Robert Burks was born in Chino California on July 4, 1909. He was only nineteen years old in 1928 when he found his first job as a special effects technician in the Warner Brother's Lab, the industry's largest special effects facility at the time. Burks' talent was evident, and he quickly rose through the ranks at Warner Bros, first promoted to assistant cameraman in 1929, and then on to operating cameraman in 1934. In 1938 Burks rose to special effects cinematographer, garnering over 30 special effect cinematography credits before he was promoted to Director of Photography in 1944.
With his promotion to DP (Director of Photography), Burks, who was only thirty five years old, became the youngest fully accredited DP in the industry, working in the cinematographic unit at Warner Bros amongst the most distinguished cinematographers of the time, from James Wong Howe to Sol Polito. Throughout his career at Warner Brother's leading up to this time, Burks' education and special effects experience were invaluable, as he crafted his cinematographic identity under the expertise of many of the most renowned cinematographers in the world. Burks ultimately left Warner Bros alongside Alfred Hitchcock in the fall of 1953 in favor of a move to the Paramount lot, which boasted a greater breadth of resources and more established reputation at the time.
Burks' first Director of Photography credit was Jammin' the Blues (1944), a short film featuring leading jazz musicians of the day. It was not until 1949 that Burks evolved into a full-time production cinematographer with his photography in The Fountainhead (1949).
Burks is best known for his cinematography in a number of collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Though his legacy is highly intertwined with that of Hitchcock, in his twenty five years as a DP Burks' worked on an impressive 55 features. Notable credits include The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest, The Glass Menagerie, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Music Man, and A Patch of Blue.
In 1968 Burks died at the age of 58 alongside his wife, Elisabeth, in a fire at their home in Huntington Harbor, California.
Burks' cinematography is most notable for its wide stylistic range, with his skills as a technician informing his photographic versatility in black and white, color, and 3-D. Such an adeptness for a wide spectrum of cinematographic technique imbued Burks with a unique ability to create a visual style that was in keeping with a specific directorial vision. Burks further enforced said strong directorial vision in his works through techniques and stylistic choices that tended to remain "invisible" to the viewer, rarely calling attention to themselves. Burks filmography evidences his ease in a variety of settings, whether it be outdoors, indoors, on location or on set. Burks' talent allowed for experimentation and made him an equal opportunist, resulting in a filmography that boasts photography in black and white, color, and even 3-D not to mention a number of exemplary VistaVision films.
Burks' time in the special effects lab played a large part in the meticulous planning he was known to do before he ever stepped foot on set. From the beginning of his career, Burks' was known for a high level of involvement in the pre-production of the films he worked on, something that was uncommon for cinematographers at this time. This early collaboration with the director in imagining visual style was the first step in Burks' highly organized and calculated cinematographic style. He would next utilize miniature models of each of the films sets in order to devise and elaborate plan for every lighting and camera setup in the film. This high level of planning in advance bolstered Burks reputation for incredible accuracy and precision when it came to technical set ups that were often unconventional. Burks' background boasted a wealth of technical knowledge that, when paired with his natural instincts for lighting and composition, employed him with an exceptional ability to take artistic risks that resulted in some of the most visually striking films of all time.
Burks wide reaching accolades were recognized via a number of nominations, with four Academy Award nominations including both best black and white photography and best color photography. Burks' one and only Oscar win was for To Catch a Thief, which is renowned as "a magnificent example of VistaVision technique."
When describing Burks, Byron Haskin, ASC, stated that, "his work is thoroughly excellent in every respect...[He is] honest, straightforward, resourceful and, in the true sense, a gentlemen."
A closer look at Burks' cinematography in specific films best captures the wide range of his style.
Burks' cinematography in the black and white photography of Hitchcock's The Wrong Man has been described as "bleakly neorealist," but its precise visual style is hard to pinpoint, instead falling "somewhere between documentary realism and film noir, with elements of Italian neorealism and moments of modernist expressionism." Hitchcock initially intended the film to be highly realist and shot entirely on location in such a way that it felt incredibly documentary, a notion that is in keeping with the films basis in a true story. Ultimately, this was not the case, and The Wrong Man comes to exemplify Burks' technical flexibility, as it was shot both on location in New York City and on set in Hollywood, despite appearing to be entirely on location. The demands of on location shooting in New York required on a lighting scheme of small portable Garnelite lamps, a new invention at this time, while the remainder of the film shot in Hollywood depended on an innovative lighting scheme to imitate the naturalistic style of the on location footage.
