ONFILM Interview: Rodney Taylor, ASC

Published on website: August 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Rodney Taylor, ASC. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“I really believe in the power of cinema. The age of silent movies is behind us, but we still experience stories by watching images projected on a screen. My goal is to help make films I believe in by using cameras, lighting and lenses to tell stories in ways that go beyond spoken words. We made That Evening Sun using the 35 mm anamorphic format with a photochemical finish. The director, Scott Teems, wanted an organic feeling that I believe you can only achieve using film. Audiences can feel the difference, which evokes emotional responses that pulls them deeper into stories. I believe the cinema can play an important role in our world if we give talented filmmakers the freedom to tell stories.”

Rodney Taylor, ASC launched his career as a cameraman for ESPN. He transitioned to shooting IMAX® documentary and narrative films, including Alaska: Spirit of the Wild, Wildfire: Feel the Heat, The Legend of Loch Lomond and Wired to Win. In 2003, he received a Kodak Vision Award for his accomplishments in large format cinematography. His narrative film credits include Swimmers, Save Me, Home of the Giants and That Evening Sun starring Hal Holbrook.

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

A CONVERSATION WITH RODNEY TAYLOR, ASC

QUESTION: Where were you born and raised?
TAYLOR: I was born and raised in Sea Level, North Carolina. It's a small fishing village on the coast. My father was a fisherman and then served in the coast guard.

QUESTION: Were you a still photography hobbyist during your youth?
TAYLOR: My mother tells a story about me running around with her Brownie camera clicking away with no film in it when I was a kid. I got a Kodak Instamatic camera and took pictures in high school. I wasn’t a big photography buff, but I did go to the cinema a lot.

QUESTION: Are there movies that you remember from that period?
TAYLOR: I lived in the South, so there were a lot of Burt Reynolds films. I liked White Lightning and Gator was big in the South. Bill Fraker (ASC) shot Gator. It’s funny how much my taste in film has changed!

QUESTION: Did you have a boyhood ambition for your future?
TAYLOR: I loved music in high school, but I couldn't play an instrument that well. I gave some thought to becoming a recording engineer in the music industry or something like that. I never thought about working in the movie industry. Where I was from, you didn't consider Hollywood a possibility for your future. I didn't know that there were cinematographers and camera crews.

QUESTION: What did you do after completing high school?
TAYLOR: I wanted to go to a college for recording arts in San Francisco that I found out about while reading a music review magazine. My dad said, ‘Why don't you go to a four year college, get a degree first, and then if you want, you can study music. I'll do whatever I can to help.’ It turned out to be really wise advice. I went to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During my sophomore year, I went to North Carolina basketball games where I saw broadcast TV camera crews around the court. I thought that looked really cool. That inspired me to enroll in a broadcast television production class. The first time I looked through a viewfinder, I was hooked. During college I spoke to one of the cameramen on the sideline, Joe Vanderford. The Atlantic Coast Conference broadcasted live television coverage of basketball games as a bi-weekly event, so there were a lot of sports cameramen in Chapel Hill. I started pulling cable for them, and worked my way up through the camera crew system. I ended up working with the same guys I saw on the court and I still see Joe when he comes out for Laker games!

QUESTION: How did you transition from working on live television camera crews?
TAYLOR: I was also still an avid movie fan. During my last couple of years in college, I started noticing cinematography in movies. I finished college in 1982 and began working on live sports around the country for ESPN and other TV networks for around seven years. One day I just felt that I had accomplished what I wanted to do. I had covered every sport in different cities. I wanted to do something that would challenge me for the rest of my life. I loved movies, so I decided to become a cinematographer and work in the film industry. A friend on the TV crew, Robert Newton, introduced me to the film workshops in Maine and American Cinematographer magazine. I attended the workshops for a couple weeks, and then I moved to Los Angeles.

QUESTION: Did you have a job or know people who lived there?
TAYLOR: No. I didn't have a job. I had met Levie Isaacks, who went on to become an ASC member, at the Maine workshop. Levie told me that he was going to move to California. I said, ‘I'm thinking about moving there, too.’ After I arrived, I called Levie. He told me that he was shooting a test for a Roger Corman film the next day. I said that I would love to come watch. Levie said, ‘Watch? You are going to work!’ I was his assistant for the day, and then he offered me a job on second unit.

