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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


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: 30.08.2013


Panavision camera equipment. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site

Then, as I think I’ve probably told you, luck again comes into one’s life. I consider I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever come across – and being at the right place at the right time is the most often-used luck I’ve had throughout my business life and my personal life. This includes how I met my wife 66 years ago. Well, the people making the James Bond film had started to shoot the fourth one, "Thunderball". A lot of it was to be filmed underwater; I think Panavision had constructed an underwater blimp – or maybe they already had an underwater blimp – and Eon Productions, who make the Bond films to this day, had brought in a stack of Panavision lenses, and an underwater blimp, and had gone down to Weymouth to shoot for the first day. Not underwater, but at sea, and on other locations in that coastal area. I’d just put in an answering phone, at home, so that, as I put my phone number in my catalogue, out-of-hours, people could phone me; occasionally I might not be in, but I would be able to deal with the call upon my return.

So answer phones had appeared – it was a box about that size [Gestures] that stood on a table, but nevertheless, if you weren’t in, it answered the phone – it left a message. It was a German company, with a branch only along the road from our company. I went to see this amazing new electronic gadget, and so I said, “I want one of those”. It was all different because in those early days the message had to be recorded in their studio by them – you couldn’t answer it yourself and leave a message saying, “Please phone back”, or anything like that – you had to specify a message to their specification, spoken by a woman, who they supplied.

So when they were in trouble with the imported Panavision equipment, including the ancillary items that they’d rented from Panavision – like the friction head, tripod, stuff like that – they’d had trouble fitting it to work with their own gear. They complained to Panavision that the equipment they’d supplied was not standard, and they were unable to use it. Why the crew didn’t previously check every aspect of how this camera would be used on a geared head that they were supplying from the Studio, I’ve no idea, but they had phoned Panavision Los Angeles and said, “We can’t use some of the equipment you sent us”.

I got home, and there was my answering phone, going – and it was Bob Gottschalk himself. Now I had had a conversation with him by then, and he had said, “Well I’ll think about it”...and I said, “Well I think you should come here, Mr. Gottschalk, and see our place and let me show you what we do. Or, I will come to Los Angeles”. Before any of that, he’d had a row with my answer phone! Because there were no answer phones in Los Angeles, yet, and Bob didn’t understand that this “woman” was just delivering an electronic message! Because, while she was saying, “You have reached the phone number for Samuelson Film Service Ltd., and if you would care to leave a message – ” – which bad tempered Bob Gottschalk, not knowing what the hell was going on, and who this woman was, interrupted, and said, “I don’t want a message, I want to speak to Sydney Samuelson!” And of course she goes on talking about, “The number to phone is: [so-and-so and so-and-so]” And he eventually hung up, in high dudgeon, because he didn’t understand; it was a machine just to take a message. But I had his name from this row that went on with my answer phone, so I phoned him back. And he then sort of continued his shouting at me, saying about the camera crew, “These f---ing idiots! I don’t know who they are, but they obviously don’t know what they’re doing! They’ve got standard equipment, which they’re complaining about, and saying it doesn’t fit together”. Then he said, “You told me that you’ve got a good Chief Engineer, and I want you – [and these are his exact words] – to tell him to get his ass down to Wye-mouth, wherever that is, and sort them out! I know there is nothing wrong with our equipment!” And I said, “I’ll put Bill Vicker onto a train first thing in the morning”. He said, "No, I think you should send him now!" I said, “It’s 2am in London”. He didn’t even understand that, really! I don’t think he’d ever travelled out of America, at that time; he didn’t understand the time differences, and so on. An intelligent man, who knew nothing about being abroad. And I said, “There are no trains to Weymouth leaving until – whatever the first train is in the morning – and it’ll probably be the milk train, which is no good because it makes 18 stops! But whatever the first, fast train is, Bill Vicker will be on it, with his tool kit”. And that’s what happened. Before I hung up, I said, “But we’ve got to meet up, Mr. Gottschalk, because as you know, I’d like my company to represent you...but we need to talk about it; we’ll need to discuss a deal”. He said, “I know, I know you’ll need a deal, and we’re going to have a deal – but you just get your man down there, to those idiots”. That was, more or less, the phone call that I had – that’s how we sorted out Panavision. And that’s how I had the reason to go and visit Panavision. I phoned him up; I was able to tell him, later that day, like 5pm about, as soon as I knew they’d be at work in the morning, in Los Angeles – and I said, “It’s all been sorted out – there was nothing wrong with it – a few adjustments that Bill Vicker has done, and they’re perfectly happy now. Now, I need to come and talk to you”. He said, “Well yes, you can do that”. How lucky can you be?

So I went. Bob he showed me all round, which I thought was a good sign. It’s funny how I remember how I was thinking at that time, because he knew I was with my wife, because I didn’t know I was going to be there, for very long – it was just to meet the big man. And I had Doris waiting in the car outside, reading a book! But I remember thinking, “If he just says to me, ‘Well why don’t we have dinner’...if he says that, I’ll know we’re in with a chance here, a chance to be ‘Panavision – Europe’”. I thought, “Why not – it doesn’t have to be Panavision UK, let’s talk about Panavision Europe”. And it turned out he didn’t really know the difference! [Laughter] - Between England, and Europe!

TH: Same thing [Chuckles]
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
Dickie Dickenson, David Lean and British Quota Film
Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Takuo Miyagishima, Robert Gottschalk and a 20:1 Zoom
David Lean and The Friese-Greene Award
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

Doctor Zhivago

Publicity still from "Doctor Zhivago" - note the Panavision camera. Picture MGM

Sir Sydney: Yes, exactly! Anyway, he never did ask us to dinner. I came back, and then something else happened, a definite order – it was Freddie Young again – a little picture even you may never have heard of Tom...so small that I can’t remember the name for the moment – anyway, it was a picture to be made by the Boulting Brothers, and I think it was even in black-and-white – there was still as much black-and-white shot as there was colour, in those days. I was able to phone Bob and say, “I’ve got a picture, and they would like to shoot Panavision. And the cameraman is Freddie Young. It’s a small picture – we need five lenses. And a Panavision-modified Arri”. And that was really the start of it. And so my brother Tony and I went to Los Angeles. We did a deal, and the rest is history, as it were. I got to know Bob Gottschalk, as you are aware, very, very well. A brilliant, amazing man, wonderful sense of humour...unbelievably self-centred and selfish – I told you a bit about that. Nevertheless, what a wonderful business partner to have, completely honest, always.

