ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1985)
This account was mostly from a diary I wrote during the making of ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS, with revisions and additions made in 2016.
Either you've got no work, lots of friends, no money and a hundred parties to go to and an endless supply of drugs, or you're inundated with work and so busy that your friends never see you any more and anyway, when you do have a weekend off, there's the two small children and the commune in the country to attend to.. At least that's how it feels to me. This must be success. A friend from my previous life visited the giant Notting Hill set of Absolute Beginners, looked around at the scale of it all and said: "Well I suppose you could say you're a success?" I looked at him across the chasm of the years and said: "I suppose so!"
Shooting ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS certainly was a milestone. Enrolling at the National Film School at the age of 27 after 6 years struggle as a stills photographer in Cape Town marked an all time low financially but a real period of learning about film-making. The best bit was the 18 months I spent making SHADOWPLAY, Writing Directing and Editing what turned out to be a flawed but curiously prescient 70 minute drama about ex South Africans struggling with BOSS and paranoia in London. All that time in front of the Steenbeck with my own material laced across the mattress and coffee machine taught me more about shooting than I could ever learn on a studio floor lighting at a tin of Heinz or a packet of Omo. I'm not saying that you can only learn about film making at film school - Julien Temple didn't - but it was perfect timing for me. The problem with loading magazines or focus pulling is that it only enables one to observe and it's only in the doing that you really find out the answers - because they have to be the answers for you and not a copy of what you saw someone else doing. Consequently I'm a lousy focus puller but have been fortunate to have David Morgan on the crew of Absolute Beginners who is simply the best focus puller in the world. He's a nice guy too which is handy. I'm not saying that it's hopeless to go through the grades and learn that way: most of today's finest cameramen and their technicians learnt precisely that way so it's a method that works. But it doesn't necessarily suit everyone - and especially those like me who come into the business from an oblique angle - in my case still photography and a 7 year absence from my home country: a Sixties Kid.
I have to thank Julien Temple for my career to date (1984). Without his confidence in the first place I may not have ever got those crucial first few jobs that enable a cameraman to get something on his reel and get rolling. Many a producer in that first year, confronted with this almost teenage director with web feet (referring to a particularly bizarre pair of shoes he liked to wear) whispered in his ear- "Zazitsky is available, so is Zazootsky and they're both good friends of mine, they're both top men and the clients love them.." but Julien would just reply "Oliver's shooting it", and somehow the Producer would know that the conversation was over. Later I'd hear some PA saying "Who is this guy anyway?". Richard Bedford (Editor), Julien and I had been working together, off and on, for four years prior to doing this film. John Beard (Production designer) who designed the most wonderful sets on very limited recourses, had worked with us on many previous videos. People sometimes commented on the rushes "That's great, that looks great Oliver" and sometimes all you can say is: "It's the set." The Soho set looked so real that an American producer asked Steve Wooley (our Producer) how we managed to stop the traffic: the problem was to get it started! Like most things that arrive on the screen the product is as good as the team that's making it and this film was a real delight.
When this film was planned Julien and I decided on a very 50's technicolour look. I rapidly discovered that recreating the look of such masterpieces as THE RED SHOES or BLACK NARCISSUS (Jack Cardiff) was not going to be easy. The 3-strip dye transfer process has been long gone and was only available (for printing only) in Peking. I made enquiries but it rapidly became apparent after discussions with Les Ostenelli at the lab that the real quality was in the 3 strip camera process and even printing dye tansfer prints in Peking with modern negative was not going to yield the result I was looking for. Labmen frequently shrugged their shoulders at my incessant demands for more contrast! The whole drift of film emulsion technology over the past twenty years had been to reduce contrast, which is traditionally a 'problem' in when the soft commercial look was so much in fashion. There are scores of filters available - low contrast, supafrosts, diffusions etc etc, all of which reduce contrast, but none which increase it.
Lens manufactures have struggled brilliantly to make a lens do at T2 what a lens used to do at T5.6. It was only when I discovered that 600 footcandles of key light was used for 3 strip technicolour that I began to realize what I was up against: that a whole ton of lighting which we didn't have the money for. John Beard (the Production Designer) built whole streets full of neon and shops and cars in the biggest stage at Shepperton and I'd be lucky to get 60 footcandles :this was not some high budget epic with electricians and grips round every corner.
