Story by KEVIN BASSET. Reprinted from article in FUJI SHORT ENDS (Oct. 1996)
Cinematography had not been Rob Draper’s childhood dream. Born in Sydney, Australia, he was well on his way to pursuing a very promising medical career, when he stumbled upon what was to be his life’s craft, quite by accident.
-“I was working as a Medical Technologist in a pathology lab in Wagga-Wagga, Australia, after bailing out of Dentistry at Sydney University…I wanted to buy a Super-8 movie camera to film my wife riding horses. So I went into the camera store, and this guy overheard me talking about it and said he had a 16mm movie camera for sale. He said if I would buy it, I could go to the TV station and tell them I would shoot part-time news, and that would pay for the camera, the film and the processing.” His spark of inspiration was lit when he first laid eyes on the Bolex…–“I thought it was the greatest…the noise it made, the three lens turret, I thought I was going to look pretty cool running around town with this thing. So I bought this bloke’s Bolex for $350, went to the TV station and told them I had been shooting for a couple of years. They gave me 100′ of film and said I had to shoot a swimming carnival and the Prime Minister arriving in town…..as a test.”
-But the biggest challenge still lay ahead…Exposure.
-“I opened up the box on the 100′ daylight spool, and inside it had a little man with a sunny day: f16; a little man with a sun and a cloud: f11; and a totally cloudy day: f8. And that’s how I estimated the exposures. I also had a Bolex book that came with the camera and according to this book, the way you make a movie is ‘Wide-shot, medium-shot, close-up, close-up, medium-shot and wide-shot’……so, what could I do but follow instructions….. that is how I shot it; the TV station thought it was great and that’s how I started”
The chief engineer had attached a note to the camera ‘welcome to video….good luck’ and that was my introduction to the joys of video
“Of course the next big revelation was turning up for work one morning, after graduating from Bolex to CP16R, and finding film camera’s were gone and on my desk was a blue and white box with a lens attached. The chief engineer had attached a note to the camera ‘welcome to video….good luck’ and that was my introduction to the joys of video, the TK76 and recording to 3/4″ tapes in a 35lb deck on a backpack.”
-So how does one go from shooting news in the Outback of Australia, to becoming one of the more prolific and in-demand Cinematographers of the American film industry?
“Dreams, aspirations…a lot of starvation and a lot of hard work…
–“Dreams, aspirations…a lot of starvation and a lot of hard work… My goal was to one day shoot a documentary in a foreign country. I thought if I could do that, I will have achieved everything there is to achieve. I’ve always wanted to reach the things that seem a bit impossible. Everyone used to say that there was no way some one from Australia could survive in America…and to me, that was a challenge. I actually came over here (to the U.S.) in 1980, which was before the big ‘Australia Revolution’. In ’82, when Men at Work hit and Australia won the America’s Cup, all of a sudden everyone looked at Australia. By then, I had already been working here for a few years.”
–Over the next decade, Draper would fast work his way though an impressive list of television and feature film projects including ” A Matter of Justice”, ” Halloween 5″, ” Stormy Weathers”, ” Tiger Warsaw”, ” Wish You Were Here”, ” False Arrest”, ” Tales from the Crypt”, “Cagney & Lacey – The Return”, “With A Vengeance”, ” Simple Justice”, “Tales from the Darkside-The Movie”, “Nothing But The Truth”, “Remember Me”, “Gone in the Night” and most recently “The Spitfire Grill”, winner of one of the top prizes at the prestigious Sundance film festival.
“The Street really revolutionized the way TV, especially cop shows, was shot”
–One early project that got Draper widespread recognition was “The Street” starring Stanley Tucci. “Universal wanted to produce TV cop shows at lower per episode cost than Miami Vice (which at the time was around $1 million per episode). They put a call out and no-one responded other than Bob Pittman. He pulled in two young Producers Steve Bawol and Bob Altman and they knew I liked pushing the limits and had a lot of doc experience, and I could work fast so they called me.”
