'Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers': TV Review

Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies
Eloquent and illuminating.

'Harold and Lillian' helmer Daniel Raim focuses his documentary lens on the innovative work of seven Hollywood cinematographers in a film for TCM.

At a couple of points in the lively documentary Image Makers, interviewees choke up, holding back tears. Neither person is recalling a private memory — rather, they're describing the impact of a cinematographer's lighting ingenuity or camera-angle choices. That's the essence of director Daniel Raim's crisp overview of motion picture photography: how technical solutions, at their best, are inseparable from a particular scene's emotional effect on the viewer.

As he did in his previous film, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story — which chronicled the partnership of a storyboard artist and his researcher wife, and their crucial contributions to American film — Raim looks behind the screen to the art-and-craft decisions that go into moviemaking. Besides the expected film clips and talking heads, he deploys a selection of exceptionally well curated historical stills, plus new illustrations by Patrick Mate and indispensable audio interviews from the archives of the American Society of Cinematographers.

The result will be eye-opening for fans of vintage film and is a perfect fit for TCM, with strong potential as a staple in film-school curricula.

The doc covers a period of 60-odd years, but its primary focus is Hollywood's very early days and a select group of "craftsmen, visionaries, inventors and seers." Emphasis on men — if there were influential female pioneers in the field of cinematography, their work is lost or still unknown. Interviewee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), who speaks eloquently about the "instinctual dance" of handheld camerawork, is the only female DP in a film that spotlights a "fraternity of light" (there's a literary sheen to the narration, written by film critic Michael Sragow and delivered with energy and warmth by Michael McKean).

Another contemporary cinematographer, John Bailey (American Gigolo), recalling his work as a camera operator on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven for DP Néstor Almendros, helps to illuminate the creative cross-pollination between craftsmen trained in Europe and those carving a path in the U.S. industry.

Among the seven masters of the form who are profiled, a couple will be familiar names to even casual movie fans: James Wong Howe (Hud) and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane). The others played no less instrumental roles in creating a visual language for storytelling. Some helped filmmakers develop their sensibility: Billy Bitzer was a silversmith turned engineer who became mentor and right-hand man to D.W. Griffith, and Rollie Totheroh left behind a semipro baseball career to shoot features for a recent import from Britain, Charlie Chaplin. Some were instrumental in burnishing the screen personas of stars — Charles Rosher with Mary Pickford, William Daniels with Greta Garbo.

Still photographer Karl Struss, who worked with a wide range of actors and filmmakers, would famously team with Rosher on F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise, and they would win the Academy Award for their work. But in the fall of 1927, that epic melodrama was overshadowed by The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talkie.

The historian, preservationist and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow notes that in the initial years after the advent of movie sound, "the symphonic quality of a silent film was lost" — a reality memorably depicted, to hilarious effect, in Singin' in the Rain. But while acknowledging that many directors and technicians struggled to incorporate sound,Image Makers also looks beyond the accepted narrative that microphones obliterated the visual poetry of cinema, offering fine examples of continued innovation during those years of new, disruptive technology.

Brownlow's vital commentary provides many of the doc's highlights. Besides his emotional response when describing Bitzer's lighting of a key sequence in 1916's Intolerance, there's his childlike delight when Totheroh's grandson shows him a clever, one-of-a-kind piece of equipment that Chaplin used. (David Totheroh himself will tear up when describing the final scene of City Lights.) Brownlow is unequivocally outraged over the tactics of "ruthless industrialist" Thomas Edison, whose violent patent wars sparked the exodus of independent filmmakers from the first U.S. filmmaking capital, in New Jersey, to the wild expanses of the West Coast.

In succinct fashion, Image Makers brings such historical bullet points to vivid life. It's a spirited and well-crafted tribute to movie craftsmanship, admiring as well as amused, and above all grateful for the ways that machines were put to use in the service of spectacle, physical comedy and bold expressionism — the human drama, captured through a viewfinder.

Distributor: Turner Classic Movies
Production company: Adama Films
Director: Daniel Raim
Screenwriter: Michael Sragow
Producers: Curtis Clark, Daniel Raim
Executive producer: Charles Tabesh
Director of photography: Aasulv "Wolf" Austad
Editor: Daniel Raim
Composer: Dave Lebolt
Artwork: Patrick Mate

91 minutes