In retirement, Owen Roizman discovers digital photos, Oscar

This undated self portrait released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shows cinematographer Owen Roizman, who is among four recipients of honorary Oscar statuettes being celebrated Saturday at the film academy’s ninth annual Governors Awards ceremony. (Owen Roizman/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences via AP)

LOS ANGELES - Academy Awards and digital cameras eluded cinematographer Owen Roizman during his Hollywood career. But in retirement, he's found both.

Roizman is among four recipients of honorary Oscar statuettes being celebrated Saturday at the film academy's ninth annual Governors Awards ceremony.

"I never expected it," the 81-year-old said during a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles-area home. "I thought all my accolades and awards were over with."

He was nominated for five Oscars during his career, the first in 1972 for "The French Connection" and most recently in 1995 for "Wyatt Earp." But he retired without bringing home the golden guy.

Actor Donald Sutherland and filmmakers Charles Burnett and Agnes Varda will also receive honorary Academy Awards at Saturday's ceremony.

Roizman came upon digital photography like he did his Hollywood career: a bit by chance. As a boy, he aspired to become a professional baseball player, and says he even had a tryout with the New York Yankees, but a bout of polio as a teen pushed that dream aside.

So he went to college and studied engineering, only to find upon graduation that he'd make more money if he went into his father's line of work: Dad was a cinematographer.

"That didn't leave much doubt for me," Roizman said.

He had worked at a camera rental shop during his college summers, so he was already familiar with the gear. He found work as an assistant cameraman, and before long was shooting commercials. He'd only filmed one feature before William Friedkin tapped him as cinematographer for "The French Connection," which would go on to win five Oscars, including best picture.

The film established Roizman's realistic style and made him an Oscar nominee.

"Everybody, including the newspapers, told me I was going to win that," he recalled. "And I used to joke that I was so convinced I was going to win that I was still practicing my speech three days afterward."

Other nominations came for "The Exorcist," ''Network" and "Tootsie."

On Saturday, though, he'll give a speech for sure.

"I think the trick is not to be too boring," he said.

Roizman hung up his camera after shooting 1995's "French Kiss," saying, "I was getting out just as digital was coming in."

But during a portrait session with celebrated photographer Douglas Kirkland, Roizman became fascinated with digital stills. Kirkland gave his friend a copy of his 1993 book, "Icons," in which he manipulated film images with an early version of Photoshop.

"That book changed everything for me," Roizman said.

He bought a digital camera and asked Kirkland for Photoshop lessons. He went onto shoot thousands of stills, including a collection of portraits of his American Society of Cinematographers colleagues that was exhibited at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"I never shot another piece of film again, actually," he said.

But his fondness for filmmaking remained. He represented the cinematography branch of the academy for almost a decade after retiring, and has been moved to reflect on his career as he prepares to write his not-too-boring speech.

He loves the collaborative process and found deep satisfaction in "telling a story and telling it in a way that I'm proud of."

"You can feel it when it's happening, and especially when you see it finished onscreen," Roizman said. "Just melding all those different minds and visions, bringing them together and putting them onscreen in a way that just feels right: that's probably the most satisfying thing about making movies."

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .


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