And meanwhile, "Zhivago" had started shooting in Spain; and David Lean, being rather selfish himself – brilliant again, not quite the sense of humour that Bob Gottschalk had, nevertheless another brilliant guy; wonderful, great filmmaker – he was not hugely pleased that it was not just David Lean who won an Oscar for "Lawrence of Arabia". His Cameraman, the “old man” [Chuckles], he also got an Oscar. David would never admit it – but everyone knew he was a bit jealous – even though he’d got an Oscar – Best Film for goodness sake – did he get Best Director? I think he must have done.

TH: Sam Spiegel picked up the Oscar for Best Film, and David got the Oscar for Best Direction, I think. The film won seven Oscars all together.

Sir Sydney: That’s right...yes.

TH: - Anne Coates won for Best Editing, I think –

Sir Sydney: Yes –

TH: And did the music win? I can’t remember -

Sir Sydney: Ah - Maurice Jarre – yes. You want to know who the Camera Operator was, or the Focus Puller? Ernie Day.

TH: He was the Camera Operator?

Sir Sydney: Yes, did several pictures – anyway, David Lean decided he didn’t have to have Freddie Young to shoot "Zhivago" – huge picture. And he had decided - maybe because Sam Spiegel would always be pleading poverty – and indeed, Sam Spiegel – or “S. P. Eagle” as he was originally known – a nom de plume because he’d been in prison under the name of Sam Spiegel, so he modified his name for the film industry to S. P. Eagle – and I think his credit for "Lawrence" may have been “S. P. Eagle”, was it? He would have got his Oscar in his real name –

TH: I remember “S. M. Spiegel” on the poster –

Sir Sydney: You do – well then...but of course the posters may have been printed later – but certainly the film before that – maybe he had such huge and wonderful success with Lawrence that he then reverted to Sam Spiegel, and to hell with the fact that he’d been in prison for fraud, in Austria. Anyway, for a cameraman he took on a filmmaker who you will know – a very bright, much, much younger DP.

TH: – Nicolas Roeg?

Sir Sydney: Nicolas Roeg. You know this story? Nicolas started, as DP, the shoot on "Zhivago", and I knew he was a good cameraman, half Freddie’s age, probably - but David Lean simply did not like what he saw on the screen. And probably, through bad luck for Nic, they started with a huge street scene at night – remember, with the trams going up and down? The street lamps on, and snow, and the crowds of extras – the whole thing, those were the first scenes they did. Anyway, after two weeks, David Lean decided he would have to change the Cameraman...now that’s a big decision on a film of that size – and he wasn’t deciding to change some inept Spanish cameraman who had been forced upon him because they were going to shoot the picture in Spain, or anything like that; Nic Roeg was an eminent Cameraman – an eminent young Cameraman – but he said, “You’ve got to go”. I’m sure that Nic would have had a very good severance payment: probably he was contracted for the whole of the picture – so goodness knows how much he got in compensation. But it’s not good to be fired off a picture; everybody in the business knows when a cameraman is changed.

Like, we were talking about Alex Thomson, weren’t we – Alex Thomson – another very good Cameraman – he started "Jesus Christ Superstar". I think they were shooting in Israel at the beginning, and after a few weeks, Norman Jewison, the Director, didn’t like what was going up on the screen – didn’t hate it, but just didn’t like it. But he must have accepted it, because what Alex Thomson shot for the first four weeks or so was in the picture, in the end – so it wasn’t that unusual or anything – but Norman Jewison changed him, and Douggie Slocombe became the Cameraman. I know that for Alex it took a bit of living down, the fact that he’d been changed.

But back to "Doctor Zhivago": it must have been a predicament for David, because he needed a Cameraman, instantly...he’d fired his Cameraman, and neither David Lean nor Nic Roeg himself wanted Nic Roeg to continue, even for ten minutes after he’d been fired – neither of them wanted that – so Nic was out, instantly. The safest thing to do was for David to go back to Freddie Young – Oscar-winning Freddie Young – who of course was absolutely acceptable to everybody – what’s the term they use when decisions are taken at board meetings? The printed minutes would report “It was received with acclamation”. Freddie Young who had done so many big pictures, including "Lawrence of Arabia", for David Lean. So Freddie was back on "Zhivago".


Sir Sydney Samuelson in his garden, October 2011.

TH: Technicolor Rome made this format called –

Sir Sydney: – Techniscope –

TH: – Super Techniscope, which used only two perfs – the entire width of the frame, leaving out the area where the soundtrack would go, so you would have a 2.35:1 flat spherical image –

Sir Sydney: Absolutely – and you had to modify each camera you used, to pull down only two perforations – but it reduced the cost of your negative by 50%! But you still have to have an internegative – an interpositive I suppose – because you had this 2.35:1 ratio spherical shape that you had to optically get up to 35mm anamorphic. You had a spherical negative – so you had to make an interpositive, and then make an internegative from that...and you were starting with a 50% area only of negative. So the purists hated Techniscope! The producers and the production accountants didn’t think it was that bad, because it was cheaper. ARRI supplied a Techniscope gate and claw movement, and we fitted them to our cameras. Depending on how much Techniscope business we had, we would not have normally modified them back; we would have kept them as Techniscope-only cameras.

The question with Bob Gottschalk vis-à-vis Techniscope – which he despised, and you would understand why: lack of quality, a fake anamorphic format. My contract – our contract – with Panavision was that we could not handle any other anamorphic equipment...but of course Techniscope was not anamorphic! And although Bob objected, I had to say to him, “Bob, I can’t afford to turn down pictures where they’ve decided they’re going to go in Techniscope. There are too many low-budget pictures being shot Techniscope, and we just have to take whatever business we can”. And Bob had to admit that our contract of exclusivity was limited to shooting in true anamorphic.