–” Our brief was 40 shows at $100K per episode so we devised a shooting style that would allow us to shoot an entire episode in one night, 40 shows in 40 nights…almost biblical, right?” Draper says with a smile. “The show would have a gritty style, all handheld, long continuous take scenes and no cutting between takes with only three takes allowed before moving on…oh and we shot on prototype SONY betacams which was unheard of at the time. It was fantastic and the show worked, only no-one saw it. The episodes were aired on syndicated TV late at night so they were not widely seen but they got enormously favorable widespread reviews and revolutionized the way TV, especially cop shows, was shot, paving the way for the acceptance of what became known as “shaky cam” and “reality TV”.
-Capitalizing on his talent for moving quickly and utilizing natural light as much as possible, Draper has developed a style that is uniquely his own.
–“My lighting style, I look at as being supplemental lighting, rather than total re-lighting. Quite often, say on a daylight interior, I will use just the available light coming in, and just little accents where I need it. After all, the lens opens up to T1.3…the shallower the depth of field, the more I like it. If I had my way, all my work would look like Turner paintings… especially Turner in the later part of his life where everything was just a blur and a swirl of colors.”
-“I can walk into a room and look at the natural light, and if it works for the scene, I can say to the director ‘If we can shoot this in two hours, I don’t have to put up a light’. A lot of times, that can put us back on schedule. Many Cinematographers are afraid to do that…they feel that they have a truck-load of equipment, and they had better use it. But to me, the truck-load of equipment is a back-up, so if the natural light doesn’t work for me, then I’ve got stuff I can supplement it with.”
-Flying by the seat of his pants is what Draper enjoys most about his craft. “I have a philosophy that I learned from Frank Stanley, ASC… Frank said to me: ‘ If you don’t take a risk every time you push the button, you’re mediocre’. So thats what I do with every shot, I don’t want to play it safe; I’d rather take a risk in some form.”
–Another quality stamp on a Rob Draper film: composition…Draper operates the A camera on virtually every project, utilizing both of his own personal Arriflex 535 cameras. “I am very picky when it comes to composition, the way light and shade fall within the frame, the relationship of light and shade to the subject and other objects in the frame, depth of lighting into the frame…..It’s just easier and faster for me to do it that way.”
Draper actually played a pivotal role in the creation of the excellent Fuji filmstocks of today.
–One other key element that Draper uses to achieve the look he desires: Fuji filmstocks. An element that took some time to warm up to. “I’d actually used Fuji years ago in Australia…some of the early stocks they had, which were actually quite terrible. The unfortunate thing with Fuji is that the impression people have of Fuji stocks is based on their experiences 20 years ago, and that’s the sad part.” Draper actually played a pivotal role in the creation of the excellent Fuji filmstocks of today.
He explains, “I did a TV movie around 1990 where I was basically ordered to shoot Fuji. I wasn’t really happy with the results, but when I finished, I got a call from Fuji saying ‘ We know you didn’t want to shoot Fuji film, and we would like to take you out to lunch and have you tell us why, and talk to us about how to improve the filmstock’. So we all went out to lunch in L.A. and I told them exactly what I thought about the film. Everyone was very polite, and they listened to everything I had to say. Then they told me that they had these new stocks coming out, and that all the problems I had encountered were no more. They asked me if I would like a few thousand feet to test. So I took the film and tested it over the next three weeks, and discovered they were right. The new filmstock was extremely fine grained, and there were no significant color shifts with varying exposures. It was indeed a much finer film than any of the other films that were currently on the market.”
–A close relationship then developed between Draper and Fuji. “So on the next show I did, I decided to give Fuji a go, and I was really pleased with the results. I was also really pleased with the liaison between myself and Fuji, both here and in Japan. They are really accommodating to me as a Director of Photography. They went out of their way to make sure I was happy, that there were no problems, and if there was a problem, they were there in a flash to try and solve it. That started a relationship with them that has developed over the last five years. I think Fuji filmstocks are a little bit finer grained, especially in the high-speed, which I tend to use a lot of. The one thing I really do like with it is that in under-exposure, there is no color shift. You can go down to three or four stops under-exposed and there is no color shift in the shadow areas. The reason I tend to stick with Fuji filmstocks, especially for TV, is they really gives me the results I want.”
