With over seventy-five feature films to his name, countless awards from both the ACS (including induction into our Hall of Fame) and the ASC (including their Lifetime Achievement Award) and an Oscar… we speak with the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler AM ACS ASC to learn about what inspires him and how he taps into his abundant creativity.
Interview by Elizabeth Bonney.
AC – When did you discover your passion for photography? Did you realise at a young age that you would devote your life to film photography?
DS – I was the youngest of three children, our family lived in Renmark, a small country town nestled on the banks of the mighty River Murray in South Australia. Absolutely beautiful country side, edging on semi-desert, vast wheat and sheep farms stretching endlessly to the horizon. White puffy clouds on a clear blue sky most of the year and thousands of acres of lush irrigated fruit properties; grapes, citrus, peaches and so on. I still can buy oranges in American supermarkets proudly labelled ‘Grown in the Riverland Australia’.
Growing up I really enjoyed this special part of our great country, and would often ride my bike a few miles out of town to experience the beauty, the vastness, the tranquility, but not for a moment thinking of photography until I was given a small stills camera when I was about fourteen-years-old. It was a small ‘Coronet’ camera, with a flash that would open like a shiny flower, all of a sudden I had a new hobby. Rolls of film were fairly expensive but I worked in a pharmacy after school, now and then I could afford to buy a roll of black and white negative and have it developed where I worked.
I had applied for a position as a props boy at NWS Channel 9 in Adelaide, one of Rupert Murdoch’s first television stations. Not thinking I had a hope in hell of getting it, but for some unknown reason I got the job, and so out of the blue began a fantastic and exciting new career.
Promotions came pretty quickly in these embryonic days of television, and after a short stint as a props boy and also a floor manager, I was operating a studio camera on mostly ‘live’ television. I was only seventeen-years-old and took to this new position like a duck to water.
I had saved enough money to buy a small super 8mm camera, shooting little films on the weekends, but now I was hungry and wanted to reach for something more. I wanted to be a film cameraman. I had watched with envy the news cameramen walk through the studio every afternoon, carrying their 16mm cameras with light meters hanging around their necks. I was nineteen-years-old when I got the position as a news cameraman and found an immediate love, telling stories on film.
With no formal education in either photography or film making I nervously headed off on my first assignment with the words of the news editor ringing in my ears “don’t worry mate, you’ll get the hang of it!” Everyday brought new experiences, interviews with politicians and rock stars, accidents and tragedies, life was never dull. On one occasion I was covering a bush fire when I crashed and rolled over in my small news van. A group of firemen helped me back on the road and I drove back to the station making the six o’clock news.
AC – You are lucky to discover your life’s purpose at such a young age. How have you maintained your motivation for filmmaking over the years?
DS – You say I am lucky and how right you are. Cinematography has got to be the greatest occupation on the planet. I consider myself so lucky to have fallen unexpectedly into this unlikely position.
One of my earliest assignments as a news cameraman was to cover The Beatles visit to South Australia. I elbowed my through the thousands of people jamming the streets, covered the press conference with ‘the fab four’ and then their amazing concert that night … just imagine how excited and how bloody lucky I was!
My motivation is the same today as it was fifty-five years ago. Starting everyday with a love of my work and allowing my enthusiasm to rub off onto my crew, many of whom are kids half a century younger than me. I try to keep a sense of harmony on the set and also maintain a good sense of humour.
Collaboration is so important, to be aware of every other department’s responsibilities and feelings, none more so than the actors who often can be nervous and sometimes totally in character. There are one or two actors, no names, who won’t allow any crew to make eye contact with them, some have been fired for doing so but its pretty rare. There are always tensions on a movie set but I never allow them to affect me. I can become a Buddhist very easily, keeping the calm around me, while on some occasions all hell is breaking loose… OMMM!
AC – Your catalogue of films demonstrate that you are a wizard with a camera and also a true artist when it comes to lighting and creating breathtaking scenes. Can you talk about your creative process?
DS – I don’t claim to have a particular style, every movie is different. In my early days in Australia I was recognised as an action man after the gut tearing photography in the Mad Max movies. However the genre was new to me and everyday became an exciting learning process, learning from the creator and Director of those films, the great George Miller AO. The constant advice I would get from him was “Dino… just be bold!” He wanted a cinematographer who had not only mastered lighting, but also had a good eye for widescreen compositions and one who was prepared to take risks, photographically.
“ As I was looking through the lens and operating, the camera was jolting, shaking and almost coming off the tripod. “
Understanding that in a fast and wild action movie, when the chase begins, no-one would ever care or be aware of the change in light direction, or if it was in sun or cloud, early morning or middle of the day. The other hugely important factor was the camera movement, and if you watch Mad Max 2 (1981) you will feel the energy level go through the roof because of the fast, unsteady, shaking and sometimes violent camera movement. As I was looking through the lens and operating, the camera was jolting, shaking and almost coming off the tripod. It was just Miller wanting to stir things up a bit and give it extra adrenalin. So after those two films I became the ‘action guy’.
I shot several very different types of movies in Australia; Kitty and the Bagman (1983) a gangster film set in the 1920s, The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) with Eric Roberts as an eccentric American marketing guru, and The Lighthorsemen (1987) A WWI drama with a spectacular and dangerous cavalry charge.
Undercover (1984) was perhaps my favourite ‘beautiful’ movie where I used soft diffusion and soft lighting throughout. Once again set in the 1920s, a comedy revolving around a woman’s bra manufacturer with several really gorgeous musical numbers were shot on stage in Sydney.
Then there was Dead Calm (1989), the film that launched Nicole Kidman into super stardom and into Tom Cruise’s arms. Filming on water comes with its own set of challenges and generally takes more time than shooting on land, because of all the unpredictable conditions: winds, tides, currents and just simply positioning the boats on their marks. Lots of patience and a good test of tempers. I learned a lot on this film that I would put into practice years later on in Waterworld (1995) which we filmed in Hawaii.
So now for another style, Westerns. I became the western specialist, shooting five westerns in the space of just a few years, and boy did I love it! A kid in a candy store, cowboys, Native Americans, fantastic horsemen and always on absolutely spectacular locations, generally in the high-desert plateaus of New Mexico. Fulfilling my love for big vistas in that giant widescreen cinema frame.
I haven’t ever been asked to shoot a horror film, which in itself requires a totally different set of rules. I’ve done pretty much every other type of movie: action, drama, westerns and some Hollywood films that just have to look glossy, and many comedies where generally the studios like the films to be a bit brighter, more flat overall light, not so challenging but fun to be on a set where laughter rules. So as you can see I don’t have any particular style and have shot all varieties of movies, each one dictating its own ‘look’.
AC – Can you share your thoughts around the relationship between the Director and Cinematographer?
DS – Directors can spend many years getting their pet project approved and financed, whereas cinematographers can come in only a few weeks before shooting. Only after the director has worked with the production designer in selecting locations and set design, including wardrobe for style and colour choices. As every film is different, so will be the director. There are those with very strong ideas and plans, with the whole movie blocked out in their head, the story boards, pre-vis video or animatics who don’t require as much idea sharing, but only a guidance to fulfil their vision. All directors watch rehearsals on set with the actors before they totally commit to the coverage of a scene. An actor may want to do a scene standing on his head, who knows, that changes everything. I have worked with several first-time directors and love to be there to share ideas and guide them through where necessary, never wanting to take over but sometimes it’s just a whispering an idea in their ear.
I loved the relationship I had with both Kevin Costner on Dances with Wolves (1990) and with Angelina Jolie on In The Land of Blood and Honey (2011). As first time Directors they both had a very strong vision of their movie but would be open to any ideas I might suggest. It was especially tough on Costner as he not only directed but also produced and acted in it! He did a hero’s job. On Apocalypto (2006) Mel Gibson was a truly great leader with a strong vision but always open to anyone’s ideas that might improve his movie. He would listen to ideas from anyone and everyone. As with Costner and Jolie, everyday he graciously shared his vast experience as an actor with the cast. A great director, a great leader with a great sense of humour.
Shooting a movie is a tough job, working long days or nights, normally finishing the day in twelve hours but often running into fourteen or sixteen hour days and beyond. Especially gruelling on locations in extreme weather conditions: scorching deserts and steamy jungles or filming in howling blizzards.
No matter how tough it may be for the crew, consider the director who has a huge responsibility, not only during the shooting day but also spending hours at night making phone calls to studios or actors and answering endless questions, as well as planning the next days shoot. Good directors normally surround themselves with a crew who are not are not only good craftsmen but it’s especially important that they are true collaborators. I directed a couple of times and before I started, one director friend of mine said to me “Directing a movie is like being pecked to death by a thousand penguins.” He was right, having tried it I fully understand and have great respect for them all… well, most of them.
AC – Having watched the progression of cinematography over the years, can you share your thoughts from your first work with film, through to digital and 3D? How do you see the future of cinematography?
DS – Back at NWS Channel 9 in 1962, I would shoot 16mm black and white reversal film where it would come off the rollers as a positive not a negative, so it could be edited immediately and be ready to go to air. To keep the costs down we were asked to shoot as little footage as possible so with a 100 foot roll of film running about 2 and a half minutes I accepted the challenge and mastered the art of fitting three news stories onto one roll. Each news story going to air running 30-40 seconds on average.
