Bill Dill, ASC: On Learning Cinematography

Bill Dill, ASC is professor and head of the cinematography department at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has also taught cinematography at the University of Southern California and at the American Film Institute. Dill began his career working at television stations around the country. He was at ground zero during the MTV revolution, which led to work with Robert Townsend (The Five Heartbeats) in commercials and on high-end music videos for artists including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, etc.

Dill sat down with Kodak to discuss his career and how it informs his philosophies on the importance of shooting film in learning the art and craft of telling stories with moving pictures. Following is a Q&A excerpt of the conversation:

Q: Tell me about your educational experience, and how it shaped your approach to teaching filmmaking. How did you learn filmmaking?

DILL: When I was an undergrad at Oberlin College in Ohio, I worked one semester of my sophomore year at a community organization in Rochester, New York. They needed someone to create a photographic record of what they were doing. I had always been interested in still photography, but this was like throwing gasoline on a fire. Subsequently I did a semester at Carnegie Mellon University, where they had an MFA program in filmmaking, and I worked at a television station in Pittsburgh. They made the National Geographic documentary films, and I had that chance to work with some top-notch documentary cameramen. When I got back to Oberlin, I changed my major to Communication Studies – the closest thing they had to filmmaking.

Q: How did you make the transition to professional?

DILL: After I left Oberlin, I worked for a number of television stations doing a lot of documentary, magazine-format television work. These shows have a voracious appetite. I was shooting mostly film. Then digital came along – but it wasn’t called digital then, it was called video which is what it still is. But I guess the word ‘video’ has bad connotations; it doesn’t sound high tech enough. I wanted to see the country and learn something about every region I could go to, so I worked in Kansas City and in Greensboro, North Carolina, and other places. I thought I wanted to go to graduate school at New York University, so I got a job at a television station there, and then I got a job at CBS working as a cameraman. I talked to the people at NYU, but I discovered that their program was not what I wanted.

Q: So what did you decide to do instead of grad school?

DILL: I started to shoot. I decided to find other filmmakers in New York and to go out and make movies. I started working with a lot of young folks at MTV. I bought myself a camera, one of the first Betacams in New York. MTV used a lot of little films as interstitial programming, and a lot of great people came out of that – Mark Pellington, Ted Demme, lots of talent. And it was fun, with no rules. That led to making music videos.

Q: How did you transition to narrative work?

DILL: I got an opportunity to shoot a movie called Sidewalk Stories. It’s mentioned in John Pearson’s book about that era, called ‘Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes.’ She’s Gotta Have It came out, and Sex, Lies and Videotape. It was an amazing period and some astounding stuff was going on in filmmaking. I was right in the middle of all that. Then I met Robert Townsend and I did a number of HBO specials with him. We did The Five Heartbeats, a feature film, and then I moved to the west coast. I worked on a wide range of projects, including commercials, and I hopped back and forth between New York and Los Angeles.

Q: Around that time, you began to segue into teaching. How did that come about?

DILL: Well, I needed to settle in, and to be honest, I hit the glass ceiling at that time. I’m a black cinematographer, and they tended to look at you and say, ‘OK, you can shoot black films.’ I had a lot of work available and I was making a lot of money, but I was not born to convince young black men to drink alcohol-fortified beer in 40-ounce bottles (laughs). A very well-known commercial producer was offended when I said, ‘I’m not quite sure why you’re only hiring me to shoot black things.’ He seemed to think I should be grateful to be shooting anything. Truth is, I don’t feel grateful. I do feel fortunate, but that’s different. For years, my reaction would be to work harder. But I decided I needed to find a place to plant my flag, a place where I could maintain my integrity. So I thought, ‘OK, education.’

Q: Once you had decided, how did you go about making that happen?

DILL: One day, Woody Omens, ASC, whom I knew through the American Society of Cinematographers, walked up to me and said, ‘You should teach.’ Just like that. Woody is just a remarkable human being. He is one of the most insightful, kind and generous human beings I know, and relentlessly so. I owe a lot of my thought process to Woody. Through him, I started teaching at USC (University of Southern California), and he was very clever. He made sure that I was teamed with other exceptional teachers. That’s how I learned to teach. Sometimes I’d go to their classes to sit and watch. I developed a love for the process of teaching, and for how subtle it can be. It was helpful to have spent so much time and hard work as a cinematographer.

Q: What brought you to the American Film Institute?

DILL: USC was great, but I wanted to teach in a more specialized, high intensity, rigorous kind of way. I had an opportunity to teach a single class at AFI. It was open, and the students were monumentally talented. I make an analogy to a fire hose: You turn on the hydrant and that hose starts flying everywhere. My job was to get them to pick that hose up and point it, focus it, discipline it, and direct it themselves, in order to tell a story.

Q: Is it important that students learn on film? Why?

DILL: Yes, for a number of reasons. You have to understand digital technology, but the problem is that digital, in and of itself, doesn’t have a history of discipline yet. There isn’t the kind of community of practice that there is in film. There is not the level of discipline and rigor that is cultural in film. It’s not cultural in digital.

Q: And that discipline helps make better filmmakers? … Why is it important that students learn to make movies on film?

DILL: For a number of reasons. They have to understand digital technology, but it doesn’t have the same level of discipline that is part of the culture of filmmaking. You’re not looking for the lowest common denominator and thinking of your image as disposable. I’m not saying that it’s a fait accompli that everything you are doing will be significant or important. What I am saying is that you strive for excellence. Film has a culture of excellence surrounding it. It’s not because cinematographers expect to make a whole bunch of money, or get recognition and accolades, because it’s not necessarily forthcoming. Striving for excellence is simply endemic to the culture. It’s the result of years and years of striving for excellence, which provides context for comparing your work with other cinematographers, and asking whether it has stood the test of time. It grows out of how you feel about that movie that was made 40 years ago, in terms of the quality of the work and the artistic intensity of the aspiration. It’s what you aspire to achieve. I’m not trying to play the Luddite mentality. I’m not saying that at all. My first card in the union was as a video controller in Local 644 in New York and I bought one of the earliest Betacams. I understand it quite well. I try to use the advantages of each, but what film has to offer is this fundamental integrity.

Q: What’s your take on the idea that inexpensive video cameras allow filmmakers to become auteurs, without the need to for collaborators?

DILL: Any complex undertaking requires a group of skills that rarely reside in a single person. In addition to that, the advantage of the collaborative process is that you have lots of great ideas coming from a number of different directions. The implication that if the equipment changes, the human interaction will change, is wrong. I don’t know that you find human personality and human character so easily molded. Filmmaking is a group endeavor and it always has been and it always will be. Art tends to come from a concentrated effort. It’s an intense experience that comes from many minds feeding into the creation of the end result. That is by far more a determining factor of how we will make movies than mere mechanics.

Q: Do you have any examples of students who illustrate the advantages of learning within this film culture?

DILL: Yes, I recently had as a student, Matyas Erdely, who is just a spectacularly gifted cinematographer. And if you look at his still photography, you can see that he brings that into any lens that is in front of his face. You can see that same subtlety of lighting, control of color, the kind of soft, aerially diffused imagery that is just a part of this guy’s aesthetic. It doesn’t make any difference what he’s shooting. But that is a classically filmic approach, and you can see it no matter what he’s shooting. Last year, I had a student at Chapman named Andrew Davis who won the ASC Student Award. If you look at that kid’s work – this is what I’m after – you can put anything in front of him and there will still be this underlying visual intensity and integrity to anything he shoots. And that comes out of that culture of excellence that has grown up around shooting film over the decades.