Brian Tufano with Alan Parker on The Evacuees
Brian Tufano with Alan Parker on The Evacuees

By David A. Ellis.

Cinematographer Brian Tufano BSC, who now teaches cinematography at the National Film School in England, was born in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London in 1939. Before shooting films, he spent twenty-one years working a variety of jobs in the BBC film department, which was based at Ealing, in the studios that were once famous for a number of dramas and comedies, which included The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953). Tufano left the safe employment of the BBC to work on features. He has shot movies for a number of notable directors, including Jack Gold (1928- 2015), Danny Boyle (1956-), Stephen Daddy (1960-) Franc Roddam (1946-) and Alan Parker (1944-), whose comments describe Tufano best: “I first worked with Brian on The Evacuees (1974),” Parker wrote in a recent email to me. “I had only made commercials at that time and so I was a rookie director for anything longer than thirty seconds. I had especially asked for him, as even in 1974 he was already the stand out cinematographer at the BBC, having worked with Jack Gold, John McKenzie, Ken Russell, Les Blair and many other TV directorial stars of the early seventies. Amazingly, this was even before he worked with Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh. In truth, I can’t say he gave me an easy time on my directorial debut on The Evacuees. He was a hard taskmaster – both tormentor and teacher. What he taught me was that however little time there was (and there’s never enough time) everything – every scene, every performance, every lighting set-up could be a little better if you don’t settle for what was easy and obvious. As tough as The Evacuees was to make – trying to make a feature film on BBC ‘Play for Today’ budgets and schedules – we still managed to nab the BAFTA and Emmy. It occurred to me that it was no coincidence that Brian went on to bring out the best in other rookie directors: Franc Roddam on Quadrophenia (1979), Damien O’Donnell on East is East (1999), Danny Boyle on Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), Stephen Daldry on Billy Elliot (2000) and Menhaj Huda on Kidulthood (2006). That’s an extraordinary list of first time directors that any cinematographer could be proud of nurturing. So it’s no surprise that Brian went on to be ‘teacher and tormentor in chief’ at the National Film and Television School. I’ve had first hand experience observing him in that role and all I can say is, that the next generation of filmmakers is benefiting just as much as all of us ‘rookies’ who were lucky enough to work with him.”

In conversation with Tufano, he discussed his career before cinematography, aspects of his current trade, and his role as an instructor.

Did you go to the movies a lot as a child?

I did, initially as a very young child. My mother was very interested in going, so I was taken almost every time she went. I was born during WW2 in December 1939, and we were evacuated to Wales. In the small mining village they had a cinema. That was my introduction to the world of cinema. I obviously didn’t understand it but as I got older there was an interest and I wanted to know how the films were made. I was fascinated from an early age by people working behind the camera. In Shepherd’s Bush, West London I lived very close to Lime Grove Studios (now demolished), which had been Gainsborough Studios, which was a subsidiary of Gaumont British. I used to hang outside the studio and watch stuff going in, such as artificial palm trees. When Gainsborough closed it was sold to the BBC and used to talk to the security guys on a weekend and they would take me into the studio and show me around the set-ups. It was fascinating and that helped to fire me up. Eventually my mother wrote to a guy by the name of Ronald Waldman at the BBC and I was asked to go for an interview. I was told they did not take people in technical jobs until they had done their national service (been in the forces). So that was a bit of a disappointment. The careers officer at school had recommended a job with an engineering company, which didn’t appeal to me. I was offered a job as a pageboy with the BBC, working at Lime Grove Studios. Once I was there, I was able to explore different areas. National service was scrapped and I missed call up by three months. That opened up my career, as I was now able to go for a technical job. I got a job as a trainee projectionist, working in the preview areas showing films, which included rushes, cutting copies and transmission prints. Eventually I was transferred from Lime Grove to Ealing Studios, which the BBC owned. The BBC film department was based there. At that time there was no training scheme, that came later. I was taught by other projectionists.

How long were you a projectionist before you decided you wanted to work with cameras?

