ONFILM Interview: Michael Goi, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Michael Goi, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"I believe in magic. As a child, I watched 8 mm movies projected on the living room wall at a friend's house and gazed at the frames as they danced toward the light. That these images on a piece of celluloid could tell stories, take me to strange places, teach me about the past, and inspire me toward the future was absolutely magical to me. When I was 8 years old, my parents bought me a secondhand movie camera and I never looked back. ... The power of cinematographic images circles the entire world. It goes beyond entertainment, beyond information. It is an indelible document of who we are and what we believe; something that cannot be erased - a work of art born from a passion for light and shadow. … When I finish a movie, I still ask the projectionist if I can rewind the last reel so I can see the frames and watch the cuts go by. The magic is still there."

Michael Goi, ASC earned an Emmy® nomination for My Name is Earl and ASC Award nominations for the television films The Fixer and Judas. He has earned more than 50 credits, including The Mentalist, Who Killed Atlanta's Children?, The Dukes, Red Water and Expecting Mary. Goi is president of the American Society of Cinematographers.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
GOI: I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, initially in the Lakeview area. I eventually lived in different parts of the city.

QUESTION: What did your parents do?
GOI: My father was a cook, and my mother had various jobs, including working for companies that made contact lenses and speedometers.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan during your youth?
GOI: I was always a movie fan. I have vivid memories of seeing Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster when I was 5 years old. And I saw short versions of Frankenstein and Dracula during a birthday party at a friend's house. They had them on 8 mm film. I remember being fascinated by the strip of film going through the projector. I had been to movie theaters with my parents, but this was the first time I realized that the images came from that strip of film with all of those little images dancing through the projector. I remember my friend telling me that I was looking in the wrong place. The movie was up on the screen. I said, 'No it isn't; it's on the film going through the projector.' That was the first time I realized that a bunch of individual images became moving pictures.

QUESTION: Did you go to movie theaters often?
GOI: There was a theater called the Parkway Theater that was within walking distance of our house. They had three double features a week for a 50 cent admission price. I remember them showing Charlton Heston's Will Penny along with Phyllis Diller's Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady in a double feature. It was a small, run-down theater with people smoking in the back. The screen was never blank. There was always something on it. They would show travelogues, short films, trailers and movies. The Parkway Theater was part of my education about film. I got to see such a huge diversity of movies that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten to see.

QUESTION: Do you recall what motivated your interest in films?
GOI: Part of it was being diagnosed with progressive blindness when I was 13 years old. The doctors thought I was going to be completely blind by the time I was 30. I had already seen many movies, but I accelerated my movie-going, because I wanted to have all those images in my memory when my sight went away.

QUESTION: Fortunately it didn't. Weren't you also a photography buff?
GOI: I was interested in anything visual. I loved paintings. I was always going to art galleries. My still photography became an extension of my love of art. I wanted to re-create the lighting and composition I saw in my favorite paintings. That turned into another obsession.

QUESTION: Did you have a mentor or did you teach yourself?
GOI: I pretty much did it myself. I grew up in a neighborhood where the big ambition was to become the head pumper at the local gas station. I think I was 8 years old when I decided that I wanted to go to Hollywood and make movies.

QUESTION: How did you teach yourself?
GOI: I had a little Kodak Brownie camera when I was 6 or 7 years old. That's when I learned to frame pictures. When I was 8 years old, my parents bought me a secondhand 8 mm movie camera. I corralled kids in the neighborhood to be actors in little movies that I shot. Mostly, they were homages to silent movies that I loved.

QUESTION: How did you get to see silent movies?
GOI: There was a company called Blackhawk Films which sold silent movies in 8 mm, Super 8 and 16 mm formats. I had a huge collection. My favorites included Metropolis, Keystone Kop movies by Mack Sennett, and films featuring Buster Keaton. When I was 14, I got a secondhand, 16 mm Bolex camera. That was a step up the ladder.

QUESTION: What type of films did you make in 8 mm?
GOI: Mostly films of my family and the neighborhood kids. After I shot and edited a film, I would set up a screen at night and project it for my family and friends. One time I put a sheet on the front window of the apartment where we lived, and rear projected my movies on it. The kids stood outside and watched. It was like a drive-in theater.

QUESTION: What kinds of films did you make with your Bolex camera?
GOI: I got my Bolex camera when I was entering Lane Tech High School. Buying stock, processing film and making work prints was expensive. I had to find a way to make money, so I started finding small companies that I could produce low-budget commercials for on weekends. They were mainly for clients which advertised on Hispanic television stations.

QUESTION: Were there any other influences at that stage of your life?
GOI: I helped to organize a film society at school, and made lifelong friends.

