American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 12

Every so often it's worth looking back to one of the old ASC masters for an invigorating jolt
of craftsmanship, the likes of which so far exceeds what we see today that it should make
each of us consider a different career. There are plenty of examples to call upon, but one in
particular inspired this column: Stanley Cortez's Oscar-nominated cinematography for The
Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
If you had the privilege to have met Stanley during his lifetime (1908-1997), you'd
already know that he was an unforgettable figure. Tall, elegantly turned out and, even in
silence, possessed of an imposing demeanor, there was nothing about him that betrayed
his New York City roots or his birth name of Stanislaus Krantz. Instead, he projected an air
of European royalty, which, I've been told, led some of his fellow ASC members to sarcastically refer to him as "The Baron" (behind his back, of course). It was an apt appraisal,
though, and his imperious presence at the Clubhouse during his astonishing 63 years as a
member was backed up by superb work on a raft of varied films, both high- and low-brow.
Stanley was no effete pretender. As a combat cameraman with the Army Signal Corps
in World War II, he traveled with General Patton; he also photographed the liberation of
Paris, the Yalta Conference, and the liberation of several concentration camps. In his later
years he carried a cane with an ornate headpiece; it fit him somehow and seemed to bestow
an even greater authority - especially if you annoyed him and he gave you a swat on the
leg with it (which I can proudly attest to having experienced). But despite the outward
appearance, he was an essentially sweet man with a well-developed sense of himself. When I asked him how he came to shoot
Ambersons, which was Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, he replied, "Toland was on another assignment, so Welles was free
to use the best cameraman in Hollywood."
Stanley's work leaves little room for dispute. The Magnificent Ambersons is nothing short of a master class in the use of hard
light. It's understandable that this style might appear dated to our modern eyes; I suspect it fell out of favor only because it's so hard
to do, let alone do well. Here, Stanley places himself in the company of geniuses by imbuing a look so fitted to the story that he
makes it seem easy to create. I assure you: It wasn't. Recognition must also be given to the extraordinary production design of Albert
S. D'Agostino. His ornate, cavernous sets surely presented Stanley with immense challenges, yet he met them with a practicality
rooted in good taste.
Few of the scenes situated in the Ambersons' Victorian mansion are shot from static positions. The camera always seems to
be on the prowl - booming, swooping and dollying with the characters as they navigate from one huge space to the next. The
hard-light method demands precise flagging and cutting of every lamp in use; the size of the sets would indicate that Stanley's overhead grid was the busiest in Hollywood. And when the camera starts moving, one can only imagine the intricate ballet engineered
by an army of grips and electricians as they flagged, netted and dimmed the lights while the actors and camera traveled - all in real
time and without benefit of postproduction corpse revival.
If asked to sum up the photography of The Magnificent Ambersons in brief, I'd call it a superlative achievement in high
contrast. Working with an extremely slow negative (ASA 25), Stanley frequently allowed his key light to fall off in dramatic fashion.
The resulting pools of black are so devoid of detail that they often become prime graphic elements within the exquisitely composed
1.33:1 frame. Even more amazingly - with Welles once again indulging his penchant for deep focus, low angles and long takes -
Stanley controlled his lighting to such a degree that it's almost impossible to spot the double shadows so common in the cinematography of that era.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a triumph of vision and execution that makes you beg for more. Shamefully butchered by the
studio before its release, the surviving version should still be studied closely by every serious student of cinematography. And given
today's propensity for using soft light in most every situation, it might not be a bad idea for serious professionals to have a look, too.

Richard P. Crudo
ASC President
12

July 2015

American Cinematographer

Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

President's Desk



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of American Cinematographer - July 2015

Contents
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - Cover1
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - Cover2
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 1
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 2
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - Contents
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 4
American Cinematographer - July 2015 - 5
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