David Watkin: Oscar-winning cinematographer
Monday 25 February 2008
An Oscar winner for his ravishing photography of Sidney Pollack's film Out of Africa (1985), David Watkin was one of the finest and most innovative of British cinematographers, his work ranging from the unconventional pyrotechnics of Richard Lester's offbeat comedies to the magisterial sweep of Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981) and the surreal flavour of life on an army camp in Mike Nichols's Catch-22 (1970).
Always eager for challenges and willing to flout convention, he was favoured by such maverick directors as Lester, Tony Richardson and Ken Russell. He will be remembered too for his experimentation with light, and his pioneering style of lighting subjects during the onset of late afternoon gloom, when moving figures would fail to maintain consistent visibility. His solution, an array of nearly 200 lights raised to a height and placed up to a quarter of a mile from the scene to provide even, natural lighting with realistic shadows, became known as the "Wendy Light", since he was affectionately known to his friends as "Wendy" Watkin.
The fourth and youngest son of a Catholic solicitor, Watkin was born in Margate, Kent, in 1925 and grew up with a passion for classical music. He suffered early disappointment, however, when his father refused to buy him a piano or allow him to take music lessons. When asked many years later if he recalled just when he developed a love of photography, he replied that he never had and would much rather have been a professional musician. He was later to photograph several musical personalities performing, including Daniel Barenboim.
After a brief spell in the Army during the Second World War, Watkin joined the Southern Railway Film Unit as a messenger boy, graduating to camera assistant in 1948. After the unit was absorbed into British Transport Films in 1950 he trained with the documentary specialist Edgar Anstey, working his way up to director of photography, gaining his first credit on the short Holiday (1955). Leaving to freelance, he became a prolific photographer of commercials, including a notorious one, withdrawn by Norman Lamont, depicting Denis Healey standing in front of a branch of Thresher's off-licence.
Richard Lester was directing commercials at the same time, and later commented:
The great thing is that, in the Sixties, commercials were very much driven by camera technique, different use of lights, filters, stock. Commercials allowed us to try things out. We were the first people to use a cameraman named David Watkin. We had the idea of using extreme whites in a
very high-contrast stock, which we tried out. We went to Barbara Mullen's place to shoot a butter commercial for Ireland. In the end she looked like Lena Horne – you couldn't see her at all, she had just vanished. There was just a dress and a black bob. The commercial was totally unusable. But we learned enough from that disaster to paint one of the rooms white in The Knack and find out how we could manage to actually see the person's face.
Watkin photographed eight films for Lester, starting with a key film of the Sixties, The Knack . . . and How to Get It (1965), starring Rita Tushingham, Michael Crawford and (as the young man with the knack of attracting girls) Ray Brooks. Watkin's other films with Lester included Help! (1965), the second film to star the Beatles and their first in colour, How I Won the War (1967), starring John Lennon in an anti-war drama filmed in colour, black-and-white and tinted shades, and The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, plus the elegiac version of Robin and Marion which brought Audrey Hepburn back to the screen after a long absence, playing Maid Marion to Sean Connery's Robin Hood.
Willing to experiment in any genre, Watkin imbued the expansive landscapes and battlefield scenes of Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) with a muted, painterly quality by using the same lens as that used for postcards in the 1850s. His versatility encompassed the bleached hysteria of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and the surrealism of the production numbers in Ken Russell's transformation of Sandy Wilson's wonderful Twenties spoof The Boy Friend (1971) into a pastiche (often very funny) of Busby Berkeley, as well as the contrastingly oppressive atmosphere of suburban claustrophobia in Richardson's TV film of Albee's A Delicate Balance and Peter Hall's distinguished production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming (both 1973). Both films disguised their theatrical origins with bold compositions and character placement. Watkin could switch from the ethereal aura of Jesus of Nazareth (1977) to the shameless melodramatics of Cuba (1979) with equal ease.
