A Conversation with Shelly Johnson, ASC
QUESTION: Where are you from?
JOHNSON: I grew up and went to school in Pasadena, California. My father started in the mailroom at ABC and eventually worked his way up to directing live news in Los Angeles, where he started doing specials for KABC. He eventually directed network special variety shows, including the Peggy Fleming shows and Perry Como Christmas shows. A lot of them were shot on location around the United States or in Europe. Sometimes I'd help him shoot some of the scenics. A lot of them were shot on film.
QUESTION: Did you grow up thinking about following your father into the television business?
JOHNSON: I grew up thinking that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I was excited by the idea of using light to tell stories. That's all I ever wanted to do was shoot movies.
QUESTION: Did meeting the cinematographers who worked on shows with your father fuel this ambition?
JOHNSON: I came to meet them on my father's shows and also by happenstance. When I was about 13 or 14, Bill Fraker (ASC) shot a film at the house across the street. I didn't know who he was, but I went over to watch the shoot. I remember being very impressed by his sense of humor, his professionalism and how he treated his crew and how they treated him. I've forgotten the name of the movie, but the director didn't look overly experienced. Bill seemed very involved in setting up. With a lot of patience, he guided him in the best way to do things. He was the first real Hollywood cinematographer I saw at work. I got a little glimpse of what making Hollywood movies was like.
QUESTION: Do you remember any other cinematographers from those days?
JOHNSON: We lived in a neighborhood of older homes. One day, people from the production company, Wexler-Hall, came around to get neighbors to sign a form saying it was okay for them to shoot at the house next door. I was home when they knocked on the door so I signed it. I didn't know who Conrad Hall (ASC) or Haskell Wexler (ASC) was, so I asked, 'Who is it going to be, Wexler or Hall?' They said they didn't know, so I made a mental note of the day they would be here. I stood next to a tree fairly close to the camera and watched Conrad Hall work. He started telling me interesting stories about his family and about Tahiti. I got to see what he did with light and how he dealt with certain reflective situations. I remember looking at the area he was shooting, seeing the beautifully soft, controlled light he was creating, and thinking, 'Wow! I want to learn how to do that.'
QUESTION: Were you also a movie fan?
JOHNSON: I grew up watching Hollywood movies. I was not drawn to foreign films. American films were the ones I enjoyed seeing.
QUESTION: Were you involved with photography when you were younger?
JOHNSON: I did a little bit of still photography. It teaches you what you can do with film and how it sees contrast and color. We shot a lot of stills in film school, and it's a great educational tool in getting a cameraman involved with creating images and what you can do to manipulate them.
QUESTION: Where did you go to school?
JOHNSON: Pasadena Art Center College of Design. I'd been exposed to it through a one-day seminar my father taught there once. It was right in the neighborhood, so I came along to watch. I really was taken by the film department, even though it was fairly new and really small. When I went to the film department, I was required to take a class from each of the other majors to give you a well-rounded education. We did charcoal sketches, still photography and things like that. I like the fact that the film classes were taught by working professionals. The most instrumental person for me was a cameraman named Larry Bolens. He was a gaffer who became a cinematographer on commercials. He was proficient in choosing the right light for the right job. He taught us how to really see light and to consider very carefully what is this light supposed to be doing. It was more than just talking about key, fill, backlight. He taught how you can take advantage of the shapes of things and how you can reflect it into the background. Larry's main philosophy was to simplify things down to the lowest common denominator. That's something that I do to this day, even if I'm trying to figure out the best way to light something large. In my head I'll shrink it down to the size of a coffee table, and simply just expand those ideas into something larger. It's a great way of thinking because often less is more.
QUESTION: How did you get started in the industry?
JOHNSON: When I got out of school, I gaffed a bit, assisted a little bit and was shooting industrial films, documentaries, commercials and other small jobs. I shot sales films for medical companies promoting new products and techniques, small dramatic religious films for a company, which distributed them to churches, and some variety shows.
I got a lot of jobs through people I knew in film school. It's very important to make friends because they're the ones who are going to want to bring people they know along when they get a job. We had our own revolving group of guys who all did different jobs depending on who was shooting and who was gaffing.
