"You put a crew together and this is going to be the closest relationship short of marriage that you're going to have..." -Ackerman
BEHIND THE LENS OF A CINEMATOGRAPHER: An Interview with Thomas Ackerman ASC
MOVIEWEB™ recently had an opportunity to speak to renowned cinematographer Thomas Ackerman while he was busy at work in Vancouver on Are We There Yet?, a comedy about a fledgling romance starring Ice Cube, Nia Long and Jay Mohr. Ackerman proved to be highly articulate, mainly because as a Director of Photography (DOP), he needs to be. Every person on a team has to know exactly what needs to be done in order to carry out the vision for the film. When there is such a great amount of money, as well as personal safety risks (in some cases) involved, there is no room for misunderstandings.
Ackerman grew up in the state of Iowa, which was not known in the 50s/60s as a stature for film production. Nevertheless, he was intrigued with films from as early as he could remember. "I loved movies," says Ackerman, "My life was a bit like 'Cinema Paradiso' in that I would hang out with my dad [who was a projectionist] watching movies. I'd see virtually any movie that came to town." Because he was exposed to his father's work early on, Ackerman also felt connected to the actual process of filmmaking. "I knew that those pictures were not magic, but that they were images stored on reels of film in huge cans, loaded up into the projector. There was an actual technology involved in getting those images up there on the screen to project it out for the audience."
When it came time for college, Ackerman took as many film courses as possible. There wasn't much choice back then, but enough to seduce him into the enthralling world of film. Unexpectedly, his fate was sealed when the Vietnam War broke out. The Air Force was supposed to be completely impartial and unbiased to wishes of officers when it came to making assignments for incoming officers, but somehow letters that Ackerman wrote expressing interest in the Motion Picture Officer role made their way to the right person and he was assigned to that position. It was just the lucky break that he needed. During the Vietnam War, Ackerman spent his time making documentaries and training films. It was both a source of adventure and education.
After his tenure in the Air Force, Ackerman managed to strike gold again. As fortune would have it, his first job as a civilian was working for the late Academy Award Winning political documentarian Charles Guggenheim in Washington DC. There he started off as an assistant production manager and worked in all areas of film. He wrote, shot and edited.
Ultimately, however, he was lured away into the world of feature film. There he had a much greater degree of control over the film. In documentaries you could only do a certain amount of lighting, or mapping out of locations. "Everything is almost completely uncharted," says Ackerman, "If the walls are all wrong and it is too dark, yet this is where the magic moment happens, then this is where you'd set up the shot." Frustrated with the inability to control such visual aspects of the production, Ackerman was ready to try his hand in feature film. With feature film he was finally able to fully realize his vision with shots that were meticulously designed and lighted. "I wanted to do the best work that could be done and, ultimately, that meant working on scripted films."
Ackerman made a conscious choice to pursue specifically the role of cinematographer in films. To him it appeared as the role in which he can make his greatest contribution. "I had a love of pictures since I was a little kid. Not just towards photographs, but also paintings, visual arts and a lifelong fascination with theatre and movies in general. I seized on photography as way to combine my passion for these things," he explains, "Ultimately the path led to my becoming a cinematographer. Fortunately, I also had some aptitude. When you're good at something it tends to reinforce itself." And reinforce itself it did. Ackerman went on to serve as DOP on a number of critically acclaimed and highly successful films such as Beetle Juice, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Jumanji, George of the Jungle, Rat Race and the recently released Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy with Will Ferrell, as well as the Project Greenlight film, Battle of Shaker Heights.
Katherine Brodsky: Have you ever regretted not doing directing?
Tom Ackerman: No, not at all. It's important, once you gain some momentum, to stay focused.
I think it's a mistake to spread yourself too thinly. Frankly if this was my last movie and I were to run off and do something entirely different after we wrap Are We There Yet? I would feel like I've had the greatest career, the greatest life that anyone could ever ask for. I feel extremely fortunate. I have no regrets whatsoever.