QUESTION: Tell us about that experience and how it affected your career and life.
TAYLOR: When I was at school, I concentrated on studying live broadcast television, because that was something I could do in North Carolina. The time I spent working on Roger Corman projects was my film school. Levie Isaacks was the first cameraman whom I worked with. Janusz Kaminski was his gaffer and Mauro Fiore (ASC) was his key grip. We all got along really well. We talked about films all hours of the night. It was an amazing experience.

QUESTION: Did you ever get to shoot a film for Roger Corman?
TAYLOR: No, I didn't. I was an assistant cameraman on three of his films.

QUESTION: When and how did you begin working on IMAX films?
TAYLOR: It came out of the blue. I was working in Los Angeles as an assistant cameraman for about two years when I got a call from Mehran Salamati, the cinematographer who invented Hot Gears. He said, ‘I'm looking for a camera assistant for an IMAX film. I’m going to shoot volcanoes in Japan next month. I'd like to meet you if you are interested.’

QUESTION: Do you know why he called you?
TAYLOR: I used to hang out at the Birns & Sawyer rental house in-between jobs. One of the technicians, Jay Elhami, recommended me to Mehran. I was honest. I told him that I didn’t know anything about IMAX. I told him he may have called the wrong guy. He said, ‘No, you got a great recommendation. I really want to meet you.’ We went to lunch. After we were done eating, he said I want you to go to Japan with me. I'll teach you everything you need to know. That was an incredible leap of faith on his part. I went to Japan with him. The first time I saw some of that film projected in IMAX format, I knew that was something I wanted to do.

QUESTION: What was the title of that first IMAX film?
TAYLOR: It was called Ring of Fire. Working on IMAX films was an amazing experience for me. Everyone I met working on IMAX films over the years did it because they were dedicated to that art form. I worked as an assistant cameraman on IMAX films for four to five years. I went all over the world, and worked on incredible films, including Search for the Great Sharks and Africa: The Serengeti, which was a highlight. The cinematographer on Africa: The Serengeti was a Canadian named Andy Kitzanuk. The director was George Casey who has been instrumental in my career. I was an assistant cameraman on a couple of IMAX films that he directed. I pestered him to give me a chance to shoot for a couple of years. I started working on Alaska: Spirit of the Wild as an assistant cameraman. George was the director. The original cinematographer had to leave before we could shoot a sequence with bears on a beach. George asked me to take over. That was an incredible experience. I remember that first day of shooting. There were going to be four of us going onto the beach with the camera. We asked our guide if we should worry about the bears. He counted us very quickly and said, no problem. Bears have never attacked more than four people at a time. We went down to the beach where the bears were with no way to protect ourselves, but I was so excited I didn't think about that. The bears were digging clams out of the sand. When a bear put his head down and started digging, we would pick up this 150 pound rig with the camera on a tripod and creep forward until he raised his head. We would stop, put the camera down and roll some footage. We kept doing that, getting closer and closer to the bears. I think we shot 5,000 feet of film that morning, which for George was an extraordinary amount of IMAX footage. Later, after we were finished, I remember sitting on the boat with George. He said, ‘Well that was a good morning. I think you shot plenty of footage. I guess you've been itching to get your hand on the trigger.’ George asked me to shoot the rest of the film.

QUESTION:     That was in 1995. You went on to shoot some amazing documentaries in IMAX format during the next half dozen years, including Wildfire: Feel the Heat, Olympic Glory, Amazing Journeys, The Legend of Loch Lomond, Michael Jordon to the Max and Wired to Win, to name just a few. In 2003, you were the recipient of the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography at the Large Format Cinema Association (now Giant Screen Cinema Association). What was that experience like?
TAYLOR: It was a great experience going to those conferences once a year where you would meet other filmmakers, watch some of their new films and talk with IMAX theater operators about how audiences react to the experience of seeing nature films and other documentaries produced in 65 mm format and projected on large screens. IMAX films are a unique experience that takes audiences to wonderful places around the world. I think there is a huge market for IMAX documentaries, but unfortunately so many of the theaters are now featuring narrative films that are produced in 35 mm or digital format and converted to IMAX.

