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Born for Hollywood

Born for Hollywood

Articles - Cinematography

Fred Koenekamp
Fred Koenekamp on the set of Patton

Some people make their way in the film industry with born talent; others are simply born into Hollywood. Oscar-winning cinematographer Fred Koenekamp can lay claim to both distinctions. Born and raised in Los Angeles, where his father, Hans Koenekamp, was part of the first generation of Hollywood cinematographers, Fred became a cameraman for Mack Sennett in 1913 and later directed second units and produced special effects shots for Warner Brothers.

Koenekamp garnered his first cinematography credit in 1964 for the pilot of the television series, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Koenekamp shot more than 100 episodes of that classic series, stretching over four seasons. Since then Koenekamp has compiled more than 90 cinematography credits. He earned Academy Award nominations for Islands in the Stream and Patton and shared a 1975 Oscar with Joe Biroc for their collaboration on The Towering Inferno. Other memorable films in his formidable body of work include The Great Bank Robbery, Billy Jack, Kansas City Bomber, The Amityville Horror, Papillion and Fun With Dick and Jane.

Before an online chat with the International Cinematographers Guild (, Koenekamp, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers on February 20, 2005 in recognition of his many contributions to advancing the art and craft of cinematography, reflected on his career.

Bob Fisher (MM):  Did you always plan to follow in you dad’s footsteps?

Fred Koenekamp (FK): No, I was an aviation buff as a kid. I wanted to fly. The war came along and I went into the service for the duration. By the time I got out of the Navy my desire to get into aviation had diminished. I planned to go to the University of Southern California, where I’d begun classes before I went in the service, but a job opportunity came up as a camera loader at RKO Studios. I was 23 years old and decided I probably shouldn’t spend another two or three years at school. I took the job and fell in love with the movie industry.

MM: Did you plan to become a cinematographer?

FK: There were no young cameramen in Hollywood in those days. They were all older men, and from the stories I heard, no one had been promoted to first cameraman in ages. There were five or six cameramen on salary at RKO, including Bob De Grasse and Roy Hunt. After a couple of years, there was a lot of excitement because Joe Biroc was promoted to first cameraman. It was tough being a younger crewmember, because the work wasn’t steady. You’d get laid off in between films. It was kind of hard in the beginning, but I got used to it after a couple of years.

MM: How did you take the next step?

FK: I got a job as a camera loader at Technicolor for about a year and then RKO called me back as an assistant cameraman. I did a picture with a cameraman named Harry Wild called Under Water. I was taught how to do underwater camera work, including scuba diving. The timing couldn’t have been better because MGM was just getting started with a series of films featuring Esther Williams; a lot of scenes were filmed in and under water. They needed an assistant cameraman who could do underwater work. I went to MGM anticipating a month’s work and ended up staying there for 14 years. It was a wonderful place to work.

MM: Can you talk about shooting Patton, an all-time favorite for many?

FK: Patton is my favorite picture of all time; It’s the highlight of my career. I was working on The Great Bank Robbery when I got the call to meet with and interview Frank Schaffner, the director. We were working nights, so it gave me a chance to meet with him during the day. I hadn’t read the script yet, but I took an immediate liking to Frank. About a week later, my agent called and said, “You’re going to do Patton.”

I finished shooting The Great Bank Robbery and flew to Spain, where we shot the film. I read the script on the plane. I don’t think it really sunk in at that time that I was on the verge of working on a great picture that was much more than another war-action film.

MM: When did you know that you were making a classic?

FK: It took me a little while, but by the time we finished I went home feeling very excited.

MM: That brings us to another of my favorite films, Papillon.

FK: Next to Patton, it’s my favorite picture… We were shooting in Jamaica with Panavision PSR cameras. [Panavision founder] Robert Gottschalk promised me that we’d get the new Panaflex camera as soon as it was built. I remember the day, we were working in a bamboo forest, and my assistant arrived carrying the first Panaflex camera used on a picture. Unfortunately, there was a little thing that went wrong and we had to send it back.

MM: How did you get to know Bob Gottschalk?

FK: I worked as an assistant cameraman on Raintree County, the first Panavision 65mm film. The cinematographer was Robert Surtees. It was a big improvement over the old Mitchell 65mm cameras and lenses. That’s how I met Bob. Years later, whenever I was preparing a picture, I’d spend a couple of days at Panavision talking with him and some of the other guys, finding out what was new. They had a good projection room, so you could shoot tests and see the results. I think his secret was that he really liked cameramen. I think he did more for Hollywood probably than any single individual, as far as advancing technology.

MM: You shared an Oscar with Joe Biroc for The Towering Inferno. How did the two of you happen to work on that film together?

FK: I was under contract to shoot another film for Universal Studios, but when that picture was delayed my agent said Irwin Allen wanted to meet me. Irwin told me in our first meeting that he wanted me to shoot the dramatic scenes for The Towering Inferno. He said Joe Biroc was going to work with him on a second unit that was going to film explosions and other action sequences. Universal agreed to release me from my contract so I could work on The Towering Inferno.

I was amazed by the preparation that had been done. They had miniatures of every major set down to the smallest details and sketches of every scene. Joe and I talked a lot and shot some tests together. We became friends. Fire can be interesting, because it can be so many different colors. It can be orange, bright red, smoky black and it can have white smoke in it. There is no end to the different looks, depending on what’s burning. Joe experimented with using red and orange filters on lights to determine what looked best, for instance, if a wall was burning.

We discussed lighting and camera positions, what we liked and spoke with Irwin to see how he felt. The special effects crew gave me a little handheld smoke machine and sometimes, at the last minute before the cameras rolled, I would pump some smoke wherever I felt we needed it. It was a tough picture, because there were so many visual effects and some of the actors did some of their own stunt work. Paul Newman was climbing ladders and, of course, Steve McQueen just loved that stuff.

MM: You were talking about lighting earlier. I don’t want to oversimplify, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about why cinematographers light.

FK: There are two main reasons: One is that you need enough light to expose the images properly, whether it’s a film or video camera. The other thing is you’re lighting for the mood. Lighting is really a big thing; it’s one of the first things you have to learn. During the time when I was working, we went from requiring 200 foot-candles down to 20, and I still got a good exposure with a good stop on the lens. Today’s films are much faster, but you still have to light.

MM: How did you learn to light?

FK: I would watch famous cameramen at work to get some idea how they were lighting and why. I’ll be honest: My first day as a cameraman, I walked onto the set and all of a sudden it was like my mind went blank. Everything looked wrong. I remember asking myself, ‘Where do I start?’

The longer you do it, the more comfortable and the better you get at it. I remember Frank Phillips telling me that the last light you use is the one you don’t need. Over the years, that proved to be right. You can over-light without realizing you’re doing it. I’ve had people ask, “What is the mood of the picture?” As far as I’m concerned, each scene has its own mood.

MM: What advice, if any, do you have for young cinematographers?

FK: I’m a firm believer that you don’t start at the top. You can learn so much by being an assistant and operator even if it’s only for a short time. One of the things you learn is to appreciate is how much your crew can help you. You also have to learn how to talk with directors about scripts and their ideas, and how to work with the production and costume designers and everyone else. No one makes great movies alone.

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