That's said, I loved the directing that I have done. I enjoyed the process, would do it again and if the right movie came along, I'd be open to it. But I've been grateful having had the chance to work with some really great directors. I love the collaborative process and am intrigued with the fact that the combination of talents lead to an outcome that is ultimately much better than if I had total control of the film myself. KB: When you are talking to a director and a crew, how do you go about actually describing what it is that you imagine in a way that everybody understands?
TA: When I first decide on a crew - in the interview process when I'm talking to people and considering them to work in the key positions (gaffer, key grip, camera operator, and so on), the first thing that I want to do is to explain in the clearest terms what kind of movie it is and what my intentions are. I give them the upside and the downside because I don't want there to be any misunderstandings about where we're headed. You put a crew together and this is going to be the closest relationship short of marriage that you're going to have for the next three, four, five months while we're shooting the movie. As result, the clarity of purpose is really important, as is complete understanding and agreement amongst the parties. And by agreement I do not mean acquiescence. There's a big difference. I don't want someone to work with me and simply surrender to the process or to proceed and just sort of leave all their own judgments by the side. I want us to go forward together as a really tight unit and so I'm looking for people with whom I feel that the chemistry is really good.
KB: So in a way, you would all have the same state of mind so you can automatically understand?
TA: Absolutely. First of all, this is a highly subjective process in spite of all the technical craft and the specific job functions that are pretty much done to a world standard. In other words, I can work with a gaffer in Vancouver, or I can work with a guy from Los Angeles or in Rome and I would expect them to possess essentially the same body of technical knowledge. In other words, if the HMI ballast has gone down the tubes, I want them and their crew to know what to do next. But obviously those are just the technical things. There's another level of expression and understanding that is really equally important. That, and obviously personality and that's not a negligible part as well. I like people who have a decent sense of humor...
KB: You can't not have a sense of humor?...
TA: You can't do without one because movies are a pretty arduous and sometimes stressful undertaking and if you have no sense of humor, and worse yet if you have a low threshold for challenge and pain, then you know that's a bad combination.
KB: Maybe doing the interviews you should make them walk on fire and on those hot coals and see...
TA: Well, figuratively speaking, yes you are walking over hot coals to some extent when you are doing a film because everyone and every key member of the crew and every department is asked to perform at their peak every day -every HOUR of every day in order to get the day's work done and to make it wonderful and beautiful and to help realize the director's vision. And there are any number of moments that could be stressful enough to make somebody, you know--lose it. It's easy to lose it.
It would be very easy for any number of key people on the crew to just flip out at any given moment. But the real good guys don't...and the way they don't, in part, is not only are they extremely good at what they do, but also seeing this in the bigger picture. We might be doing a dolly move that is so challenging that if you really rationalized it, you might conclude that it could not be done. But you just sort of Zen out and you do it. It's really quite remarkable to watch a team at work on a film. I never stop being amazed at the excellence of what they can accomplish.
KB: How is the crew on your current film, "Are We There Yet?"
TA: The Vancouver crew is fabulous here. We have a wonderful dolly grip and a fantastic operator on this movie [Are We There Yet?]. When the decision was made to do this in Vancouver, as opposed to Chicago or Toronto, we were about six weeks out. It was really close, because the prep time, one might argue, could have been a little bit longer. Anyway, we came to Vancouver only about six weeks out and the crew that I'd worked with on "Snow Dogs", which was my most recent film in Vancouver, were all working on other stuff, primarily "Cat Woman".
