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Oswald Morris: Legendary Cinematographer


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David A. Ellis talked to the 97-year-old about his work on Moulin Rouge (1952), directed by John Huston, who often referred to Morris as “Kid.”

David A. Ellis: How did you get the smoky atmospheric look in the picture?

hqdefaultOswald Morris: We used vaporised oil. I was piling this into the studio and at one point the electricians went on strike because of the fumes. With film tests I did I found I had to put a lot in, so it would show up on the screen. We were shooting it in three strip Technicolor. If I’d been filming in black and white I wouldn’t have needed as much. Even I thought this was madness pumping it in, they are not going to see anything. I had to stick to my guns with the tests I’d done and it worked out fine.

I wanted to keep the studio doors shut over the lunch period so I wouldn’t have to fill it up again, but they wouldn’t let me do that. It was an agreement between the studio and electricians to leave them open.

Because of the slow film stock we had to use a lot of lighting. So on Moulin Rouge there was a lot of light and heat. In those days we had carbon arc lamps that needed trimming and you can’t keep them burning too long otherwise the carbons would need changing, which would be a disaster in the middle of a take.

Would you say cinematographers have it easy compared to your day?

MPW-70921They are spoilt rotten compared to my day. In the Can Can number of Moulin Rouge Freddie Francis, my camera operator, was asked to shoot a dance routine. We used a crane and the camera was slung on the end of the crane so Freddie could walk around among the dancers. We used the camera without a blimp [sound proofing] because on this sequence we weren’t recording sound – playback was used. Freddie was able to walk with the camera above his head. The point was we wanted to get near the dancers when they waved their skirts around. The Can Can was a slightly erotic dance. The girls were marvellous doing it because director Huston said: “You have to hurt yourselves, if you don’t hurt yourselves you are not doing it properly.”

I pushed Freddie in among the girls as they danced. It was dangerous doing it, but it worked. We didn’t see colour rushes for a fortnight after we had filmed. All we got was a very washed out black and white print. It was just to give us an idea what the shots were like and to check we didn’t have a mike in the picture.

Working the Technicolor camera was very hard work. We had to have extra grips; the blimp required four men to move it and we had to have a special dolly. The whole thing was extremely heavy. At one point Technicolor wanted me taken off the film because they weren’t happy with the colour. Later I was praised for the look of the film.

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 book Conversations with Cinematographers, published by Scarecrow Press.

1 Comment for “Oswald Morris: Legendary Cinematographer”

  1. My second book In Conversation with Cinematographers will be published in August 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield publishers.

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