The Photography of Chinatown

Described by its director as a “traditional detective story with a new, modern shape,” this 1930s thriller garnered 11 Academy Award nominations.

By John A. Alonzo, ASC

At top, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in a memorable scene. This story originally appeared in AC May 1975, some photos may be additional or alternate

EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally assigned as director of photography on Chinatown, Stanley Cortez, ASC participated fully in the preproduction preparation of the photographic aspects of the film. After having completed the photography on approximately 16 sequences of the feature during its first weeks of production, Mr. Cortez resigned from his Chinatown assignment.

John A. Alonzo, ASC

Unusually enough, Chinatown was one of the very few pictures I’ve photographed that offered me absolutely no opportunity for advance preparation.

I had been getting ready to do a pilot film starring Cicely Tyson, with whom I made Sounder. It was a film she wanted to do and I wanted to do it because of her. But if you believe in those so-called “mystical” things that channel our lives, you would probably say that destiny took a hand in making things happen differently. Cicely burned her foot with hot wax the night before I was to start preparing to photograph the film, and she was forced to bow out of the project. That being the case, I requested that I be excused from working on the picture.

That very afternoon — it was a Thursday — Bob Evans (producer of Chinatown) and “Doc” Erickson (associate producer/unit production manager) asked me to come over to Paramount to discuss shooting a picture for them. They handed me the script of Chinatown and I went home and read it until two or three o’clock in the morning. I showed up on Friday morning to shoot a very short scene and to meet the director, Roman Polanski, for the first time. I had never met Dick Sylbert (production designer), nor Sam O’Steen (film editor), nor most of the other people working on the picture.

On that same day, Polanski and Sylbert gave me a whirlwind tour of the sets that had been constructed and I got a quick look at the wardrobe. The company had already been shooting for 10 days or two weeks, and so I spend Saturday and Sunday at Bob Evans’ house looking at the dailies and talking with Polanski about concept and what kind of visual style they wanted for the picture. Sylbert had that style more or less built in, as far as sets and backgrounds were concerned. He had designed offices in brownish tones, with ceilings and shiny brown woods, very much in keeping with the period.

The picture was being shot in the Panavision anamorphic format, using the Panaflex camera, and we had to consider how to compose within that aspect ratio, since Polanski had shot almost all of his previous pictures in the 1.85 format. About Polanski — I must say that he is most articulate on the subject of filmmaking. He comes from one of the great cinema schools of the world, the one in Poland [the Lodz Film School], and not only is he cognizant of the cinematographer’s problems, but he also is aware of the art director’s problems. He knows lighting as well as direction.

Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) searches for clues.

It was good for me to be working with a young man as knowledgeable about filmmaking as Polanski, because then we could get into some nice healthy debates. They were out-and-out arguments at times, but good healthy ones, because they were logical, rational, without egos involved.

I was made to feel additionally secure by having Earl Gilbert, a fine technician, as my gaffer. He had been in on the pre-production and had pre-rigged many of the sets, so he provided a valuable backup for me. I also had a couple of excellent operators, Arnie Rich and Hugh Gagnier.

Coming into the picture late, as I did, I had not been in on any of the decisions regarding sets, wardrobe or choice of locations, but these had all been very well prepared by the previous director of photography (Stanley Cortez, ASC), so that the whole thing was laid out for me, in a way, and I could involve myself totally in the aesthetics of the filming. My aim was to find out what Polanski wanted — to pull the juice out of what he wanted and try to give him that. He was very adamant about using no diffusion whatsoever on the film — no tricks or gimmicks, he said — which creates a bit of a problem in instances when you’re trying to make the people in front of the camera look very attractive. So I had to rely on the great, straight lighting, or the kind that [ASC members] Jimmy Wong Howe and Gregg Toland knew how to use in order to make the ladies look beautiful.

Polanski leans in to confer with co-stars Faye Dunaway and Nicholson.

