David Watkin

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Interview Date(s): 
3 Mar 1994
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Interview notes


[Alan Lawson wrote in 1994: This interview is a very personal approach to the job and is completely different from any other cameraman I have interviewed.]


Born 1925 Margate. Schooling locally; father was solicitor to the Southern Railway. After war service he joined (1947) the Southern Railway Film Unit; he talks a lot about the unit. He became a cameraman in his own right in 1951, filmed with John Taylor [BEHP Interview No 34] Holiday.


He left Transport in 1959/60, hopefully to light a feature film Sparrows Can’t Sing, but it was not to be so he returned to British Transport Films thanks to Edgar Anstey and shot a short film about Paddington Station. He continued making commercials and eventually started his career as a Lighting Cameraman with Richard Lester on The Knack; he continues to talk about various productions (see filmography under the biography tab).


Marat/Sade, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Devils etc. talked about as well as Franco Zeffirelli.


He talks here about his first movie in the [United] States, he says a lot about working in Hollywood and New York. He then goes on to talk about the use of agents. He suggests that Toronto is the worst place in the world to shoot a movie. He talks about the making of Chariots of Fire; also, Out of Africa. His section on Mahogany is amusing and interesting.


He talks about working with Barbra Streisand ; on Yentl; then he talks a little about the making of Memphis Belle, lighting equipment; an amusing story about making a commercial with Groucho Marx. He then talks about camera equipment etc.


He talks at some length about working on the floor, the use of trainees; he then talks about film stocks and the problems associated with the various types.


Transcription PDF: 

David Watkin (DW)

Director of Photography

BECTU No. 320

Interviewer: Alan Lawson (AL) and John Legard (JL)

Date 03/03/1994

3 Tapes

Side 1

00:00:00 – 00:12:00 Introductions; born in Margate, 1925; father was a solicitor for Southern Rail; lived in Margate until the war; as a child DW would got to the cinema every week; very little of his early life had anything to do with his career in the film industry, when he left the army in 1947 he knew he didn’t want to work in an office; Southern Rail had a small film unit for training under Waterloo which worked outside the union until the railways were nationalised; DW mentions Basil Sangster, cameraman; DW’s first job at Southern Rail was to catalogue their archive.

00:12:00 – 00:23:30 DW moved on to British Transport Films, where he started as a messenger boy; he was sent to Hull during the making of Berth 24; during his time at Waterloo he had already been taught some of the basics of camera operating, he filmed an accident at the station while he was cataloguing; in 1948 he was asked to film shots of the Thames for Floods in the North used in the title sequence; he was involved with Ocean Terminal as a supernumerary during which time he was asked to work as an assistant on a London Transport film about country houses; the cameraman he went to work with at British Transport was Ron Craigen; DW talks about his first time filming on location.

00:23:30 – 00:32:35 DW stayed with Ron Craigen whilst working as an assistant and occasionally worked with James Ritchie; James Ritchie taught DW a great deal as an assistant; DW’s first film was Holiday in 1955; DW first met John Taylor on Journey into History, DW’s only three-strip project, which Taylor took over from Alexander Shaw; John Taylor was also a big influence on his career; Adrian De Potier worked as DW’s assistant at British Transport; John Taylor was responsible for getting DW the Blackpool films; DW mentions working on Scotland for Sport with Ken Fairbairn; DW’s regular assistant was Jack West, who had been projectionist as Saville Row.

00:32:35 – 00:40:50 Holiday shot on 16mm Kodachrome, reversal stock has almost no latitude; because the Kodak lab changed their processing baths every day, the only way you could get consistent processing was to shoot the whole film and then send it for processing at the same time; the first shot DW completed for the Blackpool film was a panning shot at the top of the tower; DW talks about working with John Taylor; Holiday was shot at the same time as Lancashire Coast, meaning that DW had several hours of footage to watch; DW made a number of films with James Ritchie, Rod Baxter, Ken Fairbairn.

00:40:50 – 00:46:25 JL states that he worked on Scotland for Sport with DW by which time they had stopped using 16mm as Eastmancolor had been introduced which gave a nice quality to the film; DW talks about shooting a canoeing sequence in Scotland for Sport and the importance of exposure meters; shooting Coasts of Clyde with director James Ritchie, using a Newman & Sinclair Model G.

Side 2

00:00:00 – 00:09:00 Kodak produced a new type of film stock which DW had to test at Paddington station; in his early days at Southern Railway, projectionist Tom Heritage used to teach him about photography and DW built a dark room at his parent’s house in Margate; DW would carefully plan his still photography and learnt a great deal from developing his own films; DW on meeting still photographer Norman Parkinson; DW states that the stock used on the Paddington tests was ‘five-four’, circa-1961; Edgar Anstey, head of British Transport Films, was displeased that the whole film had been printed in colour.

00:09:00 – 00:18:25 DW talks about Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing for which Littlewood came to Edgar Anstey for advice; DW was fired from working on Sparrows Can’t Sing as a result of a poor quality test film; he then used his Paddington film as a show reel when looking for work; DW worked in commercials and documentaries; for the commercial industry DW had to train himself not to operate the camera as he had in documentaries; thanks to the advice of James Ritchie and John Taylor DW always felt relaxed on set.

00:18:25 – 00:29:00 DW is not a fan of filmmakers who talk about taking inspiration from paintings; Vermeer’s Lady with a Mandolin [possibly The Guitar Player] is the only painting which influenced his work, a film with Rod Baxter about London Transport buses – scene with a woman vacuuming a house which DW lit with a Brute through the window outside – in order to do this he had to dress the room white to reflect the light; DW talks about Frank Brice of Crown Film Unit and Brice’s involvement with Night Mail; British Transport provided him with training for his later career; working with Ralph Keene on Under Night Streets.

00:29:00 – 00:38:00 Shredded Wheat commercial with Richard Lester at Viking Studios all using reflected light; Lester asked DW to work on The Knack and light the film the same way; DW believed that direct lighting looks artificial and takes longer to set up; DW’s technique required more lights but less set-ups which saved time; DW talks about his work on the unfinished Nostromo with David Lean; films with Richard Lester; DW chose Help! Over working with Stanley Donen; Tony Richardson asked him to work on Mademoiselle after The Knack.

00:38:00 – 00:46:30 

DW: […] and in between I had the Marat/Sade with Peter Brook.

AL: Oh right, yes, now that was a fascinating exercise from a photographic point of view anyway.

DW: Well that was the most extraordinary, yes.  Happy sort of … I mean apart from the fact I was working with the only person I think I have ever worked with to whom I would apply the word “genius”.

AL: Peter Brook?

DW: Hmm.  But it was also an extraordinary … about my luck again, I suppose, but the thing had been a very successful play and were doing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, so they had played the thing for about two years.  And we had about three weeks in which to put it on film, and we had a stage at Pinewood and I thought, well, you know, there’s no way one’s going to be able to light every set up and finish it in three weeks, so what I’ve got to do is devise a way of lighting this set at Pinewood, so that … and as I said earlier on that you can light stuff with reflected light and it will be fine – there’ll be no problems with it, but it will be very dull and boring after a time.  So, basically, I did with Marat/Sade … Peter had decided… because in the theatre you’ve got this…you know the play is about these lunatics that were organised by the Marquis de Sade who was in the same asylum at Charenton to put on these plays.  And they put these plays on in a bathhouse, this is historical fact, and the governor of the prison used to get all his friends in to watch these plays. And in the theatre, of course, the proscenium was the natural division between the bathhouse, which was all basically a white set, white tiles, and the people watching, which was basically the audience.  And Peter did not want this in the film, he wanted to get rid of the proscenium [UNINTELLIGIBLE].  So he decided to divide the stage into two with a… bars, iron bars, a grid of iron bars, completely cutting the stage in half so that… And Sally Jacobs was the designer and basically the bathhouse set was exactly the same, and I thought very carefully about this and I said to Peter would he mind … so basically what you’ve got now is you’ve got an oblong divided into two squares … that as the bathhouse was all white, would he object to the other side of the bars being all black, floors and floor and walls completely black. So he said, no that was fine.  So what I then did was to choose one side of the bathhouse which I got them to construct a gigantic tracing paper … there was none of this two-sixteen on five, or whatever it is in those days … a gigantic tracing paper frame and that was going to be only light source and I had a marvellous old gaffer at the time called Tommy Heathcoat.  Did you know him?

AL: Yes.

DW: Ah, how wonderful.  And all I did because I … you probably got … guessed by now that I’m extremely lazy… what I said to Tommy was “Look Tommy, I want the most light I can get coming through this tracing paper, but I want to be able to stand anywhere inside the set and not see a hotspot.” I then went back home and stayed at home for a bit … for about the rest of that week.  When he was ready for me I went back to Pinewood and he’d got it perfectly.  There were 26 10Ks behind thing that was christened the “Hot Wall” reasonably.  And it was just that.  And the interesting thing was … if you still regard the set as these two squares, the black square and the white square … You running out of tape? Alright still? … If you were to walk from the centre of the white square, the bathhouse, to the centre of the black square, you’d have to be able to walk through the bars, but if you were to do that, you would photographically disappear, which had this great advantage that the sound crew could be in shot.  It didn’t matter.  They couldn’t be photographed.  And it also meant that whatever … provided Peter was on the set he could point the camera in any direction he liked.  But if you were to literally do a 360 degree pan that was fine by me and the lighting … whatever direction you ran the camera would always be different.  You aimed it against the Hot Wall you’d obviously get a silhouette and a burn out.  But nothing that was unpleasant to look at.  If you went at right angles to it – you were cross lit either way – cross lit with a white background and cross lit with a black background.  If you were shot with your back to it – you were completely flat.  And one of the most interesting things was that the whole film was shot at the same aperture and it didn’t matter where the camera was, the labs had no problems.  Normally on a film you get the labs phone up at some point saying “You’re putting too much on it”.  It didn’t matter – it was fine.  And one of the most interesting things was that because everything was lit, I really had nothing to do.  So what we did was to have a second blimped arriflex on the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and I would operate a second camera all the way through and Peter, because the cast had played it again for two years: Royal Shakespeare Company – thoroughly professional – knew it backwards.  Even if Peter was on a close-up, say of Glenda Jackson, all 40 of them would have to do whatever they would be doing at that point and I would get cutaways, cover, everything, all the time.  And so we did it in three weeks and there were all sorts of interesting things.  There were two points which are fascinating photographically: One is that … the scene where Marat has a nightmare.  And I had discovered, funny enough, doing a shot in the net, that if you have something out of focus, in fact, the out of focus part of the image is, in fact, translucent and so if you have something out of focus against a hot background the bit that’s out of focus disappears.  Basically, so what I did was to shoot all the nightmare against the Hot Wall and put deliberately out of focus and if people became like, sort of, crossed between Henry Moore and Jack [Ametti?], do you follow? No problem. Simple as that. Easy. And the other thing was that there was a night shot, at one point it gets dark and they light the lamps and I’d thought that was one light change that I’d have to do something about and I’d tried one or two things [UNINTELLIGIBLE]… that were no bloody good.  And in the theatre, Peter said “how about if they put a line of rags in front of the Hot Wall.”  He said “It’s a change, it’s not a light change, in fact”.  And we did that, it looked fabulous, it meant that the exposure was now way down and I was shooting at about two-eight I think, so I hadn’t got anywhere to go, and so I left everything the same.  And that worked.  Simplest things and they worked a treat.  It was one of those things that just … everything fell in to place.