QUESTION: What did you do after graduating from high school?
GOI: I thought about enlisting in one of the military services, because I was in an ROTC unit in high school. I kind of liked the discipline. My parents encouraged me to follow my dreams and do what I loved. I enrolled in the filmmaking program at Columbia College in Chicago. By then, I had already made a bunch of 16 mm movies.

QUESTION: What was the program at Columbia College like?
GOI: I was surrounded by a lot of people who shared my dream and were happy to work on my crews when I shot films. I loved both editing and shooting. When I saw Days of Heaven, shot by Nestor Alemendros (ASC), it pushed me in the direction of being a cinematographer. I shot over 100 student films while I was at Columbia. I still hold the record.

QUESTION: Was there anybody at Columbia College who influenced you?
GOI: Jeff Jur (ASC) was a big influence. Jeff was a student who was a year or two ahead of me. He was doing groundbreaking cinematography on his student films. I was an electrician on his crew. Later, I worked with Jeff on some professional projects. I learned a lot by osmosis, including how a director of photography should conduct himself on a set, and how to plan coverage when you design sequences. Quite a few cinematographers came from Columbia, like Janusz Kaminski and Mauro Fiore (ASC). The college has quite the alumni.

QUESTION: What did you do after graduation?
GOI: I teamed up with James Martin, an instructor at Columbia College, on some local PBS documentaries while I was still a student. One of them was about how the decline of steel mills affected the neighborhood where the former employees lived. I shot another documentary about how residents in a public housing project on the south side of Chicago were fighting for the right to run their own buildings. That film was called Fired Up. It got a lot of attention. We stayed at the toughest housing projects in Chicago while we were filming that documentary. It became obvious to us that the administrators were completely out of touch with what the residents needed. The residents were fighting to get the city to fix broken windows and screens, and kids were falling off balconies that needed to be repaired. Some of them actually died. I went up to one of the upper floors to film a crowd of about 300 people who were confronting the mayor. I turned around, and there was a baby on the balcony crawling towards a broken railing. It took me the space of time of exactly 22 frames of film to decide to drop the camera and go grab the kid. They didn't get the money they needed to fix the building.

QUESTION: What were the tools and media used to shoot those documentaries?
GOI: I was using CP 16 and Éclair NPR cameras, and 7247, a 100-speed Kodak negative.

QUESTION: We heard that you also had a still photography studio around that time. Tell us about that, and what type of photography you did.
GOI: I was shooting documentaries and commercials. Some of the ad agencies wanted still photographs to tie into their commercial campaigns. I bought a couple of Canon F1 still cameras and opened a studio so we could build sets. I was shooting everything from fashion photos to machine parts.

QUESTION: How long did you do still photography?
GOI: I was a still photographer, in addition to shooting documentaries, commercials and industrial films, for eight years.

QUESTION: What did you learn from that experience?
GOI: It taught me a lot about how to film faces. When you are shooting one frame at a time, you get a real sense of how composition, focus and the light that falls on faces can speak louder than words. A lot of that also came out of my documentary experience. Documentaries also taught me how to think on my feet and how to work with people.

QUESTION: What was your first narrative feature film?
GOI: My first feature film was Moonstalker. It was produced in Reno, Nevada, in 1989. We shot it in 18 days, mainly in the woods at night with 7247 16 mm film. There was a blizzard two days before we started filming and the entire location had to be dug out with bulldozers. The weather was literally freezing while we were shooting. I'm still happy with the way Moonstalker looks. A Swedish company released it on DVD about five years ago. Then the Swedish distribution company went out of business a week after they released it.

QUESTION: When and why did you move to Los Angeles?
GOI: I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 because I felt that I had exhausted what I could do in Chicago. I love Chicago, but the heart of the industry is in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I arrived in time for a recession that made jobs hard to find. For the first six months, I lived on three hot dogs a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner - that cost a total of 99 cents at the mini-mart.

QUESTION: How did you spend your time in a strange city when you weren't working or looking for work?
GOI: I met Forrest J. Ackerman at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax at a showing of Metropolis. He was the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, of which I was an avid reader when I was growing up. It turned out we lived three blocks away from each other. His house was a museum of movie memorabilia. I loved hanging out there. He had props from every horror and sci-fi movie you could name. I would also drive to the mountains, because I loved hiking. I also went to many seminars to learn more about the industry and to meet people. I finally got a call from a guy who was the first AD on Moonstalker. He asked if I was willing to work as a grip on a low-budget, martial arts movie that was going to be produced in Las Vegas. I was also the still photographer and second unit cinematographer on that film. That got me started shooting low-budget action films.

QUESTION: What was the next milestone?
GOI: Charlie Carner, whom I had worked with in Chicago, was writing and directing television movies. I went to Toronto with him to shoot a Showtime movie called The Fixer. That was a turning point that got me noticed. It was a wonderful experience. The producer was Tony Bill, who produced The Sting and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Fixer was nominated for an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award in 1998.

