By Kristi Turnbaugh
In every TV show or film you’ve ever seen, there’s a commander behind the camera. Manipulating the lighting in each shot. Framing actors and objects to perfectly convey the action, no matter how subtle. Creating an image so deep and profound you understand the characters before they speak a single line of dialogue.
When you lose yourself in the story in front of you, when all the elements come together to convey a compelling visual landscape, you can thank the cinematographer.
Known for being the director’s right hand, the cinematographer is responsible not only for the look and feel of every single shot and scene but for capturing the underlying story in a way that will captivate viewers from the very first frame until the last. Quite simply, the cinematographer translates the director’s vision to the screen more than anyone else on the set.
Some of the finest cinematographers working today got their start at Columbia College Chicago. Here, Mauro Fiore (BA ’87), Michael Goi (BA ’80), Jeffrey Jur (BA ’77), Janusz Kaminski (BA ’87), and Declan Quinn (BA ’79) share their struggles, triumphs, insights, and advice.
Jeffrey Jur (BA ’77)
Born in Chicago and raised in Portage Park, Jeffrey Jur (BA ’77) grew up under the spell of cinema. His father took him to see Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove, “adult-themed movies I did not totally understand as a kid, but I knew that there was something powerful,” he says. Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, at age 13, was the turning point, Jur says, because “I felt that there was actually a human being, a person making a personal film.” When Jur was in high school, the family moved from the city to the suburb of Arlington Heights, where a film studies class inspired the disgruntled transplant to make a personal film about the angst he felt in his new surroundings. It would be the film that prompted him to attend Columbia College Chicago.
DEMO: Why did you decide to go to Columbia?
Jeffrey Jur: I ended up doing a film that was entered at the film festival that Columbia ran for high school students. The first prize was a free semester at the school, which I won, and that motivated me to go. At Columbia, you were going to have a hands-on experience. I already made films, I didn’t really want to study films academically—I just wanted to go right to the experience of making films.
While at Columbia, Jur met Michael Goi (BA ’80) and was impressed by his camera knowledge and tireless work ethic. He hired Goi as a gaffer on another student’s film, forging a lifelong friendship.
DEMO: What happened after graduation?
Jur: I worked in Chicago, paid my dues for about six years. I worked on industrial films, commercials. I never worked on feature films [except] The Blues Brothers. I had friends that were electricians and they got me into the project because there were so many people needed. I helped change all the fluorescent tubes in that big mall that they crashed through.
DEMO: What finally prompted you to move to LA?
Jur: Nobody in Chicago was doing what I wanted to do, which was to shoot dramatic feature films. And there were a number of people in LA that encouraged me to come out, producers that had seen my work [on the PBS series American Playhouse, specifically] and were keeping an eye on new talent. Also, Mark Romanek hired me to do his first movie [Static] in LA. So in 1984, my girlfriend and I decided we wanted to live in Los Angeles, and I drove my old Toyota Corolla Wagon—took Route 66 pretty much the whole way.
DEMO: How did you get Dirty Dancing?
Jur: After Static got into the 1986 Sundance Film Festival, it just rolled from there. Producer Doro Bachrach, who had seen my work early on, recommended me. I am eternally grateful [to her] for convincing me to do Dirty Dancing when I was considering another project. That was only maybe two years after I moved there. So, I didn’t have too much of a struggle. In my mind, this is how you do it. You just come to LA, you start working on features, then you get a big hit. I had no idea how amazingly rare and lucky that opportunity was, and I wish I could do it over again because I would appreciate it more.
DEMO: And what a hit Dirty Dancing was!
Jur: I’m really proud that it was authentic. At that time they were making Footloose and Flashdance and all these sort of very polished dance music films, and our intention was always to make it as real as possible. What was it really like in 1963? What kind of lighting would they have had on the stage? The director wanted actors that could really dance. We never used doubles.
DEMO: Do you consider that the big break?
Jur: Yeah. And I’ve tried to live it down ever since. I didn’t want to be only the Dirty Dancing guy. I certainly wanted to expand. I immediately tried to counter it with something else. I ended up doing some John Dahl movies, which are very dark. We did The Last Seduction, and Unforgettable, and Joy Ride, sort of dark noir thrillers.
DEMO: You won Emmy and ASC awards for your work on the HBO series Carnivale (2003-2005). Tell us about working on such a visually rich series.
Jur: That was an amazing show, just beautiful. Working every day on that show was like the biggest paint box you could ever imagine. You’re designing the photography, and when you’re working on an episodic series, you’re the key person on set that is the through line for all the shows. There are different directors for every single episode, and they work on it sort of part time, but I’m there the entire time. So I’m working more for the producers and the show runners, and the design of the show really comes from them: What do they want it to look like, what’s the feel? But at some point you’re on your own. The producers expect you to be the one to guide the visual style from director to director. I was trying to create something very iconic, so a lot of times I would have to suggest that, yes, we can get the shot you want, but we’re going to be 100 feet back and we’re going to film the scene with people in the foreground, and the carnival is going to play in the background out of focus. I wanted to create these iconic images that I thought the story was about: a dark American vision.
