23/3/1925 – 19/2/2008
DAVID WATKIN Hon BSC
Watkin was born in Margate, Kent, England, the fourth and youngest son of a Roman Catholic solicitor father and homemaker mother, and grew up within a well-to-do upper-middle class household. He gained an early enthusiasm for European classical music, which was left to be satisfied only as a passive listener when his father rejected his request for a piano and lessons; Watkin always contended that he would rather have been a professional musician than a cinematographer.
After a brief period in the Army during World War II, Watkin started work at the Southern Railway Film Unit in 1948 as a messenger boy and subsequently a camera assistant.
Watkin: ““…my uncle Laurie found that there was a small unit of four people making documentary and training films in the nether regions of Waterloo Station, well beneath the notice of a trade union. My father set up his Blickensderfer (the oldest typewriter in the world) on our dining-room table and dashed off a letter to the company chairman. “I can get you in there” he said, “you might as well learn something while you are waiting”. I think it was the first time I saw him put himself out for me, and was really touched by it.
[The Southern Railway film unit under Basil Sangster made a total of nineteen films from 1941 till 1948 varying in subject matter from fuel economy in Black Diamonds 1946 to a film about the Southern Railways hotel service called Services Rendered 1948, this appears to be the last film made by the unit for the Southern Railway.]
” I realised fairly quickly that in actual fact the best department to belong to was the camera department because they seemed to have more opportunities for fun rather than being stuck in the cutting room or being an assistant director which meant just paying for everybody else’s tea and keeping accounts which I am very bad at. So I opted for the camera department very early.”
“[Due to Nationalisation of the rail service in 1949,] the day finally came when we left the arches below Waterloo station forever and became absorbed into the new organisation (British Transport Films). What for me was a springboard into the future was sadly not so regarded by any of the others to whom it was an unwelcome intrusion into their world. They refused to oblige the union (Association of Cinema Technicians) by joining its ranks, displaying at the same time an admirable independence and an astonishing lack of common sense. In accordance with the Act of Parliament (Transport 1947) they neither lost nor were obliged to change their jobs; the jobs simply became backwaters within the organisation.
David eventually left British Transport Films and was at the mercy of freelance work. It was the start of his prolific career shooting commercials.
Hugh Hudson: ”As a cinematographer, David Watkin had a very rare, almost unique, quality – he was both a craftsman and an innovative artist. Furthermore, added to the visual brilliance that one would expect, he had serious literary and musical abilities and was possessed of an abundance of taste.
Working with David was an eccentric and a joyous experience. His passion for life knew no bounds: when you sat down with him at lunchtime in the studio commissary or on location, it was not about the film or the cinema that he spoke, but music or books . . . usually with a smattering of some wicked gossip. On location, you might find him absent-mindedly wandering towards the town museum, or walking through the local church or cathedral. This was unusual among film camera technicians, who are normally only interested in film gossip, or the food.
When I began to work in film in 1963, I looked for someone who understood values beyond just photography, and David, who had just left a permanent job making documentaries for British Transport Films, came into my life. He became my first cameraman, and taught me all I know about cameras and lenses and lighting technique.”
“When I finally got the chance to make my first long film, Chariots of Fire, in 1980, who but David could possibly photograph it? To add another dimension to the slow-motion athletic sequences, he came up with a novel way of photographing running. Normally, the shutter is at 180 degrees. David decided to run the film through the camera with a shutter closed down to 10 degrees. The impression was of images taken at 1/800th of a second. The result is that every drop of water is sharp as the athletes run along the beach, and their hair and limbs are better resolved, so without really knowing what you have experienced, a realistic and unusually exhilarating feeling of energy is created. It is why the opening of the film on the beach is so compelling and blends so perfectly with Vangelis's music.” David was nominated for an Oscar.
“In Cammell-Hudson, our company in the early Sixties, was the brilliant American designer Robert Brownjohn ("BJ") who was commissioned to make the titles for two James Bond films – Goldfinger and From Russia with Love. BJ and David produced a stunning opening sequence of a voluptuous lady covered in gold paint from head to toe, onto which was projected the moving type of the main credits.”
It was on a commercial shoot that he met Richard Lester, who hired him for his feature film, The Knack …and How to Get It (1965) - David’s first feature film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The two men subsequently worked together on Help! (1965), How I Won the War (1967), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974), Robin and Marian (1976) and Cuba (1979).
