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ASC Lifetime Achievement Award Winner - John C. Flinn

A Career of TV Classics, Past and Present

By Christine Bunish

  Photo by Owen Roizman, ASC
  Photo by Owen Roizman, ASC

Unlike previous winners of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Career Achievement in Television Award, John C. Flinn, ASC, whose body of work includes Magnum P.I., Hill Street Blues, Babylon 5, and TNT's current hit, Saving Grace, could be said to be following a biological imperative to pursue a calling in the industry.

His grandfather, John C. Flinn, Sr. worked for Pathe Studios in New York City at the dawn of the film era and eventually became a producer and vice president of Cecil B. DeMille Productions, the forerunner of Paramount Pictures. His father, John C. Flinn, Jr., started at Warner Bros. and became director of advertising and publicity for Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures. As a youngster Flinn saw the industry's movers and shakers come to his house for meetings with his dad, and he remembers answering the telephone to hear gossip diva Hedda Hopper asking for the elder Mr. Flinn. Flinn made movies with his boyhood friends with an 8mm camera and got his buddies together for screenings of 16mm prints obtained by his dad.

On visits to the studio young Flinn was fascinated by how movies were made.

"I'd sit and watch rehearsals," he recalls. "At first there were only overhead lights, then they'd lay out shots with the actors. The stand-ins would walk in, light would come in from the side of the set, something would be done in the background and everything was timed for a big dolly move. It was really cool how it all came to perfection; it looked like fun! Everyone was part of a team, and everyone had to be on their game."

After telling Bill Widmayer, head of Columbia Pictures' camera department, that he wanted to be a cameraman Flinn got his first camera-crew job at 20 as second assistant on the TV series, The Wackiest Ship in the Army in 1965. He showed up on the backlot of the Columbia Ranch in Burbank where the show's DP, Fred Jackman, ASC, was high on a crane. "I'm John Flinn, and I don't know a thing," he admitted in his introduction. Jackman replied, "You're the first SOB who's told me the truth!"

The cinematographer asked the assistant cameraman to show Flinn the ropes and advised Flinn to continue telling the truth. "If you don't know, ask and you'll learn," he recalls his boss saying. "I'm still asking — I spent 90 minutes the other night trying to master some technical information."

Flinn was a second assistant and dayplayer on the TV series, The Hero when he was sent to the next stage, where Robert Wyckoff was shooting Get Smart, to borrow some film. "Bobby said, 'Hey kid, my second assistant is leaving. Can you start on Monday?'" Flinn recalls. So he moved over to the now iconic comedy where he remained for two-and-a-half years.

He also expanded his acting portfolio on the show where he got along famously with star Don Adams. "One day the stuntman didn't want to do a fall down some stairs, and the stunt coordinator said, 'Flinn can do that stuff.' Don asked me if I could do it, and I said 'Yes; I've even done a few falls I haven't wanted to do!' So they got me into a KAOS agent's black suit, and suddenly I was on a second story falling down the stairs. Three weeks later I was back in the suit in a fight sequence; later I got a few lines in a show."

John C. Flinn shooting Magnum P.I. in Hawaii.
John C. Flinn shooting Magnum P.I. in Hawaii.

Early in his career Flinn worked with several cinematographers who became mentors. Among them was Robert Surtees, ASC, for whom Flinn served as second assistant on the film, Alvarez Kelly, starring William Holden and Richard Widmark. "It was huge to work with him; he was such a gentleman, so cool and collected and with a great sense of humor," he reports. "It was amazing to see this stage with horses and trees and regular overhead lighting and watch him turn it into a night scene where you felt you were outside. How real he made it!"

Flinn couldn't believe his luck to be second assistant and a dayplayer on Walk, Don't Run with DP Harry Stradling, Sr., ASC, where he watched Cary Grant entertain the crew after lunch at Columbia Studios with a song and dance.

Working with Conrad L. Hall, ASC, on Love American Style, also made a strong impression. "He was one of the youngest cameramen at the time and a very cool guy. His advice to me was not to be afraid to mix new ideas with old ones. He said, 'If you like the look of something or the feeling of a move — do it!'"

Flinn spent seven years as an assistant cameraman and eight as a camera operator. "I paid my dues," he says, "but felt I was the luckiest guy in the world. I had opportunities to work with some great people and learned a lot from them. I was one of, if not, the youngest assistants when I started, and I became one of the youngest cinematographers in Hollywood" when he shot the 1979 TV movie, The Flame is Love, in Ireland. There he found "a thousand shades of green that were constantly changing with the wind and fast-moving clouds. What a beautiful place!"

Flinn subsequently shot 12 episodes of the final season of Hawaii Five-O then switched moods and looks when he moved to Hill Street Blues in 1981 after Bill Cronjager, ASC, the show's original DP, took on another project.

"Hill Street Blues was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. We had an ensemble cast of nine who had to work in a lot of rough areas, like Skid Row in LA," he notes. "I took a lot of chances. I shot my own tests within a scene to see what things looked like at a particular light level, how far we could go." Flinn was shooting with a 200-speed film and often rating it for 800. "We were pushing the envelope, and it worked."

