When we see a young teenager walking down the street, chatting to a friend eating a bag of crisps, a part of some of us is inevitably jealous, feels the desire to return to youth, to be able to do it all again. We long for the freedom of youth yet remember that somehow it wasn't like that at the time, at the time it was fraught with complication and indecision, with emotional upheaval. But we are surrounded daily with advertising and images reminding us of the blinding beauty of youth, of love, of desire, of endless sex with cigarettes after. We yearn for youth, for the body of youth, for the carefree attitude, for the time to get up late, not care, drink, and above all be single, be on the prowl, be loose, be free, to be in love. To be able to jump over the fence without seeing where we land. Some of us look back and say, I had such a great time when I was young with the inevitable corrolorary that now that I'm not young, times are not so great. And some of us look back on miserable childhoods and worse adolescence and only feel relief that it's all over: but some of us look back and see this wonderful beautiful creature that was our selves in all our glory only to see the faded flower, the falling petals and the inevitability of the final igmony of disease and death. Somewhere it between these two is most of us, struggling along the continuum of time looking for answers.
To say there are no answers, only questions, is true but not that helpful. We compare constantly because the whole basis of education, of western society, of the media is to present and compare, to analysis, quantify and find the solution. Heads or tails: it has to be one or the other doesn't it? Well doesn't it? But what about when it lands on the edge? What about uncertainty? What if actually the whole edifice of western civilization, for all it's art, it's plays, it's books, it's buildings, what has it actually FOUND OUT? What solutions have been found?
Clearly many many instances can be cited of marvellous and wonderful solutions to a whole range of problems set before us by nature. Every specialist in any of the fields of human endeavour could cite acres of solutions in this century alone to vast areas of human knowledge: medical, engineering, art, science, everything. Everything. It's an extraordinary and exciting era to be alive: the 20th century. Aeroplanes, cellphones, faxes, satellites, worldwide TV, the international market and so on. Well it is extraordinary isn't it?
Perhaps you don't think so, perhaps you don't feel part of this rapidly changing world that we keep reading about. Why Not? Because to the vast majority of people all this progress and all these gismos are just pictures on a page. Images on a film, on TV. What I'm trying to do this evening is give an account from the frontline so to speak.
I cross constantly from my family life with Juliet, Josie and Michaela to a life on film sets everywhere and anywhere. It sounds rather glamourous, like the pictures in a book, but what I'd like to do this evening is to try and continue the process of figuring out what belongs where in a seemingly contradictory set of values and information, as well as share with you some facts about how these images that surround us are generated. To de-mythologize the life of a film maker, in effect.
So how are you feeling? Well OK, yeah OK. Not too bad. Or maybe quite bad. Or maybe very bad. And just occasionally, well terrific. Yeah, today I feel terrific. And what has this daily toll of aches and pains, lack of sleep, headaches, broken love affairs, endless soul searching and heartache, got to do with the images of our lives created for us by people like me. Our internal actual self-reality is made to feel less than, not as good as, completely undermined by our own perceived truth about others in the world out there. They, out there in the newspaper, on tele, in the movies: THEY ARE OK. THEY ARE GLAMOUROUS, THEY ARE FAMOUS. Well maybe they aren't OK because we know that famous people make famous fuck-ups, but even that is better than just nothing isn't it? The just nothing that is me, my life. The just no achievment, no money, no-nothing life that is mine. It's nothing because we compare it to the unattainable. The carefully, expensively crafted images of advertising and the media convinces us that out there, if only we could just get our selves organised with the right clothes, the right job, the right car and the right boy or girl, out there we could make it, we could be happy, we could finally be somebody, be rich, be famous, be recognised, be loved by Mum and Dad. Be somebody. We can all be contenders only if....
It's plainly hopeless to expect anything out of life atall unless at least in some way some part of us correlates and synchs up with all this media stuff. To be completely out of step with fashion, advertising and the endlessly changing demands of the nations image is to invite disaster: how are you going to have any regard for yourself atall unless you're under 25 and drive a Suzuki Vitara?
It's worth taking a detailed look at how these images are prepared, because there's nothing quite like knowing the enemy's secrets. And advertsing is the enemy, there's no doubt about it. If you want to even begin the process of finding out who you are, the first step is finding out who you aren't. We all kind of know that we aren't that beautiful girl with the endessly long tanned body stetched out in the pristine sand somewhere is a dingy studio in Brixton. We sort of know that we aren't but don't you guys just feel a bIt attracted even though you know you love your wife and children and don't you girls just kind of somewhere think.. if only.. if only.
