Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tom Stern, ASC, AFC, keynoted a crowded Tuesday session
in the Creative Master Series and anecdotally discussed his decades of working in tandem with
director/actor Clint Eastwood — most notably their collaboration on last year’s “American
Sniper,” which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Stern began his career in film as a gaffer, where he said he could stand off to the side and
observe interactions on the set among actors, the director and the cinematographer. He
described that job as quite different from being a director of photography, a position to
which he transitioned and where he became responsible for calling the shots, so to speak.
He served asDP on several Eastwood films including “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Mystic
River” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
In conversation with David Geffner, executive editor of ICG Magazine, Stern said that he
and Eastwood typically communicate very little verbally during a shoot. While the director
has certain preferences when shooting, he also manages to give wide latitude to Stern as
his DP. Eastwood expects Stern to work out any problems that arise on set on his own and
“We don’t talk much about the movie, which is an understatement. It all just sort of evolves.
It’s a good environment to work in,” he told NAB session, produced in partnership with the
International Cinematographers Guild Local 600.
As an actor himself, Eastwood always gives his full attention and empathy to fellow actors on
set, Stern said. “I can say categorically, having worked with him for 35 years, he’s never given
a [expletive] about any of my problems,” he joked, provoking sustained laughter from the
crowd. Stern said he and Eastwood work quickly (but never rush) on a production, and that
Eastwood fosters a quiet and respectful set. Unlike some DPs — Robert Yeoman, ASC, for
example, who appeared at his own NAB Show session on Monday — Stern does not usually
operate the camera on his projects, including “American Sniper.”
Stern said Eastwood typically does not use storyboards to shoot scenes, so there’s little way
for foretell what a scene might look like until after it is shot and undergoes post-production
processing. He said he’s used to shooting a lot of rehearsal scenes for Eastwood — and it’s
not uncommon for some of that rehearsal footage to appear in the final cut. Stern added that
it’s common for Eastwood to capture scenes for his films in only one take.
Does Stern see any commonality between “American
Sniper” and his earlier war movie project with
Eastwood, 2006’s “Flags of our Fathers”? He does:
“It’s that Clint doesn’t glorify killing or war. Just
thinking back on other films, he seems to be touched
by the cost of someone’s life ending — I’m thinking of
‘Unforgiven’ — and I sense I’m being encouraged [by
him] to portray [war] in a very realistic way.”
“American Sniper” was Eastwood’s second all-digital
film in collaboration with Stern, along with their work on “Jersey Boys,” also in 2014. “I used the
[ARRI] Alexa for both [films], and I liked how it performed,” he said.
“Somehow in his world, [Clint] finds ‘information’ in blacks, black colors. I always start with
the blacks and make sure they’re vetted, which is why I overexpose a little bit. Basically, we
never use any filtration, which gets back to the DI [digital intermediate], where I find I can
do it all through contrast and be much more selective, and it’s also not baked in, so if it’s not
what we finally want, then we can roll it back.”
Stern said he never has philosophical points to make in his work. “I’m not going to stand
back and make an irreversible artistic statement, because I don’t think that’s my job. I’m
basically painting on a $40 million canvas—and that 40 million bucks isn’t mine.”