It was a whirlwind beginning for me, but what happened was that my rapport with Polanski jelled very nicely. I’m Mexican and my first language was Spanish; Roman is Polish and his first language was Polish (although he also speaks French). What we had in common is that we both probably think in a language other than English. I saw in Roman what I used to see in myself. I’d get so frustrated because I couldn’t find the right words, the right vocabulary. I could sympathize with him and I think this was the source of the camaraderie that developed between us. But I think the most important thing was that I had a great deal of respect for the man’s knowledge of my craft, which is a very secure way for a cameraman to feel. It’s nice to know that the director you’re working with knows what you’re doing. He would pick out a setup in a specific place, using a specific lens and we’d compare notes about why this way or why that way. Sometimes we’d get into a debate and draw the compositions on the floor of the sound stage with chalk. He would insist that this was better composition than that and, by golly, most of the time he was right.

Another great plus, one that dispelled a lot of worry for me during the making of Chinatown was the fact that we were dealing with totally professional actors who were used to hitting their marks precisely, for purposes of lighting. Roman was my ally in this respect, because he insisted upon the actors hitting very specific marks — not for the convenience of the cameraman, but for the sake of his directorial concept. This, of course, made it very easy for me, because Earl Gilbert and I could set lights right smack on the money where we wanted them and know that we could have Faye Dunaway walk right into the perfect key light and Jack Nicholson into the perfect shadow area. What I’m really saying is that — although I’d love to — I can’t take full credit for the cinematography of Chinatown, because I didn’t prepare the picture in advance the way I usually do. But I will take credit for totally understanding what the director wanted and for somewhat giving him what he wanted. He had the freedom of knowing that if he didn’t like a setup once it was ready, we could always redo it, because I work relatively fast. I have a very fast crew and I think they’re the best in Hollywood. We work that way, not simply for the sake of being fast, but so we can hurry up and see what the setup looks like. If it doesn’t look right, we can afford the time to do it another way.

I wish I could say that I spent three or four weeks preparing to photograph Chinatown, but I can’t say that. All I can say is that I readily understood what Bob Evans wanted and what Roman wanted, and that with the help of very talented people like Dick Sylbert and Anthea Sylbert and Sam O’Steen and Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, we accomplished something that I think is a good example of what the film industry is. It’s very much a collaborative art.

Shooting on location in Echo Park, a Panaflex camera is set up on a raft lashed to a boat which the Nicholson and co-star Bruce Glover are rowing. Polanski sits behind the camera, while Stanley Cortez, ASC — who served as director of photography during the first couple of weeks of shooting — anxiously checks out the sun with his viewing glass.

As for concept, I think that Bob Evans, as producer, had in mind a rather “classic” type of picture. We speak of classic architecture as being in the Greek period or the Roman period or the Elizabethan period — in other words, segments of art which are called “classic” because they have lasted for long periods of time. I feel that in our industry there are also segments of art that can rightly be called classic — great pictures like Citizen KaneSpellboundThe Big SleepThe Big Knife and many others.

I think that Evans made a brilliant decision in selecting a director who is a true student of film — a real film-nut, so to speak — a man who has studied film seriously and knows what the so-called classic type of mystery is all about. Because Roman — I found out after talking with him — is totally informed about Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. He has a tremendous comprehension of that kind of literature, of that kind of Americana.

Evans was also very wise in selecting as production designer a man like Dick Sylbert. He had done the Mike Nichols pictures and had displayed a great talent for that kind of design in detail.

Why I was called in to do the photography I really can't say. I know that I’ve worked on some very good films, but certainly no examples of the classic mystery. Maybe somewhere along the line, Bob Evans and Doc Erickson said: “Alonzo is a student of film, too, and he might complement Roman’s personality.” Because the fact is that I am a film student, and I have studied and researched a lot from the cameraman’s point of view. I’m nutty about the work of James Wong Howe and Winton Hoch and Walter Strenge and Floyd Crosby and the other classic [ASC] cameramen. I can tell you practically every film they made, because when I was a kid in Dallas, Texas, and in Mexico, movies were my entertainment. Sometimes I’d see two or three films in a day. I wasn’t necessarily doing it to study cinema, at the time. At least, I wasn’t aware of it — but my brain was being saturated with that kind of information.

Shooting on location in Mojave, north of Los Angeles. Cortez is at far left in white hat.
Shooting on location in Mojave, north of Los Angeles. Cortez is at far left in white hat.

