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Questioning cinematography techniques


How do you teach cinematography?
Billy Williams Film-maker
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In 1978 I got a phone call from the National Film School at Beaconsfield inviting me to come along and do a workshop with the cinematography students. So I went along, not knowing what was expected of me, and I had about a dozen students who were at various stages of a three year course in... in cinematography. And so I thought, well, why don’t I... I've got so many people, why don't I make two crews? And I'll have one crew filming an interior shot, an exercise which they would have to light, and have the other crew filming the way that it was... that it was achieved. So that one... one crew was outside showing how all the lights were set and the other crew was inside filming the action and... so that... that worked quite well, it was just my introduction to teaching. Now, people talk about teaching and one being a tutor and this was in 1978 and it opened up a... a whole new chapter for me. And, it was Chris Menges that said to me recently, he said, ’How do you teach cinematography?’ and I said, ’Well, you don't really teach it, because if you're going to be a cinematographer you've got to have something within yourself, a creativity, an appreciation of certain things, which are developed within each individual according to their aesthetic’. The things you teach are... or demonstrate if you like, are the tools that are available, how to use them, how to get certain effects, but I think most of all how to encourage and give confidence to young filmmakers. Because in the end, however much you might demonstrate how to do a certain style of lighting or how to get a certain effect, the pressure comes when that individual has to take on the responsibility of determining the placement of the camera and the composition and... where they're going to put the lights and how they're going to achieve whatever's required. So it's a question of... of building up the confidence of the individual, encouraging them to express themselves and experiment, try out something new and bring out their latent talent. And of course this varies enormously with... with each individual.

Well this started in 1978 and it was almost like another career because I... I've continued working with students and young people until this day. And it's been good for me because it's forced me to examine what I do, what my role is, how I fit into the whole pattern of filmmaking, and what is expected of a cinematographer, and how one can develop one's appreciation of what a story is about and how do you capture the essence of a scene and... of course by working with many different directors and actors over the years you... you do gain a certain knowledge and understanding of... of what's important about certain things in filmmaking and what can be discarded. And when you're put in the position of being a tutor with some experience, it’s... it’s... I feel it's an opportunity to impart one's knowledge. I mean, I learnt a lot from my father but that was mainly technical things about the cameras and the lenses. I felt that... what... what it was my position to do, and my opportunity to do was to encourage them to tell the story, to make the visuals interesting and to really put something of themselves into their work.

So it started off in a very simple way and gradually evolved. And I found myself invited back to do seminars sometimes, where you just talk about things, and workshops where you have a practical hands-on. And then I was invited to America to the International Film... Film Workshops in Rockport, Maine, which is a beautiful place on the coast. And they hold these summer workshops for all branches of filmmaking, including film lighting. And, many times over a period of about 15 years I went there for a week or so to talk to students who were paying a fee to be there. And the... the first time I went I think I had 43 students in the group. And the idea was to split them... split them up into four groups, each with their own package of equipment, and send them off to four different chosen locations and to develop their own... story with the rest of the crew working as actors, to create whatever interested them. And... and each person became the director of photography for two hours, so they had two hours each to do their piece and then they became part of the crew. And I was amazed at how much enthusiasm and energy and imagination there was present in this atmosphere, where people were paying at that time $600, which is... 20 years ago that was a lot of money.

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, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008