Welcome to the inaugural “Art of the Shot” interview series. It seems fitting to me the leadoff hitter for these articles will feature none other than American Society of Cinematographers former President Richard Crudo, ASC. Now, I am going to be straight with you. In this series, we will not talk about one single shot from one single movie only. I plan for this series to be broader. To answer some of our most personal questions about cinematography. Yes, we will dive into the tech and the gear but we will not exclusively focus on the inanimate. More importantly, we will focus our attention on the artist and craftsmen who help create some of the most beautiful movies made.
So far, the interviews for this series have gone on for some length. Many times we talk for quite awhile with topics ranging from just about everything cinematography to the somewhat personal. To give focus, I have edited down the raw to make something a little bit more cohesive and enjoyable. Think of it this way; I cut out all the boring parts. At least I hope I have.
Richard Crudo, ASC has been the President of the American Society of Cinematographers from 2003-2006, 2013-2016. If you subscribe to American Cinematographer magazine you may have read Crudo’s articles, and other Presidents of the ASC, called “President’s Desk.” If not, you have likely seen his work as a cinematographer. Crudo shot “American Pie,” “American Buffalo,” “Outside Providence,” and “Brooklyn Rules” to name a few. Since Crudo is the former President of the American I started with what it means to have the title of “cinematographer.”
CRUDO: Having the title ‘cinematographer’ nowadays really depends on what your definition of ‘cinematographer’ is. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Chivo, Bob Richardson, Roger Deakins, Vittorio Storaro and maybe a few others…then it sort of goes down the scale. But too often now you’ve got people just coming out of film school who know essentially nothing and they’re billing themselves as cinematographers! Some of them are very talented – and I know this because I’ve seen the work. However, there’s a great deal more to being a cinematographer than knowing a lot of technology, which there’s too much emphasis upon today. And this current obsession with drones…I can’t think of anything more boring in the universe than a drone. It’s just another dolly… another platform to mount a camera on and move the camera with. There are instances where it’s a great tool to have and there other instances where it’s an utterly ridiculous appendage. And this business of everyone flipping out every time a new camera appears is really a load of nonsense, too. Obviously you have to have a death grip on the technology in order to work as a cinematographer at a refined level. But we should never forget that technology is just a tool. It should be no more significant to us than a hammer is to a carpenter. It’s just a means to an end and it’s how you use it and why you use it in a certain way that’s important.
HALLETT: What would you rather see this younger generation focus on instead of the tech, instead of the cameras, instead of the drones?
CRUDO: Young people should start thinking more of why they’re doing things when they go out to shoot. They should be trying to push the art form in terms of taste and personal expression. Who cares what camera you use? The audience certainly doesn’t. If you’ve achieved the right effect, it doesn’t matter if you shot through the bottom of a Coke bottle and printed on a doormat. It’s no more important to be pixel obsessed today than it was to be able to quote the chemical composition of the Eastman negative during the film era. It’s just a distraction that takes us off the important issues. Let’s see people start using some of these wonderful new tools to influence the art form in new ways. Now that would be exciting!
HALLETT: Say someone is 32, they’ve shot some music videos, they’ve shot some commercials, they’re working their way up. What do they need to do now?
CRUDO: They need to continue. Just keep working. Shoot everything you can in every way, shape or form you can. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and expand your network of connections. Let’s be honest…a great deal of what we do comes down to who you know. No matter how talented you might be as a cinematographer, if no one is willing to hire you you’re dead in the water. If you want to move up, you’ve got to develop and improve your reel, nurture your contacts and hope they can be as successful as they can – and then bring you along with them. It’s that simple…but it’s not easy.
HALLETT: What do you say to someone who’s in the smaller market Philly, Austin? How do they get the contacts needed to keep moving forward?
CRUDO: Move to New York or Los Angeles…or Atlanta, nowadays.
HALLETT: You think that’s one of the big things that, if someone wants to shoot features, that they need to do?
CRUDO: What unknown up-and-comer gets hired out of a remote market to do a studio production or significant independent feature? No one! I mean, it may happen once in a blue moon through some freak of nature, but if you’re going to rely on extremely rare luck, you’re going to be very disappointed. The truth is, you have to go where the action is. If you have any aspirations towards doing, what we used to term ‘major motion pictures’ or television productions, I’d say get yourself to one of the production hubs as soon as possible.
HALLETT: As a president of the ASC, how do you reach out to these kids? Most of them get the magazine.
CRUDO: The ASC is a tremendous educational resource because education is a big part of our mission. Members are always out all over the country, well, the world in fact…teaching and lecturing. Our crown jewel is the ASC Master Class, which is held four to five times a year, now. It’s been a huge hit with people who have taken it., though it’s not meant for beginners, really. It’s more for people who are a little bit along in their career and are looking for a leg up on their way to the next level.
HALLETT: What is the basic knowledge someone would need to go to that class?