I remember we serviced one of the Olympic Games films and it was, like, 30 cameras from us of all different kinds – all modified to Techniscope. It was the biggest contract of its kind we’d ever had - it was the Mexican Olympics. And it so happened that the presenter for the BBC doing the television coverage - he’s now retired, but he was the number one sports commentator for the BBC – was David Coleman. We switched on for the opening ceremony, we were sitting watching it and the compère said, “Oh, and by the way there’s a feature film being made of this brilliant event, and everywhere you look, there are film cameras. And I can tell you, that whenever you see a film camera, it’s come from a British company, called Samuelsons”. It was just one of the great business moments of my life! “It’s come from a British company - Samuelsons” [Laughs]

Anyway, we’ve diverted a bit – we must go back to David Lean. So the small Freddie Young picture that we were involved in was called "Rotten to the Core" – it didn’t do much business I think. It was a comedy, black-and-white, it was the Boulting Brothers and it was shot at Pinewood with four Panavision anamorphic lenses on their studio cameras. And "Lord Jim", incidentally, I think must have been after "Lawrence", but it was 65mm Panavision and they hired the equipment direct. I went to see Freddie when he was shooting "Lord Jim" on the big silent stage at Shepperton – but it wasn’t our equipment. Maybe some ancillary gear came from us, like grip, dollies, geared heads, filters – whatever.

Anyway, back to "Zhivago" – they shot it – what did we call it – Panavision –

TH: It was filmed in Panavision – 35mm anamorphic –

Sir Sydney: Yes, that’s right...yes it was, sorry – yes it was 35mm anamorphic. But it was printed up – at first anyway – to 65mm. So I think they composed for a 65mm frame, and that’s how it became acceptable, instead of shooting on expensive 65mm negative. David and Freddie and crew would have happily accepted shooting on 35mm negative – anamorphic – instead of 65mm spherical. Of course, there was also a 65mm anamorphic system –

TH: Ultra Panavision –

Sir Sydney:
Ultra Panavision – I suggest we don’t go there for a moment! But "Doctor Zhivago" was 35mm anamorphic, and it was a bit of a compromise as far as the crew was concerned, compared to 65mm spherical; they’d all shot "Lawrence" and, no doubt, "Lord Jim" as well. Anyway, I went out to see Freddie, because we took over the servicing of "Zhivago"...because we became official agent for Panavision, Europe while "Zhivago" was shooting. And I remember going to the studio in Spain, and they were doing an interior, where they were all (the actors) supposed to be bitterly cold; they were in great thick overcoats – Omar Sharif, and our great actor –

TH: Julie Christie?

Sir Sydney: – Julie Christie –

TH: Rita Tushingham –

Sir Sydney: – Rita Tushingham. No, the man – Alec Guinness.

TH: – Ralph Richardson?

Sir Sydney: – Ralph Richardson, yes that’s another one. Guinness won the Oscar for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" – that came in there – that was earlier I think, that was CinemaScope.

They were all there, in these thick Russian overcoats...and it was the height of Summer! With brute arcs, in the crude Spanish studio, with no air conditioning. And the only thing they’d got was like dustbins full of ice, with electric fans blowing on top of them to throw out a bit of cold air. And – David Lean would not be able to say, “Turn over” until the make-up people had been in, and dabbed everybody’s faces at the last moment. And of course, he had to post-sync everything, because there were 20 noisy fans blowing into dustbins of ice to try to make it bearable to do any shooting at all.

Anyway, they shot that picture, and of course it was a huge success. Freddie Young again got an Oscar – David Lean was not recognised, at all. They had some brilliant Cinematography in it – one of the iconic shots of all time I think was the shot of Julie Christie looking through a frosted-up window. Can you remember that shot? She sort of clears it of snow, and you see that beautiful face through the window. The “snow” for the Russian country house sequence was actually all marble dust – amazing! John Box, he too won an Oscar, for Production Design – remember all the icicles and things? All fake!

Anyway, it was wonderful picture – there was an excellent VHS, have you ever seen the tape about the making of "Zhivago"? You have? Good.

TH: I have the DVD –

Sir Sydney: I was going to lend it to you! In it, there’s the stuff about the actress running along the side of the train, trying to hand her baby in, and there was a real life accident, she was hurt, and she was rushed to hospital. David Lean didn’t increase his number of friends when, after she’d been taken to hospital, and nobody knew how injured she might or might not be, he said, “Right, get a double for her” and he continued shooting! And when you think of it, he was absolutely right – what difference does it make? Nobody on the set could give any medical attention; the woman was in hospital. They had got the train, and a thousand extras, and whatever else there was – but David was considered to be totally heartless, that his actress had been taken away in an ambulance.

Anyway, that was just one of many incidents; you obviously know "Zhivago" and the making of it very well; you know that those Winter scenes with the horses were shot in Finland. An absolutely wonderful picture and, I think, a film that was hugely enhanced by the brilliance of the music. Incidentally, the main theme is the most recorded film theme in the history of Cinema – it’s called Lara’s Theme. And it was actually from a folk song, a Russian folk song. Other musicians, other than Maurice Jarre (who got an Oscar for it), it gets up their noses that the main theme, he didn’t even write it! But he used it.

But that’s very much a musician’s complaint, because most films have source music in them. And so the nominated composers, who don’t get the Oscar, they always seem to feel to be able to complain...but of course it was mainly source music, but he still got a bloody Oscar, didn’t he!

Anyway, so "Zhivago", we were on. It was not our equipment – other than some ancillaries that maybe Shepperton didn’t have. I think all the cameras came from the Shepperton Camera Department, and they had a freelance Camera Engineer, Ted Worringham, on the crew.
Then, the next one after that was "Ryan’s Daughter". Now what happened here was I don’t think there was ever going to be a different Cameraman to Freddie, because David had had such a difficult cameraman experience on "Zhivago". Particularly the American critics, they slated "Ryan’s Daughter". I think you’ll find there was 9 years between the release of it, before David did his next (and last) film...which was "A Passage to India".

