Looking back on how cinematographer Caleb Deschanel brought his name to life and helped create a new modern Hollywood.
Hollywood can feel like a small town in many ways. Sure, Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the world, and the famous neighborhood has long been known as the hotbed of the global film industry. However, when you trace back all the names and faces from the very beginning to contemporary culture, it's fascinating how many of these names keep popping up.
An example that many may not realize is that Emily and Zooey Deschanel are the daughters of Mary Jo Deschanel and acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. And while there is certainly a lot of talent in front of the camera in the family, Deschanel's work behind the scenes has been fairly extensive and hugely influential not just for his family name but for the entire Hollywood film scene.
So let's take a moment to take a look at the career of Caleb Deschanel, a six-time Oscar nominated cinematographer, member of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, and the DP behind many classics like The Right Stuff. The Natural, The Passion Of The Christ And Jack Reacher.
Do what you love
I hope I never get to the point where I'm so involved in the filmmaking process that I don't like going to the cinema anymore. Because to be honest, I like going to the cinema every year and seeing lots and lots of films.
There is a lot to be said about the artist who can still appreciate the art even beyond the form. This is especially true for film as it is easy to get involved in the actual practice of filmmaking and to lose interest in the film itself. While others may be burned out after 40+ years of work, the fact that Deschanel can still get so drawn into movies that he can completely ignore the technical and critical aspects speaks volumes to his passion.
And when we look at Deschanel's career, it's really the passion that remains constant throughout. As a young man who first appeared on the scene and took additional photos for George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and John Cassavetes, it was no surprise that he discovered both a love of the craft and a keen eye for storytelling the camera.
The highly technical exploits of old Hollywood
There are many films in Deschanel's filmography that are worth highlighting, but it may be fitting that we start with one of his very first feature films – The Black Stallion. If we watch the trailer above, we can see Deschanel establishing himself in the classic Hollywood style of the time while taking on the New Hollywood aesthetic that would soon emerge thanks to contemporaries like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Barry Levinson.
These early Deschanel films are not DIY indies or small human studies. Instead, he was hired to create large images that deal with large subjects and cover a wide range of emotions and set pieces. The Black Stallion in particular has some impressive racing sequences, tracking shots by the sea and some hard-to-reach camera movements that would define a whole career for Deschanel for technical reasons.
For those interested in a career in cinematography (or in film in general), I highly recommend doing the interview above to learn step by step how Deschanel broke into the industry and his craft over the course of the year Years has developed.
Although there are many success stories to be heard and emulated, many of Deschanel's points in the interview return to a willingness to progress, an openness to new possibilities and connections, and a real attitude towards learning and developing his craft. Times change.
You can see how his early work on films like Being There, The Black Stallion, and The Natural contrasts sharply with his later work on more star and action-oriented films like The Patriot, National Treasure, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
The importance of climatic moments
One business card to pursue throughout Deschanel's career is his uncanny ability to bring big moments in the climax of a movie to life. From a film theoretical point of view, the hero's journey and the narrative plot of a film really depends on how well the climate sequence is filmed and delivered. If a movie is not made with precision and empathy, it can often fall flat and quickly out of memory. However, if done well, a powerful climax with stunning graphics can secure a movie's place as one of the greats.
In almost every Deschanel film you will find intense climatic endings. He was actually behind the lens for one of the most famous movie highlights in cinema history – the iconic "Final Home Run" sequence from The Natural (see above).
A digital future for the next generation
In the conversation above, which also includes fellow cameramen Robert Richardson and Roger Deakins, Deschanel shares his thoughts on the future of film after working on Disney's photorealistic computer-animated remake of The Lion King.
He alludes to the fact that these new digital landscapes and streaming-focused productions need to be supported by an even newer generation of filmmakers and DPs who are ready to develop, explore, and eventually adopt their own legacy – just like Deschanel when I started in Hollywood.
For more profiles and insights into cameramen, check out these inspirational articles.
Cover picture via IMDb.