Jur served as director of photography for several ABC series, including the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy (2005); Invasion (2005-2006), a show for which he enlisted his longtime friend Michael Goi to alternate duties with; Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2009); and FlashForward (2009-2010). In 2012, Jur was tapped to become director of photography for season 7 of Show-time’s popular series, Dexter, about a serial killer, played by Michael C. Hall, with a strict moral code.
DEMO: What did you think you could bring to Dexter that another cinematographer might not have?
Jur: I thought I could bring a subtlety to the show. The cameras they were using were very unsubtle, and the cameras we were bringing, the Arriflex Alexa, had a big difference in the look. What I wanted to give them back was the sort of lurid feel of Miami that they were going for in the beginning. They asked me within a month of starting to come back for the next [and final] season, so that was nice. I don’t usually get booked that far in advance. I was a little worried about my sanity, shooting something bloody and nasty every day. I didn’t know how that was going to affect my mood, my personal life. But once I got on the show and realized the humor and tone they created, I knew I was in the right place.
DEMO: What do you like best about your job?
Jur: I don’t like being in the spotlight. All the heat, all the pressure, all the stress—the directors, the actors, the producers have all of that. For cinematography, you’re still left alone to a certain extent. You’re still allowed to have your own say in how things go, almost more than any other aspect of film. Everyone feels they can weigh in on acting, directing. Everybody knows how to cut because they know how to edit. When it comes to the cinematography, everyone’s like, “Just go ahead. We liked what you did on this other thing. Try to give us that.” So you’re free in a way. I get antsy creatively, so I like to move around. I like maybe a year or two. Dexter was fantastic. I would stay on this for sure. But in a way it’s good that it’s ending, so I can move on to something else.
DEMO: Is there anything you worry about?
Jur: Yeah, you’re always worried about landing the next gig. It never goes away, but it does get a little easier. The awards help—I have a little bit of a leg up. I do feel it’s been earned. I’ve been here for 30 years. I feel like I’ve reached a point of arrival, which is nice. The key is to find the right material for your sensibility. When the writing is good, the cinematography will gel with that. I always worry about what I’m going to do towards the end of my career. Now I’m trying to figure out, do I really want to get up at 5:00 a.m., and stand in the rain and cold, and keep shooting? The answer is, yes, I do. I’m ready.
Jeffrey Jur is director of photography for the upcoming ABC series Resurrection, which will begin airing in 2014. He and his wife, makeup artist Catherine Viot, live in Los Angeles.
Academy Award-winning cinematographers Janusz Kaminski (BA ’87) and Mauro Fiore (BA ’87) met as film students at Columbia in the 1980s and have worked their way up the Hollywood ladder together. Raised in Wroclaw, Poland, Kaminski moved to Chicago in 1980 at age 22. Born in Marzi, Calabria, Italy, Fiore immigrated with his family to the Chicago suburb of Palatine in 1971, when he was 7. Kaminski and Fiore were interviewed together in late June.
DEMO: What made you become interested in filmmaking?
Mauro Fiore: I was really interested in black and white photography when I was in high school. My girlfriend at the time went to Columbia College. I didn’t really think about studying [film] for a while, because it wasn’t a very practical thing for me to do. Nobody in my family had ever been involved in filmmaking, or anything to do with the arts. Right out of high school, I went to junior college at Harper College in Palatine so I could start taking some classes to satisfy the bachelor’s, and I still wanted to play soccer. After my third year, I transferred to Columbia. Filmmaking combined all of the interests I had: music, visuals, movement of things. I just started doing it basically on a whim when I was 19.
Janusz Kaminski: I loved photography because, growing up in Poland, that was the only way, really, to learn about the world because we couldn’t travel. You didn’t have access to the Western world, but you could experience the Western world through movies. Since an early age I was fascinated by America through movies, and my perception of the world was pretty much shaped by the movies. When I left Poland in 1980 [at age 22], I had already started learning the basic things about filmmaking when I was a member of the Socialist Filmmaking Club. I went to Chicago and wanted to study film because I realized the power of the images, the power of the storytelling, and the power of the art form that can really affect the rest of the world in a very major way.
“Becoming a cinematographer was totally accidental. I chose this little stick that we had to pull in our first class. One [student] had to direct. One had to shoot. One had to produce. One had to act. I got the camera stick—and I liked the whole thing with the camera that you could actually put your hands on.”
DEMO: How did you choose cinematography as your focus?
Kaminski: Becoming a cinematographer was totally accidental, simply because I didn’t know much about cinematography. I knew about producers, directors, and stars, but I didn’t know much about cinematography because it’s a profession that’s not really as celebrated as the others. By accident, I chose this little stick we had to pull in our first class. The class was divided in groups, and there were four members in each group: One had to direct, one had to shoot, one had to produce, one had to act. I got the camera stick—and I liked the whole thing with the camera that you could actually put your hands on. You could focus the image. You could move the camera. You could light, and you could get the image. It was very exciting. I also liked the profession because it was concrete. You actually could graduate from film school and make a living—as grip, camera assistant, electrician. In fact, that’s what was happening in school: I was able to make some extra money while I was there working as a grip or electrician. While I was in school, I met Mauro. We both worked on many, many student films. When Mauro shot, occasionally I helped. When I shot, Mauro occasionally would help. And since everyone wanted to direct, nobody really wanted to shoot, so we could shoot movies every weekend.