He also tried to slow down the handheld look of the show. "I didn't want viewers to be aware of the camera during dramatic scenes. I didn't want to interrupt anyone with the camera. Less is more in the camera movement I do."

John C. Flinn prepping a shot for Paper Dolls (1984).
John C. Flinn prepping a shot for Paper Dolls (1984).

Flinn returned to Hawaii as DP for the last four years of Magnum P.I. "My show, Paper Dolls, had been cancelled and I got a call that they needed a cameraman for Magnum," he says. "I grew up with Tom Selleck and hadn't seen him in a long time; we had a ball!" In fact, Flinn was nominated for an Emmy for Magnum, P.I. in 1988.

He remembers thousands of spectators turning up when word got out that the hit series was shooting a scene at a Waikiki Beach hotel. "People with rooms there were renting spots on their balconies to watch Selleck," he laughs. Flinn was charged with showcasing Hawaii's natural beauty, "what makes viewers want to be there," while also capturing the grittier backstreets and Magnum's Vietnam flashbacks.

"It was cool to shoot," says Flinn. "Tom was great to work with. He was also executive producer during the last couple of seasons and hired me to direct a couple of episodes; that's how I got my DGA (Directors Guild of America) card. It was a great new experience, and it went really well."

The islands beckoned again when Flinn was brought onboard Jake and the Fatman when it moved from LA to Hawaii. He eventually returned to Los Angeles with the show and directed four episodes of the detective series. He earned Emmy nominations for Jake and the Fatman in 1989 and 1990; in the latter year he also netted an Emmy nomination for the Movie of the Week, The Operation, which starred Jake's Joe Penny. In addition, Flinn was nominated for three ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards for his work on Jake and the Fatman; he copped top honors for a 1993 episode.

John C. Flinn in Ireland shooting aerials for The Flame Is Love (1979).
John C. Flinn in Ireland shooting aerials for The Flame Is Love (1979).

As a science-fiction series, Babylon 5 opened up new horizons for Flinn who spent five years as DP on the show and directed 10 episodes. "There are no rules in outer space," he says, "so it was fun for me. I used a palette of colored gels from Rosco that enhanced the different looks. We had a lot of greenscreen and in-camera effects, and technology was changing daily so a lot of new things came out that we used for visual effects." Flinn earned Emmy nominations for Babylon 5 in 1995 and 1996; he received his seventh Emmy nomination for Hunter: Back in Force in 2003.

As a director who's responsible for "pulling it all together," he strives to make actors "feel comfortable, not be nervous and not second-guess what I think is good or not good," he says. "I've had really great times with actors." When he's serving as a DP for a young director he'll willingly share his knowledge of the craft to "help enhance the experience for him or her."

Working in episodic television often requires demanding 12-14 hour days, Flinn points out. "If I'm doing 22 shows in a season, I'm making 22 of the best little movies I can. Sometimes people ask me why I haven't done features. Have you ever been divorced? You've got to keep working. But in 30 years as a Director of Photography I've had an opportunity to shoot everything from the western miniseries, Wild Times, and the Movie of the Week, Desperate Voyage, about modern-day piracy to the high-fashion Paper Dolls and The Gilmore Girls. A lot of people never get those chances."

Flinn is currently shooting the acclaimed TNT series, Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter who also serves as executive producer. He shot the last three episodes of the second season and the entire third season; new episodes of the fourth season will air later this year.

He's effusive in his admiration for Hunter whom he calls, "the most incredible woman I've ever worked with. I've never seen anybody work so hard and be so good with people. What she does with her dialogue, how she gets other actors to respond to her is like watching the greatest acting class every day. She knows what she wants to achieve within that lens, and when she's finished with her scenes she goes to the editing room. She is unbelievable!"

Although Flinn has been shooting 35mm with Panaflex cameras "forever" he's using an Arriflex 416 to shoot S16mm for Saving Grace. "It's been very good; I haven't had any problems," he reports. "People look at the show and say no way it's 16mm, but it is. I can also thank Kodak for that — their 7217 and 7219 film stock has great latitude." On the show Flinn makes use of his less-is-more camera movement philosophy.

  The Gilmore Girls.
  The Gilmore Girls.

Although Flinn hasn't shot with any HD or digital cinema cameras yet, he's ready to add them to his repertoire as soon as he's asked. "I want to work another 15 years," he says. "It's pretty cool with the changing technologies — from film to High Def to tapeless cameras — but new cameras won't change the way I move them or how I light. We're into fantasy; my job is to bring you into that — on Hi Def or on film. What's great about what we do is that you never know it all. You learn something new every day."

When Flinn receives his ASC award on February 27 it will be presented to him by longtime buddy, Michael D. O'Shea, ASC, who started out in the business with him, and by Holly Hunter who asked to be part of the ceremony when she learned of Flinn's win. "It's not often you have an Academy Award-winning actress who appreciates you like that," says an obviously delighted Flinn. "If it all stopped today, I'd have had the best of the best."

But Flinn's career is by no means over. With some 500 hours of primetime television to his credit, he is undoubtedly in line to boost that number in the future. And he has several more generations of Flinns to school in the family business. "My son, John C. Flinn, IV is an assistant cameraman and a great technician. And he's got John C. Flinn, V at home!"

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