QUESTION: Did working as a gaffer help you in cinematography?
JOHNSON: I approached that job thinking like a cinematographer. I would bring a new technique or a new type of light to the attention of the cinematographer I was working with, suggesting it as something to help tell the story. I also kept track of what was happening technically and went to dailies. I think I learned more by watching other cinematographers work than anything else. One of the only ways to really learn cinematography is from another cinematographer. That's how I think the knowledge gets passed on. You end up picking up little pearls of wisdom along the way. The most important things I learned by watching other cinematographers at work weren't technical, but how to make the set comfortable for the director and actors, and how to make it a creative environment instead of a technical environment.
QUESTION: How did you make the crossover to bigger jobs?
JOHNSON: I met Allen Daviau (ASC) when I was a student, and asked if he would be interested in seeing a student film that I shot. He agreed. To give it a period look, we used a color flashing method where we double-exposed the film. I think he was impressed with the idea of doing something different and encouraged me to stay in touch with him. Later, Allen had a friend who was doing a feature, and asked if I wanted to interview for it. The project was a film version of the Richard Wright novel Native Son. I interviewed and didn't get it, but it was great taking the script and preparing an approach I could present to the director. When they had two weeks of shooting left, the work visa of the cinematographer they hired expired and he had to leave. They called me in a panic, asking if could finish the film. I guess I was the next guy on the list, plus they had to get someone who was near the phone at that exact moment. The shoot was 10 miles from my house, so I jumped in the car and went over there. They had saved all the best scenes for last, and it was all the stuff I think the other guy was just dying to do. I got to do it, shooting on amazing locations. I got to light a pool hall and a night rooftop chase. It was very expressive stuff, so I had some scenes that I could take with me. I got started doing some lower budget films as a result of Native Son and got more narrative credits.
QUESTION: Any other influencers?
JOHNSON: I would put Gregg Toland (ASC) and James Wong Howe (ASC) on that list. I tell students to look at the movies they shot and see how ahead of their times they were. What is remarkable about them is that they worked during a time when Hollywood filmmaking was very structured, and they succeeded by thinking outside of the box.
QUESTION: You shot maybe 50 or 60 TV movies and have earned three ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations (Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McLure, The Inheritance and The Others). Was that a conscious decision, or did you get categorized as a TV cinematographer?
JOHNSON: It wasn't so much a choice as the path my career took. I think I was fortunate because of the education I got shooting TV films. You get to do so many different things. You could be doing an 1860s period piece one month, a contemporary story the next month and after that a Western. What you learn in TV is how to really trust yourself. If I walk onto a set and have to shoot a page-and-a-half scene in an hour, because of my TV experience, I have the confidence I can put something together that's cohesive and makes sense in the larger picture of the story.
QUESTION: Did you get involved in the telecine process when you were working in TV movies? Do you see that as an extension of cinematography?
JOHNSON: It's definitely a cinematographer's responsibility. There's a great Ansel Adams quote where he says 'The print is an interpretation of the negative.' I think that idea applies when it comes to taking things through the final step in telecine. There's a lot you can do to an image to enhance it and create something new. You have the ability to saturate or desaturate, adjust the contrast very quickly and try different things to discover what works best.
QUESTION: Did the fact you could change things in telecine affect your thinking?
JOHNSON: I never relied on telecine to do something too drastic. I always felt more comfortable creating the look on the set and getting the purest image I could on film, and then enhance it and bring out the nuances in telecine. In terms of getting the best quality image, that's what worked for me. Anytime you can get close to the look you want on the negative, you're going to have a purer representation of the narrative story.
QUESTION: Do you know how you were picked to shoot Jurassic Park III?
JOHNSON: I had stayed away from series television, but decided to go ahead with one for DreamWorks about supernatural events and people with certain psychic gifts. The show was called The Others. We really took it to far extremes where we shot dream sequences underwater and other crazy things. They wanted to extend that same idea to the series, but on a series schedule and budget. It was a mid-season replacement, so we shot twelve episodes. Steven Spielberg approved all the directors coming in, and in many cases they were people to whom he was giving a break.
