Dean Semler on The Art of Film

omkara Interviews

We speak with Academy award winner Dean Semler AM ACS ASC and learn a little about what inspires him and how he taps into his creative genius on set. Dean has almost 70 feature credits to his name, an Oscar, inducted into the hall of fame and recipient of many awards from the Australian Cinematographers Society, an American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award (among many others). He is truly one of the worlds greatest talents, these are some of the reasons we tracked down this wizard of film to listen to his wise words about life, art and filmmaking.

WHEN DID YOU DISCOVER YOUR PASSION FOR PHOTOGRAPHY? DID YOU KNOW STRAIGHT AWAY THAT YOU WOULD DEVOTE YOUR LIFE TO PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM? 

I was the youngest of three children, our family lived in Renmark, a small country town nestled on the banks of the mighty River Murray in South Australia. Absolutely beautiful country side, edging on semi desert, vast wheat and sheep farms stretching endlessly to the horizon. White puffy clouds on a clear blue sky most of the year and thousands of acres of lush irrigated fruit properties; grapes, citrus, peaches and so on and you know, its funny,  I still can buy oranges from there in American supermarkets, proudly labelled “Grown in the Riverland Australia”.

“I’m the little one”

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Growing up I really enjoyed this special part of our great country, and would often ride my bike a few miles out of town to experience the beauty, the vastness, the tranquility, but not for a moment thinking of photography until I was given a small stills camera when I was about 14 years old. It was a small ‘Coronet’ camera, with a flash that would open like a shiny flower, all of a sudden I had a new hobby.

Rolls of film were fairly expensive but I worked in a chemist’s shop after school and in a fruit canning factory during the school holidays, so now and then I could afford to buy a roll of black and white negative and have it developed at the chemist’s. I don’t know why I kept this picture, but this is my very first photograph looking across the river in Renmark.

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There were also fun photos, this is my best mate rolling a cigarette in school with the teacher in the background.

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I left school when I was 16 years old and took a position at the local railway station as a junior clerk. Dad was pleased, a government job with free travel for the family, but mainly because it would keep me in Renmark as my brother and sister had already left home for the big city. I had applied for a position as a props boy at NWS channel 9 in Adelaide, one of Rupert Murdoch’s first television stations. Not thinking I had a hope in hell of getting it, but for some unknown reason I got the job, and so out of the blue began a fantastic and exciting new career.

Promotions came pretty quickly in these embryonic days of television, and after a short stint as a props boy and also a floor manager, I was operating a studio camera on mostly ‘live’ TV. Wow I was only 17 years old and took to this new position like a duck to water.

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I had saved enough money to buy a small super 8mm camera, shooting little films on the weekends, but now I was hungry and wanted to reach for something more. I wanted to be a film cameraman. I had watched with envy the news cameramen walk through the studio every afternoon, carrying their 16mm cameras with light meters hanging around their necks…. boy oh boy, I wish wish I wish! and that wish came true, I was 19 years old when I got the position as a news cameraman and found an immediate love, telling stories on film!

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So with no formal education in either photography or film making I nervously headed off on my first assignment with the words of the news editor ringing in my ears “don’t worry mate, you’ll get the hang of it!” Everyday brought new experiences, interviews with leading politicians, governors, films stars, rock stars, tragedies, accidents, murders and so on, life was never dull. On this occasion I was covering a bush fire when I rolled over in my little mini news van. A group of firemen helped me right it again and I drove back to the station making the 6 O’Clock news. 

As I said, life was never dull!

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“This is a photo of south Australian country side that I took many years later … Gum trees, sheep and fluffy clouds.” Dean Semler

YOU ARE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES TO DISCOVER YOUR LIFE’S PURPOSE AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE. HOW HAVE YOU MAINTAINED YOUR MOTIVATION FOR FILM MAKING OVER THE YEARS? 

You say I’m one of the lucky ones, how right you are! Cinematography has got to be the greatest occupation on the planet…. except for the guys who spray suntan lotion on the bikini babes on Bondi Beach. I consider myself sooooo lucky to have fallen unexpectedly into this unlikely position. One day a gangly country kid keeping railway shipment records in a tin shed…. next day, actively involved in television and then film production. 

