Peter Suschitzky

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8 Jun 2018
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Peter Suschitzky (PS)


Interviewer: Paul Frith (PF)

Date 08/06/2018


PF: OK, thank you Peter for taking part in the interviews today.  This is the voice of Paul Frith on the 8th June 2018. So, if we can start by talking a little bit about where your interest in film and photography developed and some of your background in cinematography.

PS: Yes, well I was brought up with … from the beginning with photography all around me, black and white photography, as my father was a cinematographer and a photographer so he was always pointing a camera at me and then he would go into this mysterious room, called the dark room, which I wanted to understand all about. As soon as I could walk, I would toddle upstairs and scratch on the door of the dark room in which he spent a lot of his time processing his photographs. And little by little, bit by bit, he showed me the process of black and white photography. He would lift me up and in that dark room with a red glow from a lamp, safety lamp, I think it was called. He would show me a white piece of paper submerged in chemicals and slowly an image would appear on the piece of paper and that seemed to me like magic. And I wanted to practice the same magic, so I begged and bothered him until a friend gave me a Box Brownie camera at the age of probably six, maybe five even, and I can still look at those photographs and see … and recognise how small I was because the photographs of my parents are taken from a very low angle, my natural angle at the time. And little by little he taught me how to develop a film and how to print and by the age of 10 or 11 I was able to make small enlargements. And although I was very aware that there were a few colour films around because my first movie experience was probably Dumbo and then Pinocchio, but apart from that I knew that my father photographed in black and white and when he went off to shoot a documentary or film, it was always in black and white. Occasionally he would put a roll of Kodachrome through his camera but my destiny seemed to be in black and white and representation of the world around me in black and white and I became obsessed by the single image which photography represents and in movies. I built myself, at the age of six or seven, a toy cinema out of bricks, very much a crude cinema, I imagined it was a cinema. A little room with a hole at one end of it for the screen and I would put into the screen area what my father came back from work with, which was a strip of film, they called it a Cinex strip, it showed a single image 20 times over, from very light, zero, to very dark, which was 20 and the cinematographer had to choose the ideal density which he wanted the scene to be printed at. I would put that on the area of what I call the screen and I would put a torch behind it and dream myself into the cinema. And I think I have kept that dream going since then.

PF: Fantastic.

PS: And I have always practiced photography myself, even up to today, it’s a passion of mine.

PF: So, going from those early days, then, how did that transition to colour happen for you?  What were those first experiences like making the sponsored films, the short films that you were making in the early-‘60s?

PS: Well I started off in the documentary films in black and white, 16mm.  I spent a year in Latin America and then I wanted to get studio experience because I didn’t want to work on films which depended entirely on reality, so I came back to the United Kingdom and, forgive me if I digress at all, but my first movie was really quite… due to my photography because a director who was making a film, Kevin Brownlow, was making a film called It Happened Here and he needed a cinematographer and saw my photographs and said “Hmm, I’d like you to photograph my film if you will.”  And that was made on short ends, black and white, and after finishing that, yes, I got work as a cinematographer in commercials and documentaries and some of those were in colour, until I shot my first professional film which was Peter Watkins’ film Privilege.

PF: Right, so before we go on to talk about your feature films, have you any reminisces about those early sponsored films that you were working on? I am aware that you worked on one called Trinidad and Tobago

PS: I didn’t film that, it was my father’s cinematography. That was the only time I ever worked with him.

PF: Yes.

PS: Sometimes on these sponsored films I would have to work with very slow colour film, painfully slow, 25 ASA. Unimaginable for cinematographers today who have to make…I was going to say, little effort to get an exposure. Obviously, cinematography is not just about exposure, it’s about what you do with the image, but we struggled to get an exposure with such slow stocks.

PF: Was that mainly Eastmancolor that you were working on?

PS: I think that it was exclusively Eastmancolor. There was very few choices, there was Agfa, if I remember rightly, and Fuji didn’t exist and we didn’t have access to Sovcolor.  Maybe there was one other made in East Germany.  I can’t recall precisely, but the obvious choice was Kodak.

PF: I think there was Gevacolor around that time.

PS: Yes, but Agfa was part of Geva, wasn’t it?

PF: Yes, it was. Yes. So, during that transitional period, then, you started out working with black and white and eventually moved into all-out colour photography.  Were there any major considerations during that transition? Did your approach change at all?

PS: It necessarily changed, but in that period one would hear what sounds like a ridiculous question today: Is this a colour film, is this film suitable for colour, or is it a black and white film? Really, truthfully it was probably a budget consideration. And there was no doubt, in most producer’s minds, that a movie had to be in colour once it became practical to shoot in colour. I still loved shooting black and white stills, but I don’t think I… well I know that I didn’t shoot any black and white after I started working in movies. I didn’t shoot a black and white movie. Today I would have loved to have shot one or two.

PF: Were there any of those discussions happening, sort of around the time of Privilege because I know there were a number of directors who really wanted to stick with the black and white, actually requested their cinematographers to get it as black and white as possible.

PS: I am sure that was the case with the Free Cinema group, for instance, but I never encountered that. It was quickly assumed that one would shoot in colour, and there was only one stock available, for a long time... one speed, one sensitivity of stock.

PF: So, talking about the film stocks, could you talk a little bit about your experiences with Eastmancolor? Obviously, there were different stocks being developed around that time, sort of in the late-‘60s early-‘70s. What are your experiences with the changes that were being made…?

PS: I don’t remember when the fast Kodak stock became available. I don’t think it was the late-‘60s, I think it was well into the ‘70s before it became available. Probably the late-‘70s. You might know more than I do about it.

PF: There was the much faster stocks did come in, I think ‘79/80…

PS: Yes, so I am about right, yes. So, there was only one stock available for a major amount of time.

PF: Yes. I know there was a few improvements in colour definition and grain, but did that not really have much of an impact?

PS: The thing that really bothered me was the fact that you might shoot on Eastmancolor but if the company had a contract with the Technicolor lab it was printed a different way. It was not printed on Eastman Color it was printed in, what they call, the imbibition process and I cannot describe it to you, but it was a kind of dye transfer process. But it looked quite different from the rushes that you would have seen in the studio cinema. Arriving at the point of grading, or timing as the Americans call it, the film, you would see something rather different with the reds heavily emphasised compared to Eastmancolor. And that used to, I must say, annoy me and distress me that one would see the rushes one way and then the film looked different.


PF: Well that’s quite interesting Peter because I am aware that a number of your films were printed by various labs and the IB printing process which continued in the UK until the early-‘70s, obviously going through Technicolor labs.  So, there was no negotiation between yourself and the labs between how the final film should look, did you…

PS: No, if you had to go to Technicolor, or if you went to Technicolor it was going to be printed with the imbibition method. Now I’m not saying it was a bad method, it just was a sudden change and you didn’t have a choice. I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there was only one other important laboratory and that was Denham laboratory at the time.  There was some smaller labs but they wouldn’t have normally been engaged in printing movies.

PF: So, before the print stages, during the processing did you work with the labs at that point?  With Humphreys or any of the other smaller …

PS: I worked with Humphreys on smaller films, from the very outset with It Happened Here, that was processed at Humphreys. They had very dedicated and knowledgeable technicians there. But my contact with the lab only really occurred at the time of the shooting of the film, the rushes, I would phone them several times a week, but the real contact came at the printing stage which was very much a hit and miss process compared to today. When I think back on how we graded a film it was so crude and hit and miss you would sit in the lab with a technician next to you projecting the cut, with the edited cut, and the cinematographer would say “This scene looks a bit too light, or too blue, or too green or whatever. Print it darker or lighter”, etc.  And the technician would be making notes, taking notes. There is a counter below the screen so that he could see at which point, precisely which point, of the film we were talking about and then he’d go away for four or five days and do what he thought was necessary and one would come back, as a cinematographer, and see some things that looked better and some that definitely looked worse. Whereas today it’s a very precise process, you sit in the theatre…  I sit there with a laser pointer and I say all those things that I said to the technician next to me, but of course I also say “Look at the top left of the screen, can you make that darker?  Or lighter? Or look at the face of that actor, please alter the contrast.  Let’s change the contrast and make a window.” And the computer will follow the actor’s movements. It’s a very gratifying process. Whereas the old process, although film produced some very beautiful results, was very hit and miss and the problem with film was also that the negative was considered so precious that they would only strike five or six copies of the film from the original negatives and make the rest of the copies from duplicate negatives and although they told us “Oh, you won’t be able to tell the difference.” It was a tall story. I won’t say a lie, but it wasn’t true, it looked much worse.

PF: Well, it’s those additional generations, isn’t it, from the… when you are making those show prints which toured London compared to the national distribution prints. We’ve heard from other interviewees that there was a difference between those.

