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Different tools and considerations in cinematography


Questioning cinematography techniques
Billy Williams Film-maker
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So I... I began working with students in... in Rockport, Maine, mainly American students but also from... from all over the world, but then they were fee paying, and I found there was a huge difference in the number of questions I would get from the students in America as compared to... to those in England in that the moment I walked through the door in America I would be asked a question and those questions would continue throughout the day which started at eight in the morning and finished at 11 o'clock at night so they were constantly on the go. I found in England I'd get the first question as I was leaving, on my way out somebody would ask a question, because there's a certain reluctance there seem to be, main... mainly English students, to actually ask a question and... and I've tried since then... since those early days, to impress on the group that I'm with, ‘Look I'm here to answer your questions and there's no such thing as a silly question. If it's something you want to know or don't understand then... then ask about it, and we can talk, and... and if I know the answer I'll give it to you’.

Because, what was good for me, being put into this position was that, you know, most of my working life, you know, I'm photographing on set, I'm working very closely with the director, and my operator and gaffer and so on. And coming from what my discussions have been with the director, and what the script tells me and what the actors are doing, I just go out and do it, light the set and so on. It's very rare for anybody to question what I'm doing. Although occasionally, like John Schlesinger did once or twice, he's saying well...John would say, ‘well, you know, that doesn't look quite right, do you... do you really need that light there or couldn't you do it a bit differently or...?’ And so on, and he'd make a really positive contribution to what I was doing. But it was... it's very rare for anybody to, kind of, question what you're up to, because you know it’s, that's ones job, you're left to do it. So what was good from my point of view was perhaps to look at a film I'd done in the past, to look at it with... with a student group and for us to discu... to discuss how it was done and why it was done. Why did you put the light there, you know, why didn't you put it somewhere else? And, why did you make it blue and...? Things like that. And so you are then forced to re-examine what your thoughts were when you did it in the first place, and... and to communicate, this was really what it was about I think. To communicate your though... your thoughts and your vision, to be able to express in words what you're trying to put into pictures. And you... I found I could do it sometimes by illustrating a certain method and also encourage the group to express themselves because as time went on, I found the best way of doing these workshops was to write a series of exercises, little scenarios in which we could have two actors playing out a scene. And the... each scene that I'd written would have a different feel to it in terms of the dramatic content of the scene and the time of day. Like I would write scenes of a day interior perhaps with the curtains drawn and the curtains being opened so that the light would change, or there would be scenes by candlelight or scenes by firelight or scenes with an intruder coming in at night with just a torch as source of light.

So that, you know I wrote several little scenarios so that each student would have half a day to photograph a given scene with a couple of actors. Sometimes they'd have a whole day, it would depend on the schedule. But they'd be given sufficient time to... to tell a little story. And, that... that seemed to work, because, by putting them in the driving seat of actually determining with the gaffer where to put the lights, where to set the exposure, how to tackle things.

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, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 24 January 2008