QUESTION: How did that affect your career?
GOI: It got me more attention and positioned me as a cinematographer who had some vision. That same year, I shot a film called Hundred Percent in anamorphic format with about a 1.5 million dollar budget. I was very proud of that film, so I sent invitations to my cinematography heroes to attend a screening at the Egyptian Theater. Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC) actually showed up. I told him how much it meant to me that he came to see my movie. Our conversation was very inspiring for me.

QUESTION: That's interesting. Of course, Vilmos immigrated to the United States after he escaped from communist Hungary, but his career is similar in some ways to yours in that he started out shooting very low-budget films.
GOI: That's not unusual. I'm a huge movie buff. I have over 10,000 Laserdiscs and DVDs of movies in my collection. The fascinating thing is when you look at the early movies of some of the most talented and successful cinematographers, you can see their creativity and artistry in their early, low-budget films. You see it in the camera angles, composition, movement and they how they used light and darkness.

QUESTION: If you had to pick one or a few of your own films that you would want to show to your peers what would you choose?
GOI: I feel like I'm still waiting to do the movie that shows what my vision is as a cinematographer. It's not like I beat myself up at the end of every production. You're always trying to do something better, but there are certain experiences that always come to mind. One of them was a film called What Matters Most. It was a $750,000 movie produced in a small town in Texas with a population of about 800. I had already agreed to shoot another film when the producer called. She told me that the director had breast cancer and would be going to chemotherapy sessions every Tuesday. I met with the director, and we got along very well. She had some very good ideas, and her daughter was cast in a leading role. Her husband raised the money to finance the film. This project was a testament to the solidarity of their family. It was a wonderful and challenging experience. After I finished color timing that film, I went to Morocco to shoot another movie. While I was in Morocco, the director's husband called and told me that his wife had passed away, but she saw the final print three days before she died. She asked him to thank me for her.

QUESTION: Your peers have chosen you to be president of the American Society of Cinematographers. Does that make you feel that you have arrived?
GOI: No. It is certainly an overwhelming honor and a sign of trust that they have given me to steer the ship toward the future, and it's a responsibility that I take very seriously. But I still haven't had the feeling that I've arrived. I think 'making it' means different things to different people. For me, it still means shooting a movie that will stand the test of time like The Godfather or Days of Heaven. But now it also means that I've created a film of social significance which resonates with people and causes them to think differently. That's what I tried to do when I wrote and directed Megan is Missing.

QUESTION: Tell us about the history of that project.
GOI: I was shooting a television show, coming home at night, turning on the TV set and seeing reports about children being abducted and murdered by predators. It seemed like an epidemic to me. I did some research and encountered a couple of people who had a website about the abduction of a young girl. After speaking with them about that case, I decided to make a documentary. One of the people I was speaking with is a forensic investigator. I also got details about other cases I had seen on television. This coincided with Melanie Harrison and Mark Gragnani, my longtime friends and producing partners in Chicago, moving to Los Angeles. I've known Mark since college. They wanted to produce a movie to get them going in the Los Angeles area. I told them that I wanted to make a movie on the subject of abducted children and internet predators, and they said fine. I wrote the script in 10 days. I write fast because I don't like to write. Originally, we planned to cast 18 year old actors who could pass for being younger teenagers because I didn't want to deal with directing actual kids in this type of role. But what happened is a lot of actresses who were in their late 20's put their hair in pigtails and came to audition. That wasn't exactly working for the movie I was trying to make. When it became obvious that we'd have to use real kids in the roles, we hired a casting director who found the right young girls. We arranged to have their parents read the script and meet with me to make certain they understood what the movie was about, and that it's a very edgy, gritty story.

QUESTION: What was the next hurdle?
GOI: I had a two-week break between shooting a movie and a television series. We shot Megan is Missing in eight-and-a-half days in-between those two projects. On one day we shot 32 pages in 10-and-a-half hours, which was our longest day. Most of the days were around six hours. I concentrated on directing and worked with two cinematographers, Josh Harrison and Keith Eisberg, because we were going to be shooting in two different areas at the same time. I didn't want to be in a video village. In fact, we didn't even have a video village. I wanted to be standing behind the camera watching the most critical performance for that scene.

QUESTION: Cinematography is a unique art that has been compared to a composter creating music or someone painting a work of art. It also requires mastering a complex technical craft. Do some people confuse the art and craft?
GOI: I will give you a specific example. While speaking at a seminar in Florida, I asked if there were any questions. A student asked, don't you think that your job as a cinematographer is obsolete? I asked him what he meant by that. He said anybody who picks up a digital camera today is instantly a cinematographer. I asked him if I gave him an electric guitar, would he instantly become Eric Clapton? The false belief that new technology inherently increases your aesthetic ability is definitely circulating, but it's not something that actual filmmakers or anyone intelligent believes. The reality is that the tools are always going to change. What you have to decide is whether any new tool is better or worse, and whether they are right for your vision. There isn't a simple answer.

