Article on Francis Kenny
by Jean Oppenheimer
from American Cinematographer 2012
The ASC Presidents Award is presented annually to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advancing the art and craft of filmmaking. Receiving the honor last month was Francis Kenny, ASC, who is serving his second term on the Society’s Board of Governors and his 10th year as chairman of the Membership Committee. He is also busy as the director of photography for the lauded FX series Justified (AC TK), his third year in that position.
“The ASC benefits from Francis’ contributions in ways that go beyond his participation on committees,” notes ASC President Michael Goi. “He brings a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie to everything he does. This Presidents Award reflects our deep appreciation for how his work represents our craft, and how his selfless contribution of time to ASC and industry issues moves [our organization] forward with clarity and purpose.”
Nothing in Kenny’s background pointed toward a career as a cinematographer. He was born in Indianapolis, where his grandfather was a test pilot for the U.S. government. His mathematician father specialized in corporate analysis and traveled extensively, so Indiana became the family’s home base. Still, the family moved frequently enough that Kenny attended 15 schools and three colleges. As a child, he excelled at mathematics and flirted with the idea of becoming an astronomer.
He was especially close to his grandfather. “I remember my childhood being a lot of flying,” he says with a smile. “I first went up when I was about six months old. From then until I was 13, I’d fly with him twice a week; he’d put my sister and I in the cockpit and he’d fly from the back. We used to think we were flying the plane.”
Despite his enthusiasm for flying, however, Kenny had no desire to be a pilot, and he definitely wasn’t interested in being a mathematician. He didn’t know what he wanted to do until his final semester at college, when he signed up for his first film course. By then, he was at Hofstra University, having already taken classes at Harvard University and the University of Texas-Austin.
His film professor, documentarian David Hoffman, expected every student to make a short film. Kenny’s choice of topic was unusual, to say the least. “When I met a Jewish mother for the first time, I thought I had never met anything as great as a Jewish mother,” he says. “They had so much energy, such great senses of humor and so much love. I had never had that in my life, because everything had been about math and very serious. I found six terrific Jewish moms who were articulate and funny, and made them the subject of my movie.”
Hoffman loved the film, and when he quit teaching and started a production company soon thereafter, he brought Kenny aboard as the director of photography. Kenny explains his mentor’s seemingly impulsive decision: “After winning the critics’ prize at Cannes [in 1970], David decided he hated the film business and switched to teaching, only to find he hated teaching even more!”
Hoffman landed Exxon-Mobil’s commercial account, and for the next three years, Hoffman, Kenny and a sound-man circumnavigated the globe, shooting commercials and a variety of TV documentaries that were sponsored by the oil company. Their first shoot was on an oil rig in the Arctic Circle — in February. It was -80°F. “We went wherever they were looking for oil,” recounts Kenny. “We were in Singapore, Norway and Iran. What an adventure that was!”
Although he continued shooting documentaries, which he still calls “my passion,” Kenny also began shooting music videos and other corporate commercials. He transitioned into fictional filmmaking in 1984, when Ed Lachman, ASC, hired him to be the camera operator on Desperately Seeking Susan. Kenny’s first feature as director of photography, the hit independent film Heathers (AC TK), came three years later. (His credits also include the features New Jack City, Scary Movie, Harriet the Spy and Alpha Dog; the telefilm Sweet Bird of Youth, and the documentaries The Creation of the Universe, Riders in the Wind (Aboard the Calypso) and the Academy Award winner He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’.
When Kenny moved from New York to Los Angeles to concentrate on feature work, he called the local office of the International Cinematographers Guild and told them he would like to join. “They’re probably still laughing about it,” he says, shaking his head at his own naïveté. Kenny has a wonderful sense of humor about himself, and has no qualms confessing gaffes he has made along the way. The first major-studio project he shot was a TV series called The Flash. “Someone came up to me and asked if I needed ‘greens.’ I thought he was talking about ficus trees, and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Turns out, of course, he was talking about green beds that cost about $80,000 to put up. The guy went back to the producer and said, ‘This guy’s brilliant; he just saved us $80,000.’ A week before shooting, I announced, ‘I’m going to need some way to put lights up there.’ The guy looked at me like I was a moron and said, ‘I asked you that before.’”
Even after 30 years as a cinematographer, Kenny still gets excited about “what you can achieve through the power of an image. There is a reason why you’re telling a story a certain way with your camera and with light. Justified has a wonderful texture — the characters have dirt under their fingernails, their jeans are 10 years old — so I light in a way I call ‘asymmetrical.’ On most shows the actors are perfectly lit, but the producers on Justified let me use toplight. It’s not smooth and perfectly wrapped; instead, it looks real, and that makes the story better. Of course, I couldn’t do any of it without my remarkable crew.”