I moved to the ABC in Sydney and the head office and was lucky enough to land one of the very first colour documentaries. It retraced the steps of Captain James Cook and the job took me to Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, Canada and England… quite a trip! But all the time getting to know and understand this new colour film.
In 1970 I was lucky enough to land a job at the Commonwealth Film Unit (CFU) where they still made short films promoting Australia, to be shown on the big screen in cinemas before the main feature. This meant 35mm film, bigger cameras and fabulous widescreen images. I loved it. Prior to this all my films were only seen on television. I spent nine spectacular years at the CFU, later called Film Australia and consolidated into Screen Australia in 2008.
Shooting some cinema shorts but mainly documentaries that took me all over the world. These were all filmed in 16mm and I chose to use a French camera, the NPR Eclair (Noiseless Portable Reflex) with a Canon macro zoom, great for ease of use and especially for handholding holding without a tripod. I must have shot millions of feet of film on this camera all over the planet. I would unload the magazines every night and the film would be shipped to Colorfilm in Sydney. I would get a negative report a few days later. The camera became my best friend, sort of.
Having been a public servant for twelve years with sick leave, holiday pay and security I was a little apprehensive when I joined the ranks of freelance cinematographers in 1979. Shortly after starting to shoot feature films I was introduced to the greatest movie cameras and lenses ever made. The name Panavision came into my lexicon. The company had been manufacturing and supplying the highest-quality cameras and lenses for major movies since the 1950s. Well, I just thought I was the bees knees’ and I have now shot over sixty films still using their cameras and lenses.
In 2003 Panavision designed and built the first truly high-quality full-chip digital camera, The Genesis, and I was lucky enough to pioneer it through several productions. The very first film shot in Hollywood was the Adam Sandler movie Click (2006) then shortly after with Mel Gibson’s blessing I used it in Mexico for many months on his movie Apocalypto (2006). We were concerned that the digital cameras, which after all are sophisticated computers, might suffer in the extreme weather conditions, but we had no problems in the gruelling temperatures and humidity.
A huge advantage of shooting on this new state of the art camera, was that unlike Channel 9 days where a roll of film ran for two and a half minutes, the tape deck allowed us to shoot for fifty minutes. Saving a huge amount of valuable time not reloading every day. Also great for actors who like to improvise and just keep the cameras rolling. Another huge benefit for me was the ability of the camera to ‘see in the dark’, well almost. I was able to shoot for an extra hour or so in the dark, canopied jungle much later in the day, and especially to be able to film at night by fire light only… wow!
Another massive convenience shooting digital? No need to package up thousands of feet of film every night and have it dispatched to the lab in Hollywood where in Mexico it would have been four or five days before we could get a report back. Nervous times. Would there be focus or exposure problems or contamination from the airport x-rays? After wrap each day we would go directly to our mobile projection trailer and view the day’s work. Instead of what was normally called ‘the rushes’ or ‘dailies’, Mel Gibson used to call them ‘the immediatelees’.
I continued to shoot many more movies on this wonderful new camera and today other manufacturers have given cinematographers more choices in digital cameras. Film is still around but used by very few productions. Theatres now rarely project film and have converted to digital projection. If a tent pole movie was being released in 4000 theatres then that many prints would have to be made, now the average film length is about 10,000 feet, so for 4000 prints, that would be 40 million feet of film. A huge cost!
A few years ago after the success of Avatar (2009) shooting 3D became a popular fad, basically a good money-earner for the studios. The camera rigs were naturally much bigger because two cameras were needed, one for each eye to create the stereo effect and it was taking more time to set up each shot. Some of the rigs seemed truly quite cumbersome but because it was proving to be popular with audiences the studios kept making them. However at the same time some specialised digital houses were creating methods to convert conventional 2D movies into the 3D format, but it was very expensive and time consuming.
I was about to film Maleficent (2014) at the legendary Pinewood studios in London with Angelina Jolie and the producers planned to shoot 3D. I thought it was worth at this stage screening some of the conversions that were underway, so a group of us were invited to Burbank facility Stereo D where we saw selected scenes from Titanic (1997) that were very impressive. It was then we decided to shoot Maleficent in 2D and convert it to 3D in post-production.
As I write this now, I am sitting in a luxury digital screening room at Sony Studios in Hollywood. It’s my lunch break. I’m here to complete the colour timing on a couple of Adam Sandler movies I shot last year for Netflix, and for the first time finishing the films using the latest high dynamic range of display technology called Dolby Vision, showing a superb range of colour and contrast never before achieved in a television transfer. I have never seen images for television like it. In answering your question, I am at this very moment using the best state of the art technology available today, working with rocket scientist engineers and digital colourists.