DEMO: How would you describe the Columbia educational experience?
Fiore: It was very much a technique school. They showed you the technique of that lighting instrument—realistically approaching it rather than theoretically. It never felt like something you couldn’t handle. It was taught by people that worked in the industry in Chicago: How do you light a scene? What does it look like? How do you recreate that reality? It wasn’t like before you touched a light, you had to go through knowing the history of the Mole-Richardson 5K, or what the filament did. It was very much like, “Here it is, let’s do it.”
Kaminski: The school created this great opportunity to be able to just grab the equipment and go and shoot whatever we wanted. We practiced how to expose film, how to compose. You could really do the hands on. I could actually have the camera, load the film, break the sprocket holes, you know, because I threaded the film the wrong way. Nobody was really supervising us. Of course, we made mistakes, but we learned from the mistakes. So, when we graduated, it was kind of easy to move into professional life, because we had a profession.
After graduation, Fiore toured Europe for four months while Kaminski moved to Los Angeles to attend American Film Institute, determined to make the necessary contacts to eventually become a cinematographer. A classmate’s husband worked with B-movie producer Roger Corman, and Kaminski scored the job as key grip for 1988’s Not of this Earth, a science-fiction vampire movie starring Traci Lords in her first nonpornographic role. When the gaffer quit, Kaminski moved into that role and offered the key grip job to Fiore, who immediately moved to LA and roomed with Kaminski.
DEMO: What was that first real Hollywood job like?
Fiore: We were so happy to be there. I just remember the enthusiasm we had. It was unbelievable. [Grip] Karen Erbach (BA ’87) roomed with us. We would pile into the car every morning, and we’d argue about how to get there, who was going to do the directions [laughs]. And on the weekends we’d go to movies—this is just the life we had. It was really good. We were able to make a living. We had some qualifications—obviously, a film school qualification—but it wasn’t like we had a huge union behind us. And at the time there were a lot of opportunities to work on low-budget films in Hollywood. A magazine would come out every week, and we could call and say, “Can I work on your film?” There was a big group of us there [including Aaron Zuber (BA ’87), Cindy Pusheck (BA ’87), Mark Protosevich (BA ’83)], and it was a really neat community environment. We’d go to a barbeque and there would be somebody from Chicago. It was like this extended family.
Kaminski and Fiore worked on Corman movies for about three years while shooting freelance projects on the side and building their contacts, becoming part of what Kaminski calls “the low-budget, C-movies community,” and trying to climb the Hollywood ladder.
DEMO: What do you consider to be your big break?
Kaminski: Shooting a little television movie for Diane Keaton [1991’s Wildflower] was a big break because it was a nice story. It was a fast schedule. She was great to work with. From there on, I had a clear path to shoot other television movies, pilots, and eventually, mainstream movies. I got offered to do Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . Simultaneously, I got an offer from [Steven] Spielberg to shoot a little pilot for his company, and I think that pilot [Class of ’61] really was my break. He knew television so he liked the whole idea that I could move fast. I was young, uninhibited by the whole studio system. He wanted a different point of view. He got it from me.
Fiore: My big break was probably the first chance I had to take that job in Hollywood. It sounds like it’s one phone call and then all of a sudden, you’re at the top of the world. But the amount of hours you spend not having much money, or looking for work, or wondering what you’re going to do next … It’s a really long process. As soon as I graduated film school, I didn’t quite have the conviction Janusz did as far as becoming a cinematographer right away. I needed to experience other things, physically working on the set. And big breaks happen all along the way, but it was a good amount of work.
Throughout the 1990s, Kaminski worked on a variety of big-budget films, including several with director Steven Spielberg: Schindler’s List (1993), for which he received his first Academy Award; The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); Amistad (1997), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; and Saving Private Ryan (1998), for which he received his second Academy Award. Fiore worked on “various little-budget films and independent films,” including Love From Ground Zero, where he met his future wife, costume designer Christine Vollmer.
Fiore: Janusz gave me the opportunity to be cinematographer on the movie he directed, Lost Souls. It was a good-size budget, and that put me in another category as far as studios taking me more seriously.
Kaminski: It’s funny because the networks have their little lists. Studios have their lists. You could be on this list for Sony, but you’re not on the list for Warner Brothers. It’s just insane. So, I think Lost Souls permitted Mauro to be on the list—this guy who can do a studio movie of $40 million in ’99. It was a good budget and Mauro’s work was so great that he was able to show his talent in that movie. You have to develop relationships with people who are at the same level and hope that that relationship will pull you up. It’s just a hand pulling a hand, but it’s not really altruistic. It’s total exploitation of your talent—what can I get from you? Hollywood is a little bit about that: “You got nothing for me? I’m going to move on to another person who’s got something for me.”