They built a village on the west coast of Ireland – do you know all about the making of "Ryan’s Daughter", so I don’t need to go into that?

Thomas and the School House from "Ryan's Daughter" on the west coast of Ireland, 4 July 2004

TH: I visited the area where it was photographed. And the schoolhouse is still there –

Sir Sydney: Really –

TH: - and many people make pilgrimages to the schoolhouse to enjoy the –

Sir Sydney: What is it called now? There was a single short name – not Brawdy – that’s on the west coast of Wales –

TH: Dunquin –

Sir Sydney: Dunquin? I don’t think so. [Ed. – the village is called “Kirrary” in the film]

TH: Yes, they were based in a small village called Dingle –

Sir Sydney: Dingle – that’s it!

TH: But 14 kilometres to the west you reach the west coast of Ireland – and there’s a very small village called Dunquin -

Sir Sydney: Really...and you’ve been there –

TH: - and it’s beautiful -

Sir Sydney: Right – well I want to tell you a bit about "Ryan's Daughter"...the equipment side of it. I feel comfortable with you knowing...Did I tell you before about the first few days of rushes – David wouldn’t accept them?

TH: No –

Sir Sydney: OK, it was 65mm – in this case, all the equipment was shipped first to us, and the David Lean camera crew came to our works to check it out – used all our facilities. And of course, everything not supplied by Panavision, for example grip equipment, came from us. So we received for the Panavision stuff a small percentage of the hire fee – I can’t quite remember what it was. When we started with Panavision anamorphic for 35mm, Bob wouldn’t at first tell us what commission we should receive – until my brother Tony and I were actually at the airport, to fly back to London, about to go through immigration. Finally Bob decided to tell us what our percentage of the rental would be. As we went in to immigration Bob whispered in my ear, “You’ll get 20%”. Well I was so thrilled to be winning the Panavision agency – exclusive in Europe – and I was truly delighted. But it’s indicative of how much common sense that Bob had, that even though he was so difficult in other respects – because I soon had to go to him and say, “Bob, with the amount of work we’re involved in, especially now that it’s as much spherical as anamorphic – ” (because anamorphic temporarily went out of fashion to an extent – there was always some, but not very much. Cost was really the reason for it) – I had to say to Bob, “ – we can’t manage on 20%. There’s too much of our people’s time required, throughout a movie”. And he said, “Well I’ll think about it, and I’ll let you know”. In other words, that’s a big difference to saying, “Well what do you think it should be”. Or, “What are you asking for” - I didn’t even have that option. He said, “I’ll think about it; I’ll let you know”. And quite honestly, if he’d said, “No, I’ve decided you’ll have to manage on 20%”, I wouldn’t have thrown away the benefit of having Panavision under our roof – and all the rental business for all the other equipment we received. But nevertheless, I expected – I’d made a good case for what we had to do and what our involvement was. And do you know, he phoned me and said, “I’ve decided on a new percentage; you’ll get 40%” - he doubled it! Just like that.

To finish this bit of the "Ryan’s Daughter" story, because it’s to do with the equipment; it was Panavision 65 equipment. The crew had done extensive tests - not like the Kubrick ones, photographing a monitor that was focussed on a focussing scale! [Chuckles] But they’d done really accurate lens tests – and they’d gone away to Ireland with this huge load of gear – very happy – everybody was happy. We were happy, because of what we knew. I think the original schedule was about 20 weeks – of course it went much more than that – you know, I expect, that they ran out of good weather? And they went and shot in South Africa...did you know they had to paint the cliffs there to match the ones they’d shot in Ireland?
Freddie Young's Camera Team on "Ryan's Daughter. Chris Holden (Focus Puller/2nd Unit Camera Operator) lower left with tweed cap. David Lean in the middle, next to 65mm Panavision camera. Image from Russ Holden

Anyway, back to my side of it, after the first 3 days of shooting in Dingle, I got a phone call from there, from the Production Manager – one of the biggest – big-time Production Managers – John Palmer – and he said, “Sydney, we’ve got terrible trouble here, we’ve had our rushes back and there’s a problem with the focus”. I said, “What kind of problem?” He said, “Well, David has just stormed out...we’ve had our first day’s rushes and David has stormed out and said, ‘That’s absolutely useless, the lot of it’”. And John said, “We’ve remonstrated with him – ” – Does that word mean anything? Remonstrated? – Argued. “We’ve argued with him that it seems alright, and his camera crew felt that it was probably OK”. My first question was, “You’ve got three cameras out there at the moment – have you been shooting on all three?” “Yes, we have”. And I said, “Are you saying that all three have gone out of focus?” “Yes – everything – David says everything is soft”. I said, “Impossible! Nobody, including me, could be as unlucky as to have three cameras that have each been tested, with their own lenses, no way would all three cameras, simultaneously, on one day, go out of focus. There must be something else”. I said, “What we’ll have to do is shoot some tests – shoot the same thing, on all three cameras and get it off to the lab. And then let’s look at what we’ve got”. I said, “I’m going out on a limb (another expression) and saying, ‘It cannot be a fault of three cameras and three lenses, that have been tested at the same time; there has to be something else’”. I had really no idea what it might be, but labs have also been known to have problems with their own printers.