Side 3

00:00:00 – 00:09:10 After Marat/Sade director Peter Brook planned a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was cancelled; DW discusses working with Peter Brook and his experiences of collaborating with theatre directors; Peter Brook operated the camera during the final sequence in Marat/Sade as both he and DW wanted something that wasn’t composed; DW talks about the trilogy of films The White Bus, Red and Blue, Ride of the Valkyrie; DW worked on Ride of the Valkyrie directed by Peter Brook; Peter Brook and Lord of the Flies; How I Won the War with Richard Lester.

00:09:10 – 00:15:50

JL: Let’s go on to The Charge of the Light Brigade for the moment anyway, because I am sure you’ve got … you had already worked with Tony Richardson before, so…

DW: On Mademoiselle, yes.  The thing about Charge was that one of the things that I have always tried to do is to…I mean, not to repeat oneself all the time, I mean people come up and say “We can tell you photographed the film by the look of it.” Well, it’s sort of a backhanded compliment in a way because I like to think that I do them all differently. But in the case of The Charge what was interesting about that was that it was a period film, of course, but it was almost the earliest period in which photography actually was already in existence and then a man called Roger Fenton had been out to the Crimea and taken a lot of very interesting photographs of the troops, not the battle, but the troops and camps. And I thought about this and I remember I’d promised not to go back to the Southern Joy, but I’ve got to.

JL: Why not?

DW: When I first started under Waterloo the camera was a model-A Newman Sinclair and the lenses on it were Ross Express and they were in brass mounts, they were not coated and they were rather beautiful actually, as I remembered it.  And then I can remember again, down underneath Waterloo Station in the arches there. I can remember Ron Craven coming over one day and they had just got this new range of Cooke Speed Panchros, and Ron, I can remember him saying “Oh, so much better, nice and sharp, nice sharp lenses after those all soft, sort of floppy, Ross Expresses, get rid of them”, you see. And when I was just about to do The Charge of the Light Brigade I remembered what Ron had said and I remembered the Ross Expresses and I went round to people like Bert Kingston and gathered up, I managed to get two sets of Ross Express lenses. Now The Charge, for some reason, had to be in Scope, in Cinemascope, which meant Panavision, which in other words is an anamorphic process.  And fortunately, for my luck, yet again, in those days… I mean today with Panavision, it’s all in one lens, it’s called monoblock and the anamorphiser is tied up with the… and they’re dreadful, by the way, we’ll get on to that later on. Poor shit that’s going on on anamorphics, but in those days the anamorphiser was a separate, totally separate, lens which, in other words, your main lens was a fixed focus on a BNC and the anamorphiser was in front of that and you, in fact, pulled focus on the anamorphiser not the lens, OK?  And that was still the case when we did Charge, which meant that I was able, after a lot of, sort of, persuading camera technicians and people, I was able to put the Ross Express lenses behind the Panavision anamorphiser which had the most incredible results because these lenses were older than I was and they were not coated and what it means is when they coat a lens the basic idea is that your ray of light goes through a lens to hit the film, right? Well, if the lens is properly coated and [blue?] it goes straight through. But if it isn’t what happens is there are four elements at least … you get scatter. Now scatter is lovely. I love scatter and you get the most amazing results and it looked gorgeous. So, you know, I’ve got this all going for me. I haven’t been clever, Ross Express has been clever, anyway and this was great fun because what was wonderful, I mean again my luck, was working with someone like Tony Richardson, who, it was almost like having Ritchie behind you again because if you were going to do something that was interesting and it went wrong, Tony would join in laughing at it. Nobody would say “Why did you do that?” you’d done it for the excellent reason that it could be fun. It’s got to be fun, you’ve got to have a great time, and so I had that support and, I mean, Panavision and Sidney Samuelson were going up the bloody wall because I was … and they were going to sue Woodfall because you are supposed to be … part of the contract is you have to use their lenses.  But somehow they managed to prevail on all that and I had my Ross lenses and that was really what was interesting about The Charge.

JL: But that … what proportion of the film?

DW: Oh, well this is the … yes, I should add this, that: Tony said that he wanted the stuff in Russia, which we in fact shot in Turkey, to look different from England.  He wanted England to look much more beautiful and he wanted Turkey to look harsh.  So, being lazy again and always delighting in simple solutions, all I did was that … while we were in Turkey … because the beauty of the Ross lens is that … was most marked when they were wide open, so all I did was when we were in Turkey I stopped down and being in Turkey I mean you’d be at eleven/twelve-five, something like that. So they were well stopped down and when we were in England I used the shutter on a BNC which you can close up and mutual densities and shot them wide open and that is it. Very easy.

00:15:50 – 00:22:55 Discussion of the spin-off play from Charge of the Light Brigade called Veterans; DW had worked with Ken Russell on The Devils with stylised set designs by Derek Jarman; discussion of Ken Russell’s work. 

