FILM-MAKING / Through the mind's eye: John Lyttle celebrates the lifetime achievements of cinematographer Freddie Young

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Some prefer the hushed, close to fairy tale sequence in Doctor Zhivago where Lara and her poet return to the summer house in the midst of winter to find the interior encrusted with snow and ice, a crystal maze. Others opt for the violent beauty of Lust for Life's wheat-field crow attack; or for the faded-hues and eerie family scrapbook composition that make the last moments of Nicholas and Alexandra so moving. But if cinematographer Freddie Young is known for anything it's for shooting a mirage.

You know the scene. Lawrence of Arabia, in epic 70 millimeter: Peter O'Toole and his guide are resting at the Harith watering hole. They look out across the sea of sand to something shimmering in the far, far distance. And for three minutes Young's 800 millimetre long-focus lens gazes with them as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) emerges out of the desert, first a dot, then a recognisable human figure, seeming to ride not only his camel but the hazy heat waves murmuring around him. It's probably the most dramatic, purely suspenseful and imperially- scaled entrance in movie history - and Freddie Young got it in one take.

Relaxed and dapper at 90 - 'I finally retired last year' - Young still relishes the picture's impact, and the Best Photography Oscar it lassoed. 'When they rehashed Lawrence a couple of years ago, Steven Spielberg would turn up at the American premieres and say it was the best film ever made; that it spurred him on to become a director.' Martin Scorsese has been known to say the same thing. You can't help wondering how many other nascent cinematographers in the audience Lawrence stirred. For in the course of a career spanning 75 years, Young has been as influential (if less hailed) as Lean.

He's certainly seen and done it all. When he graduated from a Box Brownie to his first job in the industry in 1917, he was 15 and 'we turned the camera by hand. Gaumont Studios was literally a glasshouse. It had to be to get the light. If a cloud came over the sun, the set would go dark. It was very crude. We had a few arc lights, but they were what I'd call illumination, not lighting.'

It was the beginning of film - 'the infancy of an art' to quote Young - and he was soon moving up through the ranks, from Gaumont to MGM via producer Herbert Wilcox, from developing film in the lab to 'projecting the rushes, editing, doing all the cutting, driving the studio camera car' as sound came, cameras were motorised and dolly tracks laid to liberate the anchored lens.

By the time colour bloomed he would be, along with Ossie Morris and Jack Cardiff, an acknowledged Founding Father of British Cinematography. Since then, his professional and personal influence has shaped generation after generation of cameramen, here and abroad (Mikael Salomon, for instance, recently credited Young as the inspiration for shooting Far and Away in 70mm). 'Most of the cameramen, and some of the directors today, have been my clapperloaders, focus-pullers, whatever,' Young agrees with some pride. Indeed, the roll-call of 'his boys' is an embarrassment of riches: Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man), Jack Cardiff (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), Jack Hildyard (Bridge on the River Kwai), Brian West (84 Charing Cross Road), Tony Richmond (Don't Look Now), Ronnie Taylor (Gandhi), Nic Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and Ernest Day (who shot A Passage to India in apparent hommage to his one-time mentor) . . .

Taken together, they practically amount to a school - a school with perfectionist standards. Before Young, as Freddie Francis explained to Sight and Sound last year, the shambolic and hurried British film industry ignored visual principles. After Young, a sense of professionalism was mandatory, no questions asked.

'He's a very masterful man who is never content with second best,' says the camera operator Chic Anstiss, who has worked with Young repeatedly over the years. 'He had an incredible grasp of detail. I would watch him light a set and see it come to life. Such shadow and tremendous care.

'And the scope of his talent. When people talk of Freddie's work they tend to concentrate on the big productions, Ryan's Daughter, The Battle of Britain, on the landscape and such. Yet what he does with a set he does with faces too. He models the face very intimately. I think there's something about the great cameramen, the ones that came up through black and white, that they bring to colour, a richness and a subtlety.'

Not that everyone is a devotee. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, slapping at Dr Zhivago, called the photography 'stately, respectable and dead'. Over the years Kael has also floated the dreaded phrases 'picture postcard', 'middlebrow' and 'academic'. Yet this attitude displays a disregard for the classical unities that dictate British pictorial values. It is hardly shocking that someone of Freddie Young's generation - born as he was in the long shadow of Queen Victoria - should have absorbed the traditional aesthetics that are rooted deep in British painting, not to mention the Royal Academy's one-time notions of craftsmanship and 'good taste'.

But it would probably come as no surprise to Kael to find that the walls of Freddie Young's home are covered with careful, self- framed still lives of flowers. But there's a vindictive irony in the fact that the painter is these days blind in one eye; such irony jumps the tracks entirely when you realise the other eye was rescued from cataracts by the implanting of a lens - some sort of hokey, ultimatesymbolism.

Young shrugs it off. Lens, as in instrument, implies a technican. Young knows he's an artist, even if he's seldom discussed as such outside of colleagues and aficionados; a fact that may be at least partially rectified later this month when the American Society of Cinematographers graces Young with its first Life Achievement Award.

Directors, 'those limelight hogs', Young says fondly, 'think they're God. They have to be at the centre. Vincente Minnelli would even arrange the knives and forks on the table. Couldn't keep his hands off 'em. Interfered with everything. George Cukor left the camera to me and talked for hours to the actors. Yak-yak-yak. But nice chaps. Gentlemen.

'I got on very well with David Lean but he was inclined to take credit for everything. Oh, he'd pat me on the back, give me a hug, which is nice, but he seldom divulged my contributions to the world. After the critical slating of Ryan's Daughter, David became very bitter and obsessed. He didn't make another film for 14 years.'

Didn't Young regret the end of the partnership that gave him his three Oscars? Apparently not. 'We made some very successful films together. I'm grateful. But David wasn't necessary in my life. I went on to the next film. Cameramen do. I've done over 100 films in my life. In David Lean's life, how many films? 15. Getting the script right alone could take years.'

So becoming a director was never an ambition? 'Well, I did direct a film called Arthur's Hallowed Ground . . . But I was always under contract. To Wilcox, to MGM. They wouldn't release me to do anything else. They wanted me to be a cameraman. Very much so. If you're good, they want you to stay the way you are. Anyway, few make the transition successfully. Those who do then have to become famous or bankable. Cameramen, though, go on to the next project - perhaps because we don't get a pension. Up to last year I was still active, shooting commericals around the world, Florida, France, Kenya . . .'

So active, in fact, that I jokingly confess that I'll be hard pressed to find an ending to the piece I must write. Young considers my predicament, then removes a small, almost pocket-sized painting from the wall. 'Here' he says. 'This is a copy of Constable's The Haywain. I did it when I was 16. If you look closely you'll see it's painted on the back of a piece of. . . photographic paper.'

The perfect image. From Freddie Young one wouldn't expect anything else.

(Photograph omitted)

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