John Bartley, ASC, CSC, recently returned from his first-ever trip to Camerimage, where he chaired the jury for the First Look – TV Pilots competition. (The winner was Xavi Giménez for Penny Dreadful: Night Work.) His fellow jurors included Theo van de Sande, ASC; a producer from Poland, and a producer from Germany.
The stop in Poland dovetailed neatly with John’s trip to Moscow, where he was doing some additional photography for Insomnia, a series he shot earlier this year. “Working in Russia was definitely interesting,” he says. “We shot in the Four Seasons Hotel in Moscow. I was looking out the window to get the balance right, and I was looking at the Kremlin!”
Overall, John had about 60 days for eight episodes. He was shooting with Arri Alexas, Cooke S4s and Arri/Fujinon Alura zooms. He says he would have liked more LEDs, but apart from that, he had what he needed. “When you have less equipment, it makes you more creative,” he notes. “When you don’t have a 40-foot trailer outside that you can draw off of, you deal with things differently. But I did find that I missed the LEDs — specifically, I missed being able to change the color without putting gels in. I think using LEDs actually cuts about 25 percent of the time it takes to light. But it all depends on how many you have.”
Talking about lighting with John reminded me of his background as a gaffer. He was able to get his first jobs in the business at a television station in Sydney, Australia, because he had an electrical license; he had spent almost five years as an apprentice in his native New Zealand, doing residential and commercial electric work while moonlighting in theater. “I was counting the hours,” says John of his apprenticeship. “I couldn’t wait to get out. I wanted to travel, so my buddy and I went to Australia. I found work at the TV station, where I worked with Brian Bansgrove and Peter O’Brien, who really got me going.”
In the 1970s, John moved to Canada and served as gaffer on more than 30 projects, including the Vancouver portions of Star 80 for Sven Nykvist, ASC; Never Cry Wolf with Hiro Narita, ASC; First Blood with Andrew Laszlo, ASC; and Immediate Family with John Lindley, ASC.
In 1985, he worked with ASC great Philip Lathrop on a film titled Picking Up the Pieces. “Phil’s advice to me was, ‘One day a week, leave your meter at home,’” John recalls. “In the past five years or so, it’s become a lot easier to do that. Sometimes I’ll get to work, leave my meter in the bag, and do it by eye.
“I hope I learned from the cinematographers I worked with. I paid attention, and I knew what we were doing, but when I became a cameraman, I suddenly realized what a lousy gaffer I was! It dawned on me what I should have been doing. As we get older, maybe we get a little smarter.”
Shortly after John returned from Poland, he started prepping the new season of Bates Motel, which he has worked on since 2013. “I’ve known one producer of Bates Motel, Justis Greene, for 40 years, and another, Tucker Gates, for 25 years,” says John. “Working with friends is a whole different experience. And Tucker and Justis have encouraged me to do some different things.”
Prior to Bates Motel, John was out of the country shooting Vikings, which he feels was some of his best work. He returned home to Canada for reasons related to his wife’s illness. After she died, he embraced some travel opportunities that presented themselves. “Shooting in Moscow was a great experience,” says John. “And Camerimage allowed me to spend a week with my peers, celebrating our love of moviemaking.
“We can’t know what’s going to happen in our lives. Every day I see the news and what’s happening around me and realize that my life is very blessed. I have my health, friends and family. I feel I have chosen the best career, and I am forever grateful that I am still part of the art of moviemaking.”