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The Man Who Shot Oliver: An Interview with Cinematographer Ossie Morris

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By David A. Ellis.

The late notable cinematographer Oswald Norman Morris was born on 22nd November 1915 in Ruislip. Morris started his career as a clapper boy at Wembley Studios in 1932, making quota quickies, which were made in a week to meet the British quota. He was offered an unpaid job and the first film he worked on was Born Lucky, directed by Michael Powell. Unfortunately this film is now missing believed lost.

During WW2 Morris became a pilot in the RAF in bomber command and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943. After the war he went to Pinewood and operated on Green for Danger (1946). He operated for the late David Lean on Oliver Twist (1948), which he says was the pinnacle of his operating career. He said Lean quizzed him a lot at the beginning, which was good training. In 1997 Morris was given the OBE for services to cinematography and the film business. Also that year he became a doctor of humanities at Brunel University. His last film was The Dark Crystal, which he shot in 1981. He published his autobiography Huston We Have a Problem in 2006. Morris told me he often watches his movies on DVD, thinking, “Could I have done it better?” His brother, Reginald Herbert Morris was also a cinematographer. Oswald Morris passed away on the 17th March 2014 in Fontmell Magna, Dorset, UK.

Quota quickies were made in a week when you joined the industry, did it show on the screen?

The films were made very simply; they just didn’t have the equipment. Tracking shots took time, so directors were told to try and avoid them as much as possible. There were no elaborate sets and generally we only took one take. The film mainly consisted of dialogue in houses created in the studio. There was very little location work because of the expense and time. The cumbersome equipment was usually just panned and tilted.

What cameras did you work on in the early days?

The camera I operated on before the war was the Debrie Model T Parvo. After the war I went on to the American Mitchell camera and then went on to three-strip Technicolor. This camera was enormous with a huge blimp.

What were the hours you worked?

Before the war they were terrible hours. We started at eight in the morning on the quota quickies, working through until we went for the last train, which was midnight. After the war the hours were reasonable. The hours then were eight in the morning until six thirty at night on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and eight in the morning until six in the evening on Wednesday and Friday. On Saturday we worked from eight until four.

What did you do in the RAF?

I was a pilot. I was in bomber command, which was pretty horrible. Later, I was moved to transport command, which was better. After the war I went to Pinewood Studios. Four of us were put under contract as camera operators, which we were all doing before the war. During the war the studio had stored sugar and aircraft.

What was your first film as a director of photography?

ossie-2It was Golden Salamander (1950), directed by Ronald Neame. I’d known him before the war, operating for him at Wembley. He offered me the film, which I took with open arms. The location was Tunisia and I was told I wouldn’t be seeing the rushes. Being my first film as a director of photography I would have liked to have seen them. I was cabled from London, telling me what they looked like.

Did you learn a lot from Guy Green and Ronald Neame?

Oh yes, I watched them both very carefully, observing their techniques, and wanted to have a go myself. In the end I got the offer from Ronnie to photograph Golden Salamander. It was great having an ex cinematographer as a director because he saw the picture from the camera point of view and would give me interesting set ups to light. A director, who had come from a writing background, like a lot of them did, including Michael Powell, just saw it as a script. They didn’t appreciate the problems of getting it into a form we could photograph. That would have been very difficult on my first picture as a director of photography. Fortunately, I avoided that with Ronnie.

How much preparation was there before a shoot?

Preparation takes time. You have to tour the locations, give budgets for the lights and cameras you want, and talk with the director. Preparation is very important. Usually in my contract there was a deal made for me to be available, say a month before the film started, on a reduced fee, which gave me some spare time.

You shot the musical Oliver! (1968), would you tell me a bit about that?

Oliver! was the longest film I worked on, it was a monumental film. Musicals always take longer because of the sheer logistics. The music, choreography and dancing took time. Often a musical is split into two units. The choreographer will sometimes be allowed, with the director’s permission to supervise, with a second unit cameraman that I approve, some of the musical numbers, but only the musical numbers that don’t have the principle actors. If the principles are in the musical number, it is absolute law that the director goes out with me and we take over the unit to do these pieces. Having done those we will move back into the studio with the principles and let the choreographer and second unit cameraman go on filming. Even then it takes ages. Oliver! must have taken about twenty-six weeks to shoot. Logistically it was a massive project. The song “Consider Yourself” took around four weeks to get in the can. The entire film, except for about four shots, was filmed on the back lot, and in the studio at Shepperton.

What was it like working with Carol Reed?

Carol Reed could be very obstinate. He used to say, “yes” to everybody and everything. He did that with the actors as well. The actors never knew what was going on. They would just do their bit from the script that they had got. An actor would say to Carol “Where is so and so when I come to the door, and where do I look?” Carol would wave his hands saying, “Over there, over there somewhere.” Of course the actor didn’t know any more than he or she did before he’d asked the question. It was Carol’s way of controlling the actor, and he was brilliant at doing that. I knew half the time when he said “yes” he meant “no”.

As a director of photography did you advise the director on camera angles?

