On a hot day in June 20003, I was
on Universal Studios’ back lot in Hollywood, surrounded by cranes,
dollies, cameras and lighting equipment—more than enough of
everything to make the feature of my dreams—or yours. But no
film was rolling, and nobody would stop the action for another few
hours. I was at CineGear, the annual movie industry show where vendors
set up their wares under sun canopies, like a high-street art fair.

I was talking with George Spiro Dibie, then
National President of Local 600, the Hollywood camera operators
union, when George said “Do you know Neal Fredericks, the
man who made Blair Witch?” He introduced me to Neal,
and I commented that for a while, there was hardly any article in
the trade press that didn’t mention Blair Witch.

I felt I had to ask the inevitable question: “Did
you do really well out of that?” Neal touched the tips of
his right index finger and thumb to make a silver-dollar-sized hole,
and then stuck the tip of his left index finger into the circle.
“I made this much,” he said, with a grin.

We talked on the phone a few times, and corresponded
by e-mail. I recall he was very proud of the movies he had DP’ed,
and felt like his career was beginning to happen.

Now Neal is gone, the victim of a plane crash caused
by engine failure while filming on location in Florida. The movie
theater-going public knows little of the struggles that go on behind
the scenes, the striving to attain the level of professionalism
that denotes a cinematographer and the dramas—and sometimes
tragedies—that occur in the making of a movie.

I recall the words attributed to the Buddha, that
all things are impermanent, especially our own lives, and that we
should therefore live them with that awareness in mind. And being
thus aware both of the preciousness and ephemeral nature of our
human existence, that we should not take our own lives, nor those
of our friends and colleagues, for granted. We walk this earth for
a limited period only, unaware of the time that is left.

Yet it seems to me that a cinematographer walks a
privileged path, versed in an art that celebrates and proclaims
the beauty and diversity of life. We have lost a colleague, a fellow
cinematographer, who died doing the thing he loved most. Let us
pause for a moment in the headlong rush of our profession to remember
Neal, and to appreciate our colleagues who are left.

Robert Render Harrison

Neal Fredericks
DP Neal Fredericks

Though movies account for many a cinematographer’s
career path, real life can be just as inspiring. Just ask Neal Fredericks,
the man behind the camera on such independent fare as The Stonecutter, Killer Me, Dreamers and, most notably, The Blair
Witch Project
. With his father employed by the US Navy, Fredericks
relished the opportunity to live in such diverse-and beautiful-places
as Guam and Spain. Of the experience, he says "I was able to
travel the world at a young age and was exposed to many different
people, places and cultures. I believe this had a positive impact
on my career path as a cinematographer."

10 years of experience in feature films, television, commercials
and music videos, Fredericks has built a reputation based on talent
and professionalism. Here, he shares with MM the secrets to his
success and the reality behind Blair Witch.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you first become
interested in cinematography? What was the first film you recall
watching where you realized that there was something going on behind
the scenes-that there was a moviemaking process?

Neal Fredericks (NF): There wasn’t a particular
film that inspired me to work behind the camera, but the experience
of seeing films in a theater with an audience did. During my childhood
my parents would often take me to the movies. Seeing how an audience
would react to what was happening on the screen led me to be a cinematographer.
Experiencing Blade Runner on the big screen in 1982 with
my family had a profound effect on my career path.

MM: You’ve worked in feature films, television,
commercials and music videos. What are some of the adjustments you
need to make to your own style and/or work habits when shifting

NF: Actually I follow the same train of thought
no matter what the medium: to put the director’s vision on film.
On feature films I find it possible to experiment more and really
push the envelope. On music videos and commercials you usually have
many more people to answer to than just the director. I find this
frustrating at times, but I have had some of the best times as DP
on music videos.

MM: Describe your ideal director-cinematographer

NF: My ideal collaboration is with a director
who can visualize his/her project before a foot of film is shot.
This usually comes from directors with experience, but I do occasionally
work with first-time directors. I prefer to be hired as soon as
possible in the pre-production phase. This does not always happen
in the case of independent films. I believe the director/DP collaboration
should continue through post-production. The DP needs to be there
through the film’s print timing and film-to-tape transfers.

MM: Do you prefer to have a lot of freedom
on the set, or do you prefer working with a director who has a strong
idea of what he/she wants to see on screen?

NF: I am very comfortable working with both
of these descriptions. Being flexible with a director’s working
style is part of my reputation as a DP.

MM: How often have you worked with storyboards
and is this something you enjoy?

NF: I do enjoy working with storyboards. When
working on a limited budget and shooting schedule, they can be a
necessity. I believe that working off storyboards can allow you
to experiment even more. They also give everyone an idea of what
needs to be accomplished on any given day.

MM: How much importance do you bestow on
the particular genre that you are working in? Do you do any research,
looking back at other films from the genre, to figure out what you
might want to do with the camera and how you might want a particular
shot to look?

NF: I only do research when I think it’s necessary.
For a recent thriller, I viewed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead. On a recent fantasy feature I did none-
I just let the location inspire me for ideas.

MM: You’ve worked a lot in the horror genre.
Is this by coincidence, or by design?

NF: Working in the horror genre is great. Most
of the time, the horror films I’ve done are character studies at
their cores. I’ve worked in every genre but feel no pull to any
in particular. What inspires me are great scripts and directors
with visions.

MM: You’ve worked in all sorts of mediums,
from Super8 to 35mm to DV. Is film your preferred format?

NF: I have to admit that my preferred medium
is motion picture film. The ‘digital revolution’ for independent
filmmakers seems to be a situation where quality is sacrificed for
quantity. I’ve shot many productions on tape (Hi-Def, DV, etc.)
but have found the mentality of these directors and producers is
usually a world I try to stay away from. My most productive experiences
with shot-on-tape productions have been with directors that have
a film background. These directors know that quality takes more
than just turning a camera on.

MM: When The Blair Witch Project was
released, audiences couldn’t get enough of the story. The film spawned
a number of television shows like
The Burkittsville Seven and Shadow of the Blair Witch, which you also worked on.
How did you approach these projects differently from a cinematography
level, as you are essentially exploring the same subject?

NF: Both of those shows were written and directed
by Ben Rock. We did extensive pre-production photography tests.
Ben had specific visual ideas for both shows. Early on we were both
determined to shoot the shows on film. I felt that the most believable
elements of The Blair Witch Project were the scenes that
originated on black and white film. The video scenes took me out
of the story. The ‘filmed’ scenes seemed more real. On The Burkittsville
, we went with a more surreal sense of reality. We used specific
film stocks, filters, high contrast lighting and lab processing
techniques. On Shadow of the Blair Witch we designed a look
more grounded in reality. This incorporated more natural lighting
and handheld camerawork.

MM: In what way do you think the cinematography
of a film adds to the storytelling? How can a cinematographer make
a difference and how have you made a difference in the projects
you’ve worked on?

NF: Again, moviemaking is a collaborative effort.
Cinematography is just one key to telling a film’s story. Cinematography
must go hand in hand with production design, costumes, make-up,
sound and a hundred other elements. I try to make a difference by
taking a director’s idea and pushing the visual envelope. Some directors
are game while others like to play it safe. My job is to paint with
light and focus the eye through composition.