DEMO: What is your own favorite film?
Fiore: Training Day was probably the one I’m really most proud of because my vision really came across—every part of that little visual language is on the screen. It’s pretty unbelievable that [director Antoine Fuqua] interpreted things very similarly visually. I really liked the process of sculpting the film, the amount of care that went into it.
Kaminski: Schindler’s List is probably my favorite movie. Making a movie look like its actuality—that was probably the most interesting part of it because that movie could have looked much more glossy under different circumstances. I really didn’t think the movie had too many false moments in terms of the visual thing. The shot of Liam [Neeson] where he’s sitting with his cigar—an iconic shot—and I take full credit for that shot. That’s a really beautiful shot—glamorizes him, shows the audience who he is. And, of course, the last shot, when he’s in the car driving away from the concentration camp, is also great. That’s probably the movie I’m the most proud of in terms of having a really good consistency, historically.
Fiore’s work as director of photography for Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun (2002) and Michael Bay’s The Island (2004), particularly the way he showcased the jungle, caught director James Cameron’s attention when he was hiring for the massively complex movie Avatar. Cameron hired Fiore after one interview. Fiore had to reinvent his approach to cinematography using Cameron’s newly developed Fusion 3-D camera system.
Fiore: Avatar required a lot of experimentation, and a reinterpretation of how I deal with composition and lighting. It just became an interesting experiment for me. [Cameron] is at the height of technology. He’s a very technical director, probably one of the most technical. Jim’s whole approach is to be so specific about every little detail. There was a sequence, for instance, where all the flying vehicles were in a motion-capture environment. Jim hired helicopter pilots to come in for the day and operate those tiny helicopters, holding them on a stick and making sure that that helicopter did exactly what a helicopter does. You realize how huge a project can be and how much involvement a person can have to really put a vision across. That was a huge lesson. It was a challenging project—an incredible experience, but very difficult. We were in New Zealand for about eight months. [Ed. Note: Avatar became one of the highest-grossing films in history.]
DEMO: Janusz, you’re a two-time Academy Award winner (for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), and a six-time nominee. What does it feel like when they call your name as the winner?
Kaminski: You’re just happy to be there. Mauro was there. He was my date twice to Academy Awards. I remember the greatest part was that once I won it, I went behind the stage, pulled a cigarette out, and I’m lighting it, and the guy says, “Normally I wouldn’t let you, but you won it, so you can smoke.” So that symbolizes the things. You can get away with more stuff, you know. I was so naïve and young, I really didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know the consequences of it. Now I know the consequences of it, so when they don’t call for the third time, it’s very disappointing. I was disappointed for Lincoln.
DEMO: Mauro, you won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Avatar in 2010. What did winning feel like?
Fiore: It’s pretty indescribable, really. I didn’t really believe it that I actually won, because there were all sorts of [factors]. The film was digital. The film was 3-D. There was some motion capture. I didn’t really know whether the technology itself was going to be interpreted a certain way or even judged from a standpoint of cinematography. What I think is interesting is how it affected people in my hometown in southern Italy. That moment was so much bigger than the moment in my own life. All of a sudden, you’re like the president that people want to see. I mean, it was more like the Beatles were coming to town. It’s interesting also how the viewpoint changes in the industry. There’s a lot of respect for people who win an Academy Award automatically on the set. Sometimes you’re not really used to it, or it’s not necessary, because when we make a movie, we’re all making a movie. But people think of the win as sort of an insurance policy, like “This guy won the Academy Award and we want him on our movie. We got the best. Here you go.”
DEMO: Janusz, you’ve been Steven Spielberg’s primary cinematographer for 20 years. Why do you think it’s such a successful partnership?
Kaminski: I think it works well because I do good work for him. I’ve got my own take on the story. That’s one thing that he doesn’t have to worry about—that’s totally left up to me to invent. That’s very stimulating for me because I’m not being micromanaged. It’s a very respectful relationship. You have to do the work and you have to be slightly entertaining. He likes to have fun on the set. The movie set is a very, very tense environment, so it’s good to have someone who is a bit of a clown, if the movie allows for it. So I perform the part of the village idiot occasionally, which is fine. I don’t mind that. He’s been making movies for so long, but if you look at some of the early work, we’re really doing the same shots over and over again. The story is different, but he’s got a definite way of telling the story through the camera, and I like that, and I think I’ve learned a lot from him. At the same time, he’s permitted himself to learn from me as well, particularly aesthetics, because my aesthetics are different than his. I grew up in a different part of the world, and on different movies. And, for me, movies were never a business and neither were for him.
DEMO: What do you bring to a project that another cinematographer may not?
Kaminski: The job of cinematography is not to just create images. To some degree, because we make those big movies, we have a really great opportunity to influence masses, aesthetically. You have a chance to really have some influence in shaping the mass culture. But what makes one cinematographer better from another, I think, is definitely individuality. I may be a better self-promoter than some other people, or maybe I have both qualities. There’s a large presence of cinematographers from different countries simply because we do have different aesthetics. We look at the world a different way.
