Fred Elmes

Fred Elmes, Los Angeles, 1981

Fred Elmes, who has gone on to a major career as a cinematographer, took over shooting Eraserhead after the original cameraman, Herb Cardwell, left the production during the first year.

December 10, 1981

(How did you get to meet David?)

How did I meet David?  I met David at the American Film Institute.  I was there as a fellow, as a new fellow, as a cinematographer, and I really didn’t have any films to shoot.  There was a problem because there were older cameramen there who were doing all the films, that I didn’t have anything, and one of the instructors there –Tony Vellani – who has always, you know, thought very highly of David, put me in touch with David.  What had happened was that the cinematographer, Herb Cardwell, who started ERASERHEAD – so Herb Cardwell had started the film and was unable to do any more and David needed someone to, you know, to replace him and I stepped in.  And, you know, we talked about this commitment of, you know, a month or two of shooting which of course turned into, you know, several years of shooting.  But that’s how it all came about.  It came about through the American Film Institute because it was a film being done there at the time.

(Did you do any work with Herbert Cardwell?)

Yeah, we had a sort of transition period of, you know, several weeks of shooting where I helped out, and then Herb left.

(Was it difficult to continue something that had been going –)

Well, it wasn’t so difficult, because David has a real clear view of what he wanted.  You know, he had no trouble saying, you know, what it should look like.  And I had done enough work before that I knew how to get a certain look in, you know, with a black and white film.  So it was a matter of carrying on the style that David had established pretty much.

(Is black and white more difficult than colour?)

Yeah, I think it is.  Yeah, it relies more on lighting.  I think in colour you have the advantage of the art direction.  You know, the art direction fills in a lot because you have all this colour palette to play with, but in black and white the light is so important and – you know, not that it wasn’t art directed because it certainly was as well.  But we did tests, you know.  We photographed gray walls, painted different shades of gray, to see how, you know, how dark is what gray, or how dark is what kind of makeup or, you know, hairstyle – or this or that.  We would shoot, you know, a piece of film and test it, see what we liked and then, you know, kind of go from there.

(There was a lot of experimentation?)

It was a lot of feeling our way, yeah, because David had not made this, you know, exactly this kind of film before.  You know, we were both in sync as to what it should look like, but, you know, how to do it was a little bit new, you know, especially when it got into some of the effects.  And we had a great time.  We had made contacts with various key effects people at different studios, and David would come to me and say, “Well now, today, you know, we’re going to try to do this and we want it to look like this.”  You know, “How do we get that?”  And I’d say, “Well, gee, you know – I think we could get it by doing such and such.”  And we’d try it and it would either work or not work.  You know, then we’d go to somebody at the studio and say, “Well, you know, here we are making this film for no money, you know, at the American Film Institute, can you help us?”  And they would.  You know, they would give us little secrets and little tricks on how to do this and how to do that and how to save money doing it.  And, you know, we would try these things and that’s how the film was made.  It was a little trial and error, you know, every step of the way.  We knew what we wanted and we stayed with it.  It wouldn’t have taken four years if we hadn’t, you know, stayed with it.

(Were the effects sequences the last you did on it?)

Most of the effects were last, yeah, the mechanical and the optical effects.

(How long did it take to do things like the stop-motion, the little worm?)

Oh.  Well, again, that’s the sort of thing that took – I think it probably took a day to shoot it, but it took, you know, another day to build it, you know, and another day to do the test on it.  And, I mean, it – everything took longer.  I think if we were a major studio, you know, you would build it in the morning, shoot a test in the afternoon, and photograph it the next day.  With us everything took a bit longer because, you know, we didn’t have the money to just go out and do it.  I mean, we had to work – we would rent special cameras to do pin-registered effects and things like that.  And, you know, we had to rent it over the weekend because you could get two days for the price of one, you know, and that was the only way these things were feasible.  We would build lots of things, you know, for weeks and then, you know, shoot it in two or three days because that’s the period of time we could afford to rent the camera for.