One of my earliest assignments as a news cameraman was to cover The Beatles visit to South Australia. I elbowed my through the thousands of people jamming the streets, covered the press conference with ‘THE FAB FOUR’ and then their amazing concert at night … just imagine how excited and how bloody lucky I was. 

My Motivation is the same today as it was in those early days, that’s 55 years ago. Starting everyday with a love of my work and allowing my enthusiasm to rub off onto my crew, many of whom are kids half a century younger than me. I try to keep a sense of harmony on the set and also maintain a good sense of humour. There are always tensions on a movie set but I never allow them to affect me. I can become a Buddhist very easily, keeping the calm around me, while on some occasions all hell is breaking loose…. “OMMMMM!”

‘Collaboration’ its is so important to be aware of every other department’s responsibilities and feelings, none more so than the actors, who more often than not can be nervous and sometimes totally in character. There are one or two actors (no names) who won’t allow any crew to make eye contact with them, some have been fired for doing so but its pretty rare. 

This is my regular and loyal crew… three camera teams, grips and electrics.

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I get a great satisfaction out of teaching new students …. 

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YOUR MOVIES DEMONSTRATE YOU YOU’RE NOT ONLY A WIZARD WITH A CAMERA, BUT ALSO A TRUE ARTIST WHEN IT COMES TO LIGHTING AND CREATING BREATHTAKING SCENES. YOU HAVE SUCH A DISTINCTIVE STYLE, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?

I don’t claim to have a particular style, every movie is different. In my early days in Australia I was recognised as an action man after the gut tearing photography in the Mad Max movies…. true… but the genre was new to me and everyday became an exciting learning process for me, learning from the creator and director of the movies the great Dr. George Miller. The constant advice I would get from him was “Dino ..just be bold!”  He wanted a cinematographer who has not only mastered lighting, but also had a good eye for widescreen compositions and one who was prepared to take risks photographically.

Understanding that in a fast and wild action movie, when the chase begins, no-one would ever care or be aware of the change in light direction, or if it was in sun or cloud, early morning or middle of the day. The other hugely important factor was the camera movement, and if you watch “Mad Max 2” you will feel the energy level go through the roof because of the fast, unsteady, shaking and sometimes violent camera movement. As I was looking through the lens and operating the camera jolting and shaking and almost coming off the tripod. Well it was just George wanting to stir things up a bit and give it extra adrenalin. So after those two films I became the action guy.

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In “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” with Mel and Tina Turner, there were many scenes that took place underground, where generators were powered by methane gas captured from the shit of a hundred pigs. It was around about this time in the mid 1980’s that I also photographed a movie which earnt me many awards, including the very special Australian Film Institute award…

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The film was called “Razorback” a thriller set in the outback where a giant boar terrorised a small town killing babies and so on. Directed by Russel Mulcahy, a visionary master who had directed spectacular music videos with Stevie Nicks, Elton John, Duran Duran and many others.

Anyway, getting back to my story, I had a call from my agent in Sydney saying she had a request for me to shoot a commercial for a vacuum cleaner, which had miraculously cleaned up after several muddy little pigs had run a muck in a home … yikes here I was the great action DOP, now being pigeon holed as a swine photographer. I did the commercial and my pig experiences came to an and .. I thought…..

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Several years later while shooting ‘Young Guns’ in New Mexico, the assistant directors who run the set, were all very serious Hells Angels… the real deal from the headquarters in Oakland California. As it turned out Razorback was one of their favourite movies, it did become a cult film with lots of fans. So I arranged a screening for the Hells Angel’s boys … we drank lots of beer, ate pickled pigs feet, pork rind and chips and everyone had a great old time. The next night I felt in my canvas bag something wet and fleshy … it was a freshly killed pigs head …. the boys saying thanks for the screening. They were going to place it in my bed but decided my wife wouldn’t like it…. I tell you they would have met their match! End of pigs stories I promise.

So that’s enough about action films for now, where a different style of photography comes into play, most importantly always being aware of safety, although lighting can not be ignored. Actors still have to look their best, and after hair, wardrobe and makeup is complete, its up to me to put them in the light that is most flattering to them and appropriate for their character and the mood of the scene. You know an actor or actress may walk in for rehearsals looking like a run over jam tin, and are transformed into the Hollywood star when we all do our jobs properly.

