ONFILM Interview: William A Fraker, ASC, BSC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
William A Fraker, ASC, BSC - Photo by D. Kirkland

“As a cinematographer, your role is to pull the audience into the story, so they experience it, and not merely see it. You light to tell a story, by establishing moods with shadow and color, and by deciding what the audience sees and what is obscured. You have to reach beyond your grasp every time you get the chance, and be willing to go out on a limb and extend yourself, otherwise you’ll never do anything original. You also have to be extremely passionate about everything you do. Each time you do a film, you leave a little piece of yourself in it. There is no right or wrong way. That’s what makes filmmaking so fascinating.”

William “Billy” Fraker, ASC, BSC was an amazingly talented human being who made an indelible impression on the art of filmmaking and all the people whose lives he touched, leaving a remarkable legacy. He earned Oscar® nominations for Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Heaven Can Wait, 1941, WarGames and Murphy’s Romance. His other memorable films include Bullitt, Rosemary’s Baby, Paint Your Wagon and Town and Country, to name just a few. He was also dedicated to mentoring the next generation of filmmakers who will follow in his wake.

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


by Bob Fisher  

William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC was born in Los Angeles on September 29, 1923. He died on May 31, 2010. Fraker left a memorable legacy. He earned 52 narrative film credits and made an indelible impression on the lives of countless colleagues in all sectors of the motion picture industry and the next generation. He earned Oscar nominations for Murphy's Romance, 1941, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Heaven Can Wait and WarGames, and a visual effects nomination for 1941. His other memorable credits include Paint Your Wagon, Tombstone, Bullitt, Rosemary's Baby, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Town and Country. Bill Fraker also directed The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Monty Walsh and other television movies and episodes. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers in 2000, and also served three terms as president of the ASC.

The following interview was conducted for an On Film ad published in 1989:

QUESTION: There is a bookstore in Hollywood that features a book of portraits of actors and actresses taken by William Fraker.
ANSWER: My father was the photographer. He was a still photographer and ran the photography gallery at Columbia Pictures from 1928 until 1934 when he fell ill with double pneumonia and died at the age of 36. Many people who worked with him tell me how much they loved my father. They all told me that great actresses, including Anna May Wong and Barbara Stanwyck loved him. My uncle Bud Fraker, began working for my father at the still photo gallery when he was only 16 years old. After a while, Bud went to work at Paramount Pictures, where he began running the photo gallery around 1938. He was there until the mid-1940s when the studios closed their still photography galleries.

QUESTION: Do you know how they got interested in photography?
ANSWER: My grandmother was a teacher in Mazatlan, Mexico, when a revolution brought Pancho Villa to power in 1910. Teachers were on the enemies list and targeted for execution. My grandmother left Mazatlan with two mules carrying her two children, including my future mother. My grandmother walked all the way to the border and into California, where she supported her family by working as a portrait photographer. My mother was only 16 years old when she met and married my father who was 18. My grandmother mentored my father before he became a still photographer for Columbia Pictures. I have vivid memories of seeing pictures he took.

QUESTION: What was your youth like growing up in Los Angeles?
ANSWER: My father got sick and died when I was only 11 years old. My mother died a year later. She was only 36. My grandmother opened a photo studio in the cottage where we lived, so she could be home with my brother, sister and me. My aunt was also there all the time. My grandmother made me her assistant at the studio when I was around 14 years old. She took portraits on glass plates and I developed them.

QUESTION: Did you grow up thinking that you would be a photographer?

ANSWER: My aunt used to insist that I would become a cinematographer. When I asked her why, she said they are the most respected people on the set.
QUESTION: What was the next step on your journey?

ANSWER: I joined the Navy during the beginning of World War II. I served as a signalman on an attack transport that carried the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions to islands they invaded in the Pacific region.

