A Conversation With Walter Lassally, BSC
by David Heuring
October 15, 2007
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in 1926 in Berlin. My father was a maker of industrial and training films. My parents and I went to England as refugees two months before the start of the war. In the official jargon of the time I was a ‘displaced person’ – a DP. We settled in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I had watched my father at work, and was occasionally allowed to ‘help’ by turning the handle on his animation bench, but I think the roots of my interest in – even obsession with – the cinema lay elsewhere. I saw many films as a child in the cinema, in the ‘nine pennies.’ I saw Warner Bros. thrillers, MGM musicals and other offerings of contemporary Hollywood. That’s when my ambition to be a cameraman first took shape. Rather arrogantly, I felt that I, too, could create images and lighting such as I saw in those films. By age 15, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to be a cameraman, shooting feature films. Immediately upon leaving school, I mounted a concerted campaign to get into the industry. In 1944 and 1945 I wrote to all the film studios to try and get in as a clapper boy.
Did you succeed?
Not right away. I took a job at a stills studio, where I often had the loan of a Leica still camera and as much film as I wanted, as well as the chance to process and print my shots. My first jobs in filmmaking were on documentaries, where the small crews meant that I helped in every aspect, which was valuable experience. I worked on films like A Demonstration of Lifeboat Launching by the 6 x 4 Scammel Tractor and Prefabricated House Components.
How did you break into the narrative film industry?
In 1946, I got the coveted job of clapper boy at Riverside Studios through the intervention of my father. My first job as clapper boy was on a film called Dancing with Crime, with Richard Attenborough in his first starring part. Eventually Riverside went out of business. Around this time I also worked at a 16mm film library.
In the meantime you were planning a film of your own with Derek York. Tell us about that.
I had met Derek York in various film societies that I had joined. We planned to make a short 16mm film about squatters in London, which was a topic in the news. We called it Smith, Our Friend. During the making of that film, I noticed that the primitive lighting dictated by the very cramped conditions helped to give the scenes more realism. That was an important discovery for me. Smith, Our Friend was well received at the annual screening of the Federation of Film Societies, and that led to another film, Saturday Night. During 1949 and 1950 we worked on that film. Audiences never saw Saturday Night, but the making of it had a more important result – it got me my first job as a lighting cameraman. A producer who had seen some of the rushes gave me a chance to shoot a government trailer, what we now call a public service commercial.
You continued working as a focus puller while shooting documentaries and short films, and you shot your first feature at the age of 27. Please share some memories about that time in your life.
My career followed a most unconventional course. Most of my early feature work was abroad, outside the conventional framework, and often working with very small crews. Almost from the start, feature and documentary work were mixed. I valued the cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques that this provides. My own philosophy tended to keep me outside the mainstream of British/American feature production, a course that I have regretted occasionally but fleetingly. On balance, the creative opportunities seem to me to have always been greater on the fringes.
You continued to make documentaries throughout your career. Why?
I regard lighting features as my main preoccupation, but I have always enjoyed making documentaries and short films in the intervals. That work has taken me across four continents, allowed me to visit places that I might otherwise never have seen, and it has given me insights into other people’s lives in a wide range of different societies that few people are fortunate enough to experience.
Your grounding in documentaries helped lead to the evolution of Free Cinema, which valued realism. The short films you made during this period, including Momma Don’t Allow, Every Day Except Christmas, Refuge England and We Are the Lambeth Boys, led to feature work. What was Free Cinema?
Free Cinema was later referred to as a movement, though it was never really that. In these days of ubiquitous television coverage of every conceivable subject, it is hard to imagine how difficult it was to break the mold of what passed for realism during the 1950s. The progress that had been made was due in part to the use of the latest equipment, but largely to a different mentality. The experience that I gained shooting short films and documentaries with Arriflex cameras came in very handy when I started shooting features shortly afterwards, for insinuating actors into natural locations and for adding excitement to an action sequence.
In 1955 you began a long collaboration with Greek director Michael Cacoyannis, with whom you eventually made six films. What made that relationship click?
