The Eye Behind the Still Camera

An excerpt from article from International Photographers Magazine Oct. 1983

Kim Gottlieb Walker launched her film career as a teenager, when she wrote, shot, produced, directed and starred in her own version of Cleopatra. This 8mm extravaganza was “released” the same year as Liz Taylor’s Hollywood version, replete with special effects and a sea battle. Shot on location in a Long Beach mausoleum, the shooting ran into trouble when management appeared on the set to discover a bevy of high-school beauties cavorting in diaphanous gowns. They had not imagined she was making “that kind” of a movie and promptly shut down production.

Today she is no less dynamic in her work as a feature still photographer. It was only two weeks ago that Walker wrapped production on John Carpenter’s seventh film, Christine, eight months into her second pregnancy. Work on the film began when Kim was only three months pregnant, “Which was perfect, you’re just past the queazies and full of nest-building energy. It was fun,” she admits, “the pregnancy was in the way (quite literally) only in tight spots.”

About the response of the crew of Christine, Walker laughs, “It was a whole family of godparents. My belly was community property, which was fine, except for occasional overprotecting.” When she photographed an exploding gas station sequence from a ladder, the unit publicist nervously rushed in to spot her from below and was visibly relieved that Kim survived intact. Her unusual circumstance called forth her resourcefulness. On any normal shoot, for example, her method to combat back fatigue is ingenious enough: a carpenter’s belt slung around the hips, lenses in pockets. That way, she explains, the pressure is off her back and she avoids wearing a cumbersome jacket to carry lenses. However, there is no way to wear a carpenter’s belt around a pregnant belly. Her solution: a chair parked strategically alongside the set, her jacket over the back. She would dip into the pockets for equipment, no longer needing to carry lenses. She managed in this way to cover everything without too much strain.

There is a certain “machisma” to being a camera person, Kim maintains, pregnant or not. She will do what it takes to get the shot. On Christine, she wanted to shoot the stunt work for its dramatic value. “You want to capture that moment. That’s the exciting part, to be looking through the camera’s lens, recording the moment, come hell or high water. It’s more or less the basic nature of a camera person.” She adds, “It was really wonderful working with Don Morgan,” Director of Photography on Christine, “because he understood” her needs, like finding a safe position for her with the still camera and setting up barricades for explosion shots.

Walker’s career began when, as a film student at U.C. Berkeley in the late 1960’s, she recorded the events of those tumultuous times on film. Later, in graduate studies at UCLA film school, she operated a camera on Bill Kerby’s social documentary and photographed for the Staff (successor of the Free Press).

In 1976, her work in features began as still photographer for a never-released independent feature. On that film. Walker met then script supervisor, Deborah Hill, who later hired Kim to work on Escape From New York (produced by Hill, directed by Carpenter). Since these beginnings, Kim has shot still primarily for John Carpenter and Deborah Hill on The Fog, Halloween I, Halloween II, and Christine.

Kim compares her present work with her former career in journalistic photography. “More happens in front of your lens in filmmaking than ever would in journalism. In films, sets explode and actors perform, all for your camera.”

She sees herself as part of the camera crew. “It’s a team, with the director of photography as team-leader. As the still photographer, however, you are your own boss. It is one of the best jobs on a film. You’re in charge of what you shoot. In a sense, you’re both D.P. and operator.”

Walker sees her task as recording the critical action of each scene, to tell the film’s story in photographs. “Stills also help establish the image of the film for the press kits, reviews, posters and billboards. The continuity shots, diplomacy pictures, and crew shots, on the other hand, facilitate other people’s work and document the experience for the crew itself.” She emphasizes the importance of having a good working relationship with every member of the crew, giving and taking flexibly in order to make a picture.

Film work is intense and Walker admits it is nice to drop back into normal domestic existence between jobs. But after she’s been at home for a while, she is ready again for the action. It is a give and take which lends her life a vitalizing balance…. …Walker counts herself lucky to be working with a supportive crew and as part of John Carpenter’s “film family.” She puts it this way, “Filmmaking has such long hours, so many built-in difficulties, so much hurry-up-and-wait, what would be the point, if it were not such a joyful process?”