00:22:55 – 00:29:10

JL: No, the point is, for example, you worked with him on The Boy Friend I see and that was a wonderful play, wasn’t it? And he turned it into something really rather fantastic and well it was in a different ballgame altogether, wasn’t it?  But it must have been quite fun from your point of view…using the word fun?

DW: Well the interesting thing about The Boy Friend is that … one of those odd things happened.  It was … the story was that there was this little provincial performance being put on and this Hollywood producer, Mr De Thrill, and we can all guess who that’s based on, comes down and sees this thing and imagines what he would do with it if he took it to Hollywood; which gave Ken this very interest… Because Ken loved Busby Berkley, and it gave Ken this interesting opportunity to contrast the tacky little provincial production with this big Busby Berkley thing, so the whole film was planned…the art director on that was Tony Walton by the way, the whole thing was based on the idea that you would have two separate … two different kinds of … one number you would have this little, very simple … cardboard scenery and that sort of thing. The next number would be all mirrors and the lot, you see. And that was all planned and that we would shoot the, sort of, humble set down in this theatre in Portsmouth and that we would do all the big Busby Berkley numbers up at the … on the stages at Elstree. Now, once we had started shooting, was it MGM? I suppose it was, I don’t know. I think it was MGM. Whoever it was had got another picture being made that did a sort of Heaven’s Gate and ran through … and went grossly over-budget and ran through all their money and they came down … they descended on Ken one day and took his budget away from him. Just like that! And, you know, he was in the middle of shooting this film and it was a bit of a blow for me because what it meant was that sets that had been designed to be lavish and to be shot with the full Hollywood glitz up in Elstree were packed up, brought down and put on the stage of this theatre in Portsmouth. Now, what this meant was that I had deliberately, of course because one of the things that I always do, you know I find that, you know, this job is a bit like, sort of, judo or something – if someone’s charging towards you, you don’t try and throw them back where they come from you throw them where they’re going, and it’s one of those things that you always use the tendency that they have and emphasise the tendency that they haven’t, you don’t try and reverse them. So I had deliberately exaggerated the contrast between the humble sets in Portsmouth and what I was going to do when I got up to Elstree, right? Well now I’m stuck, I have got sets that have been designed to be lavish in a location where you can’t really do the best with them and the whole contrast was thrown because here I’d got mediocrity… but that was my problem. One very interesting thing, that tells you a lot about Ken actually, there was one final number which was to do with all these girls on the wings of an aeroplane for which there was no, literally, there was no money for a set at all.  They said “Sorry. Cut the scene. You can’t have a set, there is no money. That’s it.” And Ken said to me, he said “Well” he said “I think the set’s already been built” he said “because this is about Hollywood and what is the inside of one of the stages at Elstree? It’s just like a big stage in a Hollywood studio and we won’t have a set, we’ll have the aeroplane of course, but we would have a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] backing, but that’s it.” And what he did was to put lots of other, it was in the 1920s period, lots of other little sets, little stages, all the way around in the background, so the background was the bare walls of Elstree studios and a few other people with, sort of, megaphones and those … in the background. And at that time Elstree light stores was an Aladdin’s cave of all the old lamps and I, of course, was in my element. I lit the whole of that scene with arcs, with du-arcs, 120s. 150s, there wasn’t a modern lamp on the set. And it was fabulous, I even had an old Camden 1000 which you will probably remember, but nobody else will. And, you know, that’s marvellous, you know, you’ve got this limitation and you turn it round and make it an advantage.

AL: You didn’t have any Winards?

DW: No, I don’t even know about those.

JL: What’s a Winard?

AL: It’s an arc.

DW: No, but I did have this Camden a thousand.

JL: Oh my goodness, talk about making a virtue out of a necessity.

DW: Yes, that’s what you have to do all the time.  And that is what was very useful about transport, for me, because you learn to improvise.

00:29:10 – 00:43:25 Ken Russell went to Hollywood after the success of Women in Love; Ely Landau and the American Film Theatre who were involved in The Homecoming directed Peter Hall and A Delicate Balance directed by Tony Richardson, DW filmed back-to-back; working with Franco Zeffirelli and Hamlet (1990).

00:43:25 – 00:46:35

DW: I had a film to do, this is much earlier on, called the The Bed Sitting Room which was supposed to take place after the atomic war in which the whole planet has virtually been destroyed. And Richard Lester sent me this script and there was no … there were endless scenes where these strange sort of neither day nor night but this endless sort of dreadful situation that we were in with these … and it was all basically, basically night scenes but I mean it would have meant that the whole film being shot that way. I phoned Richard up and I said “Look, you can’t … all of this day for night, you’ve got to keep the sky out day for night and I don’t see how you are possibly going to do it unless you are going to shoot everything from an 80 foot tower or something looking down, I can see that it’s going to be a problem.” “Oh” he said “You’ll think of something.” So what happens is that I arrive and I still haven’t thought of anything and I thought “Well, you know, at least we won’t be stuck with this on the first day.” First day, Chobham Common, Spike Milligan, walking across the skyline, carrying a custard pie. And it was interesting; Chobham Common is not far from Shepperton Studios. In those days Shepperton had their own camera department. And I remembered that, funny enough it brings us back to the 72 filter which is the day for night filter which is a very heavy brown filter, but when you are close on people, if you had a close-up, that was a nasty filter to use and what you did you had a rather, sort of, less drastic form of it which was a combination of an X1, which is a pale green, and a 21 which is a pale red and you put these two together and you’ve got a much lighter 72. So, I don’t know how I think of these things, but I said to the assistant “See if you can get, from Shepperton, an X1 and a 21 grad.” And I said “I like soft grads and hard grads if they have got them.” Within 20 minutes I was handed this box with these grads in it. What I then did was to put the 21 and the X1 together, which gave me a very heavy filter, a very heavy orangey browny sort of filter and then clear glass on the other side. So what I then did was to get neutral density grads to the same value as the X1 and the 21 and make the two meet.

