by Ray Zone
Large format filmmaking presents unique challenges to the cinematographer. The size of the
camera and film as well as the scale of the image projected on the giant screen present at once
glorious possibility or daunting pitfall to the large format filmmaker. Innovation in large format is
a bold affair fraught with risk. Cinematographer Rodney Taylor has dared to expand the visual
vocabulary of a rigorous cinematic language. And he has succeeded. His images speak with a
dynamism, movement and emotion that is new to the large format film.
Originally a TV cameraman for ESPN, ABC and TBS shooting sports events around the world,
Rodney honed a split-second sense of timing through these experiences. After working as a first
camera assistant on large format films such as Ring of Fire, In Search of the Great Sharks and
Africa: The Serengeti, Rodney was director of photography on Alaska: Spirit of the Wild and
Amazing Journeys, working with director George Casey at Graphic Films. In filming polar bears,
butterflies, zebras, lions and migrating crabs, Taylor was able to bring his acute sense of timing to
the large format phgtography on these projects. From previous Kodak Vision Award recipient
David Douglas, Taylor says that he “learned to let the camera run out” to capture the actions of
nature and wild animals. That requires intuition and daring. The images in Taylor’s wildlife films
are also reverential or humorous, suffused with an uncommon light that is inherently emotional in
These same skills were necessary with the remarkable sports action that Rodney photographed for
Olympic Glory, Michael Jordan to the Max and Ultimate X: The Movie. The street luge sequences
that Rodney photographed for Ultimate X bring a breathtaking close-up intensity to the giant
screen. Via Rodney’s large format camera placement the audience twists and turns, hurtling
rapidly down a rain-wet street just inches from its surface.
With all of his large format films, Rodney refuses to work with the limited tools that are so often
the lot of the large format cinematographer. Having considerable experience in narrative 35mm
working as director of photography on features such as Sparkler, Morning and Riders, Taylor has
brought the aesthetics of independent filmmaking into the vocabulary of large format. He insists
on moving the camera or lighting the scene with the same tools, cranes, steadicams, full lighting
packages, that are used in narrative filmmaking.
The fruit of Rodney’s uncompromising position is evident in films like Wildfire and The Legend of
Loch Lomond where camera movement drives the narrative. In Wildfire a bravura camera move
introduces the audience to Horse Mountain Lookout by opening with a low-angle view of the
station, rising smoothly up to show it and turning to the right and gradually moving forward to a
panoramic view of the forest in which a fire has been started by lightning. The camera itself
advances the story.
In All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! and Our Country, Rodney has transformed the material
into a visual construct that transcends mere music documentary. By lighting and filming Sheryl
Crowe singing “If It Makes You Happy” in close-up, Taylor brings a fresh intimacy to the large
format screen. “People clearly felt that you couldn’t do close-ups in large format,” says All Access
producer Jon Shapiro. “Rodney proved everyone wrong.”
Our Country features several innovations that bear Rodney’s unique signature as a lighting
cameraman who is also a storyteller. The 90-second steadicam sequence featuring Martina
McBride singing “Walking at Midnight” as she works her way through numerous dressing rooms,
past various performers and on to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry is a narrative tour-de-force,
dense with innovation. The sequence required surgical precision with timing and intricate
choreography. It is unprecedented in large format and, as a steadicam sequence, is on a par with
Haskell Wexler’s famous shot of the “Okie” camp in Bound for Glory. Rodney was
uncompromising and insisted on having Larry McConkey, a top steadicam operator, of this
sequence of Our Country.
Another of Rodney’s inventions for Our Country was to use “skip bleach” during processing of the
original negative for certain sequences. Some cinematographers might have wanted to play it
safe and skip bleach the interpositive or internegative. Not Rodney. He wanted to achieve a look
that was only possible by skip bleaching the original negative.
As the recipient of the 2003 Kodak Vision Award, Rodney Taylor joins a short but distinguished list
of large format cinematographers that includes Noel Archambault, Sean Phillips, Reed Smoot, and David Douglas. His contributions to large format filmmaking are unique. He has raised the visual bar for the large format film to put it on an emotional par with the 35mm feature and expanded the giant screen cinematographer’s toolbox with narrative images that will endure.
PREVIOUSLY POSTED 11/16/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM