Camerimage Interview: Cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball

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With a list of credits that range from True Romance to Mission: Impossible II to The Expendables, cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball attended this year’s Camerimage Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland to showcase the new 3D version of one of his famous efforts with longtime collaborator Tony Scott, Top Gun. ComingSoon.net was there and sat down with the filmmaking legend to discuss his years in the business, the changes his seen in his field over the years and where he’d like to see himself headed next.

If you missed them, be sure to check out our previous Camerimage interviews here and look for more in the days to come.

CS: What has it been like having the chance to look back on your career here at Camerimage?
Jeffrey Kimball:
It’s okay. You know? I live my career and my career is my life. I’m possessed with it. I don’t really have any hobbies, so to speak, because for years and years I’ve been doing this. I started out in TV commercials and viewed myself as a commercial photographer. That’s the way I grew up, as a commercial still photographer and then as a movie photographer. I’m pretty much proud of everything I’ve been able to do and looking forward to my next big project, whatever that happens to be. I hope one shows up!

CS: What gets you excited for a project?
Kimball:
I kind of prefer little bit offbeat projects, I think. One of my favorites was “Revenge” with Anthony Quinn and Kevin Costner. I like “The Expendables,” which I did with Sylvester Stallone. He’s a very creative director. Real creative director. I liked Sly a lot. Also, I like to blow stuff up.

CS: We all like it when stuff blows up.
Kimball:
That’s what I mean! That’s really good fun.

CS: Can you talk about building a bond with a director? You’ve worked John Woo and the late Tony Scott on multiple occasions.
Kimball:
Each director is different. One of things I noticed that fluctuates in the job of a cinematographer is what somebody wants from you. It’s always different what the director is looking for in a lot of ways. For instance, John Woo’s background was as a choreographer in the early days. He’s very into the camera moves and how the camera moves. In terms of other things, he never said anything to me. We’d speak about the emotional content of what he’s interested in and we’d go from there.

CS: When you have a potential director that you’ve never worked with before, is it a matter of looking at their past films or is it actually meeting them and getting to know there personality that lets you know that he or she is someone you want to work with?
Kimball:
I think a lot of it is the things they’ve done, but personality always goes into it. I’ve been on lots of interviews where they haven’t asked me to do their project. It’s very much like doing any kind of interview. You don’t always know what to say to them.

CS: What would you say has changed the most for you artistically over the years?
Kimball:
I’d say the biggest change I’ve seen is that there’s less interest in having a real high quality for what the images look like. The digital thing has come on so strong that I hear now from people, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it in post!” or “That light stand in there? Don’t take the time to fix it. Just get on with it.” That sort of approach. That’s very different. As a cinematographer — a film cinematographer — we really tried to clean everything up and make each photograph basically as perfect as you could get it. There wasn’t much you could do by way of alteration without spending a lot of money. I think that’s the biggest change I’ve seen.

CS: How do you feel about shooting on celluloid versus shooting digitally?
Kimball:
Oh, I’m a film guy. I’ve been doing this for 40-some odd years, probably. I’ve recently been doing the digital, though, and I like it okay. I’ve mainly been pursuing it because I’m interested in staying up to date and seeing what it’ll do. I’ve done some projects on the original RED camera. I’m always curious about where the technology is. I’ve shot on the Alexa. That stuff is pretty good. I like to go out and work. I’m at an age where, if it’s not a good movie, it doesn’t really interest me. I like to do the occasional music video if they’ve got one. They’re fun to do. The crew is really big for me. Like I said, I have no real other hobbies over the last 40 or so years. I like to be on the set with the guys. There’s a real camaraderie.

