When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Great Expectations. I was at King Edward VII preparatory school, and we were studying the book. In my opinion, the picture was almost better than Charles Dickens’ novel. Guy Green, BSC won an Oscar for his work. I subsequently worked with him on The Sea of Sand, which he directed, and some years later, we met up again at an ASC dinner and reminisced for a long time.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Geoff Unsworth, BSC, a very talented, understanding and gentle man. He greatly inspired me when I was at a young and impressionable age. I worked with him on a number of pictures at Pinewood Studios, including A Night to Remember. He was the first to help me think of film, light, shade, and especially what not to light. ‘Let it go,’ he used to say. ‘You’ll be surprised.’
What sparked your interest in photography?
I have looked at 100-year-old photographs that are as alive now as they were when the shutter clicked. Chemical photography is tactile, and various people can use the same materials and get totally different results. This is what separates the men from the boys. The thinkers can create a subtler image than more commercial users.
Where did you train and/or study?
In my youth I probably had some illusions of grandeur, and began as an architecture student. Sadly, my father passed away, so I got a temporary job in the lab at Killarney Film Studios to get my mother and me over a rough patch. One day, whilst I was printing copies of the J. Arthur Rank picture The Sea Shall Not Have Them, the studio needed a loader on a feature that was in production, and pressed me into service. Forty or so years later, I am still out here, striving to make the ultimate film.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Battleship Potemkin and films of that era impressed me very much. How could they create such dynamic images in 1905 and earlier, when we were producing such ordinary material 60 years later? Then there was Billy Bitzer, an energetic thinker who was the first to use so many techniques that are staples of our work today.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Watching the world go by. There’s so much going on out there. There will always be a time when you have to delve down into your subconscious to find a different way of handling a sequence or devising an unusual look. It all depends on how you see an ordinary event and then translate it to film.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I did not break into the business, I tripped and fell, and rather like a duckling takes to water, I swam. Life can be kind. My first decent break came with the Hammer House of Horror. Michael Carreras had seen some of my earlier pictures and decided to have me shoot Creatures the World Forgot in Namibia, with Don Chaffey directing. They probably locked in on me because I was young, innovative, energetic and able to withstand 120°F out in the world’s oldest desert. I was probably transfixed by the gorgeous Julie Edge!
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Sometimes gratification comes in strange guises. For me, it is being asked to do the next picture because they liked my work on the last.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Everyone does sooner or later. When I was a focus puller, I worked with a director of photography who shall remain nameless, who insisted that if we moved any distance, I should take the mag off the camera. Well, one day I put the mag back on the Mitchell and didn’t lace up. We shot half a roll before the penny dropped. Not my best day.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘There are never any problems, only solutions.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I have directed features and have lately read some very suitable material. In terms of current inspirational material, [fellow ASC member] Vilmos Zsigmond’s work in The Black Dahlia is a good example of film noir.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I have always been a Western fan and in search of a Western needing a new look. I believe that in Gallow Walker, shot by Henner Hofmann, ASC, we have achieved this. I am very good at low-key, moody lighting and would like to apply it to a psychological drama or a good period mystery.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d be an architect or a mechanical engineer.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Time obscures the vision a little, but the names that come to mind are Eric Horvitch and David Millin.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The ASC is a most prestigious society. I have made many lasting friends there, and the ASC has helped me feel a much more recognized person in the industry worldwide.