Beyond the basic level of creating uniform lighting schemes from one location to the next, Burks' lighting style was highly intertwined with the thematics and mood of the film. He frequently utilized the lighting scheme in The Wrong Man to create a cross hatched shadow that "invoked the dominant theme of imprisonment and...of crucifixion". This visual style was supported by a flare for extreme camera angles and wide angle lenses that, unlike most of Burks' photography, did call attention to themselves and, in doing so, imbued the film with a notable noir quality. These highly crafted and precise technical and artistic decisions diverge from the explicitly realist documentary style Hitchcock initially sought, and rather reflect Burks' flexibility and capability to capture the essence of the narrative mood with his photography.
The Birds was highly reliant upon Burks' background in special effects, and is often considered to be his greatest technical achievement. Of the film's 1,500 plus shots (already three times more than the usual number of shots in a production), more than 400 were either trick or composite shots. The film has an affinity for closeups, particularly of Tippi Hedren, often employing heavy diffusion and a lighting scheme that utilizes a frontal slightly off-camera key that was directional in addition to an eyelight next to the camera as well as some backlight.
One of the greatest challenges lay in the realism of the birds themselves, which were initially all mechanical models intended to appear natural. Burks was not satisfied with the look of these fake birds, and instead proposed the use of a combination of real birds and special effects that would allow the birds to appear more realistic. Along with special effects editor Brad Hoffman, Burks used his knowledge of special effects to manipulate pre-existing footage of birds that could then be utilized in the film. In the end, Burks spent over a year planning, shooting, reshooting, and overseeing special effects on The Birds to create the masterpiece we know today.
One of the film's most famous and technically impressive scenes occurs at its conclusion in the shot of the Brenner's driveway, which required a combination of thirty two different exposures as well as one of Whitlock's matte paintings. Such a shot was highly advanced for this time and evidences Burks' technical genius and undeniable aptitude for special effects.
Hitchcock stated that "If Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn't been technicians ourselves the film would have cost $5 million [instead of $3 million." Brad Hoffman further lauded Burks' contribution, saying the film "never could have been made [without Burks]. It was his persistence in doing these shots over and over that made The Birds the classic it is today."
Cinematography in Marnie (1964)
Marnie, the final collaboration between Hitchcock and Burks, is often referenced as Burks' greatest cinematographic achievement. The film plays with extremes of color as well as exploring the manipulation of telephoto and wide-angle lenses, garnering reactions that were equally extreme. While some lauded the film for its experimental nature, others found the radical style "audacious" and "visually clumsy." In hindsight though, the film's experimental style was ahead of its time and is highly indicative of the art cinema movement of the 1960s.
In terms of color, "the film avoids warm and bright colors, instead emphasizing subdued tones that would allow for the selective use of two primary colors: red and yellow." This experimentation with color was particularly effective in flashback sequences, where tones were highly desaturated to evoke the feeling of a long suppressed memory.
Burks' voyeuristic camera movement in the film was more radical than anything he had done previously, alternating between "tightly framed compositions shot with 50mm fixed lenses and striking camera moves, including backward and forward zooms, elaborate tracking shots pans, crane shots, Dutch tiles, and even the combination zoom and dolly shot." These decisions were not superfluous though; despite their extreme nature, the camera movement in the film was highly calculated and fluid, ultimately reflecting a "highly effective synthesis of narrative development and artistic expression."
Much like The Birds, the film toys with close ups of Tippi Hedren. According to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, the director gave Burks "unusual instructions about photographing her face - the camera was to come as close as possible, the lenses were almost to make love to her. For a scene in which she is kissed by Sean Connery, the close-up is so tight, the frame filled so fully with pressing lips, that the tone is virtually pornographic."
Burks is best known for his collaborative relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock, acting as cinematographer on twelve of Hitchcock's films in the 1950s and 1960s, which many consider to be the period of the director's greatest success. Though little information on the nature of the pairs relationship was published due to Burks' untimely death, it is surmised that Burks' experience with special effects may have played a decisive factor in their partnership, as Hitchcock was known to have an affinity for special effects himself.
