PANAVISION HOSTS CINEMATOGRAPHER'S CHOICE SCREENING
By Suzanne Lezotte
On Wednesday, April 13, Panavision revived the Cinematographer’s Choice Screening Series with Stephen Burum, ASC and the 1943 print of “Five Graves to Cairo,” directed by Billy Wilder and shot by John Seitz, ASC.
The Cinematographer’s Choice Screening Series is an educational series designed to allow the featured cinematographer to choose either a film from his/her body of work, or a film that inspired him/her to become a cinematographer. Stephen did not hesitate to decide on “Five Graves to Cairo” because “this is my first time seeing it on a big screen,” he acknowledged. He was introduced to the film after he had finished shooting two pictures with Francis Ford Coppola. “We were in Oklahoma, and had just finished shooting ‘Rumble Fish,’ with a lot of night scenes,” he explained. “I couldn’t sleep, so I would watch late-night movies on Channel 5 and one of them was ‘Five Graves to Cairo,’ shot in black and white. After seeing it, I wasn’t so sure I liked what I had done on ‘Rumble Fish,’ which we shot in black and white. I could have stolen so many ideas.”
After, the audience -- which consisted of Panavision employees, cinematographers including John Bailey, ASC, and Owen Roizman, ASC, and students from both USC and UCLA --screened the film, Stephen asked for the second reel to be shown without audio.
Then things got interesting. He walked the audience through each scene, pointing out key lights and fill lights, and at one point, noting that there was a tiny reflection in the star’s earring. “Did you see that?” he asked the audience. He pointed out shadows that John Seitz had created on both the actress’s neck, then on the wall. He noted that the DP did a lot of work with gobos and cukalorises, adding projected light on the walls. In one scene, when the General is seated at the table playing cards with three of his comrades, Stephen pointed out how everyone at that table was individually lit, including a lot of diffusion on one particular character.
Noting that the scenes in movies shot in the ‘40s typically were much longer compared to today’s scenes, which are cut so short, he pointed out what a tough situation it can be when a character is up against a wall, to light that character and continue throughout the scene. In one particular scene, the actors are in a small room with one practical light, that is then swung over into another portion of the room, allowing it to go so dark, “it blows me away every time.”
After working through the second reel, Stephen took some questions. John Bailey was eager to ask about the eyelines throughout the film: “They are sufficiently far in, despite the emotion of the scene, any thoughts?” Stephen explained that when he worked with Brian DePalma, they typically had two types of eyelines: the subjective, look-right-in-the-camera kind, or the objective eyeline where the storyteller is asking the audience to see the whole story. “With older pictures, they are storytellers, they have a theatrical taste for telling the story, and they wanted you to see the whole picture,” explained Stephen.
Stephen also addressed another question John had about the reduction of vocabulary in films with the advent of television. “What they tried to do back then for a head and shoulders close-up was to gauge everything so that you were at a very real distance when they filmed it. A standard close-up in those days was head and shoulders. Most of the shots were a medium shot, which was from the knees up.” He agreed that today’s standards for CU and medium shot are different.
As for shooting black and white versus color, Stephen explained that “I was trained in the late 50s, early 60s, and they were still doing a lot of black and white, so just by doing it, you learned how. It’s the way you learn to think: you have to find a good contrast.” Owen Roizman added, “I always shot color as if I was shooting black and white, and shooting black and white is a lot harder.”
As for advice to the students, Stephen talked a little about working with actors. He noted that the better the actors are, the easier they are to work with. “I only required two things from the actors: hit your mark and be polite.” An audience member asked, “Did you have to tell Al Pacino on ‘Carlito’s Way?’” Stephen smiled when he replied, “I called him Gentleman Al.”
John Bailey, noting that times have changed, said, “Al Pacino came out of the Actors Studio, so he had a lot of discipline. Young DPs are in a terrible position today, and I have empathy for you. My generation still worked under the aura of when we had a pre-eminence on set.” His advice? “Be friendly, be professional, be a little distant, and they are more inclined to come to you for advice.”
When the questions from the students turned to directing, Stephen noted that “Anybody who’s going to direct should take acting. Acting is really about analysis, and the analysis is the most important. Then you can apply the techniques.” Owen Roizman added that “you also need to learn editing.” Stephen agreed. “It’s the same with any business; you have to understand everybody’s job. Your job is to know a lot more about everyone else’s job. You have to help solve the problem. There is an old studio saying: shut up and shoot.” To which Owen replied, “You have to master your craft.”
As the evening wound down, Stephen explained that “this film is a terrific example of a film that was written carefully, executed carefully and we still get to enjoy it today.”
(Left to right)
Owen Roizman ASC, John Bailey ASC, Stephen Burum ASC, Phil Radin