QUESTION: Do you have any other thoughts to share about this issue?
GOI: Some people seem to be in a frame of mind technologically where they are willing to settle for good enough. That's a dangerous place to be, because you always want to be reaching farther than your grasp. History has taught us that the winners in this industry are the people who ask, how can we make this a better film, rather than asking if it's good enough. The same is true of technology. I'm not in a big rush to leave behind a great tool just to use a newer one.

QUESTION: You have a diverse range of some 50 credits, including television series and movies and features, so we can't ask about all of your projects. Let's talk about Expecting Mary. How did this project come about?
GOI: It began with a call from a producer I had worked with on The Dukes. They originally spoke about producing The Dukes in high definition video format, because there was a modest budget. We produced it in Super 16 format instead, because it was an affordable way to create the right look for that story. I suggested that we produce Expecting Mary in Techniscope two-perf 35 mm and output an anamorphic release print. I'm a huge fan of the Spaghetti Westerns that Sergio Leone produced in Techniscope. The format is experiencing a renaissance today.

QUESTION: Why do you think that is happening?
GOI: It is an affordable way to produce very low budget films for release in widescreen 35 mm film format. The aspect ratio of the anamorphic frame was perfect for both the story and the practical locations where we planned to shoot this film. And the film stocks today are much better than when the format was in use in the 1960s and 1970s.

QUESTION: What is the movie about?
GOI: The story is about a 16 year old girl from a wealthy family who gets pregnant. She runs away from home because her family wants her to have an abortion. The girl stumbles into a community of eccentric people who live in a trailer park. One of them is a former showgirl who rallies everybody in the community to support the teenager during this difficult time in her life. The girl's parents ultimately reach out to her. She ends up giving birth on Christmas Eve. It's a family drama set in contemporary times.

QUESTION: It looks like the script attracted quite an all-star cast, including Elliott Gould, Linda Gray, Lainie Kazan, Cloris Leachman, Della Reese and Cybil Shepherd.
GOI: It was exciting working with those and other talented actors and actresses who believed in the story. We produced it at various practical locations and on a few sets, including a casino that we built in and around Los Angeles.

QUESTION: Dan Gordon wrote the script and directed this film. He is a veteran screenwriter who was taking his first turn at the helm on a feature film. How did you express your ideas for the visual grammar to him, including your approach to lighting, to be certain that you were both on the same track?
GOI: I always put together a visual concept DVD for directors whom I haven't worked with before. I selected shots from my DVD collection and transferred them onto another DVD. Then, I narrated the scenes to explain why I think the approach to lighting and shooting different shots would work for particular scenes in our film. That gives them a picture of how I plan to approach different scenes and verbal explanations of why. The goal is to put us in the ballpark. Dan agreed that the film should look and feel like a fantasy rather than reality. The trailer park is kind of a fantasy world for the girl. That's the way we approached shooting it. I used supra frost plastic filters on the lenses. They aren't in common use any more, but they helped us render the right look and colors that tell the audience this story is a fantasy. It's a subliminal rather than a conscious feeling.

QUESTION: How much time did you have to produce this film?
GOI: We shot it in 18 days. We were able to do that without compromising, because Dan usually got what he wanted in one or two takes. In addition to helping keep us on schedule, it was good for the actors and everyone else.

QUESTION: Was the use of two-perf 35 mm a purely financial decision?
GOI: It began as a convenient decision but it ended up being a really good aesthetic choice, partially because of the nature of our locations. Panavision provided the camera package, including 11:1 and 4:1 zooms and a set of prime spherical lenses. A lot of scenes took place in a trailer. We were able to frame characters in their settings with deep focus. I could also focus to subtly isolate a character or characters.

QUESTION: What films did you have on your palette?
GOI: We shot with (Kodak Vision3 500T) 5219 and (Kodak Vision2 250D) 5205, which gave us the latitude needed to shoot quickly, and manipulate light for the looks we wanted. First and foremost, I wanted the cast to look and feel attractive. Many of them were veteran actors in their 70s and 80s. I wanted them to feel comfortable with the idea that they were going to be presented as attractively and warmly as possible. We also want the film to feel like a reflection of what you would ideally like your life to look and feel like.

QUESTION: How about your approach to lighting the girl?
GOI: We started with no diffusion on her and kept the look a little on the moody side. As she begins feeling connected with the community, we began to create a glow around her. By the time she gives birth, she is glowing like an angel.

QUESTION: What role do you think movies and television play in our culture?
GOI: Movies are entertainment that has to show profit, but within that structure, there are filmmakers who create great movies that resonate with people. The Godfather and The Graduate are good examples. I think movies also have the power to motivate people to get involved and change things that need changing.