The pair's partnership kicked off with Hitchcock's 1951 Strangers on a Train, which garnered Burks his first Oscar nomination, and spanned over 13 years concluding with Marnie in 1964. The pair's collaborations include: Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M For Murder (1954, 3-D, Warner Color), Rear Window (1954, Technicolor), To Catch a Thief (1955, VistaVision, Technicolor), The Trouble with Harry (1955, VistaVision, Technicolor), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, VistaVision, Technicolor), The Wrong Man (1957), Vertigo (1958, VistaVision, Technicolor), North by Northwest (1959, VistaVision, Technicolor), The Birds (1963, Technicolor), and Marnie (1964, Technicolor). The variety of the aforementioned films reflect Burks' considerable range, with examples of every available format from "the black and white pseudo documentary of The Wrong Man to the numerous VistaVision color productions"
Hitchcock's own high level proficiency in special effects made his directorial style a good match for Burks, allowing for cinematographic experimentation as his writing often prompted "unusual camera imagery."
Hitchcock is said to have been devastated by the death of Burks - many believe that if this incident had not occurred, the two would have gone on to make numerous other masterpieces together.
In addition to Hitchcock, Burks did work with a number of other directors on multiple projects. Such collaborative relationships are evidenced in Burks' repeat work as DP with the following directors:
Delmer Daves: To the Victor, A Kiss in the Dark, and Task Force
Don Siegel: Hitler Lives! and Star in the Night
King Vidor: The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest
Gordon Douglas: Come Fill the Cup, Mara Maru, and So This is Love (The Grace Moore Story)
John Farrow: Hondo, The Boy from Oklahoma
Robert Mulligan: The Rat Race and The Great Imposter
Hitchcock was known to work with a close knit production team that, in addition to Burks, included production designer Robert Boyle, editor George Tomasini, costume designer Edith Head, and composer Bernard Herrmann. A particularly important relationship was that of Burks and operative cameraman Leonard J. South, who worked alongside the DP on all twelve films he photographed for Hitchcock. Another important Hitchcock collaborator, screenwriter John Micael Hayes, stated that Burks "gave Hitchcock marvelous ideas [and] contributed greatly to every picture [he shot] during those years."
In the early years of his career as a DP at Warner Bros, Burks worked on reputable projects with esteemed directors including Task Force (Delmer Daves, 1948), The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), Beyond the Forest (Vidor, 1949), The Glass Menagerie (Irving Rapper, 1950), and The Enforcer (Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh, 1950). Burks' cinematography on The Fountainhead was recognized by the Motion Picture Academy on the short list for the ten best photographed black and white films of 1949.
Marked Woman, 1937
Brother Orchid, 1940
A Dispatch from Reuters, 1940
They Drive by Night, 1940
The Story of Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, 1940
King's Row, 1941
Highway West, 1941
In This Our Life, 1942
Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944
Pride of the Marines, 1945
God Is My Co-Pilot, 1945
Night and Day, 1946
The Verdict, 1946
The Two Mrs. Carrolls, 1947
My Wild Irish Rose, 1947
The Unfaithful, 1947
Cry Wolf, 1947
The Unsuspected, 1947
The Woman in White, 1948
Key Largo, 1948
Romance on the High Seas, 1948
Smart Girls Don't Talk, 1948
John Loves Mary, 1949
The Younger Brothers, 1949
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, 1952
Jammin' the Blues, 1944
Make Your Own Bed, 1944
Escape in the Desert, 1945
Hitler Lives!, 1945
Star in the Night, 1945
To the Victor, 1948
A Kiss in the Dark, 1948
Task Force, 1949
The Fountainhead, 1949
Beyond the Forest, 1949
The Glass Menagerie, 1950
Room for One More, 1951
Close to My Heart, 1951
The Enforcer, 1951
Strangers on a Train, 1951
Tomorrow is Another Day, 1951
Come Fill the Cup, 1951
Mara Maru, 1952
I Confess, 1952
The Desert Song, 1953
The Boy from Oklahoma, 1953
So This Is Love, 1953
Dial M for Murder, 1954
Rear Window, 1954
To Catch a Thief, 1955
The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1955
The Trouble with Harry, 1955
The Vagabond King, 1956
The Wrong Man, 1956
The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957
The Black Orchid, 1958
North By Northwest, 1959
But Not for Me, 1959
The Rat Race, 1960
The Great Imposter, 1960
The Pleasure of His Company, 1961
The Music Man, 1962
The Birds, 1963
Once a Thief, 1965
A Patch of Blue, 1965
A Covenant with Death, 1966
Waterhole #3, 1967
Nominee - Best Black and White Photography Strangers on a Train 1951
Nominee - Best Color Photography Rear Window 1954
Winner - Best Color Photography To Catch a Thief 1955
Nominee - Best Black and White Photography A Patch of Blue 1965