PS: Yes, a big difference. The contrast would increase, the shadow areas would have less detail in them and the definition would go downhill a little bit. To the normal viewer it looked fine, but to us cinematographers who knew what the original looked like it didn’t look so fine.

PF: So, just to go back, so you did work in terms of… after the rushes were printed you did sit in the labs...

PS: Oh yes, yes, I would be… I expected to go five or six times, possibly more, but generally not more than that.

PF: But when it came to the printing stage that was kind of out of your hands at that point…

PS: Once we’d agreed on the grading, on the timing, of the film I wouldn’t see every copy by any means. I might see one show copy.

PF: And when the inhibition printing process ended, were you more satisfied with the results, say if a film when to Rank, Denham for printing…

PS: I just suppose I was perhaps a little inflexible, I expected… I wanted the film to look the way I saw the rushes and it looked different, I am not for a moment saying it looked worse, it just looked different and the reds were definitely emphasised and it gained in contrast as far as I remember.

PF: OK. Brilliant. So if we can talk a little bit about the film stocks then, you’ve already mentioned that you did not really notice as much of a difference until the late ‘70s early ‘80s…

PS: No, there wasn’t a choice. There was no choice until that time.

PF: No. Did you recognise those changes and how did it change your work?

PS: Well, one could be a little bit lazier, I suppose, when the fast stock came out, but the results were not as beautiful as the original slower stock, the 100 ASA as it became in Tungsten, I believe it stayed the best one. They never managed to make the fast stocks as creamy and high definition and as beautiful as the slow one. But we were seduced into using the fast one because it made life a lot easier and a little bit faster in lighting because it had quite a lot more sensibility.  

PF: There have been people in the past who have had an affection for the original Technicolor three-strip process and the colours achieved by that. Would you say that the Eastmancolor was an improvement on that? Were you more affectionate for the later colours…?

PS: I never had the chance to use the Technicolor process, but I saw quite a number of films that were shot that way and I saw some beautiful results. They are quite different and it is obvious, to me, that the Eastmancolor stock allowed you, if you wished, to be more naturalistic and Technicolor stock was slow and required a lot of lighting, heavy use of arcs in studios. And really bad weather shooting at the end of the day was difficult with Technicolor. But it looked splendid when it was well handled.

PF: OK. So going back slightly you mentioned your work on It Happened Here with Kevin Brownlow and how it was partly inspired by your work in still photography. Would you say that your work on It Happened Here inspired Peter Watkins decision to hire you for Privilege

PS: It probably did, but I think that my work on It Happened Here was obviously not much experience of lighting. It was made with very simple and restricted means. I had four lamps of relatively low output for the duration of the film. We shot it on short ends, which Stanley Kubrick gave us from Dr Strangelove, so it was shot on fast stock, it was shot on Tri-X, I think… that’s the still film version of it, maybe it was called Double-X.  It was 250 ASA and didn’t look as good as the slow stock. The same as in colour, the slower stocks always look better, but we were happy to get anything to make that film. We would have 100 feet, or 80 feet, or 60 feet, enough for one take. We’d have to take a lot of care and I had come off a series of documentaries which were shot in a naturalistic way without having to light, so I knew nothing about lighting. I had my eyes and I knew what I was striving towards, but I didn’t get very far with it. Yes, I think Peter Watkins seeing that film and talking with Kevin Brownlow, because they were colleagues. Peter Watkins was an assistant editor for Kevin Brownlow for a few years. And I think that he preferred to work with somebody who wasn’t going to bring a lot of baggage of experience with him, and Peter Watkins told me straight away that he would like the film to be shot in the “nouvelle vague” way. When I think back to what nouvelle vague films look like, they were given a certain look by the preeminent cameraman of those films. You’ll have to remind me of his name… but the look was bounce light off the ceiling giving something that the directors delighted in, very little time required between set-ups and being able to pan the camera in any direction at all. But the look is not very interesting, it’s just a flat bounced light, that’s what Peter Watkins wanted and I wanted to do whatever he wanted. It was my first chance at a real movie and I didn’t have any aesthetic arguments to advance, I thought that was a good idea. Today, I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all. We nearly burnt down a very important location, beautiful location, Birmingham Town Hall, by putting lamps on the ceiling, overheating the ceiling, and you can imagine what might have happened, luckily it didn’t. We saw the smoke in time.


PF: And there is an interesting scene in the film where you film… was it Birmingham City football ground?

PS: Yes.

PF: I don’t know if you remember much about that, how you approached the lighting or…  because it’s very theatrical.

PS: Yes, well I had a few powerful lights. I expect that I had a few arc lights and 10Ks, but it would have been a few arc lights. It was quite common to use these very heavy, labour intensive, devices requiring two men per lamp. I used those, but I also had flares, probably … I am ignorant today of what they of, but they burnt different colours and they made the scene look expressionistic, rather than just naturalistic.

PF: And from what I remember in the film there is quite a dominant presence of strong blue colours in the character, in the main character Steven, and later in the film he is wearing …

PS: Oh, the choice of his clothes, yes.

PF: Yes, and they are very bold in this film. How much was that planned, or is that from the stock?

PS: No, that would be a design decision between Peter Watkins and his wardrobe person.  But his style that he required of his actors was influenced, I think today, clearly by Bresson.  He wanted to use as many amateur actors as possible and those professionals he tried to reduce to an amateur… I don’t mean in a bad sense, he wanted them to feel naturalistic and not to have any drama school feeling behind them and he wanted the same of the photography, for it to be naturalistic and not to have very much shape or… he didn’t want it to be noticeable. I think that is the best way I can put it. If somebody asked me today to do that, I would say I think I am the wrong casting because it doesn’t interest me. But I was excited by the chance to photograph that film anyway.

PF: Yes. There are a few moments in the film as well where we see a number of black and white still images throughout and there is a sequence at the end which is Steven’s final moments, it’s a silent black and white clip. Was black and white used in the film to kind of add that documentary style?

PS: I am sure we did, you know it’s so long since I saw the film, I cannot recollect those scenes anymore, but I would have thought that we did. But I cannot be sure. It is possible that they were just printed in black and white and there were a few occasions when I was shooting movies, subsequent to that, in which black and white was called for and I always arrived at the decision that it was better to shoot in colour and to print it in black and white.

PF: Yes, one of those films I believe we will be coming on to later on, which was Valentino, I think. So moving on to, which I think was your next film, Charlie Bubbles?

PS: Yes.

PF: With Albert Finney. From watching that, the version I had to see, it was a very muted film, there are a lot of browns and it’s not as expressionistic as the previous film. Can you talk to us a little bit about…were special techniques employed for that film?

PS: I don’t think any special techniques were employed for the film at all. The look of it would have come from the choice of locations, the time of the year when we were filming probably was the autumn and the colours chosen for the clothes. But no special processes at all were used. I am sure my approach was as naturalistic as I could make it given the slowness of the film stock we were using and the fact that we were shooting in locations, sometimes very small cottages in the north of England.

PF: There is one particular sequence that I would like to pick up on and that is where Albert Finney’s character, Charlie, is watching a number of video screens, there is nine video screens, all in colour, of his house. How was that technique achieved?

PS: With a lot of effort, I think. We had to film each angle the cameras on the videos… surveillance system, were showing, they were all filmed individually of course. So it took a lot of thought and calculation to get the timing right so that the character could walk from one screen to another, apparently, but that wasn’t the fact. It was all created and the person doing it, who was given the task of working it all out, was an untried director who was in fact Albert’s assistant, because Albert, I’ll tell you his name in a moment, Albert Finney was acting in it wanted somebody he could refer to, to reassure him that his performance was of the right tone and was good enough. And so he chose somebody he had met in the theatre, I think that the director had worked as an assistant at the Royal Court. His name was Stephen Frears. And that was his first film experience. And he was responsible for setting up and timing and editing the video sequence.

PF: And so what was your experience of working with Albert Finney like in terms of wanting to see what was coming out through the camera, was he involved in that, did you work quite closely with him?

PS: I worked closely with him and it was one of the most delightful and charming experiences that I have had in all my time in films, things were much more relaxed in those days, even for a film like Charlie Bubbles, which I am sure was evident to the producers that it was not a very commercial film. We had 12 weeks to film it in, you’d probably get four or five today, so things were much more relaxed. Yes, he was involved in, as far as I remember, in choosing the angles which we’d shoot from, but he relied very much on the camera side, myself and the camera operator, to decide how to structure the scene. I mean that takes me off on a side-track which you might not be interested in, but in those days, I took for granted the culture of filming in this country which said that the cameraman had to work with a camera operator, whatever the type of film. Today I much prefer to operate myself. We were called, and still are called by a ridiculous expression in this country, Lighting Cameraman, something that I hate. As if that’s the only thing we do, whereas I firmly believe that part of our job is to decide which lens to use and where to put the camera and that’s nothing to do with the operator really. The operator is there, as far as I am concerned, to help and give his or her opinion which will be listened to, but the first decision about where to put the camera and which lens to use should come either from the director or from the cinematographer and if you have arrived at the state of being Director of Photography it is because you’ve got something to say about the style of the film and it shouldn’t just be down to the camera operator. So we were, and I accepted it as part of the normal language of film and how films were made, the cameraman often let the operator choose and I would never do that today. In fact, I was fortunate enough to work with a good operator, but I’ve got my own language which is not the same as a camera operator’s who might decide that he prefers everything to be in the middle, or never in the middle, silly things like that. But we have all got our own way of doing things and how to translate a scene into imagery.


