Adam Ewing photo
The selectors said: For 36 years he's been a writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor who works on documentaries, commercials and feature-length films. Griffith Films is one of the oldest independent moviemaking companies in the state. Griffith promotes and encourages filmmaking through his documentaries, including the Moviemaking in Virginia series. He has a long history of supporting nonprofits.
Robert Griffith's films have covered topics ranging from hypersonic flight to preserving the Chesapeake Bay, substance abuse and movie making in Virginia.
"There are so many jobs that just keep you in the business," he explains. "But to get to the point where I'd call myself a filmmaker — that didn't happen overnight."
After a stint in the merchant marine during the late 1960s, Griffith, from the Pleasant Grove community in Chesapeake, took a job at WTVR offered to him by John Shand. The station is where the documentary form attracted him, because reporters conducted many investigative stories and shot on film.
After three years, he approached Shand for a raise, and he told Griffith, "You keep talking about wanting to be a storyteller, but if I were you, I'd quit." Two months later he took Shand's advice. Despite a stint as a bartender and some lean times, he hasn't regretted the choice. He's kept working.
After a vetting session with preservationist Mary Wingfield Scott in 1974, Griffith opened a small studio at Linden Row, 104 W. Franklin St. ("in the basement, under the magnolia tree"), sharing the space with photographer John Henley. Linden Row was a Richmond bohemia, providing residence for writers, actors and musicians. "We were the first in and the last out," he recalls.
Shooting commercials for Miller & Rhoads, Thalhimers and S&K Menswear led to feature film work. "Everybody in the film business should get at least one feature under the belt," he says. He was cinematographer for Florida Straits with Raul Julia, and for Combat High, an early HBO film featuring George Clooney.
Griffith is proud of his work with filmmaker and past Pollak honoree David Williams on Lillian, his kitchen-sink vérité piece about foster and elder care. Griffith's 30-minute 1980 documentary about Richmond metal sculptor Tom Chenoweth aired on PBS and was screened here in June.
His most personal project concerns a family that operated the Norfolk cemetery where his parents are buried. Alesia and Rodney Raper raised their children there: "They played basketball, they learned to drive in the cemetery," Griffith says.
Making low-budget films is easier and less expensive than ever, because of advances in technology. But storytelling remains the key to any good picture. He laughs, with a trace of weariness, and says, "There's really no excuse to make a bad movie anymore."