Thanks to Steadicams, Skycam and many other inventions of yours, you have created dozens of new ways to shoot movies and sports events. Where does your spark of genius come from - the necessity to work in a more simple way or ambition to realize something useful also for other people?
Originally I invented out of personal need--the desire to 'ditch' my heavy dolly and give handheld shooting the same smooth look. Later inventions like Skycam became less about me and more about the joyous possibilities--like the unprecedented chance to 'fly' a camera over concerts and sporting events; or later still, in answer to requests from friends and colleagues for something new and interesting. But always it was about the shots--the never-before-seen moves, angles and views, plus the fun of tackling those intricate puzzles. What is the simplest and cheapest solution that might satisfy all constituencies--the broadcasters, the live audience and the 'safety' and 'look' people at the Olympics?
How do you preferably define yourself then - more a cinematographer or an inventor?
For years, returning to the US, my wife asked me to write 'Cinematographer' in the 'occupation' column, but lately I think I've become a better inventor than cameraman and I happily fill in 'Inventor'.
"Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" gave you the opportunity to work with George Lucas and to experiment new solutions. What was your main achievement on that set? The biker chase scene, perhaps? How did you develop that?
That was my only shot, and it was another fascinating puzzle: how to keep the course, height and angle of the lens absolutely consistent while walking over rough ground for several minutes. The solutions were worked out between me and Dennis Muren, the legendary effects genius, and were entirely gratifying: flying the corner of the matte box next to an invisible green thread stretched along the course kept it on track, even if the ground rose or fell a meter along the way, and I found myself reaching up or down as far as I could to keep it there--which I could never have known to do without the thread.
You also worked for "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". How was shooting an adventure movie? More exhausting, more rewarding?
Oddly, shooting an adventure film is just like shooting any other...it's all done piecemeal, adding to the sum of it in daily bits, each an individual problem to solve. My job, as for all of my esteemed directors, was simply to move the lens--as elegantly and usefully as possible, and often, such as on that rope bridge for Steven, in ways that were previously and otherwise impossible!
Another great director you worked with is Martin Scorsese. In which of his movies you were more satisfied of your work? What was your best shot?
I loved working for Marty. He's a true filmmaker and my shots tended to be both intricate and essential and therefore great fun to accomplish. Some of the work in King of Comedy and Bringing Out the Dead remains gratifying, but I think my favorite of all is the 'counting room' shot in Casino.
Tell us a film you were particularly satisfied of your work, but that it didn't have the success you were hoping for (or that it deserved).
Wolfen is an obscure but terrific film, directed by Michael (Woodstock) Wadleigh, and now becoming a minor cult phenomenon. I shot 'wolf POV's', running and running through the ruined landscapes of the Bronx. with my lens coursing a half meter above the rubble. I quite got into being a scary 'wolf' (and found myself looking hungrily at stray humans for months afterward!).
Like all the movies I worked on, Wolfen was pre-digital and pre-CGI, so the 'wolf vision' optical effects were a bit primitive, but it remains a fascinating and beautifully made film.
"Bound for Glory" was the first time you used your Steadicam. How it felt? Is there a shot you are particularly proud of?
The 'combination shot' (stepping of of a lowering crane and walking...), on Bound for Glory, was the bold and brilliant idea of our great Cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. I didn't know if it had worked until after it screened in 'dailies'. The whole crew was there was silent for an excruciating second, and then erupted in applause. An once-in-a-lifetime moment!
In "The Shining" you had a prominent role in Stanley Kubrick's vision of the movie. How was working with him? What were your expectations and what did you learn (for your career) shooting with a great master like him?
I loved working for Kubrick. I admired and respected his films and his vast knowledge and was perfectly happy to do numerous takes. It wasn't even tiring, since each was followed by a playback and a discussion about the location of the crosshairs! The result was a guided but personal master-class in operating my relatively new invention. On the Shining it finally became an instrument for beautiful moves, rather than just a stabilizer.
In "Rocky" you took part to one of the most iconic movie scenes of the last century on the so-called "Rocky Steps", and it was shot only once. Do you think that is this "singularity" the secret of its success?
No! I wished for more takes, and regretted being rushed--but the success of that shot was based on the power of the story and the iconic nature of that singular movie. None of the thousands who still run up those steps apparently minded any imperfections in that still-glorious shot!
When had you been aware of its impact in the history of cinema and (secondly) on Philadelphia tourism organizations?
It began slowly. By the time we reprised that scene in Rocky II, people were beginning to emulate it--as a celebration of their own achievements or aspirations or just of the human spirit--and it has escalated year by year, particularly since the 'Rocky Statue' returned from banishment to a place beside the stairs, and it's the Art Museum steps are now the 2nd most visited tourist attraction in the city--after only the giant, cracked old 'Liberty Bell' that rang at our Declaration of Independence in 1776!