I shot several very different types of movies in Australia: ‘The Lighthorsemen’ A WW1 drama with a spectacular and dangerous cavalry charge, ‘The Coca Cola Kid’ with Eric Roberts as an eccentric American marketing Guru, ‘Kitty and the Bagman’ a gangster film set in the 20’s. My wife Annie, the blonde bombshell from down under, plays a very raunchy flapper in a couple of nightclub scenes … worth watching just for that.

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‘Undercover’ was perhaps my favourite ‘beautiful’ movie where I used soft diffusion and soft lighting throughout. Once again set in the 1920’s, a comedy revolving around a woman’s bra manufacturer…. with several really gorgeous musical numbers were shot on stage in Sydney. 

Then there was ‘Dead Calm’ the film that launched Nicole Kidman into super stardom and Tom Cruises arms. Filming on water comes with its own set of challenges and generally takes more time than shooting on land, because of all the unpredictable conditions: winds, tides, currents and just simply positioning the boats on their marks…. lots of patience and a good test of tempers! I learnt a lot on this film that I could put into practice years later on in ‘Waterworld’, filmed in Hawaii. 

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So now for another style, Westerns …Whoo Hoo!  I became the western specialist, shooting 5 westerns in just a few years…. and boy did I love it… love it… love it! A kid in a candy store, Cowboys, Indians, great horsemen and always on absolutely spectacular locations, generally in the high desert plateaus of New Mexico. Fulfilling my love for big vistas in that giant widescreen cinema frame.

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I haven’t ever been asked to shoot a horror film, which in itself requires a totally different set of rules…. dark, scary etc. But I’ve done pretty much every other type of movie: action, drama, westerns and some Hollywood films that just have to look glossy, and many comedies where generally the studios like the films to be a bit brighter …. more flat overall light … not so challenging  but fun to be on a set where laughter rules.

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So as you can see I don’t have any particular style and have shot all varieties of movies, each one dictating its own ‘look’.

CAN YOU SAHRE YOUR THOUGHTS AROUND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE FILM DIRECTOR AND THE DOP (DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY).

Directors can spend many years getting their pet project approved and financed, whereas cinematographers come in only a few weeks before shooting. Only after the director has worked with the production designer in selecting locations and set design, including wardrobe for style and colour choices. As all films are different so are the directors. There are those with very strong ideas and plans, with the whole movie blocked out in their head, the story boards, previs video, or animatics who don’t require as much idea sharing, but only a guidance to fulfil their vision. All directors watch rehearsals on set with the actors before they totally commit to the coverage of a scene. An Actor may want to do a scene standing on his head … who knows … that changes everything. I have worked with several first time Directors and love to be there to share ideas and guide them through where necessary, never wanting to take over but sometimes it’s just a whispering an idea in their ear.

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I loved the relationship I had with both Kevin Costner on ‘Dances with Wolves’ and with Angelina Jolie on ‘In The Land of Blood and Honey’. As first time Directors they both had a very strong vision of their movie but would be open to any ideas I might suggest.  It was especially tough on Kevin as he not only directed but also produced and acted in it…. he did a hero’s job. On ‘Apocalypto’ Mel Gibson who had already directed another movie, was a truly great leader with a strong vision but always open to anyone’s ideas that might improve his movie. He’d listen to ideas from everyone and anyone. As with Angelina and Kevin, everyday he graciously shared his vast experience as an Actor with the cast …. A great Director and a great leader with a great sense of humour.

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Shooting a movie is a tough job, working long days or nights, normally finishing the day in 12 hours, but often running into 14 or 16 hour days and beyond. Especially gruelling on locations in extreme weather conditions: scorching deserts and steamy jungles (note the thermometer on the camera) or filming in howling blizzards.

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But… no matter how tough it may be for the crew, consider the Director who has a huge responsibility not only during the shooting day, but spending hours at night making phone calls to studios or Actors and answering zillions of questions, as well as planning the next days shoot. Good Directors normally surround themselves with a crew who are not are not only good craftsmen but it’s especially important that they are true collaborators. I directed a couple of times and before I started, one Director friend of mine said to me “Directing a movie is like being pecked to death by a thousand penguins”. He was right, having tried it I fully understand and have great respect for them all … well most of them.

