Donald McALPINE - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: Australian. Born: 1934. Career: Nominated for Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Achievement in Cinematography for Wu ting , 1981 and The Fringe Dwellers , 1986; nominated for Golden Satellite Award for Outstanding Cinematography and British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Cinematography for Romeo + Juliette. Awards: Australian Film Institute, Awards for Best Achievement in Cinematography for My Brilliant Career , 1979, and Breaker Morant , 1980; Australian Cinematographers Society, Cinematographer of the Year, 1981, Award of Distinction, 1997.

Films as Cinematographer:


The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford)


Barry Mackenzie Holds His Own (Beresford)


Don's Party (Beresford) (as Don McAlpine)


The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford)


Patrick (Franklin)


The Journalist (Thornhill); Money Movers (Beresford); The Odd Angry Shot (Jeffrey); My Brilliant Career (Armstrong)


The Earthling (Collinson) (as Don McAlpine); Breaker Morant (Beresford); The Club ( Players ) (Beresford)


Puberty Blues (Beresford)


Tempest (Mazursky); Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder (Werner)


Now and Forever (Carr); Blue Skies Again (Michaels)


Moscow on the Hudson (Mazursky); Harry and Son (Newman)


My Man Adam (Simon); King David (Beresford)


The Fringe Dwellers (Beresford); Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Mazursky)


Orphans (Mullan); Predator (McTiernan)


Moon Over Parador (Mazursky)


See You in the Morning (Pakula); Parenthood (Howard)


Stanley & Iris (Ritt)


Career Opportunities ( One Wild Night ) (Gordon); The Hard Way (Badham)


Medicine Man (McTiernan); Patriot Games (Noyce) (as Donald M. McAlpine)


Mrs. Doubtfire (Columbus); The Man without a Face (Gibson) (as Donald M. McAlpine)


Clear and Present Danger (Noyce)


Nine Months (Columbus)


Romeo+Juliet ( Romeo and Juliet ; William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet ) (Luhrman) (as Donald M. McAlpine)


The Edge (Tamahori) (as Donald M. McAlpine) (A.S.C.) (+sc)


Stepmom (Columbus) (as Donald M. McAlpine)


By McALPINE: articles—

Magid, R., "Playing for Keeps: Patriot Games ," interview in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 73, no. 6, 1992.

On McALPINE: books—

McFarlane, Brian, Australian Cinema 1970–1985 , London, 1987.

* * *

An important figure in the development of the new Australian cinema in the late 1970s, Donald McAlpine has gone on to become an influential figure in Hollywood. He worked as cinematographer on some of the most successful films of the 1990s. His collaboration with Australian director Bruce Beresford began in the early 1970s with the slapstick "Barry MacKenzie" films, but went on to create some of the key films in which Australian filmmakers began to explore Australia's emergence as a nation (roughly between 1890 and 1920). His more recent Hollywood output has been less consequential, but McAlpine works to a consistently high standard, whether it is on a gritty thriller, such as Clear and Present Danger , or a comic romp like Mrs. Doubtfire. The beginning of McAlpine's career coincided with a revival in Australian cinema from which emerged some of the most talented filmmakers of their generation. The cinematographer has worked with several of the key directors of this revival, including Gillian Armstrong, but his collaboration with Beresford, with whom he has worked on many film projects, has proved the most productive. Films such as Breaker Morant , which dramatizes an episode in the Boer war in which Australian officers were court-martialled for killing prisoners take a polemical approach to British imperialism. Brian McFarlane argues that although detailed, the film's approach to historical fact is heavily influenced by contemporary Australian attitudes to the influence of British authority. Nevertheless, McFarlane praises McAlpine's use of the camera to "underline the drama."

The same may also be said of an earlier film, The Getting of Wisdom , which, in common with many Australian films of the time, is based on work by a notable Australian writer, Ethel Lindesay Richardson. More successfully, the Armstrong/McAlpine partnership was responsible for My Brilliant Career , another adaptation of a work by Australian woman writer. While both films are impressive in their recreation of the period, McFarlane points out that Armstrong's film is more successful in using the 1890s setting to make points about 1970s feminism and Australian nationalism. Both films tell the stories of young women emerging as artists in their own right but, helped by McAlpine's camerawork, the later film is altogether more confident about presenting Sybylla Melvyn's rebellious struggle for autonomy as analogous to Australia's growing confidence in itself as a nation.

Since the mid-1980s, McAlpine's career has centred on Hollywood. Some of his most impressive work has been on tough thrillers, such as Patriot Games and its sequel Clear and Present Danger , (both of which were directed by Australian director Phillip Noyce), in which McAlpine's skill with positioning the camera enhance the sense of narrowing possibilities. It was on these films that McAlpine became involved with the development of computer generated images (CGI), and many of the skills that enhance these films are on show in John Badham's comedy The Hard Way , in which an actor joins a cop in the hunt for a serial killer.

The hit of 1996, Romeo+Juliet set Shakespeare's play in "Verona Beach," California, and has been praised for the tongue-in-cheek inventiveness of its updating of the text (for example, handguns made by the "Sword" gun company). The film features rapid editing and swooping tracking shots that create a tension and sense of space that is all but impossible to achieve in the live theatre. McAlpine's ability to use camera positioning to capture not only the action but also the context for the action is undoubtedly one of the many reasons for the film's success.

Yet despite being so well suited to the demands of the thriller, perhaps McAlpine's most productive Hollywood collaboration has been with director Chris Columbus, famous for romantic comedies and sentimental dramas. Their first project together was on the Robin Williams vehicle, Mrs. Doubtfire , is reminiscent in many ways of McAlpine's earlier film, Parenthood , in which three generations of sons and fathers try to understand their relationships to one another. The small-scale settings for these films allow characters to dominate scenes with often hilarious results, and are ideal for Williams's slapstick style in the later film. In Mrs. Doubtfire McAlpine photographs the manly frame of Williams posing as a female housekeeper in such a way as to keep the audience in on the joke while leaving the impersonation convincing enough in the context of the film. More recent and less successful collaborations with Columbus have produced the flop Nine Months and Stepmom , a mediocre family drama which overuses the sentimental possibilities of terminal illness.

McAlpine's beginnings in the revival in Australian cinema at the end of the 1970s are now largely eclipsed by his success with more popular Hollywood offerings. Yet it was in the earlier period that McAlpine both developed his perceptive style and produced most of his best work. With the exceptions of the Patriot Games films, and Romeo+Juliet , a virtuoso piece of camerawork, McAlpine has rarely had the opportunity to show off the extent of his abilities in the 1990s. While his work on a succession of Hollywood comedies and dramas has always been slick and proficient, it is for his work in Australia that his career will be most favourably assessed.

—Chris Routledge

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