QUESTION: IMAX is a contraction of the words image maximization. What are the lessons you have learned from shooting IMAX films that apply to narrative filmmaking?
TAYLOR: The IMAX documentaries I’ve shot had no script. You usually have a treatment or a wish list of things to get on film, but you really have to imagine how to tell the story by having the camera in the right places at the right times in the right light. It’s an incredible luxury that doesn't often happen on feature films. I had to be able to tell a story with the camera, because we didn’t know what the words would be later. So it was very important in learning to develop sequences within a film.

QUESTION: Have all of your IMAX films been produced in natural light?
TAYLOR: It depended on the film. The nature films were obviously shot in natural light. I had to learn how to anticipate and make the most of natural light. I have also shot IMAX films that are dramatic, where I needed to create the right light when necessary. In fact, The Legend of Loch Lomond, shot in Scotland, is a historical drama that was directed by Mike Slee. That experience was almost like inventing a new language. We approached shooting The Legend of Loch Lomond as though we were shooting a feature film. We storyboarded the entire film, because as the actors move around on an IMAX screen, it’s so large you want to make sure the audience can follow them from one shot to another. My goal, as always, was to use cinematography to help draw the audience deeper into the story. In certain scenes, I pushed the film a stop and a half to create a little more grain when that was right for the story and mood. I shot some scenes with film balanced for tungsten light and pulled the correction filter off the lens to create a slightly bluer look, combined with a little underexposure. Other scenes called for a more romantic look, so I made them slightly more golden by using a black frost filter on the camera lens. On nature films we usually shot them very clean to get the best image possible, but I wanted to try and find an emotional way to tell the story, just as you would with a feature film.

QUESTION: You have certainly shot a diverse range of IMAX films.
TAYLOR: In 1998, I was one of five cinematographers who went to Japan to film Olympic Glory. Obviously, we had to be ready to film events where and when they were happening. One of my best experiences shooting IMAX films was Amazing Journeys. That film tells a story about wildlife migrations around the world. It was directed by George Casey. We went to Africa. I love shooting nature films there. In Tanzania, we filmed a zebra migration and a sequence where crocodiles are in a river where wildebeests come to drink water for the first time in weeks. The crocodiles were waiting for them. It was amazing seeing the crocodiles taking these 400 pound wildebeests right off the riverbank. I learned a lot about the IMAX format working with George Casey.

QUESTION: Is possible to explain what you have learned working on IMAX nature films with George Casey and other directors in words, or do you have to see them to understand?
TAYLOR: Working with George taught me a lot about composition, and how it works while telling stories that are projected on IMAX theater screens. In a traditional theater, the audience can follow what’s happening on one side of the screen to the other side by moving their eyes. In an IMAX theater, they have to turn their heads sideways and up and down to follow the action on different parts of the screen. You have to help guide their eyes to where you want them to look. That awareness should include some understanding of how the film is likely to be edited. Also because you don’t have words in a script with the nature films, you have to be able to tell the story with the camera. That is a great lesson for narrative films. Ironically I felt that IMAX films always relied too much on narration.

QUESTION: In 2000, you shot a very different type of IMAX film called Our Country.
TAYLOR: It was an unusual film that follows a pixie-like character through the history of country music. There are narrative elements and also scenes documenting performances of country music stars. We used tools that were designed for 35 mm dramatic films, including a Libra head and a Steadicam shot with Larry McConkey operating. There was a scene with Dwight Yoakam singing a Jimmy Rogers tune from the 1920s on a New York street during an overcast day. I had the lab use a skip bleach process to create a little more contrast that felt right for the period, time, place and song. There are no rules. Everyone does it differently,

