Mitchell Amundsen - Photo by D. Kirkland
“When I got started, I was very lucky to work on crews with talented cinematographers and camera operators. I learned that a cinematographer is only as good as his or her crew. We are like a family working together for a common purpose. ... I love the look of film – the colors, contrast and skin tones. I love the freedom that film gives you to shoot into the light without losing details in the shadows, and to shoot into the shadows without losing details in the brightest highlights. It’s the way that the human eye sees the world. I believe that the stories we tell on film can affect how we see and think about the world. It’s a universal language that everyone understands.”
Mitchell Amundsen mastered the art and craft of cinematography while working on camera crews on some 50 projects around the world. His cinematography credits include Transporter 2, Transformers, Wanted, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience and the upcoming releases of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and High School.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A Conversation with Mitchell Amundsen
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
AMUNDSEN: I was born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County in a town called Larkspur. My dad sold insurance and real estate. People from the 1960s music scene lived in that neighborhood. The Grateful Dead lived two blocks away and Janis Joplin lived a block away. That was part of my upbringing. When I was around 10 years old, my dad bought a boat in Sausalito that we also called home.
Were you interested in photography or a movie fan?
There was no film in my upbringing. It was all about music. My grandmother lived in San Francisco on the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a district at the heart of the 1960s hippie music scene. She lived on the second story of an apartment building. My mother wouldn’t let me hang out with the people on the street. I remember looking out the window and watching the street scene. I’m still a hippie at heart.
Some cinematographers have made interesting comparisons to creating music and making films. Were you just an observer of the hippie music scene, or did it inspire you to learn to play an instrument?
I was about 9 years old at that time. I had a guitar that I tried to play, but it didn’t come naturally; I’m tone deaf. On the other hand, when I picked up a camera, I had a natural inclination for still photography.
When did that happen?
Around the time I was a freshman in high school.
What motivated your interest in still photography?
I was always interested in imagery. I drew a lot, and was fascinated by the crazy, psychedelic posters that were on the streets in the Haight-Ashbury district. I loved the music, but didn’t have a natural ear for it. Photography came easy to me from the time I picked up my first 35 mm camera in a high school photography class.
What were the subjects of your photography?
I took pictures of everything, including people and landscapes. One of my favorite photographs from that time in my life was a shot of rows of mailboxes that belonged to people who lived in the houseboats in Sausalito.
Were you also a movie fan during that period of your life?
I was a big movie fan. I loved The Godfather. I remember deciding to read the book before seeing the movie. Apocalypse Now was my favorite movie. I was a fan of all of Coppola’s films. I ended up working for him for a while.
How did you get to work for Francis Ford Coppola?
I went to college in Bozeman, Montana, because they had a great still photography school. I also took motion picture classes, which sparked my interest in cinematography. When I returned home to Marin County, a friend who was selling computer chips for motion control shots to ILM got me a tour through their facility. That was around 1980 and I’d been in film school for about two years. While I was on that tour, a guy told me that Coppola’s people were looking for a production assistant to run cable for a movie that he was going to make. He asked if I would be willing to leave school and work on that movie.
What was your answer?
A week later, I was being paid $100 a week to run coaxial cable during the production of One From the Heart. It was an amazing experience. They were shooting at a studio on stages that Coppola owned. Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC) was the cinematographer. Every Friday night they had a party to celebrate.
Did you get to talk with Vittorio Storaro?
I was next to him all the time, pulling cable that hooked up the camera to the video monitor. I kept thinking, I’m talking with the guy who shot Apocalypse Now. That was such an amazing experience.
How long were you a P.A.?
During the next couple of years I worked on The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Steve Burum (ASC) was the cinematographer. My last film as a glorified cable puller was The Cotton Club. Stephen Goldblatt (ASC, BSC) was the cinematographer.
Getting to watch and talk with those talented cinematographers had to be the best education you could get at that early stage of your career.
I was very lucky. Luck is a big part of this industry, but when opportunities come your way, you have to be able to recognize those moments and grab the chance being offered.
What did you learn watching Stephen Goldblatt shoot The Cotton Club?
