12/1/1929 – 14/6/2007
ALEX THOMSON BSC
In both the figurative and literal sense, Alex Thomson, was a cinematographer's cinematographer. Admired by his peers, he was chosen by the celebrated cinematographer Nicholas Roeg as his director of photography when Roeg turned to directing.
The two self-indulgent but visually haunting Roeg-directed films that Thomson photographed were Eureka (1983) and Track 29 (1988). He first met Roeg in the early 1960s, when they worked together on a number of prestigious British films, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), on which Roeg was a second-unit cameraman and Thomson a camera operator. Thomson continued in the same capacity with Roeg (now Dop) on Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).
Thomson's progress from a 17-year-old clapper boy at Denham studios in 1946 to camera operator 14 years later - and finally director of photography in 1967 - was a classic one in the British film industry. Born in London, the son of a Bond Street tailor, he was deaf in one ear as a result of surgery for a mastoid problem in childhood. His great forte was to use subtle lighting to show up and accentuate the decor of a movie.
For his first film as director of photography, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), a mod romance set in swinging 60s Stevenage, the director Clive Donner got Thomson to make the new town look like Carnaby Street, with psychedelic effects and glossy sequences à la Blow-Up. David Hemmings, the lead in the latter film, had the title role in Donner's commercially disastrous Alfred the Great (1969), set in a 9th-century England well evoked by Thomson's camera.
But Thomson had little chance to shine, given the low quality of the British movies he was commissioned to do, though Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972 Directed by Robert Fuest), a Vincent Price comedy shocker, was appropriately garish. His status was on the point of being raised in 1973, when he was hired to shoot Jesus Christ Superstar (Directed by Norman Jewison) for Universal Pictures. Unhappily, during the first week of filming, he fell off the camera rostrum, seriously injuring himself. He was replaced by Douglas Slocombe, who went on to win the best cinematography award of the British Society of Cinematographers for the film.
Although it was some years before Thomson recovered fully, he went one better by winning the award twice: for Tony Scott's airy-fairy tale Legend (1985) and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996). But it was John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), for which Thomson was Oscar-nominated, that put him in the first league of directors of photography. This spectacular sword-and-sorcery tale was stunning to look at, despite an excessive use of soft focus and fog.
Branagh's Hamlet was Thomson's first experience with 70mm. The producer David Barron explained why he brought him in. "I always felt very strongly," he explained, "that on a film of this nature, acting and directing is quite enough to worry about. [Branagh] needed someone who would support him entirely on the lighting side ... I knew we could rely on Alex's wealth of knowledge and experience."
According to Thomson, "The fabulous advantage of 70mm is the sharpness of detail it gives, which can look three-dimensional at times. This film has glorious sets and costumes, and the widescreen format really brings them out."
Thomson, whose last feature was Branagh's brightly lit Hollywood musical version of Love's Labour's Lost (2000), is survived by his wife Diana Golding and daughter Chyna Thomson, herself a camera operator.
Ronald Bergan – The Guardian