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How we created the magical first scene of Dreamchild


The challenge of the opening sequence to Dreamchild
Billy Williams Film-maker
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The most challenging shot in the movie — the most difficult to shoot — is the opening sequence, which is also the closing sequence. Now, in the script, it described a rocky sea shore with a... with a boat, an old boat and distant rocks, and it was intended to have a kind of unreal atmosphere, you weren't quite sure whether it was real or stylised. And the production designer, Roger Hall, built a seascape. We had a backing... he built a seascape and the sea was made of dark, blue-green silk which was waved and wafted, partly by hand and partly with wind machines to make it look like the waves and there was a real, rocky seashore and a broken-down old boat and in the distance were the silhouette of two huge rocks. Now, I designed this shot which we used... for which we used the hot head and a crane arm and we buried the camera in the silk, the billowing silk, and we scattered a lot of sequins on the silk to make it look like the water sparkling.

So we buried the lens... it was 3 to 1, a 20 to 60, and we started on the 60mm, and as the camera comes out of the sea, so to speak, the lights — it starts in almost darkness — and the lights come up on dimmers — I had 5000Aon dimmers — a huge change from this darkness to light up the whole stage to give a dawn effect, dawn and sunrise, and the camera pulled back and tracked across the sea with all these billowing waves and for a... a second or two, it looked like the real thing, it looked like the ocean, and then of course, you realise that it isn't, it's stylised. The camera pulls back and across the beach, and in the distance you see these two rocks and the camera then tracks sideways and moves towards these two rocks in silhouette and as the camera comes to a halt, I dim up another bank of lights to put light on the rocks and in between these two rocks is the figure of an old lady in a hat, which is the... Alice at 80, and two rocks either side turn in to, on the left, the mock turtle, and on the right, the gryphon, who gets up and raises his wings and they go on to a dialogue scene with the old lady. And part way through the dialogue the old lady turns into the young Alice when she was 10, played by a lovely little actress called Amelia Shankley, who was... a ballet student. And this was just a marvellous scene to open the picture. It was full of mystery and really challenging photographically, and it's the same scene that ends the picture, but you do it in reverse, and what disappointed me so much was that they took this really good shot, which I'd shot at 30 frames to make it float a little bit more, and they put the titles over it. So you could still see it but you're distracted by the titles.

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: 3 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008