Monday, October 6, 2008

Conrad L. Hall - cinematography genius

Sunday, October 5, 2008
10:15:46 PM CDT
Feeling Thoughtful
Hearing Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Conrad L. Hall - cinematography genius

Ridley Scott once said, “The landscape and proscenium is a character that plays a part in telling the story.” Conrad Hall is one of the few gifted cinematographers that possessed the ability to make the set come alive and compliment the actors with his eye for monochromatic color and lighting technique.

Born 1926 in Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, to writer James Norman Hall, co-author of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, and a Tahiti/Polynesian woman, Hall quickly took to following in his father’s footsteps by studying journalism at USC in 1947. Finding that his grades didn’t meet his expectations, he stumbled onto a Cinema class where he studied under Slavko Vorkapich, a Yugoslavian writer who had immigrated to Hollywood in 1922. Vorkapich was a master of visual montages and favored pure visual expression – telling of a story though scenery as to involve the viewer into the story. These were lessons that Hall took to heart and carried with him throughout his career.

Upon graduation in 1949, Hall and two fellow classmates – Marvin Weinstein and Jack Couffer, collaborated to form and independent production company titled, Canyon Films. The problem with this relationship was that each member wantedto wear the director’s hat, and directing as a committee wasn’t an option. Therefore, in an effort of fairness, they wrote “producer, director, and cinematographer” onto three slips of paper that were placed in a hat and left for chance. This luck of the draw sealed Hall’s fate and gave the world a visionary master.

Halls early works in television and films were shot in black and white, inflicting him with a deep passion for black and white filmmaking because, “It gives your imagination more of a sense to go out and figure it out. You don’t get the ocean painted blue; you get it painted with words.” It is this love that inspires his cinematographic style – monochromatic scenery that compliments the actors in their task of telling a story. An example of this process can be seen in his work on The Wild Seed (1965). The viewer is drawn to follow the camera’s eye as Hall pans it from the character reading a letter to another listening intently, giving the audience the indication that the feelings between the two character’s are changing. It was ultimately his work in the black and white medium that invoked his confidence in his cinema photographic abilities, and continually encouraged him to push the envelope of normalcy throughout his career.

Hall developed a reputation of being a risk-taker early in his career, leaving directors to wonder, as George Roy Hill once did, if Hall was the optimal choice in cameramen talent available. “I worried about the producer’s decision to hire some hippie from Tahiti to film a western,” Hill confesses in his commentary on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Of Hall’s work to this point, this particular piece really provided him the opportunity to shine. Director Hill was stricken in the middle of this shooting with a back spasm condition that left him incapacitated. Not wanting to get pulled off of the production, he swore the secrecy of the cast and crew and continued to give direction from a gurney fashioned by the stunt crew. This disability forced the director to trust in Hall’s vision, and he proved his trustworthiness by eventually taking home his first Oscar in 1970 for Best Cinematography.

An astute viewer will quickly be able to point out Hall’s talent contribution in this piece; within the dimness of a small farmhouse a beautiful woman begins to undress for bedtime. Quickly she discovers an intruder in her room. The intruder cocks and points his gun towards her urging her to finish undressing. Notice the lighting to the left of the camera casting a light onto the actor making her look angelic, the shadow of her profile spills upon the adjacent wall. The intruder is shot close-up so the audience can view the look of pleasure in his eyes as he prods her to continue undressing. “Let down your hair,” instructs the intruder. You begin to notice a subtle change of lighting from the actor’s left as the camera closes in on her performing the task - appearing a little less angelic and becoming seductive, as it brings out the brown highlights of her hair. Still the intruder directs her to continue, and although her hair casts shadow over her eyes, you see just a slight twinkle, and your eye is drawn to her luscious lips. As the camera pans down you see her gingerly untying and unbuttoning the last of her modesty, but never once does the camera show you her personal flesh – this Hall leaves to your imagination, as well as a sense of wondering if the character is deriving a little too much pleasure from the violation. When you study the scenes Hall captured in this moment, you begin to develop a love affair with the actor, as Hall did, and realize that those feelings are invoked out of the true love Hall had for this actor whom he eventually married. A love affair with key cast members continued to follow him throughout his career.

It is often assumed in the business that sooner or later any good cinematographer will attempt their hand at directing. Hall wore this hat for several years while directing commercials, but never derived the pleasure or success he received from his cinematography work, so he returned to his spot behind the camera for The Black Widow (1987). With the target of his career goals directly in sight, Hall turned his attention towards the mastery of his craft, and began to turn his focus from monochromatic color to props and lighting to help convey the feeling of a story; an example of this technique can be seen in his work on A Civil Action.

