From The Vault: Cinematographer Jack Cardiff On His Career In Light

The late, great Jack Cardiff discusses his career

Is it true that your father played for my hometown team, Watford? 

"Yes, a long time ago, he was centre-half. I had a book sent to me a couple of years ago with a letter asking if I have a photograph of him. I did – an early photograph – and I sent it to be included in a book of ex-Watford players. So I have become a fan of Watford. We haven’t done much good, but there you are."

Did you ever live in Watford? 

"In between shows I used to stay with my grandmother, for a week at a time sometimes, so I virtually lived in Watford for a while; 7, Sutton Road, in Watford, I remember it well." 

How old were you? 

"Six or seven, something like that."

What are your earliest memories of being on stage?

"I didn’t have a home but we had digs, and I used to call the land lady ‘Auntie’, that was my idea of family life. I knew that when I got older I would be a Call Boy – that was the boy that called the actors, overtures and beginners or something. Then, in between shows, when we were ‘resting’, we used to fill in with film work. Which was very nice, very pleasant stuff. I did a bit of acting, of course, I worked for some time as a child actor. Then at a certain point we all moved to Elstree, which was then the beginning of the film business. I went to a different school every week from the time I went to school, until about the time I was about eleven or twelve and it was a weird life. I didn’t really have a stable existence at all. I got my first job on the silent version of The Informer, in 1928 – I was two weeks short of 14. From then onwards I worked behind the camera."

I have read that you did some camera work on The Informer.

"No, on the silent version I was not even on the camera. I was sort of an office boy on the set who used to get drinks for people, run messages. I had to give the director, Arthur Robeson, Vichy Water all day. This is a funny story because people think I always had an interest in photography. I hadn’t a clue about photography. I had no interest in it. But what fascinated me about when I was on The Informer was that I noticed in the camera department, all the young lads used to go abroad a lot. They used to go to France and Italy, Germany, and maybe even Egypt. I thought, ‘That’s the job for me’. I managed to get a job in the camera department as a number boy not because I was fascinated with photography, but because I wanted to go abroad. The joke was I didn’t go abroad. In two years, the nearest I got to going abroad was the Isle of Wight one afternoon. After that the studios caught fire and we rescued some cameras. One of them wasn’t insured, that was a French camera, so for the French Debris they gave me three or four days in Paris. That was it, that broke the notch, and from then on I started doing all kinds of pictures abroad."

What was the moment that you really grew to love cinematography for its own sake rather than the opportunity it gave you to go abroad?

"It came very slowly. It wasn’t like a settled thing where you go into a trade and work for so long and then get a promotion. The thing is on a film set you work on a certain job – in this case I was a Number Boy, and I used to do the clappers when sound came in – and you keep your eyes open, you watch the camera and the movement. I didn’t watch lighting too much at first, obviously, but I got a job eventually as a Focus Puller on the camera. Usually something happens where the director wants so many cameras and there aren’t that many operators so they give you a camera to operate a bit. Lucky breaks ease you into it.

"Eventually, I remember I was working in Elstree, I was supposed to be the camera operator on a test of Freddie Bartholomew, an important test for David Copperfield, and on the day of the test the cameraman was ill and couldn’t turn up. The Chief Cameraman was somewhere abroad, and I was the only one in the studio to do it. They said, ‘Could you light this test, it’s very important?’ So I said ‘Yes’, I lit the test, and they were very satisfied with it. But when the Chief Cameraman came back he was furious. With good reason I suppose. If I had mucked it up, we would have been responsible. As it was they liked it and it was that moment I felt I could do things here.

"There was a time I felt I made a wise decisions. I could have got an early break as a cameraman but I wasn’t sort of confident that I would be ready to photograph anything. I thought I would stay as an operator working with good cameramen. This was at Denham with Alexander Korda – he brought over lots of people from Hollywood and I worked as an operator with them to gain experience. I came home one evening - I had just driven from Isleworth to Borehamwood, which is a long drive, and my mother said, ‘You’ve got to go back to the studio right away’. I was furious. I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘They’re testing operators for something – Technicolor or something – so you’ve got to go back to be tested and have an interview’. Those that had been in came out shaken because the questions were highly technical. When it came to my turn they started all this technical stuff and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m your man because I’m a dunce at a lot of these things’. So there was a shocked silence and they said, ‘How do you expect to get on?’ I said, ‘Well I’m very fond of painting, and I also watch the light’. I had formed a habit, oddly enough, of watching the light in a room. Anyway, they said, ‘Which side of the face does Rembrandt light?’ I said ‘This side,’ which was a guess, really. ‘And for etching, of course, it would be reversed’. That was another bluff. But the next day they told me I had been chosen.

