JOHN ALONZO

Born: 12 June 1934, Dallas, Texas, USA, as John A. Alonzo, son of migrant workers from Mexico. Spent his early childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Died: 13 March 2001, Beverly Hills, Calif., USA.

Career: In the early 1950s worked as camera pusher, c.op and dir at WFAA-TV, a NBC affiliate in Dallas. Moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and hosted a children's show on local tv which featured Señor Turtle, a character he had created for a show in Dallas. When the show was cancelled after a short run, he turned to acting. Became a doc cameraman for Wolper Productions. Went into feature films as c.asst with doph Winton Hoch and Gene Polito, but got his big break from James Wong Howe, who made him his co-c.op on 'Seconds'. Producer-director Roger Corman gave him his first feature credit as doph with 'Bloody Mama'.

Ph commercials.

Debut as director in October 1977 with 'FM/Citizens' Band'.

Was a member of the ASC since November 1972.

Appeared in the doc's 'Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography' [1991] & 'The Man Who Shot Chinatown: The Life and Work of John A. Alonzo' [2006, Axel Schill; ph: Volker Gläser; 78m].

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Awards: 'Oscar' AA nom [1975] & BAFTA Film Award nom [1975] for 'Chinatown'; 'Emmy' Award nom [1994] for 'World War II: When Lions Roared' [Part II]; 'Emmy' Award nom [1999] for 'Lansky'; 'Emmy' Award [2000; shared] for 'Fail Safe'.



John Galt: John, your credits include over 50 feature films. Today I would like to talk to you about your first digital high definition drama shoot ['World War II: When Lions Roared'].

John Alonzo: Forget about the credits, what's important is this 'new toy', as I call it. The HDC-500 High Definition Camera is possibly the most exciting camera I've ever used. I know it sounds cliché, but to me it really is exciting.

I love the format. It's not much different from shooting 2.35 or 1.85. I had fun applying motion picture style lighting to this system. It was like going back to school again. It certainly provides a broader canvas for the artist, and, of course, the instant gratification wherein you can see the crystal clear picture on a monitor as you line up the shot. It's like having a light meter and laboratory right there on screen. I found I had several new colleagues that I normally wouldn't have on film - namely, a systems engineer, a video technician and a tape operator.

I first worked with this camera over a year and a half ago in Orlando, Florida. Sony was kind enough to invite me to play with it. Not knowing anything about it and not knowing any better for that matter, I pushed the camera to its limits. I used it very much like a movie camera. I exposed it, underexposed it and discovered that it could do some wonderful things that film can't do. […] I think among a lot of my colleagues, there has always been some apprehension with video systems. Electronic engineering is so foreign to us and complex that we're intimidated. Here is a system that has the equivalent exposure index of 500 to 2000 - a tremendous speed. So I said to myself "with this new tool, how or what should I prepare for?" You would expect me to say that I prepared by looking at a lot of photographs and research on World War II - that I tested lenses, but I didn't do that. Instead, I picked everyone's brain in Sony's world of engineering. Not just to find out why certain thinks work in this camera, but why the electronics do what they do - mostly to find out where your men and their minds were in respect to the aesthetics and the kind of lighting that should be done.

Now to make me feel a little more comfortable, I did ask Sony to give us a follow focus at the lens which is more traditional with a movie camera - although I do like the idea that the assistant can also go back to the truck and follow focus from the truck. […]

Sometimes in confined areas, it was awkward for our assistant to follow focus. So following focus from the truck camera was terrific. We gave the finder a position on the side as well as on top, which made a big difference to the camera operator. Another advantage over an optical viewfinder is that you don't have your head attached to an eyepiece. It gives you a lot more freedom to see beyond and around as you're operating the camera. We also have a finder to which you may attach yourself if you needed to. Another modification was the use of matte boxes for filtration - although I soon discovered I didn't need much filtration. I tested ultra-cons. We had some pro-mists, I think we used a warm pro-mist once or twice. A lot of thought went into this, and I kept saying to myself, "Wait a minute. If this is the sharpest most resolved image today, then why am I degrading it? Does the story call for it?" If the story called for us to diffuse it and muddy it up and make it sort of documentary or romantic, whatever the word is, then we probably shouldn't be using this system. [...] I have a theory. I don't really think that the world of film and high definition are going to conflict for a long time, if ever. I don't think one replaces the other. They each have their purpose for specific kind of stories.