DEMO: What do you worry about?
Kaminski: There isn’t job security. You have to be very self-centered in terms of your own career because nobody’s going to give you a job. You have to look for jobs. Even now, after so many years in being on the top of the profession, you still have to pay attention because there is the new generation of kids coming out, and they don’t necessarily do better work, but filmmakers are younger, and they want to be with their peers. We enter that group of the “older” guys, which is funny because I’m 54—Mauro’s not even 50. Used to be—30 years ago—you were lucky if you shot a movie by the time you were 50. Now, at 50, you’re not ready to be put out to the pasture, but the newer people are coming in.
DEMO: I find that interesting coming from you, a two-time Academy Award winner. It seems like people would be beating down your door.
Kaminski: I can have a very comfortable life through the rest of my professional career, do uninspiring movies and get a whole bunch of money, and not be happy. What I was talking about is still trying to find the interesting filmmakers, interesting stories. You have to maintain your career in a way that you can get to those people. Those people become intimidated by our achievements. They will automatically think, “Oh, he will not do this movie,” because of this and that. You still have to keep on selling yourself: “Yes, I can do it. I will do it. I’m very happy to be doing it.”
Fiore: Although we’re sort of the cinematographers the studio recommends—and that’s a good thing—it could also hurt the experience of a new relationship with a new director, because automatically it seems like somebody’s trying to force us down somebody’s throat.
Kaminski: It’s not bad to be a studio guy as long as you’re not a “studio guy.” It’s good to be on the list.
Fiore: You’re in a situation where the studio depends on you for a certain thing. It’s not like they’re surprised by what you give them. They pay for it and they expect it. And, if it means really pulling the film through and helping a filmmaker, if it’s a younger person or he’s inexperienced, that’s what they pay you to do.
DEMO: If you weren’t a cinematographer, what would you be doing?
Kaminski: I would be directing.
Fiore: I’d like to be a drummer in a jazz band. That would be really fun.
Kaminski: I guess I’m doing what I want to do, really. I am doing what I want to do.
Fiore: Yeah, we’re living a dream. I can say that, actually. I enjoy going to work.
Mauro Fiore is cinematographer for Runner Runner, starring Justin Timberlake, Gemma Arterton, and Ben Affleck and due out in October, and The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington and due out in 2014. He and his wife, Christine Vollmer, live near Omaha, Nebraska, with their three children.
Janusz Kaminski is cinematographer for The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr. and due out in 2014. He lives in Los Angeles and has two children.
The son of Irish immigrants, Declan Quinn (BA ’79) was born and raised in Chicago and spent some of his teen years in Birr, County Ofally, Ireland. During high school in Rockford, Illinois, Quinn took up photography, and while attending community college, freelanced for the Rockford Daily newspaper. Then he had the accident that would change his life: While riding his motorcycle, Quinn was struck by a car, and the impact broke all the metatarsals in his right foot. During his long recovery at home, Quinn discovered Italian neorealist and French new wave films through public television. Seeing Francois Truffaut’s movie The 400 Blows—“a powerful story about regular people”—compelled him to shift from still photography to filmmaking.
DEMO: Why did you choose Columbia?
Declan Quinn: Columbia had all the classes that seemed really interesting to me, and I knew I could afford it. I just got on my crutches, signed up, and went there. What I loved about Columbia the most was on day one, they handed us a Bolex, 100 feet of film, showed us how to thread the camera. Then they told us to pair up with another person, go out to Grant Park, and shoot a movie. By the end of the first week, you were cutting your first film. By the beginning of week two, you’re showing your first film to the class. That was powerful and inspiring stuff—real hands on, just black and white, just a blade and a splicer and a bit of Scotch tape, and the rudiments of filmmaking, the way it’s been since it began.
At Columbia, Quinn forged a friendship with fellow student Michael Goi (BA ’80). When they were looking for people to star in their student films, they convinced Quinn’s younger brother, Aidan, to get in front of the camera. Aidan loved performing so much, he soon enrolled at Columbia and would go on to a successful acting career. After Quinn graduated in 1979, he was recruited to work on The Blues Brothers, along with Goi and Jeffrey Jur (BA ’77). The traumatic experience would turn him off from Hollywood.
Quinn: We were brought into the union to work as electricians—just wrapping up the sets that had already been shot. And then I [worked as a production assistant (PA)] for a couple of weeks—trying to lock up streets and stop people from getting killed by cars racing down the streets. It was insane. They were driving cars at 125 miles an hour down Wells. And there’s kids running out, trying to see what’s happening. You can’t lock up those streets—it’s just a PA on the corner! That experience horrified me. And there was so much cocaine consumed on that film, and I didn’t do those things. I found it really alienating, and it didn’t have a lot to do with filmmaking.
