This past October, at the Ojai Film Festival in Ojai, California, cinematographer Owen Roizman, ASC received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Packed into a weekend of screenings, filmmakers and locals had the chance to attend an afternoon conversation with Owen about his work.
Owen introduced himself by explaining that “I was lucky, I grew up in the film business, so it was a natural evolution for me to work in this industry.” He majored in math and physics in college, because “I was good at it.” But instead of continuing along that path, he began working in the entertainment industry. “I don’t want to say my college education was a waste,” he explained with a laugh, “because it wasn’t. I learned about things like the angle of incidence equals angle of reflection, which is one of the basics of optics.”
Owen selected various clips of his work to show, noting that each scene he chose represented a particular problem that needed to be solved in its own unique way. “One of the important things about problem solving,” he noted, “is that in every movie, every shot, it’s up to the cinematographer to solve those problems; to make every scene work.”
The first scene he showed was from “a little film called ‘The French Connection,’” he explained; it was a simple scene in the bar. The scene involved two police officers as they enter a bar and beginning harassing the clientele. Gene Hackman takes one man into the Men’s Room to talk to him. “The room smelled so bad that I didn’t even want to be in there,” said Owen. “There was one light bulb; we changed the bulb, used some hairspray to tone down the hot spot on it and shot with just the one light.” The most important thing Owen wanted to do was keep the set authentic, “the grungier, the better. In the bar area, there was a row of lights over the bar, but it wasn’t enough to get a proper exposure, so I simple added some extra bulbs to the existing ones.” The film stock they used was a slower film stock, Kodak 5254, and Owen underexposed it “because I wanted it to look gritty, and it created the look I wanted. Fortunately, nobody questioned me. I did what I felt was necessary – it was a style I had in mind – and I baked the look into the negative, so there was very little extra information that could be pulled from the shadows.” When questioned why he did that, he answered, “I did it so nobody could change the look for television or make it look pretty. Story is everything, and this look helped make the story real.” For this film, which was only the second film he shot and the first one released, Owen received his first Oscar nomination.
The second example shown was an iconic scene from “The Exorcist,” directed by Billy Friedkin, which garnered Owen his second Oscar nomination. The scene was the exorcism, which he chose because they shot on a stage at the old Fox Studio on 10th Avenue in New York, where they had to have the room cold enough to see the actors’ breath. “We were able to get the temperature down to 20 degrees below zero every morning. The room had to be refrigerated with air conditioners, but since the ACs were extremely noisy, we had to turn them off while we did the lighting, turn them back on to cool off the room, and off again while we did the actual shooting. Needless to say, the scene took a long time to shoot. One of the challenges was to find the smallest lights possible, so as not to build up the heat up too quickly. In those days we had no cool movie lights.”
Another challenge Owen faced was that Billy didn’t like backlights. “Since Billy didn’t want to see any backlight, which is how you see cold breath, we had to find a different solution. I had two electricians hand-hold inky-dink lights with snoots on them, so they only backlit the breath.” Owen explained how the crew had to work in their heaviest outdoor clothes and winterize the cameras. “It took us almost three months to shoot what was originally scheduled for 22 days, and during that time, as Linda grew up; she started to change a lot.” Owen admitted that this was the most difficult movie he ever worked on. “The whole movie, every bit of it, was a challenge. Billy and I agreed up front that it had to be real-looking; if we could make it feel real, then people would hopefully buy into it.” When it came to the head-spinning of the character Linda played, the trick was coordinating eye movement with the turning of the head, said Owen. “After the first take, I said to the brilliant special effects person Marcel Vercoutere, ‘What about the breath?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You got me. Give me a few minutes.’” They used very few optical effects, preferring mostly in-camera, because “simply put, it looked better that way,” said Owen.