The irony of todays fashionable advertising images of what we should aspire to is that the actual photographic images are in themselves a hype: manipulated beyond belief by immensly skilled choices of lighting, make-up, costume, lens and art direction. What a commercial presents itself as, is a still or moving photographic record of what was actually there: what is hard to remind oneself of it that what was there was put there for the purpose of the advertisement: or if it wasn't, as in a location shoot, it was selected very very carefully from the landscape around to expressly convey the message of the advertisement. This might sound obvious but the image of the half naked girl lying on the sand in the sun is designed to bypass the rational mind completely and head straight for the groin: that's obvious too but the terrible truth is that is works. It works every time: sex and sun - it even works in California where the real thing is available!
This is the point: the real thing can never ever measure up to the imagination. All of us picture a life, a woman, a man in ways that make it very hard to adjust to the actuality of real life. We expect this, we expect that and are constantly disappointed that life is not measuring up to the expectation. The expectations, the dreams, are fed to us by the media, the politicians, our parents, our society. And when does this process get taught to us? In childhood, of course. For the first seven years of our lives our parents are not people, they are Gods: God Mama and God Dada, or if you're unlucky, devil Mama and devil Dada. Do we help the transition after the 7th year; help them to see us as fallible people, ordinary or extraordinary as the next man or woman? Do we help children to change from seeing God Mama and God Dada to seeing people who are parents? Or do we perpetuate the myth through advertising, through desire, though goal seeking education and bribes? Join the army and see the world or is it Join the Army and learn how to kill people. When you realise that the army can advertise on TV and make it seem that joining the Army is a great thing to do with your life, you begin to see the power of advertising, the power of manipulated imagery. Join the Army and learn how to kill people: that might be the truth but the truth wouldn't really attract the recruits would it?
The rows and rows of magazines of the newsagents racks: stand back one day and just look at them as a job lot. They have one thing in common: they all feature a full face photo of a stunning looking girl or woman, and this includes women's magazines. And the range of styles is actually very narrow - the women look almost the same. There's a good reason for that - half of them were probably dressed, styled, made-up and photographed by the same people, and if not the actual same people then people who are so busy copying each others work and making sure that they stay fashionable, that they might as well be the same person. And it's not uncommon to see the same girl on several covers one month because she's hot at that particular time. Oh she's doing all the work this month, can't imagine why... They can't imagine why because it's very hard to see, if you're in the skin trade, why a particular look does become fashionable and desirable. In fact if you stand back a bit further from those rows of magazines, all those faces not only start to look the same but they all also don't look quite so beautiful. In a certain light, they look quite threatening: I know that I used to find the receptionist in an ad agency the most frightening person in the world. Money, glamour, power: all embodied in an underpaid overmade-up girl answering telephones all day, dressed to kill. But when I was young I didn't know the how and why of those things: I just suffered from the effect.
At one point in my life I returned to England after an absence of 7 years during which I had seen no television. In fact I had never seen colour television. I turned on a set one night and it was the nine o' clock news. Alasdair Burnett took his customary pose, staring at the camera and started to read the news. I was in my mothers sitting room at the time and she came running into the room to ask me what was wrong because I was doubled up on the floor in a fit of hysterical laughter. I literally was unable to control by hysteria, my absolute disbelief at what I was looking at, because the image I was seeing was not translated by my brain into a man sitting on a chair telling me the news, rather it seemed to be an animated Roy Lichenstein poster where the colours were crazily flourescent, the make-up caked on like lumpy plaster and why was he sitting roasting under some kind of arc light that made him look as though he was going to catch fire. Even his speech seemed false and la-di-da: so extraordinary did this event seem to me that I was quite unable to watch the news and take in the information.
In order for the process of TV to work we have to accept the nature of the image, to learn that this image means: here is a serious man sitting on a chair telling us the news. The hidden agenda is what I saw: the artifice surrounding the whole "show" that means that whatever the program makers may do to make it seem otherwise, it is a "show" - documentaries, news, horror films, recreated dramatic re-construction etc - it's all a "show" and when the advertising comes on, it's part of the "show": many children will tell you they are the best part. Why, because an advertisement often makes a child work harder to interpret the fleeting imagery: the child doesn't know it's being sold something, but is intrigued by the speed and disconectedness of the images and it seems more "fun" than many "proper" programs. Because they have to attend more to work out what's going on, they enjoy it more. Children learn quickly the language of the TV image, and it is only if you have a long absence that you can have a momentary flash of its "real" nature. The curious thing was that I learned within minutes to accept the image and have never been able to "see" the image in that particular way again.