What Roman wanted, too, for Chinatown was this sort of classic mystery storytelling style. He said to me: “I want very much for the photography to complement the story in such a way that it will be alright if people say it is beautifully photographed — because I will bring the content up to that level.”

It was a curious way of saying it, but I understood what he meant. There are instances, as we all know, when a scene is so terribly weak that you do everything you can with lighting and camera angles to bring it up dramatically and at least give the audience something pretty to look at. On the other hand, there are instances when the drama is so strong that a fine director like Martin Ritt will say: “I don’t want cinematic gymnastics. Just leave it there. The actors now have the stage, and I don’t want the camera to take anything away from them.”

That’s a valid point. But Roman’s approach was to have everything on the same high level. In other words, he would see to it that the concept and performances were as good as the production design and cinematography — or better. The cinematography should never, never, in lighting or in composition or moves, distract — but neither should it be minimized simply because the material is too strong for it.

Alonzo setting up with Nicholson for a driving shot.

Roman is a stickler for details. He wanted everything just right — Faye Dunaway’s fingernails, Jack Nicholson’s ties and coat, the color balance of the clothing against the wall, the perspective of the cyclorama, the backings outside the windows. He told me that the levels of all of our crafts within this picture had to be at their peaks, and that he wanted, in a classic sense, to tell a mystery story of the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett type. So he led the way. He did this by staging the action in a particular way, by making certain words within a scene more important than others, by requesting that I light — and something not put light on — actors. There were times when he felt that he wanted the audience to listen to the words, as opposed to seeing the actors speak them. Roman might put it in an entirely different way, but that’s how I interpreted his discussions with me.

He showed me his films Cul De Sac and Repulsion for two reasons, I believe — to show me that he had a very good concept of storytelling and he also had a concept of cinematography. It was as if he were saying to me: “Okay, we are on the same basis now. Let’s respect each other.” He was taking everybody else’s word for me. On his side, he could show me what he could do, but he didn’t have time to look at my films — and even if he had, they wouldn’t have helped him very much, because they had nothing to do with this kind of picture.

Polanski and Dunaway on the set.

While Roman was aiming toward a classic film, he was applying some of the modern film techniques to it. For example, he was directing the action in a classic manner, but shooting in the anamorphic format — which is not classic. And he was using color, which is not classic. So he added two new elements. Being a young man, he brought his psyche, his personality into the picture — but he did design some interesting shots that you might say came right out of Citizen Kane or Spellbound — except that they were in color.

I remember him saying once that the story was to be told from Jack Nicholson’s point of view, but he would shift from that to the audience’s point of view at times. He was introducing the modern technology and a modern concept, but leaning on knowledge he had gleaned from the old films. I think that a lot of cameramen nowadays do that. I do it. I can’t honestly say that I’m doing anything that hasn’t been done before. No cameraman has the right to say that this or that is being done for the first time. The only time he can say that is in terms of technology, perhaps — faster lenses, a faster film, more portable equipment — but not in its artistic concept. Yes, I have faster lenses than Jimmy Wong Howe had in the early days and faster film and more portable equipment, but the artistic and aesthetic concept is basically what Wong Howe did, though I may be applying it in a slightly different way.

The film is almost entirely seen through Gittes' point of view — offering a voyeuristic perspective that's appropriate for a gumshoe working a case.
Getting into position for Gittes' peeping tom photo shoot from the tiled roof of a private residence, checking out the camera angle for a handheld shot. Polanski is in the foreground, with Cortez behind him.

So I think that Roman would probably agree that he was relying on a background he gained as a film student, having studied the classic mysteries that were done in the American cinema. The European cinema never has, in my opinion, come up to the level of the great productive years that Hollywood had, while making all those wonderful, wonderful mystery films.

Polanski did some rather daring things in Chinatown — like shooting Faye Dunaway without diffusion, so that you could see the scar on her face. That would never have been done in the “classic” period. Greta Garbo and all those beautiful people would have looked perfect. He also had the great guts as a director to allow his leading man, Jack Nicholson, to go through half the picture with stitches in his nose. No one would ever have done that to Humphrey Bogart.

