Work Through All the Fun and Rubbish: An Interview with Cinematographer Chris Challis
By David A. Ellis.
Christopher Challis was born in Kensington, London on the 18th March 1919. His father was a motorcar designer and Challis was privately educated at Kings College in London.
His first taste of the movie business was working for Gaumont British in their newsreel department. He was a founding member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC). He was their president from 1962-1964. He was also a member of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS). His films include: Sink the Bismarck (1960), A Shot in the Dark (1964), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Arabesque (1966) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). His daughter Sarah Challis is a novelist. Christopher Challis passed away on 31st May 2012, aged 93.
How did you get into the film business?
My father knew a man by the name of Castleton-Knight. He was the managing director of Gaumont British News. I wanted to get into the film business in any shape or form. I had shot 16mm film with a Bell and Howell camera I had been given by a friend of my father. No doubt my father had given Castleton-Knight a glowing report on what I called wretched films, which I had made at school. Knight said send Christopher along and I will look at the films. I went to see him at Film House in Wardour Street, London, where their newsreel was based. I took a projector and showed them to him. He was noncommittal but I got a job.
I spent my first year running errands. I would occasionally touch a camera and follow focus when they needed an extra person.
What equipment was used?
For wild shooting (non sound) there was the Debrie, Newman Sinclair and Bell and Howell, which were clockwork driven. Some of the cameras were hand cranked. Vinton cameras were used for a lot of the sound shooting.
How long did you work for Gaumont British News?
About eighteen months. I heard that Technicolor, which was in its infancy was coming to England to make a film called Wings of the Morning (1937). Up until then they had only made about half a dozen films in America. The film was to be made at Denham Studios and on location in Ireland. I took my courage in my hands and went down to Denham and asked for a job. I got a job as a loader and my visions of being on the studio floor mixing with the stars didn’t happen. I worked in the darkroom loading three black and white negatives, which ran side by side in the Technicolor camera. The magazines were enormous, great heavy things, because to produce a thousand feet you had three thousand.
Technicolor came over lock, stock and barrel and brought the cameras with them. If you made a Technicolor film, you had to use their cameras, because they were designed and built by them and they had to process the film. After shooting the cameras went back to Technicolor where they were serviced and returned the next day. At that time they liked their own camera people, if possible because they were trained to light a certain way.
Technicolor colours seemed to be vivid, why was this?
They need not have been. Everything had been made in Hollywood, and they were used to bright sunlight and bright colours. It could be very muted. In fact, you had enormous control, which you didn’t have with Eastmancolor. In the early days, Eastman wasn’t very successful because it was a negative/positive process.
How long did you work for Technicolor?
It was right up until the outbreak of war. I then went into the RAF as a cameraman. After the war I went back into the studios and worked on A Matter of Life and Death (1946) for Michael Powell.
What was your first film as a director of photography?
My first film as a director of photography was End of the River (1947). After I had finished it they were preparing for the film Red Shoes (1948), which had Jack Cardiff as the director of photography. I love ballet and wanted to work on the film. I worked on it as a camera operator.
What was it like working with Vistavision?
I hated it. I first worked with it on The Battle of the River Plate (1956). It was originally going to be shot in Cinemascope but Rank had a quarrel with them. Vistavision required a special camera because the film ran horizontally. The cameras were awful and badly designed. It was called the Lazy 8 camera because it had eight perforations to the frame. I was glad to see the back of Vistavision; I thought it was poorly produced and the camera was difficult to handle. I shot one more film in the process, which was Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). This was a black and white film and it was hard working in some of the locations, which involved mountain work. This was because of the camera, which was difficult and heavy.
So you were glad to get back to the Mitchell and Panavision cameras?
I was glad to get back to the Panavision camera, which was wonderful, because it had all the good points of the Mitchell plus the direct look through. It was designed in consultation with cameramen. I thought the Panavision equipment was excellent. Mechanically the Mitchell was excellent, but they didn’t seem to liase very much with the people that had to use them.
What was it like working with Michael Powell and Billy Wilder?
