Several themes come to mind after attending the 2018 SOC (Society of Camera Operators) Lifetime Achievement Awards, at the Loews Hollywood Hotel February 3rd. Award winners and presenters alike expressed their overwhelming passion for visual storytelling and love of the filmmaking process. They thanked mentors, supporters and collaborators – their film families, and simultaneously declared love for their own families, who have supported their dreams and careers through long hours.
All in all, it was a very classy and elegant event, accompanied by John Storie’s live jazz trio and MC’d by Andrea Fasano. George Billinger, SOC, the current SOC president and Chair of the Awards Show committee, presided over the evening.
Lisa Cholodenko, writer and director of High Art, Laurel Canyon, and The Kids Are All Right, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award in Still Photography to JoJo Whilden. Cholodenko characterizes Whilden as “industrious, adventurous and wry. She saw the ironic and poignant in most things people didn’t even notice, and she captured it all with shutter speed. Jojo knew instinctively what Cartier Bresson called ‘the decisive moment.’”
Along the way, Whilden worked as a photo journalist, a photo editor for Marcel Saba Agency, and printed works and organized exhibits for Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Club of NY. High Art was her first feature film production, where she shot the character’s photography as well as the production stills. The rest is history. Whilden explains that “one of the things that drew me to photography was my interest in observing people, so she, “travelled widely and spent several years in London taking pictures,” as she honed her craft.
Eric Fletcher, SOC, presented the Technical Achievement Award to Stuart Cram of DJI for their innovative design of the Ronin-2 camera stabilization platform, which can “handle heavy camera builds without sacrificing performance,” says Cram. “The idea is to have filmmakers concentrate on getting the shot” by creating the “tools with complex and innovative technology that is easier to use” that “enable creators and artists to capture their vision to share with the world.” DJI’s ingenious stabilizers and drones have given filmmakers the “freedom to do things that weren’t possible before.”
The Mobile Camera Platform Operator Lifetime Achievement Award went to dolly grip Dan Pershing, who’s extensive list of credits includes Field of Dreams, The Abyss, The Matrix Reloaded, Iron Man 1 & 2, Spider Man 2 & 3, MIB 3, Team America: World Police, and more recently Jango Unchained and Baby Driver. DP Bill Pope, ASC, who made Pershing’s introduction, described how a great dolly grip “understands the character and what the scene is about, moving with the actors, anticipating what they are doing.” They are the “pen of the director, literally drawing in space.”
Pershing explains that the key thing to “pushing dolly is to really be one with the actor or the action. Knowing that they’re going to stop short, you stop short. Knowing they’re going to go too far, you go a little further. It’s a real dance, and you need to let them lead most of the time. It’s more a feel. Pope comments on his long collaboration with Pershing, “At one point in my career, I stopped giving him notes, and he started giving me notes.”
Mitch Dubin, SOC, presented the Camera Technician Lifetime Achievement Award to John Connor, who first learned his way around the camera department from his DP father. “I learned everything there was to know from my dad; it was the best film school.” But his major inspiration came from director Tony Scott, who became Connor’s mentor and friend.
Connor first worked with Scott as a focus puller on The Fan, on which he pioneered the idea of “taking the wireless system off the Steadicam, and standing off to the side” to pull focus, which is now the standard. Some camera operators weren’t thrilled about losing their partner by camera, so Connor introduced wearing Comteks so the operator could communicate with him during the shot. Connor explains, “that’s kind of my thing, to revolutionize focus pulling as much as I could when I was doing it.” His AC credits include, Rising Sun, Maverick, Gattaca, Shanghai Noon, A.I., Mission Impossible-III and The Revenant.
Dubin describes working with Connor, “he’s always present, always supportive, never failed a shot, always up to the task. John was unflappable. Nothing ever got to him. He was always cool as a cucumber.” Connor has since dedicated his time to operating (Unstoppable, Only the Brave) and cinematography (The Hatred, All-Star Weekend in post). Regarding collaboration, Connor states that “The whole crew is a team: the operator, the focus puller, the dolly grip, the boom operator. They get together, often under pressure on this synergy. This is the part I fell in love with – making magic happen.”
David Frederick, SOC presented the Distinguished Service Lifetime Achievement Award to Denny Clairmont, for his amazing contribution to filmmakers in providing unwavering support and encouragement to those behind the camera. Clairmont Camera is known for its philosophy of working closely with cinematographers, operators and assistants, for developing new technology, and for encouraging emerging cinematographers.
