David A. Ellis spoke to two legendary lens men.
WOLFGANG SUSCHITZKY was born in Vienna on August 29, 1912. He came to England in 1935 and established himself as a photographer. Later he went into documentary work. His first feature film was No Resting Place (1951) directed by Paul Rotha. Suschitzky’s son Peter and grandson Adam are also cinematographers.
David A. Ellis: What got you interested in the film industry and why did you choose cameras?
Wolfgang Suschitzky: I was always attending films and became interested in cameras. I started doing photographic work in Vienna and later in England. I became a documentary cameraman before moving into features. My first feature was No Resting Place. I didn’t do focus pulling or operating on features. I thought it rather pompous calling myself a director of photography so always called myself a cameraman.
Do you have a favourite film you have worked on?
There were several that I enjoyed. One of the first was The Bespoke Overcoat (1956). I also enjoyed working with Michael Caine on Get Carter (1971).
Are there any films you particularly enjoyed working on?
I liked very much working on Get Carter, which was shot entirely on location in the North East. Other films include Ulysees (1967), Entertaining Mr Sloan (1970) and Theatre of Blood (1973).
Did you prefer working in black and white, colour or both?
I didn’t mind really. I began to work with colour when colour negative came out. I never worked with three strip Technicolor. I found it easier to shoot in colour. Black and white filming requires you to light differently to allow you to get some modulation in the actor’s face.
Can you relate some of your memories on the set?
We had a lot of banter. When Vincent Price was making Theatre of Blood he liked to smoke between shots. One day the focus puller went and cut off the burning end of his cigarette. The next time he came to measure the distance for the next shot Vincent produced scissors and cut the tape.
What do you think of digital cinematography?
It depends on what the cameraman and director do with it. Any tool can create something. Even a pencil can make a work of art. I am glad I am out of it because I am not very good with electronics.
Finally, what do you think of the business today?
I have been out of it for many years and I think it is almost criminal how crews are worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day. You can’t be creative for those hours.
DOUGLAS SLOCOMBE OBE was born on 10 February 1913 in London. He was educated in England and France and after leaving university he followed his father George into journalism. He worked for the British United Press, which was based in Fleet Street. He went on to be a successful photojournalist, culminating in 1939, photographing reportage of the Nazi infiltration of Danzig.
In 1940 he went to Ealing Studios. He was one of four lighting cameramen employed on a contract basis. He went on to work on several memorable Ealing films including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951). He regards Kind Hearts and Coronets as his favourite Ealing film.
After Ealing’s closure he went freelance on a number of memorable films, which included The Servant (1963), The Lion in Winter (1968) and The Italian Job (1969). He went on to work with Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones movies. Slocombe retired after working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 2008 he was awarded the OBE. For his one-hundredth birthday Spielberg bought Slocombe an expensive pair of slippers.
David A. Ellis: Would you tell me about Ealing Studios?
Douglas Slocombe: At Ealing we had two large stages that were divided into four. There was also a smaller fifth stage. We were all under contract and on the whole it took between twelve and fourteen weeks to shoot an Ealing film. I went from one film to another with only a few days preparation. I think the film that took the longest was Saraband for Dead Lovers. The script demanded a lot of set ups and there was a lot of location work. My favourite Ealing film was Kind Hearts and Coronets. Alec Guinness (1914-2000) and Dennis Price (1915-1973) were superb in their roles. The whole film apart from one set up was shot at Ealing. Because we had many sets on at the same time we had to use Pinewood. After the studios closed in Ealing we moved over to MGM at Elstree, where for a couple of years Ealing films were produced.
Would you tell me a bit about your black and white films after Ealing?
One of my favourite black and white films was The Servant (1963) directed by the late Joe Losey. This film won me a BAFTA. Another one I loved very much was The L Shaped Room (1962), directed by Bryan Forbes. I was able to get a powerful black and white effect, which had a lot of contrast. I’d been experimenting on black and white techniques on a film I’d shot with John Huston called Freud (1962). Those are three black and white films I like to think back on.
Would you tell me about The Italian Job (1969)?
That was shot at Shepperton and Turin, Italy. We had a second unit on that, shooting some of the chase sequences. The second unit DP was Paul Beeson (1921-2001). It took around fifteen weeks to shoot and for financial reasons we were very short of cars. Also we had the non-cooperation of the car manufacturer BMC. We wanted around ten Minis and they wouldn’t give us any help. In the end we went to Italy to get the cars. We got a lot of help from Fiat. Fiat asked the producer if they would consider using Fiat cars. Michael Deely, the producer wanted to stick with Minis. Fiat, having failed to talk him into it became wonderful hosts and gave us every facility, even allowing us to shoot on top of their factory roof.
What do you think of cinema today?
I can’t see much anymore, so I do miss very much, not being able to see what is being done. I know they are doing a lot of digital enhancement work and a lot of the effects are being done digitally. If I were working today I would miss very much not having control in my hands. The great thing in my era was that everything on the screen was in the cameraman’s hands. Every single dot that went on the screen, lit or unlit, was his choice. On the other hand, every generation and every new invention brings its own challenges and advantages.
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.