Carroll Ballard – Director-Cameraman
My greatest heroes in filmmaking and constant sources of inspiration are director-cameramen – directors who also serve as their own cinematographers or as one of their own camera operators. Among this group are Stanley Kubrick, Claude Lelouch, Russ Meyer, Steven Soderbergh, Haskell Wexler, John Cassavetes. This post is about another giant filmmaker, Carroll Ballard, director and cameraman of such classic films as The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, and Fly Away Home.
One of the great privileges of being a TV news cameraman is that every once in a while you get to meet someone who has been a hero to you. This story was one of those golden nuggets in my career.
A few years ago I read a story in the Sunday edition of the Sacramento Bee that legendary director Carroll Ballard was having difficulty convincing Warner Brothers to release his latest film Duma. They didn’t want to risk the advertising costs of a theatrical release and wanted to push it out straight-to-DVD. Ballard managed to get them to do a trial release in three cities – Phoenix, San Antonio and Sacramento. Sacramento! This was too good to be true! Then I saw that the film was going to open the coming Friday.
I happened to have Carroll Ballard’s home phone number (don’t ask me how) and called him asking if I could do an interview with him for KCRA in Sacramento to help promote his movie.
“Oh, wow, that would be great,” he said. “But I don’t have time to come into Sacramento right now. You’d have to come up to my house.”
This was even better than I could have hoped for. The next morning I was up at his vineyard estate in the hills above St. Helena, just north of Napa. I shot him with two cameras, my regular news camera and my Panasonic DVX 100A, so that I could cross-cut between the two and keep the story moving. Then for additional B-roll he took me into his warehouse and took out a camera case, opened it and showed me his Eclair CM3.
After I finished shooting I told him how beautiful these cameras are and how, even though I am all digital, I still want to buy one some day. Then he said, “Here, see how this feels,” and he put his CM3 in my hands. I couldn’t believe it – I was holding and looking through the very camera that he had shot his classic films with.
When I was leaving I told Ballard that I thought The Black Stallion was the best edited movie I’d ever seen and held it on par with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which flattered him very much. I saw the film when it first came out and still to this day I cannot watch the great racetrack sequence at the end without tearing up.
The story ran on KCRA that Friday, promoting the fact that Sacramento was a test city for the film. This must have had some impact because Duma ran at local cinemas not just for the week but continued playing on screens for over a month. Sadly, Warner Brothers were not swayed and Duma went out to the rest of the country only as a DVD. It should be noted that Roger Ebert and almost every other critic in the country gave the film strong reviews and castigated Warner Brothers, saying that Duma was one of the best films of the year and the best direct-to-DVD film they’d ever screened.
This behind-the-scenes footage of Carroll Ballard filming Fly Away Home with his 35mm Eclair camera.
Carroll Ballard was a part of Francis Ford Coppola’s original American Zoetrope team that also included George Lucas and John Milius. As I understand the story, both Coppola and Lucas, when they were both still film students, were both strongly influenced by the French New Wave and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who’s early films were shot with the French 35mm Eclair CM3 Cameflex movie camera, and were drawn to Carroll Ballard because he owned an Eclair CM3. As a result of this association, they both bought their own CM3’s and still have them to this day.