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Footnotes-Ralph Woolsey


Meeting cinematographer Ralph Woolsey on a 110-degree day at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, Calif., I was sold just watching the silver-maned Adonis of 92 years stride through the mercifully over-air-conditioned lobby. Instantly, I knew his history was worth braving the heat to document.Woolsey began his career as a wildlife photographer in Minnesota in the late 1930s. A devotee of photography pioneers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen and Edward Weston, Woolsey’s growing knowledge of camera, filters, chemistry and composition grew to be practically encyclopedic. He shot Air Force training films during the World War II. By the mid ’50s he settled in LA seeking a career in Hollywood and shortly thereafter joined the camera union (then Local 659). For 10 years Woolsey churned out countless industrial and documentary films, while also teaching cinematography at USC. Woolsey’s break came when called to replace a sick DP on the Warner Bros. western TV series Maverick. He had the good fortune of being paired with director Howard Koch, and this collaboration quickly earned him a five-year contract with Warners. He shot everything the studio had going in TV, including Cheyenne, Hawaiian Eye, and 77 Sunset Strip, and in 1966 Woolsey landed the series Batman.Reminiscing about a major perk of doing that show, Woolsey shared, “What really made me a hero with my kids was on birthdays, I used to bring the Penguin’s horn home and blow it for everyone at the parties.”By decade’s end, Woolsey’s cutting-edge lens work garnered him an Emmy for his cinematic creativity on It Takes a Thief.Constantly experimenting, in 1972 he brainstormed a significant solution to the prohibitive nature of obtaining realistic night shots, for the feature The New Centurions. The DP’s vision of the police drama (staged mostly at night) incorporated a split diopter to keep both George C. Scott and partner Stacy Keach in focus for all of the low-light, in-car-driving sequences. The result was a pre-“Cops” natural looking realism, which added to the strength of that picture, and many like it to come.With over 50 features and four decades of TV to his credit, Woolsey regards the craft of fellow cinematographers like John Toll, Laszlo Kovacs and William Fraker (among others) to be his most admired. In 2003 he received a President’s Award from the American Society of Cinematographers for his unique and enduring contributions in advancing the art of filmmaking.A mentor and teacher to many, Woolsey is clear on making it in today’s Hollywood: “All artists in our industry must strive to learn and stay current with technology.”Whether working out anamorphotic distortion difficulties on films such as Lewis Carlino’s The Great Santini, or inventing new solutions to allow for previously impossible shots, Ralph Woolsey has always been an artist and respected educator who practices what he preaches. “After all,” he reflects, “it’s what we have yet to accomplish that presents challenges, not what we have already done.”

Written by Jim Udel

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