Galt: One of the reasons I believe that they decided to use this technology was that there would be some fairly elaborate blue screen and motion control photography. Normally, that kind of process is handled by a specialist. The first unit sort of steps back; but in this case, you did all of the blue screen lighting and you - with the exception of the motion control specialist - and your normal crew did everything.

Alonzo: That's something that my colleagues should be aware of. That is the total control that the director of photography has over that aspect of a project when using high def. When we had the plate to play back to, we were able to balance the picture so perfectly that the producer had no questions about it. It was exactly what it was going to look like. On film, when you do blue screen, it's more complicated. Usually, you have a visual effects supervisor there whose total concentration is strictly on the blue screen, and the cameraman loses a bit of control. [From interview with John Galt, Director of Creative Services Sony High Definition Center, in the Summer 1994 issue of 'Operating Cameraman'.]

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The Man Who Did Things Differently in 'Chinatown'

When the director Roman Polanski replaced the 66-year-old cinematographer Stanley Cortez with 40-year-old John Alonzo on 'Chinatown', it reflected a change in Hollywood in the 1970s. Polanski found the old-guard methods of Cortez - renowned for having photographed 'The Magnificent Ambersons' and 'The Night of the Hunter' - much too slow and meticulous.

Alonzo, who has died aged 66, had worked in television. His first feature as cinematographer had been Roger Corman's low-budget 'Bloody Mama' [1969], and he knew how to work quickly under pressure. He was one of the new breed of filmmakers, willing to adapt to new techniques and more location filming.

On 'Chinatown', he had to shoot in color, but in a way that often suggested monochrome. Afterwards, he recalled: "Roman said, 'Johnny, please no diffusion on the lens; I don't want a Hollywood look.' So I borrowed an idea that the great Jimmy Wong Howe had told me about. I used Chinese tracing paper to shift the light and color, so that it turned beige and gold. Roman liked it." Alonzo was Oscar-nominated for his work on Polanski's neo-noir masterpiece. His use of soft focus and saturated color to convey the look of 1930s Los Angeles was much imitated.

Wong Howe helped Alonzo by making him second camera operator on John Frankenheimer's 'Seconds', which created a nightmarish atmosphere with a series of distorting lenses.

At the time, he had been working as an actor. Born in Dallas, of Mexican parents, Alonzo spent much of his childhood in Mexico, and first appeared in the movies in the bit part of a peasant in 'The Magnificent Seven'. He continued to play Latino stereotypes in other films, before deciding to work behind the camera.

Aside from Wong Howe, his mentor was director Martin Ritt, with whom he worked on seven pictures, including 'Conrack' and 'Norma Rae'. However, the liberal and literal-minded Ritt was not a visual stylist, and Alonzo's contribution was more distinctive on atmospheric thrillers such as Dick Richards's 'Farewell, My Lovely' and Brian De Palma's 'Scarface'.

In 1977, he directed his only feature, 'FM', a sympathetic look at radio disc jockeys blasting out familiar rock songs, although he did direct a few television movies.

Last year, Alonzo, who always kept abreast of the times, was referring to digital film-making as "a new partner, a new tool, a new paint brush, a new everything." As cinematographer on the excellent TV movie 'Fail Safe' [1999], he chose to shoot in a digital medium because, "there are things that cannot be done in a film lab, things that mathematics can't do, but digital can. You can isolate a frame, change the color if you want, paint it differently and have the results right there to see."

