Let’s begin by peeking behind the scenes at USC, where cinematographer William A. Fraker, ASC , BSC is guiding a class of next-generation moviemakers through the process of telling stories with moving images. His textbook is Rosemary’s Baby, the classic film he shot 40 years ago in collaboration with director Roman Polanski. Fraker shows his students one scene at a time. Then he pauses to discuss how composition, light, darkness, camera angles and movement are used as visual dialogue to create a compelling
story in a collaborative process.
Fraker has earned five Oscar nominations for his work behind the camera—on Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), Heaven Can Wait (1978), 1941 (1979), War-Games (1983) and Murphy’s Romance (1985)—and one for his visual effects on 1941. He received the ultimate compliment in 2000, when his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers presented him with a coveted ASC Lifetime Achievement Award.
Fraker’s life story is the stuff that inspires movie scripts. His grandmother was a teacher in Mexico in 1910, when the country was in turmoil and a revolutionary government had put schoolteachers on their list of enemies. “She was an amazing lady,” Fraker reminisces. “In 1910, my grandmother rode a mule while carrying my mother and aunt all the way from Mazatlan across the border into the United States. She became a portrait photographer at a studio in downtown Los Angeles. My grandmother was my father’s mentor; he was a still photographer for Columbia Pictures from 1927 until he died in 1934. My uncle was a still photographer for Paramount Pictures. I thought that was my destiny.”
Fraker’s future was put on hold during World War II, when he served in the U.S. Navy. Afterward, the GI Bill of Rights enabled him to enroll in the film studies program at USC , where he studied under Slavko Vorkapich, a director who had pioneered the use of montage in motion pictures during the 1920s and 1930s, including David Copperfield (1935) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
After graduation, Fraker spent seven years shooting inserts for commercials and grab shots for movies. He’d get a call to shoot workers leaving a factory at the end of a shift, and Fraker would drive to the factory and grab the shot with his 16mm camera; he was paid $25 a shot.
Rosemary’s Baby was Fraker’s fifth feature. It was a “B” movie, which means that it was produced at the lower end of the budget scale (about $3.2 million). There was a 14-week production schedule, including two weeks in New York.
In the film, John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow play a husband and wife, Guy and Rosemary, who move into a new Manhattan apartment. Guy, an actor, has aspirations of being a Broadway star and gets his shot when another actor mysteriously goes blind. Meanwhile, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant. Then the drama begins. Was their apartment once a home for witches? Did her husband make a deal with the devil? Are neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (an older couple, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) part of a coven? What about her doctor? Is Rosemary carrying the spawn of satan?
“Roman knew what he wanted and he was able to express his ideas very articulately,” Fraker recalls. “I felt that I was in the presence of a great visual storyteller. It’s a tremendous advantage—and gratifying—when you are working with a director who considers you a partner. He let me do what I was hired to do!”
Fraker invariably awes his students when he tells them the entire picture was shot with a 50-speed color negative film, one camera and 18 and 25mm lenses (the latter mainly for handheld, close-up shots of the actors). There was no video assist. Students ask how he knew what they were getting on film. Fraker smiles and points to his eyes and then to his heart.
Cinematographer David Walsh, ASC, a camera operator on Rosemary’s Baby, notes that the use of 18 and 25mm lenses was counter-culture. “Roman wanted to use the apartment in the background as a character in the story,” Walsh explains. “He wanted it to be big and frightening and almost overwhelming.”
The apartment was a set with a window overlooking a background plate of Central Park. Fraker and production designer Richard Sylbert used lamps, windows and other sources to create a sense of time and place to visually punctuate moods.
“Roman has a way of talking to the audience with images and affecting how they feel about the characters and what is happening to them,” says Fraker. “If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to think visually.”
To explain this visual language Fraker describes a seminal scene filmed early in the story, when Gordon’s character knocks on the door. There is a close-up of her face, seen through the peephole. She introduces herself and, after a brief conversation, asks to use the telephone, which is in the bedroom. So Fraker lined up a shot through the open door.
“I had a perfectly framed shot of her in the middle of the door frame,” he says. “You could even see a little movement of her hair from a breeze coming through an open window. I called Roman over to the camera to see how we composed the shot. He said, ‘No, Billy. Move the camera to the left.’ I kept moving it until he said, ‘That’s the shot.’ I said, ‘Roman, if we do this, the audience won’t see what she is doing.’ ‘Exactly,’ he said.
“At the preview screening, 500 people in the audience all shifted to the right in their seats trying to look around the door jamb and see what Minnie was doing.
”In another scene, Rosemary tells her husband she has decided to change doctors because she is suspicious of the advice she is getting. Guy discourages her. That two minute scene was filmed in one shot, which ended with a close-up of Farrow.
“It was Roman’s idea to make it one continuous shot, but he gave me the freedom to light it in a way that draws the eyes of the audience to what we want them to see,” Fraker says. “Roman treated the camera like it was a character in the story. I watched where he was standing in rehearsals because I knew that was where he would want the camera looking at the characters. He involves the audience with the characters.
“After rehearals, he would tell me what he was thinking. There were times when he placed a character with the most important dialogue in a profile shot. Many directors would want to track the camera around and get two eyes and a full frame in the shot; Roman wanted to get the audience involved with the character. When we saw dailies, I noticed
that people were leaning forward in their seats trying to get a better look at his face to see how he was reacting to what Rosemary was saying.
“Roman gave me the freedom to light faces and backgrounds in ways that looked and felt natural while supporting the mood,” he continues. “A shadow that hides an expression on someone’s face or in his or her eyes, or a light that reveals it, can speak louder than words. Roman understands the language of cinematography. He very rarely asked me to re-light something because he was clear about his intentions for shots.”
Rosemary’s baby is born and a celebration by the coven at the end of the picture suggests that it is the spawn of the devil. What does it look like? Everyone has his or her own answer to that question because the audience never sees the baby. Fraker’s assessment? “That was pure genius by Roman because everybody in the audience had their own vision.”