I can remember saying to Polanski: “Roman, you’ve seen the lighting that Gordon Willis did in The Godfather, which I think is beautiful. You’ve seen the lighting Owen Roizman did for The French Connection, which I think is just great. Then there is Geoffrey Unsworth’s wonderful lighting in Cabaret. Talk to me about lighting; how do you see it?” And he said: “I don’t see it with any diffusion. I see lighting as very, very natural — but I see no rationale for using the source-lighting technique.”

I said: “Okay, you and I are in agreement on that, because cameramen like James Wong Howe (I keep using him as an example, but I can’t think of anyone better) base their styles on the idea that there is a reason for a source of light, but many times they introduced light from nowhere — with no excuses. Why? Because it makes a better picture, a better painting — whatever you want to call it. Such light is not distracting to the audience. If anything, it helps focus their attention. When Roman told me that he didn’t agree with the logic of source lighting, I knew what he was talking about.

Then Earl Gilbert and I got together and assembled very lightweight equipment. We got rid of an awful lot of things that we had thought we needed and went to some rather tried-and-true methods, such as using old-fashioned #4 Photofloods stuck up on the wall with Chinese tracing paper in front of them, or bouncing light off of a white card. Some people who make commercials think that’s a brand new thing, but Wong Howe and Floyd Crosby were doing it 20 or 30 years ago, using giant sheets or whatever to bounce light from the sun.

We used little lamps and, of course, we had at our disposal all of the wonderful new materials made by the Rosco people. And we had the Panaflex camera. There is no camera in the world like the Panaflex at the moment. It made it possible for us to work without having to knock walls out. In my opinion, a certain thing happens to a cameraman when he has the convenience of knocking a wall out. It suddenly makes things a little too convenient and he is no longer forced to be ingenious. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes, so if you are forced to shoot within a four-walled room, you start creating ways of doing it and making it look real and making it look good. The Panaflex allows you to do that. Instead of knocking the wall out, you just put the Panaflex in a corner where you couldn’t have put a larger camera before.

The new Panavision fast lenses made things easier, too. Using them with 5254 and forcing the whole thing one stop allowed me to shoot with 100 foot-candles of light, at the most. That was the highest key used inside on the set. About 80 percent of the time, though, we’d work at around 50 foot-candles as our main key, using f/2.8 to f/4 as the f-stop. All of these technological advances gave us a little edge over our predecessor by way of making things easier.

Ex-cop Mulvahill (Roy Jenson) and the nefarious Noah Cross (John Huston) get the drop on Gittes.

When shooting outside, I forced the development also — not because additional speed was needed, but because I was trying to maintain a consistent negative quality throughout the picture. Then, too, since we were shooting in the anamorphic format, I needed a little extra depth of field and being able to work at a smaller f-stop was beneficial. Roman had said that he wanted a bit of the classic depth of field style that Gregg Toland used to achieve, but that’s pretty hard to get when your average lens is a 50mm. I told him about my feeling — which is strictly my own concept — that in the anamorphic format, the lens that best reproduces what the human eye sees is the 40mm — just as in the 1.85 format the 25mm lens serves that purpose. So I said to Roman: “I have an idea that if we shoot the remainder of the picture with a 40mm, 45mm, or 50mm lens, whenever possible, this will give the picture a very subtle look — not a distorted look. It won’t be A Clockwork Orange. We’ll shoot the closeups with a 75mm lens, maximum. We’ll use the zoom lens only to trim 4 to 6 millimeters with a dolly — never strictly as a move. If you’ll let me stick to that approach. I think it will influence the atmosphere of the picture in a subtle way.”

On left, Polanski and Alonzo discuss and upcoming shot. On right, reflectors provide fill for sequence shot along a rugged stretch of California coastline where Gittes makes a gruesome discovery.
On left, Polanski and Alonzo discuss and upcoming shot. On right, reflectors provide fill for sequence shot along a rugged stretch of California coastline where Gittes makes a gruesome discovery.

He agreed to that. We used the short Panafocal lens, which has a range from 45mm to 95mm and I don’t think we ever used the full range of that zoom in any one move. It was always 5 to 10 millimeters.

