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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Oscar winner Jack Cardiff quizzed

Click here to watch the forum with Jack Cardiff.

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Jack Cardiff, one of the greatest British cinematographers, is to be honoured with the lifetime achievement award at this year's Oscars.

He is best known for films such as A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The African Queen, The Vikings and Black Narcissus, for which he got his only Oscar. He also received great acclaim for directing the film version of DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers in 1960.

Described by Marilyn Monroe as "the best in the world", Jack Cardiff has had a career spanning the 20th Century

He started as a child actor in 1918, at the age of four. He moved quickly onto the production side as runner on the 1928 film The Informer and then later as camera operator and then cinematographer.

What have been the high points of his career? Which of the many films that he has worked on has been his favourite?

Jack joined us for a live forum on Sunday and answered your questions.

Highlights of transcript:

A R Shams, Pakistan:

Would you adopt the same profession if you had to live your life over again?

Jack Cardiff:

I probably would. I think if I had the choice, I have a strong tendency to be a good painter - I like painting very much - I would like to be a better painter than I am.

Rebecca, New Zealand:

Which of your films are you most proud of?

Jack Cardiff:

Naturally I am proud of successful films that I have enjoyed working on like The Red Shoes and the Black Narcissus and I have had a certain satisfaction from that. But the films that I am most proud of - the film for instance that I made under great difficulty - Sons and Lovers - I wanted to make it into a good film because the book is marvellous and I didn't want to let the author down. We had a lot of difficult with it because the American producer stayed in Hollywood - he never came to England - so I had no producer and the representative of the company had an office in London and he never came to the studios either. But his job was to make sure I made the film with the minimum amount of money and we so we had constant arguments about the cast and the cost and things like that. So I had to fight this all the time and I developed a kind of cunning so I could weave about and get the things I wanted. In fact I didn't lose out on anything - that is an accomplishment that gives me more satisfaction than having it easy.


I also understand on that film that you had a bit of difficulty with the censors.

Jack Cardiff:

Yes it was incredible. In the love scene where the girl says "Is it me you want or it?" - in England the censor said that if I wanted to use that line they would have to give it an "X" certificate. Can you image - just for that line.

The American censors definitely told me that I mustn't do this or that. I thought about it and then I thought well I have got to do it because it was all in the book anyway. So I disobeyed the censors and when they saw the film they said "Well I see that you have not really taken our instructions but it is done with good taste and we are not going to touch a frame of it". Now that was a victory, wasn't it?

Jim Doyle, Portsmouth, UK:

Do you look back and consider any particular era to be the golden one? How do you see the future of the cinema especially as people have been predicting its demise for years and years?

Jack Cardiff:

That is inevitable that they would do I suppose and they are probably right. I like the old era of Hollywood films in the sense that they were glamorous and artificial. They were escapism - you went to the cinema to see these big stars - my favourite star was Gary Cooper and he was 6ft. 4ins and I am 5ft. 8ins but when I left the cinema I was 6ft 4ins and I had the same kind of walk and for about half and an hour I was the actor. It was escapism and self identity in a way. The girls used to copy the hairstyles, makeup and clothes. It was living in a world of fantasy which was nice.

But then gradually films got to be more real and tough. Then the people who made the films realised that the more sex you had in them and the more explosions you had with houses, people and cars blowing up - they got more money from the cinema so that has developed to quite a different genre of film. I must say I do like to think of the old films with great love.

S Hayward, Belfast:

What does the cinematographer do and why is it important?

Jack Cardiff:

That is a good question. The cinematographer has to put on film what the story and the director wants to put on film in a sense. It is no good the cameraman doing a wonderful job of photography that doesn't fit the mood of what the film and the director requires. He is virtually a kind of servant of the story and the director. Recently there has been much more empathy between the director and the cameraman. In the old days the cameraman used to light things without quite realising that however pretty it was it was against the form of the story.

I have had directors say to me "Jack, I would like you to try and get an atmosphere of pathos or poverty or happiness or something" and they would say to me "I don't know how you do it" but that is what they would say to me and I would do my best.

Today it has all changed because most of the young directors have been to film schools and they have studied lighting and they have studied film stock - they know which film stock has certain advantages over the others and they have studied all kinds of things to do with the camera. So they can say to a cameraman I would like you to use this film stock on this sequence. They can sometimes tell the cameraman what they want. It hasn't happened to me thank God but it can happen.