CRUDO: If you’ve been through film school and\or have been out working for a couple of years in the industry, you’d be fine.
HALLETT: You guys are the top of the tier. When you see some of these internet schools pop up where someone has been shooting for five years, what crosses your mind?
CRUDO: Let the buyer beware. If someone’s very green or it’s early in their career, almost any knowledge is going to be of some use to them. But the individual really has to think things through. Who’s giving the instruction? Commonly today, people get out of film school and a year later they’re teaching. I find that disingenuous at the least and downright dishonest at the worst. I mean, what is a person a year out of school qualified to teach in any topic under the sun? Though they might know a little about the technology, they know nothing of life, of reality. Nothing beats working in the real world – it’s the best educator there is. To presume differently is to deceive oneself. For somebody just starting out and perhaps looking for some base of knowledge, there might be some value there for them in some of these web courses. But I’d rather stick with the tried and true sources of knowledge.
HALLETT: What are you working on now, what do you have coming up,
CRUDO: I was recently about to start prepping a feature in Jackson, Mississippi but it has been pushed to a January start. It’s called Through My Daughter’s Eyes and was written and will be directed by a very interesting guy named Dallas Burgess. He was a soldier in Iraq and wrote a story about the homecoming side of the war. It’s a terrific piece of material…truly one of the best scripts I’ve seen in a very long time. And I count myself fortunate that it’s come my way.
HALLETT: When does it start shooting?
CRUDO: As it stands now, right after the first of the year. Probably a five or six week shooting schedule. Until then I’ll keep myself busy with a couple of other projects that have come into my orbit.
HALLETT: When you get a script like this what do you look for? Do you have to be jazzed by it or are you just looking for something interesting?
CRUDO: It’s always good to be jazzed! If it’s a good story, you jump on it as soon as you can because there aren’t a lot of them out there. No, I shouldn’t say that. Actually, there are a lot of good stories out there but not many of them get made. This one just happened to fall into my lap. I wasn’t going to let it pass, believe me.
HALLETT: How do you balance leaving for long periods to work with a family life?
CRUDO: Certainly, you need an understanding family unit, spouse, girlfriend\ boyfriend, whatever. Most anybody that does this for any length of time can tell some horror stories, I’m sure. But you have to make allowances. By nature, I don’t think this business is destructive to relationships or families. It can be a little testing from time to time, but what occupation isn’t? Overall it’s a great life.
HALLETT: How long have you been a cinematographer?
CRUDO: In my mind, I’ve been a cinematographer since the beginning. In a way that I would actually make mention of in public, I’d say 1991. And, mind you, my first day on a movie set was in November of 1978! I was an assistant cameraman for a good 12 years. After that, I was a camera operator very briefly and then I got a chance to shoot and it stuck. I worked very, very hard to get to that point…and I was also very fortunate.
HALLETT: That’s a long time.
CRUDO: Yeah…and I’m still young!
HALLETT: If you could look back on it, what’s the sweetest moment you could say?
CRUDO: Oh, God… There have been so many great moments that I couldn’t possibly pick just one. Maybe the afternoon I received my letter of invitation to the ASC in 1999… But then there have been so many times on the job when I’d take my eye off the viewfinder while setting up a shot and say to my assistant, “Aren’t we the luckiest guys in the world?” Another sweet moment that sticks in my mind was the opening night of American Pie in 1999. The producers rented a party van to take the directors, some of the actors and a few of the principal crew members around to different theaters where the movie was playing. We’d then go in and stand in the back for awhile, just long enough to gauge the audience reaction. Every theater had a full house and every audience laughed their heads off. We knew then the movie was going to be a huge hit. It was so gratifying to stand there and soak up the moment and feel that we were party to something so successful and that so many people were going to like.
HALLETT: Do you have the reverse of that? Do have a moment where you’re like, “What did I get myself into?”
CRUDO: There’s a movie I shot in 1997 called Music From Another Room. It was the sweetest little film! Great story, great actors…so much going for it. The director – Charlie Peters – and I had big hopes for it and it just wasn’t handled properly in its release. Such a disappointment! I had dinner with him just recently and you know, its almost 20 years later – and it still hurts.
HALLETT: I can’t imagine.
CRUDO: You have no power over it. That sort of thing is completely outside your control. You do the best you can while you’re shooting it, then you have to set it free. Hopefully, the world treats your baby well.
HALLETT: You know that in a situation like that, your attitude gets you through it.
CRUDO: You always have to have a good attitude. This’s not a pursuit for the feint of heart. It’s a tough life in a lot of ways, so you’ve got to be strong and continue to have faith in what you’re doing. At the end of the day, being a cinematographer is just a job – a really good job and it’s fun and enjoyable, but it is a job. If somebody is paying you to do it, whatever it is, you have a responsibility to do the best you can. Don’t show up with a bad attitude and don’t be a jerk. Have some enthusiasm, be an agreeable person, have some humor, be decent and get after it, you know?
