The unit had been formed by Edgar Anstey in the 1930s; with John Grierson's GPO Film Unit, it became a distinguished part of the British documentary movement. Although Shell used the film unit as a promotional tool, the accepted philosophy taught to all its young directors was not to make a film about its products, but about the scientific principles behind those products. The films were thus at once entertaining and impartially educational, and attracted wide audiences. The sponsor maintained its presence by its logo on the end of each film.
This approach was exemplified by de Normanville's first major film, High Speed Flight (1956; the first of a three-part series). In the early 1950s supersonic flight was only possible for a few seconds in a precarious dive. The RAF asked Shell to produce a film to explain the hazards and problems of this flying to its pilots. Using the optical process known as the Schlieren technique, de Normanville showed in vivid colours the way shock waves built up on an aircraft's wings and tail surfaces as it flew through the sound barrier. Hundreds of copies of the film were sold to the world's air forces, and it won numerous prizes.
Peter de Normanville was born in London in 1922 and educated at Ampleforth (Cardinal Basil Hume was a contemporary). Instead of going to Oxford in 1940, he joined the RAF and became the youngest four-engined-bomber pilot of his time. He survived two devastating crashes, the second one after a daylight raid on Brest that went badly wrong. At the end of a year in hospital, he was told he would never work again, but promptly went to sea as a navigator on motor gunboats for the rest of the war.
De Normanville saw a lot of training films while he was in the RAF, and became attracted to the idea of making films himself. In 1946 he was accepted by the Shell Film Unit, and appointed assistant to Sarah Erulkar, a young Indian film-maker. Later they married.
He followed High Speed Flight, in the late 1950s, with Forming of Metals, an expositional film that transformed a steel mill into a symphony of light and movement, and Frontiers of Friction, which spiced an otherwise dull physical phenomenon with shots of a bartender sliding glasses of whisky down the counter to his customers in a western saloon.
After 15 years at Shell, de Normanville left to go freelance, and turned his scientific mind and interpretive skills to other industries. Morgan Crucible made crucibles out of jet black carbon to hold molten metals. A less promising film image would be hard to imagine. So de Normanville made a film about carbon itself (Carbon, 1966): the atom of life, the atom of the diamond, the atom of graphite.
For IBM he made Man and Computer: a perspective (1967) - a film on computing that didn't show a single computer. He told his client that computers were "boring boxes", and with the help of animation and visual analogy explained what went on inside them. The technique paid off. The film's life lasted several years since there was no product in it to date it.
His wife meantime had been pursuing a successful career of her own, and they shared the direction of a number of films, notably Living City (1975), a portrait of Calcutta, and a series of films on leprosy.
De Normanville's work ranged over many countries and many subjects; he made films on oil pipelines in Alaska and India; on world economic problems for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; on developments in microbiology interpreted by six Nobel prizewinners; on the railway works at Swindon; on the nature of light for Lucas Industries. He explained the Critical Path management technique developed for the American Polaris submarine programme by showing how it could be applied to the building of a filling station.
He was the first to admit that none of his ideas would ever have reached the screen without the ingenuity, patience and applied imagination of some of the finest cameramen in the business, among them Sidney Beadle, Ronnie Whitehouse, Wolfgang Suschitzky and Arthur Wooster.
His final film was for Rolls-Royce to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first flight of Sir Frank Whittle's jet engine. By that time, however, the short-term, impatient age of the video cassette had arrived, and the good times of documentary film were over. He and his wife both retired from films, and turned their talents to buying and selling antiques. But to the end Peter de Normanville retained his enthusiasm for the world of science, and his puckish sense of humour.
Peter Bernard Augustin de Normanville, documentary film-maker: born London 29 June 1922; married 1950 Sarah Erulkar (two daughters); died London 7 March 1999.Reuse content