Kenny maintains that “nothing looks as good as film,” but he has enthusiastically embraced digital capture, shooting the first two seasons of Justified on Sony cameras and the current season on the Red Epic. He likes shooting with four or five cameras simultaneously because it facilitates “a continuity in the acting. There is something magical when you shoot that way, and I have learned not to compromise the light.
“I refuse to use a DIT [digital-imaging technician],” he continues. “I don’t want somebody else telling me what [the image] should look like. I give the card to a crew member who downloads the data. Sometimes I’ll follow a little histogram. When I start to color time, I throw away the look-up tables ("looks" created by a digital technician while on the set)— every single one of them. I know what the latitude is. Besides, every time you move a cart with monitors, things are going to change.”
Kenny joined the ASC in 1998, after he was proposed for membership by Robert Stevens, Sol Negrin and Sandi Sissel. He refers to the Society as “the advanced school of cinematography [because you learn so much] from the other members. Some are 3-D specialists, some excel at comedies, others at dark movies.”
He recently sat down with Owen Roizman, ASC, and watched the remastered The Exorcist, which Roizman shot in 1973. “To levitate Linda Blair, they built a kind of Plexiglas [board under her] and suspended it from the ceiling with four wires,” relates Kenny. “I went right up to the TV and said, ‘Owen, where are the wires?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you a trick. It’s a black wire, but every other inch I painted white.’ He had created an optical illusion that your eye couldn’t focus on. Now, do you know any other place in the world where you could learn something like that? That’s what’s magical about the ASC!”
Roizman, an ASC vice president who also serves as vice chairman of the Membership Committee, describes Kenny as “a very gentle soul and, at the same time, very tough. That’s a rare combination. He is a fantastic father to his daughter, Kate, and he’s a terrific still photographer. He knows all about printing, Photoshop, all those things that I seem to take so much time to figure out.”
Kenny considers Roizman both a mentor and a close friend. “I listen to Owen a lot, and not just about artistic and technical matters. He taught me that there are times when I need to keep my mouth shut. If I feel somebody is out of line, even within the ASC, I [usually want to confront them]. But those types of arguments don’t really go anywhere.”
However, he is always up for a robust discussion. “We have a lot of spirited political conversations,” affirms Richard Crudo, an ASC vice president, “but we don’t come away from them feeling like we’ve been through a battle. Francis is a good listener.”
Crudo, who does second-unit and additional photography on Justified, considers Kenny “one of the [most] under-rated cinematographers working today. He has an artist’s eye and a terrifically discerning taste on what will work in the context of a scene. But he doesn’t blow his own horn; he likes to do his work and go home.”
That’s because Kenny considers his most important role to be that of father to Kate, his 10-year-old. Goi marvels at how “Francis balances being a world-class cinematographer and a first-class father without sacrificing either in terms of importance.” Before Kate started school, she always accompanied her father on location. (Today Kenny only takes jobs that shoot in Los Angeles.) Kate notes, “The place we’ve been to most often is Vancouver.”
Like her father, Kate is an avid reader. When she spoke to AC, she and her father were on their way to a bookstore. Asked what she would like people to know about her father, she thinks a moment and then declares, “He is really awesome.”
Kenny’s self-assessment is a bit more complex. “I know my limitations both as an artist and as a human being,” he says. “My hope is that I keep learning and getting better. Will I ever be as good as Owen or Caleb [Deschanel, ASC] or [Vittorio] Storaro [ASC, AIC]? I don’t know. What’s important is that I strive to be the best that I can be.”
With his inquisitive mind, wide-ranging interests and passion for learning, Kenny is a modern-day Renaissance man. A voracious reader, he can chat about everything from the latest medical research to Edith Wharton’s obsession with symmetry. Roizman and Crudo both admit to being constantly amazed by “his remarkable breadth of knowledge.”
Kenny sees himself as “a Will Rogers kind of guy. I assume everyone is a good person. I like people. I like hearing what they have to say.” Nevertheless, he has no illusions about the state of the world. “It’s sad. I talked to some kids the other day who didn’t know where Vietnam is. And look at today’s economic [problems], and then remember what helped [lead] to World War II. A bankrupt country looks for somebody to blame.”
Still, he holds tightly to his optimism. “I have faith that things will get better,” he says. “Besides, what’s our choice? It’s bleak out there. You have to be optimistic.”