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Our Rich History: Approaching Oscars, we remember Robert Surtees, a local man who won several

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

With the 90th Annual Academy Awards ceremony scheduled for March 4 we should celebrate one of our region’s most frequent winners of the highly coveted Oscar® award. This Academy achievement was not for an actor or a director. Believe it or not, the winner of three Academy Awards from our region went to one of the more obscure, behind-the-scene members of a film crew for Best Cinematography, Robert Surtees, A.S.C. (member of the American Society of Cinematographers).

What are the specialized responsibilities of a cinematographer? Despite what many may believe, a cinematographer is more than just a camera operator. Also known as the Director of Photography, or “DP,” the cinematographer collaborates with the film director and makes creative choices, such as composition, lighting, camera movement, depth-of-field, camera view zooming, choice of lenses, and even selection of film stock (or today’s digital image sensors in video production).

Surtees won three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, for the M.G.M. films King Solomon’s Mines (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and the sound, wide-screen version of Ben-Hur (1959). He was among the few classic film era cinematographers to transition successfully into the contemporary, more independent era of motion pictures in the 1960s. His exclusive style was for lavish location images captured in beautiful Technicolor® and later, expansive widescreen film processes, yet he earned one of his Academy Awards for his contrasting lush, black-and-white images in The Bad and the Beautiful.

Robert Surtees, in the jacket, is seated in the center of this photo of the Ben-Hur camera crew. Source: Scott Rollins Film & TV Trivia Blog

Robert L. Surtees was born in Covington, Kentucky on August 9, 1906, but was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he attended Withrow High School. He was the son of James D. and Elizabeth R. Sayers Surtees. He began his career in Cincinnati as a portrait photographer, including retouching photographs.

Surtees moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s to serve as an apprentice to established cinematographers, including Gregg Toland and Joseph Ruttenberg. He officially became the M.G.M. director of photography in the early 1940s and remained at that studio for nearly 20 years.

Surtees established a realistic look in Technicolor with innovative camera filtering and lighting techniques. Film historians have implied that post-Renaissance impressionist artists inspired his work, such as the lavish Technicolor display of the African landscape in King Solomon’s Mines (1950), for which he won his first Academy Award.

However, Surtees is often credited for inventing the look and visual expression of the highly successful Biblical epics of the 1950s, for his filmmaking roles in Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) which bookended the height of the Biblical film era. Both were opulent in size and cost, yet most critics claim that these two films have stood the test of time as high quality examples of this genre.

Some film historians point to Quo Vadis as establishing the successful formula for the Golden Age of Biblical Epics of the 1950s, shot on authentic locations based on Ancient World stories, and featuring a cast of thousands. Such authenticity inspired Surtees and his camera crew. In fact, Surtees himself wrote, in the serial publication American Cinematographer in 1951, that “the very fact we were working and living in Rome itself meant a great deal. Rome and Romans always had seemed so remote, so vague; now, here we were, working among the ruins, the tombs, market places, and the temples of those people we had come to know vaguely through our history books. We were shooting scenes in the actual locales where Peter had been crucified, and where St. Paul had been beheaded. This had a profound effect on all of us.”

Surtees’s third Academy Award for Cinematography, for Ben-Hur in 1959, reflected his peers’ recognition of his role in designing the template followed by others in the popular Biblical epic era of the mid-20th century.

Immediately after launching the stature of color cinematic style of motion pictures in the 1950s, Surtees set another standard for black-and-white cinematography, collaborating with the legendary film director Vincent Minnelli in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Minnelli recognized, in his autobiography, that Surtees captured the contrasting affectionate and cynical moods in the picture, which was about the film industry itself. He utilized velvety black and intensely white images together to achieve his inimitable visual expressions.

Chariot scene, Ben-Hur, as being filmed by Surtees and his camera crew. Source: Cinephiliabeyond

Not long after his success with black-and-white cinematography, Surtees led the way to visual distinction in the wide-screen era of motion pictures with the Broadway-to-Hollywood transfer of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1955). Not only did he accomplish the wide-screen task of visual images that appeared to wrap around the viewer, he achieved it by filming the performances in two discrete wide-screen formats, shot twice: Todd-AO® and CinemaScope®. Surtees also projected a modern, clean treatment of the vast Western and rural pictorial setting of Oklahoma, inspired by Peter Hurd’s paintings.