Because this was more or less the first set I had ever lit I hired an "old timer" to be my gaffer as I figured I needed all the help I could get! His name was Frank Heney and he had a lot of experience of bigger films. After I met him, we went down to H stage at Shepperton to take a look at the emerging Soho set. There was hundreds of people working there and as we were standing in silence contemplating the enormity of the task ahead, a very large rigging grip walked up to us and fixed me with a stare that was a mixture of friendliness and contempt. He had evidently heard that a "film school" cameraman was going to light the film: in those days the jokey insult to people like us was "Clapper-Lighters" ie people who hadn't got a clue! He said to me: "Where do you want the boats guv?". I paused for a moment as I scanned the set with an expression I constructed to be that of a person who knew what a boat was, and said "Yes, give me a moment to think about that." Frank realised immediately what was happening and said: "Oh, the usual places John." John gave me another penetrating stare and strolled off back into the sea of hammers and scaffold. I turned to Frank and said: "What the hell is a boat". Frank not only explained what that was but then took me on a walk around the set with his notebook. At the end of it he said: "Well I reckon we need 150 Misers - the lighting company will have to buy some more.." Nothing bothered him and I breathed a sigh of relief as I knew I was with a trusted colleague in the battle to come.
The producers were good enough to employ me for six weeks prior to principal photography which was to include a three week pre-light for the giant soho set. Mike Proudfoot, the operator, was not available at the time so I set about some very extensive testing with Steve Alcorn, a mate from film school, and Chris Vile the camera trainee. We started with lenses and established that my own set of Canon K-series superspeeds and the Cooke 5:1 zoom was as good as anything that Samuelson's had. I used these lenses because they seemed to render the kind of colour and contrast that I was looking for. In a series of flare tests I found that the type of halo these lenses gave from naked light sources was the kind of thing I liked. The Zeiss lenses looked more starry and less even. On the other hand the Zeiss's won on random streaks: if you're not careful with out-of-shot light sources the Canons can streak really badly (or well - depending on your point of view!). Another point in favour of the Canons was their minimum image shift when racking through focus.
Julien and I wanted to shoot in the 1.235 format - true "cinema". It was 1984 and GREYSTOKE was shooting 1:235 ratio in a new way by shooting "flat" and then doing the amamorphic squeeze in the lab. I heard about this and realised it would be ideal for our production. Hugh Hudson and John Alcott along with Les Ostinelli at Technicolour were shooting a pioneering format and I was ready to follow on. The difference from TECHNICOPE - the 2 fame pull down system used in the 60's - is that the gate was enlarged to include the soundtrack area of the film thus using the full width of the negative. When the lab made the Anamorphic Print on an optical printer, this re-introduced the soundtrack area into the print. This system had one major advantage over the old 2 frame system: because you use more width you use more height and thus a greater area of the negative renders a less grainy blow-up - advances in emulsion technology also contributed toward this improvement.
However, GREYSTOKE was not able to use a zoom because filing out of the gate on the soundtrack side of the negative meant the lenses were no longer central to the image and this created coverage problems. It also meant that a zoom would not track straight into the center of the image. During my time at the NFTS, I was constantly visiting Samuelsons to borrow gear and lap up the enormous amount of knowledge available there. People like Barry Measure, Karl Kelly, Simon Broad and the famous "Doris" who was the queeen of filters, were of immense help to me as they let me drift around all day long watching what they were up to. While REVOLUTION was shooting and we were in prep, Karl Kelly and his team at Samuelsons solved the "off-centre" problem by re-centering the mounts on our BL3's and my Arri III so that the lenses are one again in the centre of the "new" negative area. Co-incidentlally, this was all happening just as we were in pre-production. This led to camera manufactures re-designing the lens ports so that they could be easily re-centered for either format.
