Getting The Picture

Baltimore cinematographer Richard Chisolm, at work on Hopkins documentary, finds moments of truth and insight in a shadow or a sideways glance

January 18, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

It was one of those youthful miscalculations that most adults would rather forget. Richard Chisolm and his Catonsville High School buddies were cruising in his mother's car on the Spring Grove Hospital center campus. With his brother's hand-me-down Super 8 camera, Chisolm filmed the psychiatric patients, their odd gaits, bent heads, friendly waves. At the exit, the boys were stopped, their film confiscated and destroyed. Such antics were strictly forbidden.

Twenty-five years later, here's Chisolm once again, in another car, camera in hand. Now he's 42, and a field producer for ABC's ambitious, six-part documentary on Johns Hopkins Hospital scheduled to air this spring. He and a sound man are traveling with Dr. Annelle Primm, director of the community psychiatry program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She and a caseworker are on their way to see a patient, a young woman battling severe depression who has moved into her own apartment.

Chisolm, in the front seat, tapes Primm with a tiny, state-of-the-art video camera as she drives. Baltimore's shattered east side flickers behind her. "What is the general crux of this visit?" Chisolm asks.

"To congratulate her," Primm says; the move is a big milestone. More crucial, she adds, to emphasize how important it is to take her medication.

Just getting to this point in the production process has required a certain amount of professional and personal agility. After a brief, introductory chat with Primm, Chisolm prevailed upon her to haul him, the sound guy and their equipment in her car, and to chat naturally on camera with the caseworker about their client's progress. It's a delicate balancing act: intruding while not being intrusive, manipulating conversation to make it sound real, making judgment calls while in the service of a major television network.

This time, though, Chisolm's footage will not be confiscated; it may well be seen by millions of viewers.

Since that misguided Spring Grove lark, Chisolm, a lifelong Baltimorean and 1982 graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has traveled the world as a cinematographer. He's been to war-torn Zimbabwe and El Salvador for American Red Cross documentaries. He's filmed homeless street children in Guatemala for a PBS series and flown over Alaska with avalanche detonators. Closer to home, Chisolm has filmed documentaries about screen painters, Baltimore's signature folk artists; about "Homicide: Life on the Street"; and about a Severna Park man who owns a fleet of Edsels.

In 1998, Chisolm won an Emmy Award for his work on a "National Geographic" special about two photographers who travel the country taking pictures of endangered animal and plant species. Last year, he was nominated for but didn't win another Emmy for "Avalanche: The White Death," also produced by National Geographic Television.

Along the way, Chisolm has accumulated a lengthy roster of "talking heads" he has filmed during interviews: politicians, celebrities and cultural icons ranging from Iggy Pop to the pope.

`Opportunistic' approach

Credits alone don't define what Chisolm does or what sets his work apart. It's not simply a matter of holding the camera steady in precarious situations or finding the action. It's a complex, shifting equation of subtle choices based on what's available: light, motion, subject matter, and whether to zoom for a close-up or step back for a wide shot. A good cinematographer is also keen to make the most of unanticipated images; a sidelong glance, perhaps, or a tense, private conversation.

Chisolm says his is an "opportunistic" approach. He peers through the lens as if he were watching television or a movie and constantly asks himself, "Is this an interesting shot?" If not, he moves on, seeking shadows, natural light, angles and shots that often require him to accordion his rangy frame into impossibly awkward spaces.

Imagine the sensibilities of a still photographer; apply them to an art form that flashes by at 24 frames a second. These sensibilities make the difference between stock footage and what Kristin Fellows, vice president of Journey Films Inc., calls visual poetry. Fellows is co-producer of "American Byzantine," a documentary premiering this spring that explores the relationship between art and religion and its consummation at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She worked closely with Chisolm on the project, both at the Shrine in Washington and in Italy's Carrara mountains.

"My favorite part of his work is his eye for the story in the details," Fellows says. "Richard becomes one with what he's shooting. I have seen him lying down, on the altar at the Shrine during a huge Mass, an Easter Mass. He wanted to backlight this incense coming out of the censer. Just having this beautiful silver orb moving through the air slowly with smoke coming out of it. The incense, you almost get a whiff of it," Fellows says. "It hits your senses more than just your eyes."

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