In this concluding section of William Roberts’ article, Shooting For the Stars, the author encounters ASC legend, Ernest Haller, ASC. Once again, I’m impressed by the unusual candor with which he speaks about the stars he photographs.
Rudolph Mate had a date with Vivien Leigh, in front of the camera, and I had one, at Warner Brothers Studio, with a gentleman named Ernie Haller, a studious architect who wound up by becoming the genius to put that little tidbit labeled “Gone With the Wind” on celluloid.
Good-natured, bespectacled Ernie Haller didn’t waste words. “The cameraman’s main duty is to tell a story with lighting. Next, he must have a thorough understanding or feeling for composition; you know, how to group and balance people and objects properly. It’s like salesmanship – you create a point of interest, and you try to sell the fans a star or an idea by subtly focusing attention on this point of interest.”
Haller referred to a few tangible points of interest.
“But, as you know, we have our sticklers, too. There’s Clark Gable. I always shoot him three-quarters, so that you see only one of his ears. If you saw both at once, they’d look like mine do – stick out like the arms of a loving cup.
“Brenda Marshall, whom I’m working with at present, is a fine actress. Her only defects are a slightly crooked nose and eyes set too closely together. I light up one side of her face more fully to straighten the nose, and push inkies square into Brenda’s face to spread her eyes.
“When I shot GWTW, I found Vivien Leigh ideal for Technicolor. But I learned too much light was extremely bad for her. Her face was delicate and small, and full brightness would wash out her features and spoil the modeling of her countenance. Another thing. She has blue eyes. David Selznick wanted them green. So I set up a baby spot with amber gelatine, placed it under my lens, and Scarlett wound up with green eyes.
“There’s no limit to what we have to do. We keep middle-aged actresses young by using special diffusing lenses that make faces mellow, hazy, soft, foggy, ethereal. We use these lenses on mood scenes, too, thus enabling us to create cold, crisp mornings on hot, sultry days.
“In my time, I’ve put them all in my black box. Some who were difficult and some who were easy, ranging from Mae Murray and Norma Talmadge to Dick Barthelmess and Bette Davis. I’ve never had trouble because I knew sculpturing, knew the basic foundation of the human face and was able to become, literally, a plastic surgeon with lights.”
“Most trick stuff is in the hands of the Optical Printing Department of any studio. This is conducted by specialized cameramen and special effects men who manufacture 75% of the mechanical trick scenes. Most impossible scenes are done in miniature, caught by a camera that blows them eight times normal.”
Ernie Haller, with an eye for the unusual, summarized some of the crazy paradoxes he’d run into during his many semesters in the movie village. He said that big banquet scenes were always filmed right after lunch, because the extras weren’t so hungry then and wouldn’t eat so much expensive food! Moonlit night scenes were taken in the daytime with a filter, because real moonlight was not photogenic. Faked fights photographed better than real ones, because real ones appeared too silly. Sequences on an ocean liner had to be faked on dry land, because an honest-to-goodness boat pitched and heaved too much for the average camera. Blank cartridges recorded better on the sound track. Real ones were too high-pitched.
“In barroom sequences,” concluded Haller, “cold tea is better than whiskey, not because it photographs better but because actors have to drink a lot of it – and tea, sir, keeps them sober!”
So there. You’ve met some of the boys from the ASC. Now paste Gregg Toland’s classical outburst into your hat –
“Tell ’em we’re not low-grade mechanical morons, we’re cameramen. Tell ’em we’re creative artists, by God!”
And, by God, they certainly are!