QUESTION: What did you do after the war?
ANSWER: I used the G.I. Bill of Rights to fund my education at USC. It was one of only two cinema schools in the United States at that time. The other one was at NYU. I wanted to learn everything about filmmaking, in part because my aunt was hounding me to become a cinematographer. That’s where I met Conrad Hall (ASC) and Jack Couffer (ASC). They were also students. We had a tremendous faculty, including Slavko Vorkapich, who pioneered the use of montages in such films as David Copperfield, The Good Earth and the earthquake sequence in San Francisco. The cinema school was located in the old horse stables, because there was no room for us at the school. The last year and a half, I went to school five nights a week. People from the industry taught us at night. An editor from Hal Roach Studios needed a shot of cars on the Pasadena Freeway during rush hour. A couple of us got an Eyemo camera and shot some film. We were paid $25 which was a lot of money in those days!

QUESTION: What did you do after graduation?

ANSWER: I did a little still photography, shot some 16 mm industrial films and a lot of $25 grab shots for movies for about seven years until I finally got into the Camera Guild as a camera loader. My first jobs were on Perry Mason, The Ann Southern Show and The Lone Ranger. Then, I spent seven-and-a-half years working on Here Come the Nelsons with Ozzie and Harriet. I moved up from second to first assistant and then camera operator. Ozzie was a great believer in young people. He was a major influence who taught me how to deal with people. I was a camera operator for Conrad Hall for five years, beginning with that series. Connie had an innate ability that is indescribable. I was a great, great fan of his. We did some marvelous things together.

QUESTION: Please share a memory about working on Conrad Hall’s crew.
ANSWER: When I was his camera operator on The Outer Limits, those were the days when you had a viewfinder on Mitchell cameras. You didn't see through the lens, which meant that you needed a marvelous assistant cameraman. We had a magnificent one in Kenny Peach (ASC). Connie taught me a lot. He had original ideas. We did things like sliding glass past the lens to create different effects.

QUESTION: This is probably an unfair question. What lessons did you learn while working on Conrad Hall’s crew? Jordan Cronenweth (ASC), another seminal cinematographer was also on that crew as a first assistant cameraman.
FRAKER: We all wanted to make a difference Connie broke every rule that could be broken. I learned that by working with him, but I didn’t want to be known as an innovator. I just wanted to be a cinematographer who got opportunities to work on good films.

QUESTION: When and how did you become a cinematographer?

ANSWER: My first film as a cinematographer was Games in 1967. It featured Simone Signoret, Katharine Ross and James Caan.

QUESTION: How did you get that opportunity?

FRAKER: I had experimented with shooting commercials with long lenses and soft light. Around that time, I was the second unit cinematographer for 10 weeks on a Universal feature called Father Goose. I got a call from James Pratt, who was the head of production for the studio. He asked if I wanted to shoot Games with a young director named Curtis Harrington on a 15-day schedule. I said, absolutely. I remember seeing the first close-ups of Simone Signoret in dailies. Simone called me at home that night and asked if I had seen the dailies. I said yes, they were terrible. She agreed. I said that I would love to shoot those scenes again. The next night, Simone called again and told me that the dailies were terrific.

QUESTION: The next year you earned your first Oscar nomination for Bullitt. There is a memorable and innovative car chase scene that was filmed on the streets of San Francisco. How did you get an opportunity to shoot that film?
FRAKER: That's a very interesting question. There were several cameramen called up to interview with (director) Peter Yates. I went to Martoni's restaurant in Hollywood to have dinner with him one night. We talked for four-plus hours. Peter had directed commercials. The first 20 minutes we talked about the car chase sequence on San Francisco city streets which became the heart of the movie. If you look at it now, it is a very simple chase, but the idea and putting those cameras inside the car was original in those days. It really worked very well. Peter was very exciting to work with because he was completely open to new ideas.

QUESTION: You shot Rosemary’s Baby, another memorable film that year.

FRAKER: I only used two lenses, a 25 mm and an 18 mm. We chose the right lens for each shot in the story. I also pre-fogged the film to get a particular look that was right for the story. I don't tend to look at the good side of things or the accolades. I look at the things that I don’t feel we got 100 percent right. I was happy with Rosemary’s Baby, but there were a couple of things that we didn't get 100 percent right.

QUESTION: What were you happy about?
FRAKER: First of all, it was wonderful having an opportunity to work with Roman Polanski. I believe that he is one of the great filmmakers of our time. He is absolutely brilliant. I have been lucky. I’ve worked with Peter Yates, Richard Books and other brilliant directors, making beautiful pictures.