AC – There exists a long list of actors who praise you and feel privileged to have worked with you. Can you talk about this dynamic and how you put the actors at ease in such a way that encourages great performances?
DS – There’s nothing mysterious or magical about making actors feel at ease. I hear stories about cinematographers or crew members who can be uptight distracting and arrogant on a set and although not deliberately they might show little consideration for others… not good. George Miller describes the ideal atmosphere on a set, particularly around camera as a “circle of grace”. I always encourage my crews to keep the noise down, communicate quietly, show respect and a little praise to others works wonders.
AC – Can you explain your feelings and what it means when you’re awarded accolades such as the Oscar for Dances with Wolves, induction into the ACS Hall of Fame, the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, or becoming a member of the Order of Australia?
DS – Firstly I’ll say that I am extremely lucky to have received any awards doing what I love doing. In the early 1970s I had just become a proud new member of the prestigious Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) when I received my very first ACS award, a Gold Tripod, for a short documentary I had shot at Film Australia. It was truly a most unexpected surprise. In the years that followed I was lucky enough to win a few more Gold Tripods for documentaries and small dramas.
In 1985 the Australian Film Institute honoured me with my very first feature film award for Razorback. As I was working my wife Annie flew to the ceremony in Melbourne, collected the trophy and the next day presented it to me in Sydney where I was shooting Mad Max with George Miller.
Dances with Wolves brought in many nominations and awards, and required Annie and I to spend several weeks in Hollywood during the celebratory season where there were awards presented almost every night for the various categories. Kodak gave me a beautiful glass ‘nominees award’ shaped like a burning flame. The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) gave me their feature award at a glamorous function in Beverly Hills. There I was the Australian kid amongst the greatest cinematographers of all time, and I won? Amazing!
Walking in to the Academy Awards ceremony in 1991, hearing the orchestra playing the movie themes was goose bump time, any nerves and fears disappeared. Two thousand people all together as one, sharing the excitement, the winners, the presenters, the jokes… what a night! I had just finished City Slickers (1991) with Billy Crystal who was the host that night, one of the last true showmen, it was great to see him again, making a classic entry on his horse. I have been criticised by several friends, especially my wife, for leaping out of my seat when my name was called but I was so bloody excited! Afterwards, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the first to congratulate me. I recently watched the bright eyed and bushy tailed Mad Max Fury Road (2015) Australian nominees at the Oscars and shared in their excitement and anticipation, exactly as I had done on Dances with Wolves.
The most unexpected and uniquely special award came when I returned to Renmark in 2013 to spend time with the children of St. Joseph’s School who had written me letters and asked me to come back home and meet and talk to them. A lot of old friends had gathered at the council chambers where the Mayor hosted a reception and presented me with the Keys to Renmark. Totally unexpected and a wonderful surprise. I would never have imagined that after leaving the town in 1960 that I ould be returning 53 years later to be honoured like this. I was very moved and very grateful.
AC – What are your favourite three films that you have worked on?
DS – My three favourite films that I worked on, not only as finished films, but also my day-to-day experiences in making them are; Mad Max 2 which was twelve weeks in the spectacular desert near Broken Hill, Dances with Wolves which was twenty weeks and three seasons in South Dakota, and Apocalypto that too thirty weeks in the steamy lush exotic jungles of Mexico. All with extreme physical and climatic challenges but so damned enjoyable.
AC – Do you have any advice for up and coming cinematographers just starting out in the film industry?
DS – My advice to young potential cinematographers is to firstly learn a little about the fundamentals of the photochemical film process. I know its becoming extremely difficult, almost impossible to get access to a 16mm film camera, but they are still around and you can probably go begging and still get film stock through the few remaining film labs. Its really worth a try if you can.
However, if not a film camera then go digital. I guess now most people have iPhones or some other brand allowing them to make movies. Experiment with composition, angles, colours, filters and especially lighting, either exterior or interior. See how under exposure and over exposer can affect your final image. There is no limit to the effects available using digital cameras. Watch your favourite films without sound, study the shots again and again.
Have fun developing your own style, and get your material out there to production companies, on YouTube, knock on doors and keep knocking. Film schools are a great way to learn, but can be expensive or difficult to enter. My best advice is to try and attach yourself to a movie or music video or a commercial. You will meet crews and if you have potential you will be asked back. I have always included interns on my movies they have all worked their way up through the ranks, from loaders to focus pullers to operators and come of them now successful cinematographers. I wish you all the best in your pursuit of a new career, go for it. As my dear old father in law would always say “you’re mad if you don’t.”
Elizabeth Bonney is Semler’s god-daughter.