August 28, 2003

Brianne Murphy, ASC: Cinematography Pioneer

Brianne Murphy, ASC, died at her home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico on August 20. The cause of her death was metastatic brain cancer. She was 70 years old. Murphy was the first female member of the American Society of Cinematographers. She became a member in 1980, some 61 years after the organization was founded. That was seven after she became the first woman rated as a director of photography by Local 659, which was the Hollywood section of the International Photographers Guild.

"Brianne Murphy should be remembered for her artful cinematography in such classic television series as Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John, M.D., Highway to Heaven, Father Murphy and In the Heat of the Night," said ASC President Richard Crudo. "She was also a powerful source of inspiration and a role model for a new generation of women cinematographers who followed the path she courageously blazed. A light has gone out in the world, but there is a bright new star in heaven."

Murphy never seemed comfortable with the role of pioneer. In a 1979 interview, she said, "A lot of people expect me to be a leader. They think I should be out there making speeches telling other women how to get jobs in Hollywood. I’m not the type to lead movements. I just wanted to make movies badly enough to pay the piece of being kicked around, disappointed and unemployed."

When she was hired to shoot Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, her first feature film project in 1978, Murphy said, "The producer probably thinks he is taking a big chance hiring a woman as director of photography, but the only thing that made me nervous was whether or not I’d get the job."

Murphy followed an improbable career path to her role as a Hollywood cinematographer. Her parents were Americans who were living in London when she was born on April 1, 1933. "My mother moved us to Bermuda (in 1939) to escape the air raids. One morning I was having breakfast in a hotel resturant when someone came up to our table and said, ‘You’re Emily.’ That’s how I was cast in a Broadway play."

Murphy was only eight years old, and the play just lasted for a week but that was her entry into show business. Murphy maintained it was an unforgettable experience, and a first step on her career path. She was raised in the United States from the age of eight, and subsequently enrolled at Pembroke College (which was later renamed Brown University). After working her way through school, Murphy landed a newspaper job. One of her first assignments was an interview with Elia Kazan about Broadway. Murphy had met the director during her one week stint on Broadway.

"I asked him if he remembered me, " Murphy said. "In turn, he wanted to know why I wasn’t acting. I never went back to the newspaper. The next thing I knew, I was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City."

When the circus came to town in 1954, Murphy decided it would be "very American to get a job feeding the elephants or something," but they literally threw her out. She came back with a friend the next day dressed as clowns. They made it into the ring in the middle of Madison Square Garden. That started a wild chase, which was covered by newsreels, Look Magazine and other media. The hype landed Murphy a job as an assistant to the official still photographer for the circus. At the end of the season, Murphy migrated to Hollywood where she got a job taking pictures at a nightclub.

That’s how she met Jerry Warren, who specialized in producing low budget, horror films. Warren offered Murphy a $50 a week job as script supervisor/makeup, hair and wardrobe designer, and still photographer in a 1956 film called Man Beast. She was employed in similar roles in other horror flicks, including The Incredible Petrified World, Teenage Zombies and House of Black Death.

Murphy used the opportunity to learn other jobs, including editor, camera operator and director of photography on low budget, non-union films, documentaries and occasional commercials, "and when the floor needed sweeping, I picked up a broom."

She earned her first director of photography credits in 1962 for Panchito y el Gringo and The Magic Tide. Murphy joined the camera guild, "because it looked like the only way I could have a chance to make quality films. My first call came from NBC-TV for a documentary about the women’s movement, the ladies involved insisted upon a woman director of photography, which gave NBC a field of one to choose from."

Murphy had never used a 16 mm camera before, so she told the network that she wanted to use her own equipment. She rented an ARRI BL camera and practiced with it before the shoot. The network told her that in the future, she would be required to use their Auricon cameras. Murphy trained herself to use the Auricon before her next call.

She subsequently shot documentaries for all three networks as well as some behind the scenes films and occasionally filled in for other cinematographers on TV programs. Murphy found a champion and he discovered a worthy student when Ted Voightlander, ASC, a venerable cinematographer took her under his wing in 1974. Voightlander was working on Little House in the Prairie and other Michael Landon productions. He and Murphy filmed alternate episodes of the hit TV series. Murphy said it was like going to school, because she got to watch Voightlander at work. He was her mentor, which made both of them proud.

In 1977, Murphy shot a TV series called Kaz and another series called Like Mom, Like Me the following year. Around that time, she commented on her role as cinematographer, "I don’t have any particular style. I think it is more important to be able to design a look that matches each film I am making than it is to be identified with a specific way of lighting. Sometimes I am able to paint with light on film. Other times I only record scenes, although I wish I could paint all the time…I guess the monster movies I shot gave me the most freedom. Since no one knew what a monster was supposed to look like, I was able to set the mood most of the time. Now, that’s more of a team effort between the writer, director and me."

Murphy was nominated for membership in ASC by Voightlander and Harry Wolfe based upon her growing body of work. She chose to never make an issue out of being the first female member and the only one for the next 15 years. Murphy was active in the organization, and served several terms on the board of directors.

Murphy earned a daytime Emmy award in 1978 for her camerawork on Five Finger Discount, an NBC-TV special. She also collected Emmy nominations for the prime evening time series Breaking Away (1981), Highway to Heaven (1985) and for the PBS special, There Were Times Dear (1987) .Murphy also shared an Award of Merit from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her role in the concept and design of an insert car and process trailer with features which safeguarded the crew.
During an interview about her role as a cinematographer, she said, "It's a tremendous responsibility. It gives me the opportunity to get inside of people’s heads and learn what makes them tick. I can help shape opinions and influence ideas. Most of all, I can focus on why a movie is being made."
Murphy was one of the founders of Women in Film, and a founding member of Behind the Lens, an organization for female cinematographers and crewmembers. She received the Women in Film Lucy Award in 1995 for Innovation in Television.

Murphy suffered various indignities during her journey simply because she was a woman who was breaking new ground. She told a story about the time she reported for work during the first day of a movie being filmed at Paramount Studios. The security guard stopped her at the gate insisting that her name wasn’t on the roster. Murphy tried to explain that she was the cinematographer. He checked the roster again, and said, "Nope, its Brian Murphy." He was incredulous, Murphy recalled.

"He didn’t believe that a woman could be shooting a Hollywood movie," she explained. "Someone from the producer’s office had to verify that it was me."
Time had passed, and Murphy was able to laugh about that incident and similar ones. After she was established, we asked Murphy what advice she had to offer to young filmmakers who wanted to follow in her footsteps.

"I do everything I can to discourage them," she replied. "It’s a tough grind, and the only people who succeed are those who make up their minds that nothing else will do. When someone tells me that, I do everything I can to help him or her."

Bob Fisher / Courtesy of American Society of Cinematographers

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