Peter McCandless, Dogpatch Cinematographer, Has Seen the Light

in / by
Cinematographer Peter McCandless. Photo: Peter McCandless

Minnesota Street resident, Peter McCandless, 67, believes he’s contributed to the world’s body of knowledge by serving as a cinematographer for more than 13 significant documentaries, including Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story (2000); The Bridge (2006), and The Great 14th: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama in His Own Words (2019).

“Documentaries have a long, slow life. They have their impact over time and reach a lot of people. They have a message that endures,” said McCandless. “I’ve learned there’s no real mystery to people who live across the globe. We all have similar practices and mindsets. You will be welcome if you approach people from any culture or background in a good way.”

McCandless was born in Framingham, Massachusetts. He grew up in Princeton, the son of Mary Margaret “Bunny” McCandless and Joey Leigh “Jake” McCandless, a football and basketball coach at Princeton University. He became interested in art after taking a mechanical drawing class in high school.

“The follow-up course was architecture. I drew the floor plans and elevations and built a balsa wood model of a house at the end. I remember thinking architecture was amazing. The photography and sculpture courses at Cornell University were even better,” said McCandless.

McCandless attended Cornell for two years, during a period in which the University’s art program focused on drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking, “although they did have a conceptual art class that was great, taught by Norman Daly.” 

Daly, who was fascinated by Native American and Hispanic cultures, is known for his large, complex project that used faux artifacts, documents, photographs, audiotapes, and explanatory texts to imagine an entire culture, “The Civilization of Llhuros.” 

McCandless finished his undergraduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), which offered the same disciplines as Cornell – filmmaking, performance art, and ceramics –  as well as a strong photography department and visiting artist lecture series. 

“Also, my girlfriend at the time was in labor relations and wanted to work with Cesar Chavez. We moved to San Francisco in 1975,” said McCandless.

McCandless initially lived in Project Artaud, an art cooperative space in Mishpot. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture from SFAI in 1977 and moved into a studio in the American Can Company building on Third Street. 

“It was all artists’ lofts down there. It was important that when you wanted to rent a place, you didn’t tell the landlord you were actually going to live there,” said McCandless.

McCandless left Dogpatch in 1979 when the property owner, Angelo Markoulis, forced the artists from the lofts. 

“I rented an apartment in SoMa for a while. Later, I bought a house on Minnesota Street. I’ve been here ever since,” said McCandless. 

McCandless started experimenting with filmmaking after graduating from SFAI. 

“My first projects involved projecting slides onto hyperbolic sails [four-sided sails to create a three-dimensional canopy] at dance clubs. Before there were video cameras, I’d create montages of slides for live concerts. I soon started experimenting with a Super 8 camera and 16 millimeter film,” said McCandless. 

The gigs didn’t pay. McCandless supported himself by plastering and painting private homes.

“Art was never paid. You did it because you were it,” said McCandless. 

His first photo and film projects focused on the punk rock scene. 

“I did a series on Suzi Skates, a female skater in the City who used to travel around in a tutu and roller skates. I took pictures of Flipper, a rock band, and lots of other bands that crashed and burned,” said McCandless. “After 12 years of doing unpaid work in film, I finally started to get photography and film gigs that paid. I did cinematography for Levi’s, UCSF, UC Berkeley, Specialized, and others. My film career began with word of mouth. The first documentary film I worked on was Of Civil Wrongs and Rights

Documentarian Eric Paul Fournier, a North Beach resident and former punk rock record producer, knew McCandless through the local music scene. 

“I was aware of Peter’s films for bands in music clubs. Our girlfriends at the time were friends. Both of them were fashion designers. Before starting the Korematsu film, I worked with Peter on a number of projects, including Celebration: Reverend Cecil Williams and Glide Church, a film about the congregation at Glide Church,” said Fournier.

Fournier was chosen to direct the Korematsu film by Ken Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s son. 

“I knew Ken well from his work in advertising. At first, Ken wanted to make a film about his father himself. Later, Ken asked me to co-produce and direct the movie. I then asked Peter to shoot the film,” said Fournier. “No one lights a room better. Peter’s steady and solid, unflappable. You know you’re going to get quality footage. He won’t get flustered. I’ve hired him for approximately 80 percent of the pieces I’ve directed since Celebration.”  