Side 4

00:00:00 – 00:17:40 Filters used on The Bed Sitting Room and Hamlet; working in American on Catch-22 shot in Mexico, Rome and in the studio; DW explains using back-projection on the film and relationship with the crew; his next film in America was Endless Love with Franco Zefferelli on which he began working with a New York crew with whom he worked again on five other films; DW discusses working in LA and New York; DW talks about second unit director’s Andrew ‘Bundy’ Marton and John Jordan and their involvement on Catch-22.

00:17:40 – 00:19:20 Offered £100 a week by Woodfall for The Knack which was a loss for DW; Richard Lester offered the services of his own agent Clive Nicolas, who got them up to £110 – but this would have left DW with £99 after agency fees, which is why he’s never had an agent; shooting Catch-22 and using front-projection which Hollywood were unfamiliar with, DW used an 80ft screen filming the B-25 in the studio; John Jordan’s death filming an aerial shot; the relationship between the film industry in Hollywood and New York.

00:19:20 – 00:31:10 Upon leaving British Transport, DW showed the Paddington Station film to Norman Prouting who got him his first commercial for Northern Irish Cheese and introduced him to Hugh Hudson, who had just started his own production company; DW worked with Hudson on his commercial films, A is for Apple, and later Chariots of Fire.

00:31:10 – 00:35:40 

JL: So, that was several years later wasn’t it, Chariots of Fire? 1981.  Which must have been quite an interesting exercise, I imagine. What sort of budget did you have for that?

DW: For once I can actually tell you figures. It was six million dollars.

JL: Which I suppose was reasonable…

DW: Well, that was an interesting thing … that was sort of odd thing, the combination of the Jews and the Arabs working together. The Jews represented by Twentieth Century Fox and the Arabs, Dodi Fayed. And the interesting thing was that at one point when the wardrobe had overspent on budget or something, Fox were going to close us down and the Arabs offered to buy them out and they wouldn’t be bought out and that’s how the film was finished.

JL: What interested me about Chariots of Fire…what puzzled me slightly, so much of it, the racing stuff, was shot in slow motion. It must have been very difficult to judge from the script what the end product was going to look like. And I imagine it must have been, well, obviously, it was an interesting exercise for the editors getting that right, but did it present you with any problems – all that slow motion stuff – perhaps it didn’t?

DW: No, well one of the things that I did with that, it’s quite interesting really, is that as soon as I knew what the film was about I knew. As soon as you’ve got athletics and races you know the director is going to want to do slow motion and I thought, well, there is something else which intrigues me, and you as a cameraman will understand this, in fact, when you shoot something in slow motion, of course you have to have a lot of light about because you have to compensate.  But there’s another way in which you can spend that amount because instead of compensating that for the speed that the film is running through the camera, you can run at normal speed but close down the shutter of the camera, which basically means, if you imagine a stills photograph, I mean the standard exposure is a 48th of a second because the film runs through the camera at 24 frames a second [UNINTELLIGIBLE] believe it or not is 48 and not 24. And so if you close the shutter down you are basically, instead of having an exposure time of a 48th you are having an exposure time of something like an 800th or 1000th of a second, which means to say that if you were to look at a piece of film in the hand in the normal way, every frame is slightly blurred if there’s any movement in it, but if you close the shutter down every frame is as sharp as a pin. And I was talking to Hugh about this and I said “What is interesting about it” I said “if someone moves their arms when they are running they are a blur, but they won’t be if we do this” I said “if their hair is flopping up and down it won’t be.” I said “There is only one problem and that is that the background will strobe.” But I said “If you could get the running against a clear background…” And Hugh didn’t even let me finish, he said “They’ve trained on a beach.  You can have the sea.” And that is what we did.  Though the whole of the titles scenes and the two other scenes in the film where he is running were in fact not shot in slow motion but were shot with a 20 degree shutter. I think the title background was a 10 degree shutter. And what’s nice about that is that’s its almost imperceptible, but not quite and so the audience is aware that something has happened but they don’t know what and I am certainly going to be the last to tell them, and I mean that. I hate doing things where you, sort of, underline it and say “Look what a clever boy I’ve been.” I dislike that intensely, but to do something which just gives the thing a slight edge that people feel without thinking about it, that’s good. I think that worked on there.

00:35:40 – 00:48:30  DW’s relationship with David Putnam; Olympic shots were filmed on the Wirral with 7000 extras and using a glass shot; the extras were not paid but were entered into raffles throughout the filming day, with the final prize being a new car; DW talks about winning the Academy Award and commercial director Dom McPherson; working with Sydney Pollack on Out of Africa and lighting Robert Redford; myths surrounding flattering lighting for actors; Mahogany and lighting Diana Ross’s skin tone; DW was told that Ross always requires a pink filter in her key light and Billy Dee Williams a purple light.