Anyway, the production manager said, “Mr. Lean wants you to come to Dublin and he will bring the rushes with him. You’ve got to go to Dublin because there’s no 65mm projection in Ireland nearer than Dublin”. And I said, “Right, I’ll get on an early plane tomorrow”. This was in the evening – they’d just seen their rushes after shooting for their second day. And he said, “No, Mr. Lean wants you to be on a plane tonight”. So I said, “Well I don’t know if I can get a seat on a plane tonight”. The Production Manager said, “We have already booked you a ticket...and we will send a car for you at Dublin Airport”. And certainly, when it’s David Lean, and it’s the biggest picture of the year, without any doubt – I think it was the only 65mm picture probably shooting anywhere in the Western World because of the cost-cutting that was going on...Russia may have been shooting 70mm – anyway, of course I was on the plane that night – you don’t say, “Well, tell Mr. Lean he’ll have to wait for me until tomorrow”. And when I got to Dublin, there wasn’t a taxi waiting for me, it was a unit limousine – like a Mercedes – it took me to the big hotel in Dublin – The Shelbourne. Anyway, in those days it was like the big traditional hotel in Dublin. There were four or five who’d come from Dingle: David Lean; the Associate Producer – who I think was Anthony Havelock-Allan; Freddie Young; and the Operator, the one who did several of David’s big pictures – who subsequently shot David Lean’s last film, "A Passage to India" – Ernie Day – he was the operator. Ernie had become a Cameraman but went back to operating, I think to do 65mm for David Lean and Freddie Young – I think that’s what happened. So there were four of them – but when the taxi pulled up, at the pavement outside the hotel, there was David Lean, on his own, pacing up and down. And so I got out, the car drove off, and I said, “Hello David, what are you doing out here all on your own?” He said, “I wanted to be the first to talk to you, Sydney”. And he said, “I think the old boy has lost it”. Something one could say about anyone, if they did something you didn’t like.

Well honestly Tom, because I had such – not just respect and regard – I was in awe of Freddie Young’s entire career as a Cameraman – and as a person, as it happens – and when someone says that, even if he’s got his arm through my arm, I found it really difficult to accept. And I suppose I just said, “Well David, let’s look at the first rushes”. So we went off to the theatre and they projected it of course, in 65mm. It was a standard commercial cinema and I had no way of knowing whether the quality of their lenses, even the quality of the movement of their projectors – I’d no idea what the technical quality of that commercial cinema’s 70mm projection equipment was – how accurately maintained it was. Secondly, I think I should even ask – what sort of date would it be, do you think, Tom?

TH: 1969, 1970.

Sir Sydney: About 1970 – I was 45...I know by then I was wearing glasses – what I’m getting at is, I’m not sure my eyesight was not good enough to be able to absolutely critically analyse the sharpness on the screen. Of course if something was soft I would see it was soft – but if it was not 100% perfectly sharp, it was a very fine degree of opinion. And while I couldn’t honestly say, “It looks perfect to me”, equally, it didn’t look as though it was optimum sharp. It may not have been optimum sharp.

Anyway, I said, “Have you shot the comparison tests?” “Yes, we have, and the labs are putting them through as soon as they get them”. The final opinion was that there was nothing wrong at all. They didn’t change a single lens for any of the three cameras.

But I tell you that story – I want to tell you it, because it’s an example of how personal jealousy – or whatever you like to call it – how the great, wonderful, brilliant, David Lean, right inside, how he felt about Freddie Young, I mean.

TH: That’s extraordinary.

Sir Sydney: It is extraordinary.

TH: Freddie Young, he would have been around 70 – wasn’t he born in 1902?

Sir Sydney: He was 90- something when he died – I think he was almost exactly my mother’s age. I remember, my mother was born in 1901, so if this was 1970, Freddie was about 70...round about that age.

Anyway, there are shots I’ve seen Freddie do – most of them I thought are excellent, some of them I thought are unbelievable, in the extent of them, or in the effect he’s obtained – and I suppose the mirage shot in "Lawrence" is the most famous of them all, which, when you think of it, Freddie had little to do with. Panavision simply made and delivered a very long focal length lens! And it picked up the heat waves wafting over the desert vista.

TH: Omar Sharif coming right up towards the camera from a very long distance away –

Sir Sydney: Yes, it was entirely wonderful. Freddie actually takes the credit of inventing that lens. And Panavision – he would have you believe it was to his specification – I don’t actually think it was.

TH: When I was in Los Angeles in 1994 we went and visited Panavision’s plant –

Sir Sydney: And did you see the lens?

TH: Tak showed us around and said, “You can take all the pictures you want, you can do anything – here’s the camera – ” - the big rack-over camera they used on "Lawrence of Arabia" – “ - and this is the lens - the 450mm”. It was basically just a tube with a small shade, and a mount. And he said, “This was the longest we could make – we measured out the focal length after we put the optics together – ” - the actual glass in the tube – “ - we took it to our parking lot to measure the focal length”.

Sir Sydney: The scale on it, yes -

TH: - The scale on the lens. Because when he did a long shot –

Sir Sydney: - We’re back to Tak! But even Tak, he was only sort of modifying lens elements that already existed. And actually, we’re back to our 20 to 1 (for 35mm) zoom lens. Because that’s all we were doing – I don’t know if they had to specify the formula for the diopter; I suppose they did. I don’t think you could take just any diopter, stick it on with superglue at the back, and that made it into an f11 20 to 1 lens! [Laughs] But I’m pretty sure that let’s just say the “mirage” lens was nothing special. But what an effect – what a shot, what “cinematographic brilliance”.

But what I was getting at was, there were also some scenes which Freddie shot – which I thought – even some in "Ryan’s Daughter" – for example, today, those scenes on the rocks, with the sea breaking over them – over the rebels trying to get at the guns – do you remember those scenes? I consider, in today’s terms, that they’re a bit over- lit: in other words they’re exteriors – daylight – but on set Freddie used to have a bank of brute arcs, powered by generators. I would prefer – I know that they call it fill light – I wouldn’t dare say it to anybody on Freddie’s camera crew or anything, but I think I would say on some of Freddie’s stuff – including those shots in "Ryan’s Daughter" – that they were over-lit by the fill light. And I often say to Doris when we’re watching an old Hollywood film – and it can be a cowboy film – and you get those shots where they’re exteriors, and they’ve got these bloody great brute arcs – not getting rid of the shadows, but almost losing the shadows over the eyes. Because that’s how you did it, in those days. But it’s not how it really looks, and these days there is a halfway. It’s a bit like night shots – you know, the traditional day-for-night was you would use backlight sun and you would under-expose two stops. That was kind of formula you started with – backlight, or three-quarters backlight, and no fill light and two stops under-exposed. And put on your camera sheet “Print Day-for-Night”. So they knew it wasn’t a mistakenly under-exposed shot: it was done for a night effect.

