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This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Director of photography John Bailey — who will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The American Society of Cinematographers at its annual ASC Awards — is the eye behind such iconic movies as Ordinary People, American Gigolo, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist and As Good as It Gets. At 72, he’s also a vp at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, representing the Cinematographers Branch on its Board of Governors.
What is most misunderstood about cinematography?
The visual grammar of film has been changing. What is misunderstood is that the best cinematography is simple and does not try to comment on and drive the drama. I also think that what is being lost is the sense of the large framing and visual environment around actors that gives you time to see the space they are in, which tells you so much about who they are.
In The Big Chill, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan famously cut Kevin Costner’s character Alex, who was intended to appear in flashbacks. What do you recall about that shoot?
It was the first thing we shot. It was about a Thanksgiving dinner that they were preparing together when they were students, and there was discussion over [a grant that Alex was offered]. Carol Littleton [the film’s editor and Bailey’s wife] and Larry realized at a certain point, after previewing it both ways, that by the end of the film, everybody had their own notion of what the relationships were when they were students. To be so literal wasn’t as satisfying.
You photographed A Walk in the Woods, which just premiered at Sundance, and you used drones. What is the potential for unmanned aerial systems in production?
I used it at a rock precipice in Virginia. I think the potential is extraordinary. But like anything — for instance, when we started using the Steadicam — everyone started doing it in a very film-conscious way, and it became a cliche. My worry about using drones is that they are going to become cliche before they become part of our vocabulary.
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