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“If You Don’t Learn from the Greats, You’d Be Stupid”: An Interview with Cinematographer Robin Vidgeon

On the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark

On the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark

By David A. Ellis.

Robin Vidgeon BSC born in August 1939 is a retired cinematographer. For many years he was a focus puller, working with the late cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and camera operator Bernard (Chic) Waterson. His last outing with them was on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Vidgeon went on to lens a number of features and TV shows, including the feature Hellraiser and episodes of a TV favourite, A Touch of Frost.

Vidgeon is an Honorary member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) and is also a member of The Guild of British Camera Technicians. He joined the film industry in 1956, starting at Pinewood Studios. He left there after the studio got rid of the staff they employed, turning to freelancers.

He was a focus puller with Douglas Slocombe for over twenty-five years and said in all that time Slocombe never once lost his temper. Asked about TV work, he said it is no different than features apart from a bit more pressure. On some TV there can be between twenty-five to thirty set ups a day.

On Event Horizon he became an additional unit director. Asked about doing a job he hadn’t previously done, he said he has worked with people such as Fred Zinnemann, Norman Jewison, George Cukor and Steven Spielberg and added if you don’t learn something from them, you’d be stupid. Vidgeon worked with Anthony Hopkins on August and regards him as one of his industry heroes. Others include Joseph Losey, whom he worked with on the 1963 film The Servant, Douglas Slocombe and Steven Spielberg. Over the last few years Vidgeon has turned his hand to teaching up and coming cinematographers.

Does it take a while to develop focus pulling skills?

You never stop learning, because every shot, everyday, every week there are new challenges. The skill of a focus puller of my era and the skill of the guys who are still shooting film at the moment as focus pullers is a standard way of working. The digital era has brought on a different style of focus pulling. It’s all done off the camera. Sometimes the focus puller is in another room using radio control. They can’t see the camera, they are working off a monitor. A focus puller of my era would be right by the camera with his hands on the focus knob and follow the actors around the set.

How long did it take you to learn the skill?

For a couple of years in the 1950s I worked as a clapper boy at Pinewood Studios. Pinewood got rid of their permanent staff and I went to work with Douglas Slocombe and Chic Waterson. This was the start of a long collaboration, lasting twenty-five years. I was a clapper loader on Circus of Horrors (1960) and I pulled focus for the first time on ‘The Siege of Sidney Street’ (1960). Chic Waterson said, do you want to come and pull focus. The first shot I did was on an exterior in Dublin with an actor playing Winston Churchill walking in Sidney Street. We had a thirty two millimetre lens on the camera and the stop was eleven. The actors were fifty feet away and I hadn’t got a clue where to put focus. Over six weeks I learned how to do it. I went on to pull focus for Douglas Slocombe and Chic Waterson for twenty five years.

It seems a nerve racking job when you are just beginning?

It is. If you have a good operator and focus puller you know if you have missed something. The operator will see it on the ground glass, which is a film ground glass, unlike the digital ground glass. It is so sharp. It is very tricky with digital to tell if it has gone out of focus. But on film the operator will tell you if you need to go again.

Did you ever get anything out of focus?

As far as I know I only ever had one shot that was out of focus. That was when I was working for Ken Russell on ‘The Music Lovers’. It was a carriage at night hurtling through the forest with four horses pulling it. As the carriage came towards us I was zooming in and pulling focus with a 500 mm lens on the coach man. I never got it and Ken was very angry. We used two thirds of the shot. We were wide open, on that there was no depth of focus.

What is a split?

If you were shooting on a set, and for example using an aperture of four, and you were using a wide angle lens, you can set the focus between them that gives both the front and the background sharpness. You are learning every hour of everyday as you get different shots thrown at you. An audience watching on a large cinema screen doesn’t see it. When you have your hand on the focus knob and the camera is moving around, you can feel the operator move the camera from right to left to get the other person, and you use that movement smoothly to do your focus change. So, the camera movement and a focus change cover each other and the audience are not aware of it.

Why can’t the operator focus, if a reflex camera is used?

You can’t do that. In the old days the operator would have a handle head. When using a reflex camera a free head would be used. To operate a large camera such as a Panaflex with all the stuff on it, the operator needs both hands to operate. So a focus puller is required while the operator concentrates on capturing the scene.

Do many filmmakers still lean towards film?

Many still lean towards the format, and at the moment the film industry is very busy shooting on it. I see film being used for many years to come. We now have Kodak running flat out, seven days a week. There is a lab called Cinelab in Greenford dealing in film. They deal with 16, 35,8 and 65mm, running flat out. There are film labs all around the world including America and Canada. Kodak are turning out stock as fast as they can to keep up with the demand.

As a focus puller do you have to know what lens is used for each shot?

