Joseph Walker — My Toughest Shooting Assignment (1937) 🇺🇸

Frank Capra and Joseph Walker |

May 10, 2023

It’s difficult to call any picture on which I work in conjunction with Frank Capra “tough” because we agree on so many points that it is a pleasure to turn out a screen story under his direction.

Nevertheless, I can truthfully say that Lost Horizon is my toughest shooting assignment for many reasons. In the first place all the other Capra pictures on which I have been photographer have been in natural, simple surroundings. Such stories about ordinary human beings in every-day surroundings not only needed no photographic embellishments but they were definitely out of place. In Lost Horizon a different handling of the camera was necessary to give an illusion of reality and also to retain the peculiar tempo of the story itself.

According to the story, Lost Horizon concerns the discovery of a lost land high in the Himalayas and of a group of people who have learned how to live to be hundreds of years old through the teachings of the High Lama.

In photographing such a story, we have had more opportunity for beautiful and unusual photographic effects, logically introduced, than in any of the other pictures we have made. Anyone who has read James Hilton’s description of his fantastic Shangri-La will realize that the photographer has his job cut out for him to match those vivid words with equally vivid pictures. Stephen Goosson, the Columbia art director, gave us one of the most beautiful and effective sets I have seen as a basis to work on. In this case, the beauty of Shangri-La is necessary to the effectiveness of the story. Just how well we have caught it in the camera’s eye we will have to leave to the judgment of the public when it is released.

It was necessary to maintain an air of great age and wisdom in the scenic effects, hence, the camera work had to be extremely fine and perfectly focussed. Again, the air in the High Himalayas is extremely rarified and thus a clear and lucid picture had to result to give the outdoor scenes a look of authenticity. This meant careful timing, painstaking camera work and a flawless lens focus.

Most of the scenic shots of Lost Horizon were virgin territory so far as motion pictures are concerned. One of the interesting sequences is set in a Tibetan Village in the Valley of the Blue Moon. The Tibetan costumes are unusual in themselves and the primitive existence of these natives in the architecture of their houses, their crude wooden tools, the yaks that take the place of cows, all offered new photographic opportunities that also presented new problems daily to the camera crew’.

The snow sequences of the picture also had excellent photographic value and the opening part of the story, showing the uprising in Baskul, in which about a thousand Chinese natives were used, offered opportunity for some exciting crowd shots.

We had a difficult time finding people who approximated the appearance of Tibetans. There are no Tibetans to be found in this country. The nearest racial type are the Eskimos — nearly as scarce. Mexicans, Hawaiians, Filipinos and other nationalities were tested by the hundreds and found to be lacking in the expression and characteristics we needed. The problem lay in certain features and cast of physiognomy difficult to describe. We knew what we wanted, at any rate. Every camera test that I made resulted in the clear-seeing lens pointing out the flaws in the appearance of the type tested.

Finally, the search ended on the Pala reservation of Mission Indians in San Diego County, California, with the amazing discovery that American Indians of the Western Tribes look and photograph as much like Tibetans as Tibetans themselves!

The photographing of these faces was another matter, however. I soon discovered. Very little make-up was used, therefore the camera had to catch each line and shadow of the natural skin to bring out the expression on the faces of the Indian actors.

With native blacksmiths, pottery makers, weavers and other artisans of the mysterious land at work on their strange, crude machinery and native women and children dressed in their odd clothes, wearing one hundred and eight braids of hair, the picture presented in Lost Horizon is, I believe, the first complete and accurate one of life in Tibet ever to be made on this continent. Of course, I refer to the first part of the pictured story, because the second half continues in a mythical and strange land where the imagination has to furnish the background and also the scenic and photographic effects.

As a matter of fact, there is more variety of background in Lost Horizon than in any picture that I have made with Frank Capra. Regardless of that, however, I do not believe that you will notice any camera work that will intrude on the story merely for the sake of beautiful photography. That is not the Capra method, nor is it mine.

After all, making motion pictures is a business involving many thousands of dollars with each production and I like to think that I am practical enough to submerge my artistic side and look at the job from the practical and economic side. No matter what the picture, it is exciting and interesting to work out the problems at band and try to make it the best effort possible.

Joseph Walker, A.S.C., behind the camera shooting “Lost Horizon.” Frank Capra is seated below as he directs a scene.

Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937