Clint Eastwood

Now I’m always interested in how did they do the night shots. There’s a film, that I expect you’ll go and see if you haven’t already seen it – it’s called "J Edgar"

TH: Clint Eastwood’s new movie –

Sir Sydney: Now I’m an admirer of Clint Eastwood; I think he’s a brilliant Director...even films of his that are not so successful – what’s the one about Mandela?

TH: "Invictus"

Sir Sydney: Yes! I thought that was a great film – and I thought, “What a difficult film to make!” With those crowd scenes...I thought it was a fine film. And there are several other Clint Eastwood credits that I thought were really good. Some of them of course he’s acting in them himself, as well...Anyway, you haven’t seen "J Edgar"?

TH: I have not seen it yet – I want to see it –

Sir Sydney: Well, please go and see it, because I want to talk to you on the phone afterwards – tell me if you don’t think that, even if you’re a fan of what I call the traditional 1930s and 1940s Warner Bros. Crime, black-and-white low-key stuff – I love that style; it’s not as real as drama cinematography is these days – but tell me if you don’t feel that "J Edgar" is too far, and there’s no detail in the shadows at all. If somebody’s walking across the set there will be some backlight effect – but you don’t see even a glimmer of the legs, or the movement, or the arms, or the hands and so on. And of course I’ve also to say that my eyesight is not even as good as when I was analysing Freddie Young’s alleged out-of-focus situation in Dublin. My eyesight is not particularly good now; not good at all. So I have to keep that in mind – I have to keep in mind that maybe the lab simply delivered a very dark print, or video – as it is now. But you don’t see much faulty lab work these days...so I’ll be really interested if you feel it’s a bit “underdone”.

But in the old days of course, everyone was so perfectly lit – and there were never any heavy eye shadows, because they always had, in Hollywood, at least a couple of brutes and a genny out in the sticks with them, to fill in the faces...and especially applied to the girl – the romantic lead – she was always beautifully lit – and of course it was ridiculously unreal.

Anyway, back to "Ryan’s Daughter" – they had desperate trouble with it – after those first terrible “out of focus” days, which of course all faded into the Irish sunset...and of course David, he hadn’t it in him, I’m afraid, to phone me, perhaps saying, “I’m sorry Sydney, I must have almost given you a nervous breakdown. I’m sorry, it all came to nothing to worry about – it was my own fault” – that’s not David Lean. I’ve actually always found that one of the best things you can do in life - in any respect – private life, family life, business life, technical life – is, if you get something wrong, apologise. It’s absolutely amazing! [Laughs] If you say, “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve made a mess of that, can we do it again?” Or, “What can I do?”, or, “I’ve re-done it”, or anything like that.

Fogging a roll of film

Samuelson Film Service Limited. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site

My thoughts about that go right back to when I first became a documentary Camera Assistant – have I told you about unloading magazines in a darkroom? I found myself with the Colonial Film Unit; they had three camera units – two on-staff assistants, and I’d just been taken on as the third assistant – two were shooting abroad, in West Africa, but the three cameramen were still here. And so I found myself on an assignment where I was the only assistant for three cameramen...three Newman-Sinclair 200ft roll cameras. And so, at the end of the day’s shoot, having got all the gear back into the office in Soho Square – we had a darkroom with a long bench in it, and I had about seven, maybe eight magazines to unload. Now I thought to myself, like smart*** Sydney, “The thing to do is to have a system here”. So I – with the light on of course – laid all seven or eight magazines along the bench, with the lids uppermost, and then, above each magazine, I put an empty 400ft film can. And by each 400ft film can I put the lid at the back, and in the can itself I put the paper bag that you’re going to put the roll of exposed negative into. Then I switched off the light, went to the first magazine and opened the lid, and put it at the side, then I went to the second one, third one, all the way along – then in the dark, the pitch dark, I had all seven magazine lids open. I then went back to the first magazine, took out the roll of exposed negative, reached for the black bag, knew exactly where it was, put the negative in, put the black bag in the can, and put the lid on, ready to put the camera tape round it, when I put the light back on.

I went along and attended to all the magazines. I switched the light on, only to find I’d done six. There was a magazine with it’s lid off, and a roll of negative, winking at me, with the light on. I quickly put the light off. I’d only just got this job and so it was a matter of, “Do I tell them? Do I tell my boss, the Cameraman, who had the misfortune to have me attending to the seventh Newman-Sinclair magazine, which contained his own work – or don’t I say anything and hope for the best – even for a miracle?” And I’m afraid I thought, “I switched the light off very quickly...and you can only see one side of the roll of film”. Obviously the negative round the outside of the roll, that’ll be fogged – but that doesn’t matter. And do you, Tom, know, I took a chance – because I knew I’d lose my job. If I went in and said – no matter how sorry I said I was – it would be the best rolls of film, the ones which would have the best stuff on them. But unusable through fogging. So I must have reasoned, let’s see, I was just out of the Air Force then, so it was...1947...I was 22 – in my naivety I thought, “What have I got to lose? I’ll be fired, anyway”. And maybe I switched the light off quick enough. I didn’t sleep much that night. And, as soon as the rushes were delivered by the lab I had to take them into the projection box. I think it was my job to put them onto projection split spools, ready to be shown. So I was of course able to look at roll 7. And I looked at the lab report, and it said, “Slight edge fog at end of roll”. And the end of the roll was about a foot of it, and the fogging didn’t even reach the inside of the perforations!