PF: So, following Charlie Bubbles you then worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Peter Hall, which I believe was one of his early films… obviously being a theatre director.  As a theatre director, how did Peter, sort of, approach that film? And were there any special instructions …

PS: Yes, it was a trickier enterprise for many reasons. I got on very well with Peter Hall. I’m pretty sure it was his first film and he decided to shoot it all on location within reach of the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon because the actors were sometimes engaged in a production in the evening. I don’t know how that was possible because most of our shooting was at night being A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but anyway, whatever reason he wanted to be close to Stratford-upon-Avon. And he wanted to shoot in a naturalistic fashion in a real wood and unfortunately the production was tied, for some reason, to Pinewood. And that meant that we had to take all of the electricians and the equipment from the studio and that meant that the lamps I was obliged to use were, basically, pre-war and very heavy indeed. Very heavy and the poor electricians had struggle over roots and through bushes with lamps which were far too heavy for the film we were shooting, really. Well, we did our first night’s work in a fairly conventional way and looking at the rushes the next day, Peter Hall became fearful of the film looking conventional and said that he wanted to shoot everything hand-held. On the other hand he wanted to do the full text that was part of his strong belief that Shakespeare shouldn’t be cut and that meant that many of the shots were going to be static shots with a camera held by a camera operator who began to tremble at the end of the dialogue, the speech, and it… well, the film, bless him, Peter Hall, he was a wonderful stage director, but maybe not such a gifted film director. The film is not filmic even though it was filmed hand-held and I think it’s an example of a film with a marvellous cast and a wonderful text that’s a terrible film.

PF: All the text is in there, yes. But there is some quite interesting lighting in the film. I know we have a lot of lights in the background giving that, kind of, magical…

PS: Trying to. It’s not something that I am proud of but I enjoyed shooting it because we had such a wonderful cast.

PF: Filming on location, sort of, into the evenings, a lot of lighting required?

PS: Yes, a lot of lighting. It was a struggle actually. Stock was still slow in those days, it was probably… I wonder if it had got to 100 ASA by then? But if it has, it’s all it was. 100 ASA in a forest with rain at night, real struggle. Not a pleasant experience from that point of view.  Was Helen Mirren’s first film, we had a fantastic cast that made it a pleasure, indeed Hall was, just a very cultured and lovely man to be with.

PF: Some great performances in there.

PS: Yes, but somehow a failure as an enterprise. I think if you’re going to film Shakespeare you have to, if you’re going to make it into a film, you have to depart from Shakespeare a little bit. That’s why, for me, the best Shakespearian film translation is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Because he didn’t have to deal with the language.

PF: So, moving on. So you worked Second Unit on Charge of the Light Brigade and some of the interviews with David Watkin mention certain techniques employed, that he wanted a different look between certain scenes shot in England and Russia, what part of the filming were you involved in?

PS: I was only involved in the part which was meant to take place in the Crimea, but we shot in Turkey and I really said yes to the film because in those days I wanted to have as many different kinds of experiences as possible and I knew Tony Richardson was making bold films. He’d given the money for It Happened Here, so I said yes straight away and David Watkin told me that he was going to shoot the film in Scope, in Cinemascope, but he was going to use pre-war lenses, uncoated lenses, to give it an antique look. To be honest, I don’t think he made a wise decision. He was a bold man and he tried many interesting things through his career. And he was a lovely person with a good sense of humour. So we used these lenses, I don’t remember exactly, I think they were pre-war Cook uncoated lenses and then on top of those was placed an anamorphic lens which would squeeze the image, so there was a lot of glass in front of the camera and a lot of flares and foggy look. I was involved in filming the battles scenes and I spent three months, many days, in a thick pool of tyre smoke, I’m still alive, but I am sure it didn’t do me any good at all.

PF: Before we move on to the next film, could we talk a little bit about the lenses and achieving those, kind of, dreamy mystical looks through the camera using different lenses and gauzes and such like? Did you use them much in your career?

PS: I think in my early colour films I was very influenced by a colleague I had a lot of respect for, Walter Lassally. I had been his assistant on a documentary and we stayed friends, and he shot everything through… with a gauze in front of the camera. He thought that it gave it more of a gentle… well it did give it more of a gentle look, but I veered away from that a few years later, I didn’t like the romantic look that a gauze gave, but I did put a fairly open and not very strong net in front of the camera on several films. I don’t recall exactly when I stopped doing that, but he had given me some stockings which his father had brought from Germany, pre-war Dior stockings, and I have still got them, but haven’t touched them for 40 years, I think. So, I always liked a good lens, that was the reason why in most of my earlier films I shot on a rackover Mitchell camera because they had, to my mind, the best lenses, although the camera was very bulky and the operator, and thank goodness I wasn’t operating in those days, didn’t really see what the lens saw. He worked with a… I have to say “he” and not “she” because there were so few women in films… he worked with an offset finder which didn’t really show exactly what the lens could see, it was close enough for medium shots, it was accurate enough for medium shots, but for closer shots the operator had to use his experience and judgement as to what the lens was seeing, which he didn’t see. But lenses have stayed very important to me because through the lens passes the whole film, all the effort and the money that’s gone into making the film goes through the lens, so I better pay attention to the lens one uses and they do have different qualities.

PF: And that kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier about the expertise of the cinematographer, not just the lighting cameraman, so to speak, it’s the knowledge.

PS: Yes, it’s a question of taste. Yes.

PF: Well that brings us on to Lock Up Your Daughters which I believe you did after Charge of the Light Brigade, did, being a period film, did your work on Charge of the Light Brigade influence that film at all?

PS: You know, I can never answer these questions. I think everything that you experience in life will come out one way or another is you are practicing an expressive craft, whether its cinematography or painting or music, I don’t think you can divorce life from what you do, so I am sure everything I learnt on Charge of the Light Brigade and on the previous films came out in one way or another on my next one.


PF: So, in your career, what have been the influences, outside of cinema, on your work? Obviously, you have mentioned your own still photography, but is there anything else in terms of… any artists or anything, that have kind of influenced your style in any of your films?

PS: I never try to make my work look like any particular artist in another field because if you are talking about painting or drawing, ours has been a photo chemical process and now it’s an electronic process, there’s no sense of touching the canvas which you get from painting, so I think it’s a lost cause to want to make your work look like this or that painter. If you are trying to do that then you inevitably want to have the colour palette given by the locations and the clothes that go to making this or that painter’s work look that way, but you’ll never get the sense of the passing of time that you get when you subconsciously when you are looking at a painting.  But yes, painting has become more and more important to me, looking at it, looking at paintings, and I go to galleries every week if I am in a city, certainly every week and I see as many exhibitions as possible and music has been, probably also, a very important part of my life, probably more important than painting, but I cannot tell you how it had affected my cinematography. Reading too, telling of stories is, I think, of vital importance to filmmaking and directors who haven’t read any of the classic novels, I think make a mistake. I don’t say that they won’t be capable of making good films, but to judge what is important in telling a story I think it helps enormously to have read a bit, or a lot.

PF: So going from there, in the past you have mentioned that you will always read the script before you tackle the film, but you don’t always come in with an idea every time of what you are going to do.

PS: No, I often don’t know what I am going to do. I worked as, as you may know, with David Cronenberg for 25 years and he would always say to me the day before “I don’t know what I am going to do.” And I would say “David, it’s the same for me. I don’t know what I am going to do.” Of course, we both had good ideas, fairly clear ideas, of what we were going to do, but it felt as if we didn’t know what we were going to do, though. There are always lots of choices in front of you as a director and as a cinematographer and you have to makes choices which will influence the way you work, especially a cinematographer as he or she has to have looked at the locations, or the sets, and chosen the right equipment to have, but there are always options on the day of how you can use the equipment and where you can put the camera and which lens to use and so on. Very often I will arrive at the pre-production point in a film, the preparation point, not knowing quite how I am going to approach the film. I need to see the locations, see the sets, if there are going to be studio sets, and talk with the production designer and the wardrobe person and put together a kind of mosaic of feeling about the film. And only on the first day do I really sense how I am going to do it, but one has to establish the style on the first day, during the first shot because the next one has to look part of the film as well, so you can’t do different things on every shot, it’s got to fit together so that it feels like it’s happening in a short space of time.