I learned the importance of patience. Francis (Ford Coppola) was writing and rewriting the screenplay while we were shooting. Stephen would light the set and be ready to roll, and then Francis would walk on the set and say they were going to shoot in the other direction. Stephen was always very patient. He’d say, OK, and re-light the set. That was a different time. Today, if the cameras aren’t rolling, someone from the studio is on the phone asking why we aren’t shooting!
Who were some of the other people who influenced your thinking during that pivotal time in your life and career?
When I was working on video assist during production of The Cotton Club, I was looking at composition on the monitor all the time. Michael Stone was the camera operator. He became one of my main mentors. I learned so much by watching how he helped to build scenes by the way he framed images. It was the same on One From the Heart. I watched the video monitor to see how Enrico Umetelli was composing shots. Enrico was the coolest guy on the set. He wasn’t happy that they were using video assist, because he wasn’t used to anybody seeing what he was doing until the director and his key crew watched dailies. It was another wonderful opportunity for me to learn.
What was your next step up through the camera crew system?
I became an AC (assistant cameraman) around 1984 and worked on films with Ralph Bode, Barry Sonnenfeld, Michael Ballhaus and other cinematographers. Although it was a great experience watching them, I jumped at the first opportunity to become a camera operator when the chance presented itself.
Before we move on to talking about that, share some memories about the experiences you had working on crews with those amazing cinematographers. Tell us about what it was like working on movies with Michael Ballhaus.
I was a camera loader on The House on Carroll Street and a focus puller on The Glass Menagerie. Michael was charismatic; He inspired everyone around him.
You stepped up to operating around 1990. One of your first projects as a camera operator was Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare with Declan Quinn.
Declan is a fantastic cinematographer. He was going to operate the camera himself, because it was a very low budget film, but he threw his back out and called me out of the blue and asked me to operate for him. We have very similar taste. The last five minutes of that film was shot in 3-D format with two Panaflex cameras mounted with a beam splitter. The director didn’t want an ordinary 3-D sequence. She wanted a handheld effect, because it felt scarier. Two Panaflex cameras were mounted on a 200 pound beam splitter using a cable system that made it possible to move them around.
What was that experience like?
It gave me a sense of what it was like when they were making those great movies with those big, heavy cameras in earlier times.
Do you have any other memories to share about that frightening movie?
Looking back, it was a terrific educational experience that taught me how to use the camera to illicit specific emotional responses. In this case, we used the camera to heighten the tension and frighten the audience.
You got to work as a camera operator with other talented cinematographers. One of them was John Bailey, ASC in In the Line of Fire. How did you hook up with John?
I was a camera operator for John Schwartzman (ASC) on Bennie and Joon. The editor was Carol Littleton, who is John Bailey’s wife. Both she and Michael Stone recommended me to John. Michael was the A camera operator. I operated the B camera. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. Clint Eastwood was in the lead role, and he doesn’t do more than a couple takes. There were action scenes on rooftops and on the edge of cliffs. We did rehearsals with Clint’s stand-in. I definitely felt pressure to get those shots with Clint right the first or second time.
You also worked on various films with Ralf Bode, another great cinematographer. Can you share memories of what it was like working with him?
He was a talented cinematographer and a very nice man. I worked on some of his films as a loader and as an assistant during my formative years. Ralf brought me onto Gypsy (1993) as the A camera operator. We were a family. There was a lot of improvising when Bette Midler came out and sang and danced for five minutes without stopping. It was a lot of fun. I had an amazing dolly grip who never missed a beat. Ralf gave us a lot of freedom. He said, 'Show me what you guys can do.' Every take was different. We were moving and dancing with Bette.
You were also operator on a film that Bill Butler, ASC shot.
That was Flipper. Bill was amazing. He was jumping from boat to boat to boat. Michael Stone was the operator. I was on the second unit. Our mission was to create a library of footage of dolphins. I was in the Bahamas for two months filming dolphins at sunset, dawn and the middle of the day. I didn’t spend much time with Bill.
You also were a camera operator on a number of John Schwartzman, ASC films.
