ASC Close-Up: John Newby, ASC
July 26, 2020

by American Cinematographer 

American Cinematographer: When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
John Newby, ASC: Two very different ones. When I was 9, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), shot by Robert Surtees, ASC, impressed me with its depth of color, action and spectacle. When I was 12, my brother took me to an art-house cinema to see Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), shot by Edmond Richard, AFC, which opened my eyes to a maze-like dreamscape of crisp black-and-white images with Dutch angles on short lenses.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

It’s so hard to limit this list. ASC members Karl Struss and Charles Rosher for the camera moves in Sunrise; Raoul Coutard, AFC for his work with Godard and Costa Gavras; Conrad Hall, ASC for his use of color in The Day of the Locust; Haskell Wexler, ASC for the sense of immediacy and movement in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Medium Cool; Owen Roizman, ASC for the vérité style of The French Connection and the beautifully lit urban interiors in Network; and Robert Elswit, ASC for the unique color treatments in Syriana.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My mother gave me her Kodak Brownie Hawkeye bellows camera when I was 9. I used the ‘light meter’ on the film box and was amazed by the images that came out of that camera. I was also fascinated by each week’s issue of Life, which had real-life images from around the world that were so well shot.  

Where did you train and/or study?
At Boston University, while minoring in film/television production, I apprenticed to become a licensed projectionist, running old arc-light projectors in 3,000-seat theaters. I was entranced by that beam of light passing through a 35mm rectangle onto a huge screen. Later, I ran the film labs and edited news film at Boston TV stations. When The Brinks Job came to Boston, I worked on huge night scenes as one of 16 arc-lamp operators. I was getting closer to the camera, but I was still 75 yards away!

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Pete Chvany, a film professor at Boston University; cinematographers Brian Heller and Mike Fash, ASC, for whom I worked as a gaffer on numerous projects; and Bobby Byrne, ASC, who taught me so much about shot concepts and operating.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

Most of all, the light I see in the world each day, but also Godard’s and Bergman’s films; Goya’s night exteriors; El Greco’s color; Magritte’s magic hour; an old steel mill I once worked in but wasn’t allowed to photograph; Nic Roeg’s radical camera style in Performance; and the visual dynamics of Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson, ASC, with whom I operated on two features.

How did you get your first break in the business?
Ed Hershberger got me on a job loading Photo-Sonics cameras for car crashes at a test track.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
On a daily basis, watching my crew execute a complicated shot — the mechanics of the camera move, focus, cued nets and dimmers, all in sync with the actors — is still magic to me.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

While operating for Francis Kenny, ASC, on Sweet Bird of Youth, I cut the camera and stepped off the dolly to adjust a cocktail glass, then noticed that Nic Roeg hadn’t yet called ‘Cut,’ and Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t finished her last beat of the scene.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Know what you want to see in the shot before you plan logistics.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The Iranian film A Separation, Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad Love Story, and the LACMA exhibit In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
An urban political thriller set in the 1920s.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Landscape lighting and design, or political journalism.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Francis Kenny, Steven Poster and Ed Pei.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It’s quite an honor to be part of the 93-year-old ASC as we move through the digital era. And the fact that we can get together and talk is fantastic, because cinematographers don’t usually work with each other.