sky watching the clouds roll in or out, and then all looking at their watches and then all heads turn to the cinematographer, we have to bite the bullet and accept the fact that we can help the match with the fabulous tools available in post, and therefore complete the day’s call sheet. I constantly ride aperture in the DI tent as the sky changes intensity, although not necessarily from heavy cloud to full sun.
I find that we as cinematographers must consider the feelings of the actors. Many times I have seen actors emerge from their trailer totally prepared and in character, absolutely fired up and ready, wanting to shoot immediately, without any technical hold ups that can distract and take them out of character. This is not the time to delay turning over…. And in this case if suddenly there is a slight sun flare coming off a car windscreen, now we can say, “Fix it in post. Roll camera".
I can hear you saying “Hey...they are actors and that’s their job!“ just put yourself in their shoes for a moment. I must admit that most actors I have worked with fully understand, and some that don’t give a shit and just hang around talking sport or telling jokes until the clouds have passed or whatever.
Although guided by storyboards, conceptual drawings and previs, another of today’s challenges is lighting the unknown. Shooting actors in front of green screen or blue screen before the background plates have been shot, or partial sets when we have to create a look that will initiate the lighting on the final image... I’m not complaining here, just more and different challenges of today.
There are always schedule challenges of course, and some how we generally seem to make it…squeezing the ideal 50 day shoot into 40 and so on. What helps enormously in my opinion is a great, low key, hard working, understanding crew, all with a good sense of humor, no big egos and wanting to share my desire to keep harmony around the camera. I am lucky I have such a crew.
Q) What filmmaker / DP has influenced you?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: Cinematographers I admire most: Robert Krasker, BSC. Today working with ISO of 2000, I bow down to Robert for his powerful night cinematography on slow black and white film in shooting ‘The Third Man'.
Conrad Hall, ASC, a master of light for his brilliant photography on “Butch Cassidy“ right through to “Road to Perdition“.
Guy Green, BSC, for his superb black and white photography on David Lean’s “Great Expectations”.
Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, an extraordinary cinematographer with such a unique and exceptional style.
Q) What film would you have loved to work on?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: I desperately wanted to shoot “Mad Max: Fury Road” and I was absolutely thrilled when George and his producer Doug Mitchell asked me to rejoin them for the 4th “Mad Max“ movie…but, here’s the sad story.
I had a long working experience with George, the ‘Mad Max‘ creator and director, not only on those features but also several quality TV series in Australia. Even though George’s initial inspiration for “Fury Road“ came from his long dusty journey across the stunning landscape, endless horizons, and spectacular deserts of Namibia, he wanted to shoot “Fury Road“ in his home country, the country he loved, Australia.
I travelled down under a couple of times to prep the film. The first time to conduct tests on an aussie made 3D camera that was built under George’s close scrutiny, because he definitely wanted to shoot 3D, but the rig had to be much smaller than any of the existing giant 3D rigs because of the ability to capture the performance with close intimate coverage of the lead actors in the especially designed but still quite cramped cabin of the giant hero tanker. The camera had to be so small that it could get a few inches away from the actors, close enough to feel their breath on the lens.
I shot some initial tests with stand-ins in a simulated truck cabin, and then some fast tracking shots in an open field not far from Sydney, enough to take through to the next stage. Transferring and viewing the material at my favorite home away from home ‘E-Film‘ in Hollywood, it seemed that the small cameras, although not 65mm film by a long way, would work well for “Fury Road“.
The next step was back to the blessed outback and some real “Mad Max“ action. The drivers, the stunt men, some flying in the air on swinging poles extending from broad wheeled vehicles...what an absolutely insane collection, engines roaring, adrenaline pumping, just waiting for the word to go.
Now here’s the 3D camera set up. The cameras were indeed fairly small, but needed some protection so a small compressor forced positive pressure inside to keep the dust out. To protect the large front glass / mirror from being damaged by flying stones and dirt, two leaf blowers were added to the rig with a small generator to power them. To prevent the digital cameras from overheating, the genius designers had layered a thin flange around the bodies and injected a constant flow of iced water…problem solved! The tests were like the good old days…wild, fast, close, dangerous, mind-blowing tracking shots…only now in 3D.
