Nov 16, 2013

I never set up a shot in the anamorphic format without thinking of Alan McCabe, and neither should you.

It can be both fun and informative—and how many things can you say that about—to try and trace the genealogy of a particular cinematic idea or element back to its source, and since the medium itself is only a little over a century old (and you can find anything on the internet), the process of discovery isn’t usually very lengthy. But some (important) things are difficult to quantify in terms that are searchable, because they involve a combination of effects that yield a certain, specific feeling or reaction. In GRAVITY, the rising crescendo with the hard cut out at the apex is a riff on the opening of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, but what do you call that, exactly, and if somebody did it before, who was it? One such search took me to the name Alan McCabe.

 Anamorphic lenses are a beautiful thing; their various technical anomalies are all aesthetic plusses in my book, and with the sensitivity of digital, the slowness of the lenses isn’t a factor anymore. Watching “scope” films as a young filmmaker and then making films in that format as an adult, I realized there was a certain kind of framing and staging--or rather, and certain kind of approach to framing and staging--that compelled me. So let’s draw a line between two examples I liked: CATCH-22 and JAWS. There are visual commonalities here, and why should that be? Well, first draw a line between Steven Spielberg and the Robert Wise version of THE HAUNTING, because it’s a Spielberg favorite (and clearly a huge visual influence) and then draw a line from THE HAUNTING to CATCH-22 because the camera operator on both was Alan McCabe. That’s relevant because under the British system during that period, the DP was also known as the “lighting cameraman”. This specific terminology was meant to reflect the working relationship on set: the lighting cameraman was assumed to be handling the light, and the camera operator was assumed to be handling the staging and composition of the shots in direct collaboration and consultation with the director. It was a position of real influence, and when you look at the visual connections between Wise’s THE HAUNTING, Tony Richardson’s MADEMOISELLE and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, Ken Russell’s THE BOY FRIEND, and Nichols’ CATCH-22, you see how Alan McCabe ended up as an impact on a lot of filmmakers with the initials SS. I can show you frames of THE HAUNTING that show up in JAWS, and frames from JAWS and THE HAUNTING and CATCH-22 that show up in HAYWIRE or MAGIC MIKE. It’s hard to describe in words what exactly makes Alan McCabe “Alan McCabe”, other than to say he was rarely interested in symmetry in an individual shot (too obvious?), but he was very interested in the symmetry of how those shots would look (and link) together. It’s obvious he was very jazzed about the new wide angle anamorphic lenses developed by Panavision and used for the first time on THE HAUNTING, because the compositions are spectacular and brand new (surely the close-focus capabilities of the new lenses provided some novel options, although Robert Gottschalk, the legendary head of Panavision, was so worried the lenses were being used prematurely he wanted written indemnification should they prove to be faulty).  The man had a unique eye, as evidenced by his--sometimes invisible but absolutely discernable--ongoing influence.

 So that’s why I can never set up a shot in the anamorphic format without thinking of Alan McCabe. I don’t know anything about him as a person. I was told by someone who worked with Mr. McCabe (and declared him “the best”) that he died in Los Angeles in the early 70s of a heart attack.