HALLETT: I’m going to round it back to the younger generation. Who succeeds at being a cinematographer?
CRUDO: Somebody who is really, really, really, really passionate about it – and who sticks to it. It’s no more complicated than that. The ASC has about 350 members. Every single one of us has come to that honor by a different road. Everybody has a different story; they’ve done different things and have come from different backgrounds. However, the one thing we all have in common is an overriding, all-encompassing passion for what we do. That’s in common for us all. Never give up. Never… And everybody needs a little luck. You have to get some breaks. No kidding, that has to happen for everybody. You’ve got to be tenacious and you’ve got to have the passion for it. If you do have that – trust me – you’ll find your way! Run your own race…one foot in front of the other.
HALLETT: Who fails?
CRUDO: People who’re not genuinely committed to it. People who don’t really have the fire in their belly for it. I wouldn’t really know beyond that. I would think that having that much is the minimum requirement. And all I know about myself is that they would’ve had to kill me to prevent me from becoming a cinematographer.
HALLETT: How many more years are you going to do this? When are you going to retire?
CRUDO: Have you lost your mind? I will never retire. First off, I have many, many years of good work left to do, so why would I choose to stop? I’m probably in better physical condition than anyone else in the industry and I still have tremendous passion and energy for the work. Plainly, one day it’s going to come to a stop – all of it – but until then I’ll act as if it won’t.
HALLETT: I don’t know why anyone would want to retire from shooting.
CRUDO: Then why the hell did you ask me such a ridiculous question?
HALLETT: When you see an assistant that has top tier enthusiasm, do you try to help them out?
CRUDO: I’ll help anybody who’s sincere in their desire. I get approached all the time by students and young people – especially through the ASC, sometimes by fellow crewmembers on set – and I always try to be helpful to them, even if only in some small way. All anyone has to do is ask. If they’re really committed, there’s very little I wouldn’t do to help them along their path.
HALLETT: After this movie, what do you have coming up?
CRUDO: I’ve got a very ambitious schedule playing out before me and well into 2017. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to a quick change to accommodate something more ambitious or interesting. No one should ever be afraid to get in touch!
HALLETT: What do you look for in a project that makes you pick up the phone and go, I’m there?
CRUDO: Somebody asks! They’ll call and say ‘would you like to do this?’ ‘Are you free?’ ‘Are you interested?’ Then you say, ‘Yes, let’s hear about it!’ That’s how it begins. I’m very open minded. As long as something has a dignity about it and isn’t insulting or contradicting to my beliefs, I’m pretty much open to any filmmaking adventure.
HALLETT: Do you have a favorite genre?
CRUDO: I find everything interesting. I’d like to do a Western – that would be fun!
HALLETT: I’m going to ask this question, and I know everyone asks this question. My wife, who is a photographer, hates this question but I have to ask. When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
CRUDO: I stumbled into it. In college I had a professor who was a commercial director/producer in New York. He came in one day and said ‘I have a job coming up and I need some bodies to help move some stuff around the set. Who wants to make $75 for the day?’ I stuck my hand up and couple of days later I reported to a stage in Manhattan. And right there in front of me was a Mitchell camera sitting on the dolly. I said to myself, ‘Wow that’s really interesting.’ I had dabbled in photography as a kid but it never occurred to me you could do it as a living. It just wasn’t part of my reality growing up. I soon hooked up with the camera crew and started working as their PA. It was a little serendipitous, I guess. I was lucky. At the time, I really didn’t know what I was going to do after college. I was thinking about joining the Navy. I really didn’t have any solid plan until I fell into this and found that it suited me perfectly.
HALLETT: What did your family think? Were they behind you?
CRUDO: They were very supportive. They thought I was crazy, but they were very supportive
HALLETT: Do they still think you’re crazy?
CRUDO: Probably… I still think they really don’t know what I do.
HALLETT: What do they think you do?
CRUDO: Something in movies. Something with cameras in movies. But in terms of what a cinematographer does? I’m sure they have no idea. And that’s OK. Cinematography has been very, very good to me!
If you want to hear more from Richard Crudo, ASC then check out Sight, Sound, & Story. Manhattan Edit Workshop’s speaker series continues with a night devoted to the art of cinematography. They dive into the craft of visual storytelling from masters behind the lens. Joining Crudo, ASC will be Eric Alan Edwards (My Own Private Idaho), Academy-Award nominated and world-renown Director and Director of Photography Ellen Kuras, ASC, and Eric Lin (My Blind Brother).
**** An old version of this article wrongly honored Richard Crudo, ASC as the current President of the American Society of Cinematographers. It was my mistake and I have corrected the mistake as soon I saw it. No disrespect to Richard Crudo, ASC or the current ASC President, Kees Van Oostrum, ASC ****