Side 5

00:00:00 – 00:15:50 Tony Richardson, Mahogany and Berry Gordy; working with Barbara Streisand on Yentl and her concerns over her key-lighting; attending the premiere of Yentl; editor Terry Rawlings; brief discussion of Memphis Belle; DW discusses lighting techniques.

00:15:50 – 00:20:20 

DW: So in the course … there have been three occasions which I have basically worked out my own lamp.

JL: This is what you were referring to earlier, yes?

DW: Now, the first one that is relevant to Memphis Belle is that, on The Devils I was using these … I had a huge set that was the inside of this cathedral basically, I was using these 120 amp spots coming through windows with shafts of light, it was a bit drab, you know, I wanted to jolly it along a bit, and I remembered as a prop on, funny enough, How I Won the War we had a searchlight and so I got them to find out if they could get hold of a searchlight and so this thing is trundled on to the stage … yes that’s right… and a six foot parabolic mirror.  And I found an extraordinary thing about it, was that it’s almost the equivalent in light to a fireman’s hose.  What a fireman’s hose does with water is to concentrate it all into a parallel beam which will knock you over; well this parabolic mirror does exactly that with light. A light source for it is I think a 150, it’s about the same as a brute – around 225 a brute – I think it’s the same as a brute. Anyway, just to find out what I was dealing with, I got it on to one of the stages at Pinewood and aimed it the length of the stage and it gives you a very, very hot splodge of light about eight feet wide, something like that, eight to 12 or something like that.  So what I did was to mark that out with two flag stands, switched out the searchlight and then got an arc, went full spot on a brute and moved it up the stage until it was covering the same area. And I read the brute in foot candles, right? And that gave me 150 foot candles, so I then switched out the brute, switched on the searchlight and that gave me just a tiny bit under 4000 foot candles, which is quite a lot more. And what I did with that…of course there’s endless things you can do with that. What I did with it on The Devils was to light the whole of the cathedral to 2-8 which makes 40 foot candles. And if Vanessa Redgrave, sort of, walks out of 40 foot candles into 4000 well everybody’s happy. It can only be fun. One of the things it enables you to do, there was a scene…one scene in The Musketeers where at the end of the film two people are fighting a duel in a church and the director wanted the fight to happen within the pattern thrown by a stained glass window and there is no way you are going to be able to do that apart from sunlight – nothing else would do it for you and either the sun or us, I never know - Galileo would probably, one of us moves and the sun never stays in the same place for long; so what I did was to…there was a choir loft at the back of this church…it was a very big church, I mean it was like a cathedral and I got the art department to build a false wall at the front of the choir loft, put in their own stained glass windows … window; I put the searchlight underneath the window aimed away from the church up into the far corner of the loft into a mirror, which would double the length of the throw, and then back through the mirror … through the stained glass window on to the church.  Now, it was a huge throw; it wasn’t entirely sharp because the choir loft wasn’t deep enough, but it worked and I just managed to do it at one [UNINTELLIGIBLE], not very good, but nothing else would have touched that.

00:20:20 – 00:34:40 Night shoots require a powerful light source from a long way off; techniques employed for Catch-22; lighting Hanover Street on the lot at Borehamwood; working with Bill Chitty with whom he developed a lamp for lighting from a distance, named a Wendy light; using the Wendy light when shooting Endless Love with Franco Zefferlli in New England.

00:34:40 – 00:36:50 DW’s work on commercials; one of his best commercials was with Groucho Marx and Richard Lester, shot at Shepperton.

00:36:50 – 00:48:10

AL: I want to talk about equipment.  Camera equipment.

DW: Oh yeah, well, that’s a good one.

AL: Because you started off on Newman’s didn’t you?

DW: Newman’s were lovely, yeah. The main thing … this is again, you know, it’s surprising that a lot of people get so close to it and get so bogged down in details that, you know, you don’t get this clear view. The only thing that actually matters to me is whatever is going to appear on the screen. Now what appears on the screen are basically only two things, there’s the lens and the film behind it. The rest of the equipment doesn’t appear on the screen as the camera is basically something to keep the light out and move the thing around. And so I am only concerned with having the best possible lenses and the film that I want. Things may have changed a bit with movie cam which is supposed to be now very improved, but, I mean, there wasn’t any question because they basically bought up at the Mitchell movements and based their camera on it – the Panavision cameras were the best cameras. Never argue about that, I mean they were certainly the best for the sound department, the most convenient for the crew, but unfortunately, for various reasons which we needn’t go in to, they would not accept the Zeiss lenses; partly because Panavision being, sort of, megalomaniacs wanted to use their own lenses; their own lenses were some unknown Japanese concoction which was not terribly good. And certainly, as I say, I never used gauzes, I never used smoke, I never used anything … I’d want pictures and I don’t want things to get in the way of the pictures, and so the only lenses that I find satisfactory, I mean, again there may be something new that I don’t know about, but Zeiss super speed lenses are the best lenses: they are the sharpest, the cleanest, circle of confusion of a thousand instead of 500 and just beautiful, beautiful lenses, so, you know, if I am phoned up and asked to do a picture the only things that I really will not, not have… well I will have Zeiss lenses, now you choose a camera because I don’t mind, but I know it can’t be … usually a Arriflex, right?  And you know Arriflexs can be, you know, they can be a bit noisy sometimes, but, you know, you can always get around that; not nowadays, the new ones aren’t … and the other thing is the film, and short of that, I don’t mind really much about equipment. And there are stories about that of course, I mean, you know that the man who developed Panavision was a man called Bob Gottschalk, who is very, sort of, obsessed with his own creation. Nice little man and anyway when we did Catch 22 I had this other distinction of being, I think, the only British cameraman that took an entirely British camera crew into a Hollywood studio for, sort of, three months. And so my crew, there was the operator was Alan McCabe and the focus was Peter Ewens and Peter Ewens got to know Bob Gottschalk pretty well through getting the equipment and he said one day Bob would like to take you to lunch. And there was a lovely…it’s gone now sadly, but there old, very traditional thing outside, just outside those gates at Paramount called [Oblatz?] and so I go into [Oblatz?] to have lunch with Bob Gottschalk and as he was paying for it I let him finish his soup and then I told him his lenses were rubbish and he got very put out at this, fetches out his wallet and produces a whole lot of graph paper with curved lines on it which was supposed to, sort of, convince me that the lenses were in fact alright. So I said “Well Bob, you’re going to hand those out to the audience as the go in the cinema,” I said “because if you don’t they’re going to look at the screen and agree with me.” And the next day Peter Ewens came to me and he said “Bob” he said “Bob said he thought you were a nice man but he’d never met a cameraman with less technical understanding.” Which is true. But it is, the interesting thing is that, I mean, Kodak or somebody like that, will produce a new kind of stock; what they’ll do is they will go out, they’ll photograph in ideal conditions, they will then hire a theatre, get all the cameramen in, sort of, cheap sherry and smoked salmon, you know, and see pictures on the street and they’ll say “Great. Marvellous.” What they ought to do is find a situation that is very unkind, which is very difficult for the film to handle, to shoot a straight comparison with the new stock and the stock that you already know about and cut them together, and then you’ll know.