PF: So, in past interviews we have heard that a lot of the costume designers, production designers, will often do research, particularly if it is a period film for example, and you have already mentioned that you work with them when you are on the set. Is there any research that you would do, for a period film for example, is there a look you would try and create, or would you shoot what has been produced by the costume and production designer in a different way?

PS: I’m trying to think whether I have worked on period films where I would have done research, I can’t think of any, the last period film that I worked on was, I think, putting aside Tale of Tales which is not anchored to one accurate period, would have been a Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method, I think that would have been the last one and I am very familiar with the period, the painting, the furniture, the jewellery, all of it. It has always fascinated me and the music and the literature, so I didn’t need to do any research.  In fact, I think that I spent some time complaining about inaccuracies in the props on the film. But I shouldn’t say more about that.

PF: But you were helping out in other areas.

[00:46:00 End of Part One start of Part Two]

PF: OK, so your next film, A Touch of Love with Waris Hussein, that was one of a few films you made with Waris at that point. And I believe Waris had worked in television largely, prior to that point, so was that experience any different… did he tackle the film in a different way that you you’d been accustomed to previously?

PS: Well I think that was the first time that I worked with a director who was experienced in producing lots of material efficiently. He’d been trained in television, as you say, so he… I think he would… he always has a diagram with camera angles ready prepared, as you would have to in TV. It was for me memorable because it was the first film I had made in a studio and I can remember the first day I arrived and caught sight of the microphone which was on the end of a long pole with the boom man perched on the top of a sort of trolley, called a fisher boom, and he would stand on top of this device which took his feet about four feet off the ground and he had a wheel which allowed him to move the microphone backwards and forwards. I had never seen a device like this before. I had always been on location on my previous films with very short pieces of studio work. Anyway, my first problem was how to avoid shadows from the boom because I was still working, if I remind you, with a slow stock and producing naturalistic looking lighting with the slow stock was tough, so we had to cope with shadows and I quickly learned how to avoid boom… sound boom shadows. That’s the first memory that I have from it and yes, I was working with a director who had a plan, whereas very often the other directors I’d worked with up to then relied on more on the director of photography deciding where to put the camera and how many angles.

PF: So, you mentioned shooting in the studio, coming from working on a lot of locations, so what was that transition like in terms of lighting and what you could get out of the image in the end product?

PS: I think fairly quickly I grew to love studio work because you start with nothing and you have to create a world and you are able to create your own world in the studio, design-wise and photography-wise. So I quickly fell in love with studio work.  That’s more or less all I can say about that film.

PF: OK. So we move on to the John Boorman film Leo the Last, which I believe followed that. Again, with a very interesting look, a very murky kind of representation of London at that point. Again, was that something that John Boorman was after or is that something that you…

PS: No, yes, John Boorman was the first really challenging director I worked with, with a sense of really what he wanted and the feeling that he had film in his blood, whether he made a successful film or not, now I don’t mean just this one, but right through his career he was always taking bold steps and he told me from the outset that he wanted to shoot this film in colour, but in black and white, so he, together with his production designer, they produced sets on location that were all in the tones of blacks and greys and whites. We even managed, or the production manager, to find a street near Notting Hill Gate which was going to be demolished and they spray painted the whole street black and we shot… none of the film was shot… almost none of the film was shot in the studio, it was 98% locations. All the interiors are in small rooms in a house at the end of the terrace near Notting Hill Gate, so for film purposes really small by the time you got the camera and the lights in with a slow stock, everything in black and white except for the actor’s faces being the only colour in the film.  That was an interesting challenge. Looking back on it today, I was probably too inexperienced to work with this director who had worked in Hollywood on some big productions and wonderful films. But I found it thrilling to work with a director with a powerful sense of what he wanted.

PF: So were there any techniques you employed apart from painting the buildings black, was there anything that you did to kind of bring out that very dark muted…

PS No, I don’t think so. I just lit it the way, I felt inside, I wanted to. I’m sure I wasn’t very successful at it because the film probably doesn’t… every film I’ve shot, when I see it again, I feel I’d like to re-shoot it, as I feel I can do it better now than I could then. The only strange thing I did was, I don’t know if it was strange, but the only unusual thing we did was to shoot quite a lot of shots of the main character, played by Marcello Mastroianni, the best actor I’ve ever worked with. He was observing other houses through a pair of binoculars and I’ve never done anything like that before, but of course it’s quite commonly done, there’s nothing really unusual about it. It’s just for me, at the time, it was unusual.

PF: That was actually what I was going to ask you about next, because we see Leo looking into the various buildings from his house at the end of the street, so were you employing a variety of techniques with lenses? What are we actually looking into because we can’t tell from the film itself are you filming from a location and looking into these houses?

PS: Yes. I can no longer recall precisely whether it was all done in camera or whether a matte was put on afterwards. I tend to think that we did it in camera with the lens that didn’t really fit the gate of the camera. In other words, there was vignetting around the edges. I think that’s how it was done but I can’t swear to it.

PF: And would you have lit each of those individual rooms?

PS: Yes

PF: Was that problematic?

PS: Yes it was very effortful. In those days, if you wanted to shoot on location in colour, inside an interior… this was pre-HMI, pre-lamps, before lamps which we have today, which work, which shine, which illuminate a scene with the daylight colour. Everything was tungsten in those days apart from the arc light. The arc light was an immense thing called the brute. It was big, it was very heavy. It was so heavy that two men were required to lift the head of the lamp off the floor and place it on the stand which would support it. And then it had an enormous device to convert the electricity from DC to AC or the other way around, I can’t remember, called a resistance. All of this was impossible to use on location inside. You couldn’t take it into a small room, it smoked as well. So that just meant that you had… the only option we had was a tungsten lamp with a blue gelatine in front of it emitting a lot of heat and losing a lot of light because of the blue gelatine. So I had rooms stuffed with lamps and rooms which became very warm. One day, a local youth came along, and as a prank, touched the controls of the generator, cranking the power up beyond the capacity of the lamps to absorb it and blew all the lamps, and that was whilst I had illuminated many rooms for one of these shots because John didn’t want to cut very often, he wanted to pan from one room to another. So yes, we lost many lightbulbs due to this young man playing a trick.

PF: No longer seen on set after that I’m sure?

PS: We also managed to burn a house down on that film, yes, we did. Our main house burnt down at lunchtime. To this day I don’t know how or why it caught fire, but we arrived back from lunch to see the fire engines and the locations slowly disappearing.

PF: Some of the hazards! Could we talk a little bit about… you mentioned putting the blue filter on the tungsten, could we talk a little bit about the arc lights and the brutes and the effect that has on skin tones and colours on screen and how that’s catered for in terms of the gelatines and things that are used on the films?


PS: I can’t tell you a lot about it. The arc lights burnt at daylight colour, 5600 probably. Someone else will tell me I’m quite wrong, that it was higher than that, that it was bluer than that. It was virtually impossible to match the colour of an arc light, to the colour of a tungsten lamp with a blue gelatine on it, so we tried to avoid mixing the two. It was very common to have an arc light outside a window shining into a room and to do the rest of the lighting with tungsten lights with the blue gels. But the blue gels, because they were subject to a lot of heat from the lamp would slowly change colour, would fade, and often we wouldn’t notice that they’d faded, so yes, many unintentional colour mistakes were made.

PF: So used sporadically, I guess? Not used as often as you should really, the gelatines, did you try and avoid using them?

PS: No, you had to use them to convert them to daylight. The only other option was to convert the window by putting what we called an 85 gel on the window, but that produced reflections and bulges and bubbles, so it was not a very practical thing to put gelatines on the windows although people did it and I did it too. Sometimes we had Perspex made of that colour which converted the daylight outside to tungsten colour, so that when you were inside, you could use tungsten lamps with no gels on them, but it brought a host of other problems with it. And it was only after the invention of the HMI that I was able to shoot comfortably on location in colour in locations inside.

PF: And the HMI, when were they introduced?

PS: Probably in the late 80s

PF: A long time afterwards.

PS: Yes

PF: Your next film, Figures in a Landscape, was shot on location again. Was it good to get back on location for that film… filmed in Spain I believe?