HAVING WATCHED THE PROGRESSION OF CINEMATOGRAPHY OVER THE YEARS, CAN YOU SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS FROM YOUR FIRST WORK WITH FILM, THROUGH TO DIGITAL & 3D ON HOW YOU SEE THE TECHNICAL FUTURE OF CINEMATOGRAPHY?

As I write this I’m sitting in a luxury digital screening room at Sony Studios in Hollywood…. its my lunch break. I’m here to complete the colour timing on a couple of Adam Sandler movies I shot last year for Netflix, and for the first time finishing the films using the latest high dynamic range of display technology called Dolby Vision, showing a superb range of colour and contrast never before achieved in a television transfer…. I have never seen images for television like it.  So …. In answering your question regarding the progression of cinematography over the years, I am at this very moment using the best state of the art technology available today, working with rocket scientist engineers and digital colourists…. this is March 2016.

But now…. back to the good old days to 1962…. At NSW Channel 9, I’d shoot 16mm Black and White reversal film where it would come off the rollers as a positive not a negative, so it could be edited immediately and be ready to go to air. To keep the costs down we were asked to shoot as little footage as possible so with a 100 foot roll of film running about 2 and a half minutes I accepted the challenge and mastered the art of fitting three news stories onto one roll…. each news story going to air running 30 to 40 seconds on average. That was then!

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I moved to the ABC in Sydney, the head office and was lucky enough to land one of the very first colour documentaries that retraced the steps of Captain Cook… Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, Canada and England.. quite a trip. But all the time getting to understand this new colour film.

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In 1970 I was lucky enough to land a job at the commonwealth film unit in Sydney where they still made short films promoting Australia, to be shown on the big screen in cinemas before the main feature. This meant 35mm film and bigger cameras and fabulous widescreen images … Wow I loved it … prior to this all my films were only seen on television. The photograph was taken in Bathurst while shooting ‘A Steam Train Passes’ A 25 minute film that won many awards and I believe got me the Mad Max movies.

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I spent 9 spectacular years at the Commonwealth Film unit in Sydney…. now called ‘Film Australia’, shooting some cinema shorts but mainly documentaries that took me all over the world. These were all filmed in 16mm and I chose to use a French camera, the NPR Eclair ((Noiseless Portable Reflex) with a Canon macro zoom, great for ease of use and especially for handholding holding without a tripod. I must have shot millions of feet of film on this camera all over the planet. Throughout the Pacific Islands, every Asian country, the Soviet Union, Paraguay, Mexico, New Guinea and of course many Australian locations. I’d unload the magazines every night and the film would be shipped to the great lab Colorfilm in Sydney. I’d get a negative report a few days later. The camera became my best friend … sort of?

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Having been a public servant for 12 years at the ABC and Film Australia with sick pay and holiday pay and security, I was a little apprehensive when I joined the ranks of freelance cinematographers in 1979. But shortly after started shooting feature films and was introduced to the greatest movie cameras and lenses ever made …. The name ‘Panavision’ the company in Hollywood that had been manufacturing and supplying the highest quality cameras and lenses for major movies since the 1950’s. Well I just thought I was the ‘Bees Knees’ and have now shot over 60 movies still using their cameras and lenses.

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In 2003 Panavision designed and built the first truly high quality full chip digital camera ‘The Genesis’ and I was lucky enough to pioneer it through several productions. The very first film shot in Hollywood was the Adam Sandler movie ‘Click’ then shortly after with Mel Gibson’s blessing I used it in Mexico for many months on his movie ‘Apocalypto’. We were concerned that the digital cameras which after all are sophisticated computers might suffer in the extreme weather conditions, but we had no problems in the gruelling temperatures and humidity….. well the humans did from time to time, but the cameras didn’t.

A huge advantage of shooting on this new state of the art camera, was that not like channel 9 days where a roll of film ran for two and a half minutes, the tape deck allowed us to shoot for fifty minutes. Saving a huge amount of time in reloading every day, And also great for actors who like to improvise and just keep the cameras rolling. Another big plus for me was the ability of the camera to ‘see in the dark’ … well almost. I was able to shoot for an extra hour or so in the dark, canopied jungle much later in the day, and especially to be able to film at night by fire light only … Wow!