The experience prompted Quinn to move to Dublin, Ireland, to try filmmaking, but he wasn’t able to get into the union and struggled to find work for a year. Then he discovered startup film editing and telecine facility Windmill Lane Pictures, where he was hired to help install the facility and learned how to use the equipment. As luck would have it, the company shared the building with a state-of-the-art recording facility, where an up-and-coming band called U2 was recording. Windmill partner Meiert Avis had already directed one of the band’s videos, and soon enlisted Quinn as camera PA for the band’s follow-up video, “Gloria.” For the next U2 video, things got even better.
Quinn: For “New Year’s Day,” Meiert brought me along as a second camera operator. We went to northern Sweden and shot the band in the snow. We only had the band for four hours—they were on tour—so they helicoptered them in, we stuck them in some deep snow, had them perform that song a couple of times, sent them away, and then dressed up four teenage girls on horses and rode them through the woods like Samurai—they were supposed to be the band. It turned out to be a good video because there are post effects in that with the war footage and the piano keyboard. We had to finish the video quickly for MTV. It’s called “New Year’s Day,” so it was going to premiere on New Year’s Day  worldwide—U2 were becoming popular then, and it was their first big thing for America. I remember working overnight, editing, for four or five intensive days to get it done in time. It debuted on New Year’s Day and was amazingly received. It was exciting.
In the mid 1980s, as Quinn continued to tour and make videos with U2, he moved back to his hometown, “but having music videos on my reel didn’t mean a thing to people in Chicago,” Quinn says. “It was a very conservative and commercial business at the time.” After MTV hired him to shoot some local projects, the rising network immediately lured him to New York to continue working for MTV and VH1. Quinn soon linked up with French high-fashion photographer Claude Mougin and started shooting commercials around the world, all the while traveling back to Ireland to shoot small-budget independent films.
DEMO: You had quite a series of breaks in your first 10 years as a professional. How did you eventually get into filming American movies?
Quinn: I got a break in New York on a film called The Kill-off, Maggie Greenwald’s film, based on a Jim Thompson pulp-fiction novel, and that got some note. It was a slow build. I did work with Louis Malle on Vanya on 42nd Street, and that did well commercially and got me known as somebody who can shoot Super 16. Probably part of the reason Mike [Figgis] chose me for Leaving Las Vegas was because he knew I could shoot Super 16 and make it look pretty decent. When Leaving Las Vegas came out and got the acclaim, I got into another bracket of attention.
For Leaving Las Vegas, Quinn won the 1996 Independent Spirit Award for Cinematography. Around this time, Quinn forged a fruitful partnership with director Mira Nair, shooting several films with her over the following two decades, including Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), which won Quinn his second Independent Spirit Award for Cinematography; Monsoon Wedding (2001); Hysterical Blindness (2002); and Vanity Fair (2004). In America (2002), directed by Jim Sheridan, garnered Quinn his third Independent Spirit Award for Cinematography. Quinn has also served as DP on a number of higher-profile Hollywood movies, including 28 Days, directed by Betty Thomas and starring Sandra Bullock; Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway; and Admission, directed by Paul Weitz and starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.
DEMO: Your resume shows that you’re extremely versatile. Can you explain?
Quinn: The quality of a good cinematographer is not just to know how to technically do something, but know how to support a story. Every film is going to have a very different approach—like right now, I’m doing a raucous comedy [sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine], and how do I support that? It’s a very different kind of storytelling than a Leaving Las Vegas or an In America. You get your head around the parameters of the film, working with the director, and then find a language for that particular type of story. The music video era in the ’80s, which I came through, was a great experimental ground where you could go back to ’20s photography. I did a video for Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight” (1996). We used hand-cranked cameras, and we copied the Melies Brothers’ style of filmmaking. [Ed. Note: That video won six MTV video awards in 1996, including Best Cinematography.] Part of our business is that we’re in the fashion business. If something’s popular for a while—certain techniques, certain filters, certain camera styles—we have to be students of that as well in order to stay relevant in the business, and then try and make it our own at the same time.
DEMO: What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
Quinn: I will be directing. I’ve written a script that’s getting some good feedback, a story about Rory Gallagher, Ireland’s kind of first rock star. It’s a film about his life and the parallel with the troubles in Northern Ireland. The estate’s behind it, just trying to put the money together for it. That’s something I’ve been working on for six years between shooting projects.
DEMO: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Quinn: A few years ago, I was doing a movie called Get Rich or Die Tryin’. 50 Cent was the star. We’re shooting, I think, our third Saturday in a row—long days, and it’s three, four o’clock Saturday morning and we’re still working. I was griping to my camera assistant, and 50 walked in. He just came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “Do what you love, man! You got to do what you love, then that won’t bother you.” I go, “I love what I do, I love what I do,” but he reminded me. Your attitude can shift, and you can get grumpy and fall into that negative side of things when you’re tired, but you can also pull yourself out just as quick with the right attitude: I am doing what I love. I’m here, it’s good. It’s hard, it’s tiring, but here I am.
DEMO: So your best advice came from 50 Cent? That’s hilarious.
Quinn: “You got to do what you love.”