Alonzo, who is survived by his wife Jan Murray, was the first Mexican-American to be admitted to the American Society of Cinematographers. [By Ronald Bergan in 'The Guardian', Wednesday 9 May 2001.]



 FILMS

1964

The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes [Robert Clouse] c; short/22m

1967

San Sebastian 1746 in 1968[Floyd L. Peterson] c; doc/10m

1968

The Moviemakers [Jay Anson] c; doc/7m

1969

Bloody Mama [Roger Corman] c

1970

[Joe Cocker:] Mad Dogs & Englishmen [Robert Abel, Pierre Adidge & Sid Levin] MegaScope/c; concert film/117m; co-addph; ph: David Myers; filmed 27 & 28 March (New York)

1970

Vanishing Point [Richard Sarafian] c

1970

Get to Know Your Rabbit [Brian De Palma] c

1971

Harold and Maude [Hal Ashby] c; 'Haskell Wexler got me the job. All Hal told me was that all the sequences with Harold in his home should have a certain sort of sterility; sort of clear, clean, pure, no diffusion. The angles were to be more symmetrical; sort of meat and potatoes. And every time we ended up with Maud, it would have a slight craziness to it, just a little kookiness, a little tip [of the camera] up, a little tip down, a little diffusion.'*

1971

Sounder [Martin Ritt] p/c; 'The only difficult thing about 'Sounder' was the beginning; the coon chase. And I called Jimmy Wong Howe on that [he was very sick at the time]. And I said, 'My idea is that we shouldn't shoot it day-for-night just in order to see. Why not shoot it at night and light it, but instead of lighting it from a high angle, light it from very low angles; just straight shots, light through the trees. Make it graphic because it is the beginning of the picture and you want to set up a certain pace to it. He agreed with me: 'Tell Marty I said so and if he gives you any trouble, you tell him that's the way it should be done.'*

1972

Lady Sings the Blues [Sidney J. Furie] p/c

1972

Wattstax [Mel Stuart] 16mm-35bu/c; mus doc/103m; concert ph (doph); ph: Roderick Young, Larry Clark, José Mignone & Robert Marks; filmed 20 August (Los Angeles); restored in 2003

1972

Pete 'n' Tillie [Martin Ritt] p/c

1972

Hit! [Sidney J. Furie] p/c

1973

The Naked Ape [Donald Driver] c

1973

Conrack [Martin Ritt] p/c

[Right] with dir Roman Polanski - "Chinatown"

1973

Chinatown [Roman Polanski] p/c; took over from doph Stanley Cortez after 1 week; 'The first cameraman hired was Stanley Cortez. And Roman hired Stanley because he had shot 'The Magnificent Ambersons'. They had a big artistic difference, the two of them. Cortez did not want to photograph Faye Dunaway without diffusion and without the proper lighting, and Roman didn't want that. He wanted to put on film a sort of natural but somber kind of look. And Dick Sylbert had his act together; those sets were brilliant. And he had indulged the cameraman, given him places to put giant lights and all of that. It was just a big difference of opinion and so they fired Cortez. And I was called in immediately, like overnight. [...] I said [to Roman Polanski], "In the anamorphic aspect ratio, there's a workhorse lens called the 40mm lens. To me the 40mm lens is the best reproduction of what the human being perceives as correct perspective. If we shoot the picture, as much as possible, with a 40mm lens, we'll have really a reproduction of the sets the way they are."'*

1974

[Jacqueline Susann's] Once Is Not Enough [Guy Green] p/c

1974

The Fortune/Spite and Malice [Mike Nichols] p/c

1975

Farewell, My Lovely [Dick Richards] c

1975

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York [Sidney J. Furie] scheduled as doph, but film was ph by Donald M. Morgan

1975

I Will, I Will… for Now [Norman Panama] p/c

1975

The Bad News Bears [Michael Ritchie] c

1976

Black Sunday [John Frankenheimer] p/c

1976

Close Encounters of the Third Kind [Steven Spielberg] p/c; co-addph; ph: Vilmos Zsigmond