AL: Yes, yes, very true, yes.

DW: But nobody ever does that. Except me. I know I used to annoy Sidney for ages because I wouldn’t use Panavision because he had the Panavision franchise and Sidney knew exactly why and he got on to me one day and said “We’ve got these Z-Series lenses” he said. So I said “Sidney, I mean, the fact … the reason I use Zeiss’ is not because it has a Z in the name, it’s got to do with the glass and other things.” But anyway, I was doing a picture in America with a Hollywood producer who was a great … got very busy…had a bit of a noisy Arriflex.  And right, out of the blue, in the middle of the picture, all of a sudden a Panaflex arrives and I am told we’ll change cameras tomorrow and we will use this.  Now, that is something that Sidney would never have allowed to happen. Sidney would never have allowed me to have a Panaflex and an Arri super speed side by side in the same place. Because Sidney would know what would happen.  So at the end of the shooting I got a stand-in, cross lit him so there was no f-light. Lit it to a 1-4 and shot lens for lens – 50mm IS super speed, 50, whatever the equivalent was, Panavision. Sent it off to the labs, instructions to print them, everything on the same light and instructions to the editor to cut the lenses together so that we saw the 50 cut next to the 50. So that evening in rushes on it comes. Well, it was difficult to keep a straight face. I mean it was almost … it was so embarrassing, the difference you see, so the lights come up and there is sort of a few coughs and so “well, yes, fine” and I said “Look, it’s a bit of a nuisance this” I said “You know, I had to stay behind for 20 minutes last night” so I said “my price for this is that piece of film, that 400 feet that you’ve got.” So I’m handed this tin of film, I gave it to the assistant and I said “send it to Joe Dunton” and finished the picture on my Zeiss super speed, come back home and then one day on the phone I am talking to Joe Dunton about something quite different and I said “Did you get that test?” He said “We got it, but they asked for it back the next day.” And I said “And you sent it?” And so I phoned up this Hollywood producer and I said “What have you done with my test?” “I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know anything about it.” So I said “Well, Michael it’s very simple” I said “It would have probably gathered dust somewhere which I’d even forgotten where I’d put it, but now I will tell everyone.” If a test is so dangerous it has to be kidnapped…

AL: Yes, vested interests. Goodness me.

DW: Well, there’s another one that’s about stock.  I was asked to do a picture called The Good Mother and it was the only one time I’ve worked for Disney. And I always use Agfa stock, for reasons which again we could go into if you liked. But I was all fixed to do this picture; everything signed, sealed and delivered and everything and then I suddenly get a call from L.A., this producer, “We understand you like to use Agfa?” And I said “Yes”. “Oh” he said “Well Disney have this arrangement, only Kodak stock on the Disney picture.”  So I said “Well, that’s fair enough” I said “It’s very nice of you to ask me, but I really cannot have you telling me what film to put in the camera”.

AL: Quite Right.

DW: “Never mind, no hard feelings.”  He phoned me back within about three hours, and do you know who it was that said “For goodness sake, let him do the picture.” It was Kodak.  Because they knew what I bloody did…And so I did it.  I mean, any other person would have, sort of, you know … It’s ridiculous though.

AL: You talked about not wanting … taught yourself not to operate.  You don’t believe in the lighting cameramen operating a job?

DW: No, I don’t; for two reasons. One is that you can’t do two…Although I might appear to not take much notice of what is going on, I do actually think about what I am doing and you can’t do both jobs properly if you’re doing both of them.  Because an operator is a very, very skilled job and it’s a very important job and basically he is putting the thing on the screen with the director and he’s worried about where the looks going to be, … a thousand things, you know, that are no interest to me; I’m thinking about how I’m going to light the next scene.  And it just wastes everybody’s time and you get a less good result, plus that fact that I think it is quite, quite wrong; there’s nobody on a film set that doesn’t actually need to be there and if you’re going to do the operating, where on earth are the rest of the crews going to be coming from in a year or two?