"That meant I was automatically working under contract for Technicolor, as a kind of junior staff cameraman. Then came the big problem that I couldn’t photograph a feature. I did two years of travelogues, which was invaluable for experience, and finally I got the big chance. I used to do a lot of Second Unit work, which usually is a bit dull. You know, a close-up of an ash tray or a postage letter, all very dull. But the first unit wouldn’t have time to do those little things and they’d leave it to the Second Unit.

"But one of the things I had to do was complicated, on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I was lighting this thing and it looked pretty good, and I heard this voice say, ‘Very interesting’. I turned around and there was the great Michael Powell. He said, ‘Would you like to photograph my next film?’ and that was it. That’s how it all started."

Did the love of painting feed the cinematography or did it arise from the cinematography?

"It became a background of knowledge. What I had picked up from painting was that light was the most important thing. The lighting played an important part. So it’s easy enough to analyse it and work out what looked good or what worked and so on. The only difference was I realised early on that because film was a transparency, and the Hollywood photographers used to use a lot of back-light because it made everything look crisper and glamorous. I realised that back-light and I relied very much on what I had picked up from paintings - a simplicity of lighting. Mind you, I recognised that painting’s a still picture where it’s easy enough to have a lighting effect, and on film where the actor gets up and walks around the room, you had to bear that in mind. But I still felt then, and still do, that you stick to a simple form of lighting."

The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes seems to be informed by lots of painters, including Van Gogh.

"Yes. I fell very much in love with Van Gogh and on Black Narcissus I remember saying to Michael Powell that Van Gogh had used on a picture of a billiard table saloon green and red. It was a harsh dramatisation and had a kind of interest to it. I said to Michael, ‘I’d like to use green filler-light in the shadows’; it wasn’t strictly true to nature but it gave a subtly dramatic effect. One in ten might have seen it, but it was there. So these things definitely made a difference."

Did you try to use lighting to create emotional effects subliminally?

"Yes I did. Because later on I had an added love, in a way – my original love in painting was Rembrandt, Carravaggio, people like that – but then I fell in love with the Impressionists. The Impressionists exaggerated everything. If someone is sitting on the grass, they would reflect the green light on their face. I sometimes used subtle green filters that probably one in fifty would notice but I got satisfaction out of it. That was the great thing. I used to use on the spot rails – in those days we used lots of arcs and arc-lights – when light was apparently coming from the sky. I used to use a faint blue filter so that it’s cold, and I used to use their methods by exaggerating the colour. I was always fighting with Technicolor because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was."

In A Matter of Life and Death you used colour and black and white and the latter was a challenge, I believe, because you’d never shot in b&w before.

"I didn't have trouble with it. When I started to light, I went straight into colour and side stepped black and white. But I knew black and white lighting was virtually the same but the contrast was different. I didn’t tell anybody that I hadn’t photographed anything in black and white. But nevertheless when we shot the sequences in heaven, we used black and white cameras and black and white film. The penultimate shot was done with a Technicolor camera that we had to sort of merge into colour as we went on. There was no great difficulty, but it was a great, great break. That was my first feature film."

Did Powell ever discuss with you his reasons for reversing the usual colour language of Heaven and Earth?
"No, he didn’t. I said to him right before we started work, ‘I suppose Heaven will be in colour and Earth will begin black and white’. He said ‘No, on the contrary. That’s what the public expect and I’m not going to give it to them’. That was his whole attitude, to do something different.

