The Work Of Jack Cardiff, Technicolor Master

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The Red Shoes, one of Cardiff's Technicolor masterpieces, starred Moira Shearer as a dancer torn between art and love. i

The Red Shoes, one of Cardiff's Technicolor masterpieces, starred Moira Shearer as a dancer torn between art and love. George Cannon/ITV Global hide caption

itoggle caption George Cannon/ITV Global
The Red Shoes, one of Cardiff's Technicolor masterpieces, starred Moira Shearer as a dancer torn between art and love.

The Red Shoes, one of Cardiff's Technicolor masterpieces, starred Moira Shearer as a dancer torn between art and love.

George Cannon/ITV Global

Jack Cardiff was one of the most honored and admired cameramen of the 20th century — the first cinematographer to be awarded an honorary Oscar (in 2000) for his life's work. Cardiff invented new ways to use the camera to create Technicolor masterpieces such as The Red Shoes. And his painterly use of light and color continues to influence many filmmakers, as shown in a new documentary about him called Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.

Cardiff spent 90 years in the movie business. As a cinematographer he worked with such directors as Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. Martin Scorsese, who is a huge fan, says that all those films with illustrious directors have a look that belongs uniquely to Cardiff.

In 2001, Cardiff, shown here with actor Dustin Hoffman, won an honorary Oscar. He was the first cinematographer ever to be given the award for lifetime achievement. i

In 2001, Cardiff, shown here with actor Dustin Hoffman, won an honorary Oscar. He was the first cinematographer ever to be given the award for lifetime achievement. Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images
In 2001, Cardiff, shown here with actor Dustin Hoffman, won an honorary Oscar. He was the first cinematographer ever to be given the award for lifetime achievement.

In 2001, Cardiff, shown here with actor Dustin Hoffman, won an honorary Oscar. He was the first cinematographer ever to be given the award for lifetime achievement.

Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images

"I think it goes back to Cardiff's love of painting, of course," says Scorsese. "He had a special — I guess you would use the word 'expressionist' — sense of a storm of color like Turner. And I think he certainly excelled in color photography, there is no doubt. And he redefined it."

Cardiff won an Oscar for the lush, atmospheric color and light he created for the 1947 film Black Narcissus. It's about a group of Anglican nuns trying to cope with the unruly beauty of the Himalayas. In the new documentary, Cardiff describes how he created mountain atmosphere on a studio back lot, guided by his favorite painters.

"Vermeer was the sort of painter that I had in mind on Black Narcissus, because the light had to be clear and as simple as possible," Cardiff says, his comments illustrated in the documentary by a scene from Black Narcissus that shows the white-walled chapel of the nuns. The incessant wind blows, and a bell at the edge of a dizzying cliff tolls the dawn hour of prayer. The pink of the coming sun begins to push back a greenish cast that lies over the chapel walls, as though the mad night and the sane day still struggle. The story is coming to a crisis, the movement and mood expressed by Cardiff's use of color.

Cardiff says the green hue in contrast with the pink was inspired by Van Gogh. "Any cameraman would get ideas from Van Gogh and moods of light. Light is the principal agent. That should be the same in photography, that the use of light is like a painter — that you use it in a simple form."

Cardiff was entirely self-taught in art and everything else. His parents were vaudevillians who moved all the time, so young Jack never attended by his count more than 300 schools and "never learned a thing." His parents also worked as film extras, and Jack's first movie job came as a 4-year-old actor in a silent film in 1918. In his teens, he became an errand boy, working his way up to camera operator and eventually cinematographer, in charge of the lighting and technical aspects of the film in collaboration with the director. He was the only cameraman that the Technicolor Corp. chose to train in Britain; people there were were impressed that he knew which side of the face Rembrandt liked to light. Cardiff learned Technicolor's many rules, then promptly ignored them when he went to work with the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s.

Thelma Schoonmaker is Martin Scorsese's film editor and the widow of Michael Powell; she got to know Jack Cardiff when he was in his 80s. "He was just fun and what a delightful sense of humor, but appreciating life and just eating it up and always open to it."

Jack Cardiff with a Technicolor camera. i

Jack Cardiff with a Technicolor camera. Courtesy of the Jack Cardiff archive hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Jack Cardiff archive
Jack Cardiff with a Technicolor camera.

Jack Cardiff with a Technicolor camera.

