GEORGE SPIRO DIBIE, ASC – WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE
George Spiro Dibie’s (ASC) father came to Jerusalem from Corfu, Greece, and his mother from Beirut. The tourists met, married and raised a family in Jerusalem. When Dibie was only seven or eight years old, he created animated movies consisting of magazine cartoons glued together. Family and friends paid a nickel apiece to see his shows. After high school, Dibie was hired by UNICEF, a United Nations agency, to teach English to youngsters living in refugee camps. Later, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he was a translator for the United States Information Agency.
Dibie earned a U.S.I.A. scholarship, which enabled him to continue his education in the United States. He enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, which offered a degree in stage direction, however his interest shifted to filmmaking.
After graduating with a degree in theatre arts in 1959, Dibie worked as a checker at a supermarket. That’s where he met a woman who worked for Twentieth Century Fox. That led to an opportunity to work as an electrician, initially on the crew of Leon Shamroy, ASC, which was shooting Cleopatra. At the same time, he and Roger E. Dash were producing 16 mm documentaries and motivational films.
Dibie rose through the ranks of the electrical crew. He gaffed from 1967-‘69 with James Wong Howe, ASC, Harry Stradling, ASC, Jack Marta, ASC, Harold Stine, ASC and Harkness Smith, ASC. While working with Stradling on On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Dibie invented the Stri-light, a scoop coated with reflective paint, which he used it to bounce subtle key light on Barbra Streisand’s face.
When Warner Bros. decided to shoot the multi-camera series Barney Miller on videotape in 1972, director-producer Danny Arnold summoned Dibie. He told Dibie that he envisioned a gutsy and somewhat dark look. Dibie used soft, directional light, gels to add touches of color, and motivated sources to augment moods and match reality.
That was his entry into the International Photographers Guild, Local 659 as a director of photography (E). The “E” stood for electronic, which meant that Dibie was only allowed to shoot video situation comedies. He finally broke out of the “E” mold in 1976. Dibie subsequently moved freely between shooting in film and videotape formats, blazing a path that many other cinematographers and their crews have followed.
“I believe we have to imitate life,” Dibie said. While he was rehearsing a moonlight scene for the pilot episode of Mr. Belvedere, Dibie obscured the actor, Christopher Hewett, in shadows until the beam of a flashlight revealed his face. A technical director in the control room issued an order to raise the lights. Dibie answered, “What’s the point of writing a night scene if you light it like its daytime?”
He won a small victory, but that’s the stuff great careers are build on.
Dibie earned a reputation as an actor-friendly cinematographer.
“I believe in actors,” he explained. “Without them, none of us would have jobs. They aren’t paid to hit marks. They are paid to perform and follow their instincts.”
He also mastered the art of visual nuances. Dibie typically altered lighting on standing sets every week to vary looks and augment story points.
Dibie never forgot that television is a medium of faces.
“You always want to be able to look into people’s eyes, and that means you have to light everyone differently,” he explains.
He used Obie lights on video cameras to put a sparkle into deep-set eyes, and used warm kickers and liners on both sides of faces when working with dark skinned actors.
There are legends about the D-B net, a gauze fabric he discovered during a visit to France. Dibie put it behind the lens, usually with combinations of glass diffusion in front. It helped him render kinder looks that make performers look better.
His sets were always relaxed, and everyone was “sexy.” His talented crews functioned like a well-oiled machine.
Dibie earned Emmy awards for Mr. Belvedere, Growing Pains, Just the Ten of Us, and Sister, Sister. There were other nominations for Night Court, Growing Pains, Dudley and Sister, Sister. That’s just a small sample of his work. Keep in mind that situation comedies produced on film weren’t eligible for Emmy consideration while he was shooting. His other comedy credits include Room for Two, F.Y.I., Trouble with Larry, Nothing In Common, The Ellen Burstyn Show and Good Behavior. He also lensed the pilots for such hits series as Murphy Brown, Driving Miss Daisy, My Sister Sam and Head of the Class. His specials included an NBC Dinah Shore Special, a CBS Glenn Ford Special and an Easter Seal Telethon, and there were many telefilms.
During the early 1980s, the Guild recruited Dibie to conduct workshops to train cinematographers and their crews to artfully and efficiently produce multi-camera programs on both film and videotape. In 1984, Frank Stanley, ASC encouraged him to run for second vice president of Local 659. Soon afterwards, Stanley became ill and retired. Dibie served the rest of his term and was re-elected in 1986. There were some 1,200 members.
His initial priorities included opening membership to all qualified individuals, and encouraging a more diversified membership with outreach programs. Within one to two years, there were 1,000 new members. The Guild took a giant step forward in May 1996, when the three camera Locals merged into one national organization led by Dibie who believes there is strength in numbers. There are 6,000 members today.
What keeps him going? Dibie replied, “I love the work. … You are helping to create a fantasy world that millions of people will watch on a movie or television screen. … You are painting or writing with light, colors, contrast and composition to tell a story. That was my boyhood dream when I was only seven or eight years old, and it has all come true. That is why I fight so hard for our Guild and its members. It’s my way of thanking all the people who helped me.”