As the movie opens, you hear the main character, Jan Schlichtmann, monolog on what dictates a great lawsuit candidate. You begin to take notice of the character pushing an injured man throughout the halls of justice. The lighting, florescent by most office standards, casts a bright shine to the marble walls and ceramic floors that envelope the hall and create a cold professional like setting. You pick up visions of bystanders stopping to take notice of these characters walking throughout this sterile environment and into a courtroom, where eventually Schlichtmann begins to dote over the injured subject in an attempt to sway the feelings of the court. These visions and dialog teach the audience that Schlichtmann is a man who is self-absorbed with a passion for the finer things in life. As the scene shifts to a local bar where Schlichtmann and his associates are celebrating their victory, the camera spans across a deep blue lake that later the viewer comes to understand, represents the main character of the story – polluted water. Back in the city, where our self-absorbed character is found performing a little public relations work at a local radio station, you witness visions of flash-backs occurring throughout this task, and you see the character enjoying life to its fullest moment; dancing with beautiful ladies, an elaborate menswear store with an extensive collection to be had at will - beautifully lit to accentuate the pleasure the character derives in his material goods, and a gleam in his eyes as he takes pleasure in his “most eligible bachelor” status. These visual cues that Hall uses to introduce the personality of the character are a vital element in telling this story. As the drama unfolds, you witness Schlichtmann systematically loose all he had attained in an attempt to win the lawsuit. Hall gives special attention to these sacrifices in the scene where Schlichtmann and his associates sit in a now empty office. Rain is pouring outside and Hall catches it with lighting that produces shadows of “tears” against the back wall. “Nobody calls anymore,” Schlichtmann states, “not even the creditors.” Hall emphasizes the disparity of these characters as they argue about a settlement. Thunder takes out the lights, and the actors are left in the dark with nothing but the shadow of tears illuminating their presence. This is a technique Hall eventually became famous for.

When you begin to study the magic of cinematography, you begin to wonder if the images seen on-screen are the visions of the director or of the cinematographer. Certainly, if you invest some time to learn about the movies you watch, you began to hear commentaries from directors, all too quick to take credit for a visual effect. Although it is true that there is a fine line between the role of director and cinematographer, it is the director that comes into the project with a vision of how he wants to tell the story. It is the cinematographer’s job to fulfill that vision – but it is also his job to enrich this vision as well. It is a marriage between the two, and once chemistry is formed between director and cinematographer, you often find them seeking each other out in order to collaborate on future projects.

Hall was introduced to director Sam Mendes on the set of American Beauty, and it was later in the video HBO First Look: The Making of ‘Road to Perdition’ that he professed, “I had a love affair with Sam in Beauty. He’s such a great director. When he was going to do another film, I said ‘I’m with you’.” This love affair was reciprocated by Mendes who acquired a great respect for Hall after working with him on his film directorial debut. “The fact that I ended up working with a 74 year old hippie from Tahiti, who had shot Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…I kind of relished everyday that I had with him because I think he’s a master. I think that cinematographers like that come along two or three a generation,” Mendes gushed. The marriage worked and it was magical.

Mendes has developed a reputation as a director who doesn’t need complete control. He does have a strong hand on how he sees things, but allows the cast and crew the flexibility to spread their wings of creativity. This is just the nurturing relationship that Hall needed to further develop his mastery and his efforts can be seen in his final work on Road to Perdition. Hall’s final masterpiece encompassed every element of visual mastery he had developed – monochromatic detail, lighting that reflects upon the rain outside mirroring images of “tears” on the scene, additional footage bringing focus to props that help tell the story, and seductive shots of key players that encourage the audience to develop feelings for the characters.

In the scene titled “Two Fathers, Two Sons,” shortly after the elder Sullivan has thwarted an assassination attempt placed on his head by Connor, Sullivan realizes that there is a hit placed on his eldest son. Quickly he rushes to his home and bursts through his front door to find his eldest son, sitting at the table in shock. The camera slowly pans into Sullivan, breathing heavily from his hurried excursion, looking at his son in despair. Hall has placed focus lighting slightly to the lower right of the actor so that it accents the shadows of the frown on the actor’s face. This lighting technique draws emphasis to the moment of fear this character experiences. Killing is his job, but now he stands as a victim of his profession. Lighting disguised as moonlight plays an integral role in telling this pivotal moment in the story. Sullivan looks up toward the staircase and back onto his son. The emotions portrayed on the actors face indicate that Sullivan knows what he will find atop the staircase, yet he rushes toward it with a glimmer of hope. Rather than have the camera follow Sullivan to the bathroom where he will find his youngest son and wife dead by assassination, Hall pans into a close-up of the eldest son, sitting calmly at the dining room table, as he listens to the screams of terror that erupt from his father’s lips.

This piece was the fourth and final time that Hall met up with actor Paul Newman. Newman, a legend in his own rights, was notoriously known for his deep blue eyes. In Cool Hand Luke, he was instructed by the producers to make sure he emphasized on Newman’s eyes in an effort to swoon his fans. Hall took these directions to heart, and continued to obtain shots of those trademark blues whenever the two were linked in a joint venture.

In the scene titled, “natural law”, Sullivan and Rooney sit alone in an Irish Pub discussing Sullivan’s oldest son who has just witnessed his father perform a hit for his surrogate grandfather. “If it wasn’t this, it’d have been something else. You can’t protect them forever,” states Newman as Rooney. Notice how Hall’s love affair and previous experience with Newman play a role in this scene. Hall pulls the camera slightly over Sullivan’s shoulders allowing the focus lighting to catch the blue color of Newman’s eyes. It is within this moment of cinematic magic that you realize that this character, which once appeared as a gentle soul, possesses the capacity to kill one of his own in order to maintain control. Of the many images Hall has managed to capture in his career, this one moment brings tears to your eyes when you realize that the loss of this great actor and cinematographer brought a little more darkness to Hollywood Boulevard.

Looking back upon Hall’s cinematography career, one can’t help but feel slightly nostalgic when remembering his work that spanned nearly half a century. This “hippie from Tahiti” earned the respect of Hollywood by taking chances and pushing us further outside our zones of comfort in our expectations of visual storytelling. He left us with his imagination and gifted ability to compliment a story with lighting and visual camera effects that will forever be studied and challenged by student cinematographers and enjoyed by audiences around the world.

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