PS: It was. I have to be perfectly honest about that film and say that I didn’t shoot all of that film. It’s the only time that I’ve been released, fired from a film. I shot the beginning of the film, many of the action scenes, and the film had an uncomfortable history. Joseph Losey, who I’d known for a few years before the film, he liked working in a very structured way, and he hadn’t shot an action film like that for… ever I don’t think, not in the same way. His films that he’d shot in England prior to that film were made with a production designer who I’d never met and can’t remember his name, but he used to storyboard the film and they knew exactly how they were going to shoot each scene. This film was quite different, a film he was about to shoot had collapsed, and he’d lost his crew including the production designer who went on to immediately to work on another film so he needed to find a new crew, people he didn’t know and he had seen my photography and he had seen some of my cinematography. I’d photographed Losey and his family, and he asked me to shoot this film. I was relatively inexperienced, probably aged 29, with naturalistic films behind me and no big studio action film. And Losey was probably a little bit lost himself if I can say so, he’s a fine director, an important director and a really good man. But the film ran into schedule problems, it started to go too slowly for the schedule and American studios need to point a finger when things go wrong and it’s usually the cinematographer who gets the gun first. So I was released from that film so I can’t really talk… I’m talking very honestly about the film but I can’t tell you about much if the film. I did some day-for-night work, I did some helicopter from the ground work. I remember looking at locations with Losey in a helicopter, and the helicopter pilot playing tricks on us and trying to frighten us and that’s one of the things that made me decide to never to do aerial photography again. He was probably in his mid-60s, I was in my late 20s. I was not mature enough for the film and one day in the mountains, I made a joke, an ill-considered joke to Robert Shaw, who was a very macho actor, a good actor, and he was also a novelist of some talent I believe. But he didn’t appreciate the joke, he felt it somehow reflected on his masculinity and I think that’s why I was fired from the film, not because we were just behind schedule but because Robert Shaw didn’t want to work with me.

PF: Right. So, we’ll move on to…

PS: Well many years later I met Losey in a restaurant by chance in Paris and he said “You know the part of the film that you photographed was probably the best”.

PF: Well there is a sequence I remember actually from the film and it reminded me of some of your earlier work, where you’re looking at the helicopter from the ground. The sun is behind the helicopter and it shines through. The helicopter is in silhouette. I remember that from some of your earlier films.

PS: It’s maybe something I did, I can’t honestly know or remember if I was involved at that point. A very good French cinematographer took over… Alekan probably. Henri Alekan.

PF: And there was somebody brought in to do the aerial photography specially I think wasn’t there on that film?

PS: Probably.

PF: It might have been later on, I guess?

PS: Aerial photography does need a specialist.

PF: So your next film, Melody, which I believe was with Waris Hussain. Again, a lot of location, but this time a contemporary film around London.

PS: I haven’t got anything special to say about that, except I’ve never been able to work out why it was so popular in Japan. Often, when I work with Japanese people, or the few times I did, they would cite melody as, ‘merrodee’ as one of their favourite films. 

PF: Yes, I’ve read that Mark Lester was often brought in over there for special events and television interviews and things.

PS: Is that right?

PF: It’s long since forgotten over here.

PS: I don’t really want to talk about that film, not because I had a bad experience on it, just nothing interesting to say about it.

PF: Okay, so we go back to period films with The Pied Piper, your next production.

PS: Yes, that’s probably the next time after, John Boorman, that I worked with a director with a sense of vision of any kind. Too many films of that period seem to happen by accident. Not by design, but with John Boorman, everything happened for better or worse by design and with Jacques Demy as well. He is one of the few directors I had worked with up to that point, well, perhaps the only one apart from John Boorman, who wanted to decide entirely on his own where to put the camera and… he wanted to move it a lot, he wanted to do a lot of tracking shots. And he’d walk around the set with a finder all the time.

PF: That was shot in Germany I believe?

PS: The major part of it was shot in Germany. There were some studio interiors, in a small studio owned by the Lee brothers in London but most of it was made in Germany in Oldenbourg.

PF: Just thinking about the location work and the studio work, what is done to match up the two? Obviously, I’m guessing the filming is sometime apart, I don’t know which way around it was for this film… was the interiors first or the location… but what, in your mind, what do you have to do to match those two?

PS: Well, often it’s a question of light. It’s desirable probably for questions of believability that the light that you have on the exterior, should be reflected, should match the interior light. Very often you’ll see, in a film, an exterior shot in overcast light, and suddenly in the interior, the sun is shining through the window. It looks good, and maybe the audience is never disturbed, it always disturbed me to do that. In this case, the exteriors were filmed in Germany and the interiors were dark castle scenes so matching wasn’t a problem and the atmosphere had to come from the continuation of the aesthetics of the film, the design and the clothes. And we had a wonderful designer and the wardrobe designer as well. To my mind, if the films suffers from anything, it’s because Jacques’ English wasn’t really fluent and he didn’t understand when he wasn’t getting good performances. But it was a superb experience, he was a lovely person and interesting director with a point of view.


PF: Some great actors again I believe, John Hurt and Donald Pleasance in the film?

PS: Yes, some of the roles had really good actors in them and the minor roles often didn’t 

PF: Obviously, a period film but a fairy tale as well. Was there a different approach from yourself for that film?

PS: No I don’t think so to be honest, no. I didn’t say to myself I’m going to put on a fairy cloak and… no

PF: So moving on, Henry VIII and his Six Wives, mainly interiors for this film. Coming off the back of the Pied Piper, was that an easy transition.

PS: Yes. I don’t recall any particular problems and the film is somewhat stiff and…no, I won’t say any more about it. I’ve learnt on every single day and every single film I’ve worked on so I’m sure I learnt a lot on that film, but its not one of my best films.

PF: Well, going from the two period films then, we have That’ll be the Day and All Creatures Great and Small. Very naturalistic looking films, even though periods, relatively recent period films of the time, a number of shots, including, the beach scenes with David Essex on That’ll be the Day and the fairground scenes, all very natural lighting used for that. Was that very minimal lighting used?

PS: I suppose it was and I suppose it was part of my aesthetic in those days. I’ve changed enormously and I prefer more expressive work today than naturalistic work, but I think it was probably the right choice for the film anyway to make it look real. And I guess I have to recognise that everything in British cinema surrounding me at that time, everything I liked was in the same manner, shot in the same manner, naturalistically. Mostly, not everything. There were some wonderful exceptions like… now I’m struggling to remember the title…the name… Jack Clayton. He was not naturalistic but one of the unrecognised greats of that period.

PF: Yes, and certainly moving from the ‘60s we had quite bold colour designs in a lot of the films. Was that, as you say, that tendency for British cinema at that point moving away from those strong colour designs of the 1960s?

PS: I’m trying to remember whether there were some stylistically interesting films of the ‘70s, shot during the ‘70s, but I think it was a general tendency to be naturalistic 

PF: Yes, are there any memories of working on All Creatures Great and Small in North Yorkshire?

PS: Yes, yes. One of the memories that stayed with me since then was being asked to shoot the birth of a foal. The problem was pointed out straight away before embarking on it was that we were shooting during the day and the birth was likely to be at night and I couldn’t see how they could imagine how I would do both. So I asked my father if he’d shoot it for me. I prepared the light and the stall where the foal was due to be born and in fact, I spent the first night expecting to shoot it and sleeping in a caravan with the director and his girlfriend in separate bunks with a heater on in the caravan and I think we nearly suffocated from the fumes emitted by the heater. These are things I remember and I remember working with a young Anthony Hopkins whom I’d never heard of at that time and Simon Ward. I remember the actors, I remember it very fondly. It’s not a great film but I have fond memories of shooting it. Again, it’s a TV director and I don’t say this with disdain, especially today with some of the very best work being done is on TV. But then perhaps that wasn’t that case.

PF: It does have the look of a TV movie from that period actually. Was there anything to recreate that ‘30s period, I mean a lot of costumes?

PS: Yes, the props and the cars. I do remember particularly, one memory comes back to me that Claude Whatham, with whom I worked twice. Being of the TV culture, therefore having to be very prepared and thought out instead of being a director who would come on set with not completely formed ideas and being ready to explore the possibilities, looking at a rehearsal and discussing how we’re going to shoot the film he, like Waris, would draw diagrams the day before, perhaps earlier, about where to put the camera. And sometimes, I can remember one or two occasions when his idea of how to shoot the scene seemed to be completely wrong to me. He’d say, “I want to shoot the scene in the corner of this room”, and the camera, as I could see it, would be facing the corner. We’d have an interesting room to shoot in which we’d never seen, and if I suggested it might be more interesting to put the actors in a different place, with the room behind them, I remember he felt that as a sort of attack on his concept. It was difficult to discuss it with him rather than, I didn’t want to have a fight over it at all, but it seemed to be wrong to be shooting in a corner when we had so much more that we could show. Those are my memories of that film.

PF: So, we’ll move on then, to your next film, Rocky Horror Picture Show. So a number of the crew were brought over from the original stage production. What was that like working with the crew they’d put together?

PS: The crew, I don’t know. The production designer was definitely the production designer that had designed the show and of course the cast, but who else would have been?

PF: Jim Sharman involved with the film.

PS: Oh yes but he was the director.

PF: So was there a collaboration?

