By David A. Ellis.
David Worley was brought up in Rickmansworth, London and finished his schooling at Watford Grammar School. He has worked as camera operator with some of the greatest directors, actors and directors of photography in the business. His films include The World is not Enough, Aliens, Alien 3, 101 Dalmatians and The Full Monty.
David Ellis: I understand you started working with film at British Transport Films?
David Worley: I’d shot some 16mm material and I went to show it to the chief cameraman Ronnie Cragon. He said he would bear me in mind for a trainee position. Nine months later David Watkin, who at that time was a staff cameraman was going to get a break to light a film called Sparrers Can’t Sing, a Joan Littlewood film, which he actually never did. He left and took two camera assistants with him. That meant there was a vacancy for a trainee and that is how I got in.
How long did you stay?
I started in 1962 and left in 1966. Then I went to the BBC on a summer contract. It was the time of the World Cup. I was there for two months. Then they offered me a permanent job but I decided to go freelance. I did some freelance work on documentaries and TV material. I went on to become a film loader on a film called The Mini Mob, later renamed The Mini-Affair.
When did you move on to operating?
I started as a focus puller in 1971. My first job as operator was on the second unit of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the late Paul Beeson. Towards the end of the shooting, which was in Tunisia, I operated the B camera on the main unit. I went on to operate the B camera on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (main unit) and on the main unit of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
What skills and knowledge are required to be a camera operator?
You have to know the script, understand all about eye lines and know about screen direction lefts and rights. Communication is important. For instance there may be a crowd scene and it is essential you work with the first assistant director to make sure that there are no extras in off screen areas. Also to be able to spot any make-up or costume faults. Sometimes hair will go out of place, so you have a quite word. On the technical side being able to use any kind of head, film and digital camera. What is really important is to know the crew’s names. Being able to communicate with the director, DP and actors is important. Finally to be able to make creative, constructive suggestions when called upon.
How do you work with DPs and directors. Are you consulted about set-ups?
I did a number of films with the late Adrian Biddle. We had a good working relationship and he would often let me deal with directors knowing I wasn’t going to screw him up. The ideal situation is to have a three-way conversation; director, DP and operator. It is all very well planning but on the day things can change and the three of us could then discuss a solution that wasn’t envisaged. Some of the American DPs like to be in command of all the set-ups. The ideal to me is to work on a three-way basis. I’ve worked on some big films where the director is very good with the script and the actors but hasn’t got a great visual flair. They then leave it to us to come up with the set-ups, which is great because it gives you a lot more chance to have input.
How many cameras are usually used and how many takes would you do on a scene?
A lot of DPs say you can only light for one camera. On the bigger films there is at least two. Some directors, for example David Fincher likes to do up to twenty takes. That is not because of any inefficiency, that is just his preference. It is all about options.
Do you like digital as much as film?
To me it doesn’t matter. My contribution is the same if its film or digital.
Are you sad to see film disappearing?
Yes because there is something about it, even the smell. With film there is a definite discipline because film running through the camera is money. With film we go to rushes and discuss them with the editor. Now, with digital we don’t have rushes to view so you don’t get a chance to sit down, watch and discuss them.
What was your first all digital feature?
My first digital feature was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher. This was shot using the Epic camera. On that it made more sense to operate off a monitor. So I was operating off a little monitor at the top of the camera instead of the eyepiece.
What was the biggest challenge you have faced on a production?
Cliffhanger was difficult because of the locations. We had to go up the Italian Dolomites everyday and you never knew what you were going to get. The weather would be good when you got up there and within half an hour it would change and we would have to come back down, which could be dangerous. Technically, on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade we had a West Cam, which is usually mounted on helicopters. Spielberg wanted it mounted on a crane, which it wasn’t really designed for. It was operated from a small switch and I was to follow Harrison Ford, who was riding a horse. The shot was exacting and it was the worst experience I’ve had, especially when Spielberg put his head out of the window of a cab in front and said, “Is that the best you can do.”
Do you sometimes look at a film you have done and thought I could have shot that better?
Not so much because it’s usually the way something is cut. More often than not the shots you do are topped and tailed. Sometimes something you have spent a lot of time on just gets cut. Some shots are heavily shortened or cut out altogether.
What are your favourites out of the films you have worked on and why?
My favourites are The Mummy and The Mummy Returns because they were really good fun to do. We all got on well; the director cast and crew were all great. Then Aliens, which I went in for one day and stayed four months. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was very enjoyable. Renee Zellweger was a delight. On that we went to Thailand and Austria. Next is 1492: Conquest of Paradise, directed by Ridley Scott. We were in Spain in the winter then we shot in Costa Rica, which was a really interesting place to go to. Finally Hellraiser. It was my second film with DP Robin Vidgeon. It was shot in a real house so it presented a challenge.
Finally, if you could only list five films on your CV what would they be and why?
I would put Raiders of the Lost Ark because that was the first film I was involved with operating on and it was working with Steven Spielberg so that has got to be a plus. Then, Who Framed Roger Rabbit because in its day it was very innovative. It is a bit old hat now but it was mixing live action and cartoons. Next is The World is not Enough. That was the only Bond movie that I did all the way through as a main operator. Then The Full Monty, which was one of the most successful British films. The last one is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because that was my first digital feature.
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.