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A cinematographer's use of light, colour and tone

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So I had this... this desire to... to move into features but not able to be... make the jump. And then, it must have been about 19... well the mid... mid '50s, commercial television arrived and I got a phone call from a chap called Jim Garrett, who'd been a production manager at British Transport Films and I'd... I’d known him for... for several years, and he’d just started this company called Television Advertising and they had a studio in the basement at Film House, Wardour Street, and he said, 'Oh we need someone for... to operate for a day; would you like to come in?' and I said, 'Well, you know, I'm... I’m not really an operator but...' he said, 'Oh, you know, come in for a day or two'. So I... I went in and this day extended, you know, more days and more days and... and I was operating and... and learning to use the geared head, because previously all my work had been on a friction head, learning to use the geared head, and enjoying it. But... and I was working under a, you know, very capable cameraman called Jeff Garron, but they were a very busy company and they were also... they... they didn't always just have one unit going, they sometimes had two or three and they'd bring other cameramen in, you know, on a daily basis. So I kept saying to everybody, really I want to be... to be lighting, and in the end I persuaded them to let me move from operating to lighting, and now looking back I... I remember my early work as being very kind of tentative and unsure, not particularly good, but it was a learning process and it... it was a wonderful place to learn because a commercial... you'd shoot a 30 second commercial in half a day or you might spend a whole day on ... on 30 seconds, if it was a more difficult subject. Some of them were with sound, some of them were silent. They involved product; they were always pack shots, which had to be lit quite differently, or there was a specialist way of lighting products so that it looked its best and most appealing, and we worked in this small studio with very low head room; it only had headroom of about 10ft or 11ft, so the lights were always packed right up to the ceiling, and generally speaking people... other cameramen, and myself included, were working with... with hard lights, just direct light. And I remember one day we were shooting a jelly... a jelly mould, and it was a food commercial obviously, and a still photographer had come in to kind of give us a bit of advice, and he said: 'Haven't you tried shooting this jelly and the product with softer light?' We didn't have any soft lights in those days. So we got some drawing... from the drawing office, we got some tracing paper and this provided a very nice diffusion. So we made this tracing paper up in frames and lot... shot the light through the tracing paper, and of course that gave a much softer light, softer shadows, it spread the high... it got rid of these very hard high lights, and with something like a jelly, it looked so much better lighting it with soft light. And then I thought: oh there's, you know, there’s a lot to be said for this... this soft light and I really became very interested in developing it.

Billy Williams, London-born cinematographer Billy Williams gained his first two Oscar nominations for the acclaimed “Women in Love” and “On Golden Pond”. His third nomination, which was successful, was for the epic “Gandhi”. He was President of the British Society of Cinematographers, and was awarded the Camera Image Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Listeners: Neil Binney

Neil Binney began working as a 'clapper boy' in 1946 on spin-off films from steam radio such as "Dick Barton". Between 1948-1950 he served as a Royal Air Force photographer. From 1950 he was a Technicolor assistant technician working on films such as John Ford's "Mogambo" (photographed by Freddie Young), Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (Bob Burke), and Visconti's "Senso" (G.R. Aldo/B. Cracker). As a camera assistant he worked on "Mind Benders", "Billy Liar" and "This Sporting Life". Niel Binney became a camera operator in 1963 and worked with, among others, Jack Cardiff, Fred Tammes and Billy Williams. He was elected associate member of the British Society of Cinematographers in 1981 and his most recent credits include "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures".

Duration: 4 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008