PS: Very much, yes. It was both difficult and great fun. It was difficult because we had very little time, we had six weeks to shoot the film in. For a musical that’s pretty short. But the cast all knew their lines and the songs so that speeded things up. But I think it was the first time I had a really stylised film to shoot. I was much more anxious about my craft in those days than I am today so it was under pressure and stress that I was working. But at the same time, I had the sense that this was something unusual. It wasn’t part of my world at all. I went to see the stage show and the style of music is very far removed from the music I love but at the same time I could see the humour in it. I had no idea that it would age so well or become such a cult film. When I see it today compared to everything else that I had shot previously, it doesn’t seem to have an age to it whereas most of the films I’ve worked on are very dated. This one I don’t think will date for a long time because it has its own particular world which is not tied to the time in which it was made. The only reference it makes all the time is to horror films.


PF: So what was that like then, as you were filming down at Bray, I believe, and not being a big fan of horror, what was that like, did you draw inspiration from Hammer?

PS: No, I’d never seen horror films, or virtually not, so I wasn’t thinking of them, I was just treating it as a strange quirky film to be, or whose characters should be emphasised in the photography. The studio was a small studio and it had practical problems, it only had one stage, had a tiny annexe stage I think. That meant that when we had finished shooting one particular scene, say the lab scene, we had to leave the studio and give them time to pull the set down and film the next one so that’s why we had to go into the house next door which Hammer used.

PF: Yes, and there’s an interesting sequence at the start the wedding ceremony that has a ‘50s B-movie look to it.

PS: Yes, well part of the problem of that, which I should relate to you, is related to the slow speed of the stock, that we were using. I seem to recall it was 64 ASA for daylight, so you had to put a filter on, an orange filter in front of the camera for shooting daylight scenes because it was a tungsten balanced stock. And as we were shooting on a bad day, a dark day, I had to use lights to get an exposure to make the actors look okay. So that gives it, that practical reason gives it that B-movie feeling, not because I really liked it.

PF: Brilliant. And you mention it being one of your first really stylised films, you move from scene to scene and each one had a different look, you get to the lab and to the floor show at the end of the film. So was this the first time when you had that, almost like a theatrical piece and would do that again with Lisztomania with Russell. Is this where you learnt that technique, having individual shots that were very, very different?

PS: That’s tough to give you an easy answer. Yes, perhaps I allowed myself to change style from scene-to-scene. Today I would tend to feel that the film should have a unified feeling to it, but there are occasions when you need to change the look. With Ken Russell anything was permitted really.

PF: With it being such an iconic film, is there anything else you remember about Rocky Horror in terms of your approach to the film? Or any memories of working with the crew and bringing that look to the screen?

PS: Well, I can remember one particular sequence near the end of the film they’ve got the RKO symbol in the background and I suggested that there was an easy way to make the lightning flashes work. The RKO symbol was this radio tower mast with lightning flashes. So how to do that on the set of the film, I came up with a solution which I think was effective and simple. I don’t remember how or when, but I’d become familiar with front projection material, I don’t recall the name of it anymore but it’s very similar to the treatment given to road signs so when you’re sitting in your car and your headlight touches the road sign it shines back at you very brightly. So this front projection material had a characteristic that allowed, really encouraged light to come back towards the camera if the light shining on it was from very close or even through the lens, it was designed, for the light to go through the lens of the projector, but anyway, that said and done I won’t enter into that. I suggested that if they cut out the lightning symbols, the lightning flashes out of front projection material, stick it onto the set, I would then have a very small, weak lamp right next to the lens and flash it on and off and this would produce the lightning flashes. And that’s how we did it. But I had fun with that scene and with the stylised nature of the film, altogether.

PF: And that went on to influence your work with Russell and working in the studio sets?

PS: Probably did.

PF: So, the first of two films with Ken Russell, Lisztomania, did you approach the different period’s in Liszt’s life with different techniques.

PS: No I didn’t. No, I didn’t.

PF: So at the end of the film, we have the point in Wagner’s castle which kind of echoes the Rocky Horror style. Was there any similarities on how you worked on that scene… again, it’s got that horror style?

PS: It might have reminded me of it. It was actually I think the first scene that we filmed in the schedule of the film. And maybe on the first day of filming, something went wrong which altered the planning of the whole film because the actor playing Wagner was suspended on wires and in those days that technique hadn’t been used a lot. We had people from the circus to make him fly, and somehow their apparatus went wrong, the cable broke and he fell to the ground and broke his leg. On the first day. So there was a quick re-scheduling whilst the actor’s leg repaired over a two month period I should think. But the set probably reminded me of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But the great thing about working on those two films was that Ken Russell’s main interest was in the look of the film. So, a good proportion of the production’s money was spent on production design, and we always had interesting sets. The script was a second I think for him but it was wonderful for a young DoP like myself because I was presented with many difficult things to do and large sets which I’d never had the luck to work on before. And he had a good eye.

PF: Yes, because I believe, Ken Russell he liked to look through the camera quite often?

PS: Yes, I think that he did but the moment that video assist was developed, and possibly on Lisztomania we didn’t have it but certainly by the time of… oh I think we did, I think we did. And certainly by the time that we did Valentino it was used by, on all films. And Russell spent a long time looking at his video and talking with the camera operator about headroom. That became his main obsession. Was there enough, was there too little.

PF: He was very specific Ken Russell with movements and the camera?

PS: Yes, the visuals were his main interest, I think. So it was very fortunate for me.

PF: You mentioned in the past you used a lot of colour gels on this film…

PS: I probably did, I can’t remember talking about it in the past but I probably did for the first time yes. 

PF: And obviously that added to the effect that Ken probably wanted?

PS: Yes.

PF: And there’s an interesting sequence at the start where Liszt is in bed, and there’s a bedroom sequence with billowing curtains and very blue sort of lights to the scene. It’s very well lit do you remember much about that sequence? It’s a very strong scene.

PS: He’s in bed you say?

PF: Yes, it’s the beginning of the film. I think it’s Liszt and Marie at the start of the film.

PS: Is it the one where she goes on to a swing?

PF: I think it might be, yes.

PS: I quickly understood that everything was going to be extravagant and I might as well be extravagant myself and I had a lot of fun with that because I’d never been encouraged to go in that direction.

PF: And this is the first film where you… there’s a sequence, the Charlie Chaplin sequence in black and white. Was this one of the films where you were using colour stock and changing the film to black and white in post-production?

PS: Yes, we did some experimentation before the film. And Russell asked me if we could try using a silent camera, a hand-cranked camera. I knew a little bit about hand-cranked cameras because in my film school in Paris I had a very elderly teacher who’d started in 1905 and he’d given me some instructions on using hand-cranked cameras and how to do fades and dissolves in the camera, all of which at the time I thought was useless information but now, it’s the most precious memory I have of that time at film school. So we did try putting film through a hand-cranked camera, and we looked at the black and white results and we compared it to converting colour to black and white and we opted for the latter. It just looked better quite honestly.


PF: Were you quite fond of shooting that sequence?

PS: The film studio scene do you mean? I don’t remember Charlie Chaplin?

PF: It was Roger Daltrey dressed as Charlie Chaplin I believe. It’s the black and white silent.

PS: Ah, that’s faded from my memory I can’t remember the scene anymore…

PF: But you used similar techniques again for Valentino, for re-creating the silent films. Was that a similar process you used for Valentino, that you used colour then converted it?

PS: Yes, certainly. And I knew a little bit about some of the equipment used in film studios during the silent days because I was very interested in silent film. So I had a lot of fun with that.

PF: So would that of been a matter of just removing all the colour from the film in post-production?

PS: Yes.

PF: So, parts of the film which were filmed on what would be recreations of the original sets, did you employ any silent era lighting techniques or was there a kind of a look?

PS: To be honest, no I don’t think I did. I came up with what I thought would look most interesting rather than trying to be faithful. I still think the important part of a period film is to make the costumes and the sets look believable. And the hair too. Oh gosh, the other day I saw a film in which the period was totally betrayed by one of the male actor’s hair. So often an actor who’s brought onto a film for only a few days doesn’t want to have his hair cut. And I’m talking about a film that was supposed to take place over the war. So one of the actors had long hair which was unthinkable in those days.

PF: I think I recall an interview with costume designer Jocelyn Rickard said the same thing, working in the 60s, because a number of the actresses wouldn’t have their hair changed. That gave the game away, everything else could be fine, it was the haircuts that always got them.

PS: Well I think the director has to stipulate before the casting is decided, has to tell the actress that she’s gonna’ have to damn well have her hair in period, otherwise you don’t get the role.

PF: For Valentino, do you remember, was there any post-production techniques you used?

PS: I don’t remember any, no, I don’t remember any. Well things were not as flexible then as there were now. You couldn’t really do very much to the film.

PF: There was a sequence that I believe was shot in the ballroom in Blackpool, a big open space, the boxing sequence. Do you have any memories about lighting that particular scene?

