Allen Daviau is still in the prime of his career, but he has already created an innovative body of work that will stand the test of time, says Russ Alsobrook, ASC, who chairs the organization’s Awards Committee.
Daviau claimed the first of his five Oscar nominations in 1983 for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. His other nominations were for The Color Purple (1986), Avalon (1991), Empire of The Sun (1988), and Bugsy (1992). The latter two films also took top honors at the ASC Awards, and Empire of The Sun won the BAFTA cinematography award, the British equivalent of an Oscar.
Daviau joins a formidable group of previous recipients, including George Folsey, ASC; Joe Biroc, ASC; Charles Lang Jr., ASC; Phil Lathrop, ASC; Haskell Wexler, ASC; Conrad L. Hall, ASC; Gordon Willis, ASC; Sven Nykvist, ASC; Owen Roizman, ASC; Victor J. Kemper, ASC; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Laszlo Kovacs, ASC; Bill Butler, ASC; Michael Chapman, ASC; Fred Koenekamp, ASC; and Richard Kline, ASC.
Daviau was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles. He was a movie fan, avid still photographer, and the kid who lit stage plays in high school. After graduation, he worked in camera stores and still film labs. He saved enough money to buy a 16 mm camera and began shooting short films, including some for students at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). One of those films caught the eye of the producer of a new music program on KHJ-TV, who offered Daviau a job.
The program was cancelled after 13 weeks, but the producer organized a company that created pre-MTV music videos for record companies that distributed them to local TV stations. Daviau shot films with The Animals, Jimi Hendrix and other popular performers. In 1967, a couple of aspiring filmmakers named Ralph Burris and Steven Spielberg saw his work and asked for his help on a 35mm short film.
Daviau was the B camera operator. That project was never completed, but it led to an opportunity for him to shoot Amblin for Spielberg in 1968. That short film was a visual story with no dialogue. It caught the attention of top management at Universal Studios, who brought Spielberg onboard initially directing television films.
Daviau spent the next 10 years persistently pursuing his dream. He was a lighting effects technician designer on a Roger Corman film, shot 16mm industrial and educational films, and 35 mm commercials. He also lensed several David Wolper documentaries, including Say Goodbye, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1971. During the mid-1970s, Daviau shot a couple of ultra low-budget, independent features that played in theaters in the South and Midwest.
He joined the camera guild when it opened its ranks to a new generation of cinematographers in 1978. That gave him an opportunity to work on mainstream films with larger budgets, beginning with a television movie called The Boy Who Drank Too Much, directed by his old friend Jerry (Jerrold) Freedman. When Freedman told Spielberg that Daviau was in the union, Spielberg had him shoot a two-day sequence in the desert for the new edition of Close Encounters of The Third Kind.
Spielberg's next project was Raiders of The Lost Ark, where he met Melissa Mathison. He told her of a long-term, science-fiction film titled Night Skies. Together they transformed that work into E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which became Daviau's first full-length feature. Principal cinematography was completed in 61 days. They explored a world where fantasy merges with reality. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial earned four Oscars and five additional nominations, including Best Picture. It ranks near the top of the list of all-time hits at the box office.
Daviau has subsequently compiled some 25 additional narrative credits, including such memorable films as two segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Falcon and The Snowman, Fearless, and Van Helsing. He says that his television commercial work has given him the freedom to be patient and discerning about choosing narrative projects.