Ross Lowell, Oscar Recipient and Inventor of Gaffer Tape, Dies at 92

Ross Lowell obituary - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Josh Lowell

He also created the essential Tota-Light and photographed documentaries for directors John Boorman and Robert Aldrich.

Ross Lowell, a cinematographer, filmmaker and Oscar winner whose inventions kept movie sets, lighting equipment and cables together and helped actors find their marks onstage, has died. He was 92.

Lowell died Jan. 10 at his home in Pound Ridge, New York, his son, documentarian Josh Lowell, told The Hollywood Reporter. Josh was one of the subjects of the Oscar-nominated short film Oh Brother, My Brother (1979), co-directed by his father and mother, Carol Lowell.

Lowell shot the documentary On the Trail of the Iguana (1964), about the making of John Huston's The Night of the Iguana, the director's 1964 adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play.

He also shot the Oscar-winning short film A Year Toward Tomorrow (1966); the Charlton Heston-narrated While I Run This Race (1967), a short film about poverty; The Rock (1967), a promotional film for John Boorman's 1967 film noir classic Point Blank; and Operation Dirty Dozen, a look inside Robert Aldrich's 1967 war drama The Dirty Dozen.

Lowell's creation of lighting clamp systems and gaffer tape came after he encountered a problem on the set of the 1957 documentary "The Delinquents: The Highfields Story" for Walter Cronkite's CBS series The 20th Century.

Filming in the former home of Charles Lindbergh that had become a juvenile rehabilitation center, Lowell wanted to install lighting units that could remain in the rooms for several months without interfering with the day-to-day operation of the center.

He combined a socket and handle onto a ball-swivel that could be clamped onto mounting devices, like a putty knife or suction cup (as were items to use in those days).

"It worked surprisingly well, but there were too many little parts, and the suction cup was less than a completely reliable mounting device," he wrote in a 1979 article for American Cinematographer magazine.

"That might have been the end of it, except that I was intrigued by the challenge of trying to incorporate all of the functions of the accessories into the basic light. Mounting the socket and swivel onto a thin, resilient plate enabled the light to go behind moldings. End of the putty knife accessory. It also provided a base on which to balance the unit on floors and tables."

Lowell also needed tape that was strong and heat-resistant and wouldn't leave a residue. He came across Johnson & Johnson's Permacel tape, used for ducts and heating coils, and transferred its adhesive surface onto tough silver fabric backing. That became gaffer tape.

Shortly after, he launched Lowel-Light, a company that supplied location and compact lighting. Another of his inventions was the Tota-Light, ideal for lighting a large area evenly and still a staple of location kits around the world.

In 1979, Lowell received a Technical Achievement Oscar for "the development of compact lighting equipment for motion picture technology."

And in 1987, he was honored with the John Grierson Gold Medal by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers "in recognition of his many achievements, inventions and innovative developments in the field of lightweight lighting and of grip equipment."

Lowell's idea for Oh Brother, My Brother came about when his then-wife Carol said she regretted that the family had no footage of Josh, then 6, and another son, Evan, then 2.

The 16mm short film followed the sons in everyday conflict and love for each other. The Lowells observed the boys' interactions and then wrote a script that allowed room for improvisation.

"We hoped it would serve as a discussion film, a jumping-off point for people to talk about their feelings. We felt there was a need for a deeper level of discussion without having to go for professional help," Lowell told Popular Photography in 1981.

In 1992, he published the educational book Matters of Light & Depth, about his decades in the lighting industry. 

In the introduction he wrote, "Because good craft is contagious, artists like Vermeer, photographers like Eugene Smith, teachers like Slavko Vorkapich, films like Citizen Kane and countless technicians like assistant cameraman Tibor Sands have unwittingly influenced this work."

Josh Lowell co-directed the climbing documentary The Dawn Wall (2018), photographed by another younger brother, Brett.

In addition to his three sons and a daughter, survivors include his wife, Marilyn.