Watkin's other credits included The Charge of the Light Brigade, which he photographed in 1968 for Tony Richardson. The film was set in the 1850s, the earliest period setting in which photography existed. Roger Fenton's photographs of the Crimean War arc well known." To approximate the quality of Fenton's work, Watkin rounded up a complete set of Ross Express lenses. These were the first lenses he had encountered on entering the documentary side of the industry in 1948.
Watkin: "They had been around since the early 1930s," Watkin explains, "and had a very beautiful and gentle quality to them. Also, they carried no coating or blooming, so that there would occur light refraction within the elements of the lens itself. When you put a net, a diffuser, or a fog filter in front of a lens it is an overall dead thing you are seeing through - whereas, inside the Ross lenses were constantly alive, giving rise sometimes to the most wonderful accidents. And accidents (of the right sort) are always the best things in photography."
For Franco Zeffirelli, David shot Jesus Of Nazareth (1977), made for television with his fellow cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi. Later David would shoot Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini (1999).
He was noted for his very casual approach; when asked when he first developed a passion for photography, he answered that he hadn't yet (his main passions being classical music and books). However, filmmaking did have an attraction because, as he said, "I knew filmmakers didn't have to wear a suit".
He also has a rather famous habit of sleeping on-set in between lighting setups, because "it's the only thing you can do on-set which doesn't make you more tired". This habit was humorously referenced in Night Falls on Manhattan (1997 Directed by Sydney Lumet), which he shot, where he has a brief cameo towards the beginning as a sleeping judge. In the case of the film of Marat/Sade (1967 Directed by Peter Brook), problems with a tight shooting schedule and restricted set space were innovatively resolved through the use of one single lighting set-up for the entirety of the film – a translucent wall lit by twenty-six 10 kW lamps as the sole source of light.
He was generally recognised for the "painterly qualities" in his work with some critics comparing him with Vermeer, the Dutch artist "who often illuminated his subjects with light refracted through windows".
He photographed Yentl (1983 Directed by Barbra Streisand for whom it was her directorial debut.) When Sydney Pollack was about to shoot Out of Africa Pollack asked Streisand for her opinion of Watkin. She said, “He’ll drive you nuts but the work will be ravishing!” David won the Oscar, BAFTA and BSC Best cinematography awards for the film.
Watkin conceived the idea for a new light which would tackle the problem of light falloff during night shoots. Because of the inverse square law, light from even moderately strong sources starts to fall off fairly quickly as the subject walks away from the light source. Therefore, films shooting at night had the problem of trying to hide light sources in places which would be out of shot but maintain a fairly constant level of illumination over any amount of distance (and thus not indicate a large lamp as a light source).
His solution was to build a large array of tightly spaced Fay lights in a 14 x 14 square (196 lights total), which was then elevated 150 feet (46 m) high on a cherry picker placed roughly a quarter of a mile away. Due to the long distance between the light and the actors and the high luminescence of this light array, the actors could walk across long distances without the intensity of the light hitting them seeming to vary. Subsequently, the array was named the "Wendy-light" in his honour – Watkin, who was gay, was known affectionately to the electrical crew as “Wendy.”
David Watkin led a relatively quiet life in his adopted home town of Brighton, East Sussex, when he wasn't working on a "picture". He was highly regarded as a cultured and intellectual man, with an outrageously irreverent sense of humour, and a great love of classical music and literature. He had a most impressive personal library of mostly First Edition 18th Century literature.
David Watkin died, aged 82, at his home in Sussex Mews, Brighton on 19 February 2008, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer just six months previously. He was survived by his civil partner Nick Hand.
David Watkin’s other notable credits:
CATCH-22 (1970 directed by Mike Nichols)
THE DEVILS (1971 Directed by Ken Russell)
THE BOY FRIEND (1971 Directed by Ken Russell)
JOSEPH ANDREWS (1977 Directed by Tony Richardson)
WHITE NIGHTS (1985 Directed by Taylor Hackford)
MOONSTRUCK (1987 Directed by Norman Jewison)
MEMPHIS BELLE (1990 Directed by Michael Caton-Jones)
HAMLET (1990 Directed by Franco Zeffirelli)
THIS BOY’S LIFE (1993 Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
[Phil Meheux BSC & Various sources]