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Sir Sydney Samuelson and Real Picture Quality
A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson. Recorded in London, Monday 17 October 2011 + 28 January 2012

The 70mm Newsletter
Interviewed by: Thomas Hauerslev. Transcribed for in70mm.com by Brian Guckian. Proofread by Sir Sydney Samuelson and Mark Lyndon for accuracy. Images by Thomas Hauerslev, unless otherwise notedDate: 26.08.2013

Dickie Dickenson and David Lean

Sir Sydney Samuelson in his garden with the author, October 2011.

Now when it came to "Barry Lyndon", I think it was shot – I suppose it wasn’t shot with Panavision – I think it was probably shot Arriflex. They’d got their quiet ARRI S-35 by that time – it wasn’t very quiet, it was not as quiet as a Panaflex, but it was quiet enough. Kubrick had a showing at BAFTA of "Barry Lyndon", and while he had Johnny Alcott, the Cameraman, there, Kubrick himself wasn’t there – which was no surprise, because Kubrick was never anywhere...in public. And they had Q&As – Questions & Answers – after showing the film – and there was the famous candlelit shot. And what I remember, which was very interesting I think, was there was an old-time, eminent, British Cameraman – Dickie Dickenson – D-i-c-k-e-n-s-o-n – there, and when it was question time, whereas all sorts of younger people in the audience had said how brilliant the Cinematography was, and how amazing to see shots – to see a sequence – lit entirely by candles that you could see in the shot as well – so the quality of the lens was not just its remarkable speed, but the fact it wasn’t flaring, because the source of the light was itself in the shot – when Dickie Dickenson stood up, he said, “Well, we’ve been listening to what everybody thought about the candlelit sequence, and how it was done – I just want to say I think it’s the worst-looking Cinematography I’ve seen in my life!” He said, “This is a case of you have to be in the Camera Department to understand what has been achieved - that it’s with lenses that are f1 – but the quality is not as good as if you faked it – you could still have a candle in the shot, but you could light it not by the candle, you could light it in the conventional way and it would look better!” And everybody was absolutely stunned – mainly I think because it was so awful for this youngish Cameraman – Johnny Alcott – who had once been Focus Puller for Stanley – and Stanley had given him his breaks. Johnny was no fool; in the earliest days, obviously Stanley was over his shoulder, and kind of suggesting for conventional lighting, where the key light would be, and so on – so Johnny had a marvellous tutor, and he, in the end, got the credit as Director of Photography. But he had Kubrick in the background – a bit like David Lean's films – the credits say “Edited by David Lean” – or “A David Lean Film, Edited by someone else” – you knew that every David Lean film, there wasn’t a cut that David himself didn’t approve of! Exactly there, David Lean would be saying to his Editor, “I think we need to hold that close-up for three frames more”, or, “Take half a dozen frames off that and let’s have a look, because that’s where it needs to cut” - that was how David Lean worked in the cutting room.

TH: David Lean, he loved editing the movies –

Sir Sydney: Yes –

TH: He started as an Editor as well -

Sir Sydney: That’s right – and that’s how he got going as a Director, in the same way – insomuch as – a picture was made during the War, called "In Which We Serve", with that great Writer, Director, Performer, Actor, Musician – Nöel Coward. Nöel was pronounced “Null” [Chuckles] – which is unimportant, but if he was introduced he would say, “The name is ‘Null’” – and he spoke with a very affected homosexual kind of accent. He was one of the most famous gays in this country, and one of the most brilliant performers, authors and entertainers, and he wrote this wartime story about – funny, I mentioned Earl Mountbatten, whose father was a Battenberg...was I just talking about him? Yes – and "In Which We Serve" was the story of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was a Captain in the Royal Navy, and had a destroyer which was torpedoed during the War. It was the story of the ship’s company, led by this dynamic captain, and it was based on Lord Louis Mountbatten – but the captain was played in the film by Nöel Coward. And the story was written, and Nöel Coward decided that he was going to direct the film as well.

When it came to it, he’d had the sense to ask for his Editor to be with him on the set, because he, Nöel Coward, didn’t understand about the putting together of a film...controlling the length of how much he was shooting; knowing whether what you were shooting with would cut together; understanding whether you would need to have a cutaway in order to reduce the length of a sequence. So he had his Editor on set with him, constantly advising him – the Editor was, as you said, David Lean.

Well, Nöel Coward was so busy acting, and revising the script as they went along – there was nothing wrong with that – he was the writer anyway – eventually, apparently, he said to David, “Look, you do the directing...I have enough to do without having to worry whether the continuity girl is telling me that this sequence is going to run just under a quarter of an hour if we don’t do something about some extra shots, so that they can speed up lengths of what we’ve done already”. He said, “You be the director”. The credit on the film is “Editor and Co-Director: David Lean”; “Directed by: Nöel Coward”. And then of course he had a credit as the leading actor as well.