Yes, I have to understand what shots a director wants, the same as the director of photography and the operator. The longer the lens, the harder it is for me. Douglas Slocombe used to try and light sets with a lens stop of four, whatever film stock or film speed was used. A lot of digital cameras are rated so fast. Most sets today are lit with LED panels. I could light any set you gave me with these lights, but it’s going to take me two hours to take the light off where I don’t want it to go. With the old lamps you point them at people and you create depth.

Is the same technique used with zooms as it is with primary lenses?

It’s exactly the same. I don’t really like using zoom lenses and as a director of photography I always tried to get directors to only use prime lenses. A zoom is good if you can’t track to where he wants to get it. There is a great shot in ‘The Great Gatsby’, which I pulled focus on, that takes place in a hotel in New York. Jack Clayton, the director wanted us to do a seven minute scene in one hit. We couldn’t do it because we couldn’t get the dolly between the chairs they were on. So, he split the scene up into three master shots. We did the masters with coverage. We had a short zoom on. As we started the shot actor Robert Redford gets up and moves around the room. We tracked in and moved around with him to where he sat down and I closed the zoom in as well. On Panavision cameras there is a air trigger, so you can adjust the speed of the zoom, which is very smooth. I would would always have to adjust slightly if the actor didn’t make the mark, or the dolly didn’t get the mark. It took us days to do the Gatsby scene. In my opinion the primes are the best.

I believe some productions use old lenses, which were used to shoot film, to give a digitally shot film a particular look.

Yes they do. They are used with digital cameras. They do tend to flare slightly but they do have a slightly warmer and more gentle look. The sensors on some digital cameras are getting bigger so the old lenses don’t cover the sensor. So big lenses such as Hasselblad are used. There are a number of lens makers. One of the popular ones being Cooke.

I understand two focus pullers were required for Cinemascope.

When Cinemascope came out you had a separate normal lens on the back and an anamorphic lens on the front. One focus puller would operate the lens on the back and the other the anamorphic. Both would be focused in the same position. If you pulled too quickly on early Cinemascope attachment lenses, the picture condensed. It was squashed up a little bit and looked like a bad focus pull. Lenses got better. Around three years after scope was introduced the normal, or backing lens as it was called, and anamorphic were combined, requiring only one focus puller.

How many lenses did you carry on, for example the Indiana Jones movies?

On the Indiana Jones films we always had two camera bodies in case one broke down. We had at least one set of prime lenses and two zooms, a short and long. If Steven or somebody wanted to set up a second camera quickly, we had the body, so we were covered.

Where multiple cameras are used because it’s not possible to do a retake, are the cameras pre set, or does each camera have a focus puller and operator?

Each camera has an operator and focus puller. On big movies you can have four or five cameras. If the cameras have to move then more grips ( people who are part of the camera crew, laying tracks etc) are required.

Today cinematographers don’t go through the various stages anymore, clapper loader, focus puller, operator and cinematographer. What do you think of that?

When I first meet students I ask them what do they want to do. They think they will come out after a year or to as directors of photography or directors. I say to them you have got to know every role in the camera department. Now the hardest job on the camera crew is the focus puller.

Did you get a credit as a focus puller?

I didn’t get a credit as a focus puller until I worked with Spielberg. He gave me a credit on the two Indiana Jones films.

Is it easier today because of monitors, as results can be seen straight away?

No, what you put on the sensor is quite hard to see on the monitor. They don’t have big monitors on the set. I would never use a monitor anyway. Most of the old focus pullers hate digital. For me it’s too clean, film has a look to it. We still have several directors who will only shoot film, including Spielberg.

Apart from focus pulling what else was required from a focus puller?

The focus puller is required to thread the film, clean and check the picture gate. The operators job is to work with the director and the director of photography. The focus puller’s job is to run the camera. This involves setting up, lacing, checking the gate and pull focus.

Was there a film that presented bigger challenges than others?

Every film I worked on had challenges. The great thing about working with Spielberg was in that in the nicest way he challenges you, and he understands what he’s asking you to do. He understands the camera and what it can do. He came from a film school in LA, and he just loves movies.

Do you think as technology moves on focus pulling will be required?

Yes, because focus pulling is not just about putting a lens at eight feet and leaving it there. Most times on a shot the lens will never stop moving. There are now laser systems on the camera pointing at the actor. As the actor moves the laser system recognises where to focus, moving the lens. But if you want to do a split it can’t do that. Focus pulling is still an art.

How many hours did you work, for example on Indiana Jones, and how many set ups a day was there?

We would start around eight until six or seven at night. Spielberg would give every department a storyboard. You might do five or six shots in a dialogue scene and you might do three or four scenes a day. That is a lot of screen time.

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).

Read also:

Assisting a First-Time Director: Robin Vidgeon on Lensing Hellraiser

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