Another interesting thing about Chinatown was the way the color tones were purposely altered for effect. The picture that is seen now in release does not look the way it looked when we shot it. The subtle brown-beige tone that it has was added in modifying the matrices during the course of the imbibition process. Here, again, I was dealing with a director who knew what could be done afterwards. He didn’t expect to see it in the dailies. I didn’t have to do any tricks. I did talk to Technicolor and told them that I wanted all my dailies to come out slightly warm, just a little “toasty,” in order to enhance what Dick Sylbert had done with his sets and Anthea Sylbert had done with her costumes. My intention was to enhance all of the fine work that had gone into this picture prior to my arriving on it.

Dousing Nicholson as they prep to shoot the scene after Gittes gets swept up in the mystery.

I’ve always worked very, very closely with the laboratories. I’m a thorn in their side. I’m a horrendous pest, because I’m always investigating what they’re doing in the lab. I want to know as much as possible. This is a result of my early experience in working as an assistant to Winton Hoch and Gene Polito, both of whom are very knowledgeable about the technology of our business. They both encouraged me to draw on this area of their expertise.

I worked very closely with Skip Nicholson at the Technicolor lab. We went over the dailies of the footage. I shot on that first Friday and he said: “Normally it will print around such and such a light, and this is what it would look like if we were timing it.”

It turned out that the middle light — the cyan light — was about 27, or something like that. I said: “Well, let’s stay with that, and under no circumstances are you ever to time my dailies for me. Even if I make a horrendous mistake or you feel that the assistant forgot to set the stop, you stay to that light that we’ve selected, because I won’t learn anything if you help me out that way.”

He said: “Fine. We’ve been doing that all the way along anyway.” The fact was that especially on this particular picture, where I was going for something I’d never tried before, I really wanted to see what my limitations were. So, if the dailies were printed at that one light and I’d made an error in exposure, I could readily see it. If it were correctable, it could be smoothed out later in the lab. Thank God I didn’t make any gross errors, but it did teach me a lot.

Because Roman agreed with the concept of not rationalizing where the light came from, the ambient light that is always existent in rooms, we were going back a bit toward the style of the classic mystery films that had been made. I thought it might be wise to look at some of those pictures and see what I could come up with.

Earl Gilbert had told me about using Master Lites instead of arcs. “We’ll be using them just to punch up areas,” he said. “You just tell me what you want to punch up in a scene and we’ll just put them in and punch it up.”

What he meant was that I would get a composition set up, especially if it was outdoors at night, and I would say: “Okay, Earl, just put a splash of light on that building over there and another splash on that other building, and be very subtle about it. Don’t try to light the whole street. Go back to the Wong Howe and Floyd Crosby trick of backlighting a street or backlighting a telephone pole. We’ll steal from the masters, because that’s the best place to steal from.”

The tracing paper gimmick I mentioned before is an old still photographer’s trick. You use four #4 Photofloods mounted on a batten of wood. I use blue bulbs on a set where there is tungsten lighting, because the tracing paper is brownish and the blue lamps bring the correct color balance back. Through the tracing paper you get this wonderfully diffused light. Of course, the amount of light is cut down a lot, but I was not working at a high key, so I could afford to do it.

We found a material called Foamcore, which has two white surfaces and a layer of foam in the middle. I’ve used it a great deal and I like it because you can bounce a light into it and it bounces the light back at the same Kelvin rating. It doesn’t raise or lower the color temperature. Wherever possible I made up little cards of this material for bouncing light. I told Earl that I wanted to work at a very low key and use these white cards for kicks into the eyes. I’m a great believer in putting light into an actor’s eyes, since they’re the “windows of the soul,” so to speak. The old great masters of our craft believed in doing that and so do I, even if it’s just a little kick light. These lights for the eyes do not necessarily illuminate the face; all they really do is reflect in the iris of the eye.

The director and cinematographer.

As far as lighting units are concerned, we used a multitude of inkies, little tiny lights that we could hide in various places. We used a lot of Babies and Seniors and 10Ks without irises in them, so that we could get hard shadows through venetian blinds. We used some arcs on the sound stage, but not on location. We had them on a set when I really wanted to pour very hot light into it. Like in the morgue, for example.