QUESTION: How about an example of a different type of IMAX documentary?
TAYLOR: One of the sports films I shot was Michael Jordan to the Max. I'm a huge basketball fan. I had covered games that Michael played in while I was shooting live sports in North Carolina. It was like coming full circle back to basketball with an IMAX camera. It was a lot of fun. We covered the 1998 National Basketball Association playoff games where Michael Jordan was a superstar making his last run at a championship with the Chicago Bulls. I was under the basket with an IMAX camera for every playoff game. It was awesome! I also got to shoot a load of footage. To get the fast-break action we wanted, I often had to shoot while the Bulls were playing defense in hopes we would get the fast break, because the camera came up to speed too slowly. I also shot 35 mm film at 120 fps while the assistant was loading the IMAX camera. I ended up shooting 12,000 feet of 65 mm per game along with 12 rolls of 35 mm high speed. At the time, 35 mm was the only way to get the high-speed footage. IMAX had a 96 fps camera, but it was not working then. … I have always tried to get the best image possible for the IMAX screen. When we shot Wired to Win, a film about the Tour de France, the director initially thought we would be shooting from the back of a motorcycle with an HD camera, just like they do to cover the tour. I said, ‘No, we are going to shoot the race footage with an IMAX camera. I don’t know how yet, but we’re going to do it,’ and we did. We put a Libra head on a motorcycle, and Larry Blanford came in and operated it from a helicopter by wireless, along with a focus puller. We got extraordinary footage. And it was in IMAX.

QUESTION: Your IMAX experiences are fascinating, but they are just one dimension of your still evolving body of work. Let’s talk about some of your narrative film experiences.
TAYLOR: From the beginning, I always intended to work on both IMAX films and narrative movies for the cinema. That is extraordinarily hard to do in Hollywood. Some people want to put you in a box and say you only shoot IMAX documentaries or only movies.

QUESTION: You have shot some very interesting dramatic films. Please share some memories about Swimmers, which you shot in 2005. There had to be some special meaning for you.
TAYLOR: Yes. The story was set in a fishing village like the one I grew up in, only it was off the coast of Maryland. The script was written by Doug Sadler who also directed the film. I had collaborated with Doug on another low-budget, dramatic film called Riders a few years earlier. The story revolves around an 11-year-old girl whose father harvests crabs from the ocean for a meager living. That’s the main industry in the town where she lives. Emma needed an operation that her family couldn’t afford. Doug and I agreed that the story called for a widescreen aspect ratio and we decided to shoot anamorphic. Directors often only think of anamorphic for landscapes, but it is also a great tool for shooting interiors with an ensemble cast. That was important because we shot scenes in small houses and on boats where the audience can see characters reacting to each other without using cut-aways.

QUESTION: Tell us about your experiences shooting That Evening Sun a few years later.
TAYLOR: I fell in love with the script and really wanted to shoot that film. The script was written by Scott Teems who also directed the film. We connected in our first conversation. I loved his whole approach to the film. We agreed to shoot it in 35 mm anamorphic format with a traditional photochemical finish despite the fact that there was an incredibly low budget. There is a perception that digital production and postproduction is cheaper, but that isn’t necessarily true, and it doesn’t come close to matching the organic look you can get with film. I believe that the audience instinctively responds to that look. It pulls them deeper into the story. We used older anamorphic lenses made by Joe Dutton, because they help you render a very organic quality, which we were able to retain with a photochemical finish to get the look we envisioned. I believe that audiences can feel the difference, which evokes an emotional response, and that’s what I’m going for when I shoot a feature.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, are there films where you think digital intermediate, or DI timing is appropriate for telling stories the way you envisioned?
TAYLOR: I think there's a place for DIs, especially if are a lot of visual effects which need to be seamlessly composited. But, if it's a drama like That Evening Sun, you can save money and get a more organic look with a photochemical finish. I urge producers to consult with their cinematographers and directors before imposing mandates.

QUESTION: What recommendations do you have for producers of independent films?
TAYLOR: Listen to the cinematographer. It all comes down to the story that you are trying to tell before any decisions are made about the choice of media for production and postproduction. Cinematographers have a passion for the stories we tell. We all want to make the best possible film at an affordable cost. I'm not going to recommend shooting on film or doing a photochemical finish because I have some romantic notion of what it looks like. I am thinking about the story we want to tell, the emotions we want to evoke, and suggesting the best way to do it within the budget. I think something important is getting lost. We rarely get to see film dailies as a group. A lot of the magic happened when the director, cinematographer and actors share that experience and speak openly about the things they could do to make the film better. Some filmmakers are compromising too much of the image. We should continue to get the best image possible. Look at the image quality of Inception that Wally Pfister, ASC was able to get by using anamorphic with a photochemical finish. That’s what we should all be aiming for. It was incredible. That’s something else IMAX taught me, to go for the best image you can.