1976

Casey's Shadow [Martin Ritt] p/c

1977

Which Way Is Up? [Michael Schultz] c; adapted from 'Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore/The Seduction of Mimi' (1971, Lina Wertmüller; ph: Dario Di Palma)

1977

Beyond Reason/Mati [Telly Savalas] c; addph: Howard Anderson III

1977

[Neil Simon's] The Cheap Detective [Robert Moore] p/c

1978

Norma Rae [Martin Ritt] p/c

1979

Tom Horn [William Wiard] p/c

1980

Back Roads [Martin Ritt] p/c

1980

Zorro, the Gay Blade [Peter Medak] c

1982

Blue Thunder [John Badham] p/c; addph: Thomas Del Ruth; aph: Frank Holgate

1982

Cross Creek [Martin Ritt] c

With dir Brian De Palma [right] - "Scarface"

1982

Scarface [Brian De Palma] p/c

1983

The Cotton Club [Francis Coppola] scheduled as doph, but replaced by Stephen Goldblatt when dir Francis Coppola came onboard

1984

Terror in the Aisles/Time for Terror [Andrew Kuehn] b&w-c; comp film/85m; ph host/hostess seq

1984

Runaway [Michael Crichton] p/c; 2uc: Peter Donen

1984

Out of Control [Allan Holzman] c; addph: Michael Michaud

1985

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling [Richard Pryor] s35/c; Peoria ph: William Birch

1985

50 Years of Action! [Douglass M. Stewart Jr.] 16mm/c; doc/60m; cph: Caleb Deschanel & Charles Clifton; addph: James Mathers

1985

Nothing in Common [Garry Marshall] s35/c; 2uc Chicago: William Birch

1987

Overboard [Garry Marshall] c

1987

Real Men [Dennis Feldman] c

1987

Physical Evidence [Michael Crichton] c

1988

Steel Magnolias [Herbert Ross] c

1989

Internal Affairs [Mike Figgis] c; addph: Curtis Clark; 2uc: Michael Ferris

1989

The Guardian [William Friedkin (tv-version dir by 'Alan Smithee')] c

1990

Navy SEALS [Lewis Teague] c; 2uc: Bob Carmichael & Michael Ferris; aph: Frank Holgate; uwph: Peter Romano

1991

Clifford [Paul Flaherty] c; 2uc: Michael Ferris; spph: David M. Walsh; vfx ph: Dennis Skotak; released in 1994

1991

HouseSitter [Frank Oz] c

1992

Cool World [Ralph Bakshi] c; live action & anim

1992

The Meteor Man [: An Urban Fairy Tale] [Robert Townsend] c; vfx ph: Peter Daulton; key efx ph: Martin Rosenberg

1994

Anne of the Spanish Main [?] scheduled to start shooting in March; status unknown

[Middle] with Whoopi Goldberg & Malcolm McDowell

"Star Trek: Generations"

1994

Star Trek: Generations [David Carson] p/c; miniature crash seq ph: Kim Marks

1995

Invisible Kids [Iren Koster] scheduled to start shooting in February; filmed in 2003 by ph Adolfo Bartoli [Iren Koster] scheduled to start shooting in February; filmed in 2003 by ph Adolfo Bartoli

1995

The Grass Harp [Charles Matthau] c [Charles Matthau] c

1996

Sandblast [David Carson] in development for April start; production shelved

1997

Letters from a Killer [David Carson] c; aph: Stan McClain

1999

The Dancing Cow [Taz Goldstein] c; short/21m

1999

The Prime Gig [Gregory Mosher] p/c

2000

Deuces Wild [Scott Kalvert] p/c; in memory of John Alonzo

*From interview in 'Masters of Light' by Dennis Schaefer & Larry Salvato, 1984.