There were three types of director I worked with. There was the perfect one, who was very good at scripts, very good at handling actors and knew exactly the camera angles he wanted. All I had to do was to stand by him and give him the viewfinder at the end of each take. He then gave me the next set-up, told me what he wanted and we did it. Director two is the one that is brilliant with scripts and actors but hasn’t a clue where to put the camera. What he would normally do is rehearse the scene with the actors. He would then quietly turn to me and we would have a conversation. He would ask me how I think we should shoot it. I would then give an input into it. I would not shout it out. He would then ask for the viewfinder and say, “Right, we’ll do this.” The unit and the actors think he’s got the set-up, but I have told him. I didn’t mind that. All I was interested in was making a decent film. Director number three is the worst of all. They reckon they know it all, they are not good with actors and they take a script and never query it. They just ask for the viewfinder and stick the camera somewhere and turn it out without any imagination. You always try and get with good directors you respect. Occasionally you get a director who only does it for financial reasons.

What was it like working with the great Humphrey Bogart?

bogie-2He was as good as gold, no problem at all. You could sit and talk to him and call him Bogie – we all called him Bogie, even the camera crew. He loved it. The operator would say, “Bogie, can you move a bit to the right or left? Bogie, when you sit down, can you sit a bit slower so I can follow you? It’s a bit sharp.” He loved all that. Bogie always joked about people being made up. On the first day of shooting on Beat the Devil (1953), he came up to me and said, “How do I look?” I said, “Bogie you look fine.” He said, “ I put a little bit of tan on just to give me a bit of colour. You don’t mind that do you?” I said, “No it’s fine.” He and director John Huston liked their tipple in the evening and were great poker players. I kept well out of all that.

Were there any actors you preferred working with?

No, a cinematographers job is to light and make the actors look as good as possible. Directors are responsible for their performance; the cinematographer is responsible for their appearance on screen. Directors don’t want to know about performers looking good; they can’t be bothered with all that. All they are concerned with is their performance. The cast were usually very nervous because most, if not all, hadn’t worked with the director or myself before. I asked them if they had any hang-ups with their looks or something. I would have a signalling system with them so they would be photographed in the best way possible.

What was John Huston like to work with?

He was the most laid back man of all time. He spent most of his time in the production chair, chatting away. He had an aura and quality about him. The actors loved him. He could tame anybody, he really could.

Who decided if the film was to be colour, B/W or scope?

sheperton-jpgThe distributors had a contract with the production company before I joined the film. The production company and the distributors decided if it was to be in colour or not. As for scope it was usually between the director, the production company and maybe myself. It is mainly between the Production Company and director. If I felt it should be in scope, I would say to the director “Don’t you think we should have it in scope.” If he agreed we got it changed.

Did most actors get it right the first time?

They are all different. Some actors might say, “ I have a lot of dialogue and I am having great trouble with it. Will you tell your camera crew, if I get through it without stumbling over the furniture or fluffing my lines, I am only going to do it once.” That is fair comment. So I would tell the crew, “Whatever he or she is doing, follow them, even if they haven’t rehearsed it that way.” There are others who could do it several times, exactly the same. They vary. Some of them are very disciplined with their movements, particularly American trained actors. European performers are much more carefree. They may say, “What did you put that chalk mark on the floor for?” I’d say, We are hoping you are going to hit somewhere near it.” Some said, “I’ll never get near there.” I said, “ It is there if you need it and it gives us an idea. Just spare a thought for us, trying to follow you.” You joke about it, and in the end they do hit the mark.

Did you work with multiple cameras?

In my day all the top directors hated a second camera. They all wanted only one camera. This was because they believed, and rightly so in those days, that there was only one spot to put the camera for a particular scene. Nowadays it has all changed. It is multi camera, and they are floating around on very sophisticated rigs. Of course there is video assist now, and the cameras are a lot smaller. You wouldn’t believe the old antique things we had to work with. They now have lights I would have given my right arm for.

Did you ever want to be a director?

No, I never wanted to. I couldn’t have handled the fads and fancies of some of the actors. I could handle their looks because they knew I was doing my best to make them look good. I wouldn’t have dared handle some of the big names unless I’d directed ten or twelve pictures. They have got to respect you; otherwise they would tear you apart. I’ve seen directors destroyed by actors who ask so many silly questions and got the director completely bewildered.

Did you find the job difficult at times?

I photographed fifty-eight feature films. The first third of those was a struggle because every film is different. I have got to cope with style, exterior and interior problems. In my day we were switching from black and white to colour, so the first third were a sweat. Things settled down in the middle third because I knew the basic things about lighting. But you have got to do more than that eventually. It’s like advancing toward the enemy, then digging in before the next advance. The last third were the best. By then I felt free to do anything I wanted. I experimented and took chances. That is when things became very exciting.

Finally, were you sorry to give up cinematography?

Not really, it was a considered decision by me. I felt I was getting scripts I had done before. I felt I would be stale if I photographed them. I felt I wouldn’t give them the input and that my reputation would go down hill, so I cut off at the top. I was happy with everything I had done.

David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).

1 Comment for “The Man Who Shot Oliver: An Interview with Cinematographer Ossie Morris”

  1. Would you please let me have the price of a subscription to “The British Cinematographer Magazine”? For years in my early career I bought subscriptions for the American Cinematographer Magazine before there was a British equivalent.
    Yours sincerely,
    Tom Ingle, CSC, SASC retired.

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