Courtesy of the Jack Cardiff archive

Audio Extras

Listen to more from interviews with Craig McCall and Thelma Schoonmaker

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She says her husband knew that Cardiff wasn't afraid to jump off the diving board with him into unknown territory. In The Red Shoes (1948) for instance, Powell and Cardiff depicted ballet in a radical new way, Schoonmaker says, "designing a ballet in which the dancers are not on a stage or a proscenium framing but they're flying through the air, and all kind of wild and crazy things are going on. Because they're capturing in the film the feelings of a dancer and what it feels like, and particularly a dancer in love."

To give the audience this new experience of what dance feels like to the dancer, Cardiff invented a way to change the speed of the camera, to make a dancer pause almost imperceptibly at the top of a leap, to float free for a moment, as it were.

And he made the massive Technicolor camera, almost as big as a refrigerator, do hand-held shots, by mounting it on a bungee cord platform attached to the ceiling and then swinging it around to capture the whirling excitement of bodies in motion.

In the late 1950s Cardiff began to direct films. He'd made one abortive attempt to direct with the help of Errol Flynn, who wanted to make a movie about the legend of William Tell. That had failed in midshoot when the principal financier turned out to have no money after all.

Cardiff persevered in his ambition to direct. Always game for innovation, he directed Scent of Mystery (1959), an early "smellie" that featured real odors in the theater.

Then Cardiff had a great critical success in 1960 with an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. It earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Cardiff's direction. It won the Oscar for Freddie Francis's black-and-white cinematography. Cardiff had a box-office hit and cult item in Girl on a Motorcycle, starring pop icon Marianne Faithfull, in 1968. But after directing a dozen or so films in the increasingly sickly British film industry, Cardiff went back on the payroll for other directors as cinematographer. The new documentary's director, Craig McCall, says Cardiff didn't seem to mind.

"I don't think he completely thought he would never go back to directing, you know. But the thing was, he genuinely loved shooting," says McCall.

And Cardiff proceeded to shoot 21 more movies, everything from Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile to the second Rambo (during which Sylvester Stallone dared to instruct him where to put the camera and then had to apologize). Cardiff also shot the Arnold Schwarzenegger sequel Conan the Destroyer. He worked long enough to see new technology usurp part of his job.

"When I was working on pictures like The Red Shoes with all these effects, I wanted very much to do it myself," recalls Cardiff in an interview in Cameraman, "even if it meant breathing on the lens to have a fade-in through mist, or whatever. But nowadays, anything that comes up, like a shot is going to be made which is really fantastic, they said, Jack don't worry about that; special effects will do that. So I always felt a bit left in the lurch."

Watch the trailer for Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

It was toward the end of Cardiff's working life that he met Craig McCall, an independent filmmaker who happened to be at the same studio while Cardiff was directing a 1991 television documentary about Vivaldi's Four Seasons. As a child McCall had loved one of the films Cardiff shot for Powell, called A Matter of Life and Death, a 1946 fantasy about a British wartime pilot about to crash and caught up in a heavenly tribunal. McCall spent more than a decade interviewing Cardiff and the directors, actors, and crews with whom he worked and with those who admired him, like Scorsese. The film includes Cardiff's home movies on the sets of films he shot, and a segment on the photographic portraits that Cardiff took of his most famous actresses: Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe, who declared Cardiff the best cameraman in the world. "Some people collect stamps," Cardiff says with an impish smile in the film. "I collect women."

McCall also patiently waited to get clips from the restored versions of Cardiff's films, until he was finally able to release this documentary. Schoonmaker says, "Craig has been amazingly dedicated to this project, and was always with Jack. This film is a remarkable act of devotion, and it was very hard for him to get it finished, but he did."

Cardiff got to see a version of the documentary before he died in 2009, and his work continues to influence such directors as Scorsese, who took inspiration from The Red Shoes for the boxing scenes in Raging Bull. Scorsese says Cardiff's work is a benchmark.

"It seemed to be something that I always, how should I put it, measured against," says Scorsese. "In other words, what am I going for here? Or creating a sense of very lush color in a scene that otherwise would be rather drab. First of all, does it call for that, and if it doesn't, maybe it should. And maybe we should be provocative with the color here, and whenever the provocative is mentioned, I automatically think first of those impressions made by the films that Jack Cardiff photographed."

Films in which Jack Cardiff, as Scorsese once wrote, taught the camera to be as supple as a painter's brush.

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