Declan Quinn is cinematographer for the sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine, directed by Steve Pink (’89) and due out in 2014. This fall, he is slated to shoot a pilot for AMC, Line of Sight, directed by Jonathan Demme. Quinn lives in Cornwall, New York, with his wife, Edda. They have four adult daughters.
Cinematographer Michael Goi (BA ’80) grew up on the north side of Chicago. His first memories of filmmaking date back to age 6, when a friend showed 8-mm films of Dracula and Frankenstein on the wall at a birthday party. When Goi’s parents gave him a used 8-mm camera when he was 8, he started making his own animated movies featuring dinosaurs made of clay. At age 14, he bought a used 16-mm Bolex. Because the film was expensive, the Lane Tech high school student decided he’d better make some money to fund his personal projects.
DEMO: What did you work on in high school?
Michael Goi: On the weekends I would grab my friends, and we’d go out and find some small business to shoot a commercial on spec. The first one was an aluminum siding company—they had the worst commercials on television. They were just still photos with some narrator on it, so I grabbed my Bolex and 100 feet of black and white film. I did a dozen shots of their workers putting up aluminum siding and I shot the side of the truck with their name on it, and then I called the owner of the company. I said, “I just shot your next 30-second spot.” By the time I went to Columbia, I had 12 television commercials on the air, mostly on Spanish television.
In high school, Goi was in the ROTC and most of his friends were heading to military academies after high school. But Goi wanted to pursue filmmaking, which his parents eventually supported.
DEMO: Why did you choose Columbia of all the schools you could have gone to?
Goi: Columbia was small and cheap at that time. It was like two floors in that Lake Shore Drive building, maybe 200 students total in the entire college. I took my dad down there with me to check it out, and he was like, “Oh. So this is where you want to go instead of West Point?”
DEMO: What did you think of Columbia?
Goi: What was nice is that they threw the equipment into your hands right away. I remember on the first day, they gave you a Bolex and 100 feet of film and said, go out and shoot something that means something to you, knowing that you would probably mess it up. But it forced you to immediately think visually and how to tell a story visually without relying on dialogue. I thought that was really important and a good approach. Just jumping into it to erase the fear of failure—that was an important thing because if you’re not afraid to take chances, then you will advance. As a result, I learned to embrace taking huge chances in order to accomplish whatever it was I wanted to do.
DEMO: What are your major inspirations?
Goi: The Graduate is my favorite movie of all time. I saw it for the first time when I was 8 years old by accident. My parents took me to what they thought was a festival of cartoons. But they didn’t know that there was only one matinee of the cartoon festival, and that was over, and the regular movie was The Graduate. Even though I didn’t understand [The Graduate] at that time, I loved the emotion of it. So I pestered my parents to take me to see The Graduate every week, and then it ended up showing at the Playboy, a theater on Rush Street, at 2:00 in the morning on Saturday nights. After a while—I think I was like 10—they said, “Just go by yourself.” It was a whole different time. So I would be taking the subway, get to Rush Street at 2:00 in the morning to go see The Graduate. I ended up seeing it 125 times in movie theaters. But every time I saw it, I noticed something different, something that Robert Surtees was doing with the lighting, the design of the set and how they represented Mrs. Robinson as opposed to Benjamin Braddock. It’s really quite a wonderful movie masquerading as a typical comedy.
At Columbia, Goi met fellow student filmmakers Jeffrey Jur (BA ’77) and Declan Quinn (BA ’79). Jur hired Goi to work on a student film. Goi remembers commiserating with Quinn about school film projects and their futures. “Some of the most valuable stuff we learned was from each other and from our mutual experiences and trying to figure out, what is the path?” says Goi.
DEMO: You worked on The Blues Brothers in 1979 while still a student.
Goi: I worked on The Blues Brothers as a production assistant. I got a call at 6:00 in the morning—a friend of mine was working on it and they needed many more PAs. He asked if I could just get to the set by 7:00, and so I went and then it ended up being almost four months I was on that show. It was such a chaotic show. It was a time in the industry when there was so much cocaine flying around, there was a tremendous lack of fiscal responsibility. It was a production that fell behind every single day, so the schedule just kept getting longer and longer. It was a tough run on that movie, and more than any other experience, it’s the one that persuaded me not to go to Hollywood and not to go into the industry that way.
In 1980, Goi graduated as valedictorian of his class and served as a part-time instructor at the college from 1980 to 1983, teaching lighting and basic film techniques. He also worked as director of photography and editor on documentaries for PBS, directed commercials, and opened a fashion photography studio that produced editorial and advertising layouts. After serving as director of photography on Moonstalker (1989), a low-budget horror film shot in Nevada, Goi made the move to Hollywood and found steady work in feature films. When feature work dried up, he says he caught a break in TV when Jur convinced ABC to hire him as an additional photographer on the prime-time dramatic series Invasion (2005-2006).
DEMO: You attended Columbia in the same era as four other in-demand, award-winning, ASC-inducted cinematographers in this story: Mauro Fiore, Jeffrey Jur, Janusz Kaminski, and Declan Quinn. What do you make of that?