Throughout those early years, Watkin was sometimes cited as the most undervalued and unsung of cinematographers, but that changed in 1981 when he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the fêted British movie Chariots of Fire, with its haunting shots of athletes running through the sand. He was then chosen by Barbra Streisand to photograph her first film as a director, Yentl (1983), which won praise for its muted, pastel tones, and two years later he won the Academy Award for best cinematographer for the sweep and grandeur he brought to Out of Africa. He achieved the unusually lush look of the film with a particularly unconventional approach, reversing usual photographic procedure by using fast film for the night and interior shots, and slow film for the exteriors. He photographed Cher in her Oscar-winning role in Norman Jewison's romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987), recaptured the mood and look of the Forties for Michael Caton-Jones's enjoyable Memphis Belle (1990), and so pleased the fastidious Franco Zeffirelli with his filming of Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson, that he worked with the director again on the disappointing Jane Eyre (1996) and Zeffirelli's autobiographical tale of his youth, Tea with Mussolini (1999).
The early sequences of Michael Caton-Jones' This Boy's Life (1993), in which a boy and his mother (Leonardo di Caprio and Ellen Barkin) travel the country roads of 1950s America, were described as "candy for the eye", and a stark contrast to the uncompromisingly dreary look that Watkin brought to the Washington suburb in which most of the film is set. In Sidney Lumet's gritty New York-set thriller Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Watkin himself makes a brief cameo appearance as a sleeping judge. The scene is a knowing reference to the fact that Watkin was noted for his habit of taking a nap on the sound stages between lighting set-ups. "It's the only thing you can do on set which doesn't make you more tired," he would say.
Watkin published two volumes of light-hearted and witty autobiography entitled Why Is There Only One Word for Thesaurus? (1998) and Was Clara Schumann a Fag Hag? (2008)
As a cinematographer, David Watkin had a very rare, almost unique, quality – he was both a craftsman and an innovative artist, writes Hugh Hudson. Furthermore, added to the visual brilliance that one would expect, he had serious literary and musical abilities and was possessed of an abundance of taste.
Working with David was an eccentric and a joyous experience. His passion for life knew no bounds: when you sat down with him at lunchtime in the studio commissary or on location, it was not about the film or the cinema that he spoke, but music or books . . . usually with a smattering of some wicked gossip. On location, you might find him absent-mindedly wandering towards the town museum, or walking through the local church or cathedral. This was unusual among film camera technicians, who are normally only interested in film gossip, or the food.
He loved music – Mahler, Britten, Vaughan Williams, and German opera – and had taught himself to play the piano rather well. He understood music, as he understood painting, and I always felt that these appreciations inhabited his work as a cinema artist.
When I began to work in film in 1963, I looked for someone who understood values beyond just photography, and David, who had just left a permanent job making documentaries for British Transport Films, came into my life. He became my first cameraman, and taught me all I know about cameras and lenses and lighting technique.
He fashioned my first commercials and then my first film, a 20-minute sponsored documentary made for a man that my partner David Cammell and myself had met in a King's Road pub. The man owned an egg-packing factory in Norfolk, and we persuaded him he needed a film. It cost £1,000. David Watkin's work with us in these early days was real and true, and of a beauty hard to put into words. So very soon he was discovered by the feature world and lost to the likes of myself.
In Cammell-Hudson, our company in the early Sixties, was the brilliant American designer Robert Brownjohn ("BJ") who was commissioned to make the titles for two James Bond films – Goldfinger and From Russia with Love. BJ and David produced a stunning opening sequence of a voluptuous lady covered in gold paint from head to toe, onto which was projected the moving type of the main credits.
When I finally got the chance to make my first long film, Chariots of Fire, in 1980, who but David could possibly photograph it? To add another dimension to the slow-motion athletic sequences, he came up with a novel way of photographing running. Normally, the shutter is at 180 degrees. David decided to run the film through the camera with a shutter closed down to 10 degrees. The impression was of images taken at 1/800th of a second. The result is that every drop of water is sharp as the athletes run along the beach, and their hair and limbs are better resolved, so without really knowing what you have experienced, a realistic and unusually exhilarating feeling of energy is created. It is why the opening of the film on the beach is so compelling and blends so perfectly with Vangelis's music.
David was generous and very human and was a figure of great affection for all on the set. At 4pm precisely, his electricians would set up a tray of China tea, which would be served from a porcelain teapot and in a cup of delicate china. His simple dress displayed no hint of narcissism, rather rare among cameramen. And at the end of the day, on wrap, he would be the first away, carrying his battered black briefcase and wearing his white tennis shoes, to catch the late train to Brighton where he lived among his books, with his partner and his white Alsatian.
David Watkin, cinematographer: born Margate, Kent 23 March 1925; registered civil partnership 2006 with Nick Hand; died Brighton, East Sussex 19 February 2008.
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