QUESTION: What makes it a beautiful picture?
FRAKER: When you say a beautiful picture, right away you start thinking of the visuals, but there are a lot of other things that go into making them beautifully. No two pictures are the same. The concept begins with the script and it evolves with the director, actors, locations, settings and cinematography. All of that is integrated with production design, costumes, and everything else that adds up to a look and feeling.

QUESTION: You have directed The Lone Ranger, a couple of other features and several television movies. Does that experience help you as a cinematographer and give you insights into how to deal with directors?
FRAKER: Absolutely. Directing has helped me as a cinematographer. It taught me how to explain to directors that I have ideas without being argumentative. The directors whom I have been blessed to work with always listen and ask questions. There aren't too many art forms that are this collaborative. That makes filmmaking somewhat unique and interesting. I'm not comparing filmmaking to other art forms, but my opinion is that collaboration makes it unique.

QUESTION: Does that collaborative spirit include your crew?

FRAKER: People on my crew have got to really care. They can't give me 80 or 90 percent. I want 100 percent everyday. That is vital, because you need to put all the pieces together to make a successful film.

QUESTION: How do you choose the right negative to shoot a film?
FRAKER: There are various reasons for choosing a negative, but the biggest one, by far, is consistency. If you are shooting a scene, you have to know what your emulsion is going to do in any given set of circumstances, including under- and over-exposure. I want to be able to use all 50 printing lights, and 128 "tones" of grey scale if I need them. That's how you create subtle images on film. You have to choose the right film for each situation, because if something goes wrong, everyone is going to be looking in my direction.

QUESTION: Please share some thoughts about the relationship between an actor or actress and the cinematographer. How do you develop and nurture trust?
FRAKER: No two cinematographers do it the same just as no two painters are alike.

QUESTION: You are creating such a diverse body of work.

FRAKER: Every picture is different. Every time you start a new picture, you go out on a limb in different ways. Otherwise, you would be doing the same thing every time. There is nothing wrong with that, but I want to extend myself and try to do something original each time I start a film. If you start with a fixed idea of how it should look, you lose the opportunity to create something original.

QUESTION: Is the next picture always as exciting as the last one?

FRAKER: I never get used to it. With each new picture there’s a different story, director and actors. I love finding new challenges.

QUESTION: In recent interviews, you spoke about shooting with a 100-speed color negative in five or six footcandles of keylight. That leaves no margin for error.
FRAKER: There is none at all. In WarGames (produced in 1983), I was shooting scenes on a set in six footcandles of key light, and the black tones had to be rich. You don't need 1,000 footcandles to get rich blacks. You just need to know what you are doing and expose the film right. It's like a painter having to know how to achieve what he sees in his mind and putting it on canvas.

QUESTION: So, mastering the craft is a key to executing the art?
FRAKER: I always shoot tests with different films at recommended exposure indexes and try pushing them using different diffusion and filters.

QUESTION: But, it is still a subjective decision in the end … right?
FRAKER: Right. Everyone does it differently.

QUESTION: Do you think this industry has a future as a serious art form?
FRAKER: I think the film industry has a tremendous future, and it is only going to get better and bigger. I tell students, if you want to survive in this industry you need to be dedicated. It has to be the most important thing in your life. It’s a 24/7 job. The competition is ferocious, so it has to be the most important thing in the world to you. The other thing you need is discipline that moves you in the right direction, so that you can achieve what you set out to do.

QUESTION: Do you think people are going to keep going to theaters, or will they stay at home and watch movies on high-definition television screens?
FRAKER: The cable networks are going to give the regular networks competition, but people will never stop going to movies as long as we give them experiences they are willing to leave the house and pay to see. The cinema is a completely different feeling. The movie industry is only 100 years old. Thomas Edison began experimenting with producing short films in 1889. It’s amazing what a major influence television and motion pictures have become in that relatively short time.

QUESTION: How about a list of your films that mean the most to you?

FRAKER: That’s a good question that I don't think I can answer.