A big problem now arose. A massive cyclone had inundated northeastern Australia, flooding towns, and farms. And anything in its path, and in its aftermath, as the waters drained to the south west and into the blessed outback, the former desert was going green. Lake Eyre, a salt lake, now had fish, frogs and pelicans. It was now obvious that the movie could not be made in Australia; so George decided to ship the whole kit and caboodle back to Namibia.
That’s when I had to make the gut wrenching decision. I met with George and sadly gave him my personal family reasons for not wanting to travel to Namibia, and be there for 30 weeks or more. As an old friend he understood. I was worried about a replacement at this late stage, and lo and behold I walk into George’s office the next morning, and there was my old mate John Seale. "I just retired a couple of weeks ago, but I guess here we go again!“ he said with a big smile. I could not have wished for any other DP on the planet to take over from me other than John. His work as a cinematographer has always been outstanding and he truly excelled himself, doing a stunning job on the extremely challenging "Fury Road“. Thanks forever John.
After a relationship spanning over thirty years, saying goodbye to George wasn’t easy, I wished him luck on what would be the most difficult film he had ever undertaken, a film I really wanted to be part of but it wasn’t to be. After a long and emotional hug I flew back to my Los Angeles home, and George and Johnny headed to Africa.
Q) How would you describe the difference in style between your various films?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: I don’t ever claim to have an individual style that identifies my movies; I hopefully shoot them the way that brings the script to movie life. In the 80’s I guess after the two Mad Max films and one of my favorite outback movies “Razorback“, I was the ‘kinetic action and sweeping desert landscape’ cinematographer...fair enough...
“Razorback“ was a story of a giant wild boar that terrorized a small country town. It earned me several awards and also a call from Steven Spielberg, who loved the visuals (he hasn’t called since). It was also the all time favorite ‘cult’ movie for the Hell’s Angels ad’s on “Young Guns 1“ who presented me with a freshly killed pig’s head thanking me for a screening of the movie.
It was a movie with lots of pigs - as was “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome“, once again with a whole town powered by pig’s shit! So all of a sudden I am getting calls from my agent to do commercials with pigs!! But it had to stop right there, I was being pigeon holed as the Australian swine cameraman.
Simon Wincer’s “The Light Horsemen“ a WW1 story involving hundreds of aussie mounted cavalry men fighting in the middle east...once again shot in a stunning outback location in South Australia called “The Flinder's Rangers“, but now the vehicles being replaced with horse and riders, including a sensational and bloody dangerous cavalry charge.
So now Hollywood calls, and in my first few years in America I photograph six westerns. The two "Young Guns“, “Lonesome Dove“, “Dances with Wolves“, “City Slickers“, and “Son of Morning Star“ so I suppose in answer to the question, my style now has very much a western motif. From then on, until today, a very mixed bag of films, each requiring it’s own style. Action films like “Waterworld“ and “Last Action Hero“, “2012“, and I include “Apocalypto“ as well. Dramas such as "The Bone Collector“ and “Dragonfly“, and many comedies from “Get Smart“, “Bruce Almighty“, and quite a few Adam Sandler movies - they all have their own style that is dictated by the screenplay, and of course the director’s vision, which now is often presented using storyboards or a previs that needs to be followed.
Q) What makes an ideal Director for a Cinematographer?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: It depends entirely on the cinematographer; we all have different likes and dislikes. One person could love a director and another think the same person is an absolute arsehole. Personally I prefer a director who appreciates a cinematographer’s creative input, not only technically, you know, lenses, angles, coverage, lighting, camera movement etc., but is happy to and maybe needs to hear fresh story ideas, and take them or leave them. I’m certainly not talking here about rewriting the script, hell no, just small ideas from a fresh mind and a new perspective.
