18.3.1919 - 31.5.2012
CHRISTOPHER CHALLIS BSC
Christopher Challis was a distinguished cinematographer on more than 70 feature films, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965 directed by Ken Annakin) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1969 directed by Ken Hughes).
In 1967 he won a BAFTA for his cinematography on Arabesque (1966), one of several films he shot with the American director, Stanley Donen, in which he photographed Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in a dazzling style, which emphasised treacherous changes of focus and restless re-angling of the camera. Handling Cary Grant was not much easier, and Challis described the actor as an archetypal “old woman”.
Some problems were insurmountable. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when the producer Cubby Broccoli was dismayed to find that Dick Van Dyke was gap-toothed, Challis was at a loss to offer a photographic solution, and could suggest only a visit to a dentist.
Challis earned three further BAFTA nominations, for The Victors (1963 directed by Carl Foreman), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Deep (1977 directed by Peter Yates). For The Deep, another aquatic thriller by the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, and shot in the Virgin Islands and Bermuda, Challis underwent a diving crash course to shoot the stricken hulk of a mail steamer, sunk some 80 years before. The technical problems Challis faced multiplied on SOS Titanic (1979 directed by Billy Hale), on which the American producers offered him a rusting Isle of Man ferry to pass off as the doomed White Star liner.
Challis was born in Kensington on March 18, 1919. His father was an engineer and car designer, and his mother was French. On leaving King’s College School, Wimbledon, he was offered a job as a trainee assistant in the camera department at Gaumont British News.
[Ossie Morris OBE BSC: “He got £1 per week. His job was to keep the crews well serviced with tea and buns, keep an account of money he spent and record all this in a special book that listed expenses for all Newsreel Cameramen. This had to be approved before the company reimbursed him. They queried every penny!!”]
With the advent of colour, he moved to Technicolor to work as camera loader on Wings of the Morning (1936 directed by Harold D. Schuster) the first Technicolor film shot in Europe and became the company’s first British trainee. His first location picture was The Drum (1938 directed by Zoltan Korda and photographed by Osmond Borradaile and Georges Périnal), shot in India, and he was a camera assistant on all the travelogues shot by Jack Cardiff OBE BSC for the World Windows company. One of these, The Eternal Fire, about Vesuvius and Pompeii, won several awards.
On the outbreak of war Challis joined the RAF and then, in 1941, the Film Production Unit, working as a cameraman in North Africa, France, Holland, Germany and the Azores.
[Ossie Morris OBE BSC: “He flew in the front gun turret of heavy bombers complete with camera to photograph operations over Germany and I was doing likewise flying these monsters.
At the end of the war Pinewood Studios were given back to the industry as during the war the stages were used as storage for such items as sugar and suchlike. In E stage I believe they even stored Albermarle aircraft by removing their wings and storing them on their noses!! As an incentive to get the studios moving back into film making, they offered 2 year contracts to 4 Camera Operators who had worked in the Industry before the war and that is where I [Ossie Morris] first met Chris. He and I were two of the four, the others being Ernie Steward and Skeets Kelly. Chris was attached to the Michael Powell Group as they were shooting in Technicolor and I joined Cineguild, the David Lean/Ronnie Neame/Noel Coward group.”]
He worked as camera operator on several films for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger before making his debut as director of photography on The End of the River (1947 directed by Derek Twist), shot on location in Brazil and at Pinewood studios. The following year he was camera operator under Jack Cardiff on The Red Shoes, volunteering for demotion to work on the film.
He was cinematographer on most of Powell and Pressburger’s later films, including The Small Back Room (1949); The Elusive Pimpernel (1950); The Tales of Hoffmann (1951); and Ill Met by Moonlight (1957).
Challis rose to any challenge set by a director with confidence, spirit, imagination and daring. On Riddle of The Sands (1979 directed by Tony Maylam), for example, he drew on his own experience of sailing to find a way to fit cameras and equipment into the rigging of a small boat because there was no room on deck. With the camera operator and director suspended aloft, Challis, pipe in mouth, looked on, very much the sailor at ease in his surroundings.
He was a founding member and president of the British Society of Cinematographers from 1962 to 1964.
In his memoirs Are They Really So Awful? (1995) Challis reflected on his jaded views about the modern film-making business. By the time he retired “movies had lost their 'magic’ for the audiences and for me too. The public had been transported to the ends of the earth on the magic celluloid carpet and had seen it all.”
BAFTA hosted a tribute lunch for him in 2011 and presented him with a special award.
The Daily Telegraph/Oswald Morris OBE BSC/ Phil Méheux BSC