So that was how David Lean got his start. And then Nöel Coward and David Lean and the Cameraman, Ronnie Neame – do you know that name? – and there was one other person – Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan – they formed a company called Cine Guild to produce films. And the next film was shot in Technicolor 3-strip and it was called “Take my Life”. It was about a London family during the War. Then they did "Blithe Spirit", and a whole series of films. And then they all had rows with each other! [Laughs] – And that was the end of Cine Guild.

Anyway we’ve diverted a little bit – it was all long before my time. But I interviewed Ronnie Neame, so I knew a lot about it. And going back to "Barry Lyndon", and the outspoken - Desmond Dickenson was his full name – and I’d known him – I’d never worked with him – but I’d known him for many years, because he was actually a Cameraman for my father – and it was a case of everybody sitting in that audience knew that Dickie – Desmond - Dickenson was right in what he said. After all, what is the point of doing something because it’s just so clever, technically, to do it – that’s not what you’re actually making the movie for! Nobody – unless they’d been told – would have realised that it was amazing to shoot a picture and get an exposure – because films were not as fast in those days – to get an exposure and to even have the source of the illumination in the shot – but of course you had almost to screw the actors’ heads to a piece of wood at the back [Laughs] so that they didn’t move forward an inch because they would go out of focus on the closer shots. There was no need for it. And Desmond Dickenson was no slouch – I think he was Oscar-nominated for the first Hamlet film – black-and-white – Laurence Olivier. I think that was Desmond Dickenson. And he also did one of the early Technicolor 3-strip films after the War – it was an Oscar Wilde play called "The Importance of Being Earnest" – and it was very much a photographed stage play/story – but it was delightfully photographed – it wasn’t a serious film – it was a stage comedy.
Home: A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson
Cinema was always in my Family
Panavision, Bob Gottschalk and The Answering Machine
Stanley Kubrick, "Tom Jones" and one point
Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Takuo Miyagishima, Robert Gottschalk and a 20:1 Zoom
David Lean and The Friese-Greene Award
Thunderball, Zhivago, Techniscope, and Fogging a roll of film
Ken Annakin, "Grand Prix", James Bond, Helicopters
How lucky can you be

More in 70mm reading:

The Importance of Panavision
A Message from Freddie A. Young
Stanley Kubrick
Shooting "Lawrence of Arabia"
Memories of Ryan's Daughter
Joe Dunton
Ken Annakin
70mm in London 1958 - 2012
The editor Receives BKSTS award

Internet link:

George Berthold "Bertie" Samuelson (1889 - 1947) (PDF)
Samuelson Film Service (reunion)

The Argus
British Film Industry Salute

'Strictly Sydney'
Clapper Board Part 1
Clapper Board Part 2

St. Mary's 1963

British Quota Film, “Quota Quickies”

I suppose Dickie had a career probably of 60 or 70 years – and he did every kind of movie – in my producer son Marc’s office (he’s the Executive Producer for the Isle of Man government film department, they have their headquarters in London, and Marc runs it), I gave him a still Desmond Dickenson had given me. Did we talk about “Quota Quickies”? – did you know about them? Very quick films made in 6 or 7 days – low, low low-budget – just to enable distributors to meet with the requirements of the law to show a certain percentage of British product in their cinemas – a minimum percentage had to be British-made. All that happened is that a series of cheap movies were made just to meet the quota requirements, financed by the distributors – and even to the extent the law did not say when they had to show these films, it just said they had to show a certain percentage of British product. So they used to show these films, shot in 6 days, budget £1000 per reel - £6000 for a one-hour film – minimum length one hour. And what happened was all the big American studios – MGM, Fox, Columbia, Paramount – everybody – they each set up British production companies to make cheap British quota films.

And they were all ‘B’ pictures – second features – and often, the distributors simply showed them – projected them at their cinemas during the morning, when the cleaners were sweeping up the ice-cream wrappers from the previous night. This still met the requirements of the law, but they were showing these “Quota Quickie” films, and Desmond Dickenson – if he wasn’t doing anything else – he would, say, get a contract for the Warner Bros Studio at Teddington to do 3 “Quota Quickies”. The production still I gave Marc for his office was for a “Quota Quickie” produced and directed by my father, and there, standing by the camera, in a blimp this size [Gestures], was Desmond Dickenson. And he would be able – he was so experienced – he could knock off a whole lot of work – let’s see: 6 days – they’ve got to do 10 minutes edited screen time a day. Today, for a normal properly-budgeted film, they would do 2-and-a-half minutes, I think, of screen time – final screen time – for a good shooting day. So if you were doing 10 minutes – because you’re making a “Quota Quickie” - that was the requirement, because you could only afford to shoot for 6 days. I’m telling you all that Tom because it shows that Desmond Dickenson was not fussy, as we say...he would take any kind of film – and he was a good bloke to have, and to have him standing there saying, “It’s the worst example of candle light effect I’ve ever seen!” was pretty dramatic [Laughs].
Go to next chapter: Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
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Updated 21-01-24