In photographing Chinatown, we resurrected an old-fashioned type of light usually called a “chicken coop,” although various studios used different names for it. This light has been around for a very long time and when I told Earl to hang up a chicken coop over the morgue set and put a black skirt around it, he said: “My God, I haven’t seen that in years!” I said: “Well, why not? If it was good enough for Jimmie Howe, it’s good enough for me.” So he did it. And, of course, Sylbert did me a great favor by building a white morgue with a white floor. I had seen what Sven Nykvist did in some of his pictures by using a white floor to reflect light off of, so I used that trick.

We also used the little “Obie” light, which Lucien Ballard originally designed for photographing Merle Oberon. I modified it by mounting a very tiny quartz bulb as close as possible to the matte box and putting a shield of spun glass and blue gel in front of it. I bring it up slowly until it just kicks into somebody’s eyes or gives me a little extra illumination.

On left, a Panavision R-200 camera is lined up for a close-up on Dunaway. Alonzo lauded the fact that he was working with totally professional actors like Dunaway and Nicholson, who can hit position marks precisely, and a director like Polanski who insisted that they do so. This enabled him to set lights exactly where he wanted them. On right, shooting outside an apartment in an old, nostalgic part of Hollywood.
On left, a Panavision R-200 camera is lined up for a close-up on Dunaway. Alonzo lauded the fact that he was working with totally professional actors like Dunaway and Nicholson, who can hit position marks precisely, and a director like Polanski who insisted that they do so. This enabled him to set lights exactly where he wanted them. On right, shooting outside an apartment in an old, nostalgic part of Hollywood.

We certainly didn’t introduce any new lighting equipment in shooting Chinatown. The Master Lites, for example, had been around for years. Also, Earl had made up a lot of gimmick lights in the past and we simply pulled them out of mothballs and used them. One of these was a little peanut light that was often used behind a candle to illuminate an actor with “candlelight.” It is a low-wattage lamp (about 150 watts) that has been around for years. Earl goosed them up with a little transformer to increase the Kelvin and we hid them inside cars to get little kicks into Faye Dunaway’s eyes.

The only light we used that were even relatively new were the nine-lights which served not to replace the arcs, but simply to provide fill light. The Rosco people put out a wonderful diffusion material called Roscomatte. We would put this in frames in front of the nine-lights and it would totally diffuse the nine bulbs to create a one-source shadow.

You couldn’t say that we were very innovative in our uses of lighting equipment. We just went back and used lighting that was traditional, in the sense of the classic concept I spoke of earlier. Why not use it? There’s nothing wrong with it.

On location we didn’t use the arcs. If the sun was out, we used the Foamcore that I spoke of. On occasion we would use nine-lights with the Roscomatte in front of them to provide a very diffused fill. I went a little bit against tradition in never really balancing the shadows to the sunlight — not really bringing them up as bright as shadow areas usually are. I would let the sun take over and just fill in under the hats, but very little. If the sun read f/11, the shadow area might read f/6.3, or maybe f/5.6 — not more than that. I felt that a normal balance of key to fill would seem unrealistic, in terms of Roman’s concept. He didn’t want to have that bright look.

Whenever we shot in a practical location — an actual house, for example — we would intensify the ambient light coming in from the outside just enough to get an f-stop, even if it had to be f/2.8. For example, in the sequence where Jack Nicholson walks into the house and finds the woman dead, the total lighting was one #4 blue Photoflood mounted as close to the wall as possible. I should explain that I’d had a great deal of experience in documentary photography working for Wolper Productions, where we had to make do with one light bulb. So I simply fell back on that experience and stuck a bulb up there and started hanging little strips of gaffer tape in front of it, like an old-fashioned coucoloris.

At the end of that sequence, when Jack Nicholson walks into the kitchen and the police turn the light on, it was just one light bulb again, the normal kitchen light.

On night exterior locations we used the Master Lites extensively, together with single sealed-beam lamps. These are the same lamps that are used in FAY nine-lights, except that each is mounted in its own individual unit. Earl Gilbert made up a bunch of these and they’re quite wonderful, because they project far and you can put a hot kick wherever you want it. We were literally painting with light when using these units.