Denny’s brother Terry followed their father’s path as a cinematographer, while Denny chose to work in the camera supply side at Birns & Sawyer. After some time, Denny and Terry decided to open their own camera rental company, which would cater more to filmmakers, and the legendary Clairmont Camera was born.
Clairmont Camera has won many awards, including the SOC Technical Achievement Award in 2000 for the Swing Shift lens set, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Medal of Commendation in 2011, the ASC Award of Distinction in 2015, and the SOC President’s Award for tireless support in hosting camera operator training workshops.
In praising Denny, Frederick remarks, “it is known that Denny treated the cinematography student with the same care and respect as a seasoned Director of Photography. He always had time to answer questions, come up with suggestions, and provide any info that he could. He’s earned much respect for the way he ran his business.”
Denny Clairmont elicited a standing ovation when accepting his award, having personally helped virtually everyone in the room (including myself) at some point in their careers. With Denny’s retirement and sale of the company to Keslow Camera, Denny, Terry (who died in 2006), Alan Albert, and everyone else, will be missed.
Clairmont is a long time charitable supporter of the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital Vision Center, to help “Children who have difficulty seeing or maybe not being able to see at all,” says Clairmont. “The funds from the SOC are a big help to these children. I honor the SOC for this.”
Alicia Robbins, SOC, explained that part of the SOC’s mission is to promote the advancement of medical sciences regarding children’s vision by producing a yearly video that “helps the center gain traction in education, awareness, and the promotion of their Star Trek-like medical advancements in vision.”
As Dr. Thomas Lee, from the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says, “every child is born with two cameras. Each has a sensor that can resolve over 100,000 lines of resolution, with 22 stops of dynamic range, and of course no fan. At the Vision Center, it’s our job to protect those cameras and keep them healthy.” This year’s video will promote the Vision Center’s cloud based health care system for children in the developing world.
George Billinger, SOC and Steven Poster, ASC, presented the Board of Governors Foundation Award for Cinematic Art & Science. Sebastien Laffoux, the VP of Sales in the Americas for ARRI Inc., accepted the award for the company’s engineering expertise and unwavering commitment to excellence. Arriflex was founded 100 years ago by teenagers August Arnold and Robert Richter, to “develop tools to fulfill their creative aspirations.” About today’s ARRI, Laffoux attributes the company’s success to asking the right questions, listening to customers, and by providing the tools to empower filmmakers’ creativity worldwide.
Andrew Mitchell, SOC presented the Television Camera Operator of the Year Award to Bob Gorelick, SOC, for Stranger Things. Gorelick started out as a camera assistant, and quickly moved on to becoming one of the top Steadicam operators working today. His list of feature operating credits includes Mo’ Better Blues, Far and Away, Pulp Fiction, Men in Black II, The Dark Knight, Selma and The Accountant. Gorelick’s series credits include Flash Forward, Treme, Dallas, House of Lies and Sleepy Hollow. Referring to the other nominees, Gorelick said, “Really amazing work from everyone – feature film quality television work! It starts with the top: The Duffer Brothers, who show up every day with a very strong blue print, and director of photography Tim Ives, encourage an environment of collaboration, not just with the operator, but everyone. Every department on the show shines.”
Ari Robbins, SOC, presented the Feature Film Camera Operator of the Year Award to Roberto De Angelis, SOC for Baby Driver. The director, Edgar Wright, accepted the award on his behalf. De Angelis started out as a camera assistant in Italy, and after moving to the U.S., he became a Steadicam operator. His extensive list of feature operating credits include Avatar, Public Enemies, La Vie En Rose, 13 Hours and The Jungle Book. De Angelis’ series credits include Roots: Part 1, Luck and The Man in the High Castle.
De Angelis thanked Bill Pope, ASC, in a pre-recorded video, for bringing him onto Baby Driver, as well as the film’s director. De Angelis explained how Wright “had a very clear vision of the film. It was his unwavering commitment to the storytelling that made this film original and unique.”
Wally Pfister, ASC presented the Camera Operator Lifetime Achievement Award to veteran Steadicam and camera operator P. Scott Sakamoto, who has worked with an amazing list of cinematographers, including Caleb Deschanel, ASC, Robert Elswitt, ASC, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, Phedon Papamichael, ASC, Tak Fujimoto, ASC, Newton Thomas Siegel, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and his mentor and close friend Haskell Wexler. Sakamoto started out assisting and moved on to operating Steadicam. His credits include The Birdcage, Enemy of the State, The Patriot, Road to Perdition, The Revenant, Kong: Skull Island, Alien: Covenant and Black Panther.
