Jon Woods on the technological challenges in the 70’s and 80’s

There’s a lot of responsibility on the camera operators in those early days before video assist and video record and replay. Literally, it was film… if you imagine, during Jewel in the Crown, we were in India for six months, and I think we were there for nearly three months before we saw one foot of rushes back as VHS. So you can imagine the responsibility on your shoulders to get it right. And one thing you do learn to do is to multi-scan the screen. Even though you’re framing it, you have to keep scanning the screen, and looking for everything, everything that goes wrong.

I can remember once, I think it was the series Strangers with Mike Popley as the lighting cameraman, I was the camera operator. A Canadian director called Bill Brain, who had been himself a film lighting cameraman before he started directing, and I remember shooting a car sequence for him on one of the Strangers things, and two cars had to come together and stop at exactly the same moment, and as the cars stopped, he wanted the doors to open, instantly. And this is what he had seen in his head, this is what he wanted, and I was shooting it, and the cars stopped at exactly the right moment but the left hand car door opened about half a second after the first one. And in the rushes session the next night, watching it, he went bananas with me, saying, “I wanted it to happen almost as a ballet, the cars’ doors, and it’s late. That car’s late!” He gave me quite a bollocking about it, and I’ll never forget it, and all you can say is, “Yes, it is.”

And of course everyone makes mistakes, it’s part of the industry. Sometimes you have to re-shoot something that didn’t quite work, for a whole variety of reasons, not just your own bad camera work, but it is funny, you know, that people don’t realise the pressure that… and also in the profession, you’ve got to concentrate all the time about everything, and not… you know, I guess it’s part of… because it’s a film and because it’s part of cinema, what you don’t want is wobbly shot. If you’re framing a shot it’s got to be held steady, it hasn’t wobbled, it had to be level, it’s all those sorts of things that you’ve got to keep an eye out. Forgetting whether people are hitting the mark, whether it’s in focus, whether there’s a boom in shot, all the technique, it’s quite a responsibility.

In those days of making drama, what, the late 70s, early 80s, the director was not looking at…

A screen?

He was trusting you.

Yes. Basically, you discuss the shot, you would frame up the shot, you would show him the shot, if it’s a tracking shot you show the beginning, the end, if he feels comfortable, the grip could push him through the shot as a rehearsal…

Was there a playback on the camera?

Not at all – all film. So in those days… it was only really around the advent of 16mm cameras… when we first started were Éclair NPR cameras, 16mm cameras, a French camera, they had Arriflex BLs, Blint, B-L for Blint, camera, we then moved on to Arri SRs, and Arten cameras. Jewel in the Crown was shot on two Artens, and Artens did have a very basic black and white video assist system it come in, so we were starting then to use… but it was a dreadful… you couldn’t quantify anything, it as just an image on a very small five inch black and white monitor, and you basically couldn’t really assess what the lighting was like, you basically just saw this image and yes, that was what I was looking for. So in terms of quality of whether it was in focus, whether the colours were right, whether their contrast was right, whether the lighting was completely where you wanted it, it was a very difficult, different game.

Just as an aside on this process of filming a drama, and yes, the responsibility is yours, and because you have a lighting director there to make sure the lighting was right and the framing was right, if you… how much scope was there later on to correct things? Because there were things like grading… compared to today.

Obviously… compared to today… things are probably better now in terms of being able to grade things. The modern colour grading that Final Cut Pro and Avid now have, when you were on film and we went to grading, if it was going through Da Vinci, there was a Da Vinci process for colour grading which came in I think after Jewel in the Crown, but colour grading was a laboratory lights and filtering system, so you would go and… so the lighting cameraman would look at that. But in terms of exposure, you had a bit more latitude than you do on video for exposure attitude, especially in the whites, in the over-exposed area of the frame, with film, you can print it down and get detail in the whites, in the sky or whatever, whites, with video of course, white is white and there is no other detail within it, so you can’t… so the modern… the way we used to approach it is with slightly over-exposed film but certainly under-exposed video when we started to work in video, and so in those days, in the 16mm days, yes, you could grade it, you could change the exposure somewhat, you could change the colouration somewhat, but you can’t obviously… if it’s out of focus, it’s out of focus, and you can’t change that, and you can’t really change the framing. Nowadays, with electronic scanning on video images, and certainly in the HD world where the image has got such a lot of information in it, you can cut a bit of the corners up without it, whereas in our days, 16mm, the frame was the frame, and that was it really.

Did Granada go to 35mm shooting?

We did. I shot the titles for Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street on 35mm, using Arriflex 35 BL to shoot that, that was just for the quality because they wanted to do a lot of post work on it. But I think basically… for myself in my career, I’ve used 35mm, really, at the BBC, on Z Cars, we used to shoot that on 35mm on black and white when I first started, I shot some stuff for stage back projection on 35mm, I shot a couple of commercials through Granada on 35mm for an Italian company, but almost everything we did in terms of drama was 16mm.

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