Learning Never Stops
By Christine Bunish
When Michael D. O'Shea presented the 2010 American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Career Achievement in Television Award to his longtime friend, John C. Flinn, III, O'Shea never expected to be back on that stage a year later.
Now the roles are reversed with O'Shea collecting his own 2011 ASC Career Achievement in Television Award and Flinn presenting. "Last year I was nervous about writing my presentation speech for John, and now I have to write another one!" O'Shea says. "I thought they made a mistake when they told me I'd won — I'm totally humbled by it."
The Los Angeles native is no stranger to accolades having earned an Emmy award for CSI: Miami (2003) and Emmy nominations for Doogie Howser, M.D. (1992), the series Relativity (1997), the television movie To Love, Honor and Deceive (1997) and the mini-series The '60s (1999).
Throughout his career O'Shea has moved deftly between television and motion pictures creating a body of work he never could have imagined when he was playing semi-pro baseball. Family friend Henri Lehman, who was assistant head of the camera department at Warner Bros., got the young ball player a job as a laborer on the studio lot, and O'Shea asked him what departments he should try to get into if he didn't make it in baseball. Lehman mentioned makeup, grip and cinematography, and O'Shea said he'd like to learn about cinematography. Lehman warned him it wouldn't be easy since nepotism was still rampant in the field.
|Early in his career O'Shea, shown here on locationin Custer,
South Dakota, was an assistant cameraman on Gunsmoke.
"He told me to learn the equipment and when there were no more relatives available, I'd have the experience to get the job," recalls O'Shea. "I was persistent. I spent a year hanging around the camera department after work every night until there was a job for a film loader and nobody's son was available."
O'Shea kept his eyes and ears open as cinematographers Conrad L. Hall, ASC, Robert Burks, ASC, Robert Surtees, ASC, and Hall's assistant and future ASC cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth came through the loading room at night discussing what they'd done that day. "I was listening," says O'Shea. "Those are precious memories."
In the mid-1960s, "if you were in the union and a film loader at Warner's and wanted to be aggressive you'd go in before your shift and hang out on the set," he recalls. "The assistant cameramen were so gracious: If they knew you were interested they took the time to teach you. There were no egos about how this young guy was eventually going to take my job.
"What appealed to me about the camera department was that I heard it was like going to school every day — you never stopped learning if you opened your mind to it. I had no creative background in cinematography but was willing to learn from these great teachers. It's something I've tried to pass on in my career, too."
An eager student, O'Shea blazed an amazingly accelerated path working his way up from 2nd assistant to 1st assistant in just six years. He learned "all the intricacies of the job" as 1st assistant on a B camera on Gunsmoke, was lead key 1st assistant on the series To Rome, With Love and did daily work at Paramount.
Then Howard Schwartz, ASC, made O'Shea an offer he couldn't refuse. "He was looking for an assistant, and after about a month with him he asked me if I wanted to go back to Gunsmoke or stay with him. He made me a deal: If you stay my 1st assistant, I'll make you an operator in three years. That was unheard of in 1969."
O'Shea (seated at left) listens to director Mel Brooks (center) on the set of Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
O'Shea accepted Schwartz's offer and the cinematographer became an important mentor. "He was like a professor. If there was any new equipment, we'd find out about it and test it. He told me you can never stop learning in this business — if you think you've arrived you're wrong."
Schwartz was true to his word and made O'Shea an operator three years later. "When I was operating nobody could see what I was doing until the next day [when the film was processed]," he explains. "I made a lot of mistakes, but Howard had a lot of patience. He'd critique what I could do better and praised me when I deserved it."
While O'Shea is quick to say that "a lot of fantastic cinematographers have come out of film school," he's a little sorry that they've missed "coming up through the system" as he did. "We got to see the process from film loading to cinematography, how it all came together. It was invaluable."
O'Shea enjoyed being a camera operator and thought he'd remain in that position for the rest of his career. "Why would I want to move up to DP and deal with the political end of the job?" he asks.
He had operated for 17 years when Lloyd Ahern, ASC, hired him for the series Hooperman (1987) and quizzed him about becoming a DP. "I told him why should I go through what you're going through? I felt I had it made as an operator. But Lloyd was pushing me with the Bochco people. I stayed two seasons with Hooperman and did some movies in between. Then Bochco's Doogie Howser, M.D. came up. DP Fred Moore had hired an operator but had to replace him. Fred told me he was probably only going to do the show for a year, so if I was serious about moving up this would be a great opportunity for me. I talked it over with my wife, and when Fred left after one season I moved up, inherited a wonderful crew and stayed three seasons."
While O'Shea was shooting Doogie Howser on the Fox lot he'd occasionally see Mel Brooks at lunch. The funnyman and creative force of nature would tell him, "I'm keeping an eye on you!" O'Shea had already worked as operator on Brook's Space Balls (1987) during which DP Nick McLean, a longtime colleague, readily gave credit to O'Shea for the test shoots Brooks reviewed.
Like Howard Schwartz, Brooks was as good as his word and kept O'Shea in mind when he was planning Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). The director hired O'Shea as DP for that film, a role he reprised with Brooks's Dracula: Dead and Loving It two years later.
O'Shea went on to earn an Emmy nomination for To Love, Honor and Deceive, a television movie directed by Michael Watkins, ASC, himself a two-time Emmy winner. "It was his first Movie of the Week. Michael was well prepared and made challenging and interesting shot selections. He was an award-winning cinematographer, but he never told me how to light. Michael was very collaborative and brought a lot of enthusiasm to the project."
The DP went on to garner another Emmy nomination for the miniseries The '60s about a Chicago family during the Vietnam War. For the segments covering the protests during the 1968 Democratic convention, he researched the film stock that captured the events 30 years earlier and recreated the demonstrations and riots on 16mm color reversal film.
Several years later O'Shea and Walt Lloyd, ASC alternated as DPs on the debut season of CSI: Miami. "They already had the camera movement style from the Las Vegas series: long lenses and lateral dolly moves. We established the Miami colors which they've taken a lot further since. They had a look they wanted but they also gave us license to take chances, and it was rewarding photographically. We shot the flashbacks of how the murders might have been committed with different methods of distortion to keep the audience guessing."
O'Shea also shot the pilots of Everwood and Jack and Bobby and the first two seasons of Eli Stone.
Michael O'Shea (center, behind camera) and crew on location in Austin, Texas for The New Guy (2000).
Although O'Shea admits that he still loves shooting film and enjoys "the mystique of film, not knowing what you have until you see it the next day," he regards digital cinematography as "another part of the learning process, and you never get too old to grow. When I get an opportunity to shoot digital, I apply what I know from film to make digital look as good as possible."
He is currently looking for a pilot and hopes to find a reason soon to reunite with the crew he says is "probably the biggest reason I'm getting the ASC award — I couldn't have done it without people helping me along the way and my crew has been with me for most of my career."
He cites operators Steven Smith, Michael Genne and Denny Hall (who is also an DP); 2nd assistant George Dye; key grip Jeff Case and gaffer Jack Schlosser. Plus, "the best 1st assistant ever, Sean O'Shea — and he didn't learn it from me!"
O'Shea points out that son Sean has come up in the industry "similarly to me starting as a loader and working his way up. He wants to be an assistant. He's seen what I've gone through and is very happy being an assistant."
When young people ask him for advice, O'Shea tells them to "pay attention, don't be afraid to ask questions and try different things, trust your instincts and be true to yourself and your collaborators. That's the same advice I got when I came into the industry."
And look where it's taken him.