Recently chanel 4, always after novel solutions, took to having serious discussion about art, politics, with top intellectuals, politicians, writers and so on, around a burning oil drum. Hand held cameras were used a lot, which were often visible, and they generally tried to loosen the rigid format of people sitting in chrome chairs with pastel backgrounds and a glass of water in front of them. The framing of the images was loose and sometimes chaotic and the viewer was generally left with an uneasy feeling that he was supposed to be getting something out of all this unusual idea, as opposed to just listening to what people have to say. The novelty of the surrounding quickly wore off and it actually just became irritating that Tony Benn was sitting on an upside down bucket in a suit and looking very uncomfortable. The show tries to make the show visible but just becomes another show. And why try to make the show visible anyway? If people have come to talk to each other then why not sit them down and have them talk to each other? The reason why not is that some program producer is trying to forge new ideas, get ahead, be visible and generally make a name for himself.
The program makers, the people who actually make the programs that you see on TV, represent a very very small proportion of the people employed in TV. It is said that in the BBC, for every person standing on the studio floor there a 7 sitting in an office. 7 Managers to every "maker". The controllers control and they make very sure they do control. They know the power, the power of a system that every man woman and child in the country watches for 25 hours every week, over 3 hours a night on average. 3 hours a night taking in the information that the controllers, the advertisers, the makers, see fit that you should watch. Big Brother: who needs him when we've got the good old telle.
I do rather like watching tele actually. I watch it between midnight and 1am on a very small portable set sitting in the bath. It's very relaxing and takes my mind away for a short time, sometimes into places and events that I find informative and stimulating. But I won't have a tele in the centre of the house, and I find the small screen easier to stay detached from, easier to maintain in perspective, easier to decode. Conflicting research about the effects of watching TV comes out virtually every week. One week it's definitely harmful - causes violence and cancer and should be banned outright and next week it's beneficial, makes for a peaceful society and is a blessing to the old and infirm: a real friend for the lonely. Statisticians have a field day with research results and somehow, despite the investment of millions by governments and TV companies, no-one ever has a conclusive answer about anything to do with the effects of TV. Does it cause dyslexia? Don't know. Does it result in copycat violence? Don't know. Is it good to let our kids watch it? Don't know.
What we do know is that we do watch it, the whole society watches and if we're not getting our mores from TV then we're getting them from the tabloid press: the Daily Sport. It's not going to go away, it's there, it's there everyday and whilst we may in some small way prevent our smaller children from exposure to it, the day comes when they grow up and decide to watch for themselves and then what? What's going to happen then?
I'm not a believer in the sinister conspiracy theory of society, the media and TV. I don't believe there's a bunch of Hitlers out there trying to dominate our lives and turn us into teenage ninja turtles. I do believe there's people out there doing what we've taught them in our education system: getting ahead, dominating each other and going for the big one, trying to win at all costs. In short, trying to make a buck and if that means trampling on a few people, animals, trees, whatever, then so be it. Got to pay the morgage. Got to get ahead.
I'm not an intellectual, nor a commentator nor a critic so that is as far as I'm going to go with generalizations. I'd like to move on to real information about the world of the film maker: information that is somehow buried and not part of the glamourous publicity machine that spends millions to misinform the public about the world of film making.
The rewards for those working in the media can be astronomic. It is not unusual for a top international commercial camerman or stills photographer to earn £150 to £200,000.00 per year. Many commercials directors in the USA are millionares. Coca Cola, IBM, Thatchers government, they all know the power of the media and they are willing to pay for it, so when an individual shows that he or she knows the secret to commercial success, to selling the product, to persuading the public that their product is the product, the one, the moment, the apex, the few thousand pounds for a daily fee to that person is nothing compared to the potential rewards to the company. But it's a giant crap-game with enormous stakes, and most bets fall into the hands of the croupier. But for the one that makes it, the market is no longer the odd 50 million living in your own country but the millions living everywhere. As far as the media is concerned, the world is the aim, appeal to everyone everywhere, the single market is not Europe, it's the world. And to Coca Cola, with a turnover higher that most countries GNP, the odd 100 million spent on advertising is just pocket money.
I can see some of you beginning to ask the question, so why do you work in all this. Why do you participate in this appalling process of conning the people into buying this and that. It's a good question!
For all of my twenties and some of my thirties I refused to have anything to do with advertising (probably because I was scared of the receptionists!) and would only shoot drama films or documentaries that I considered "OK" by my hazy left wing standards. Not only did I consider commercials morally reprehensible but I couldn't stand the people involved - not that I really knew any of them because I didn't work with them - but I just knew I couldn't stand them because.. well they work in commercials so they must be aweful.
