Gaffer Lit DPS’, Di­rec­tors’ Vi­sions


Variety - - Artisans -

BACK IN THE AGE of di­rec­tors call­ing “Lights, cam­era, ac­tion!” light­ing was an un­sung craft. One crew mem­ber who raised the bar, em­ploy­ing nat­u­ral-look­ing il­lu­mi­na­tion like an artist uses his brush, is gaffer Earl Gil­bert.

Gil­bert was born in Bak­ers­field, Calif., in 1926. His father, Ray, an elec­tri­cian at Twentieth Cen­tury Fox Stu­dios, helped Earl ob­tain union sta­tus via “the sons of mem­bers” pro­vi­sion. Join­ing in late 1946, Earl aced a gru­el­ing four-hour test pulling pound-a-foot cable 60 feet above the stage.

Serv­ing as a rig­ger on pic­tures “For­ever Am­ber” and “Gen­tle­men’s Agree­ment” (both in 1947) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), Gil­bert first demon­strated a tal­ent for light­ing on Elia Kazan’s 1952 “Viva Za­p­ata!” He wa­ter­proofed a 12-light fix­ture for sub­mer­sion, with the lamps cov­er­ing a scene in which a horse gal­lops into a river as the cam­era drops below water level and the rider is shot and falls off. Gil­bert’s con­tri­bu­tion was mem­o­rable to all who saw the scene, as the ban­dit’s macabre death gri­mace was clearly dis­cernible when he sank. The light­ing tech achieved the ef­fect while work­ing his rig wear­ing only shorts, a mask and a home­made weight belt.

Con­tin­u­ing with Fox into the 1950s, Gil­bert helped light clas­sics such as “The Robe,” two Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe star­rers — “Gen­tle­men Pre­fer Blondes” and “Bus Stop” — and “Boy on a Dol­phin” (with Sophia Loren). On “Blondes,” he re­calls Mon­roe be­ing shy but Jane Rus­sell be­ing gre­gar­i­ous: Rus­sell’s cry of “Howdy, Earl!” each time she greeted him on set, he says, made him feel like a mil­lion bucks.

From serv­ing as fol­low-spot op­er­a­tor for Yul Bryn­ner’s waltzes in “The King and I” to set­ting up fu­tur­is­tic Tesla coils for Vin­cent Price star­rer “The Fly,” Gil­bert was a go-to guy around the lot in the ’50s. He had ear­lier be­come best boy for Homer Plan­nette, the gaffer on “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” (1946), and it was a fit­ting mar­riage, lead­ing to a stu­dent-teacher re­la­tion­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion on such films as “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Va­ca­tion” (1962).

Gil­bert de­vel­oped the art of us­ing avail­able lo­ca­tion light­ing. He “bor­rowed” elec­tric­ity by scal­ing tele­phone poles and tap­ping into over­head power lines — a gam­bit that risked elec­tro­cu­tion.

By the 1960s, he was in great de­mand. He gaffed “The Grad­u­ate” (1967) us­ing high con­trast ra­tios; “True Grit” (1969), lit by sin­gle source to mimic a kerosene lamp; and “Catch 22” (1970), with its ethe­real clouds of B-25 bombers il­lu­mi­nated in every way imag­in­able. His work had a lim­it­less tex­ture every DP wanted.

Yet it was movies like Sam Peck­in­pah’s “The Get­away” and Richard Fleis­cher’s “The New Cen­tu­ri­ons” (both 1972) that best re­flected Gil­bert’s nat­u­ral look. And he also brought light to DP John Alonzo’s lens on “Chi­na­town,” us­ing a sin­gle high beam on Jack Ni­chol­son’s face in the scene where the ac­tor’s J.J. Gittes has his nos­tril sliced open, and sub­tly light­ing Faye Du­n­away’s close-ups with am­bers and straw gels to beau­tify her fa­cial tones.

Now re­tired and in­ter­viewed by Va­ri­ety in his com­fort­able home in Thou­sand Oaks, Calif., Gil­bert rem­i­nisces about the looks he helped cre­ate for such films as Kazan’s “The Last Ty­coon” (1976) and Steven Spiel­berg’s “Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind” (1977). His fi­nal credit was on “The Butcher’s Wife” in 1991. As he talks, he makes a star­tling rev­e­la­tion: “I never used a light me­ter,” he al­lows. “If it looks good, it is good, and if it’s not, fix it!”

“Ac­tion!” in­deed.

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