About Sakamoto, Pfister says, “I won an Oscar for Inception, and Scott’s contribution, both creatively and technically was invaluable. Pfister continues, “Scott is dedicated to absolute perfection. If the shot’s not right, for whatever reason, composition, movement, concept, Scott hammers on himself until it is. It’s this perfection that every DP and director loves to see and have around them.”
Sakamoto describes operating a motion picture camera as being like a dance. “It’s that unique partnership you have with the camera of capturing a story, executing the perfect shot, and becoming the audience’s eyes. That dance is performance art, like a ballet or a tango or something in-between. I feel lucky to do that dance in the front row, with an actor laying out their soul, just a few feet in front of me.”
Sakamoto discloses that without the support and encouragement from Haskell Wexler, he “definitely would not be standing here tonight. He introduced me to the master Garret Brown and the Steadicam, which changed the language of camera movement and partially defined my career.” Sakamoto continues, Haskell “taught me life. He taught me filmmaking. He was my mentor and a father figure. Haskell, wherever you are, I know you’re watching with your camera. Thank you! I know you’re proud.”
Academy award winning Lois Burwell (make-up & wife of John Toll, ASC) presented the Governors Lifetime Achievement Award to director of photography John Bailey, ASC, who is also currently the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Bailey was first inspired to “spend his life making images” when viewing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, shot by Vittorio Storraro.
Bailey started out as a camera assistant, and worked his way up through the camera department. As the camera operator on Terrence Malick’s, Days of Heaven, shot by Nestor Alemendros, Bailey expresses that the film had the “same kind of dramatic aesthetic qualities” seen in Bertolucci’s masterpiece.
Bailey has made his mark as a director of photography, notably on American Gigolo, Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Accidental Tourist, My Blue Heaven, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and As Good as It Gets. He’s also the ASC’s resident film and art historian, who’s “depth and breath of knowledge fills many blogs for the ASC website,” according to Burwell. These are “the same skills that helped organize and create events for the Academy, for films that were sometimes forgotten or obscured, and foreign language film gems.”
But Bailey was most passionate about his partnership and marriage with Academy Award winning editor Carol Littleton. “There’s a dynamic between the two of us that I don’t even know how to articulate. It’s so soulful, so deeply embedded in who we are, that I want to be remembered as having had a life with her.” Bailey continues, “The films that I’ve done will stay or not stay, based on the shifting zeitgeist, which is always changing. But the life that I have had with Carole is really what has sustained me; it’s what continues to make me want to wake up every morning. It’s a real gift.”
Mitch Dubin, SOC and Dave Thompson, SOC presented the President’s Award to Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, “not only because of her great talents as an actor, but because she’s also a wonderful human being – a movie star that is filled with humanity, a great actress that is also a member of the crew.” Dubin continues, “She is respectful and supportive of what we all bring to the table, and her commitment to making each film the best it can be, extends to her partnership with us as camera operators. No one can make a movie alone; we all work together in collaboration, and Meryl is a great team player.”
Streep describes her relationship with the operator as “joined at the hip.” She continues, “We make the movies together, even though we’re in different worlds. And without that collaboration, there’s nothing.” The operator sees “every living second of your work – breathing with you. I know the operator breathes with me on a close-up, so that they don’t miss a second of the thing that might be inadvertent or unplanned.”
Streep expresses her concerns regarding safety, “I’m a little worried about operators, because in the UK, and in our global enterprise of moviemaking, some of the protections we enjoy here at home have been weakened.” She continues, “14, 16 and 18 hour days, over work and insufficient safety precautions have kind of become a way of doing business now. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker, but there’s a down side to this proliferation of unregulated work. It can be dangerous.”
Wrapping it up, Streep reminisced about the many great operators she has worked with. She discloses, “only two of them out of the 80-some operators were women. I’d like to see us lay down the drawbridge over that medieval moat. We’ve kept women out of the magic castle, this beautiful profession, for too long.” She continues, “The operator’s eye shouldn’t be synonymous with the male gaze, so let’s open it up, fellas. Let’s make it fair and make it fun.”
Andrew Mitchell, SOC quoted St Francis of Assisi, “The person who works with their hands is a laborer. The person who works with their hands and their head is a craftsman. But the person who works with their hands, their head and their heart is an artist.”
All in all, it was heartening to witness the people behind camera, brought to center stage to honor their achievements, collaboration and technical expertise, appreciated for their passionate, creative and artistic commitment to storytelling.