When Larry Fong (BFA 89 Film) arrived at ArtCenter to study photography, the South Bay camera nerd boasted plenty of technical ability as an image-maker. But when it came to making friends, he had a lot to learn. Fong, who earlier majored in linguistics at UCLA, recalls, "I didn’t put myself into it socially at UCLA, so when I started classes at ArtCenter I remember thinking, 'I want to make friends here that'll last forever.' I’m kind of a private person, but I decided to be sociable."
That decision would yield rich rewards for cinematographer Fong, who has gone on to shoot groundbreaking music videos and more than $1.6 billion worth of Hollywood blockbusters directed by filmmakers he befriended at ArtCenter. On break between giant gorilla reboot Kong: Skull Island (opening March 10) and pre-production for Shane Black's The Predator, Fong looked back fondly on the enduring bonds he formed at ArtCenter. "The first week of classes, I met someone in the store, we hit it off, and I thought to myself, 'I want to be friends with this guy!' His name was Zack Snyder."
Switching from Photography and Imaging to Film halfway through school, Fong began shooting student shorts for Snyder (BFA 89 Film), Tarsem Singh (BFA 90 Film) and other classmates. "Zack made a World War II movie on Super 8," Fong said. "He spent his own money to rent a Bobcat bulldozer and dug trenches in the backyard of his apartment building. He rented Nazi costumes and used garden hoses to make rain and had explosions, so as I was shooting all this, I'm thinking, 'This guy’s insane.' But it’s interesting because the people who took those projects seriously, like Tarsem and Zack, made some amazing films on Super 8. That's when I learned you can do a lot with a little."
Fong graduated in 1989 and caught his first big break a couple of years later when director Singh asked him to film R.E.M.'s trendsetting music video "Losing My Religion." "At that time I was really good at panning around quickly, making things go out of focus, turning off the camera and turning it on again," Fong said. "That was Tarsem's style. We didn't want to just film a performance where you've got big hair people leaping around with smoke everywhere. In a sense, we were making mini movies."
I don't really have a standard practice for making these movies. Each time out, it's a completely different animal.Larry Fong
"Losing My Religion" won MTV's Video of the Year honors and put Fong on the map with ad agencies. Over the next decade, he shot dozens of lucrative TV commercials but eventually became frustrated by creative constraints. "The storyboards told you exactly what to do," he said. "One time, I finally made some suggestions and the agency came back and told me 'Will you please shut up and shoot the damn boards.' That's when I hit a wall."
The next day, Fong's childhood buddy J.J. Abrams asked him to serve as Director of Photography for Lost. The pilot episode, shot in a wide-screen format on 35mm film, got nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers ASC Award and primed Fong for his leap to movies when he joined director Snyder on 300. Inspired by Frank Miller's hyper-violent graphic novel set in ancient Sparta, Fong and Snyder devised a radically de-saturated palette. Fong explained, "The source material had a very water painterly look so Zack said, 'Lets make this movie look like a painting as much as possible.' We did lots of tests and because of our music video experiences in the telecine room, both of us knew how to push an image to its limits."
Grossing $456 million worldwide box office, 300 established the mild-mannered Fong as a master of big screen spectacle. After re-teaming with Snyder on Sucker Punch, Watchmen and brooding superhero showdown Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he spent most of last year filming Skull Island in the jungles of Hawaii and Vietnam. Fong noted, "I don't really have a standard practice for making these movies. In Batman v Superman, Zack gave me time to light one camera at a time so every image really counts. But then I go do Kong: Skull Island, which is mostly exteriors. I'm shooting on digital instead of film. Everything goes faster. You're using more cameras. Each time out, it's a completely different animal."
Regardless of the project, Fong has learned to put his formidable technique in service of the story. "I was always focused on the technical," said Fong, who built his own dark room in junior high school. "But you can't just make a technically accurate image and expect the audience to feel any emotion. Now, I'm always striving to create something intangible through my work. I guess that comes with age and maturity."
When he's not walking his Afghan Hound down Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Studio City freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies and TV for outlets including Wired, Fast Company and Los Angeles Times.