Behind the Lens

download (53)The making of a film is a collaborative process involving many people. The cinematographer or director of photography is responsible, with his gaffer for the visuals, lighting the set and creating the right atmosphere. Operating the camera is usually done by a camera operator but sometimes the director of photography (DP) will do both jobs. There is also a focus puller that keeps track of the focus, a very responsible job. Before sound came along cameras were hand cranked between sixteen and eighteen frames per second. When sound arrived the 35mm cameras had to be motorised and the film went through at 24 frames per second. In the early days cameras weren’t blimped (sound proofed) so the camera was placed in a glass booth, restricting the movement of the camera. Eventually the blimp arrived and filming became unrestricted. Because of very slow film stock a lot of light was required. Carbon arcs were used and were attended to by electricians. Cinematographer Oswald Morris told me that carbon dust was a problem and because of the heat generated, sets had to be air conditioned.

In the 1930s Technicolor arrived and the camera was extremely heavy in the blimp, requiring several people to move it. One reason for its bulkiness was that the camera ran three rolls of film. This was black and white. Colour filters were used and the film was processed using a dye transfer process. The Technicolor camera had to be returned to Technicolor each night for servicing. Later, other colour processes came on board using a single role of film. These included stocks from Kodak, Agfa and Fuji. Film stocks started to improve and lighting could be reduced.

There were a number of film cameras available to the DP. These included The Newman Sinclair, Debrie Parvo, Bell and Howell Eyemo, Mitchell, Panavision, Newall and Arriflex, now just known as Arri.

In the 1950s several epic films were shot using a 65mm Panavision camera. In cinemas it was shown in 70mm, carrying six magnetic soundtracks for stereo sound. A camera that proved unpopular was the heavy Vistavision camera. According to the late DP Chris Challis it was heavy and badly designed. The film ran horizontally and Challis was glad to see the back of it. Cinerama employed a camera that carried three rolls of film and the film was originally projected using three projectors. Later, 70mm Cinerama came on board, which wasn’t as good. Imax, having fifteen perforations to the frame and running horizontally was another attraction, now we have digital Imax.

Today we have digital cinematography but many productions are still shot on film. Some of today’s producers still prefer the film look. Films that are shot on film still go through a digital post production process. Some films are shot using both technologies, half digital, half film. One of the plus sides of shooting digitally is that results can be seen immediately. DPs using digital usually use a monitor and not a light meter to measure light. Also with digital much more material can be shot cheaply. With film there is always an awareness of the cost.

There were many studios for the technician to work in and studios used to employ them on a wage. Now they are all freelance, this was called going four waller. Studios included Walton, Beaconsfield, now the national film school, Rock studios in Elstree, which was by the station and MGM in Elstree, which is now a housing estate. Studios still in existence include Pinewood, Elstree and Ealing, which is back on features have been used by the BBC film department for many years. Years ago many films were totally made in the studio due to cost and other reasons.

In the 1930s there was the quota quickies. A number of British films were made to keep the British film industry going and keep British technicians employed. Films were made fast and cheap and locations were out of the question. A street would be built in the studio and would be used on almost every picture. The quota quickies came along because until then the American film industry was dominating. Most films were American. The quota quickies provided a fair share of both.

Today nearly every film is shot using locations, some totally, others a mixture of studio and location. Cameras are smaller, lights are smaller and generally films are shot quicker. Apart from the quota quickies that were shot in a couple of weeks, many films would take many months or over a year to complete, some epics taking two. Many camera people love the job and think of it as more of a hobby than an occupation.