Goi: I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I know that all of us share a quality of dogged persistence, which certainly helps, which is an individual trait. Some people have it, some people don’t. Sometimes talent is not enough. I knew a couple of really talented cinematographers who were shooting around the same time I was in Chicago, but they were not willing to take the kinds of jobs that they thought were beneath them, and I would take anything. Nobody ever achieves success from just a lucky break. You position yourself to take advantage of the lucky break, and the more you’re on set, the more you’re working, the more crew people, the more producers you meet—regardless of the quality of the project—those people then immediately become your contacts in the industry. When you look at my IMDb resume, you’re like, “Oh my God, he shot over 50 movies that I’ve never heard of.” Well, on every single one of those movies, I learned something about my craft, and I made contacts with people who moved on to bigger and better projects and therefore brought me along.
Goi went on to shoot the popular NBC series My Name is Earl, for which his cinematography was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2008. In 2009, he was elected president of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), serving three one-year terms, the maximum allowed. When Goi initially interviewed for FX’s American Horror Story in 2011, he didn’t get the job, but executive producer Ryan Murphy instead hired him as an alternating cinematographer for Fox’s Glee. Then, when American Horror Story’s cinematographer left, Murphy handpicked Goi to step in.
“As soon as you think you’ve made it, then you have nowhere to go buy down. I don’t think I will ever make it, and I hope I do never make it because then it’s all over.”
DEMO: What do you consider to be your big break?
Goi: I would say maybe Glee.
DEMO: Really, not until Glee?
Goi: Glee, and then ultimately American Horror Story, solidified my reputation as being a creative cinematographer, not just a fast cinematographer. When you work on those productions, especially American Horror Story, it’s one of those shows where you can’t help but notice the cinematography because it’s so obvious—it’s so bold and the material demands that it be that way. It wasn’t until I started working with Ryan Murphy that I was able to push the envelope, and then Ryan told me that what he likes about working with me is that I take his vision and then I take it very far.
DEMO: What have you been able to do with Murphy that’s been particularly rewarding?
Goi: For American Horror Story season two, I would go to Ryan and say, “I want to shoot the 1945 Nazi flashbacks on real black-and-white film, and do it with a hand-cranked camera,” and he says, “I love it,” and that’s it. Being able to bring such diverse things visually to the table because they were my interpretation of what was happening in the script. To have it supported, and not questioned or dissected … It’s rare in television. It’s rare in features. On American Horror Story, when we work with Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson and James Cromwell, it lifts everybody else’s contributions. Actors of that caliber understand what it is you’re doing with the lighting and with the camera work to enhance their performances. In an interview, Jessica Lange made some comments about how I was tapping into the inner life of the characters and representing it visually, so that the audience could feel what the character was feeling even when the character hadn’t spoken yet. It’s having that trust between the cinematographer and the actors that really makes the job great.
DEMO: Do you have a signature piece of film that you’ve created?
Goi: No, after I shoot a project, it’s almost like I press a delete button in my head and I erase all of it from my memory. I don’t like to carry favorite shots with me because I feel like then you get burdened down by the things you think you did successfully, and it prevents you from finding out other things.
DEMO: What do you worry about?
Goi: The work comes and the work goes. Your popularity rises, your popularity falls. Students sometimes ask me, “What made you choose this particular project? What were the artistic challenges that made you want to choose that one over another one?” To be perfectly honest, the artistic challenges come after you’ve decided to choose the project. I do not have the luxury of not working. This is my job. This is what I do to pay my mortgage. This is what I do to support my family. It’s my job just like everybody else has a job.
DEMO: How does it feel to be one of Columbia’s 2013 Alumni of the Year?
Goi: I’m really honored. So many good people have come out of Columbia in all kinds of crafts. There is that little twinge of thinking, this sounds like a lifetime achievement honor of some sort, which means your life is almost over, you know. But when I got past that, I think being chosen as somebody who represents the best of what Columbia can be is really quite gratifying. The only time I have any kind of perspective on what I’ve actually done or achieved is when somebody younger coming up through the industry stops me and says, “Oh my God, I saw this, I saw this and this,” and “How did you do that?” That’s the only time I start to think, “I’ve actually done quite a bit.” But like I said, that delete button in my head—it all goes away after I do it. So you start fresh. As soon as you think you’ve made it, then you have nowhere to go but down. I don’t think I will ever make it, and I hope I do never make it because then it’s all over.
Michael Goi is nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie for American Horror Story: Asylum, episode: “I Am Anne Frank (Part 2).” merican Horror Story: Coven (season 3) will air on FX in the fall. The Ryan Murphy-produced film The Town That Dreaded Sundown is due out in 2014. Goi and his wife, Gina, live in Los Angeles with their two children.
Interviews with the five cinematographers were arranged by Eric V. A. Winston, PhD, executive editor and vice president for Institutional Advancement. He retired in August after eight years of service—we wish him the best in his future endeavors. Additional research and writing by Megan Kirby and Sean McEntee (’14).