It’s a case also of “how lucky can you be?” But, against what I’ve been saying now, I’ve always found, probably since then, better to apologise, but then, knowing it was going to be the end of the job because I would have definitely have been fired, because I was given the job by the Producer, an old documentarist called George Pearson – and the Chief Cameraman thought he should have given me the job, not the Producer, he didn’t love me anyway! So it would have been a good excuse for the Chief Cameraman, Hal Morey, to be able to go into George Pearson’s office and say, “I’ve just fired that young bloke that you took on...do you know what he did? He fogged a whole roll of film – first day!” I suppose it’s all part of life’s tapestry.

Anyway, back to "Ryan’s Daughter". There were no other problems for us with it. We actually came up with the idea of taking a piece of optical glass, and finding a manufacturer who makes the spinning glass windscreen for ships, so that when they’re in rough weather, the seawater breaking over the spinning glass is thrown off by centrifugal force. It was really my brother David who came up with the idea, and particularly the fact we’d have to (a) get a piece of optical flat; (b) it would have to be cut in a circle to be inserted into the window of a bridge of a ship – we’d have to cut a hole of the right size, and we’d have to find the firm who make the mechanism – the frame that the spinning glass goes into – and the motor – the electric motor that spins it around – and we did all that. But Freddie, in his book, says, “I came up with the idea” [Laughter] My brother David, Joe Dunton and our other techies, they’re the ones who should really take the credit. Doesn’t matter – and we even heard the same after "Ryan’s Daughter" finished shooting. Whether they’d got the idea from "Ryan’s Daughter" I don’t know, but someone else claimed, in America, that they’d invented the idea of a spinning disk, through which the lens could shoot, to do rough water scenes. You know that David Lean first ran out of sunshine, and then ran out of bad weather! And they had one crew with a cameraman – the Second Unit Cameraman, Denys Coop, his crew stayed on, for weeks, together with whatever artists were needed, to get those rough sea shots. But they were hugely effective, when they’d got them. And it was an example I think of Freddie’s photography which was not only full of beauty; it was full of realism. It was like the west coast of Ireland, the awful weather that they have, more often than they have lovely sunshine. And I don’t want to say the schoolroom lighting was flat, because it wasn’t – it was not lit to look like a luxurious set...it looked like a very basic, Irish, village schoolroom. And I thought it was brilliant – beautifully photographed. So Freddie, alleged to have lost his way, he could do photography of any kind you liked – and apart from that, there wasn’t a bad feeling for anybody in his own personality. I can’t ever remember him complaining about anybody. And I think if a junior...if his focus puller said, “I’m a bit worried about that take Freddie” – because as you know, after a take the director says, “How was it?” – I think the way it would happen is the focus puller, he’d be unlikely to say, “Not good for me!” – he would say, either to his operator, or to his cinematographer, “I’m not too happy with that one”. And Freddie would then say, “Going again!” So he, Freddie, would kind of take the edge off the misery of the focus puller, who needed another take.

So that’s what I know about "Ryan’s Daughter" – except that the final coup de grace in the relationship was that Freddie got an Oscar for that one as well! [Laughter] Amazing – but the other interesting Oscar-related thing about "Ryan’s Daughter" was – there are not many actors I would say who are close friends of mine, but John Mills was a longtime friend...and I always used to go and see him when I was close by, say at Pinewood – he lived just down the road in Gerrard’s Cross. He had a lovely old house there, so I would call in and see him – and his house was absolutely full of memorabilia – anything – sailor’s hats that he’d worn when he was in a submarine film, and all sorts of things. And he once said to me – such an amusing thing – because if you remember, in "Ryan’s Daughter" he played the Village Idiot –

TH: Michael –

Sir Sydney: Michael – quite right! And John said to me, “Well, I finally got one”. And I said, “You mean, you finally got an Oscar – about time”. He said, “Yes, what is amazing is that I’ve been in all these films, where I’ve had long speeches; I’ve been in the film versions of British classics where the crew have applauded because I’ve spoken in Shakespearean language for 4 ¼ minutes, in one go, and yet I’ve never had sight of an Oscar...and then, when I’m in a film where I’m a blithering Idiot, who doesn’t say a word, I win an Oscar! Perhaps that’s where I went wrong!” [Laughter] It is ironic, really –

So what else would you like to ask me?

TH: Did you know David Lean personally, also?

Sir Sydney: I did –

TH: From the picture you showed me, you seem to have –

Sir Sydney: I did, and I’ll tell you how it worked with David – something like a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, but different – insomuch as David would say, “I’m in town”. He used to, until about five years before he died - he didn’t have a permanent home in town – I think he had a home in Switzerland, and a home on Bora Bora – the island in the South Pacific – and he even made a film in 16mm which he shot himself in Bora Bora.

TH: Yes, it was about the anchor of a ship –

Sir Sydney: Oh was it – and he was there – Doris and I were friendly with three of his six wives...six wives is going some, isn’t it! And he would occasionally phone me – maybe once every six to twelve months – when he was back in London for something. And when you think of it, he didn’t make a movie for nine years in one period – but when he was in town, he used to always stay at the Berkeley Hotel in Sloane Street – or Knightsbridge – somewhere around there. He would say, “Are you going to invite me to lunch, on Tuesday?” And I would immediately say, “I am” – because whatever I was doing on Tuesday, if I already had something in my diary I’d change it – and he’d say, “Have you got new things to show me?” And I would say, “I’ll have a think about what’s ‘new’ that you haven’t seen” – because David knew a lot about new equipment.
And especially lenses: what this lens was like, and the perspective you’d get with 100mm compared to a 35mm. And he would say things like – when they were setting up a shot – he’d say to his operator, “Ernie, looks like a 40 to me” – you know, I can’t remember, but he maybe would be doing one of those – he’d say, “Looks like a 40 to me”. He knew the acceptance angle of a 40, and every other lens.