You were one of the first cinematographers to use the Technicolour process. So many of the things that you did - like with the Red Shoes - where you had the dancer going from a newspaper into a dancer. What was it that inspired you to take those kind of risks and to make the innovation?

Jack Cardiff:

I was not a technical person - I was never a technical person. I have always liked the more artistic side of things and I did get a lot of inspiration and knowledge from studying painting - that was very important. Working with directors like Michael Powell who was wonderful to work with because he inspired you to do your very best and any ideas you had that were a little bit crazy he would say go ahead and do it. He was audacious too and that made a big difference.

Philip Laws, Cambridge, UK:

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger always took join writing and directing credits on the Archers films - what was your daily relationship with each of them like during the shooting of a movie?

Jack Cardiff:

Before the film started there was a close collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Pressburger was the writer - he was a very intelligent and good writer and Michael Powell was the director. Between them they got the script out which was very good. Once the film was on the set and once we were making the film then Michael Powell was the director - he was in charge of everything. Emeric would come down occasionally to see how things were going. It was a very good relationship because Emeric was the intelligent, calm person thinking things out ahead. Michael was more impulsive. So they would have a sort of balance between them - it was an excellent combination.

Aaron Taylor, South Africa:

What has been your most memorable moment?

Jack Cardiff:

I think it was when my film Sons and Lovers went down so well at Cannes - that was a great moment. There have been several memorable moments; one was when I got the first Oscar. The film business is like that - you have your highs and lows.

Jacqueline, UK:

Which star that you worked with do you most admire?

Jack Cardiff:

Oh there were so many. I have this tremendous worship for good acting. I love good actors. To me they have a gift - it is like great painters - you don't go to school to learn how to be a great painter - you have it inside you and the really great actors have it inside them. They have a talent which is unbelievable and sometimes I am in awe of them. Trevor Howard for instance and on the ladies side, Maggie Smith and Meryl Streep - they are really fantastic actors and that makes a great deal of difference. I think that sometimes they can make an ordinary film great just by the fact that they can act. It is maybe the things that they don't act - they are the person - that is the great secret - they become the person.

Gareth, London, UK:

Why did you never direct another film after the Mutations which is regarded by many as a classic cult horror film?

Jack Cardiff:

We had this awful distorted make up and I didn't realise that once it was made it was set and I couldn't alter it. So I had to go through the film with the same sort of makeup. It was one of those films that I wasn't happy with but it did have some surprising supporters. It depends so much on the way you see things. I know that I have made some films that I liked very much - for instance - Girl on a Motorbike - that was a film I enjoyed making and I was very pleased with it. I made in two versions; I made it in English and I made it in French. When it came out in France, the French version was a big success. But when it came to London the critics didn't like it at all so that baffled me a bit. But it has gradually grown and today it is a cult movie which is some gratification.

Tim, Australia:

Which contemporary actors and directors do you respect?

Jack Cardiff:

I can't say much about that one because where I have been living we didn't have a cinema and my son Mason, who is now a co-producer on the one I hope to do, sometimes he mentions somebody and I say - "Who is that?" and he says "Dad - you mean you don't know this person?" So I not completely familiar with the current situation. People like Dustin Hoffmann, I have had a great regard for him but there are so many present day actors that I don't know and so many that are still going around that I admire very much.

Andrew, London, UK:

With the advent of digital technology are we about to see the death of traditional film stock for shooting films?

Jack Cardiff:

I think that is inevitable. I think we are the beginning of this vast change - it is frightening so far as I am concerned. I have got to learn new words like megabytes and pixels and it is like learning Russian backwards! What they can do now with special effects is unbelievable.

Paul, UK:

How do you see the role of the cinematographer in this new digital age?

Jack Cardiff:

I suppose he has got to be more of an expert in that field than I was in my field. He has got to know about pixels and megabytes. He has got to be something of a general technician in that sense too. Basically, the form of light on the persons and light on the scene can never change because that is part of life. So I think he would have to have a good knowledge of this. When I have done lectures in England and abroad, I have always told the young people training to be cameramen that they must study painting and technique. Because the painters used light, whether they were painting a landscape or a bowl of fruit, they used light and light is the all important thing. My favourite painter is Turner because he used to use light. This is a great thing for cameramen - they can use light and they can manipulate it - especially lighting with lamps. There is a great similarity with the knowledge of lighting and painting.

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