Ok here’s another huge plus for digital shooting no need to package up thousands of feet of film every night and have it dispatched to the lab in Hollywood where in Mexico it would have been 4 or 5 days before we could get a report back. Nervous times… would there be focus or exposure problems … or contamination from the airport X-rays? After wrap each day we’d go straight to our mobile projection trailer and view the days work. Instead of what’s normally called ‘The Rushes’ or ‘The Dailies’ Mel names them ‘The Immediatelees’.

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I continued to shoot many more movies on this wonderful new camera and today other manufacturers have given cinematographers more choices in digital cameras. Film is still around but used by very few productions. Theatres now rarely project film and have converted to digital projection. If a tent pole movie was being released in 4000 theatres then that many prints would have to be made, now the average film length is about 10000 feet, so for 4000 prints, that would be 40 million feet …. a huge cost. In most cases only screened for a few weeks or months .. now its simply a hard drive and bingo!.

A few years ago after the huge success of ‘Avatar’ shooting 3d became a popular fad, basically a good money maker for studios. The camera rigs were naturally much bigger because two cameras were now needed, one for each eye to create the stereo effect and it was taking more time to set up each shot. Some of the rigs seemed truly quite cumbersome but because it was proving to be popular with audiences the studios kept making them. However at the same time some specialised digital houses were creating methods to convert conventional 2d movies into the 3d format, but it was very expensive and time consuming.

I was about to film ‘Maleficent’ at the legendary Pinewood studios in London with Angelina Jolie and the producers planned to shoot 3d. I thought it was worth at this stage screening some of the conversions that were underway, so a group of us were invited to a Burbank facility ‘Stereo D’ where we saw select scenes from ‘Titanic’ that were very impressive …. god knows how they did it, but we decided then to shoot ‘Maleficent’ in 2d and convert it to 3d in post production. As I said earlier, it would be expensive and take some time, a very slow process. I believe the cost was around Eight Million dollars then (it has come down a hell of a lot since then), but also to be considered is the extra time  taken every day to shoot with the complex 3d rigs and extra specialised crew to oversee the on set 3d capture. some estimates suggest an added 15 percent to the schedule and over an 80 day shoot that would add another 12 shooting days … that’s a lot of money.

In recent years, film equipment manufacturers have designed some extraordinary equipment, enabling cinematographers to create shots never been done before, here are just a few.

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Mobile camera car, able to safely capture exhilarating shots of fast moving vehicles with the lens screaming along inches above the road or sweeping up to high angles overhead. With a precise team of the driver, camera operator and crane operator all working from onboard monitors. Most car commercials and action chases in movies are filmed using these vehicles. 

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Fabulous stabilised aerial mount by ‘Spacecam’ able to house the full sized movie cameras, film or digital. Specialised pilots who fly the camera in sync with an onboard camera operator. 

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Telescoping supertechno cranes with reaches from 15 feet to 30 feet to 50 feet and this one with a colossal 100 foot reach. The cameras are all attached using remote stabilised heads. 

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Mobile night lighting rigs able to output hundreds of thousands of watts totally self contained with arms reaching to 100 feet. 

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Inflatable lighting helium balloons, great for studio and night lighting, especially a very efficient way to light in a large interior like a church. 

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Drones are being used a hell of a lot on reality shows but are now able to carry the larger chip digital cameras for feature films. I have just worked with a producer who refused us to fly the drone over people …. could be ugly if it fell out of the sky!

A VERY LONG LIST OF ACTORS PRAISE YOU AND FEEL PRIVILEGED TO WORK WITH YOU. WE’VE HEARD ANGELINA JOLIE SAYING:

“There is nothing more sacred on a film set than trust and Dean inspires the kind of trust that we all dream of. And because of that, artists often do their best work when they’re working with him.”Angelina Jolie

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS DYNAMIC AND HOW YOU PUT THE ACTORS AT EASE IN SUCH A WAY THAT ENCOURAGES THEIR GREATEST PERFORMANCES? 

There’s nothing mysterious or magical about making actors feel at ease. I hear stories about cinematographers or crew members who can be uptight distracting and arrogant on a set and although not deliberately they might show little consideration for others … not good. George Miller describes the ideal atmosphere on a set, particularly around camera as ‘A Circle of Grace’. I always encourage my crews to keep the noise down, communicate quietly, show respect and a little praise to others works wonders.

