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Playing a joke on Donald Sutherland


Filming the polar bear fight
Billy Williams Film-maker
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The night that he arrives, I'm called in to wardrobe where they're fitting him into a polar bear suit — a genuine polar bear skin — and they're trying to adapt this polar bear suit so that it... it’ll fit, especially when he's on all fours, you see, and the polar bear suit is in two pieces, with the head separate. The head was a separate item which was about another 18in or twoft’, you don't realise how big a polar is until he stands on his back feet. So all this was going on you see, and it... it was a mixture of... of laughter and thinking: well how we were going to make this work. And the next day we go out to shoot the scene and I'm travelling along with my Inuit driver and we're overtaken by another skidoo, drawing a sledge, a very long sledge, and lying on the back of this sledge is the polar bear, well, the actor inside the polar bear suit, being towed out onto to the frozen sea, which was a most magnificent sight, wonderfully photogenic, and he's being towed out to the location and when we get there, this guy, who can just about walk with... with this suit on, he sits on top of a huge packing case and he said: ’Oh, somebody give me a cigarette’. So I got my still camera out and got a picture of a polar bear smoking a cigarette. Then when we came to shoot the scene, of course, we had to put the head on, which made him about 9', 9' 6" tall, and he'd just got little holes to see through and we start to shoot the scene. Well, all we got out of it was some big close-ups of like a paw and just quick cuts of movement and one or two extreme long shots, because it... it just didn't stand up any closer and... and so we... we finished with a half... half-finished scene. After all the main unit was finished and I'd left the picture, they got a small crew together and they went to Siberia where a circus polar bear had been trained to fall from right to left after he's knifed by Agaguk and they did some other close shots of the polar bear, so this polar bear had been specially trained. Well, he'd been trained to fall right to left, and they cut the sequence together and when they went to shoot this extra material they found the bear had been trained to fall the wrong way and so everything that had been shot had to be flopped in post production, so that it would... so you got this extraordinary mishmash of cuts which kind of works because it's so quick, but it was another example of... of all the things that hadn't been properly worked out on this picture.

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, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008