ASC Close-Up: Sean MacLeod Phillips

2001: A Space Odyssey

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
2001: A Space Odyssey. It was showing in 70mm at the Warner Cinerama Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. I was amazed that artists could create an entire world like that on film, but I also struggled to understand it all. I went to see it again four times, and started reading science-fiction novels and listening to avant-garde music. 2001 flipped some kind of switch in my brain and I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker someday.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
[ASC member] Gregg Toland’s genius with deep focus and storytelling was an inspiration. Citizen Kane is one of the first modern films, in the sense of its self-awareness of the film medium.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I grew up around cameras, as my father used photography to capture reference images for his paintings. What excited me about photography was how it could be used to tell stories.

Where did you train and/or study?
I got into USC on a debate scholarship and was hoping to go to their law school after graduating, but after taking a course in production in the cinema department, I was hooked — and changed my major to cinema production.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Dave Johnson and Gene Coe were terrific teachers — very supportive — and the faculty in general was very honest about what you needed to know to begin working in the business. 

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Most of Kubrick’s films, and the photography of the Magnum Photo collective.

How did you get your first break in the business?
Les Novros was an artist, animator and producer who taught a class in filmic expression at USC. It was an amazing course, which applied the techniques of the visual arts to film. On the strength of one of the class projects I did, he hired me to work at his production company, Graphic Films. I soon found myself on a stage, shooting model spacecraft in 70mm Imax.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
An entire auditorium of schoolchildren completely captivated watching a film I’d done.
 
Have you made any memorable blunders?
When I was in film school, I was a teaching assistant in the animation department. On the last day of the semester, I accidentally opened the magazine containing all the students’ final projects. Fortunately, we were shooting on Ektachrome Commercial Original in those days, with an ASA of 25. The last student’s project got a little fogged but they actually liked the effect! Of course, technical mistakes are humiliating and hopefully happen earlier rather than later, but creative mistakes are how you learn — and when you stop making mistakes, you stop growing. As difficult as it is sometimes, you want to be working a little outside your comfort zone.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
The best professional advice: Always show up early, make your day, under-promise and over-deliver. The best creative advice: Always push the envelope! 

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Blade Runner 2049
created a visually and emotionally dystopian world that could become our future if we don’t examine our own lives in the present. We are living in unprecedented times, and what we do really matters.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’m a science-fiction fan, but a horror film would be a great challenge, especially something of a psychological thriller.
 
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
No idea!

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
I am very grateful to Reed Smoot, Richard Edlund and Rodney Taylor for their recommendation and support.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I think that anybody who loves cinematography is an ASC member in spirit. When you become an active member, you realize how much its members have contributed to the business in the past 100 years, and it makes you want to return the favor. 

Photo by Shari Phillips

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