Allen Moore | Cinematographer

Allen Moore was one of three principal cinematographers for Thomas Jefferson, sharing duty with Peter Hutton and Buddy Squires behind the camera. Moore has collaborated with Ken Burns previously in The Civil War and Baseball, and also produces and directs films of his own.


  Photographs of Monticello at www.corbis.com

ALLEN MOORE

Courtesy of Allen Moore

“I consider myself one of the individuals who sort of provides Ken with the palette by which he creates his work. I'm sort of the person who brings the colors to the painting.”

  What does a cinematographer bring to the filmmaking process?
I consider myself one of the individuals who sort of provides Ken with the palette by which he creates his work. I'm sort of the person who brings the colors to the painting.

I'm a documentary filmmaker in my own right. Besides doing camera work for a lot of directors and producers for public TV, I also shoot, direct and shoot and edit my own work. So I know the whole process and I conceive of the visual component of film as the key to the process. You can have the greatest narration and music, but if the image is not speaking to the audience then you're not going to communicate. Film is a visual medium and the image on the screen is the primary layer of information.

So with information that Ken gives me, I usually am out on my own on location trying to evoke the sense of his story through what I see. I have certain techniques that allow me to capture images in certain way, and it's fortunate that my vision is usually very close to what Ken's looking for too.

  In this particular film, what did you want to accomplish aesthetically through your cinematography?
Clearly this story for Ken is a departure from some of his other subjects in that the film is placed in the 18th century, and you have a real problem with the archival image. There were no still photographs that he could rely on. So we needed to have the live action material take a primary role as compared to some of his other work. I was very excited by that idea, and I was given a little bit more room to play with. Monticello has not been on screen that much, and it was never photographed when Jefferson was building it. So I had a lot more freedom to kind of look for new angles and wait for the different kinds of light that, that would be, you know, useful for Ken. He said, "We need a lot of live action, so try everything you can think of to create the mood for the film."

... my challenge is to try to evoke a sense of the place as if you were there in the past.

  What was the it like shooting at Monticello? Did you encounter any special problems or difficulties or challenges?
Well, as with any historical documentary, my role or my challenge, is to try to evoke a sense of the place as if you were there in the past. You need to look at the landscape and try to put yourself back 200 years and feel what it would have been like for Jefferson to have gazed across his lawn to his home, or look out over his property to the Blue Ridge Mountains. So often I'm shooting trying to set myself in the 18th century or 17th century or wherever you want to go and avoid modern, evidence of modern, the modern world. And that can be difficult at times.

  Talk about the film stocks, the types of cameras, and other equipment you bring into the field.
Well, we do everything in 16mm film. There are many good reasons for that. The film is eventually transferred to video and broadcast, so really there's, there is no need to start a film if, if you were simply trying to get a typical television look. But we're looking at a different kind of image altogether; we're looking at something that has a great deal of sharpness and a great deal of depth and color quality.

Generally, I work with a very lightweight equipment package, and I'm often shooting alone. Nowadays, most production teams are several people, and you usually have an assistant at your side but, I find that I can work faster alone. If I'm alone I'm really just involved in the landscape and the space, in the location and working with the light. I use an Aaton, a 16mm French camera—it's a great, lightweight, portable 16mm camera. With a camera bag across my shoulder and the tripod on the other shoulder and the camera in my hand, I can sprint to the next angle while the sun's dropping and still get the shots I need.

... often the way I go about finding images is just to really be responding to the light, to the way the sunlight plays in a particular part of the landscape.

  How do you decide what to shoot? Do you sit down with Ken or with the producers on the film, or look at the script?
Working with Ken there are sometimes specific needs that he has. So he might send me a page or two from a script. A lot of the work I did at Monticello was with Camilla Rockwell, because she was the producer who had direct contact with the script. And so she would be along with me, usually talking to me a little bit about what scenes were of concern for Ken at the time.

But often the way I go about finding images is just to really be responding to the light, to the way the sunlight plays in a particular part of the landscape. Often when I go to a location, I first get my bearings regarding the sun, because I know that the sun's going to be moving during the day. I need to know, depending on the time of year, whether the sun's going to rise in the northeast or to the southeast and then set to the northwest and southwest. I want to be shooting there in various seasons, not just because of the difference in the foliage or the temperature, but there's a difference in where the sun is.

There's a period of time, an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset, when you get a certain kind of color saturation in the sky that you'll see no other time of day.

  Take us through a typical shooting day there.
Well, the summer shoots are a little more rigorous than in the winter because you have a lot more daylight to work with in the summer. Usually I'm always up before dawn—probably an hour before dawn I'll be on location. There's a period of time, an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset, when you get a certain kind of color saturation in the sky that you'll see no other time of day. And it's a very faint dark purple red that you cannot really actually expose properly unless you under crank the camera—that is slow the shutter down—so that you have the proper exposure. And so it usually means you're not doing moving shots, you're not walking with the camera, you're not panning and tilting. You're usually locking the camera into a static frame. So often I find silhouettes to shoot at that period of time.

Then, after that early shooting, I turn around and I'm filming the sun and hitting clouds and silhouetting objects, possibly panning and moving through spaces just before sunrise. And I'm usually shooting to the east at sunrise, just before the sun comes over the horizon. As soon as the sun comes up, I completely change my angle and shoot towards the west, where the sun is hitting objects. Because once you've got the sun up you can't really expose anything shooting into the sun because you have too much glare and it's too washed out. But you get direct sunlight on all the objects that are behind you, and you have this sort of incredible color saturation for about 45 minutes to an hour.

Then you're basically, the rest of the day, you slow down a lot, you aren't in the panic mode trying to capture every moment on film. During the middle of the day, when the sun's directly overhead, it's just not a good time to be shooting exteriors. Sometimes we would come inside and shoot the sunlight in interiors in order to take advantage of the fact that it's much more efficient to let the sun be a source of light than to try to bring in a lot of heavy-duty theatrical lighting to create a scene inside.

Then towards the afternoon we go back outdoors looking for the sort of best angle to shoot in the evening. We're usually facing, with the sun behind us, we're facing east now, and shooting things that are getting the direct sunlight towards sunset. And then as the sun finally falls behind the horizon over to the west we turn around and face west and watch the colors change in the sky and shoot more silhouettes. Then we hopefully have a meal break some time in there and get some sleep.

  Was there a particular moment out in the field shooting on this film that stands out as your favorite?
At Monticello there were many moments when I sort of connected directly with the place and the landscape. I think it's in the odd moment when the weather is really doing something incredible that you sort of respect the place. I know there was a snowstorm that I was able to get down to and I was the only person there, A couple of the staff were still there, but the place had closed and it was just myself, my camera, and one of the people from Monticello who was willing to hang out and hold an umbrella over me so that I could operate in the storm. And it could have been a storm that Jefferson had sat in his study and watched pass over Monticello.