I love travelling to the set each day with the director...a great time to exchange ideas, thoughts, and plan the day’s shoot. On my first film in America “Young Guns“ I would travel with the director, the lighthearted Chris Cain and his dog Skeeter who farted constantly (so Chris said). Any way we would drive the half hour or so to the set in the stunning high deserts of Santa Fe, plan the day’s shoot, and more often than not arrive, not only well prepared, but in great spirits, which immediately rubs off onto the crew. Another major director I travelled with didn’t ever talk of the day’s work; just relax back and read newspapers and magazines. I've done a few films with Randy Wallace, and was invited to travel with him and the exceptional 1st AD Kim Winther, we’d always manage to have a clear shooting plan for the day while we sipped on Randy’s homemade health drink.
On one occasion on a major movie, the director was running late for some reason (probably from the night before), so I took it on myself to set up the first shot which was carefully detailed in the storyboards. The director arrived and asked what I was doing. I showed him the set up and his reply was, “Don’t worry too much about the storyboards they are only a guide.” A few weeks later he arrived late again, I had done nothing at this stage, sort of had a plan but had not triggered it. He was angry and disappointed and asked why nothing was set up saying, “Why do you think I spend so much money on storyboards? Use them.” Hey sometimes you can’t win.
All in all I would be more than happy to work with any of my previous directors.... well almost?
Q) What do you think the role of education is in the life of a Cinematographer?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: I believe it’s very important to firstly understand the “film“ process. Don’t let it seem like a thing of the past because it’s not! It will give the student knowledge of a wonderful medium. Try to get access to a 16mm camera, beg, borrow or steal film stock, knock on Kodak’s door?
The labs will certainly assist in processing, although they are also few and far between today. Shoot some stills. Understand the ’negative‘. Film schools also offer cinematography courses, a great way to learn, although time and cost may be a problem. Go online and check them all out. Shoot digital with your iPhone, or better yet, with a small camera with a zoom or interchangeable lenses. Experiment with light, go to the extremes! I have a great time when shooting digitally, pushing the color, contrast, saturation and exposure to the limit! Do the same. Create your own little films, commercials, music videos, and get them out there! If a movie inspires you photographically, watch it again and again without sound. Study the images to discover how they tell the story. If you have the passion and hunger to be a cinematographer, and preferably some photographic knowledge, try and join a film crew as an intern ...see...we still call it a “film“ crew! Learn from the assistants and operators and DITs, I guarantee that it will be the beginning of a rise up through the ranks of the camera team - a tremendous way to learn.
There are a lot of budding cinematographers out there today, but just remember, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil“.
Q) If you were not a Cinematographer, what would you be?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: At 16 years old I was probably a bit young to know what my career might have been had I not started work in the television station. I loved science and chemistry and did well in those exams. At a close friend’s request I considered the position of a radio announcer. I would loved to have been an enologist, maker of fine wines, there were several high end wineries in the country area where I lived, but instead of studying enology at school, my dear, slightly snobby, older sister insisted I take Latin instead as it would assure me of a more academic position. She was right - I use it constantly to translate the doctor’s prescriptions!
The young members of the Lutheran church (I was very strict) would meet once a week for bible reading and then some form of light entertainment afterwards, games, square dancing (without holding your partner too close of course or you’d be struck by lightning). Quite often we would have intrepid Lutheran missionaries tell their stories of converting the hill’s tribes, the heathens in New Guinea to Christianity, accompanied by many colorful slides more often than not featuring bare breasted native women. Not because of the slides, but I did find the missionary position (sorry) quite appealing, the adventure, the thought of travelling to a far off exotic remote country and spreading god’s word.
It wasn’t to be, although years later I did travel to new guinea with an ethnographic film maker and a French anthropologist to study the tribes, unchanged for centuries, and film their stories and lifestyle for records mainly for universities. And you know what? I couldn’t find a heathen amongst them. Then one day a telegram arrived…“I am pleased to inform you that you have been chosen to take the prop’s boy position at nws9. Please advise a date you could start.” signed Rex Heading…thanks Rex.