QUESTION: Can you give us some examples of how you use images to help tell stories?
TAYLOR: The two main characters in That Evening Sun have dark personalities. When Scott Teems saw the story in his mind, there was a lot of darkness that he wanted reflected in the cinematography. Darkness was a big part of telling the story. We didn't want to always see a character's face, because there are times when we wanted the audience to wonder what he or she was thinking or feeling. There is a scene where Lonzo, one of the main characters, comes into the bedroom. His wife is in bed and there are no lights on. There is barely enough light to see her. Her back is turned to him, and she is wide awake. The husband is in silhouette in the doorway. There's a small table lamp on behind in the hallway. People were subconsciously leaning forward in seats, trying to see what was happening. You aren’t sure what Lonzo was thinking, but he feels menacing. Ray (McKinnon) gives an incredible performance throughout the film, so this isn’t done to make him a better actor. It’s done to support his performance, and he knew how to play it in the dark. If we had lit so the audience could see his face, it would have been a different feeling. No one does things like that alone. The story, directors, actors and a producer who supported the story all played roles.

QUESTION: Is that something you do by instinct or a discussion with the director?
TAYLOR: It was a combination of instinct and a discussion with the director. The film is very well crafted. It was important to Scott that each shot is crafted and contributes to the story. The production and costume designers, the actors, and every one of my crew all shared the same vision. Everything we did on the film has a purpose. This is something else I find interesting. Today, filmmakers often say, ‘I want to be able to roll all the time and that’s why I want to shoot digitally.’ Where is the craft in that? I think you can feel the difference in a well crafted film.

QUESTION: What is really interesting is that people around the world speak different languages, but the cinema is kind of a global language. The scene you described would be interpreted and evoke the same feelings from audiences in different parts of the world. What are your thoughts on the cinema being a global language?
TAYLOR: I really believe in the power of cinema. Filmmakers in different parts of the world tell their stories in the same visual language. The age of silent movies is behind us, but we still follow stories by watching the images on the screen. One of my goals is to help make films where the ways we use camera movement, composition, lighting and lenses tell stories that go beyond spoken words. That is all part of why films speak a global language. I love watching actors perform and hearing their words, music and other sound.

QUESTION: Looking back, are there filmmakers who influenced you?
TAYLOR: One of the reasons I got into filmmaking was because of the films that I saw during the 1970s that inspired me – films shot by Conrad Hall (ASC), Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC), and Gordon Willis (ASC). My memories of those films inspire everything I do as a filmmaker. One of the greatest compliments someone can pay me is saying, that film you shot reminds me of the great films we used to see during the 1970s. That Evening Sun was very inspired by the films of that era. I think we need to get back to that kind of storytelling. Films were very original. Directors and cinematographers had an original voice and the films had something to say. The films were very powerful and the studios were making them. Except for some very rare instances now, this has all but disappeared from the studio system. Now that I have more experience, I really wish I could speak to Conrad Hall, not so much about how he did what he did, but why.

QUESTION: How important is your relationship with your crew, as well as gaffers and grips?
TAYLOR: I love the collaborations that you have while making films. I rely so much on my crew. I try to be the bridge between them and the director. If you don't enjoy collaborating, you ought to find a different way to express yourself. Motion pictures are a collaborative art form.

QUESTION: If you were a studio mogul defining the future of the cinema, what would it be?
TAYLOR: I would concentrate on using the cinema as a platform for giving talented directors opportunities for creating original stories in collaborative environments. I would focus more on original stories instead of doing one remake after another. I believe that the cinema can play an important role in our world if we give talented filmmakers the freedom to tell their stories. I believe it is still an art form.

QUESTION: When you speak to students at schools, what are the common questions they are asking, and how do you answer them?
TAYLOR: I love speaking at film schools, and trying to help the next generation by sharing my experiences and thoughts about the industry. I am also inspired by the enthusiasm of the students. I try to not get too technical, but talk more from a story standpoint, and how I shoot a film for the emotional responses. The most common question that I am asked, though, is how to get into the business. The honest answer is that it is incredibly difficult and that it is going to take a lot of hard work and some luck.