Michael and I saw very much eye-to-eye in visual matters. He could leave the final execution of the images completely to me and still get exactly what he wanted. This is pretty rare, and possible only when the director has a visual sense which coincides to a large degree with that of his cameraman. On our first film together, A Girl in Black, our lighting was fairly primitive, consisting mostly of rather ancient French 1K and 2K spotlights, but I also unearthed an old discarded ‘cone light’ from a small studio in Athens. The cone light was an early forerunner of today’s ‘softlights.’ The bulb throws its light onto the back of the white housing, which reflects it back onto the subject without any direct light hitting it. I used it to provide soft fill light on interiors.
You’ve also made a number of films with Tony Richardson, including The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, A Taste of Honey, and Tom Jones, all of which broke new ground visually.
For A Taste of Honey, Tony wanted an all-location film. So many films are made on location today that it is hard to remember that this idea was very difficult to sell to the financiers in those days. They were afraid that a lack of sunlight would delay the shooting interminably. It was impossible to convince them that for greater realism, it was actually desirable to shoot exteriors without sun on films like A Taste of Honey. It was the first British feature made for a major distributor to be shot entirely on location, and among the first films to use three different types of film stocks, including one previously considered to be suitable only for newsreel and documentaries. It was also the first film to ‘key’ the use of these different film stocks to different locations, so that the ‘look’ they created became part of the setting. There was considerable opposition from the laboratory to my approach, but it proved entirely successful. I used the same idea on Zorba the Greek.
This new style of filmmaking, which made extensive use of high-speed film stocks and minimal lighting, helped give birth to the British New Wave. What’s your take on that term?
Although the films termed British New Wave represented a radical departure from the conventional studio-made films of the time, it was more of a ripple than a wave. Dozens of new directors made their films as part of the French nouvelle vague, where the term was first coined. As with Free Cinema before it, British New Wave petered out after a relatively short time, or was absorbed into the mainstream as the directors moved on to wider horizons. Within a few years Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger and Karel Reisz were working abroad.
Zorba the Greek was shot on Crete almost entirely at practical locations. Your work on the film won the last Oscar given for black-and-white photography. What are your memories of that experience?
It came as a complete surprise to me when I won an Oscar for this film. I didn’t even realize I had been nominated. When 20th Century Fox closed down their London production office some years later, a dusty plaque that had been languishing in some drawer there was forwarded to me. It led to my getting offers from major American directors, but I turned them down because I didn’t like the scripts. It can be dangerous to aspire to bigger and better films. I found that the bigger they were, the less likely they are to be better.
In the 1970s you began a long association with Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory on Savages.
At my suggestion, we started the film in black and white for the jungle scenes, went to sepia as the ‘savages’ first discover the mansion, and then into color when they become established there. Later we also made The Bostonians and Heat and Dust, which I consider my best film since Electra. Heat and Dust seemed to start off a whole new wave of British productions made in India, including such epics as Gandhi and A Passage to India.
What role did technological innovations like lighter cameras and faster films play in your career?
There is a limit to what new technology can offer in the search for a film’s particular look. Progress continues to be made on the technical side, which will soon make shooting possible in virtually all circumstances where the human eye can discern something. But creative ideas are still in limited supply, and probably always will be.
Do you have heroes whose work has inspired you?
I much admired Gregg Toland, Frank Planer, Goran Strindberg, Claude Renoir, Gianni di Venanzo and Kazuo Miyagawa – and that is not by any means a comprehensive list. During the late 1970s, I found myself working more and more in the United States, often for public television. During my stay in Hollywood, I took the opportunity of visiting the clubhouse of the American Society of Cinematographers, which was an extraordinary experience, as it enabled me to put faces to many of the legendary names whose work enthralled me during the 1940s and 1950s. Their Hollywood films were an important part of my education and what I sought to emulate. I knew their names, but I never dreamed I’d meet them. There they all were, men in their late seventies and eighties, wandering around with name tags on their jackets, and they gave me a very warm welcome.
What’s your reaction to receiving the ASC International Achievement Award?
I’m grateful. Although it is gratifying when one’s work is appreciated, I always feel somewhat embarrassed if I’m singled out for what I regard as over-lavish praise. The photography has failed, in my opinion, if it draws too much attention to itself – and in any case the real author of the effects that critics so admire is often God.
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