A frequent collaborator with former AFI co-student David Lynch, Frederick Elmes has supplied a dreamy, super-realistic visual style to four of Lynch's features, including "Eraserhead" (1977, which began as a student film) and more recently, "Wild at Heart" (1990). Raised in New Jersey, he became interested in photography when he was lent a Leica camera by his father. After studies at Rochester Institute of Technology and NYU, Elmes won a fellowship to the American Film Institute, where he encountered two directors with whom he would later collaborate: John Cassavetes and Lynch.
A devotee of natural light, which has helped create some of the haunting faces seen in the films of Lynch and Cassavetes, Elmes earned his first screen credit as an additional camera operator on Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) and later served as director of photography on two of the director's films, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976) and "Opening Night" (1977). In the latter, he successfully created an erratic look and feel to correspond with the mental imbalances of the character played by Gena Rowlands. Later in 1977, he created the eerie look of Lynch's cult midnight movie "Eraserhead." Elmes has been able to adapt to frothy films such as Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl" (1983), in which the look of the two locales had to contrast yet a bubble-gummish hue had to prevail, and "Real Genius" (1985), in which the world of the science had to seem almost as if one was inside the working, throbbing human brain.
Elmes came into his own, however, with his second teaming with Lynch. "Blue Velvet" (1986) earned him the Best Cinematography award from the National Society of Film Critics for its bizarre and dark wide-screen look. Elmes went on to help Lynch create a decidedly unnerving feel for "Wild at Heart" (1990), with its intoxicated lighting. He also earned praise for his award-winning work on Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth" (1992), which was challenging partly because most of the action of the film was confined to the interior of a taxi. "Reckless" (1995) was filmed as if it were occurring in a make-believe world in order to underscore the naivete of the central character and the quirky individuals she encounters in her journey.
Elmes earned an Emmy nomination for his crisp lensing of Christopher Reeve's directorial debut, "In the Gloaming" (HBO, 1997). The telefilm relied almost entirely on the sunset, the "magic hour" of filming, when the sun had dipped beneath the horizon, but light still prevails. Elmes used both natural and artificial sources for the light, but the warmth of that light had to bring estranged characters together and they did, indeed, seemed wrapped in it as if blankets. He used similar techniques for his sterling cinematography on Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" (1997), which utilized glass surfaces and mirrors as both a foreshadowing of the climactic storm as well as a representation of the characters and their detachment from one another. A second-unit crew had actually filmed a real ice storm which put pressure on Elmes when it came time to film the actors. That he succeeded in creating a believable, magical yet deadly tempest is a testament to his capabilities. His lighting and expert camerawork fully complemented the film's themes of isolation and repression.
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Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cinematography (TV Mini-Series)
Directed short, "Street Scenes"
Moved to Los Angeles
First feature film credit (additional camera operator), "A Woman Under the Influence", directed by John Cassavetes
First feature as director of photography, Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"
Last collaboration with Cassavetes, "Opening Night"
Worked with David Lynch on feature-length version of "Eraserhead"
First worked with Martha Coolidge on "Valley Girl"
Shot "Dune", directed by Lynch
Won acclaim for his work on Lynch's "Blue Velvet"
First collaboration with Tim Hunter, "River's Edge"
Delved into TV work, "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8" (HBO)
Worked with Martha Coolidge on the unsold CBS TV pilot "Roughhouse"
Served as cinematographer on Lynch's "Wild at Heart"
Was interviewed in the documentary "Visions of Light"
Shot "The Saint of Fort Washington", directed by Tim Hunter
Shot Christopher Reeve's directorial debut, the HBO TV-movie "In the Gloaming"; earned Emmy nomination
Served as director of photography on Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm"
Reteamed with Lee for "Ride With the Devil"
Again collaborated with Ang Lee on "Chosen", one of five short films shown under the collective title "The Hire" at bmwfilms.com