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Museum of Lights, Cameras, Action

A Cinematographer's Romance With Movie Magic

June 09, 2002|MICHAEL VENTRE

Working in the camera department at Paramount Studios during the early '90s, Steve Gainer often spotted tripod legs beckoning from dumpsters on the lot. For a fledgling cinematographer who had followed his outsize love of cameras into the movie world, those ungainly limbs proved signposts to a gold mine of old lenses, filters and other camera accessories tossed out thanks to the premium on storage space at studios.

Gainer went on to become a working cinematographer, but his adventures in back lot dumpster-diving instilled a passion for collecting antique movie cameras, which he now puts to good use as curator of the camera museum at the old American Society of Cinematographers clubhouse in Hollywood.

"I remember driving by and seeing the ASC logo," Gainer says. "I walked in and saw [ASC members] Stanley Cortez ["The Night of the Hunter," "The Magnificent Ambersons"] and Vilmos Zsigmond ["McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"] staring warily at this long-haired freak. I got such a buzz from the place."

The honorary society is devoted to the art of cinematography; members (about 225, in contrast to about 6,000 members of the cinematographers union, IATSE Local 600) are selected by invitation only. Gainer, 39, himself has yet to join their ranks. "It requires a body of work recognized by your peers as outstanding. I'm still a bit young--they don't count commercials or music videos," says Gainer, who also shot last year's controversial indie film "Bully," directed by Larry Clark.

But Gainer couldn't stay away from the ASC, and one day building caretaker Ben Toguchi tipped him to buried treasure in the clubhouse crawl space. "The first thing I saw was a wooden camera," says Gainer.

"They were used before 1912, when metal took over." Further investigation unearthed cases upon cases of cameras, lenses, light meters and other accessories, and a restoration obsession was born. Gainer cleaned wood, had leather replaced at a shoe repair shop and took metal to an aircraft-body plant for burnishing. He also kept collecting. About three years ago, Gainer joined forces with former ASC president Victor Kemper ("The Candidate," "Dog Day Afternoon,") to rebuild the museum, which had been a shambles since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Today, the ASC camera museum has about 50 cameras on display (15 owned by Gainer), including the only known existing E.H. Amet "sound" camera from 1911 and a camera used in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." The ASC is planning to move into a new structure, freeing its current 5,000-square-foot space for an expanded museum.

Old-time movie magic will never be a "wrap" for Gainer, who sometimes uses antique hand-crank cameras to shoot music videos and commercials, and he devotes many a spare hour to his curatorial role. "I love the styling of the old cameras, the Victorian milling and machining process," he says. "If I didn't have to work, I'd be here all the time."

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ASC Museum, (323) 969-4333.

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