Surtees’s Academy Award-winning honor for Ben-Hur (1959) displayed the skilled height of his wide-screen successes. By viewing the recent Blu Ray high-definition format of Ben-Hur, we can observe that Surtees had a brilliant flair for perfectly projecting clarity of the visual aspects of this epic story. American Cinematographer film reviewer, Jim Hemphill, noted that, “throughout the film’s nearly four-hour running time, your eye is guided precisely where Surtees wants it to be in the 2.76:1 frame. Indeed, Ben-Hur’s emotional impact depends almost entirely on its technical execution…it is ultimately a triumph of old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship. The direction, production design, cinematography and costumes are impeccable, and the cumulative effect of all the visual detail is overwhelming.”

Surtees’s later contemporary works included innovative films such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Graduate (1967), The Last Picture Show (1971), and The Sting (1973). During his career of over 50 years, nearly 100 feature films displayed his screen credit. Variety described Surtees as, “a prolific filmmaker and persistent competitor.” He was nominated for 16 Academy Awards (some twice in the same year) over five consecutive decades between 1945 through 1979. Surtees’s same- year nominations prompted a revision in the Academy Award rules, limiting cinematographers to one nomination per year.

Surtees died in 1985 in Monterey, California, leaving a legacy among celluloid craftsmen for Oscar nominations and wins.

Surtees’s son, Bruce Surtees, followed his father’s footsteps as a renowned cinematographer, starting in the 1970s working with actors Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and others. Bruce Surtees died in 2012.

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“And the Oscar goes to……” Since 1929, this phrase has been associated with a gold-plated, 8.5 lb. (3.856 kg.), 13.5 in. (34.3 cm.) tall Oscar® statuette awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the motion picture industry’s most outstanding cinematic successes. The golden icon is officially called the “Award of Merit.” The Academy fiercely guards its intellectual property of the Oscar name and statuette as regulated on its official website where it states (http://www.oscars.org/legal/regulations):

The symbol ©A.M.P.A.S.® is posted here next to the image of the Oscar® Award of Merit statuette as required by the official website

The Academy, as the copyright owner of the Academy’s “Oscar” statuette, and owner of its trademarks and service marks, including “OSCAR®,” “OSCARS®,” “ACADEMY AWARD®,” “ACADEMY AWARDS®,” “OSCAR NIGHT®,” “A.M.P.A.S.®” and the federally registered “Oscar” design mark, is required to protect its properties against unauthorized uses and infringements.

The Academy’s “code of fair practice” governs the use of any of its trademarked and copyrighted symbols, as well as policies for the use of clips from Academy Award presentations. It also limits the use of the Oscar in advertising for only those motion pictures that have been nominated or have won the coveted award. However, Fair Use could rightfully exist in limited cases where one could use the copyrights or trademarks for freedom of expression, such as in news reporting. The Academy site supports Fair Use of the U.S. Copyright Law by regulating that, “broadcast news programs and services may excerpt portions of the Academy Awards telecast for rebroadcast during the seven days following the telecast (up to, and including, Sunday),” subject to certain conditions listed on its website. News and editorial published representations of the Oscar statuette, “must include the legend “©A.M.P.A.S.®” to provide notice of copyright, trademark and service mark registration.”

So, the next time you host an Oscar party or community event in a public venue, use caution in any use of the copyrights or trademarks associated with the Academy. Permission may be required for those uses outside of Fair Use for news reporting or freedom of expression.  

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John Schlipp, is an Associate Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at NKU’s Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property. The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Click here for details about this free community service.

IMAGE SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Awards#/media/File:Academy_Award_trophy.jpg

A Footnote to this story: Villa Hills Mayor Butch Callery remembers when, on Covington’s behalf many years ago, he arranged for an Historic marker to be placed in Goebel Park honoring Mr. Surtees. “I had the privilege of speaking with Mrs. Surtees on the telephone and also with her son Bruce Surtees of Dirty Harry movies.”

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