PS: I just remember enjoying every location we filmed in because Russell had a very good aesthetic sense, visual sense, and we had always had great locations to film in, this very ornate ballroom of large size, requiring lots of pre-lighting so I would have had great fun with that. I can’t tell you anything specific or very interesting about it.

[01:30:40 End of Part Two start of Part Three]

PF: After Valentino we move onto The Empire Strikes Back and Krull. So, working in the fantasy genre and obviously doing a lot of interior work, studio work, and also with the faster film stocks during this period, how did you adapt to working in the fantasy genre with a lot of special effects techniques during this period?

PS: I have to give you a rambling answer, I think. I had seen the big science fiction film of the time, 2001 and was thrilled to be taken on that journey into another world. So when I was approached about Star Wars the first one, I was… I read the script and didn’t know George Lucas’s work, I hadn’t seen, what was it called, TFX?

PF: THX 1138.

PS: Yes, I’d not seen that film but I went for the meeting and I’d read the script and I said to George Lucas “Thank you very much for bringing me in for this interview but I don’t have any experience of visual effects. You really ought to have the gentleman who shot 2001, he’s a very good cinematographer.” “Yes,” he said “you’re probably right but he’s not available.” And he had seen some of my work and he liked it, but in the end the film studio, 20th Century Fox agreed with my assessment that I was not the right person for the job, and they chose a great cinematographer who worked with Kubrick on Dr Strangelove and Polanski on two films, but they didn’t see eye-to-eye they didn’t get on at all well during the filming. He accused the director and the producers of being a bunch of amateurs, he said the film would never be a success. Boy was he wrong! And they came back to me for the next film and I said  “I still don’t have the special effects experience”, and the answer this time was “It doesn’t matter. You come to San Francisco for a few days and we’ll take you round and you‘ll meet all the technicians and we’ll talk about everything that we might be doing.” So that’s how I became involved in it, and yes, I’ve always loved being taken on a journey out of my world whether it’s in today’s world but a completely different experience or another planet, doesn’t matter so long as I’m taken on a journey that enthrals me, I don’t mind. And this being not related to our world, gave me, I felt, a lot of freedom to enter a fantasy world. And when it came to the last scene in the film that we were going to shoot which was the fight on the ramp, the production designer said to me “We’ve run out of money we don’t have money to build a set, I can build a ramp and a bit of pipework in the foreground” and I said, “Well I understand, don’t worry, I can do the rest with light and some smoke and steam.” And I was just able to use my imagination a bit and come up with a solution to the problem. So I’ve enjoyed creating different worlds. I still really hanker after seeing a film that has a meaningful situation in it and of course there’s something child-like and boys-own like about Star Wars. It’s not my favourite genre but I’m so glad I worked on it at the same time. And then yes, I went on to work, because you’re quickly characterised, quickly pigeon-holed, I was asked to shoot a number of science fiction films, and as it’s not my favourite genre, unless the script is really transporting and marvellous, I’m not especially drawn to science fiction. I have worked on several science fiction films subsequently and Krull was an attempt to blend genres, not totally successfully I don’t think but it wanted to blend sword and sorcery, which was popular at the time, and science fiction. And visually, it gave me many opportunities.

PF: Yes, and working with the special effects team, was there anything… any different approach to the film you had to take in terms of your work?

PS: I think what made me anxious about prior to shooting The Empire Strikes Back was the use of technical expressions with which I was not familiar. Describing processes which I knew nothing about, like front-projection and back projection and matte photography etc. And I quickly learnt that they were not complex. You had to use your eyes and your best visual judgement and using the processes and there would always be a post-production technician on hand to exchange ideas with and to ask and would sometimes ask me to do something with the lighting or I would suggest something and he would say, “Yes that’ll work well for me.” But, in the end, the processes were quite simple. Some of the mattes were magical, the most magical one I encountered was front projection, something that’s not used any more. But that was a process with which you could blend, instead of using rear-projection work, projecting an already shot scene for the background and then having the actor in the foreground and usually it would look fake, you could do it all in the camera, and the person looking through the camera was the only person who could see what it looked like, because it was so directional. It used front projection material, which we talked about earlier on which sent back to the camera an image, and if you moved off angle from the camera you couldn’t see that image anymore. So I learnt a lot about a few processes, some of which aren’t used anymore.

PF: And am I right in saying, did you use one of the VistaVision cameras for it?

PS: We did, yes, we used a VistaVision camera because it gave a larger negative, more detail for the post-production people to use, so that scenes such as cockpit scenes in their fighter planes were shot VistaVision, I think. A few shots here and there throughout the film where we used VistaVision for. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a means of seeing our rushes, and this had an inconvenience to it, because a few months later, George Lucas, and he hadn’t promptly seen our rushes, they were all sent to him but he didn’t screen them. He said “One of your lenses, the 28mm is not properly calibrated and the shots are not sharp, we can’t use them.” But it was far too late to re-shoot them. But it was a very clever process, I don’t know if you want me to go into it at all?

PF: Yes please.

PS: Okay, well in 1952/3 somebody went to 20th Century Fox with the idea of creating anamorphic lenses, and they said “Great idea”, because I presume the conversation was about TV and how much TV was robbing the audience from cinema, “Well, how wonderful. We can produce spectacular widescreen and tempt the audiences back from the TV out into the cinema again.” It was copyrighted, patented and nobody else was allowed to make an anamorphic lens, for, I don’t know how many years, but a few years. So various ideas were brought forth, the most regrettable idea was widescreen, because that was just a cheap version of CinemaScope in which we lost probably a third of the negative, so it led to slight degrading of the image and the loss of the beautiful academy ratio. That was all down to… I believe the root cause of that was CinemaScope and the inability of anyone else to make a similar process. Somebody else came up with Cinerama which didn’t go anywhere because it was three cameras, three projectors, and with each projector producing weave and wobble it was quite a strain to watch for more than few minutes. So we were stuck with widescreen ever since then or cinemascope. Am I losing track of where…VistaVision, yes. VistaVision was a genius idea as the film will run sideways, as it does in a still camera, and you will end up with a bigger negative and you can use spherical lenses which are inherently better than anamorphic lenses. The only problem was that it required theatres to re-equip, and probaboly only one theatre in London re-equipped and one in New York, etc. so it never caught on, but it remained a useful tool for visual effects.


PF: So, talking specifically about Krull, I believe at first the film was going to be all shot on location then it was decided it would be shot in the studio, is that right?

PS: I don’t recall that debate, it’s very possible that that’s correct, I wouldn’t contradict that. I don’t think Peter Yates, had shot an entirely studio film, he’d worked in the United States in Hollywood very successfully with Bullet, but that was a mixture of studio and location, so Krull became a mixture of studio and location.

PF: And you’d taken over quite a lot of the stages at Pinewood I believe?

PS: Probably, it was a big production, yes.

PF: Was there anything… there’s quite an extended swamp sequence which is quite reminiscent of some of the scenes from The Empire Strikes Back?

PS: Swamp sequence… yes, yes, yes, yes. We used the James Bond stage for that.

PF: So was there some of the experiences coming over from working on the Star Wars film?

PS: Well I learnt a lot doing The Empire Strikes Back and continued to learn until yesterday. So yeah. It was a very big set indeed. Bigger than the swamp set in The Empire Strikes Back. And they decided to put two suns into it as I thought I had the freedom… since we’re in a different world, to allow myself to have two suns.

PF: So this was the period in which the faster film stocks came into play. I guess that gave you more freedom in the studio.

PS: Probably yes. But I think I was forever struggling to make it look as good as the slower stock and not succeeding.

PF: So you had the faster speed but the quality just wasn’t the same?

PS: It wasn’t the same, especially when it became duped.

PF: So, talking a little bit about film stocks, part of our project we’re interested in the discussion of Eastmancolor fading, which became noticeable in the late ‘70s discussed most prominently by Martin Scorsese, how has that impacted on your own work?

PS: Well it’s just reinforced my feelings, the fact that the colours have faded, has reinforced my feelings that we should be shooting digitally. In that process the files can disappear completely and you can be left with no movie but in theory the quality shouldn’t shift. I found it really upsetting to see a movie that I shot projected in the cinema and only being able to see magenta on the screen is very depressing for me.

PF: And has that impacted upon any of your work? Have you heard anything about your films being at risk?

PS: I’m sure they’re all at risk really. Very often I’m not asked to be part of the process of transferring a film to DVD or Blu-ray. I wasn’t even asked about The Empire Strikes Back, so they increased the contrast enormously, I think.

PF: And I think that’s been part of the problem, that certain personnel working on the films aren’t consulted when future restorations and digitization projects happen.

PS: No.

