Freddie Francis BSC - Cinematographer/Director
22.12.1917 – 17.3.2007
FREDDIE FRANCIS BSC
Francis was born in Islington, north London, and studied engineering at technical school but realising that the chances of building bridges was minimal, he pursued his interests in photography and cinema, and got himself apprenticed to stills photographer Louis Prothero, for whom he set up lighting and carried 10in x 8in cameras. Through a friend of his father, he then got a job as a clapper boy at Elstree studios, graduating to loader and focus puller at Gaumont-British.
During the second world war, he was assigned to the ARMY KINEMATOGRAPH SERVICE and on demobilisation became a camera operator at Denham studios, working on such films as Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949), Gone to Earth (1950), Tales of Hoffman (1951), The Illusive Pimpernel (1950), The Wild Heart (1952), Affair in Monte Carlo (1952), Angles One Five (1952) and Twice Upon a Time (1953) all with Chris Challis BSC as DP plus Outcast of the Islands (1951 Directed by Carol Reed, photographed by Ted Scaife BSC and John Wilcox BSC). Then came John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952) and Beat The Devil (1953) with Ossie Morris at the cinematography helm. In 1954 he operated on René Clement's Knave of Hearts, Bernard Bernhardt's Beau Brummel and Moby Dick (1956) again all photographed by Ossie Morris OBE BSC. On the latter he became second unit director and cinematographer which led to his first feature as director of photography on A Hill in Korea, (1956 Directed by Julian Amyes) Michael Caine's debut movie.
Many other notable movies followed including Room At The Top (1959 Directed by Jack Clayton –Oscar for Best Picture), Sons and Lovers (1960 Directed by Jack Cardiff for which Francis received his first Oscar for Cinematography) – the seminal work Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960 Directed by Karel Reisz – won BAFTA Award best film) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961 – BAFTA nomination Best Film) after which Francis turned to direction, partly because he wanted to direct and partly, he said, because as a cinematographer if one wasn't constantly working one didn't earn enough - and he didn't want to have to work with directors for whom he had no regard. Aside from Karel Reisz's Night Must Fall in 1964, Francis did not return to cinematography until 1980.
In 1962 he directed Two and Two Make Six, an innocuous little comedy ("I decided to do a film with a script I didn't much like. Stupidly, I thought that I could make a good movie anyway. But, of course, you can't"). This was followed by some uncredited scenes in The Day of the Triffids, including special effects, and then The Brain (1963), the first of his titles shot in two-language versions (English and German).
The first movie in which Francis exhibited his undoubted directing talent was the Hammer horror, Paranoiac (1962), whose success brought him more projects from Hammer Studios, and later Amicus, which he took up to build his reputation. Unfortunately, in doing so he became typecast as a horror director, a genre for which he said he had no particular affinity; he never even watched horror films. Francis's technique was probably the equal of the great horror director, Terence Fisher, who was working at Hammer at the same time, but his output was inconsistent, ranging from the very good to the execrable, and he never quite got under the skin of the stories and characters.
Some of the films, such as The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), were unsuccessful at every level, but Nightmare (1963) and Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1964) saw Francis more nearly on form, as did The Skull and The Psychopath (both 1965), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Tales from the Crypt (1971), The Creeping Flesh (1972) - notable for one of Peter Cushing's best performances - and The Ghoul (1975), which was produced by Francis's son, Kevin. He also occasionally wrote and directed under the pseudonym of Ken Barnett.
Francis attributed much of his success - probably rightly - to the fact that "[most of the films that I do] are 99% visual ... these so-called psychological thrillers depend on the ability to tell one's stories with the camera." He considered The Skull was one of his best. But there were also some disastrous productions; indeed, his last films did not get a proper release at all.
As a result, aside from directing The Doctor and the Devils (1985), Francis returned full time to his first love, cinematography, shooting, in stunning black and white, David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980 – BSC Best Cinematography award, BAFTA Nomination).
He re-established his reputation with Karel Reisz's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981 - BSC Best Cinematography award, BAFTA Nomination), Edward Zwick's Glory (1989), for which he won his second Oscar for cinematography, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991). He also shot two television movies, The Executioner's Song (1982) and David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre (1993). His last cinematographer credit was David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) at age 82 which won the New York Film Critics Circle award for cinematography and nominated for the Golden Frog at Camerimage,
Francis's achievements as a director, variable as they were, did not go unnoticed by his peers: Scorsese is quoted as saying that he wanted him to photograph Cape Fear (1991 – BAFTA Nominated for cinematography) because "the main thing was Freddie's understanding of the concept of the gothic atmosphere ... He understands the obligatory scene of a young maiden with a candle walking down a long hall towards a door. 'Don't go in that door!' you yell, and she goes in! Every time, she goes in! So I say to him, 'This has to look like The Hall,' and he understands that."
One has only to look at, for instance, The Ghoul (1975 directed by Freddie Francis, photographed by John Wilcox BSC) to see what Scorsese meant. Francis's desire to shoot the film came from his memory of the atmosphere of the original 1962 version. "Anybody can photograph a film - you can just put lights on and make an exposure. I want the challenge of creating an atmosphere and the right frame for the director."
As a photographer, Francis considered he had three mentors - the great cameraman Freddie Young directors, John Huston and Michael Powell. His career involved a relatively high degree of black and white filming; to some extent, his reputation was founded on it, and he once said he really didn't know anything about colour. "I still photograph things in black and white, but the fact that it's colour stock means they come out in colour. I know that sounds rather facetious ... but I prefer to think in terms of light and shade than in colour."
He saw his role as cameraman as of being one of service to a director: in his young days, he said, he heard too many cameramen tell directors they could not produce the effect that was wanted: Francis always produced whatever was required, only warning the director that it might take a little longer.
He rarely discussed the look of films with directors, since he tried to work only with colleagues who were on his wavelength; as he put it, he would read a script and it would already be photographed in his mind.
In later years, he felt that the lenses became too sharp - "all the magic is gone today" - and he hated special effects. Asked in a Guardian interview in 1995 how he learned his craft, he replied, "By doing it".
Sheila Whittaker – The Guardian/Edit Phil Méheux