Of Civil Wrongs and Rights follows Fred Korematsu’s 40-year legal fight about the constitutionality of the Japanese American internment during World War II. 

“I worked on several narrative films before this documentary. This one made a big impact on me. I think it’ll be around forever. People are still watching it,” said McCandless. 

Of Civil Wrongs and Rights centers on the overturning of Korematsu’s conviction under Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, which authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a national security threat from the West Coast to inland relocation centers. The film reveals how the U.S. government intentionally suppressed or destroyed evidence that Japanese Americans didn’t pose a military threat.

The Bridge, a film about suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, was filmed daily for a year from two locations at opposite ends of the span. McCandless shot interviews of family members and friends of people that’d jumped. 

“I also went out on boats and filmed scenes from the water, like the people who were kiteboarding. A friend of mine helped me become part of this film. She ran into director Eric Steel and said, “Why don’t you have Peter to film it?”” said McCandless. 

Other projects came from another lucky break. In 2003, a friend told him that a group of Tibetan nuns would be visiting the Bay Area. 

“She asked if I would come help videotape the nuns chanting at a recording studio. I said “yes.” I went there and met director Rosemary Rawcliffe for the first time. She had been called to interview the nuns,” said McCandless. 

Rawcliffe, founder of Berkeley nonprofit production company, Frame of Mind Films, has made several documentaries about Tibetan women. McCandless has served as her cinematographer for the past 18 years, working on Women of Tibet: A Quiet Revolution (2006), Women of Tibet: Gyalyum Chemo – The Great Mother (2006), and Women of Tibet: The Buddha’s Wife (in post-production). 

“Rosemary is familiar with Tibetan Buddhism and extremely tenacious. We work together well. She’s taught me a great deal about playing it by ear. We’ve shot films together in the Bay Area and northern India,” said McCandless. 

McCandless said working with light in remote locations, such as the Dalai Lama’s private residence in Dharamsala, India was exciting. 

“You have to collaborate with the light until it’s right. On one side of the residence, the prayer wheels are illuminated at sunset. On the other side, they’re lit up in the early morning. I scouted out the location to watch how the light changes over the course of the day. This makes it apparent what side is best to film on at different points during the day,” said McCandless.

McCandless said unpredictable conditions, like passing clouds blocking light during interviews, have taught him to control illumination whenever possible.

“Another thing I learned while filming with Rosemary is to admire the people we film. People in the Tibetan Buddhist community are amazingly compassionate and cooperative. They’ve taught me you can endure and press on,” said McCandless. 

The COVID-19 pandemic stopped many productions in which McCandless was involved. 

“I haven’t worked on any cinematography since the pandemic started. This summer, I took a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Maine. I shot landscapes along backroads that paralleled I-80 and I-90,” said McCandless.

McCandless plans to film an epilogue for On Civil Wrongs and Rights with Fournier. 

“This additional footage will put the Korematsu case in context. It also addresses the case’s ongoing relevancy to constitutional concerns today, including the holding of undocumented immigrants. In addition, we’re remastering the original film On Civil Wrongs and Rights for a 4K UHD release. We’re editing footage from a multi-part documentary film about race in America, from Obama to Trump. It started with Peter and I following Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 1997 and 1998. Peter will film the final interviews for this movie,” said Fournier.

McCandless encouraged beginning filmmakers to work with creative colleagues like Fournier, who have “a like mind. You want people who are enthusiastic. Don’t worry about how the film will start, just begin. It will evolve.” 

McCandless added that filmmakers today are fortunate that modern cameras and gear are relatively inexpensive. 

“When I was younger, you couldn’t make a film on your own. You had to rent gear, take film to a lab to get it developed, and take the finished footage to an editorial house, where you worked with an editor,” said McCandless. 

McCandless advised filmmakers to appreciate mystery. 

“We attended a session His Holiness the Dalai Lama had with three Tibetan oracles. In the session, they went into a trance. It’s said that they were a conduit for spiritual energy. After the session, he came out and said goodbye to the crew. Then he said, “A little bit mysterious, don’t you think?” That was profound. All of life is a little bit mysterious, don’t you think?” said McCandless.

Cinematographer Peter McCandless (left) films director Eric Paul Fournier (center) interviewing a bartender for Bartender, a documentary. Photo: Fornier Films