Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Don Burgess

Don Burgess is a prolific and award-winning cinematographer originally from Santa Monica, California.

Burgess is known for his collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, including Cast Away (2000), Contact (1997), and Forrest Gump (1994), which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. MovieMaker sat down with Burgess to talk about shooting on film, shooting commercials, taking care of your actors, and much more.

Capture the moment

Whether it’s a documentary or a feature, the toughest thing is capturing that moment.

Learn to edit

I spent a lot of time in the editing room after I shot profiles. That was a great lesson. In the beginning, I was probably using 20 rolls of 16mm film to shoot each profile. By the end, I would shoot them in eight to 10 rolls. That came from the experience of sitting in an editing room and realizing what’s important and what’s not. I began to learn to make those choices as I was shooting. Once you know how to think in terms of what you need to tell the story, you become more efficient at the use of shooting time.

Shoot commercials

I’ve done commercials throughout my career. I’m still shooting them. For one thing, commercials give you the ability to wait for better scripts. They also give you an opportunity to experiment and try different things.

Take care of your actors

It’s important for cinematographers to have relationships with the actors, so they feel very comfortable in front of your camera and believe that you are taking care of them. They have to believe you are doing your best to make them look their best, and that you are attentive to their needs as far as getting their performance on that film. You need them to trust you and feel comfortable with what you are doing. It’s not a buddy-buddy relationship; it’s a professional relationship that makes them feel comfortable knowing you’re taking care of them.

Find great people

Over the years, I’ve put together an “A list” of people who I like working with on different types of projects. I’ve found people who are extremely proficient at what they do and who get along and work really well with each other. That’s really important when you are working a minimum of 12 hours a day. You want people who look forward to coming to work every day. They have to be inspired by the story, want to work together and also be capable of pulling off the shots that we planned. It takes skill and teamwork. If I’m using a crane arm and remote head, I need two dolly grips who are in tune with the actor or actors, and an operator and a focus puller who are capable of working off a remote head with very few marks.

Read and visualize

When I read a script, I instantly visualize the scene like it’s coming off the page. It might take reading the script a few times before you settle on the direction that you want to head in. A lot of it  comes from your meetings with the director after you’ve read the script to see if you are on the same track.

Great cinematographers are born

I think it’s something you are absolutely born with, just like some people are born with an ability to paint. I think that’s why there have been so few great filmmakers.

Persevere

If you love the work and feel passionate about it, persevere. I’m sure glad that I pursued it. It’s a great life and I still enjoy going to work every morning 30 years later. MM.

Filmography for Don Burgess, ASC:

Antarctica (2006)
Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
The Polar Express (2004)
13 Going On 30 (2004)
Radio (2003)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Spider-Man (2002)
Cast Away (2000)
What Lies Beneath (2000)
Deep Impact (1998)
Contact (1997)
The Evening Star (1996)
Executive Decision (1996)
Forget Paris (1995)
Ri¢hie Ri¢h (1994)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Josh and S.A.M. (1993)
Mo’ Money (1992)
Traces of Red (1992)
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Batman Returns (1992)
Noises Off… (1992)
Backdraft (1991)
Nothing But Trouble (1991)
The Rookie (1990)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Blind Fury (1989)
Under the Boardwalk (1989)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
World Gone Wild (1988)
Moving (1988)
Summer Camp Nightmare (1987)
Death Before Dishonor (1987)
The Night Stalker (1987)
Cherry 2000 (1987)
Hot Pursuit (1987)
Quiet Cool (1986)
Runaway Train (1985)
Sheena (1984)
Hot Dog… The Movie (1984)
Ruckus (1982)
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

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