When I left film school in 1980 at the age of 32, I was offered a contract with a large company in London to shoot commercials and if I signed the contract it meant I could get a union ticket which meant I could work as a cinematographer. The problem for the film maker is that the only way to learn to make films, to tell stories on film, is to make films, and if you don't practice, or have the opportunity to practice then you don't progress. It's hard to learn to play the piano if the notes are not connected to the strings: as a film-maker the connection is very expensive, requires enormous organisation, many people and a sharing of a common purpose that needs to be organised and defined in such a manner that has no parallel outside of perhaps an army.
A film crew is like a bunch of cowboys on a cattle drive: every possible type of human being is present from the low down mean skunk who'll shoot your boots off your feet if he thinks he can get away with it, to the most erudite, learned and effette writer who finds the whole enterprise thrilling terrifying and nerve wracking all at once. This whole sprawling ensemble may come together for anything from one day to one year and there is no other way to learn the job than to do the job, and the line between what is an acceptable and what is an unacceptable job becomes very blurred indeed.
A cinematographer is first and foremost a craftsperson. If you are a shoemaker you are part of a team of people whose jobs you rely on to make your shoes. The farmer to breed the cow, the tanner to cure the skin, the smelter to shape the rivets: a whole host of people who need to be doing their job in order for you to do yours. And when the shop door tings and a person comes in for a pair of shoes the shoe maker measures their feet, decides on all the intracies of style and colour and then agrees a fee. No-one says: What are the shoes for? or Who will be wearing them? If the customer goes out of the shop and uses his new boots to kick someone to death is that the fault of the shoe-maker? A cinematographer shapes and crafts images to serve the ideas of the scriptwriter and director and whilst he may in the enviable position of being able to choose who or to what end he lends his craft, the chances are that in order to develop his craft he has to go with any customer that comes into the shop. That is, until such time as there is a cue around the block and then he can afford to be choosy.
A director is in a rather different position, the director, along with
the producer and writer, is actually responsible. When I am offered
the chance to direct commercials I say no, because I can't do it.
I can't be responsible for it. I can shoot them but I can't direct
them. I can practice a craft but I can't take on the direction.
Interesting. Is this me kidding myself? Where is the borderline.
You all drove here: you contributed to the greenhouse effect: are you responsible?
Was it worth it? It's hard to know without coming. Telling a friend about this evening is a quite different event from being here to tonight. There's only one way to become a cinematographer and that's to shoot film. When I work on a commercial it's like knowing I'm in paradise, I've got a crew, cameras, lights, film, but the paradise is full of shit : the whole reason for being there is wrong: it's to sell, to baffle, amaze and catch a fickle hamburger munching public - to try and catch their attention for just one brief moment in that 3 hrs of daily TV watching and say BUY THIS! It's frustrating to practice your instrument and know that the composer has created garbage. I guess musicians who are forced to record musak to pay the rent are in much the same position.
But the fascination with light, with the play of light on a surface, on a face, and the photographic recording of that interaction, and the movement of the camera in relation to that light, that subject, that moment. In a commercial it's only that: it's an abstraction that somehow is ultimately insulted by being about selling but in a film, a drama, a story, it takes on quite another role. Everything at any moment in the making of a good film is for the camera: without the camera there is no film, without the camera all the activity, all the millions of pounds, all the weeks and weeks of work is as nothing: the camera is the recorder, the immortaliser, the maker of the image. Ten or twenty time a day we set up sometimes small and sometimes big moments, actors, landscapes, and record them. Immortalize them. The movie camera is a beautiful silent awesome machine but just a machine. It has no life but life is frozen within it then recreated by a projector, in a silent dark room where upturned faces gaze and listen. And the decisions about what to point the camera at, where to move it and when and how it should look is an endless fascination, an endless collaboration of director and cinematographer. And every frame, 24 frames every second, records only and exactly what you put in front of it: not more, not less, but exactly and only what you put in front of it. And learning what to put in front of it and what story it tells is the skill, the craft. And only in the doing, in the making, can you find out. It's hard to taste a cake you can only make in your mind: but that's what the cinematogtrapher does. The writer writes the recipe that the director, the cinematographer and a whole host of others mix up, bake and finally cut up and serve. Sometimes it tastes good and sometimes well.. never mind, we'll make another.
