Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Cinematography Award: The Visual Poet: Buddy Squires
This year, IDA honors Buddy Squires with the 2007 Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Cinematography Award, which is sponsored by Kodak. Squires was a bit surprised because his career is still a work-in-progress. He was even more surprised upon learning that he is only the second cinematographer to receive this recognition in the 23-year history of the IDA Awards (Joan Churchill was the first, in 2005).
Documentaries are generally the director’s vision, but the audience sees them through the eyes of the cinematographer. In 1993, Squires collaborated with director Mickey Lemle on Compassion in Exile: The Life of the 14th Dalai Lama for PBS. They were in
“I was filming the refugees meeting with the Dalai Lama when something I saw on the face of a young nun encouraged me to take a risk and follow her when she walked away from the crowd,” Squires recalls. “I followed her to a small group of people who were all profoundly overwhelmed with the emotions of the moment. The story was on their faces. It’s a two-minute take that plays uncut in the film. Those two minutes speak directly to the heart-wrenching plight of people who were torn from their country.”Squires has earned some 80 documentary cinematography credits since the Oscar-nominated
Those statistics are just part of a much larger picture. Documentaries lensed by Squires have earned 18 Emmy and eight Oscar nominations in other categories. That isn’t a coincidence, because an accurate description of documentaries without images is radio.
An arbitrary short list of his credits includes such diverse and memorable projects as The Civil War, Baseball, Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, Mark Twain, Heart of a Child, The Donner Party, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and Jazz. Squires also collaborated with Burns and Lynn Novick while filming their interviews with some 50 people sharing 60-year-old painful memories in last fall’s The War.
“Buddy’s lighting was soft and sympathetic,” Burns observes. “He helped us make everyone feel comfortable and look good. He used interpretive composition and recorded subtly lighter and darker, warmer and cooler images in tune with the words.”
Most of the interviews were done in people’s homes because the subjects felt most at ease there. Squires would arrive a little early to establish rapport and to find the right settings. The interviews were recorded on Super-16mm film, “because film feels organic and that set the right mood for the stories they were telling,” Squires observes. He would carry minimal equipment—an Aaton PROD camera, a few zoom lenses and a couple of small lights into people’s homes—and he’d make intuitive decisions to slightly under- or over-expose the film just enough to create the right textures for the moods. “No cinematographer is invisible,” Squires maintains. “People notice you, but you can make it a comfortable experience for them. The clock and invisibility comes from being calm, acting confident and patient. If people feel that you respect them and aren’t invading their privacy, they’ll treat you like a friend.” Squires has shot diverse documentaries in faraway places. In 1990, he went to
“Buddy has an amazing sixth sense for anticipating magic moments and getting them on film with exactly the right composition,” says John Dowdell, who has witnessed the evolution of Squires’ cinematography from a unique perspective. As senior colorist at Goldcrest Post
Editor Paul Barnes notes, “I have edited films Buddy shot in places where history happened. His lighting brought out the textures and colors that created atmospheres and augmented moods that make you feel like you are witnessing history.” “Buddy has indefatigable energy,” Burns adds. “He is uncomplaining, hardworking and finds solutions to every problem. He can shoot both cinematic images and edgy-looking film, depending on the story. Either way it is authentic, natural-looking and organic. He is an invaluable colleague and friend.” Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for around 40 years with a main focus on cinematography.