Side 6

00:00:00 – 00:04:10 Trainees should be on the set as they are enormously helpful for all the crew; DW was set to work on Shining Through for an American director but was let go just before filming was due to commence, leading to greater costs on the production as a result of the new cinematographer’s salary and demands.

00:04:10 – 00:17:00 Film stock; Kodak has been excellent over the years; DW talks about excellent stock which he shot the Paddington film on, the ‘five-four’; in 1974, the laboratories in California decided to develop a new stock which could be developed at a higher temperature and higher speed, with all-new formulas, which would increase their profits and put pressure on Fuji, whose stock wasn’t very good and mainly used on B-pictures; Kodak didn’t get the new stock right, the ‘hot stock’, as it had an ‘horrendous cross-over from red to green’, meaning that you couldn’t have red and green in the same shot; the film Robin and Marion had to be shot in Spain as a result of Sean Connery’s tax problems in the UK; as there was very little resembling Sherwood Forest to be found in Spain, DW had an idea to use this new stock, which would have given Connery a red face, but after correcting in the labs, the result was that Connery’s face would appear normal but the scene behind him would be ‘as green as anything’ –  this was the one use of the terrible stock; the interiors would need to be done with the old stock however; Kodak stopped making the old stock and told DW the entire film would need to be shot using the new stock; the only option DW had was to go with Fuji, which was not as good, but if you used twice the amount of light you’d get away with it; the first shot using the Fuji was to be a day for night shot, but Fuji doesn’t respond well to the under-exposures need for such shots; Les Ostinelli called DW to say that Kodak were lying to him, they were still producing the old stock as countries such as India were not set up to use the new stock; Kodak then made 5254 available for the rest of the film; DW shot the whole of Yentl on Kodak’s ‘nine-three’ stock, which was good, but by the time he got to White Knights, the stock had been discontinued and replaced with ‘nine-four’ – a disaster; ‘nine-four’ had no latitude and felt like being ‘on a knife edge’; DW was told that he was the only one who had made a complaint about the stock; Agfa had produced a new stock around the time of shooting Out of Africa, ‘best thing since five-four’; DW now only uses Kodak for day-for-night or in dull light, the AGFA can be too flat in dull light; DW met Roderick Ryan, Kodak’s chief photographic chemist, who agreed with DW’s opinion of ‘nine-four’; trading laws of the United States decreed that advertised ASA ratting must be tested by a technician in a lab; Kodak had 400ASA for ‘nine-four’ but at the sacrifice and the top and bottom end; DW talks about zoom lenses and Steadicam; a zoom lens was only used once on Chariots of Fire simply because they couldn’t get the camera in the right position.

00:17:00 – 00:19:40 His relationship with film directors and future projects. 



David Watkin fired five times on different films before shooting had started! He is very big on the technical side of shooting. A lover of Kodak stock. On the film Robin Hood with Sean Connery which was shot in Spain he used different types of Kodak film to get the best result. In later years he rarely viewed the rushes. On the film Chariots of Fire for the opening sequence on the beach he used a different technique to get the effect of slow motion. 

Filmography follows:

DAVID WATKIN Direcfor of Photography Films

1964: THE KNACK Dir. Richard Lester

1965: HELP Dir. Richard Lester

1966: MADEMOISELLE Dir. Tony Richardson; MARAT/SADE Dir. Peter Brook

1967: HOW I WON THE WAR Dir. Richard Lester

1968: THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE Dir. Tony Richardson

1969: THE BED SITTING ROOM Dir. Richard Lester

1970: CATCH-22 Dir. Mike Nichols

1971: THE DEVILS Dir. Ken Russell ;THE BOYFRIEND Dir. Ken Russel

1973: THE HOME-COMING Dir. Peler Hall ; A DELICATE BALANCE Dir. (Tony Richardson ; THE THREE MUSKETEERS Dir. Richard Lester

1974: THE FOUR MUSKETEERS Dir. Richard Lester

1975: MAHOGANY Dir. Berry Gordy/Tony Richardson ; TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER Dir. Peter Sykes

1976: JOSEPH ANDREWS Dir. Tony Richardson ; ROBIN AND MARIAN Dir. Richard Lester

1977: JESUS OF NAZARETH Dir. Franco Zeffirelli

1979: CUBA Dir. Richard Lester ;HANOVER STREET Dir. Peter Hyams ; THAT SUMMER Dir. Harley Cokeliss

1981: CHARIOTS OF FIRE Dir. Hugh Hudson ; ENDLESS LOVE Dir. Franco Zeffirelli

1983: YENTL Dir. Barbra Streisand

1984: THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE Dir. Tony Richardson ; RETURN TO OZ Dir. Walter Murch

1985: OUT OF AFRICA Dir. Sydney Pollack; WHITE NIGHTS Dir. Taylor Hackford

1986: SKY BANDITS Dir. Zoran Perisic .

1987: MOONSTRUCK Dir. Norman Jewison 

1988: JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH Dir. Rusty Lemorande ; THE GOOD MOTHER Dir. Leonard Nimoy ; LAST RITES Dir. Donald P. Bellisario ; MASQUERADE Dir. Bob Swaim

1989: MURDER BY MOONLIGHT Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg ; MEMPHIS BELLE Dir. Michael Caton-Jones

1990: HAMLET Dir. Franco Zeffirelli

1991: THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ Dir. Peter Sellars