Deciding on the nature of the "look" for a film is a curious and mystical process. Every director who calls me up wants his film to look "different". Everyone wants to be different. And often the poorer the subject or the content the more hysterical directors become about "the look": after all there is nothing else so all the energy pours into the look. But when the subject is strong, the story powerful, the discussions about "look" calm down and become part of an evolution, as pre-production draws near to the shoot day, a hundred decisions a day made by the director with the production designer, the make-up department, the costume designer, the cinematgrapher, these all add-up to "the look" which the cinematographer finally imparts as a kind of summation of every one else's work. When we made The Grifters it was almost effortless: like performing a superb ballet where the cast knows it's every move, it's every moment. After rehearsal every morning, the camera had to go just there and move just then: the light had to be as it was - I was constantly baffled by doing things I'd never done before and was forever watching the rushes with my heart in my mouth because I was stretching myself: but I knew they were the demand, the necessity of the script, the actors, Steven's vision. Jacques Rivette, the french director, said that the good films are like archaeology: you're just got to unearth what's there without breaking anything. But in the process of cleaning the dust off with a teaspoon you sometimes loose track of the whole, the final result, and that's what you have to hold onto all the time: the whole, the complete work. When the films fascinating it's because all the elements are in right relation all of the time: and the camera is the emotion, it is the moment, and it recreates the emotional being of the actor for ever and ever every moment. More than that, it catapults the mortality of the actor into immortality and the viewer soars entranced: what a landing it is when a great movie finishes - how hard the return to earth, to time and mortality. The camera is really a time machine after all.
Because of this ability to weave magic, to caste a 2 hour spell over us, the cinema occupies a special place in most people's affection. A place different to that of the theatre, of the concert hall, because when it siezes you it transports you completely, leaving no trace of your every day self. You sit in rows in a dark room all faced forward to a window on the world created by the joint minds of the film makers: it is the ultimate social art, it is simply not possible for one person to make a film no matter what critics may like to dream up in their endless quest for director heroes. Even the most bigoted egotistical and unco-operative directors have ultimately to work with others and if they don't then their work will ultimately fall apart because no-one who is any good will work with them any more. Believe it or not there are directors out there who treat you as though you are there to stop them making their film.
Despite all this rosy talk of drama and meaning, the grisly truth of feature film making is that it is the biggest crap game of all, where the stakes are highest and the rewards greatest. Batman made $250 million but it cost $40 million. That's quite a stake to put on the roulette table: Ishtar cost the same and have you seen that? No? Nor has anyone else: total loss. The studios and investors don't put $40 million on the table because they think they're contributing to the meaning of life, the thirst for knowledge: they put it there because they're addicted to gambling for high stakes on the most expensive table in the world. It must be a real pain for them to have to deal with all us creative types, the writers, directors, musicians and so on: most of the guys with the real power don't because they hate us all so much, so they just employ executives to deal with us: the Crew Ugh! Scum. We're a necessary evil and they can't understand why they have to pay us so much money. Like it or not, we're part of the chip on the table and whatever the subject, whatever the meaning, the purpose, the aim - to someone, somewhere, it's just another chip on the table.
To those of us that care what we get involved in, because there's a big enough queue round the block to enable us to be selective and still pay the morgage, there are the films out there that matter, that contribute to the exchange of ideas. It might be only us that see them that way, but see them that way we do, and when I look back and see I was part of My Beautiful Laundrette, Prink Up Your Ears or The Grifters, I can honestly say to myself well that was worth it, that was worth all the pop promos, the commercials, because without them that wouldn't have been that way. I wouldn't have known to do it that way, in whatever way is the mystery of knowing how to do something. By doing commercials I gain insiders knowledge, I know what not to do on a picture, I know how to avoid commercial imagery or when to use it, because I know how to make it, and by knowing that I can ignore it.
Copywriters and commercial directors think they know the answer to persuasive imagery, but the truth is that they know only the limitations of what they are doing which is selling and no fancy backlit coloured multi image munching piece of million dollar gismo can ever get over that: selling is the aim, selling is the game.
The real power of feature film goes back right to the story tellers, to the myths, legends and powers of the story: and when the power is in the story and not in the surface of the picture, then the photography is another demand that is as different as Bach is from Heavy Metal. For the cinema viewer to truly sink into the ocean of a film, the photography must call softly, softly, seducing the viewer into forgetting that the camera even exists, that lights were ever used and that indeed anybody ever even made the film. The film must feel like it was there: it was like that, that's how it was. It wasn't shots all joined up with tape with sound on the side mixed with music: it was there - it was like that then. We were just there to record it. To uncover it. The credits should baffle at the end; oh someone made this? Wow! Look at all those names! Who are those people?l
Like the threads in a persian carpet, the photography is only part of
the picture, the picture is the story and the story is the film.