PF: And you mention this with The Empire Strikes Back but we have certain generations, particularly with videotape, DVD and Blu-ray now, that the look is changing and apart from The Empire Strikes Back have you ever seen screening of any of your films, or have you seen them on television…

PS: Yes. I saw a screening about two years ago…I think it may have been a Ken Russell film. I cannot remember anymore which one it was but it was horrible to see.

PF: In terms of how it looked on the screen?

Yes. Because the colours have shifted. All that was left was magenta.

PF: I think the problem is, people’s memories of these films change over time depending on where they’re being exhibited whether on television or…

PS: Well that’s true of a lot of films. People think silent films look scratched or degraded, but they look superb if you can see something struck from an original negative. It looks wonderful.

PF: Talking about your films more generally, in terms of the show prints, those original prints that were made, you mentioned the imbibition process where the film did look slightly different. As the imbibition process ended and we moved into the ‘70s and ‘80s. 

PS: I think it was probably in existence until the mid-‘70s.

PF: Yes, it was before it was closed. Did that improve at all going into the late ‘70s and ‘80s?

PS: Well yes it did. I think that it did. And when everyone started printing on Eastmancolor, perhaps the imbibition process prints have not faded. I don’t know I’ve not seen one.

PF: The prints themselves no, because of how it’s printed.

PS: That’s right. If they were printed on Eastmancolor they would have faded.

PF: I know specifically it’s from certain periods within Eastmancolor history, that they’re more prone to fading. And since it was brought to the attention of the world in the late ‘70s there were things done to…

PS: I think all prints faded. But of course, Technicolor films are protected as they’re made with a separation, three primary colours, and that’s the best way they say to preserve any film is to make negatives with a separation process but it’s expensive.

PF: It is and I know that even Eastmancolor films, black and white separations could have protected them. Where you are of this?

PS: No, I didn’t know that then. But I think no production would have thought forwards so many years.

PF: It’s expensive to do as well

PS: Yes, but relatively inexpensive, as far as I know, probably talking somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand pounds, but when you think of the re-sale value to TV of older films that’s probably not so much money but people didn’t think in those terms, they didn’t think of the values of their library in those days.

PF: It was probably the first print run and exhibition and that was it then.

PS: Yes, that’s it. Yes.

PF: So moving on and talking more generally about your career, are there any experiences outside of the feature film industry where perhaps you may have used other processes or have there been other experiences working in advertising or sponsored films that might be of interest to us for the projects.

PS: The short answer is I don’t think so. I don’t think I embarked on technical experiments in commercials, there’s never the time to try anything in a commercial. You’re expected to produce on the day. There’s no money set aside for testing anything even if I was doing it unpaid it would still cost something, that’s just not done. But there must be some cinematographers, some directors who had the good fortune to be able to test something out and try something unusual but I don’t think that’s my case on commercials, during my time I shot a lot of commercials, I can’t recall any in which I’ve had a period of experimentation beforehand.


PF: Working in advertising and sponsored films, how much were the company who were funding the films how much input did they have because you’re obviously doing a job for them, was there ever people on set who were trying to create a certain look or were you entrusted, just as you would be…

PS: It’s such a different world to working on movies. Unfortunately…well, there are big pluses to working in commercials, you get a chance to try things out even if you don’t have a pre-production period, you can be bold and you can learn a lot, and it keeps your eye in training etc. But the poor director has to please so many people. Normally on a film, the director, once the casting has agreed with the producers, and the script is finalised, the director can please him or herself, unless something goes wrong with the schedule and they fall badly behind which has a financial impact that you can only begin to imagine. Usually, a director, at that stage, is able to just please him or herself but on a commercial, the director has to please agency people, sometimes there are multiple agencies involved, and they also have to defer to the so-called client who’s never really the client, he’s also an employee but he or she seems to have immense power. So the experience is really quite different and can be very frustrating for the director.

PF: I guess I’d like to talk a little bit about the transitional period between shooting on film and digital and if you could tell me a little bit about the benefits…

PS: I can only talk about my experience and my observations until…the first time I used a digital camera it was the Alexa, and in my case it was on a film called Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg. We’d talked about digital cameras prior to that because they had been in existence for perhaps five years before that, very short period of time. You see, film cameras didn’t shift very much, they didn’t change, the movement stayed the same for generations and the lenses didn’t change very much. Nothing changed. Every twenty years a new camera would come out, I’m talking about film camera. So he and I had talked about digital photography for three, four, five years before we actually embarked on it, used it. And he’s very interested in technology and all things scientific probably more than I am and we both felt that what we’d seen so far didn’t inspire us, it wasn’t good enough. And finally, we saw films shot on the Alexa and thought yes, I encouraged him to shift into digital photography. And I have to say that, after half an hour on the first day of filming, I said to myself well I actually never want to go back to film again. This is for me, I can see exactly what we’re going to get on our high definition screen and no secrets no mystery, the only downside is that the viewfinder’s not very good, at that stage it wasn’t, and the viewfinder was always part of my body, the camera felt like part of my body and I lit through the camera and I was no longer able to do that. That was the new thing I had to get used to, our power and mystery was diminished because on film the director of photography was the only person who knew what it would look like, more or less, the next day when we saw the film, the rushes. Now, everybody can see it and there’s a chance for people to give their opinions if they want to. I’ve never had a problem with that myself but I’m sure some people do have that problem quite frequently. But the upside is, the camera’s very sensitive, you can shoot in low-light situations, you can shoot at the end of the day or the beginning of the day with no problem. And the only problem that some people may see is there’s too much information recorded and you might feel inclined, the director of photography might feel inclined, to do something about that in one way or another and maybe there’s a similarity in the look of films because there’s not so much choice. We ended up later on in the colour years with being able to choose between several stocks, which wasn’t the case when I was starting to use colour. But now, there are not so many sensors around and they tend to look similar, that’s the only danger perhaps.

PF: Just to go back to something you said there, later in your career, did you work with any other film, Fuji, or did you stick with Eastmancolor?

PS: No, I did work a couple of times with Fuji, once or twice with David Cronenberg and certainly in France on one or two films. I liked having the opportunity to choose between different stocks which had different characteristics.

PF: And were there particular benefits from working with the Fuji film over… 

PS: It probably looked a bit gentler. The aim of Fuji was to make their stock look like Eastmancolor if they could. So there was a very subtle difference between them. It was cheaper, which meant quite a bit to the production. But I was never told I had to film it on Fuji.

PF: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say about working during that period? Any influences on you in those early years on your filmmaking?

PS: I think that colour, at least to start with, was much more difficult than black and white. With black and white you reduced the world to shapes, and light, and in colour, it’s stating the obvious ,but colour leaps forward, leaps out at you and it’s useful if you can control the colours within the set, it’s not always possible to do that. So it’s taken a while for us all to master it and understand it. I think in fifty years’ time when we look back on this period, we’ll see that the early films in colour, even putting aside the fact that there’s a problem that there’s a change in colour, a shift of colours, in the print, it’s taken quite a while for colour to look good, in many films, generally good. There are a lot of very bad examples of the use of colour in the first twenty years of Eastmancolor. Technicolour’s another matter, I think we should put that in a different category because it favoured the stylised approach, it needed a lot of light because it was so slow, but the naturalistic use, or even the dramatic use of faster colour stocks was not really mastered well until towards the end of the film period and the beginning of the digital period. There’s some… many noble, notable examples, exceptions to what I’m saying of very good use of colour. Of course there are. But it is more difficult than black and white to control.

PF: And just to finish you say you always had a fondness for the stock that you were using in the 60s, which I believe was 5254?

PS: That rings a bell, yes. Yeah, I drifted back to it as often as possible, even though, once one gets used to the fast stock, it’s a struggle to shoot with less sensitivity it really is much more effortful, but it is paid back and it looks beautiful.

PF: Well certainly looking back on Privilege now, it’s just a beautifully shot film. The colours are perfect in the film so I can see why there was a fondness for that particular stock.

PS: Well you didn’t have a choice then anyway.

PF: Of course. Well okay, thank you Peter

PS: You’re very welcome.



Peter Suschitzky is a British cinematographer and photographer.. He was born on  25 July 1941 in Warsaw.Peter’s  early work includes  “It Happened Here” ( 1965) and Peter Watkins’ BBC drama “The War Game” ( 1966) He was the  director of photography  on such notable films  as “Charlie Bubbles” ( 1968) ,  The Rocky Horror Picture Show ( 1975),  George Lukas’  “ The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and  Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks! “ ( 1996) and the later films of David Cronenberg including  Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996). He has also collaborated with directors John Boorman, Ken Russell and  Bernard Rose.

He is the son of fellow cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky ( See our interview with Wolfgang at )

Suschitzky has been the recipient of four Genie Awards for Best Achievement in Cinematography, and a David di Donatello Award for Best Cinematography. He is featured in the book Conversations with Cinematographers, published by Scarecrow Press.