Because REVOLUTION (Hugh Hudson) was having "issues" a state of extreme angst and paranoia surrounded the new Super-35 system. Our producers at Goldcrest would not agree to our using the system and repeatedly insisted that we shoot Anamorphic if we were so insistent on the 2.35:1 format. What they didn't understand was the huge cost increase that would result if they forced me to use Anamorphic instead of Super-35. With our Canon lenses we could shoot at T1.4 if things got desparate - Anamorphic lenses would demand 4 times the amount of light. Trying to make them understand the implications was an uphill battle, so my strategy was just to keep preparing the film for Super 35, slow stock and Canon lenses. Four days before Day 1 of the shoot, we still did not have permission to shoot re-centered Super-35, so I told the Producers that I had no further time to change our format as all the cameras (2 BL3's and my ARRI III) were now prepared for Super-35 and unless they wanted to delay the start date we had to shoot with what we had. I knew that the phrase "Delay the Start" was a very expensive option so they just let it slide..
The shoot itself was very intense, but also extremely enjoyable and creative. We were largely left alone but the dreaded "Bond Company" did come in towards the end as we were over budget. As a DP, you are mostly sheltered from all that by good Producers, although sadly this is not longer the case for the most part (2016). It is worth re-counting a couple of stories as illustration. A real masterpiece of co-operation was the planning for the set of Dido's party - a big set piece in the film. I had a notion in pre-production that to have a "Hot-Head" (one of the early remote heads) on a "Python Arm" (developed for remote heads) running along outside the set above one wall with the camera `dipped' into the action could save a lot of time and give us the kind of freedom to move the camera that I know Julien Temple was addicted to. We wouldn't have to worry about the floor and all the technicians could be off the set completely. The system worked very effectively and we got some shots that would have been impossible any other way. It did however prove extremely difficult to operate this large and heavy piece of equipment and Colin Manning (the brillant Dolly Grip) was occasionally heard cursingn under his breath...
Another special moment happened towards the end of shooting. Julien wanted a small sequence involving two of the characters in an outside set on the backlot but by this time the Bond Company had moved in and struck it from the schedule. The huge outside street set was being felled with wrecking cranes, but John Beard (Designer) had his team throw a large canvas over the set we hadn't shot with signs showing it should not be struck. Then a small group of us made a secret pact to come in 2 hours early and shoot the scene without the Bond Company producers knowing! So we snuck in early in the morning with minimum crew, shot the scene and then just turned up in the studio at call time without them being aware we had already shot a scene they had cut.. When the Rushes were shown the next day all hell broke loose! The scene is in the movie..
Looking back at Absolute Beginners, I realise all sorts of things that we could have done better, especially in relation to pre-production and sets. Not having shot an epic like this before (an epic for me that is!), I didn't know some of the things I now know about studio sets, particularly in relation to lighting. John Beard would give me a drawing of a set and I wasn't too good at being constructive about my requirements at that stage: I was more used to looking at something and then making suggestions, but in a studio that is often too late - particularly in the tight situations we always seemed to be in. For instance we quite often had areas where a band would be playing and I would not spot that there wasn't anywhere to hide back or side lights: now I know better! We constantly would ask for floors we could track on but then the Art Department had other problems with labour or the uneven floor and we would arrive and promply have to lay boards all over their beautiful floors and then have to cope with not getting them in shot. It's not that these problems don't happen all the time but now I am more experiences I know more about when to be insistent and when to let it go.
I am revising this account now in 2016, more than 30 years later. Shooting the film took all the youth, vigour and anarchy that is the job of young people - to re-invigorate the industry. Most of the old-timers back then must have thought we were a bunch of yahoo nut-cases and that was mostly true - but the "failure" of the film had more to do with the casting of the leading man than anything else. He was a bad choice and if the leading man had gone on to be a big star, the film would occupy a very different place in film history as I believe it would have been a huge success. Script and Casting are the foundation stones of narrative film-making and if either or both of these is wrong, no amount of "glitz" can cover up the chasms. The release was also clouded by a massive amount of over-hype and in a sense it could only fail as so much expectation had built up around it. Viewed today it can be seen for all its inventiveness and talent - and, who knows, maybe one day Julien Temple will have the opportunity to cut the film he wanted to make, rather than the one that the studio threw together in a frantic effort to "save" it.
Dp's- where to get them
FrameRates and Digi
Jobsin the Industry
Super35 versus Anamorphic