 TELEVISION

1965

Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon [William Friedkin] doc/b&w/52m/16mm; 2uc; ph: Vilis Lapenieks, James Crabe, David Blewitt, a.o.

1965

The Big Land [David Vowell] doc/60m; co-addph; ph: Stanley Lazan

1965

Revolution in Our Time [David Vowell] doc; cph: Ted Jones, Anthony Jacalone & David Blewitt

1966

The World of Animals [ep 'It's a Dog's World' dir by Joseph L. Scanlan & Alan Landsburg] 3-part doc series, 1966-68; cph: Vilis Lapenieks & David Blewitt

1967

Do Blondes Have More Fun? [Mel Ferber] doc/60m; cph: Vilis Lapenieks, Stanley Lazan & Kenneth Van Sickle

1967

A Nation of Immigrants [Robert Abel, Mel Stuart & Aram Boyajian] doc/b&w; co-addph; ph: Adam Giffard & Vilis Lapenieks

1967

Grizzly! [Irwin Rosten] doc/51m; addph: Mindaugis Bagdon, Stanley Lazan, Gene Peterson, a.o.; a 'National Geographic Special'

1967

Winged World [prod: Walon Green & Jeff Myrow] doc; co-addph; ph: Heinz Sielmann; a 'National Geographic Special'

1967

The World of Animals [ep 'The World of Horses' dir by Joseph L. Scanlan] doc/60m; co-addph; ph: Dieter Perschke; see 1966

1967

The World of Animals [ep 'Big Cats, Little Cats' dir by Bud Wiser] doc/60m; cph: J. Barry Herron, William (Vilmos) Zsigmond, David Blewitt, Robert Grant & Fred Kaplan; see 1966

1968

Sophia: A Self-Portrait [Robert Abel & Mel Stuart] doc/52m; cph: Roberto Gerardi

1968

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau [ep 'Search in the Deep' dir by Patrick Watson & 'Whales' dir by ?] doc series, 1966-73; co-c.op; ph: Michel Deloire (uwph) & Jeri Sopanen

1968

Reptiles and Amphibians [Walon Green & Heinz Sielmann] doc/52m; co-addph; ph: H. Sielmann; a 'National Geographic Special'

1968

On Location with David L. Wolper's 'The Devil's Brigade' [William Kronick] promotional doc/30m for ABC-tv

1968

The Racers: Craig and Lee Breedlove [Andy Sidaris] doc/60m for ABC-tv

1968

Australia: The Timeless Land [John Alonzo] doc/52m; a 'National Geographic Special'

1969

Miss Peggy Lee [Nick Cominos] special/60m

1970

Cannon [pilot dir by George McCowan] 125-part series, 1971-76

1971

Revenge/There Once Was a Woman [Jud Taylor] tvm

1972

Visions…/Visions of Death [Lee H. Katzin] tvm

1972

The Voyage of the Yes [Lee H. Katzin] tvm

1973

Guess Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? [Theodore Flicker] tvm

1976

Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby/Rosemary's Baby II [Sam O'Steen] tvm

1978

Champions: A Love Story [John Alonzo] tvm

1979

Portrait of a Stripper/The Secret Life of Susie Hanson [John Alonzo] tvm

1979

Belle Starr [John Alonzo] tvm

1980

Blinded by the Light [John Alonzo] tvm

1981

The Kid from Nowhere [Beau Bridges] tvm; Special Olympics ph: Haskell Wexler

1988

Roots: The Gift [Kevin Hooks] tvm

1988

Knightwatch/On the Streets [pilot dir by Farhad Mann] 9-part series, 1988-89; other ph: Francis Kenny

1994

World War II: When Lions Roared/Then There Were Giants [Joseph Sargent] 2-part tvm/HD