As far as other equipment is concerned, perhaps the most unusual was the Stindt dolly. I first used it on Pete and Tillie at Universal and I’ve used it on every picture since then. A grip by the name of Bob Stindt designed it and it has a unique combination of characteristics. It goes as high as the Moviola dolly and as low as the Fisher, but much shorter. The wheels will spin out 180 degrees and it has the same stability as the Moviola. It is the kind of dolly that two grips can pick up, if they have to, because it’s not that heavy. It has the same hydraulic system and the same steadiness and smoothness and the same up and down movement as the McAlister dolly.

The Stindt dolly is wonderful because we are no longer putting 110 lbs. worth of camera equipment on it. We are putting a Panaflex on it, which weighs about 40 lbs. maximum, with the Obie light and everything. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s as if that dolly had been designed specially for the Panaflex camera. The gear head I used is a very small gear head, a prototype of the new head Panavision has designed for the Panaflex. It’s very tiny compared to a standard gear head and Panavision allowed me to use the prototype. Here again, it was almost as if Stindt knew that such a head was going to be designed. He didn’t really, but the combination camera, head and dolly made it possible to give Roman those rapid little moves in and out of corridors whenever he wanted such a movement.

Some people, after viewing Chinatown come away with the idea that the picture was shot entirely on location. But the truth is that a great deal of it was filmed on the sound stage. I've never figured out the percentages, but I would say that approximately 65% was shot on the stage. The interior of the Hall of Records, the Department of Water and Power, Gittes’ living rooms, the interiors of the wonderful old house in Pasadena — all these were studio sets.

Gittes questions a boy in the dried-up L.A. River channel — where water mysteriously “comes at night.”

I've been asked whether I prefer shooting interiors on location or in the studio, and the answer is fairly complex. I couldn’t say this a couple of years ago, but now that I have the knowledge and the technical wherewithal to handle the sound stage, I can say: “Yes, I like the sound stage.” In the past, when I really didn’t have that knowledge, my comment would have been the opposite. As a documentarian, I preferred shooting on location. I worked better on a practical set. I can intellectualize it that way, but I think that if I were to really dig deep, I would say that I prefer the practical location — with a good production designer. From my point of view, the practical location does present certain challenges. It stimulates the brain to work a little harder. You don’t go the convenient route.

But I can work comfortably on the sound stage, too, because I know what I’m doing now. I’ve paid a few of my dues. It’s interesting how my career seems to have been guided by Destiny. The first feature picture I did was all outdoors. The second picture was mostly outdoors, with just a bit indoors. The third picture was half-and-half. By the time I was thrown into the den of Martin Ritt, we were back to outdoors (Sounder), but now the challenge was not one of outdoors or indoors, but whether I could work with a director of that stature. Progressively I was offered the right kinds of things. I did Lady Sings the Blues, which was all shot on sound stages with horrendous lighting problems, because of the period and the costumes and the differences in skin tones of the black people and the white people. I found it to be a tremendous challenge, but little by little something has protected me up to the point of doing Chinatown.

Perhaps the most complex challenge in that film, from the cinematographer’s point of view, was the final sequence, which was actually shot on Ord Street in Chinatown. We had the problem of blocking out the mercury lamps, which were not in existence during the ’30s. Earl had to have them all turned off and it was a horrendous chore for him, because the City of Los Angeles was totally opposed to that sort of thing.

For the night shooting in Chinatown, we used the Master Lites again, but this time they were on individual transformers which served to brighten them up and raise the Kelvin rating. When you put them on a transformer and start kicking them up, you increase their intensity considerably, especially if they’re two blocks away. At great distances they’re very hot — good for backlighting a street. When you kick them all the way to the top they get a bit bluish, but you correct that by putting a little amber gel in front of them.

On the street in Chinatown we used the Master Lites to punch up areas and used lights hidden under the awnings of shops wherever possible, as well as practical lights. I asked the assistant director, Howard Koch, Jr. to spot the extras wearing the lightest clothes into the areas that had the least light — again, stealing from the pros. Then, at the last minute, so to speak, an interesting thing happened. Roman suddenly said: “I want a crane.” I said: “You want a crane?” And he said: “Yes, I’ve just figured out how to end this picture.” And it appeared that he had, right then and there on the spot.