Another in-camera effect was the levitation section. “When we shot from the side, Linda was on wires, and when we were above her looking down, she was on a pedestal. The challenge was to hide the wires. We used a trick I learned shooting commercials: when you paint wires with dotted lines, it helps to conceal the wires in the movement of the shutter, so they virtually disappear,” he explained. Every shot was different, every scene was different, and Owen related that it all comes down to “your bag of tricks, which translates into the word ‘experience.’”
Another scene Owen showed was from “Three Days of the Condor,” which had two men walking on a bridge at night in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument also in view in the background. The challenge: the scene took place on a small bridge with no superstructure and no lighting, and nowhere to place any lights because they were over water. “We were scheduled for a whole night of shooting,” said Owen, “and we wrapped by 10 p.m.” His simple approach, working with Stephen Grimes, the production designer, included finding balustrade lights that they spaced out along the small handrail that ran the length of the bridge. They made some of them slightly brighter than others so that they could have some variation in the intensity as the men walked along the bridge. “We used four #2 photofloods on the backs of the actual streetlights, giving them a bit of modeling as the characters passed each one.” Owen also used one 2K zip light right over the top of the lens to fill the actors faces so they wouldn’t go completely black. “Then we varied the intensity of that light with the use of a dimmer and constantly changing nets to accentuate the feeling of movement and changing light,” he explained. They shot that scene all in one take, which was Sydney Pollack’s idea, and from Owen’s perspective, a simple approach to a difficult problem. “I worked wide open on the lens to balance the lights with the monument lights in the background. They were fantastic lenses, from Panavision, because they have the best,” noted Owen.
The final clip that was shown was from a scene in “Wyatt Earp,” for which Owen was nominated for his fifth Oscar. The scene involved shooting a night sequence in a train yard, which was scheduled for four nights of shooting. Owen established the look with a cool backlight, smoke, and a warm half-light on the faces. By the second night, it started raining, which was not planned for. “I went to director Larry Kasdan, and said, ‘Larry, I can’t stop the rain, and nothing will match what we’ve already shot,’ to which Larry replied, ‘you have to find a way because we have to stay on schedule.’ I had to completely change the style of lighting to hide the rain in order to match everything that we had already completed.” Owen explained that the way you see rain is to backlight it, “and since I started the first night by backlighting everything, now, in order to hide the rain, I would have to completely change the style of what I had done so far. When you don’t backlight, you don’t see it, so we used big pieces of white to reflect light into the sides of the railroad cars, therefore creating silhouettes and semi silhouettes.” Owen admitted that “I could never get away with telling Larry that I couldn’t do something, so I fooled even myself with that one. I think the end result was great, and we stayed on schedule. That was a really tough shoot.” Owen pointed out a few people in the audience: “Two great people here today who worked with me on ‘Wyatt Earp,’ Billy Roe, who was my camera operator and who has become a fantastic director of photography and now director, and my son Eric, who was one of my camera assistants and is now a brilliant camera operator.”
Owen took some questions from the audience, including a question about the use of digital intermediate (DI). “I think it’s a great tool to have in the bag, but used in the wrong way it’s a disaster. It could mean someone else might be color correcting your movies,” which is what Owen faced two years ago when “French Connection” was color-corrected. “I hadn’t been invited, so I wasn’t there,” he said simply. Fortunately, it was re-done, “and this time I was there to assure that it would look the way it was intended to look.” The final question involved his work on “Tootsie,” directed by Sydney Pollack. “It was a lot of work and I had great support with Sydney Pollack.” He noted that Panavision “came through for us and made special eyeglasses that Dustin would wear so they wouldn’t reflect off our movie lights.”
Later that evening, Owen received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ojai Film Festival. In the audience were friends and family, including cinematographers Daryn Okada, ASC, Bill Roe, ASC, Francis Kenny, ASC, Richard Crudo, ASC and Crescenzo Notarile, ASC. His wife, Mona, and son Eric were also there. Owen spoke of his appreciation for his friends and family, adding that “the artists always appreciate being recognized for their work.” He explained that “being a cinematographer is truly a great profession. We have a chance to have our work seen by millions of people all over the world. It really doesn’t get any better than that.”