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Gary Alper

Gary Alper

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A versatile cinematographer, native Texan John A Alonzo began his career at a Dallas television station where he created the character of Senor Turtle for a local children's show. When he brought the tortoise to Hollywood, he found the West Coast inimical to the program and fell back on acting after its cancellation. Although he appeared in "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and had bigger roles in lesser films like "The Long Rope" (1961) and "Terror at Black Falls" (1962), Alonzo soon found his acting taking a back seat to the still photography that was paying the bills in between parts. He began to devote himself to the study of cinematography, favoring the work of such standards of excellence as Walter Strenge, Floyd Crosby, Winton Hoch and James Wong Howe. In fact, it was Howe who gave him his big break as a camera operator on John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" (1966) as well as sponsoring him for union membership (seconded by Frankenheimer). In short order, Alonzo got his first job as director of photography on Roger Corman's "Bloody Mama" (1970).Alonzo's experience as a documentary filmmaker in the late 60s prepared him for his collaboration with Corman, who was also a fast worker. He scored points...

A versatile cinematographer, native Texan John A Alonzo began his career at a Dallas television station where he created the character of Senor Turtle for a local children's show. When he brought the tortoise to Hollywood, he found the West Coast inimical to the program and fell back on acting after its cancellation. Although he appeared in "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and had bigger roles in lesser films like "The Long Rope" (1961) and "Terror at Black Falls" (1962), Alonzo soon found his acting taking a back seat to the still photography that was paying the bills in between parts. He began to devote himself to the study of cinematography, favoring the work of such standards of excellence as Walter Strenge, Floyd Crosby, Winton Hoch and James Wong Howe. In fact, it was Howe who gave him his big break as a camera operator on John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" (1966) as well as sponsoring him for union membership (seconded by Frankenheimer). In short order, Alonzo got his first job as director of photography on Roger Corman's "Bloody Mama" (1970).

Alonzo's experience as a documentary filmmaker in the late 60s prepared him for his collaboration with Corman, who was also a fast worker. He scored points with the producer-director for his willingness to climb on ladders to adjust lights (in violation of union rules) and his ability to shoot hand-held footage that the camera operator could not (also in defiance of union rules). Building on that start, he added to his reputation for swiftness with the actioner "Vanishing Point" and Hal Ashby's cult favorite "Harold and Maude" (both 1971) before teaming for the first time with mentor Martin Ritt on "Sounder" (1972). His decision to shoot the opening coon hunt at night instead of as day-for-night and his use of hidden lamps to provide a flare of light here and there added a certain excitement to the proceedings and helped establish the lyrical quality the director was after. Otherwise, he just provided as natural a light as possible and allowed the actors' behavior and the artwork to sell the "period."

"Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) gave him the opportunity to go for more lighting effects, adding color for the nightclub scenes and using a fog filter to get a sense of period, as well as experimenting for the first time with smoke effects (colored smoke whenever possible). "Chinatown" (1974) paired him with director Roman Polanski, who psyched everybody involved into functioning at maximum efficiency in their contributions to the masterpiece. Alonzo actually inherited the plum assignment from Stanley Cortez, whose refusal to shoot Faye Dunaway without diffusion angered Polanski and cost him the job. He sold the director on the use of an anamorphic 40mm lens (often even in close-up), teaching Polanski a great deal about composition within that aspect ratio of 2.35 to 1. "You don't have to fill the edges of the screen. You do it with lighting if you want to fill the edges, or let the edges go . . . a D.W. Griffith kind of bright center and dark toward the edges." For his efforts on this film noir classic, Alonzo received his (to date) sole Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

Alonzo joined the all-star list of directors of photography (i.e., Laszlo Kovacs, William A Fraker and Vilmos Zsigmond) on Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and continued collaborating whenever possible with Ritt. He made a competent, though overlooked, directorial debut with the anarchic, pre-"WKRP" radio station comedy, "FM" (1978) and directed four CBS-TV movies from 1979-80 on which he also handled the cinematography. The cost-conscious Alonzo has always refused to use extra lights just because he can, and producers and directors know that he is not fooling around "when I suddenly say to them I need $55,000 today for lighting." Ritt's "Norma Rae" featured 99 percent hand-held camerawork, and despite the lighting problems inherent in such shooting, he traveled to locations without a generator, taking four electricians and four grips. "The only thing I fight for in a budget is the crew's salary."

"Cross Creek" (1983) marked his seventh and final film with Ritt, and though he has continued to work steadily, he has not found anyone else with whom he has established a comparable chemistry. Alonzo has provided valuable assistance to first-time directors like Richard Pryor ("Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" 1986) and Charles Matthau ("The Grass Harp" 1995), though no amount of help could save Rip Torn's disastrous "The Telephone" (1988). His best pictures in the late 80s were arguably Garry Marshall's comedies "Nothing in Common" (1986) and "Overboard" (1987), though a case might be made for Herbert Ross' "Steel Magnolias" (1989). His projects in the 90s have included Ralph Bakshi's disappointing live-action/animated feature "Cool World" (1992) and the far more successful "Star Trek: Generations" (1994). He recently helped provide the top-notch look of John McNaughton's period gangster movie "Lansky" (HBO, 1999), starring Richard Dreyfuss.

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CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
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