He said: “In the sequence, up to this point, Faye Dunaway has been shot. You see the police officer fire a shot and you hear the car stop and, obviously, Faye Dunaway is dead, because you hear the horn blowing. Now, where do we go from there? Well, here’s the idea: we go hand-held and all the actors come toward the camera and you do a news documentary kind of thing. You whip-pan over to show Faye just for a brief moment. I want to see the destruction of her eye. Then the police detective sits her up and you pan around onto him, then onto Nicholson, then back to the detective, then back to Nicholson as he’s pulled away from his two friends. Then I want the camera to climb 27 feet into the air — handheld.

When he told me that, I said: “Roman, you’re contriving a shot. You’re contriving it because you don’t know how to end the picture. You’re performing cinematic gymnastics.”

I was kidding him about it, but he said: “No, no, no — it really fits. This is how it has to work…”

And he worked it out for me. But a shot like that isn’t easy to pull off. First of all, there’s no room for the assistant to follow focus, because the camera is surrounded by the actors and extras. There’s no place to put lights on them, because when you have a camera that is that close, with a 40mm lens and an actor who is two feet away from you, your own camera would cast a shadow on the actor if you put any lights behind it. To solve the lighting problem, I mounted the little Obie light next to the lens, ran the wire down to my feet and taped it so that Earl Gilbert could keep his eye on it constantly and keep it up. We pre-checked the exposure wherever possible.

The next problem was that of following focus. Well, relying on my experience as a documentary cameraman, I asked permission of the union and they allowed me to operate the camera on that shot myself, because I can do that sort of thing. The next problem was what to do about the damned camera shadow. Roman came up with an idea. He said: “Put a hat on the camera. You’ll see a shadow if you look at the picture closely, but it will look like a hat shadow.” We put a hat right over the Obie light, so that any lights that hit me as I was panning around, case a shadow that looked like somebody’s hat.

Nicholson and Huston take direction from Polanski while shooting the final scene.

The scene was shot in very close quarters. The actors attacked. I say “attacked” because that’s literally what they did. They came right at the lens and I whipped down to Faye Dunaway, then I whipped up to John Huston, who was crying over the death. I panned over to Perry Lopez, the detective, then panned over to Nicholson, who said a line, then panned back to Lopez. Roman has since put a cut in there, but originally it was intended to be the one continuous shot. Lopez said: “Get out of here, Gittes.” As Nicholson’s partners took him away, I followed them slightly, then walked to my right and climbed onto the platform of the Chapman crane. They released it and I started going up in the air. The whole thing was hand-held and I couldn’t have shot it at all in sync-sound if it hadn’t been for the Panaflex. It’s an amazing shot, if I say so myself, and I wish it could have been used in its entirety instead of being cut.

Now that Chinatown is in release and enjoying critical as well as commercial success, I think back to that Friday when I met Roman Polanski for the first time and started working with him. At first we were playing a sort of subtle game with each other. I’d set the camera up. He’s look at it and move it a little bit. We began to set the ground rules even on that first day. He was subtly telling me: “I know what I’m doing, so let’s be friends. Let’s really work together like two artists to make a good picture.”

All through the filming, Roman gave careful consideration to ideas offered by Dick Sylbert or myself and adopted many of them. What I’m really doing is giving him a terrific pat on the back, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m overdoing it, but I really mean it when I say that he is a very thorough and investigative type of director who gives credit where credit is due. He figures that if he has hired certain technicians, they must be good at what they do. That’s one of the things that made working with him on Chinatown a pleasure.

This story originally appeared in AC May 1975, some photos may be additional or alternate.

Despite 11 nominations — including a nod to Alonzo for Best Cinematography — Chinatown would go on to win only one Academy Award: Robert Towne, for Best Original Screenplay.

In 1991, Chinatown was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. 

In 2019, the film was included in the ASC’s roster of 100 Milestone Films in Cinematography of the 20th Century. Learn more about this list here.

If you enjoy archival and retrospective articles on classic and influential films, you'll find more AC historical coverage here.


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