I was terribly disappointed because essentially I had to reinvent the wheel, but I came up for interviews and frankly there were a number of real good people to talk to because a number of large films had wrapped and the town was slowing down a little bit. So there was a lot of choice, whereas before I hadn't had such a wide range sometimes. Anyway, I found a crew that is one of the best crews I've ever worked with, at any time in any place. Jim Van Dijk is the camera operator. Some DOP's insist on doing their own operating. I love that part of the process, too, and I guess that in an ideal world I'd always have my hands on the camera. However on a feature film, I choose not to because it's too much on the platter. So I have to find a collaborator who ultimately can take the ball and run with it and I find that Jim really sees things as I see them. That is literally true, by the way. I am a fanatic about composition and camera movement but we seem to have the same inclination in almost every instance. It's actually a bit freakish but certainly makes my life easier. And we've been blessed with the other first-rate collaborators. Larry Portmann is the focus puller on the film; Stuart Haggerty is my gaffer and Kim Olsen, my key grip. These are superb people. I can't say enough about them.
KB: It's kind of like family...you can rely on them...
TA: Absolutely. It is like family that you can rely on.
KB: When you are shooting a scene, how much does symbolism play into it?
TA: Well I would not say symbolism per se, but I would say that when any cinematographer approaches a script, you begin to think in visual terms. And when you're brought on board and you begin to hear what the director 's vision is and you begin your collaboration with the production designer and the costumer, you begin to translate your feelings about the story in terms of color, in terms of texture. You are inspired by other images that you've seen--paintings, films, theater, as well as the natural world. You know, things that you've experienced and that have inspired you. And then you look to make a continuity of thought. You look to structure just as a writer structures a story, just as the screenplay is structured and given an ark, so also the photography has to go through that same constructive process. It's almost musical actually. Music is rhythm, obviously, and has a tonal range and emotion and so in the same way comes the choice of color, the choice of light, it's contrast between elements, it's thinking about what works for one scene but must progress to another level for the next. It's what writing and painting and it's what dramatic art is all about.
KB: ...and it's about the soul?
TA: It is about the soul because I don't think you can do this without a strong sense of commitment, and I don't think you can do it - or rather, certainly you can't do it well - if you do not have a profound love of the image. I suppose someone could make another argument and say that it's after all primarily a technical craft process and you could do it in a way that is objective, but for me it's very subjective. I have to love the shot. I have to love the colors in the set. I have to feel that the right decisions have been made with the costumes...and if all those things are in confluence, then the photography is what knits it all together. First and foremost, it's what the director's given me in terms of the intent of the scene, what he's doing with the actors, what the actors contribute. This is absolutely bedrock; this is essential. This is what feeds and nourishes the photographic process.
KB: When you walk around, do you notice things that make you think "Oh, this would make a good shot!" for this future project...?
TA: Oh sure. Absolutely. I'm frequently in some situation where I see something that I wish I could later return to and the challenge then is to find a way to integrate that into a later project. I think this is my fourth film that I've shot in Vancouver within the last few years and in the first three, we were shooting Vancouver for someplace else. This story is about a road trip that takes place between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, and so now for the first time I'm able to shoot Vancouver for Vancouver. So, instead of just gazing at the Lions Gate Bridge at night and wishing that I could someday photograph it, we've have a reason to do it.
KB: I was very surprised that it was actually going to be shot in Vancouver AS Vancouver.
TA: Yeah. Well actually, I must say that when we photographed Lion's Gate--I think that's supposed to be in Portland also. But our big finale is a winter carnival down in Coal Harbor, so we played Coal Harbor for Coal Harbor...
KB: Do we really have a winter carnival?
TA: Ah, well we made it up. It's all fiction. But anyway, it's just geography of course. I think the important inspirations have come from long walks in Rome in the late afternoon with this exquisite light bouncing off of umber walls. Or the lovely diffusion of light in the English countryside. You know, when you're in the Cotswolds in the summer "magic hour" seems to last forever. It is just the most wonderfully diffused yet sort of warm and directional quality of light. These are the things that you think about when you're someplace else and looking for some inspiration on how to handle the light in the scene.
KB: How do you end up picking you projects? Do you go, "I wanna do a comedy" or is it based on the people involved...