I connected with John in an unusual way. After working as a PA on The Cotton Club, I stayed in New York for four years and worked my way up to assistant. I was the focus puller for a low-budget film called Heathers. John had just come out of film school. They let him shoot second unit. After that movie, I was at a rental house checking lenses out for a project when John came in to check his lenses for a low-budget commercial. They couldn’t afford an assistant to check out the equipment so I did it for him. He called me to work on his next commercial. I was an operator on Benny and Joon, Mr. Wrong, Conspiracy Theory and Armageddon.
How did you get your first job as a cinematographer?
John Schwartzman (ASC) had to leave Armageddon to prep EDtv about two weeks before we finished. As the operator, I was already working with the crew and knew what had to be done to be consistent with John’s cinematography. After that, John brought me on to shoot second unit for EDtv. I was also his second unit cameraman on Pearl Harbor, which was directed by Michael Bay. There Michael was leapfrogging back and forth between the first and second units. He would set up a huge shot with the first unit, and while John was preparing to shoot it, Michael was setting up another monster shot with me and the second unit.
What was your first feature film job?
It was a Disney film called The Country Bears. It was a combination of live action and animatronics. The challenge was to light so that the two elements looked natural and seamless. That film came out against some very tough competition, and didn’t do very well at the box office. Consequently, I went back to second unit work on The Bourne Supremacy.
Tell us about that experience.
I traveled to seven different countries, including Russia. I lived and worked in Moscow for two months before I met Oliver Wood who was the cinematographer. I was working with Germans, Russians, and the French and English on my crew in different places. After that, I did second unit work on The Island and a few other films until I was offered to shoot Transporter 2.
Share some memories about working on Transporter 2.
The director was Louis Leterrier, who is a Frenchman. It was a low-budget movie that we shot in Miami in constant rainfall. Louis was very spontaneous. He saw opportunities to do interesting things, and went for those shots. I was used to doing that on second unit projects, so I was ready.
What did you work on after Transporter 2?
I worked with Michael Bay on Transformers. Michael has a great eye and a talent for finding the right backgrounds for the actors and scenes. That’s one reason why his films are successful. He transports his audience to a different time and place and drops them into his experience and into his story.
After that you shot Wanted. What was that experience like?
Wanted was a very interesting film with Morgan Freeman in the lead role. We had a Russian director (Timur Bekmambetov) who had never worked on a U.S. film. It was a learning experience for both of us. He came from a different type of filmmaking culture, where they would shoot scenes for three weeks, go into a cutting room, and come back three weeks later and shoot some more. He had to make adjustments working on an American film, but he had brilliant ideas for great imagery.
You have two films in postproduction now.
They are two totally different types of films. G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra is an action film with an international police force going after global arms dealers. We shot that film in Prague and different U.S. cities. High School is about kids and drugs. It’s an independent film with a modest budget. We shot it in about two-and-a-half months at practical locations in Novi, a small town about an hour drive from Detroit, Michigan. It was an interesting project with a talented director, John Stalberg.
There is a lot of fascination today with digital intermediate technology (DI). What role do you think it plays in the world of cinematography?
DI is another tool for cinematographers, like deciding what camera or lenses are right for a movie or which film is right for a scene. You can fine tune looks in DI when there isn’t time on location, but I believe it’s important for the cinematographer to be in the game from beginning to end. It all begins with the images that you record on the negative. It isn’t always easy, but you have to persevere.
What thoughts can you share with us about how coming up through the ranks of the camera crew system influences you as a cinematographer?
I think that experience is invaluable. A cinematographer is only as good as his or her crew. We are like a family, working together for a common purpose, to make the best possible motion picture. Everyone plays a role and we all rely on each other.
Do you think of film as pure entertainment or something more?
I believe that the stories that we tell on film can affect how we see and think about the world. It’s a universal language that everyone understands.
You have already compiled an extraordinary range of experience on big and small budget films in different genres in countries around the world. In 2008, Daily Variety chose you as one of 10 cinematographers to watch in the future. Looking ahead, what are your thoughts and feeling about the future of film?
I love the look of film … the colors, contrast and skin tones. I love the freedom that film gives you to shoot into the light without losing details in the shadows and to shoot into the shadows without losing details in the brightest highlights … it’s the way the human eye sees the world.