Rob Sweeney ’76

Rob SweeneyDEGREE: B.A. in philosophy and religious studies

JOB TITLE: Cinematographer (director of photography)

FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: My three favorite memories: Going over the hill to Phil’s Bar for discourse over beer with friends Rick Hornung ’77, Martha Cooley ’77, and Dean Hammer ’75. Rock climbing at Ragged Mountain and the Gunks. Viewing great films by Bergman, Fellini, Louis Malle, Bertolucci, Truffaut, and others at Cinestudio.

How did you get started in your field? There was no roadmap to getting started in cinematography, so after I graduated from Trinity, I literally wandered in the wilderness for a few years. I worked for the Outward Bound Schools in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, and New Mexico. I worked a range of odd jobs, including carpentry, barkeep, apple picker, and census taker, all the while honing my skills as a still photographer. A job as a custom color printer led to an offer to work as a videographer at a fledgling TV station in Santa Fe. My fine art photographs and video documentary work led to acceptance at the American Film Institute.

Once in L.A., I hustled my way into the industry working on low-budget and independent feature films. One of my first films as a camera assistant was a schlocky Roger Corman horror picture, Chopping Mall. You have to start somewhere! Soon, more interesting and satisfying projects came along, including Stand and Deliver, Barfly, and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. I began working on bigger, more mainstream films such as The River Wild and The Rock. I have a fond memory of careening down the steep inclines of San Francisco in the back of a Hummer filming with Sean Connery at the wheel.

All the while I was working as an assistant or camera operator, I sought out low-budget filmmakers who were looking for a cinematographer. These projects usually involved a drastic cut in pay but a huge increase in creative participation. One of these projects, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, won the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The award launched my career as a director of photography. I had been in Hollywood for a decade. It took 10 years to become an “overnight success.” I shot a number of indie features and then ventured into television. My first TV show was Six Feet Under, an amazing show with a great ensemble cast. I had the good fortune to shoot the memorable finale episode of that series. I also shot six seasons of HBO’s Entourage, Big Love, and numerous others. My current assignment is the ABC comedy Black-ish with Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross.

What do you enjoy most about your work? My work is never dull, and no day is ever the same. My job is to tell stories with lighting and camerawork, and each story and scene is different. I also enjoy the process of collaboration with directors, all of whom have their own unique approach to their craft. I work with an astounding variety of personalities from producers to grips to bring a story to the screen. Side story from my Trinity days: I once drew out a two-year incomplete in Richard Lee’s “History of Philosophy” class. He called it “a long-rolling craps game.” The clock is always ticking on film sets at a very expensive rate, so procrastination does not fly! The work suits me.

What are the biggest challenges? Sometimes the challenges are budgetary. On Brisk and Leaping Day, we told the story of a dying railway operation in the 1940s for under $100,000. On television shows, the challenges have to do with time: How do we create a particular look or shoot a major dance number, wedding, etc. with a limited amount of time?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work? We can’t really work from home or produce our show via Zoom! So we have had to work with and adapt industry guidelines to work safely. Every person who comes in proximity to the cast is tested three times a week. We all wear masks and face shields. Our process has been altered to keep the numbers down on set. For example, operators set shots and then leave the set for the electrical and grip team to light. Usually these things happen simultaneously. The net result is that we can function and do good work; it just takes a little more time.

How did your time at Trinity prepare you for your career? My time at Trinity taught me to be an analytical thinker and to read critically. Every film or TV show I do begins with a script. I have to be able to quickly discern important cues in the written word to develop a visual style. I fully believe that tangling with the likes of Kant and Heidegger makes it easier for me to zero in on the ideas in a film script.

Did you have a professor who was particularly influential? Drew Hyland inspired with his modern take on the Socratic tradition, but Frank Kirkpatrick was my biggest influence. I admired his clarity, humanity, and dry wit.