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Behind every great director is a great cinematographer, and Jack Cardiff was one of the best. He invented new ways to use the camera to create such Technicolor masterpieces as "The Red Shoes." And his painterly use of light and color continues to influence filmmakers.

Pat Dowell reports on a new documentary about Cardiff called "Cameraman."

PAT DOWELL: Jack Cardiff spent 90 years in the movie business. He worked as cinematographer with such directors as Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. Martin Scorsese, who's a huge fan, says that all those films have a look that belongs to Jack Cardiff.

MARTIN SCORSESE: I think it goes back to Cardiff's love of painting. He had a special - I guess you would use the word expressionist - the sense of a storm of color like Turner. And I think he certainly excelled in color photography, there's no doubt, and he redefined it.

DOWELL: 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.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff")

JACK CARDIFF: Vermeer was the sort of painter I had in mind on "Black Narcissus" because the light had to be clear and as simple as possible.

DOWELL: The pink of the dawn sun begins to push back a greenish cast over the nuns' white-walled chapel, the mad night and the sane day still in struggle as the story comes to a crisis.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff")

CARDIFF: Any cameraman would get ideas from van Gogh and moods of light. Light is the principal agent, and that should be the same in photography, the use of light like a painter.

DOWELL: Cardiff was entirely self-taught in art and everything else. His parents were vaudevillians who moved all the time. They also worked as film extras. Jack's first movie job came as a 4-year-old actor in a silent film. He became an errand boy and eventually a cinematographer.

He was the only cameraman that the Technicolor Corporation chose to train in Britain. He 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.

THELMA SCHOONMAKER: He was just fun and delightful, wonderful sense of humor, but appreciating life, eating it up and always open to it.

DOWELL: 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," for instance...

SCHOONMAKER: 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 kinds 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: Cardiff invented a way to change the speed of the camera, to make a dancer pause imperceptibly at the top of a leap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: And he made a massive Technicolor camera, almost as big as a refrigerator, do handheld shots by mounting it on a bungee cord platform attached to the ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: In the late 1950s, Cardiff began directing. His greatest critical success was the 1960 black and white adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers." But after a dozen or so films, 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.

CRAIG MCCALL: I don't think he completely thought that he would never go back to directing. But the thing was he genuinely loved shooting.

DOWELL: And Cardiff shot everything from Agatha Christie's "Death on the Nile" to the second "Rambo" and the sequel "Conan the Destroyer." He worked long enough to see new technology usurp part of his job.

CARDIFF: When I was working, like on - pictures like on "Red Shoes" with all these effects, I wanted very much to do it myself, 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.

DOWELL: Jack Cardiff died in 2009, but his work continues to influence such directors as Martin Scorsese, who took inspiration from "The Red Shoes" for the boxing scenes in "Raging Bull." Scorsese says Cardiff's work is a benchmark.

SCORSESE: It seemed to be something that I always - how should I put it - oh, measured against. In other words, what am I going for here? You know, creating a sense of very lush color in a scene that otherwise would be rather drab. Maybe we should be provocative with the color here. And then whenever the provocative is mentioned, I automatically think first of those impressions made by the films that Jack Cardiff photographed.

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

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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