Shooting gallery

The British Cinematographer - Magic Hour
June 28, 1996

If moving pictures depend on a mechanised illusion, how can they be considered an art? This objection to the claims of the new medium was voiced as early as 1896, when an English essayist, O. Winter, mocked the uniform, mechanical quality of the first Lumi re images. Astonishing and lifelike, he agreed. but not to be compared with what "the dullest eye" can make of a real railway station, as "a picture with a thousand shifting focuses". This early critic went on to mock the cinematograph by comparing it with the pre-Raphaelite painter and the naturalistic novelist, all considered equally and damningly unselective.

Yet cinematography soon developed an impressive range of highly selective techniques. It could make fantasy seem credible and transform the banal into riveting images. It could tell stories in all registers, from the comic and the eerie to the pathetic and the epic. Twenty years after the sceptical Winter predicted the cinematograph's results would be beautiful "only by accident", could there be any doubt that the cinema was at least capable of art?

Of course, there were, and are still doubters. And a continuing source of confusion is the essentially collaborative nature of film-making. How can the result of between 50 and 500 people's work be considered a coherent vision or expression? Often, indeed, it is not. Yet even in cinema's most industrial products, there is often more artistry than in the exhausted traditional arts. But a century after cinema's birth, confusion still reigns over interpreting the shifting balance of contributions by writers, actors, cinematographers, designers, editors, composers and directors. The popular idea dies hard that "good" photography and editing can transform otherwise mediocre material, although few film-makers would agree. Startling images and editing patterns are more often the director's creation through his collaborators or embarrassing evidence that a film has failed to cohere. For successful films create a coherence among their elements that is almost invariably due to the director or producer - even if unintentionally, and often with a large dose of luck.

Luck, certainly, has played a larger part in most cinema careers than perhaps in any other art, as Jack Cardiff's engaging memoirs confirm. The founding anecdote of Cardiff's career as one of Britain's most distinguished cinematographers - although he says "cameraman" throughout - tells how he was shooting humble "inserts" for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943, when Michael Powell unexpectedly invited him to photograph his and Emeric Pressburger's next film. Three years and three films later (surely not six months, as Cardiff claims?), this turned out to be The Archers's daring metaphysical fable A Matter of Life and Death, to which Cardiff, as an expert in the still-new Technicolor process, contributed the valuable idea that transitions between earthly reality in colour and heavenly monochrome should be done by "draining" the colour dyes from the Technicolor image and vice versa. This technique helped bind together visually the two worlds of the film, reinforcing the central linking image of a giant escalator.

Powell's initial invitation to Cardiff may have been impulsive, but his own memoirs, A Life in Movies, reveal that The Archers were already looking for more innovative collaborators. Even on Blimp, they had wanted a more contemporary look for the present-day sequences that they realised was outside the range of that film's director of photography, Georges Perinal. Powell researched Cardiff's abilities and took advice from other technicians before giving him what turned out to be the chance of a lifetime. For after A Matter of Life and Death, Cardiff went on to win an Academy Award for his work on The Archers's Black Narcissus - and, he believes, narrowly miss getting a second for their even more ambitious The Red Shoes.

As the son of music-hall performers, Cardiff had an extraordinary childhood, constantly travelling with his parents and appearing on stage from an early age. He then graduated to small parts in films in the late 1920s and, still only 14, got his first job as a very junior assistant on one of the last big international productions of the silent era in Britain, Arthur Robison's The Informer. During the next ten years, Cardiff worked his way up through the camera department and was lucky enough to be selected by the Technicolor company for intensive training at the start of the first great phase of colour cinema.

In fact, it clearly was not just luck: Cardiff had already begun to educate himself furiously in the arts and, especially, painting. Technicolor must have been intrigued by his talk of painters' lighting, but they could scarcely have realised they were getting someone whose visual sensibility could help turn this still cumbersome process into a truly expressive new language of cinema. It was also Technicolor that gave Cardiff his chance to travel, since travelogues were among the first to use the process. After a valuable apprenticeship filming scenic shorts in Italy, Palestine and India, his first, devastating experience of feature production on location was shooting battle scenes for Zoltan Korda's The Four Feathers in the Sudan in 1938.

Later he would spend queasy months at sea filming the wartime dramatised documentary Western Approaches and, in 1950, went to the Belgian Congo for John Huston's The African Queen. As Martin Scorsese notes in his admiring introduction, this and other adventure movies Cardiff photographed convey the indelible feeling that "they actually went there" - indeed, as the crew fell ill one by one on The African Queen, it seemed that some might never come back.

After a decade spent serving the vision of others, Cardiff was impatient to try his own hand at directing. His first effort - an ill-fated swashbuckler, William Tell, starring and coproduced by Erroll Flynn - had to be abandoned in 1953 when the money ran out. But in 1960 his gritty Lawrence adaptation, Sons and Lovers, won general approval. Sadly, this was to prove a high spot in an otherwise patchy career as a director; and when Cardiff returned to cinematography in the 1970s, his abilities were rarely matched by the ambition of the films he worked on, which ranged from Death on the Nile to Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Cardiff's modest, often touchingly star-struck memoir puts flesh on the skeleton provided by Duncan Petrie's shorter yet more ambitious survey, The British Cinematographer. Petrie starts from the recognition that most recent interest in cinematography has concentrated on American practitioners, and that British cinema is still under-researched. Against this, however, must be set the high proportion of "British" cinematographers who have worked on American films since the 1950s, winning nearly half of all the Academy Awards for photography since 1940. What he attempts, in a short essay and 50 career profiles is certainly welcome, but frustratingly incomplete. Not only is the very early period passed over, which included some of the pioneer "trick" photographers and great travellers such as Joe Rosenthal and Scott's Antarctic chronicler Herbert Ponting, but Petrie's publishers have apparently denied him space to cover the flowering of electronically enhanced "special effects", or the emergence of a new generation of cinematographers, including the first women members of this hitherto exclusively male preserve. The lack of an index and poor copy editing are also to be regretted.

These limitations are unfortunate, because cinematography provides a fascinating insight into the intrinsic internationalism of cinema and its constant need for innovation, both useful correctives to the isolationism that dogs much academic film studies. Petrie is clearly an enthusiast who has learned much from first-hand interviews with many of his subjects, and some of his most interesting material deals with the unexpected benefits of constraint or mishap, and the spirit of improvisation that has become an inevitable, and widely valued characteristic of Britain's under-resourced film industry.

Above all, Petrie's subjects dispel any lingering idea that their business is mainly handling the camera. For this, there are operators - although some directors of photography (still the most common term in Britain) occasionally operate as well - and what the cinematographer does is set lights, and choose filters and lenses, to realise the visual style wanted by the director. Ossie Morris, who is as versatile as any British cinematographer, with credits ranging from Moulin Rouge and Look Back in Anger to Oliver! and The Great Muppet Caper, reckons that "60 per cent of my effort goes on handling people and only 40 per cent on the actual lighting".

Photography may be the medium but, pace Winter and later sceptics, it is never the substance of the achievement. Cinematographers are custodians of the intricate processes by which insecure actors and directors, caught between their aesthetic instincts and their paymasters' often unreasonable demands, can create the fragile magic of cinema. Their job, paradoxically, is to make it look easy.

Ian Christie is a fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford, and visiting lecturer in film.

The British Cinematographer

Author - Duncan Petrie
ISBN - 0 85170 581 2 and 582 0
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 182

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