Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff

Actress Portraits
Courtesy of Craig McCall

Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) comes to the other side of the screen in "Cameraman," as director/producer Craig McCall takes us on a walk through his life. We asked Craig  to comment on those aspects of his life that affected his work.

Cardiff jokingly said he "went to a different school every week." How do you think that experience affected him personally and professionally?

By having such an itinerant childhood I think it made Jack very intuitive and adaptable. He could read people and situations very quickly without assuming things. An often hackneyed phrase is “they learned in the university of life,” but if there was an individual that could be applied to it, it would be Jack. This was coupled with loving parents who may not have had much money but as Vaudevillian show performers, they brought their son up in a creative, instinctual and naturally progressive way.

Cardiff says he learned the lens through bits of pornography.  Is that because that's what a young boy often gets his hands on or because there is a special technique used in pornography?

No. It was a bit of a joke that I wanted to tease out. Jack was given a book called "My Life & Loves" by Frank Harris, which at the time was a bit of a sensation. It became a best seller by smuggling salacious material framed in a structure of the "art" world so it could be published. It was a bit like saying I read Playboy for the articles. However, Jack latched on to all the famous characters and artists in the framework and used it as route into another world -- painting, literature and travel.

Cardiff applied much of his painting talents to cinematography. Do you think much of creative talent is instinctive?

Yes, I think Jack’s creative talent was instinctive. He did spend a great deal of time studying painters and artists work and he had piles of sketchbooks where he made drawings and studies of faces. However, as he did not to go to any academic establishment to learn he did so intuitively.

As he shows us in the documentary, he painted his own copies of great artists -- paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and other impressionists. Jack points out, “Some people say it is a copy, yes, but it takes a long time to analyze the light and shade to make the copy and that it how I learned.”

Cardiff's technique also showed up in much later films. Is he widely recognized in the industry for his innovative approach?

In the documentary I decided to to show the direct influence of the ballet sequences in "The Red Shoes" to Scorsese’s approach with the boxing scenes in "Raging Bull." After Martin explains the link, I split the screen showing a point-of-view shot from each film, side by side. It is a bit gratuitous but so many people who have seen the documentary says it really stuck in their heads.

Cinematography is considered the main art of the 20th century. Today, effects are left to digital imagery and there's no going back. Do you think we have lost anything from this?

I think digital imagery is here to stay, as there will be fewer and fewer filmmakers who have the clout or control of the production process to insist on in-camera work. I personally think that in the right hands, digital imagery works very well. What you lose, especially with less competent or imaginative filmmakers, is the random element that comes with location work and effects done in-camera. This randomness gives things a more genuine or tactile feel.

The less we feel a scene is real, the harder it may be to convey the emotion of the story. I think digital imagery will mature but there is always a place for in-camera work, especially if it can save money and make us believe.

"Camerman" is now playing at The West End Cinema.

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