So there would always be some new lenses, to show; and I wonder if I ever showed him the 20 to 1 – you see he didn’t shoot much 35mm of that kind. He would have said, “f11? I’m looking to be able to shoot stuff at f2! Not faster than that”. “How do you keep it sharp?”, he would have said. We may have even talked about Kubrick at f1...Anyway, he had lovely still camera equipment of his own. And I remember how thrilled he was, because we used to make the metal rigidised aluminium cases -we had our own factory. We absolutely introduced those cases, to the industry...foam fitted inside, so whatever camera it was, and what ancillaries he wanted in the same case, including spare lenses, maybe a couple of magazines, whatever – we used to fit them out. And of course, all the thousands of cases of our own equipment were all in rigidised aluminium. It was stronger and lighter than what camera cases used to be made of, which were plywood covered with either leather or plastic.

Anyway, I remember while he was on one of his lunch visits – usually he brought a wife with him, and his sixth wife actually was a photographer herself. Well, he brought his new camera, I think it was a brand new, latest model Leica – there was a shop in an arcade off Piccadilly that sells nothing but Leica cameras – and I think he’d brought a new one, and being David Lean, and not being short of cash, if the dealer offered five different lenses, David would buy all five. And it had a – what do you call the base you put on so it’ll do a fast series of shots? Like press photographers use?

TH: A mount?
Samuelson Film Service's Rigidised aluminium cases. Picture from Samuelson Film Service reunion site

Sir Sydney: It was a motor of some kind. He would have one of those; and he’d have a right-angled viewfinder, so he could look that way, and photograph something – a page of a book that was resting on a table – everything he would have. Anyway, when we went into my office to have lunch, I said, “Why don’t you leave your camera gear here, while we have lunch? Hilary (that was my assistant) – Hilary will look after that”. So he said, “Oh that’s a good idea”, and put down all his stuff, and went to his zipper bag, and put that there too. While we were having lunch it was collected by one of our case-making people, measured; a case was made, and it was fitted with foam rubber, for everything...and when we left, after quite a nice lunch, David said – “Ah” - because all there was then on the table, where he’d put his gear and his zipper bag, was this rigidised aluminium case! He said, “Where’s my camera?”, or “Where’s my gear?”, or whatever – and I said, “There it is”. He said, “Where?” – I said, “Try opening that metal case there”. And of course he opened it, and there it was, all laid out...a magical moment for us both!

So yes, I think I can say we were good friends, and, from his six wives, we even have a favourite, Sandy, who is in his picture.

TH: "A Passage to India"? She is coming in sailing a boat – I think that’s her.

Sir Sydney: Yes that’s right – Anne Todd was in one of David’s films that was made in Switzerland, he had an affair with her – it was one of her earlier pictures...Guy Green was the Cameraman, and it was shot in the lakes...and David had a relationship with Anne Todd, divorced his first wife. So it was early on. This was "Passionate Friends" (1948).

TH: In "A Passage to India" Sandy is sitting in a boat –

Sir Sydney: Yes...was she sailing the boat?

TH: Yes, I think, towards the very, very end of the film...

Sir Sydney: It was the end of the film, where they go to see the young fellow who was the hero, who got into all that trouble throughout the film – it was an Indian guy – a doctor –

TH: Doctor Aziz? And Alec Guinness –

Sir Sydney: Alec Guinness was in a turban – considered the example of how David Lean got his casting completely wrong! And I think it was Alec Guinness who didn’t want to play that part, didn’t think he was suitable, and didn’t enjoy the experience. Nevertheless, he was in it – but the young chap was a doctor, and it was alleged that he’d seduced / raped the young girl in it, who was played by that Australian actress – Judy –?

TH: Judy Davis –

Sir Sydney: Anyway, there were these great big caves –

TH: The Marabar Caves –

Sir Sydney: The Marabar Caves was it? They were where tourists go...and he was sort of a young Indian guy, the guide, and he took her in there, and she alleged that he’d accosted her in the cave; and he was accused of rape, or something. That was the first part of the story, and the end of it was, he was a local doctor up in the north of India – or it may have been in what became Bangladesh – it may have been Western – no, East Pakistan it was originally – at the time of separation it was Bangladesh. It may have been there, because I know up in the hills there is a tremendous amount of water in Bangladesh – they seem to regularly have floods, with people drowned – and so David may have shot that last sequence there.

But anyway, that was Sandie, his fifth wife – I doubt any of his wives, including the sixth one, his widow – I doubt any of them were short of money. David was pretty wealthy, because of course he got residuals – and he’s very generous to charities – industry charities – with his residuals.

The BFI has restored all the David Lean pictures and the David Lean Trust has paid for those restorations. So it’s fantastic that all those great pictures – quality prints are available for ever – they’re on digital, but first, they restored conventional film copies.

I’d love to be able to remember the Anne Todd film, and she was in a couple of other films for him I think, after they were married. I think she was his second or third wife. But the whole crew – I suppose it was Ronnie (Neame) who told me – there they were, up in the mountains in Switzerland and both Anne and David were nowhere to be seen for hours on end! [Laughs] And they realised that they were having an affair...did you say you remember something in a speedboat?

TH: Yes, but that was from "A Passage to India", towards the end of it –

Sir Sydney: Oh – was it a speedboat?

TH: No, I think it was just a regular riverboat –

Sir Sydney: Yes that’s right – no, in this film, the Anne Todd film, it was like one of those famous Italian speedboats that’s named after a town on a lake in Italy, in northern Italy – the little lake –

TH: - Como?

Sir Sydney: Well there’s Lake Como, that’s the big one, and there’s Lake Garda, with a town in the middle called Riva, and the speedboats are named after that...they're the ones with slatted polished wood, and they speed along if they’re allowed to – anyway, I know that some romantic scenes with Anne Todd, and whoever was the actor with her (Trevor Howard), were shot in the speedboat...I’d have to look it up, it’s in one of the David Lean life story books – and David drove, he was at the wheel – when they were doing some of the shots. I can’t quite remember what that story was all about. Claude Rains played the husband, the older man.
What else?

TH: I think, as we come to the end –

Sir Sydney: We haven’t given you anything to eat, Thomas!

TH: - That’s fine!
Go to next chapter: Ken Annakin, "Grand Prix", James Bond, Helicopters
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Updated 21-01-24