I feel that TV is not as much a director's medium as it should be, so I wanted to be there to support the director's vision. I encouraged them to come in with a new way of looking at this material and putting a signature on their episode. I devoted a lot of time to talking to them during lunch and decided to really work hard creating something that would show how extreme and expressive television could be. About two weeks after we wrapped, I got a call from Larry Franco, the producer of Jurassic. Steven had recommended that he talk to me about possibly doing the film. I went and talked to Larry and director Joe Johnston. It was a big break for me and a big chance on their part, but I guess after talking to me, they felt I was ready to do a movie like that.
QUESTION: How did you prepare for that?
JOHNSON: I had a lot of prep on that, which was good. I spoke to Janusz (Kaminski, ASC, who shot The Lost World) fairly early in prep because I was concerned with things like the skin and textures of the dinosaurs. Janusz said, 'Shelly, don't even think about that. Those guys are going to give you everything you could possibly want. The dinosaurs are going to be great, the effects are going to be great. Here's what you need to focus on: Your job is to give them a world where they can exist.' It was a short conversation, but those words rang true. That changed how I thought about the movie from that point, and that's when I decided it's not about technical priorities. Even though we were surrounded by seemingly insurmountable technical challenges, we always needed to find creative solutions.
QUESTION: With the integration of visual effects into more movies, is the collaborative process changing?
JOHNSON: Definitely, but I think the technical aspect of it has grown simpler in a way. Jim Mitchell, the special effects supervisor on Jurassic, thought a lot about the story. A big thing for Joe (Johnston) and him was recording the scale of the dinosaurs versus the people. We talked about that a lot during prep because it was important to show they are dealing with a dinosaur far bigger than they ever had imagined. He thought we could do that by keeping the camera involved without the photography being too perfect. Joe wanted to convey the idea that the action was happening so fast and so hard that the camera was barely able to record it. The goal is to enhance the story without overpowering it. We told the people doing the effects work the intent behind the photography, what we were thinking when we lit it this way, so anything they did would be building on that foundation. I felt the effects people had a very clear understanding of what the visuals represented in that movie and their effects integrated seamlessly because of that. They were contributing to the telling of the story as well as dazzling audiences.
QUESTION: How did you use lighting to tell a story?
JOHNSON: In every movie, the cinematography evolves with the story. If everything is shot under natural light that evolution will happen only if it is occurring on the set. If it's not and you're just capturing the image to capture it -- it's more difficult to tell the story visually and let the cinematography grow with it because there's no expressive lighting.
QUESTION: Is new technology impacting the cinematographer's role?
JOHNSON: I think that the role of the cinematographer is still an essential one in the process of moviemaking, no matter how the image gets captured. A good cinematographer thinks like an actor and approaches a scene in the same way. I'll think about it and work on it weeks ahead of time and devise a plan just like an actor would. My script is marked up because I will see little things all the time as I am reading a script. A cinematographer needs to think about how each scene fits into the larger picture. There are a lot of neat looking things you can do, but that treatment may not be best for telling the story. Often times a simpler approach that's less obvious or visible is better. It's the same with acting and how a director has the characters relating to each other. It's very tempting to let an individual scene govern where it's going to go instead of the script governing where the scene is going.
QUESTION: Why do you think people have such a hard time understanding what cinematographers do?
JOHNSON: Steve Burum (ASC) called it, "The Transparent Art," which is true because we work behind the scenes. So much of what we do is based on story, what the director wants and what the actors are doing. Although cinematography is a large element in the telling of the story, it's not something that is necessarily in the forefront. It's more something people respond to without even knowing they are responding. In a way that's the best compliment a cinematographer can get because it means he's affecting an audience without overpowering the story. So, the fact that good cinematography is sometimes overlooked is in a way a side effect to having good cinematography.
QUESTION: Where do you think the industry is headed?
JOHNSON: I think it's definitely in a period of transition, and I think the most important thing that a cinematographer can do at this time is to become familiar with what is out there, what the new techniques are and how those techniques can be utilized to effectively tell the story. It's not unusual for cinematographers to deal with something new. It's happening constantly and always has, that's why camera people can never stop learning. There's always something new on the horizon.