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My brilliant contented crew.

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE FEELINGS & WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU & THE INDUSTRY WHEN YOU WON SOME OF THE WORLDS MOST PRESTIGIOUS AWARDS, FOR EXAMPLE: WINNING AN OSCAR FOR DANCES WITH WOLVES, THE ASC AWARD, RECEIVING MEDALS FROM HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN AND MOST RECENTLY A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD PRESENTED BY ANGELINA. 

Firstly I’ll say that I am extremely lucky to have received any awards doing what I love doing every day … a great job. In the early 1970’s I had just become a proud new member of the prestigious Australian Cinematographers Society when I received my very first ACS award, a golden tripod, for a short documentary I had shot at film Australia. It was truly a most unexpected surprise. In the years that followed I was lucky enough to win a few more golden tripods for documentaries and small dramas.

In 1985 the Australian Film Institute honoured me with my very first feature film award for the thriller ‘Razorback’. As I was working my wife Annie flew to the ceremony in Melbourne, collected the trophy and the next day presented it to me in Sydney where I was shooting ‘Mad Max’ with George Miller.

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‘Dances with Wolves’ brought in many nominations and awards, and required Annie and I to spend several weeks in Hollywood during the celebratory season where there were awards presented almost every night for the various categories. Kodak gave me a beautiful glass ‘nominees’ award shaped like a burning flame.

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The American Society of Cinematographers gave me their feature award at a high gloss function at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel (Annie looked bloody spectacular).

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There I was the Aussie kid amongst the greatest cinematographers of all time … and I won? Amazing !

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I recently watched the bright eyed and bushy tailed ‘Mad Max Fury Road’ Australian nominees at the Oscars and shared in their excitement and anticipation, exactly as I had done on ‘Dances with Wolves’. For Annie and me it was an unforgettable night … a couple of young Australians from the other side of the world, sharing the surprises of the night with some of the greatest filmmakers and actors on the planet. I had just finished ‘City Slickers’ with Billy Crystal who was the host that night, one of the last true showmen …. it was great to see him again … making a classic entry on his horse.

On the morning of the Oscars, because of a total screw up from a Hollywood dress designer, Annie still did not have anything to wear and was a distraught screaming mess.

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She told me to go ahead and take someone else with me … some one young, pretty and who has got a dress ! Instead of slapping some sense into her, I dragged her into Rodeo Drive (possibly the most expensive shopping street in the world!) and we went shopping … well it didn’t take long … with a stunning new dress, shoes, handbag, jewellery, cape etc. she finally got her sexy self back together again, wearing a spectacular new outfit …. thank god.

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Walking together into the great hall and hearing the orchestra playing the movie themes was goose bump time…. any nerves and fears disappeared. Two thousand people all together as one, sharing the excitement, the winners, the losers, the presenters, the jokes… what a friggin night ! I have been criticised by several friends, especially Annie for leaping out of my seat like a startled rabbit when my name was called … Hey I was so bloody excited and still trying to remember by 45 seconds speech. Afterwards, Tom and Nicole were the first to congratulate me… whoo woo ! Lotsa champagne, dancing, parties and fun afterwards.

3_EPSON010-smReceiving the Oscar for Dances with Wolves.

4_EPSON017With Annie (The Blond Bombshell from Down Under) leaving the Academy Awards

You know, returning home to Australia, I didn’t realise how much this award would mean to my fellow countrymen… it was all a bit overpowering for me … The barrage of press interviews, a civic reception and a hell of a lot of ‘good onya mate’ from total strangers … so proud… so very proud.

A few years later I was absolutely stunned when I was told that her majesty, Queen Elizabeth had made me a member of the order of Australia in the New Years Honours list. Bestowing on me the title ‘AM’ after my name, for services to the arts … a wonderful ceremony with all of the expected pomp and pageantry held at Government House in Sydney.

5_EPSON019-smGovernment House ‘AM’ The Australian Medal from her majesty the Queen.

Then a year later I was honoured with the Centenary Medal… these two awards were not at all technical but genuinely chosen by my fellow Australian countrymen for another Aussie who seemed to be doing pretty well.