–Draper has continued his prolific streak into 1996, with both television and theatrical feature projects. Recently, he completed the CBS Tele-film “What Love Sees” for director Michael Switzer. This is their tenth film collaboration. “We have a great relationship that works really well. It’s great, because he knows me, and trusts me, and I know him. There are no egos…if he comes to me and says ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘this looks awful’, I don’t feel bad or get upset…I just look at it and say ‘yeah, you’re right’ or ‘I think you’re wrong and it looks great’. When you have a good relationship with your director, especially on a TV movie, it gives you a lot of freedom. You don’t have to spend time explaining yourself because he knows what you are doing.” The story of “What Love Sees” revolves around a young blind woman (Annabeth Gish) who leaves her sheltered life on the East coast to pursue life and love out West. “The script is set in the ’40’s and ’50’s, and the first images that came to my mind were LIFE magazine.
The old advertisements with women with their hair done up, wearing dresses and aprons… Norman Rockwell… white and brown tones and very ordered compositions. So for the East coast sequences, because -this girl was from a very sheltered and wealthy family, I wanted everything to look very rich and well organized. I decided to use pretty heavy filtration, including light double-fog filters, so that the highlights were always blowing out a little bit. I used Pro-Mists and flashed the negative about 15% using the Arriflex Varicon.
In addition, I also used a lot of over-exposure in the highlights. Quite often, the highlights were over-exposed five, six, even seven stops, and then kept the shadows up as well. I was also using light grades of sepia filters, which all together gave the Eastern part of the story a very specific look.” Draper drastically altered the look for scenes where the young woman struggles with life out West. “When we went out west, I stayed with the same grade of sepia filter, but removed all of the diffusion, so it had a much harder, crisper look to it. Instead of going for a lot of over-exposure, I kept the exposure more normal in the highlights, and went way down into the shadows with fairly dark, saturated blacks. So that it was a much contrastier and a harder sort of look, than in the Eastern parts. The look progresses and gets harder as she struggles to find her way in the Western environment. I used Hopper as a model with a much greater use of hard light”
–Another recently completed feature project, “The Spitfire Grill”, has been picked up by Castle Rock for release in the early fall,1996, on the strength of winning the “Auidence-Best Picture” award at the 1995 Sundance Film festival. The project was another stylistic challenge to the ever-diverse Draper. “I loved the script…because I knew, photographically, there were an enormous number of possibilities. I always wanted to shoot a film which was set in Maine because I think the Maine landscape, and the light up here (Draper lives with his family near Camden, ME) has never really been captured in any of the films shot in this state. So it was an opportunity to do that as well. When I read the script, I immediately saw Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” written all over it.
Once I met with the director and producer, I told them that’s what I saw, and they agreed, as did the production designer, who had already been working in that direction, with Andrew Wyeth in mind. That’s what became the model for the look of the film…cooler earthy tones, and cold browns; whitewashed walls and greys and blues…all the typical colors you find on the coast of Maine. The film is basically about a young girl who brings a town back to life. The early part of the film is a little bit darker than the later part. I shot the film fairly clean and hard, with only a little bit of diffusion toward the end film.”
–So, what does the future hold for Rob Draper, ACS? When asked, he sighs with a mixture of uncertainty… and a glee for the un-expected: “Who the hell knows??? Obviously, I would like to do more feature films, because I think you have a lot more creative freedom on a feature film. As a Cinematographer, you have the freedom to be creative, and to satisfy your own creative yearnings, while still satisfying the needs of the producer and director. So as far as I’m concerned, if the producer and the director are happy with the final product, and it satisfies me creatively, then I feel happy. And that’s the key…to be happy and try to spend a lot more time with my family than with my crew.”
-But to this day, however, he has yet to film his wife riding horses.