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Cinematography: Richard Rawlings – ASC Awards


Charlie’s Angels’ Angel

Richard Rawlings

Richard Rawlings, ASC, was honored at the annual American Society of Cinematographers banquet this year for his career body of work in television. Rawlings grew up in Hollywood, under the tutelage of his father, Richard Rawlings, Sr., ASC. His first TV series as director of photography was in 1978 on Charlie’s Angels. He went on to shoot such memorable series as Matt Houston, Stingray, L.A. Law, Boston Public, Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives, among others.

We spoke with Rawlings before the award ceremony about his DP debut show. “The wonderful thing about it is I’ve kept in touch with Cheryl Ladd from Charlie’s Angels all these years,” he said. “We talk on the phone two or three times a year, just to see how everybody’s doing. She and her husband, Brian Russell, are going to be there and she’s going to come out and actually say a few words about Charlie’s and the fun we had. She and her husband will be at the crew table, and there will be 14 of us – half of us were on Charlie’s Angels – so it’s going to be like a really nice reunion.”

Television is shot differently than features. When asked about the challenges of shooting episodic television, Rawlings thought for a moment and said, “The biggest challenge is time, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’ve done mostly one-hour episodic. Most films are a little less than two hours, and they have three, five, six months to shoot them. Although we get a little bit more time now, when I started out we had about six days to do a one-hour episode. Today they shoot eight to nine days. Truthfully, they should be shooting about 10 or 11 days so they don’t work people 14, 16, 18 hours a day; it’s a grueling routine.”

Rawlings continued, “I would say that the worst part about it is lack of sleep. The next worst thing about it is getting frustrated because you know that there’s some really nice stuff you could do; you just don’t have the time to do it.”

But he quickly added, “I don’t want you to think that I’m always frustrated; it’s not that. It’s just, like anybody else that’s involved in an art form, you see a vision and you want that. You do everything that you can, and with episodic television, very seldom do you have the time to get exactly what you want.”

If you don’t have the time, you do have resources. “I’ve been on shows where they are trying to recreate something that they’ve seen in a feature film and it is up to you to try to figure out how to get that image or feeling. You rent and watch the movie. If you are stumped, most cinematographers are happy to share their ideas and their work. I would make a phone call, get ahold of the cinematographer, talk to him and tell him what we’re doing, talk to him about how he did it.”

Adding to the sense of community are the crew members. “A lot of times, if I ask about doing a particular shot, they would give me the numbers of the gaffer and the key grip, because it involves certain kinds of lights or certain things that were built to blow light through, to diffuse it, or whatever. It’s a lot of fun to do that because it gives you a chance to talk to DPs that you probably had never met or probably never would get a chance to talk with. In film, there’s no such thing as plagiarism, and I’ve found that it’s just very delightful.”

Charlie's Angels set
On the set with Charlie’s Angels while shooting Charlie’s Angels, a show that was considered quite daring in its time.

Recalling one situation, Rawlings said, “I was doing a movie of the week up in Sacramento, and there’s fireworks going on outside. Naturally, they wanted to get the effect of the fireworks. I had watched a film that Allen Daviau had done where they had a similar scene and the fireworks were just so beautiful.

“So I called and asked Mr. Daviau how he did it and he said, ‘Well we had real fireworks.’ We didn’t have real fireworks. Then he spent half an hour talking to me about how they once recreated the look of fireworks with lights and filters and colored gels. It was really neat. I tried it and it didn’t come out as good as what Allen had, but it worked. It’s nice to know that you can make a phone call and people are willing to share. I’m sure there are people out there that won’t, but I’ve never run up against any of them.”

Everything Rawlings has shot was on film. Toward the end of his active television career – he retired in 2008 – he saw digital taking over. “I like to say that I was fortunate that I only worked in film,” he mused. “For reasons that are hard to explain, they decided to change to what I call electronic video before they had the ability to make it look like film. Because electronic video has such a sharp, crisp picture, cinematographers are putting a lot of stuff in front of the lens in order to make it look like film. The look of film is softer; I think our brains are used to what we see on film, especially when you’re doing something that’s a fantasy. There are moods to be set with film and they’re trying desperately to do that in electronic video, to have that feeling that you get from film. Eventually they’ll have it. They don’t have it yet, and it’s very hard to get it.”

Cinematographers, from the very beginning, were creative in camera. Now everything can be manipulated outside the camera. Post-production can often change things to the point where the cinematographer doesn’t remember ever shooting anything like that.

“All cinematographers, the International Cinematographers Guild, and the ASC are very much aware of the fact that there are people who can change our work,” he said. “We’re working very hard to come up with a way to deal fairly with what post-production can do, to try to make them understand that they need to include the cinematographer if they’re going to change something that had been done behind the camera.”

Rawlings explained, “The ASC is on top of that like you wouldn’t believe. I’m really proud of the organization for handling it in a gentlemanly way because screaming and yelling doesn’t get anything done. Everyone has to understand that filmmaking is a collective art form. I mean there are so many people involved. It takes an army to make a movie. I think what we’re asking is, ‘Don’t tread on our art form without at least consulting us and allowing us to get involved.’”


March 14, 2014