I loved working with Michael Powell. He was a hard taskmaster and could be unkind. He was out to judge people, I think pretty quickly. Once he had made his decision he never altered it. If he didn’t like you for one reason or another it was best to leave. On the other hand with the people he liked and respected, he was wonderful and was very loyal. He was one of those people that liked to be challenged. He liked people to stand up to him, and most people ran away. He had a desk on the set with a secretary. Having lined up a shot he left you to get on with it. He came back with a list of things he wanted to do. This was circulated so suggestions could be made.
Billy Wilder was very tough with actors. He didn’t allow any individual interpretation. What was in the script is what they had to say and was a wonderful director. He shot long takes, and didn’t cover. He didn’t shoot anything he didn’t use. Another one like Wilder was Carol Reed. He was like a watchmaker, he knew exactly what he was going to use and how he was going to use it in the final cut. So you shot very little extra.
Would you tell me a bit about working on 65mm?
It wasn’t much different from working on 35mm except you needed more light because you had the same problem with depth of focus you had with Vistavision. You needed to stop down more in order to get the same depth of focus. I worked on 65mm Mitchell cameras and was a director of photography on two 65mm productions. The first was Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), followed by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). It was fun on both films. Magnificent Men was difficult because of the process work. We didn’t have the sophisticated things they have today. We used a lot of travelling matte, which entailed a lot of problems, including depth of focus. The special effects were never easy in those days because we didn’t have computers. You had to do it for real, so you always had problems with wires showing. Wires had to be painted to hide them.
You worked with Richard Burton on Villain (1971). What was he like on that?
I always got on with him. If he wasn’t ready to shoot, through drink, there was nothing I could do about it. Sometimes he couldn’t remember his lines. It was a tragedy really because he was a wonderful actor. It didn’t show on the screen because we had to shoot round it or not use him when he was in that sort of state.
Did you have a favourite director?
I liked working with Stanley Donen and Michael Powell, not because they were the best directors. They were ardent filmmakers and fun to work with. They were very creative, and they both had a very good visual sense, which made it very interesting from a cameraman’s’ point of view.
What was your shortest film?
It was a film that was made for TV. It was called In This House of Brede (1975), directed and produced by George Schaefer. George was absolutely great. I thought it was going to be awful. I almost regretted signing up for it. I knew it had an incredibly tight schedule and budget. It was shot in a convent in Mill Hill, London, and at another location in Ireland. I met the director, and he had it worked out exactly how he was going to do everything. He had rehearsed all the scenes with the actors before we got onto the shooting stage. Because George had pre rehearsed everything, it went pretty well.
Which film took the longest?
The longest was The Victors (1963), which took around a year. We had problems finding locations, and the director/producer, Carl Foreman wanted it exactly as he saw it and was prepared to take the time. It was a big film and there were locations in Sweden and Italy. Carl wanted me to find the locations. I went around with the art director, Geoff Drake. Sometimes Carl didn’t like what we had found, and so we had to go back and try again. We spent a lot of time not shooting but working out how we were going to shoot. Carl, who was a writer by profession, didn’t have a good visual sense. He found it very difficult to imagine anything until he actually saw it. He wasn’t sure it would work until he saw it in rushes. He wasn’t unique in that respect. One of the greatest directors of all time, Billy Wilder, was like that.
Did a studio ever employ you?
For a short period I was employed by Rank, which I absolutely hated. I always resented it. John Bryan, an art director, who became a producer, whom I liked very much, did a picture called The Spanish Gardener (1956), which I photographed. John said, “Why don’t you sign a contract with Rank? You will only work with me and photograph my pictures.” I did that and went on to shoot several pictures, including Windom’s Way, directed by Ronald Neame. John had a row with Rank and left. I was then left with the contract. I worked on a lot of rubbish because I had no option.
Finally, have you a favourite star you worked with?
My favourite was Sophia Loren. She was absolutely great. She knew how to look her best and she knew where the lights needed to be to make her look her best. She was great fun.
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).