TA: All of the above. When I get a script, when I'm being considered for a film and I get a script to read, which is a first step in the process before meeting with the director, I'm looking first for the quality of the story because that's the roadmap for everything. And I'm also looking at the director's body of work, especially if it's someone I haven't worked with before. And if we haven't worked together previously, I'm looking for signs and signals about what he or she likes, what their tastes are. Their body of work speaks to that and ...
KB: Do you think of films that you might like or do you think of films that everybody might like? You know, like some of the films you've done, I don't know, if it's in the type of film genre that you might watch or...
TA: Oh sure. I think that you have to...yes, very much. You also look at the project in terms of your own personal taste. Is this a movie I want go to? I think, by the way, that some of the best films that have ever been made were done by directors who made the film primarily because they wanted to see the film on the screen, and so they were the ones that were going to do it.
I've done a lot of comedies, and I've read lots of comedy scripts. So what I'm looking for there--I think because I've done so many comedies I'm probably a little pickier about those projects than I might be about a different genre and so first of all, I've got to be laughing and it has to strike me as being pretty darn funny because I just can't imagine being on the set of a comedy and just doing it by the numbers. For one thing, and in addition to the subjective criteria that govern all shooting, you know, i.e. lighting scene to fit the mood, and photographing the actors in a way that's the most effective for their character-- In addition to that, in a comedy there are moments which involve camera choreography, framing, timing, where the camera does become a part of telling that story. Since camera becomes a part of the comedic process, when I'm reading the script for a comedy, I'm looking for those opportunities. But as I said before, at the end of the day I gotta laugh. I have to find it funny.
I mean, I just finished shooting "Anchorman" with Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay directing, a wonderful cast of characters. The script from my first reading of it killed me. It was just virtually the funniest thing I ever picked up. All the polishes that were done were equally, you know--they just absolutely killed me. Every day we were on that set was not only a great pleasure working with wonderful people, but it was an occupational hazard to not choke over in video village because of what was being done in front of the camera.
KB: How did you get involved with "Project Greenlight II"?
TA: Well, when I decided to do Project Greenlight it was after having met the directors, Kyle and Efram, whom I like very much and even more importantly thought that they had put together a pretty decent string of low-budget shorts that were wonderfully done. I thought they were the perfect candidates to go forward with Project Greenlight. The script is very good. I really liked and respected Chris Moore and Jeff Balis on the production side and my crew was up for it and ultimately it timed out really well. I'd just finished Dickie Roberts and I don't want to sound mechanical about it, but it slotted in nicely.
KB: You have a regular crew, then...
TA: Oh yes, in most of the cities that I shoot in regularly, I have people that I work with all the time. They're a wonderful L.A. crew. Anyway, it was also, amongst other things, a chance to give my long-time focus puller Steve Hiller a chance to move up to camera operator. He'd been looking for that chance for years and this was very much in the spirit of Project Greenlight and so it was his break.
KB: You had your shooting process documented, to a degree, with "Project Greenlight II," did you have specific expectations of what it would be like to be filmed while shooting and did that change or prove to be true?
TA: As to the aspect of appearing in front of the camera while shooting, I gave it a lot of thought, frankly. You'd have to be nuts not to. Especially having looked at the first season where, frankly, I thought some terribly embarrassing and stupid things happened--all of which were diligently recorded and sent out to the great audience beyond and I certainly had considered the downside of all that, but whether I was being overly confident or naive, I'm not sure--perhaps a combination. I concluded that there's no reason to imagine that my crew would do anything other than a top-flight job. And I saw no conflict between myself and the directors. I didn't think that they would dither or vapor lock in the process, and I thought, "Sure--let's go". My agents also thought it would be neat. The general sense was, "Hey Tom, this is kind of cool, are you open to it?" and I said, "Well, you know, if there's one thing you should be able to do if you're lucky enough to work on big feature films, you should be able to be open to this sort of project."
KB: Yeah, I personally wouldn't particularly care because when you're on the set, you're in public so it's not like it's going into your private life. And if you don't behave in an especially provoking manner, then you don't have a conflict. There were definitely conflicts that they focused on for the show, but there was no conflict between the crew that I could see...
