Earl Gilbert is an artist who painted with light. The future lighting technician and son of a best boy began his career pulling cable at Fox. At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the Navy vet obtained his membership in Local 728. Refining his lamp-operator and electrician skills under the brilliant teaching of Homer Plannette, Gilbert served as best-boy to the gifted “chief illuminator” on such pictures as Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, State Fair and the George Stevens Bible biggie, The Greatest Story Ever Told.
“On Greatest Story,” Gilbert recalled, “George came to me about lighting these 22-foot tall palace doors. He insisted on using 60-inch searchlights, thinking bigger was better. Well, I told him, those things are designed for spotting aircraft at 30,000 feet, not for set lighting. But since he was the director, we did as ordered. After we fired them up, he soon realized that the intense heat from the search beams was scorching the finish off the doors. While they repainted, we swapped out instruments and wound up using a 450 Brute. That taught me an important lesson. He might be the director, but I’m the gaffer, and I know more about lighting than he does.”
Gilbert’s next career step greatly expanded his artistic opportunities. Due to the growth of film and television in the early 1960s, a new breed of DPs, gaffers, and key grips evolved in Hollywood – the independents. Just as writers and talent had begun to break away from studio control, so too had many highly skilled artisans, and Gilbert joined this select group.
“We made our own deals,” he said. “Therefore, we made better dough … not to mention more innovative pictures.” What current crews enjoy as their right to above-scale compensation was secured by these below-the-line craftsmen who shot for something better.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, without the use of a light meter, Gilbert lit some of the era’s great films, such as The Graduate, Catch 22 and Chinatown.
“The real genius of those three pictures was editor Sam O’Steen,” Gilbert said.
Other classic films that Gilbert worked on throughout his 50-year career include E.T., Norma Rae, And Justice for All and dozens more.
When prompted to name his preferred DP (like asking a mother to choose among her children), Gilbert answered, “Bob Surtess.” He also mentioned his enjoyment of working with confederates like DP Victor Kemper, key grip Gaylin Schultz and best boys Rhio Haewsig and Pat Marshall.
Written by Jim Udel