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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

TCM Presents Documentary "Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers"

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) presents the world premiere of Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers. The documentary will air on the classic film network November 6 as part of a month-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the American Society of Cinematographers.

If you love movies, especially classic ones, then you love cinematography, and you'll want to see this documentary. Image Makers tells the story of the earliest cinematographers who established the roots of what would become the visual language of cinema, as well as of those who built upon that foundation. These "camera men" developed a skill that started without any guidance, with makeshift apparatuses, and handcrafted equipment. With each passing year they created cinematic practices, shaped them, and perfected them into standards that are still used today. They pioneered and advanced an art form one image at a time. The film documents some the most pivotal personalities in filmmaking, including trailblazing cameramen Billy Blitzer (Intolerance), Rollie Totheroh (City Lights), Charles Rosher (Sunrise), William Daniels (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Karl Struss, and James Wong Howe (Hud), and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).

Produced and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Daniel Raim, the film is produced much in the same style of his previous, documentary, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. Many of the moments that could not have possibly been photographed in the age that they actually occurred are dramatized through still cartoon drawings. This is a device of which I am not terribly fond. I suppose this is used to break up the talking heads and period photographs, but I tend to find it a cheat for working around a lack of content. I have no solution for such a dilemma, but it does bother me. And yet, the rest of the film provides insightful commentary through interviews with renown experts, and offers extraordinary vintage photographs of the players at work in their day.

Written by movie critic and author Michael Sragow (Marvel mon amour) the scenario is straight forward, cohesive and easy to follow as the development of the art form is tracked by a series of cinematographers who advanced the craft person by person, film by film. Sragow demonstrates a keen knowledge of the subject and the storyline reflects his informed sensibilities. It's hard to image a more informed writer conveying the vast information in a more concise manner. Although, I wonder if the still cartoons were his idea. If so, that does detract from my admiration for his abilities. None the less, the story is otherwise told in the best presentation possible, and deserves credit for the research needed for such an in-depth project.

The story line is guided by the off screen narration of acclaimed actor Michael McKean (Better Call Saul, This is Spinal Tap), and the onscreen narrative of Honorary Academy Award recipient Kenneth Brownlow (for his work as a film preservationist). McKean's voice offers an authoritative voice that provides the researched information, while Brownlow expresses an off-the-cuff admiration with such spontaneous enthusiasm for the cinematic history in every way, shape, and form. Just as McKean evokes reverence through the cadence of his voice, Brownlow's marvelous expressions reveal not only his passion for the art form but the impression of the magnitude of one achievement after another. And although we do not see him as much as Brownlow, the legendary Leonard Maltin (author of the book The art of the Cinematographer) is terrific! He is so incredibly knowledgable and literally beams with excitement when talking about the history of cinematography and the advancements made by the prominent cameramen who pushed the envelope again and again.

TCM is justifiably excitement about the upcoming airing sharing this comment, “The first cinematographers helped invent filmmaking as we now know it today, yet their stories are mostly unknown. Image Makers shows us how they overcame many obstacles to create the technology and techniques we now take for granted, while it entertains us with the personal adventures of these distinctive characters,” said Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM. “We’re proud to be working with Daniel Raim again, one of the best at making films about the art of cinema—this is the perfect way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers.”

The director added, “When the America Society of Cinematographers provided me with access to never-before-heard interviews with pioneer cameramen, I knew that with archival materials and original artwork, I could make viewers feel as if they’re right behind the camera with these extraordinary artists and craftsmen,” said producer, director and editor Daniel Raim. “ What I didn’t know was how moving it would be to get into the mind of trailblazers from Billy Bitzer to James Wong Howe and to recreate how they discovered new ways of looking at the world. I am honored to partner with TCM and I am thrilled to present this jaw-dropping story to TCM audiences.”

The history of cinematography is absolutely fascinating. Cinematography is a mystery to most, and often misunderstood, let alone under appreciated as a contributing factor for the success of a film. Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers does a tremendous job of rectifying that status. Don't miss this opportunity to gain a better understanding of the specialized skill and artistry of the cinema's greatest component in making the films that have impressed the world since the birth of the movies.


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