1998

Lansky [John McNaughton] tvm

1999

Fail Safe [Stephen Frears] tvm/b&w/HD


 MISCELLANEOUS

1965

Seconds [John Frankenheimer] uncred co-c.op; ph: James Wong Howe


 FILMS & TELEVISION AS DIRECTOR

1968

Australia: The Timeless Land [+ ph] see Television

[Left] with Michael Brandon - "FM" - photo Thys Ockersen Archive

1977

FM/Citizens' Band [feature] ph: David Myers

1978

Champions: A Love Story [+ ph] see Television

1979

Portrait of a Stripper/The Secret Life of Susie Hanson [+ ph] see Television

1979

Belle Starr [+ ph] see Television

1980

Blinded by the Light [+ ph] see Television


 FILMS & TELEVISION AS ACTOR

1958

Ballad for a Bad Man [Jerry Hopper] ph: Floyd Crosby; ep tv-series 'Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse', 1958-60

1958

Dragnet/Badge 714 [ep #246 'The Big Border' dir by Jack Webb] 276-part tv-series, 1951-59; 8th season, 1958-59

1959

Border Patrol [ep #5 'A Bundle of Dope' dir by D. Ross Lederman] tv-series

1959

Terror at Black Falls/Ordeal at Dry Red [Richard Sarafian] ph: Floyd Crosby

1959

Perry Mason [ep #83 'The Case of the Prudent Prosecutor' dir by Robert Ellis Miller] 271-part tv-series, 1957-66; 3rd season, 1959-60

As Miguel in "The Magnificent Seven" - thanks to Volker Gläser

1960

The Magnificent Seven [John Sturges] as John Alonso; ph: Charles Lang Jr.

1960

The Twilight Zone [ep #48 'Dust' dir by Douglas Heyes] 156-part tv-series, 1959-64; 2nd season, 1960-61; ph: George T. Clemens

1961

Cheyenne [ep #80 'Massacre at Gunsight Pass' dir by Robert T. Sparr] 108-part tv-series, 1955-62; 5th season, 1960-61

1961

Cheyenne [ep #82 'Winchester Quarantine' dir by Paul Landres] 6th season, 1961-62; see above

1961

The Long Rope [William Witney] ph: Kay Norton

1961

Susan Slade [Delmer Daves] ph: Lucien Ballard

As Carlos in "Hand of Death"

1961

Hand of Death/Five Fingers of Death [Gene Nelson] ph: Floyd Crosby

1962

The Gallant Men [ep #3 'And Cain Cried Out' dir by Charles Rondeau (CR) & #24 'The Crucible' dir by CR] 26-part tv-series, 1962-63

1962

Combat! [ep #9 'Cat and Mouse' dir by Robert Altman (RA) & #12 'The Prisoner' dir by RA] 152-part tv-series; 1st season, 1962-63; ph: Robert B. Hauser

1963

Ripcord [ep #28 'Top Secret' dir by Leon Benson] 76-part tv-series, 1961-63

1963

Temple Houston [ep #22 'Last Full Moon' dir by Leslie H. Martinson] 26-part tv-series, 1963-64

1963

Kraft Suspense Theatre [ep #21 'Once Upon a Savage Night/Nightmare in Chicago' dir by Robert Altman] 60-part tv-series, 1963-65; 1st season, 1963-64; ph: Bud Thackery

1964

Destry [ep #9 'Ride to Rio Verde' dir by ?] 13-part tv-series, 1964

1964

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour [ep #56 'The Gentleman Caller' dir by Joseph M. Newman] 93-part tv-series, 1962-65; 2nd season, 1963-64; ph: Richard L. Rawlings

1964

Invitation to a Gunfighter [Richard Wilson] ph: Joe MacDonald

1966

The Wild Wild West [ep #30 'The Night of the Golden Cobra' dir by ? & #51 'The Night of the Surreal McCoy' dir by ?] 104-part tv-series, 1965-69; 2nd season, 1966-67; ph: Ted Voightlander

1966

Bewitched [ep #96 'Art for Sam's Sake' dir by William Asher] 252-part tv-series, 1964-72; 3rd season, 1966-67