"Hitch was another cup of tea entirely. He had a great genius for dramatic ideas, and he’d put it all in the script. He’d work on the script more than any other director that ever existed, and the more power he got, the more recognition, the more dissatisfied he would be with the first few scripts and have another writer on it improving it. So that finally, the script that he was satisfied with went on the floor, he was bored shooting the picture. Because it was a fait a complit. It amazed me that he hardly ever looked through the camera. I don’t think I ever saw him look through the camera and he didn’t go to rushes much. He had an editor put it together and show it once or twice to him during the making of the picture. And that was it. He would say to me sometimes, ‘Jack, you have a 35mm?’ ‘Yes’. ‘And you’re cutting through the hand?’ ‘Yes’. He knew so much about what he was getting that he didn’t have to look through the camera."

The Red Shoes – were you a fan of ballet when Michael Powell broached the project to you during Black Narcissus?
"He asked me what I thought of ballet and I said, ‘Not much, you know’. He said, ‘Have you ever been to ballet?’ I said ‘’Fraid not’. He said ‘Well you’d better start right away. You’d better have tickets to go practically every night’. I said ‘Oh my God’ and I did go practically every night. And, of course, I was hooked immediately. It was a wonderful experience. I had permission to go back stage and look at all the dressing rooms and the way things were lit; funny looking brass lamps hanging down. It always looked a little moth-eaten and one got a lot of character looking at these things. So that was great and it was a great adventure."

"We had certain problems with the ballet dancers. They were a lovely corps de ballet but studios are mostly concrete floors and they weren’t used to them; they usually have a certain amount of softness in their wooden floors on the stage. So they had a lot of sore feet and it was very painful for them."

I believe that Moira Shearer hurt herself when she fell from the balcony in the studio onto her head. Did that cause any production problems?
"It was fairly safe. When she jumped there was this supposed steam effect that covered the fall and then we cut to the real thing. The funny thing was that the critics – it wasn’t funny, it was sad – was that Rank himself and all his people thought The Red Shoes was a disaster and they wouldn’t allow it to have a premiere. They said it was a complete waste of money and they said to Michael, ‘In the future we’ll choose the subjects’. That’s when Michael left Rank."

Was it the subject matter?
"I couldn’t believe it, it was so silly, but they thought that the public weren’t ready, that it was a silly story and didn’t make sense; and a lot of the film critics were puzzled that it wouldn’t have a premiere. That was a dead sign that Rank weren’t happy and a lot of them criticised the film. Moira’s death scene was heavily criticised. Looking at it recently, I thought heaven knows what it was about it they could possibly criticise. It was as if she looked ghastly and was entirely covered in blood. She had a little bit of blood. But today they’re just drenched in blood, aren’t they? Anyway, one or two of the critics were sarcastic and talked about things like when the waves break over the stage, which is an entirely fantasising thing. What saved the whole situation was that this man from America had this little bijou cinema in New York, and he persuaded Rank to loan him the film for a little while. So he took it to New York and it ran for two years in his little cinema. With word of mouth it got more and more important, then it toured on a big road show in America. It was a huge success, and then someone high up in the film industry phoned Rank to congratulate him that the film was an enormous success, it would have been funny to watch Rank’s face when he heard that."

How did you achieve some of the movement with the camera during the ballet sequence? It is very fluid, given the size of the cameras at the time.
"That’s easy because we had to shoot the ballet sequence to playback. It had been decided that we’d do the music first and then work to the music. That was a great relief to the camera crew because we didn’t have to have this awful blimp. We just had the camera taken out of the blimp and we were able to have much more manoeuvrability with it than when it was inside the great Technicolor blimp, which was colossal. The corps de ballet were usually rehearsed on another stage, by another ballet man, so that they were ready to come straight on the stage, otherwise we would have lost a lot of time rehearsing the ballet scenes."

You experimented a lot with speed.
"Michael gave me about a week on my own, testing, which was great. I was given a couple of ballet dancers – on male, one female – to do pirouettes, etc, and I was very pleased with them. I did the tests for the paper dance where they go round and round, increase speed, decrease speed, and when we did the tests I showed them to Michael. He said, ‘They’re great, but I have to tell you that we’ve decided to do the music first because we don't think that the audience are ready for too much ballet in a picture’. They were right, as it happened. So we’ve got a maximum of 18 minutes for the ballet."

