Visions of Light Revisited

Whenever I get a Google Alert, I tend not to open it. The last thing I need to consider as I finish my term as president of the Academy is another “think piece” by a “critic” who has a great idea about how to run the Academy or produce the Oscars telecast. In fact, I am looking forward to returning soon to my métier, cinematography.

This Google Alert was a delightful surprise, however, and upon reading it, I immediately set aside the post I’d been working on for this month. Far Out Magazine, a U.K. blog about the arts, had just posted an article about the AFI/ASC-produced documentary Visions of Light (1992) with a YouTube link to the complete film. I knew that this revered and sought-after documentary on the history and art of cinematography as told by cinematographers had not been available on any platform for many years. And, despite considerable efforts by the ASC and others, legal permission to replace the nearly 30-year-old analog film clips in the documentary with digital versions that reflect the advances of cutting-edge restoration techniques has not been granted. A hoped-for sequel that would engage the work of younger “digital born” cinematographers has confronted similar legal obstacles.

Visions of Light was photographed in 1991, and most of the cinematographers who discuss the craft in the days of the pioneers were still scaling upwardly, seeking their own place in the distinguished history of American cinematography. I admit that seeing my friends Caleb Deschanel, Stephen Burum, Allen Daviau and Fred Elmes as much younger artists kind of shocked me, as I had not seen the film in over 20 years. (None of us had gray hair then, and we certainly fail to discern the flow of time when we look in the mirror today.) 

Another surprise was the eloquence with which those who preceded us “film-school brats” spoke about their own work. Cinematographers are not only visual storytellers, of course, but still, these engaging anecdotes about on- and off-set experiences frame the movie, giving real insight into the small moments, the details that come into play as these artists construct images light by light, shot by shot. This morning I again viewed the second part of the film, in which then-reigning cinematographers such as Conrad Hall, Billy Fraker, John Alonzo, Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler, Owen Roizman, Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, Gordon Willis and Vic Kemper talk about their own movies.

As worthy as insight from sympathetic film critics and historians might be, it is truly the cinematographers themselves who know how to lead the viewer through the labyrinth of images that constitute a dramatic film. I was again mesmerized by the clarity of early cinematography history revealed by Allen Daviau and Steve Burum, standing in for generations of artists long gone.

In the years I have been writing this blog, I have been all too aware of how vulnerable well-intentioned YouTube posts can be. Often, some weeks after I have discovered them and shared them in a post, I find they have been disabled or removed from the site. (This has been true even of material from the early silent era that should be considered public domain.)

So, with the hope that this version of Visions of Light (low rez and apparently from an old laserdisc) will remain in place, I offer you this still very relevant story of cinematography as told by many of its living legends.


Monument Valley in the Movies


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