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Moving right along in the award department, brings me to the American Society of Cinematographer’s Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Angelina Jolie in 2013. This has to be the greatest award a cinematographer could ever reach for… I was shooting ‘Maleficent’ in London when I got a call from the president of the ASC telling me of the award… I thought it was someone pulling my leg … but as he said it is for your extensive body of work over 50 years … Ok … I’ll take it.

Another wonderful night with 1200 blokes in dinner suites and black ties and all the wives dressed in their absolute finest. Angelina was wonderful, very beautiful, very gracious and very flattering. Annie, my daughter Ingrid and her husband Danny all shared the night with me.

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The last, most unexpected and very special award came when I returned to Renmark in 2013 to spend time with the children of St. Joseph’s School who had written me letters and asked me to come back home and meet them all. A lot of old friends had gathered at the council chambers where the Mayor gave Annie and me a civic reception and presented a beautiful trophy, and the keys to Renmark. Totally unexpected … a wonderful surprise. I would never have imagined that after leaving the town in 196o that I’d be returning 53 years later to be honoured like this … I was very moved and very grateful.

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WE WATCHED THE DOCUMENTARY OF YOU RETURNING TO YOUR HOME TOWN IN RENMARK, AUSTRALIA. IT WAS SO MOVING TO SEE YOU MAKE SUCH A BIG EFFORT TO ENCOURAGE THOSE KIDS.  DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO SPEND MORE TIME DOWN UNDER ?

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As I pulled up outside the historic Renmark community hotel, I straight away could smell the earthy waters of the mighty Murray River, meandering it’s way through some of Australia’s greatest country. My very short stay of only 48 hours in the town would top the list of my very best days ever. I can only thank the class, 3 & 4 …. the 22 children from St. Joseph’s school for sending me their letters of congratulations and wishes which lured me back to my home town.

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I made a lot of new friends in a very short time and caught up with many old ones… school friends thats I hadn’t seen for over 50 years. A truly nostalgic weekend with a heap of emotional moments thrown in… old mates and old girlfriends… and a very special and most enjoyable day with the children and teachers at St. Josephs School.

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I would love to get down there again soon, but my overseas commitments make it fairly difficult. I wish, I wish, I wish .. One day it’ll happen. Dean Semler

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE THREE FILMS THAT YOU’VE EVER WORKED ON? 

The three favourite films that I worked on, not only as finished films, but also my day to day experiences in making them are:

• ‘Mad Max 2’ … 12 weeks in the spectacular desert near Broken Hill.
• ‘Dances with Wolves’ … 20 weeks and 3 seasons in South Dakota.
• ‘Apocalypto’ … 30 weeks in the steamy lush exotic jungles of Mexico.

All with extreme physical and climatic challenges but so damned enjoyable.

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR UP AND COMING PHOTOGRAPHERS AND CINEMATOGRAPHERS JUST STARTING OUT IN THE INDUSTRY ?

My advice to young potential cinematographers is to firstly learn a little about the fundamentals of the photochemical film process. I know its becoming extremely difficult, almost impossible to get access to a 16mm film camera, but they are still around and you can probably go begging and still get film stock through the few remaining film labs. Its really worth a try if you can … good luck!

However if not a film camera then go digital. I guess now most people have iPhones or some other brand allowing them to make movies. Experiment with composition, angles, colours, filters and especially lighting, either exterior or interior. See how under exposure and over exposer can affect your final image. There is no limit to the effects available using digital cameras. Watch your favourite films without sound, study the shots again and again.

Have fun developing your own style, and get your material out there to production companies, on youtube, knock on doors … keep knocking …. film schools are a great way to learn, but can be expensive or difficult to enter … my best advice is to try and attach yourself to a movie or music video or a commercial … you’ll meet crews and if you have potential you’ll be asked back. I have always included interns on my movies they have all worked their way up through the ranks, from loaders to focus pullers to operators and come of them now successful cinematographers. I wish you all the best in your pursuit of a new career … go for it … as my dear old father in law would always say “mad if you don’t”.

My daughter ingrid then … 

Ingiecam

and a few years later ….

INGIE-ON-'BRUCE'sm2

And a few more years later Ingrid and Danny’s daughter, our grand daughter, Tabby. Here’s a pic of her on set with Angie.

Angie-TabbyA moment with Angie

Tabby’s own Photography … Wow.

tabby-self-portrait

And finally who knows ? ….. 

Tabby-Oscar

 

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