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San Ferry Ann and Just Like a Woman


Developing skills in the world of commercials
Billy Williams Film-maker
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I was still with Television Advertising and we were working in this little basement studio, but occasionally a big job would come along and we'd need a big stage and we'd go to Shepperton perhaps, which was a real treat, you know, to get onto a big stage. But it was usually with a white cyclorama- because an awful lot of commercials at that time were kind of set in limbo. So you had the white cyclorama, which was coved down to the floor and coved into the corner, and sometimes, you know, it would be, you know, 100 feet one side and 50 feet the other, so it would be a big area of white, which had to be lit out so that it was pure white and then the foreground would stand out cleanly from the background. And so that was, you know, a further development of my experience of actually going into a major studio. But, of course, it was one thing to be lighting just a white backing with a foreground and another thing to be lighting a major set, which I didn't really have experience of because most of the commercial things we were doing were very small sets. But what happened really- the really important thing for me during this period was the opportunity to work with other filmmakers, because there were other cameramen coming in and out all the time. Bob Painter became a staff cameraman at Television Advertising as I did. I eventually became on the staff. I was paid a weekly wage, which was pretty unusual in our end of street to have a job where you had a regular job. So I was on a weekly wage and so was Bob Painter, and other cameramen used to come in on a daily rate. There were a number of staff directors but there were also directors that came in for particular jobs, including Ken Russell and John Schlesinger, Ted Kotcheff, and I did commercials with them and little realising that in a few years' time I would be doing features with them. And so commercials were a stepping-stone for me, in coming from documentary, because first of all I was learning how to work in a studio, work with dialogue, work with actors more rather than, you know, unprofessional actors, learning how to do portraiture. I think portraiture is such an important part of what we do, the way the actors look and this was a thing of growing interest to me, is portrait lighting and, you know, I learned a great deal from studying some of the portraiture of people like Karsh, and you get a National Portrait Galley in Trafalgar Square and see the work of, you know, Cartier-Bresson and those early photographers. And so I was developing a feel for photographing people and storytelling. With commercials, of course, it was always a very short story, 15, 30 seconds; 60 seconds was a long commercial, but a lot of things came out of that period in commercials because they were very experimental in many ways. It was bringing people together from different fields.The directors were coming from television, from the theatre, from feature films and so were the designers and the cinematographers. So it was bringing a whole group of people together in a new medium and it was developing its own technology, its own techniques. And because a story had to be told in 15 or 30 seconds, you had to find another way of doing things. I mean, in the cinema a scene runs for as long as it needs to run, but in a commercial, of course, you only had exactly 15 or 30 seconds, or 60 seconds, and that was it. So it was a kind of shorthand technique where, through the use of camera and simplifying things, you had to put across the message in a very short space of time, so that two and three second shots were more the norm than longer scenes. I mean, sometimes if you had a dialogue commercial you'd have longer shots, but very often things were getting faster and faster cut in order to put across the point in this short period of time. So that kind of new film grammar, that new way of looking at things was very stimulating and it was changing all the time, and, of course, equipment was changing; lots of new lenses were coming out, long-focus lenses, wider angle lenses. The film stock still hadn't changed very much. It was still 50 ASA and so you needed quite a lot of light inside and that was- you know, we always worked with tungsten. We always worked with tungsten in the studio. If I went into Shepperton for a job- say I needed an arc light, it was a great thrill to work with a Brute. Then you would use a Brute with a white flame carbon because I believe it burned better and you put the orange filter on the Brute to bring it down to the colour temperature so you could mix it with the tungsten light.

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: 6 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008