TA: No, obviously the editing comes into play and I know I remember one instance where there was a little stunt that we did for the film and there was a camera jam on the "B" camera. The minute there was just the slightest bit of awareness that there might have been a problem, one of the Project Greenlight video crews was on it like a magnet. My poor second assistant cameraperson had a lens poked into her face as the crew was wrapping up and was downloading magazines in the camera track.
We sent the footage to the lab not knowing if the jam had happened before, during, or if we were lucky enough that the jam occurred after the stunt had already happened. Meanwhile, they were trying to do an interview with her and she was not enjoying that in the least. But the next day, when the film came back from the lab everything was captured and everything was cool.
Look, you don't do a reality TV show building a large audience without conflict. I think we were all aware of that. I think the notion of our participation was to keep the conflicts to a minimum, and to just do the best job possible.
KB: And I supposed to not let it interfere with the actual filming...
TA: Right. Everybody pretty much got used to it and, I mean, we're all used to having EPK (Electronic Press Kit) crews on the set. That said, it was sobering sometimes... Every day for several weeks, I'd go to work and have a wireless mic stuck in my pocket and attached up through the shorts.
KB: Were you at all conscious that something you may say privately is going to be heard by somebody else?
TA: I think it would be ludicrous to say just that it didn't put a certain limit on things. You can't miss being wired. You can't miss sometimes as many as eight cameras on the set and two or three mic booms following your every step. There's no way of dialing that out and for that to become a transparent process. As hard as that crew worked, generally they were kept out of the way, but they were there.
So to answer your question, what I did find was that if it came between being politically correct and making a better shot for the directors, it was always the latter. I mean, if time was of the essence and we had to be very straightforward on our point, even if there was a point of dissent or something, it was all about the better shot and making the movie as good as it could be.
KB: Project Greenlight was probably a fairly unique experience, but generally do you still have, despite the fact that you have been doing this for many years, experiences that jump out at you where you were really surprised at something completely new?
TA: I'm surprised almost every day on the set.
KB: I knew you'd say that.
TA: It's just not a linear process. And I think you have to -- and I hope it's not a cliché, but you do have to be mindful of the learning opportunities that are always there. It could be something as simple as your gaffer rigging up a light you've never used before. I think that there are hundreds of different possibilities.
KB: Is there anything that you have not tried that you'd really like to have a go at in the future?
TA: I love shooting comedies and I feel grateful to have been able to get sort of the crème de la crème assignments with the best scripts and the best directors and the best performers. But I always welcome the chance to also shoot out of that genre. Other film genres move me and I feel in some ways that I'd like to be a part of that process as well, which is not mutually exclusive. I don't think that there's a funny way of shooting and a serious way of shooting. In many cases if you turn down the sound and watch a dialogue scene, I defy you or anybody else to tell me if it's a comedy or a drama. Obviously Austin Powers will look different than "Matrix"... where there's some major bloodletting going on...
KB: Matrix: Revolutions, now that's definitely a comedy... (laughs)
TA: Yeah, but you know you're right! And "Kill Bill"--that's a comedy, too, in certain ways, even though it's...
KB: ...It's kinda like Monty Python. I kept comparing it to Monty Python throughout.
TA: Yeah. Yeah! Exactly. So that's what I would say about future ambitions.
KB: One last trademark question. What do you think is the perfect way to watch a film? Would you rather watch it on TV, or in a theatre? Alone, or with strange people? With popcorn or with a nutritional bar? What would be the most ideal way to watch a movie?
TA: I'd have to say on the big screen with a real popcorn-eating audience. You know, I go to any number of trade screenings or the ASC or the Director's Guild and I still like to see it with a real audience that just bought the tickets out in front and they're eating popcorn that is maybe a little bit unhealthy but it sure smells and tastes great. Because certainly every film that I've photographed I like to see it that way because these are the people that we made it for.