Tufano filming the opening sequence of Trainspotting
Tufano filming the opening sequence of Trainspotting

I always wanted to work with camera when I was at school. There was nothing else in my mind but it was the process of getting there. When I went to Ealing I think there was something like sixteen camera crews. The BBC was expanding rapidly and I would hang out with the camera crews when I could. In those days a BBC camera crew consisted of a cameraman and an assistant. So any spare pair of hands was welcome. What would happen is if they were night shooting they would ask me to go out with them as a gofer. When I finished my day job in projection I would join them for a night shoot. That developed into working weekends. Paul Fox, the creator of the programme Sports view, which was first screened in the UK on 8th April 1954 had camera crews that would go to football matches, either late Friday night or early Saturday morning. I would go along with one of the crews as an extra pair of hands. When a job came up as an assistant I applied and got lucky. I was was a Trainee Assistant Cameraman, an assistant and then cameraman. I climbed the ladder fairly quickly. I became a fully qualified cameraman in 1963. The films that helped my career were the first five documentaries ever to be shown on BBC 2, when it went on the air in 1964, using the new 625-line system. So 1963 was a year of preparing and the five programmes that were photographed in America were titled West is West, which was a history of the West.

How long were you at the BBC before going freelance?

It had always been my ambition to get into features, which I would suggest ninety-nine point nine percent of cinematographers want to do. I had an amazing run of shooting TV movies while at the BBC. We didn’t have any choice what we did but were assigned to projects by the front office. At that time a lot of pressure was put on them by certain directors to use cameramen they wanted – not the ones that were assigned. I had quite a long run on TV movies, and then management decided I’d had my fair share of that sort of work so I was put on other work. I was also developing my lighting techniques and there were things I wanted to do, so I decided the time had come to go. I had made a number of contacts with directors, who I been fortunate enough to work with. There were a number of them from commercials like Alan Parker, Graham Baker and Clive Rees. They encouraged me to leave and gave me my first work as a freelancer, working in commercials. Director Jack Gold, whom I had worked with at the BBC, asked me to work on his feature for Euston Films called The Sailors Return (1978). I got off to a good start shooting commercials and Jack’s feature.

Did you find it easy adapting to each directors’ way of working and what do you think of directors operating from the video village?

On the set with Danny Boyle
On the set with Danny Boyle

I find I can adapt to each director easily. As far as directors operating from the video village goes it is a sign of the times. I used to prefer it when the director was standing next to me and next to the camera. They were involved with the actors and the crew. The majority of young directors don’t seem to be able to work unless they are looking at a monitor.

Do you still shoot or do you just teach? If so do you miss not shooting?

I am now just teaching. Yes, I do miss shooting. Teaching is completely different. At the NFTS, having previously been a film studio (Beaconsfield Studios) since the 1920s, it has all the facilities. We have the stages and the equipment. I watch from the sidelines, I don’t tell the students what to do. I show them ways of doing things. We provide the environment for them to use their imagination and for them to develop their own vision, skills and techniques.

What was it like working on Billy Elliot (2000)?

It was a great experience. The schedules were based around the fact that Jamie Bell, who played Billy, was not a teenager when we started, so we had to work children’s hours. So the schedule took that into account. I think the film took around six weeks to shoot.

When shooting with film did you have a favourite stock?

In the days of black and white it was Ilford because I liked the tones. They were a lot more subtle. Colour wise Kodak was my preference. They were always making advances in the chemistry. In the 1990s my favourite became Kodak 200T. I had honed my craft to a degree where I knew exactly what camera I was going to use. I knew the lenses, I knew the film stock and I knew what every part of that kit could do for me and how I could use it. When Kodak brought out 200T it was a kind of universal stock. It was suitable for day and night interiors and exteriors.

Are you sad to see digital taking over from film?

Very much so. Fortunately all the students at the school want to learn how to shoot film. My philosophy is if you learn to shoot film, you can shoot anything.

What advice would you give to new DPs?

Develop your passion, your eye and your understanding of the language of cinema. Keep it simple; hone your craft and your diplomatic skills. Make sure you are at the top of you game and come up with as many ideas as you can. If the director doesn’t want them, that is fine. Get used to the idea that not all your ideas are brilliant and they are not all wanted – but keep coming up with them.

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).

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