When I reached Peter James, ASC, ACS, he was preparing for a sunny Christmas in Australia. We spoke about two dance-related films he trained his camera on: Nureyev’s Don Quixote, a documentary he co-shot in 1972 about Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC, and the translation to cinema of the ballet Don Quixote, and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), a dramatization of the autobiography of Chinese dancer Li Cunxin, who eventually defected.
Nureyev’s Don Quixote featured the Australian Ballet backing the peerless Russian, who also co-directed the film with fellow dancer Robert Helpmann. Critics often credit the documentary with bringing a new freedom of movement to ballet films. Peter’s job was to follow Unsworth around a converted aircraft hangar in Melbourne and capture footage without getting in the way. “He was one of my heroes, of course,” says Peter. “I always loved the way he lit and copied his style as much as I could. When you’re young, you plagiarize everybody you think is great because you haven’t found your voice yet. When it was time for me to go back to Sydney, I wanted to stay so badly that I sent the film off and stayed at my own expense. One of the electricians let me sleep on his couch. I’d catch a ride out to the set, climb into the gantry and lie on a plank, and watch Geoff lighting all day long. It was just fabulous. Occasionally, I’d help out with bits and pieces, but I was just happy to be on set and watch him light. He did things that really taught me great lessons.”
Peter recalls a night scene in which Nureyev entered the stage in a donkey cart and jumped off. “It was very moody, and Geoff wanted to have a single source, three-quarter backlight, that lit the whole stage. Well, there was no light that had that much spread, so they needed to get two together and shine them down to cover the whole area, one for each side of the stage. When the dancers danced across, Geoff wanted to have a single shadow, so he asked the gaffer to cut it so it wouldn’t produce a double shadow, which is almost impossible. But they worked really hard on it and got it as good as they could.
“It was the big idea of having this single source rather than having two different sources that really set the scene and made it look absolutely amazing. And I thought, ‘You’ve got to allow yourself to have that big dream, that big idea.’ Don’t restrict your imagination to the gear you have. Have the big dream and then try and work out how you’re going to fulfill that with the gear you’ve got. Many people just light with gear they’ve got and don’t have the big dream. From then on, I was much more organized in my lighting style and my planning and designing of the look of the film.”
Unsworth's work can be seen on YouTube:
Peter recently saw Nureyev’s Don Quixote again on Australian television. I asked him what he felt, now that he has a career’s worth of feature films behind him. “I was glad I’d hung around to see somebody really good do the job! Not that I didn’t have good training. I had some fantastic training from Australian cinematographers who were very generous, but to be on the set of a legend like Geoffrey Unsworth was really what I needed at that time, and it worked out well. I watched him light several different sets, and it’s always a joy to be around a large group of wonderful performers like the dancers.
“I rarely look at old films of mine, but I was actually surprised by how good it was,” he says of the documentary. “It actually worked. It was an ST Arri on an old Miller head, and we had an Angenieux 10:1 zoom lens. That was it. It wasn’t a silent camera, so I had to be careful to avoid upsetting the director or the dancers. Some of the shots were quite wonderful. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t believe I did that.’”
Of course, Peter is a master who has long since developed his own voice. Witness, for example, Diabolique and the tremendously powerful Black Robe, which was directed by Bruce Beresford. Peter worked with Beresford on a dozen films, including Mao’s Last Dancer.
On the set of Mao’s Last Dancer, Peter still found himself thinking occasionally, “What would Geoffrey Unsworth do in this situation?” He even did a cross-lighting fade from red sky to blue sky for a scene in which red flags were danced on stage.
His overall approach was to shoot in a 1.85 frame, but only use half the negative area for the early scenes set in China. He explains, “We made a mask in the viewfinder, in the ground glass, so to get the field of view of a 50mm lens we would use a 25mm. I used high-speed film and underexposed it about a stop. I wanted it to look a little flat and a little grainy. When I got into the DI suite, I took the contrast out and also made the colors look like old Ektachrome. The America scenes were full frame, full exposure, and we wanted the early China scenes to look completely different than the later ones, when Li returns to China at the end of the film. It really helped tell the story.”
Peter considers himself semi-retired. “I’d shoot something if the right project came along, but I’m not about to rush out the door and do anything that doesn’t really interest me. But I’ve always been very selective about what I do. I never wanted to do the kill-‘em-all movies, for instance. There’s enough violence in the world without me adding to it.”