In Memoriam: Austin McKinney and Lee Strosnider

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In Essay Posted

Four years ago today, an acquaintance of mine, Austin McKinney, passed away, followed in subsequent weeks by his cohort of over 60 years, Lee Strosnider.

Austin was primarily a cinematographer, and shot over 25 features. While his name is not widely known, even to those with an affinity for outsider cinema, Austin happened to touch a surprising number of what are now cult films during the course of his career: INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES, THE SKYDIVERS, and THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS all found fans and notoriety through MST3K. Lee also worked on these films, typically as a sound mixer, but other times as cinematographer or producer. His own career also spanned decades, with more than 80 credits (and uncredited roles) as sound mixer, including HALLOWEEN, THE STUNT MAN, and 1941. During a time when even B films were not easy to produce or distribute, they just wanted to work and make movies.

Lee (far left) and Austin (far right) with acclaimed cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (center), circa mid 1960s. Photographer and date unknown.

Early in their careers, Lee and Austin were frequent collaborators with schlock auteurs Coleman Francis and Ray Dennis Steckler. In their partnership with Steckler, Lee and Austin met and befriended Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, newly escaped from Hungary and fresh to get their careers started in Hollywood.

Austin’s most well-regarded work may be in Jack Hill’s PIT STOP, executive produced by Roger Corman (produced by Lee), starring Dick Davalos, Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, and newcomer Ellen McRae (later Burstyn) where he photographed incredible—and incredibly dangerous—figure eight stock car races in stunning black and white. Austin and Lee worked on a number of films with Hill, including SPIDER BABY and HOUSE OF EVIL, before they had a falling out.

Beverly Washburn and Dick Davalos in PIT STOP (1969)

Austin moved on from the monster and delinquent films of the 60’s to exploitation films in the 70’s and 80’s, including REDNECK MILLER, a blaxploitation comedy with a unique tone and perspective. In 2007, Quentin Tarantino, owner of the sole known print of REDNECK MILLER, showed the film during the Grindhouse Film Festival at the New Beverly, thirty years after its initial release. Austin attended the screening—he laboriously collected copies of all his work, and by the time he passed away, REDNECK MILLER was the only outstanding film he didn’t own a copy of.

To this day, REDNECK MILLER has only seen two subsequent screenings, at another Grindhouse Film Festival in 2011, and once more in 2016. Because it has never been made available for home release, those three audiences, roughly 660 people, are the only ones who have seen the film since its theatrical release in 1977, which is a shame because I think it’s an important title for anyone interested in or studying blaxploitation cinema.

In 2007, shortly after the REDNECK MILLER screening, Austin suffered a debilitating stroke, from which he never really recovered. He lost the ability to communicate effectively, however he was still energetic and excited to talk. It was shortly after the stroke that we first met.

I was working in Connecticut that summer, but still focused on my long gestating project about Tom Graeff, director of another MST3K favorite, sci-fi caper TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE. Austin, Lee, and Tom had attended UCLA together in the 1950’s, and Austin shot Tom’s student film TOAST TO OUR BROTHER, and subsequently his first feature, THE NOBLE EXPERIMENT, which was considered to be, as of 2007, a lost film. I had obtained Austin’s information from Brian Quinn; Austin had left his number at the New Beverly after the 2007 screening in the hopes of contacting Quentin to obtain a copy of the film. On a lunch break later that summer I called Austin’s number, hands shaking. Lee picked up. They had lived together since their sophomore year of college, in a relationship that they were hesitant to clarify publicly; Austin’s former UCLA roommate remembers the day Austin left to live with “a young fellow of like mind” in his autobiography.

Lee explained that due to Austin’s recent stroke, he couldn’t speak on the phone. I explained that I was looking for information about the lost film. “Lost?” Lee said. “But I have a copy in the basement.” I still know exactly where I was standing when he said it.

Thus began a friendship that continued until Lee and Austin passed away in November of 2013. I saw them a few times a year, as I could, and we discussed preservation of the film, and their careers. I remember once after the fact Lee told me (as far as the NDA would allow, he was a stickler) about their set visit to James Cameron’s film AVATAR. Austin, towards the end of his career, had moved into visual effects photography, working on process effects and plates. Austin had met Cameron on the set of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS in 1980, and after working together on GALAXY OF TERROR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Cameron asked Austin to shoot the process photography for the famous animated sequence at the end of THE TERMINATOR. They had remained friends throughout the decades, with Cameron seeing Austin as a kind of mentor.

I sat with Lee and Austin at the packed 2011 screening of REDNECK MILLER. If I recall, Lee was 79 at the screening, Austin 81. In Austin’s deteriorating condition, it was a difficult screening for him to attend, but it was the only way he would be able to see his work, which he liked to reminisce about. There was another screening I attended with them, of Tom Graeff’s work, that Jim Tushinski helped organize through the UCLA Legacy Project, where Austin’s prints of Tom’s work are now stored. The only LA earthquake I’ve ever felt happened during during the nights showing of TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE.

In October of 2013, I visited Lee in his and Austin’s time-capsule mid-century home off of Cahuenga Pass. It had been a while, and after my then-boyfriend flaked on driving me as had been discussed, I took an extremely expensive Uber ride (this was before UberPool) rather than put off the visit, which seemed important somehow, especially as Lee was about to leave to go home to his farm in Indiana, where he spent a few months each year. I was at that time in the midst of post on THAT GUY DICK MILLER, and was supposed to meet director Elijah Drenner to give some notes on the edit, but what was meant to be only a brief visit ended up stretching more than four hours, as I texted Elijah excuses about why I was late to our session. Lee seemed lonely; he had recently put Austin in a home, which he regretted, but felt he had no choice but to do. Austin had become too much for him, now 82, to handle. His bedroom had been redone, quickly, as a guest room, but the house was sombre in its quietness, without Austin’s bubbly personality present.

I sat with Lee in the living room, which has now been unrecognizably redone in a recent remodel, and we talked for hours. I remember the paint job, and the sun washing in through the large picture windows, hitting a photo he had on display that he had taken during an Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite decades ago. And after we talked, he took me down the hill to his favorite restaurant. After that I had to excuse myself, and made my way down into Hollywood for our edit.

Five weeks later, Austin passed away. Shortly after hearing the news and returning from Indiana to see to Austin’s effects, Lee suffered a stroke and passed away.

Their estate was in disarray when they passed away, and a hypothesized memorial never came to fruition. Though Austin was a member of the cinematographer’s local, and his work touched so many now-infamous titles, his passing has never even been marked with an obituary. Lee got a write up in his hometown paper in Indiana, but neither man, having contributed so much to outsider art, ever seemed to gain any recognition from the industry they participated in for so many decades, which upsets me to this day.

I think about Lee and Austin all the time, when watching their films or working on my Tom Graeff project. Any time I’m near Cahuenga Pass I can’t help but remember those sunlit afternoon visits to their lovely home, which too has sadly disappeared into the annals of time. I’d like this post to live as an evolving obituary for both of their work, as a resource for people to learn about their lives, and for their closer friends and collaborators to share their own remembrances and photographs, like this one shared by Coleman Metts, a fellow sound mixer.

You can watch PIT STOP illegally on YouTube: