In Memoriam: Gary B. Kibbe, ASC (1941–2020)

The cinematographer and longtime camera operator — known for photographing several of director John Carpenter’s pictures, including They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires and Escape from L.A. — died March 9, 2020.
The cinematographer in 1996. (Photo by Peter Sorel)

Los Angeles native Gary B. Kibbe, ASC spent more than 40 years in the entertainment industry, and over 30 behind the camera. The cinematographer, who was born on January 9, 1941, said his interest in camerawork began when he was nine years old. His father worked in special photographic effects — eventually serving at Hal Roach Studios — and Kibbe fondly recalled when his father would take him to set. On one such visit, his father put him on the back of the camera at The Gale Storm Show — a television series in the ’50s. “As soon as I grabbed the wheels of the camera, it just set off a spark,” Kibbe told American Cinematographer in 1996.

Gary B. Kibbe, ASC in 1988.

When he was 18, Kibbe began an 11-year employment with Warner Bros. He started in the mailroom, worked his way through the accounting and casting departments, and finally transitioned to the camera department, where he had always wanted to be. Again, he had to work his way up, starting as a film loader and eventually advancing into the role of camera operator. His first picture as an operator was Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970), photographed by Burnett Guffy, ASC.

During his 12-year tenure as a camera operator, Kibbe credited many mentors and colleagues who championed and furthered his career, including ASC members Dean Cundey, Sven Nykvist, László Kovács, William A. Fraker, Owen Roizman and Andrew Laszlo. He operated on pictures including The Incredible Shrinking Woman (photographed by Bruce Logan, ASC); The Legend of the Lone Ranger (directed by Fraker; photographed by Kovács); Star 80 (Nykvist); Sixteen Candles (Bobby Byrne, ASC); Stand by Me (Thomas Del Ruth, ASC); and City Slickers (Dean Semler, ASC).

Kibbe also performed second-unit and additional-photography work on projects including Fletch (for Fred Schuler, ASC); Alien 3 (Alex Thompson, BSC); and A Few Good Men (Robert Richardson, ASC), among others. 

The cinematographer’s big break came when serving as a camera operator on director John Carpenter’s wry action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China, photographed by Cundey. After having lit and shot one set for the picture, Kibbe received a phone call inviting him to lunch with Carpenter. During the meeting, the director told Kibbe that he wanted him to work on his next two feature projects — as cinematographer.

Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (1988).

“Gary’s been around a long time, he’s a terrific operator and I felt he deserved the chance,” said Carpenter. Kibbe photographed the director’s next two projects — Prince of Darkness and They Live — following with the features In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires and Ghosts of Mars; as well as the series Body Bags.

Julie Carmen and Sam Neill in In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

“John has been instrumental in my career from the beginning,” said Kibbe. 

Director John Carpenter (kneeling) sizes up a shot with Kibbe (standing, right of Carpenter) on the set of Escape from L.A.

In 1996, Carpenter told AC: “[Gary] has an enormous ability inside of him that you can’t really quantify. He can really light scenes. The old cliché is, ‘like a painter.’ That Gary truly is. There are a number of really brilliant cameramen out there, and I’ve worked with a few of them — including Dean Cundey, Bill Fraker, and Gary — who have a vision and a sense of how light falls on a performer and objects. And as a director, that’s what I need: a cinematographer, if you know what I’m saying. My contribution to the look of a movie is the lenses, the camera position, the movement — I can do all of that. But the lighting — the cinematography of the movie — is extremely important, and it has to be done with both professionalism and an artist’s touch. And that’s what I get [with Gary].”

Carpenter noted in his Twitter feed on March 12: “Gary B. Kibbe, the great cinematographer, has passed away at 79. He photographed most of my movie since 1987. He was a kind man, a great collaborator. I'll miss him.”

Village of the Damned (1995)

Kibbe’s credits also include the features RoboCop 3, Double Dragon, The Librarians and the segment “King of the Road” from Two-Fisted Tales, as well as episodes of the television series Tales from the Crypt, Soldier of Fortune, Inc. and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Kibbe was invited to join the ASC in 1997, recommended for membership by Society members László Kovács, Gerald Perry Finnerman and George Spiro Dibie.

Kurt Russell in Escape from L.A. (1996).

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