CS: I know that camaraderie can really form when you’re on interesting locations. Do you have some favorites from the films you’ve worked on?
Kimball:
In my life in general, show people interest me. A lot of other kinds of people — my neighbors and things — don’t interest me. They bore me. It’s very much like being in the circus. I could just find parallel after parallel about the circus. That’s what we’re involved in. It’s the kind of characters that many people just wouldn’t go for. If you don’t have the personality for it or if you don’t like all the aspects of travel and the camaraderie that you have with the gang — You have recurring relationships that are sometimes hard on a movie. You have a relationship with people for a long time and you hate to say goodbye to these people. These people that you’re close to, they enter your life and then they disappear. And then, through the years, they keep kind of coming back. They show up again. You get to know quite a few people. I enjoy that.

CS: As a cinematographer, do you have the opportunity to interact with other people in your profession much outside events like Camerimage?
Kimball:
No, the only other opportunity that I really have to see other cinematographers is my relationship in the ASC. I’m a member of the ASC. You can see them there but, other than that, there’s almost no contact. I’ve always tried to come at it from a fairly artistic point of view and, if the story is inspiring, it’ll inspire your artistic side to come out. I started as a still photographer.

CS: Is it the same artistic mindset for still photography?
Kimball:
It is for me. I’m a little less technical than some people. Some cinematographers come from a very technical place. My background is more as a musician and as a still photographer. I probably come at it a little bit different. There’s always real brilliant, qualified, technical people that can help me if I don’t know something.

CS: What kind of music do you play?
Kimball:
I put myself through college as a bass player and basically a jazz musician in the early ’60s. For the jazz musicians of the time, your future was basically to be a junior high school band teacher when you finished or a heroin addict. There was no money it. Music is a wonderful thing but, unless you’re really brilliant — and even the best jazz players I knew didn’t really have a — I like my family life. Working as a musician, you’re working nights all the time and you’re really not making any money. But I started out as a photographer in high school and junior high school. I was an 8mm moviemaker for fun. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized you could actually make a living doing that. Like I said, I played while I was in college but, as soon as I had the opportunity, I left and went to work for Warner Bros. I went to all the different studios to try and get a job in the movie business. I grew up in Texas so I had no idea how to do it. I did land a job with Warner Bros. as a cartoon booker. I didn’t really know how to get where I wanted to be at that time. I was 22 years old or something. They hired me as a cartoon booker. Back in the day, someone would call in and say, “On December 22nd, I need a “Road Runner” cartoon,” and you’d have to put it in a big book. “Emporia, Kansas Theater” and the shipping department would ship them a big can of prints of “Road Runner” cartoons. I’d just keep track of all those prints. I lasted about six, seven, eight months, going to work every day with a tie. A big room with fluorescent lights and a desk. But all the time I was coming to work and going to work, I was looking at the backlot. That’s where I wanted to be. After that, I went and started my career as a professional photographer. I was an apprentice to an old-time still photographer named Bill Langley. He was an old guy then, out of the thirties. I’d light his cigars. He was 75, 76. Somewhere like that. I’d light his cigars, drive him to the gig and focus his camera for him. We weren’t that busy and he just taught me the rest of the time like an apprentice. I went to New York for a time and worked in the fashion business for about a year.

CS: Camerimage is showcasing “Top Gun,” which is definitely an enduring film to this day. Do you have a favorite project that maybe you’d like for people to rediscover?
Kimball:
I may have mentioned “Revenge.” I liked that picture a lot. I like “Stigmata.” You know, I’ve never really done a picture that I wasn’t fully into, so I like all of them. People ask me, “What’s your favorite?” Certainly, I have my favorite associations, like with Tony Scott. He was maybe my favorite professional guy in the world. Wonderful, wonderful guy. We had a lot of fun together. A lot of fun together.

CS: Do you know what’s next for you?
Kimball:
No, I don’t. I really don’t. I have some inquiries for after the first of the year. My wife would just as soon me not do anything. She thinks it’s about time for me to hang it up, but I don’t really have any other interests. I’m always looking. Time passes and opportunities pass. That’s one of the reasons, besides the technical aspects, that I like music videos. It give me a chance to get out there and mess with all the newest equipment. I like going to work. I like to go up and see all my mates and see if we can’t make anything cool happen.