Kodak’s “On Film”: A Brief History

Nestor Almendros sat across the table from writer Bob Fisher at a Cuban restaurant near the Spanish cinematographer’s mid-town Manhattan apartment. Fisher was interviewing him for one of the very early “On Film” ads that at the time ran in Hollywood’s two main trade magazines, as well as American Cinematographer and International Photographer. The restaurant had closed hours before, but the genteel owners who knew Almendros as a neighbor and a steady customer had not kicked them out; the Cubans sat quietly listening to the filmmaker’s impassioned discussion. Finally, Nestor told Bob that he had to go home to get ready for the first day’s filming on the Martin Scorsese episode of New York Stories. Fisher apologized for keeping him up so late. Almendros replied, “Oh, Bob, I’ve never been able to sleep the night before starting a new movie.” Earlier that evening he had told Fisher that he thought that after his death he would be remembered for photographing Days of Heaven, when it was the intimate dramas such as Kramer vs. Kramer that he was most proud of. This sounds like the Nestor I knew, an artist whose visual style was often so subsumed into the movie’s overall dramatic narrative structure that it nearly disappeared. He told me (I was his camera operator on the Terence Malick film for which he won the Oscar) that one reason he felt he had received so much attention for his work on Days of Heaven was because it had so little dialogue.

Ellen Kuras, 1996. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

One of the revelatory things about the Kodak “On Film” ad campaign launched in 1987 is the consistent level of eloquence that the interviewed cinematographers demonstrate when talking about their art and craft, giving lie to the hoary myth that image makers are not verbally articulate. Fisher tells a story about one of the first "On Film" interviewees, Leonard South, a past president of the ASC, who had grave reservations about appearing in print, until he started receiving supportive and congratulatory phone calls from directors and producers. In January 1988, two profiles appeared the same month: one of Harry Wolf, then president of the ASC, the other of George Spiro Dibie, president of the International Cinematographers’ Guild, then called IATSE Local 659:

Sven Nykvist was profiled in 1989. He was in NYC shooting the Woody Allen segment of the anthology film New York Stories, the same movie on which Nestor Almendros was filming the Scorsese segment. In his interview Nykvist rhapsodizes on the many facets of "light":

Light can be gentle, dream-like, bare, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, dark, violent, Spring-like, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming and pale. I discovered the many qualities of light while making some 20 movies with Ingmar Bergman. How do you choose the right light? The answer isn't easy to put into words. The decision is personal. It comes from inside...

Sven Nykvist, 1989. Photo by Gene Stein.

Early in my own career, when I was still a camera operator, Carol and I had the honor of hosting Sven Nykvist in our tiny home in the Franklin Hills. We had a great view of Hollywood, looking west toward Santa Monica. Standing on the balcony, peering into the afternoon sun, Sven was awed by the scale of the Los Angeles basin. “That’s nothing,” I said, as only a So. Cal. native can. Another day, we drove him out to the then broad and undeveloped Antelope Valley to see cactus and wildflowers in bloom, capped by a tour of famed Vasquez Rocks, filming location for so many “B” westerns (he recognized the upended formations right away). I explained that the area was right on the San Andreas earthquake fault line; he was like a child, taking pictures of the outcroppings in the changing light. It was his first time in the great Mohave Desert.

The most recent of these "On Film" interviews, more comprehensive than the limited citation space available in the ad profiles, are available online.

Kodak—On Film Interviews link

There are plans to scan and post all of the extant early interviews on the Kodak web page. Currently, many exist only as paper copies. (But thank god for that; at least they’re not corrupted files on floppy discs). Lisa Muldowney of CCS, the company that conducts PR and marketing communication for Kodak’s motion picture programs, wrote me that many of these older interviews would be online this summer.

Gordon Willis, 1994. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.
Joan Churchill, 2005. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

Bob Fisher has conducted over 250 of the interviews going back to the beginning of the campaign in late 1987. As originally planned by the then advertising agency for Kodak, members of the entire film community were to be interviewed. When ASC member Stanley Cortez, the clubhouse keeper of the gates and sometimes resident curmudgeon, saw a Kodak industry ad featuring Gregory Peck talking about “film”, he told Bob Fisher to drive him over to the Kodak Hollywood offices—to have a one-on-one with Al Williams, a vice-president of Kodak. Cortez, affectionately known as “The Baron,” reminded Williams (using his best imperial, stentorian voice) that it is the cinematographer, not the actor or producer, who creates the images in motion pictures; that the cinematographer is most qualified to speak about “film,” and that it might just be in Kodak’s interest to acknowledge that fact by profiling directors of photography more consistently in the campaign.

Conrad Hall, 1995. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.
Giuseppe Rotunno, 1999. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

Thus was born the "On Film" campaign. Today, there are occasional profiles of other industry notables, such as the April 2010 one of writer/producer Mathew Weiner, but it is cinematographers who are most often featured. So far, 234 of the 254 profiles have highlighted cinematographers. Kodak’s Judith Doherty issued a poster of the first one hundred photos in 1997; a second one of seventy followed in 2005. Signing sessions with film students have been held at several venues where many of the featured cinematographers were kept busy autographing their photos.

Although Bob Fisher has been the campaign's stalwart writer since "On Film’s" inception, there were a number of different photographers the first few years. Industry veteran Gene Stein shot many sessions; others included Merritt Smith, Bill Dow, and Michelle Bogre, who photographed Nestor Almendros. In early 1991, Douglas Kirkland was engaged for the continuing campaign. This is how he describes it came about:

In January of 1991, Françoise [his wife and partner] and I were in Rochester working on an educational television program for Eastman Kodak. We were introduced to the Motion Picture Division who asked for ideas to expand the visuals on their existing "On Film" ads. I immediately saw the great opportunity and answered with great excitement. I photographed my first On Film ad with Michael Watkins on March 2, 1991 in our studio in the Hollywood Hills and I have been looking forward to photographing one of these per month for the past 19 plus years. [Fisher and Kirkland have been working together all that time].

While Douglas and Françoise have done sessions wherever necessary, the preferred venue is at their home studio high up in Laurel Canyon. We cinematographers are famously uncomfortable in FRONT of any camera, so Françoise’s lunch with wine, after the shooting session, always helps relieve any accrued self-consciousness. Overseeing the sessions is Judith Doherty, Kodak Marketing Director for the Americas. She has been in charge of the campaign since her move to Los Angeles from Kodak Rochester in 1997.

Shortly before Christmas I was invited to attend a session for an upcoming "On Film" profile. The subject was to be... Douglas Kirkland, photographed by… Douglas Kirkland. He and his assistants had set up a large mirror that reflected back into a seamless backdrop on the opposite wall. Douglas sat next to his camera, a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with a 100-200 mm zoom. Test shots were made on Polaroid film and the session was captured on Kodak Tri X 220.

While indulging in Francoise’s lunch that day, I asked about some very senior international cinematographers who had not yet been featured in "On Film" ads; inevitably French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s name came forward. Judith described the difficulty arranging for foreign sessions, but she wanted to see this one realized. A short time later, Douglas and Françoise discovered that in February they would be on assignment in Paris. So, Coutard was contacted; he was agreeably excited. On the appointed day Coutard and his wife, Monique, took the train from Rouen. The interview, much of it in Coutard’s colorful argot-spiked French, was done in a suite at the Hotel Lutetia; Francoise served as interviewer and translator. Coutard had even brought along a selection of shirts: the eye of the cinematographer still at work.

For my part, I can’t wait to see Douglas Kirkland’s photo of this cinematography legend, along with a translation of his slangy repartee. Look for it this coming July.



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