Montana State University

MSU film school alumnus featured in American Cinematographer magazine

December 22, 2015 -- MSU News Service

Mark Vargo, MSU School of Film and Photography alumnus, director of photography, on the set of "Salem." Photo courtesy of Mark Vargo.

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Mark Vargo, a Montana State University School of Film and Photography alumnus and recent visiting film professor, was featured in the November issue of American Cinematographer magazine, the international journal of the American Society of Cinematographers.

Vargo, who taught at MSU this fall, was featured in the journal’s Close-Up section. Described in the publication as “brief interviews with ASC members about their careers and inspirations,” Close-Up is a regular feature in the magazine that features a different ASC member each month. Vargo discussed the film that made the strongest impression on him as a child “(Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” “scared me to death”), key artistic influences (National Geographic magazine) and favorite genres (old horror films), among other topics.

Vargo, who has been a member of the ASC since 2000, said he wanted to belong to the organization as long as he can remember.

“It’s quite an honor to be invited to join such a prestigious organization,” he said.   “It is a chance to get together with professional colleagues and talk about what we’ve done, what we’ve learned, what we would do again, or not.

Vargo is a cinematographer and special effects artist who graduated from MSU in film production in 1977. He is known for his work on the films ”3:10 to Yuma,” “The Green Mile,” and “In the Line of Fire.” He was nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects for his work on the film “Ghostbusters.” He has worked on more than 36 films and three television shows.

Vargo’s first film credit, in 1979, was as a visual effects artist with a relatively new company called Industrial Light and Magic. The film was “The Empire Strikes Back.” He also worked on “Return of the Jedi” with ILM in 1980, his last film with the company. Since then, he has focused on cinematography, his real passion, rather than pursuing a career in visual effects. He has no regrets about his time at ILM, though, he said.

“It gave me experience that I needed to move forward in my career.”

After ILM, Vargo found himself at Boss Film Corporation, working as an optical supervisor. At Boss he gained valuable experience as a department head, learning more about the business side of filmmaking: management, personnel, budgeting and scheduling. But, he didn’t stay at Boss very long, he said.

“My participation in these projects was as the ‘optical guy’ and it was time to start thinking about my future as a ‘storytelling guy’.”

He worked as a visual effects director of photography on “Ghostbusters II,” and then, for the first time, as a second unit director of photography on “In The Line of Fire.” His career as a director of photography continued from there, with his most recent project, the TV mini-series “Tut,” airing earlier this year.

Vargo has enjoyed a long and successful career as a cinematographer in film and television, but said that he also really enjoys teaching.

“I never work harder than when I’m teaching,” he said. “I have a responsibility to the students, to share what I’ve learned, just as others shared with me. If I can save them some of the pains, some of the mistakes that my peers and I have made, that’s great.”

Vargo said that because there are thousands of students coming out of film schools every year, it’s the responsibility of professors “to the students, to the field,” to share as much as possible, especially information that he refers to as “off-book,” the term he uses to describe the knowledge and experience that just comes from working. And sharing this knowledge is a big part of what the ASC does, Vargo said.

“Through master classes, talks, discussions, we are able to meet with so many students and give them insight.”

“But, film school is just the beginning of a potentially lifelong career in an ever-changing industry,” Vargo said. And, while he acknowledged the benefits of being in the heart of the industry, he believes that schools with really good programs, such as MSU, are beneficial in preparing students “to go out and be employable at any entry-level position,” even if they are not in Los Angeles.

As an MSU graduate, Vargo understands this well.

“I was living in Virginia, working a construction job and attending community college. But, it just wasn’t the life for me. I chose MSU because I wanted to leave the East Coast for the mountains out west, and to attend a university I could afford. I found (MSU) in a college handbook in the library and was intrigued by its film production curriculum,” he said. And, he believes, he got “a great foundation” for future successes.

Vargo emphasized, however, that, no matter where someone studies, “success is not guaranteed. Hard work, good breaks and adherence to goals are what make the difference.”

This spring Vargo will be shooting season three of “Salem,” a television show he joined as director of photography last year. The program, which films in Shreveport, La., explores the fictional reasons behind the town’s famous witch trials in the world of 17th century Massachusetts.

When not on location, Vargo lives with his family in Bozeman, where he enjoys skiing, still photography and videography.

To read Vargo’s interview in American Cinematographer Magazine, see

The ASC was founded in 1919, the first organization in the film industry devoted exclusively to professional advancement and to honoring its members’ achievements, according to the organization’s website.

For more information on Vargo, see his website: For more information on his career, see    

Contact: Dennis Aig, School of Film and Photography, (406) 994-2484 or