What is your opinion of what we see in today’s cinema?
"What seems to have happened is that in the average American film, the Hollywood sparkle, glamour has gone out of it, because it was unrealistic. Most modern stories have got a very realistic atmosphere and obviously it would ruin the atmosphere. Actually, the standard of photography in this country has improved enormously in the last few years. Some of the cameramen in England are actually working in Hollywood on Hollywood films, so they’re doing a great job at the moment. But the tendency is realism, and it’s changed the whole sort of genre of films. So the old-fashioned things of glamour and backlight and sparkle have gone in favour of realism."

Tell me bout Sabina Anima, the film you’re trying to get made.

"Actually, we’re still hoping to finalise the money side of it. It’s one of life’s major mysteries to me that England has turned out marvellous films recently, and the speculators just won’t invest in British films. All the films we’ve made, Billy Elliott is a very low budget picture, has made a fortune already. They’ve all got lots of money and they’re investing millions and millions, but they won’t invest an odd million or two in a British film where they could make all this profit. The one I want to work on, I want to photograph it, I would rather photograph it than direct it, because it’s an interesting true story. This Russian Jewess comes over, she’s highly disturbed, and Freud gives her over to Jung, Jung cures her over a few months, and in that time they have a big, big love affair. He’s married with two kids but they have this big affair. Then she, the wife, becomes pregnant and tells the girl that that’s the end of the affair. In the meantime she becomes a brilliant psychiatrist herself. She goes back to Russia at the wrong time but she becomes a very big psychiatrist. When the war starts, she is shot by the Nazis as a Jewess. So it’s a powerful story. It’s a budget of £3m, and we were all ready to go but on the money side, suddenly something happened and they dropped out. So that’s when Scorsese stepped in and put me onto someone."

What’s the attraction of the story to you as a cinematographer?
"What is fascinating to me is it has great opportunities to show what goes on in this person’s mind with terrible mental problems. That suggests all kinds of strange, weird lighting. Also, Jung had this spiritual guide, which fascinates me because I can’t believe it but all the books talk about his spiritual guide. So the way to portray the spiritual guide is a challenge without being too obvious or too subtle. There are a lot of photographic opportunities and I am dying to do it. But as I say, it is fascinating that these cowards in this investment lark won’t invest a very small amount."

What did this latest Oscar mean to you compared to the one you won for Black Narcissus?
"Well it was a great compliment and one that I sincerely appreciated, recognition of my work, for better or worse, and recognition of my long service in the film industry. And that’s better than winning it on a single film. The average person is nominated for an award and they wait and wait for weeks and wonder if they’re going to win it, but this was something that was decided. I thought they were joking when they told me over the phone. I said, ‘You’re kidding. Who is this?’ And then when I realised it was true, I thought it wasn’t a questioning of waiting to see if I’d get it; I’d got it. It was an extraordinary situation."

Did this make up for the fact that you didn’t get one for The Red Shoes, which amazes me?
"I had a big friend, Lee Garmes. He was a very fine cameraman, and at the time when The Red Shoes was coming out, the American newspapers said one thing is for sure, there will be a lot of awards for visual effects and the photography is certainly going to get the award this year. Everyone expected it because it was obvious. Lee Garmes phoned me when I was in England from America and said, ‘Jack, you’re not going to believe this, but at a meeting of the American Society of Cameraman, they said it was obvious that I was going to win the award. But, because I had won the award the previous year, for Black Narcissus, it was denigrating for American cameramen that an Englishman would capture the award and it would make out that we were so much better’, so they decided not to nominate me. I wasn’t even nominated.

"I’ll call this one the award for Red Shoes. I’ll scratch out the Achievement Award and put The Red Shoes."

Did you feel bitter at the time?
"Looking back on it I wasn’t very upset I suppose. But what happened was that I had dinner with a few cameramen, because I was very friendly with them. That’s why I didn’t complain too much because I didn’t want to be an outsider from my chums in America – but I went to this dinner, there were two or three people around the table, including Lee Garmes, and the subject of Red Shoes came up. One of the cameramen said, ‘Well Jack, you can’t win them all. I guess Technicolor did the dirt on you on that one. The colours were awful, weren’t they?’ I said, ‘Well it got an award for Best Colour Art Direction’. He said ‘But for photography, something went wrong’. And I looked at Lee Garmes and he went a dull red because he knew that I knew what really happened. This cameraman was making out that the colours were all wrong."

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014

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