20.07.1939 - 24.5.2000
Tribute by Director Alan Parker
Last week, while on location in Bath for Lasse Hallstrom's new film, Chocolat, Mike Roberts, for the first time in his career, failed to make the morning bus that takes the crew to the film set. He had died peacefully in his sleep, aged 60.
Roberts was one of the finest camera operators in the world, and probably the greatest British film cameraman ever. Working for more than 40 years with directors like Neil Jordan, Richard Attenborough, Roland Joffe, Fred Zinnemann and Steven Spielberg, he elevated his art and craft to new levels, being an essential part of four films that won Academy awards for cinematography and four further nominations. In 1997, he was awarded the Michael Balcon Award by BAFTA for his outstanding contribution to British cinema, the first technician to be so honoured.
As a director, I made eight films with Mike as my camera operator, and the thought of filming without him, frankly, fills me with dread. Like many directors, I will miss him terribly. He was our eyes; his understanding and "knowingness" of a scene were consummate. Although he had no formal arts training, his perception of composition and light was instinctive and intuitive, as was his mastery of how subtle and artful camera movement could add power and energy to a shot.
Born in Woking, Surrey, Mike started out as a runner in Fleet Street, catching the bug for film at Southall studios while working for Pearl and Dean. He moved to ABPC Elstree Studios as a central camera loader, and after six years went freelance, working his way up from clapper loader on films like School For Scoundrels [1960 Directed by Robert Hamer photographed by Erwin Hillier BSC] to focus puller on A Man For All Seasons [1966 Directed by Fred Zinneman photographed by Ted Moore BSC* Oscar win]. One day when the camera operator had flu, he moved up to the seat on the dolly, which he occupied for 65 films.
A wiry, slender man, his face craggy and leathery from the wind and sun of a thousand locations, he had a gracefulness and agility that made him the acknowledged master of his craft. As the camera swooped and dipped across a set, balanced on a small platform, Mike would twist and pivot, gently shifting his balance from one leg to the next, his face glued to the eyepiece.
Liam Neeson once said: "It's incredible to see him at work, bent over the camera, be it 60ft high or racing along a track. It's as if the camera is an extension of his body".
Mike was also extremely brave. No matter if he was filming a Khmer Rouge explosion in The Killing Fields [1984 Directed by Roland Joffé photographed by Chris Menges BSC* Oscar win] hanging from a tank on Empire of the Sun [1987 Directed by Steve Spielberg photographed by Alan Daviau ASC* Oscar Nominated BAFTA Won], braving the lguazu falls on a raft on The Mission [1986 Directed by Roland Joffé photographed by Chris Menges BSC* Oscar win], or facing the collapsing walls of a burning church in Mississippi Burning [1988 Directed by Alan Parker photographed by Peter Biziou BSC* Oscar win], he never moved away from the camera eyepiece for one second.
Receiving his Balcon award, he generously thanked his long-time camera grip, Colin Manning, who, he said "has probably pushed me halfway round the world to get me here tonight". And all around the world was where Mike filmed, as he relentlessly and passionately worked on one film after another, often without a break, first choice, as he was, of directors world-wide.
The Producer, David Puttnam, remarked "If ever there was proof that film is a collaborative art form, then Mike is it." On every shot, he would interact with almost every member of the crew, and always with grace and calm professionalism.
He also had an extraordinary rapport with actors - being, as he was very often, the closest person to them on a film set. His gentle manner and unselfish technique (he never needed to ask for repeat takes because of the camera's imperfections, such was his skill) put great actors at ease, allowing them the freedom to be of their best.
Last week in the bars of Pinewood and Shepperton studios, the conversations were all about Mike, touching, as he had, the lives of three generations of film people. The sad news of his passing was attached to the call-sheets of the film in production. In many cases, filming literally stopped in Britain and abroad because crews were just too shocked and devastated to be able to work.
That a camera technician should have had this effect - not a movie star, director or producer, but an unpretentious, self-effacing brilliant man, who was never once known to raise his voice - is testament to the respect everyone had for Mike.
He is survived by his wife Eileen, his two daughters Danielle and Georgina, and his mother and sister.
Mike Roberts, film cameraman, born July 20 1939; died May 24 2000