Jack Cardiff’s Magic Life: Part Two

The young Cardiff at the unblimped Technicolor three-strip camera.

As twenty-two year old Denham Studios camera operator Jack Cardiff sat waiting his turn to be interviewed by representatives of the American film lab, Technicolor, his anxiety level rose.  A procession of older, more experienced operators had emerged from the inner office, one by one, dazed and disoriented by the technical questions tossed at them: law of inverse squares, lux, lumens, and lamberts—a formidable litany of lighting terms. When Cardiff’s turn came he jumped right in and told them he was definitely NOT their man, as he knew almost nothing about the technical aspects of lighting. “In fact,” he writes in his memoir Magic Hour, “I was a mathematical dunce.”

He began to explain that what he knew of light came from his study of painting, especially the Old Masters and the English pre-Impressionist, J. M. W. Turner.

J.M.W. Turner, “Wreckers Coast of Northumberland,” ca. 1836, Yale Center for British Art.

(In the documentary Cameraman there is a scene between Cardiff and director Craig McCall as they sit on a sofa in London’s National Gallery. After examining several canvases by Turner that have extremely hot highlights, Cardiff says, “If he [Turner] were alive today, he’d be the best cameraman in the world.”

They [the Technicolor technicians conducting the interviews] looked at me in silence. One of them asked me which side of the face did Rembrandt have as a key light? I was on slightly firmer ground on this one and said it was the left [meaning frame left] side. The questions continued. Which painters did beautiful interiors? That was easy. ‘Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. I believe they used a camera obscura, I added, showing off. I enthused about the educative value of the candle light sources in the paintings of Georges de la Tour. I started to warm to my subject, but they cut me off in my prime and I was ushered out of the office feeling somewhat like a late Picasso.

Rembrandt, “Self-Portrait in Painter's Costume.”
George de la Tour, “The Payment of Dues.”

The next morning Cardiff was told he was chosen to go to Hollywood to train on the new three-strip Technicolor camera. The committee had wisely decided that they wanted an artistic eye behind the lens, not just a technical hand at its side. But the trip to America never took place. Instead, Technicolor decided to open a lab in England, taking over a converted stable right on the Denham Studios lot; Cardiff was trained there. He became the first English cameraman to master this complex new camera, all under the watchful eye of American cinematographer Ray Rennahan, and supervised by Natalie Kalmus (color consultant), who had final word on virtually all-creative decisions concerning the new process. Cardiff’s knowledge of the primacy of aesthetic over technical knowledge in cinematography should send an upbeat message to young camerapersons in our own techno-obsessed digital times: that the art of the cinematographer even today is measured not just by a knowledge of optics, grain, and pixels, but by an ability to create at the film plane outstanding artistic images.

One of the first assignments for the Technicolor camera was filming the coronation of King George VI. But that was just the beginning for Cardiff. First, as a camera operator on films such as The Four Feathers and The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp (both with Georges Périnal as director of photography) and then with the team of Powell/Pressburger on three more films, his name became synonymous with the highest standards of color cinematography. He describes the glory of Technicolor three-strip color in Magic Hour:

Over the next quarter of a century, until the advent of single-film Eastmancolor [in 1950], which tolled the death knell of the three-strip camera, I used this superb Rolls-Royce of a beauty all over the world in all kinds of dangerous situations: in steel mills (inches away from molten ingots), in battleships in wartime seas [Western Approaches], on top of erupting volcanoes [Vesuvius episode of World Window], in burning deserts and steaming jungles.

One day, in the autumn of 1936, a Cadillac coupé parked in front of the Technicolor building.  Out of it emerged an émigré from Germany’s Third Reich, Count von Keller, and his wife, wealthy, amateur 16mm travelogue filmmakers. They had come to the company with their wealth and naïveté to engage a three-strip cameraman to help them produce a series of ambitious travel films in this new color process, short fims intended for the commercial market.

Count von Keller

Managing director of Technicolor, Kay Harrison, gently explained that this was not a simple business, as supplying the crew and equipment presented a formidable undertaking. But Keller had not only the funds, he also had the desire; Cardiff went off with the Kellers, along with a crew and fully loaded van, to begin what would become a world-wide adventure series of ten-minute films released for theatrical distribution by United Artists. What more adventurous dream could a young man in his early-twenties have?

“World Window” production van, ready to roll.

The series, entitled World Window, ventured first to locations in Rome, Florence, Naples and throughout Italy, but eventually ranged from Africa to the Far East, several films highlighting India.

The “World Window” title card.

One of Cardiff’s assistants was Chris Challis; he later worked with Cardiff on Michael Powell films of The Archers. Challis soon became a distinguished cinematographer in his own right, continuing to work with Powell/Pressburger after Cardiff had moved;  he later photographed The Long Ships, directed by his longtime friend, Cardiff. Challis is also a featured interviewee in the documentary, Cameraman.

The loving details with which Cardiff describes the adventures on World Window, as well as the camera and lighting experience he gained on these short films, along with the logistical challenges confronted, is central to understanding both his book and his recollections in the documentary film. Here in delicious detail is how in Magic Hour he describes photographing inside the Vatican:

Inside the basilica itself [St. Peter’s] I was presented with what seemed to be an insurmountable problem. The sheer immensity of the place—700 feet square and 400 feet in height—would need a battery of powerful lamps to provide enough light for color photography. (In those days the emulsion speed of Technicolor was very slow; I needed 600-foot candles at full aperture—f1.5) All I could muster on the travelogue budget was fewer than a dozen small incandescent lamps. I tried a mad experiment. The Technicolor camera had no regular cranking handle, only a tiny handle at the back which was used for threading the film when loading. I placed a few tiny lamps as artistically as I was able, and then slowly turned the loading crank until twenty feet of film had passed through the camera. That took about twenty minutes. Then I reversed the direction of the film until I was at the beginning again. I now laboriously repeated the process.

It should come as no surprise that the results were spectacular; it served as an early warning to the diehard techs at Technicolor that Cardiff was not going to follow their rules, especially those of its reigning queen, Natalie Kalmus. Several episodes of these travelogues are on Youtube. Here are two of the ones from India:

At 8:50 in the following film, Temples of India, there occurs a day for night sequence of the Taj Mahal. On page 68 of his memoir, Cardiff recounts how he caught the magic nighttime essence of this 17th century marble tomb:

In those days Technicolor film was too slow for night exposure so I made an attempt at day-for-night photography. I placed two poles either side of my camera just out of picture, and thin wires—which wouldn’t show—were stretched across at various heights from the ground. To these I attached pieces of Plasticine the size of pin heads—speculating at the position of the stars—and stuck silver paper on each piece of Plasticine. Then I positioned reflectors behind the camera, which reflected the sunlight on to the area of my stars. By turning each piece of Plasticine until the silver paper caught the reflected sun I was able to have many bright glints of ‘stars’ in the background. A pale-blue filter on my camera plus the usual underexposure for day-for-night changed the sunny day into a starry night.

Of course, that same effect today would be wrought by a team of model makers and/or CGI artists pounding away at pixels.

This chapter on Cardiff’s Technicolor adventures in the world of documentary photography serves as a contrast to his later highly stylized work in the 40s for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The adventurer and the aesthete develop here alongside each other, creating a style that is both realistic and exotic. But that grand synthesis beginning with his first feature, A Matter of Life and Death, through Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, would only come to fruition after the challenges of WWII.

A documentary film about the Merchant Navy and the struggle to protect Allied shipping lanes is the subject of Cardiff’s filmmaking during the war; the film is Western Approaches, the title of which refers to the seas west of Britain, almost to Iceland, that were the object of constant German U-boat attacks.

It is still almost impossible to believe that the mammoth Technicolor three-strip camera was pressed into service for this homefront film—but it was, and there was no one more capable of guiding it through the perilous seas and lurking submarines than Cardiff. He devotes many pages in his autobiography to writing about the rigors of the production.

The director was Pat Jackson. Young, intelligent, and with much courage as I was about to see. We became fast friends, and are to the present day [1994]. The film was scheduled for six weeks. It took over a year and was the most despairingly difficult ordeal I have ever known.

It was also one of the most technically demanding films that Cardiff was ever to do, as it studiously avoided studio and process work. Cardiff describes the shoot.

In our lifeboat were crammed the director, myself, my assistant, the soundman, script girl, camera and sound gear, portable radio transmitter, water barrel, boxes of sandwiches for the day, and a flapping sail, which swung murderously around when you least expected it. And one other item: twenty-two merchant seamen. All this, every day for six months.

Blimp in a boat, the three-strip afloat “Western Approaches.”

Six months is the time it took to photograph just the lifeboat sequence. Even with a custom-made lighter sound blimp for the near two hundred pound camera, it is impossible to imagine how the film was made. Here is a short clip, all of its photography taken on the high seas.

Several times during the filming Cardiff nearly went down, not with the ship, but with the camera, once, ironically, on the only scene to be shot on a stage. The camera and Cardiff were in a booth in a tank; the supporting planks turned over and both cameraman and camera were suddenly in eight feet of water. Cardiff extricated himself; the crew saved the camera. Here is how he recounts the “rescue.”

It was several minutes before the camera was brought out, placed in a bath of oil, then rushed to Technicolor to be taken to pieces. Luckily, no harm was done. More extraordinary, the exposed film in the magazine, which of course was soaked in water, was developed and found to be quite unharmed.

More proof of Cardiff’s “Magic Life.” But the truly magical part was just now about to begin.

The Archers logo.

(Part Three will examine the three films of the Archers (the Powell/Pressburger production company) that were photographed by Cardiff. On their release, they were critically acclaimed but mostly commercially indifferent, films that, like Citizen Kane, also a bust in its initial release, now occupy canonic status for filmmakers and historians).



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