Q) What are your creative references?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: My inspiration came from and still comes from anywhere. Cinematographers, photographers, painters, landscapes, skies, the moods of the ocean, the magical changing light in a giant city of glass buildings, or a tiny country town, the light on a face in a million ways… no matter where I am on the planet, everyday there are images that inspire me.
Q) What is your favorite Color? Film Stock? Photograph?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: My favorite color has always been blue. It was my winning team color at Renmark High School in Australia, although I now have drifted from the true blues to more of a turquoise blue, the color of an alluring tropical lagoon.
My favorite film for movies has changed over the years as the new emulsions created by Kodak and Fuji was constantly being upgraded and refined. Most of my first features in Australia were shot on Kodak’s 5254 emulsion. In the last decade or so I have generally favored the higher speed stocks, filtering down for daylight, and always knowing that I can give the 1st AC a pretty good stop or split if needed.
I was in prep on “The Bone Collector“ in Montreal and needed to let the office know which stock I had chosen. Phillip Noyce, the director, preferred the Fuji, and I liked the Kodak. As I drove to the production office a giant shadow passed across the road ahead of me, I looked up to see the Fuji blimp cruising overhead! It was covering a golf tournament. Hey I needed a sign! We shot on Fuji.
Filming in so many different and spectacular locations inspired me to start shooting some still photos. I already owned a couple of medium format cameras, Hasselblad and a Bronica and a Noblex German camera with a revolving lens, shooting 140 degrees on a negative five and a half by two and a quarter inches. I found that after a few rolls of color I was not thrilled with the results and decided to start shooting black and white, and never looked back.
I favored the Kodak tmax negative and then discovered a fabulous infrared stock made by Konica. Boy was it fun or not? So dramatic and unpredictable (like my wife of 48 years). I loved the results so much it became pretty much my only stock. Unlike the legendary master of black and white photography Mr. Ansell Adams, who would sometimes spend weeks or months waiting for the perfect light or clouds, I shot ninety percent of my panoramic hand held on the Noblex. Wherever I was on location, Hawaii, Tahiti, New Mexico or some beautiful European city, I’d head off early Sunday morning just before sun up, and see what there was out there in the first light of day. The negs went straight to my dear friends at West Coast Photo in Hollywood, and I could guarantee that Pam Lord would give me a neg report and send proof sheets within a few days.
I found shooting stills wonderful therapy, the quiet of the early morning, the stunning landscapes, all in all instilling a calming peace before the next week’s controlled chaos. By the way, I would purchase my infrared stock in Sydney and the contact I had there was Monica…so wait for it…I would buy Konica for my Bronica from Monica.
This is my favorite photo “Eden Valley“ where my dad was born in South Australia:
Q) Who are your heroes in life?
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS: Because of the bloody tax incentives and therefore the good old $$$ movies being made in Hollywood are almost non-existent. My heroes in life are the wives of film makers, especially cinematographers I guess, who spend a large part of their year at home while their spouse is working in another city: Boston, Hawaii, New York, or another country, Paris, Morocco, Sydney, London, sometimes exotic maybe, and sometimes not, but generally living in a dammed good hotel or apartment, spending 12 to 14 hours a day or more with a crew of mixed men and women who become family, eating in new restaurants, seeing new sights and discovering new places and peoples on weekend…
While all this time mother is at home bringing up the kids…stopping the fights, feeding them, reading stories at night, taking them to and from school during the week, taking them to ER with a sprain or some other minor ailment, taking care of the toothache, attending school meetings without a husband, driving the kids to their various sports or other activities on weekends…fixing stuff that breaks in the house, dripping taps, blown light bulbs, handling the mail...flat tire on the car, or car won’t start, can’t get through on the phone while he’s working, and so on and so on.
When thinking of my dear wife alone at home, and in order to come to grips with reality, I simply reverse the situation and put myself at home and Annie away somewhere living my life…then I really get the idea.