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Life Through The Lens

61 DerekSuter

Derek Suter BSC is one of Britain's most reputable Directors of Photography with a distinguished career both in film and television having worked on some of the most notable films of the last 40 years including A Private Function, Superman 1, Laughter in the Dark and The Eagle Has Landed. Here he recounts his career from electrician to lighting man, and then starting his 'apprenticeship' to becoming a cinematographer.

Over to you Derek:-
'My introduction to the film business came in a rather roundabout way through an illicit jaunt to Croydon one lunch time. My father had a haulage company in Shepherds Bush that went bust so I took on a number of jobs including driving a concrete mixer and cleaning cars for a dealer on the Goldhawk Road.

One day my old school pal Martin Evans, who was a cousin to the Lee brothers who owned Lee Electrics, came to the dealership to ask a favour. He wanted me to give him a lift to Croydon to pick up some 10 kilowatt tungsten bulbs as all their vehicles were busy. My boss was not there to ask so we hopped in a car that should have been on the front lot and headed off to South London. When we got back 3 hours later I knew I was in trouble. My boss, Harry Northwold, who could easily have been mistaken for Danny DeVito, was not a happy man. Luckily at the time my job was saved by Johnny Lee with a short chat and a box of Harry's favourite cigars.


Through this episode Martin introduced me to Johnnie Clarke of Lee Electrics who were based down the road at Ealing. I was on the lookout for a new job, so I began by working in the stores and I also did some driving. I knew nothing of the film business but Johnnie recognised I knew about electrics, and that I just needed to learn about lighting and the different types of lights.


The first film I worked on was called Laughter in the Dark, directed by the late Tony Richardson. Johnnie came in one day and said 'Derek, on Monday you are going to start on a movie, and your gaffer will be Ronnie Pierce.'


My Mum was thrilled. I could hardly believe how well I was treated and the food on set was incredible, although we had to work very long hours. Also the money was wonderful by 1968 standards - just the per diems were more than I had been earning at the car dealership. We were working all round London and the lead star was Richard Burton. However, about four weeks into the film we were at a gallery in Bond Street. We had set up the lights inside and out and were ready to start shooting. This was about 8.30 a.m., but Richard Burton had not shown up on set; eventually his black and yellow Rolls Royce appeared. Richard walked onto the set and Tony Richardson told him that he had ruined his movie and never wanted to see Richard again and told him to 'f!!k off'. Richard Burton just turned around and said he would and walked off the set.


About a week and a half later Richard Burton was replaced by Nicol Williamson and we shot the rest of the film in London and Majorca. The trip to Spain was another first for me. I had never been abroad before and could hardly believe it when they said I would be part of the crew. The rest of them wound me up a great deal, not least because my MUM SENT ME TO THE AIRPORT DRESSED IN MY BEST SUIT AND TIE - all the others were in jeans.


After that film, I worked on other movies, BBC dramas and during the next 10 years progressed to being my own gaffer working on small commercials and documentaries.


We always had a lot of fun. During the hot summer of 1976 we were working in Maple Durham on The Eagle Has Landed. We were moving some arc lamps around when Tony Richmond (DOP) came up and said 'You look hot' - I replied 'I am' so he pushed me into the river. Mind you I got him back later, and one way or another most of us ended up in the water that day. I also worked as an electrician on David Bowie's film The Man Who Fell To Earth which was filmed in New Mexico which was an incredible location. Before the days of David Attenborough a little travelled spark didn't know much about deserts, sidewinders, rattlesnakes and scorpions - all of which we encountered. My meeting with a rattler came courtesy of the other spark, Mickey Thomas, who wrapped one round my neck in the bar. He had run it over earlier in the day, but I didn't know that at the time!


In 1979, cinematographer Brian Tufano said he would like me to be the gaffer on the film Quadrophenia. We went off and did location sorties in Brighton and London, particularly around Shepherds Bush. Lee Electrics were working now out of the old London Weekend Television Studios at Wembley. One day I was in the canteen doing some planning for the film when Brian came up to me, and said he needed to talk to me. I thought it was being cancelled, but Brian asked if I would be interested in going to the camera department.


This meant effectively leaving a permanent job, and going freelance, which was quite a risk. Rather than me being a gaffer of the lighting on the film I would become the Clapper Boy. Jeff Painter would train me how to be a camera loader and do other odd jobs such as fetching the coffee for the Director of Photography. The film introduced many up and coming stars such as Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash and Sting.


As an aside, about 10 years ago I was the Director of Photography on the TV series Where The Heart Is, and Leslie Ash was one of its cast members. She thought she remembered me and when I REMINDED HER THAT I HAD BEEN THERE WHEN SHE DID THE 'SHAGGING SCENE' IN QUADROPHENIA somehow that comment broke the ice and we got on well during the three months we worked together.


After Quadrophenia, Brian Tufano kept me busy with small pictures and commercials; and I was gradually getting into a clique of people such as Adrian Bitten and Hugh Johnson. I knew Gordon Haymen and Tony Richmond when I started to work on Bad Timing starring Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel which we filmed in Austria and London.


When working on location quite often we would meet the stars on set, and maybe have a chat with them in the bar or the 61 2 DerekSuterrestaurant. A lot of them are very normal, but obviously when working very locked up in their own activities. However, when I was working as a clapper boy on Superman in Canada, Christopher Reeve showed his fun side when he turned up to a fancy dress party put on by some local girls dressed as... you guessed it... Superman!


On Flash Gordon I started out as clapper boy to Director of Photography Gil Taylor, but moved on to First Loader. Unfortunately because we were so busy working I saw only glimpses of the mega rock group Queen when they were on set, but I did hear their fantastic music. On Flash we used Super America Cameras and Todao lenses looked after by Joe Dunton Associates based at Elstree. Joe worked with his son, Lester. The public do not realise the incredible ingenuity and skills that go into making a film and that so many are British!


On my next film I became the Focus Puller on A Private Function which was a wonderful film with Tony Pierce-Roberts as the Director of Photography. This was my first move up from being the clapper boy. Working with a live pig took me back to my childhood as my Grandad had raised two pigs in our back yard at the end of the war, to sell to Wall's for sausages. They grew so big, and the yard was enclosed, that they had to be taken out with a crane. After that I worked with John Hurt in The Hit and I did a lot with Stephen Friers.


I got to my 40th birthday, a significant milestone, and I decided that if I did not make a move to Director of Photography it would be too late, but I kept doing jobs like being a Focus Puller to pay the bills.


Terence Donovan said 'I hear you want to become a Director of Photography' and gave me some commercials to photograph including some for Weller Hairsprays (lots of stunning girls, say no more). Terence was very helpful and I remember was always very smartly dressed in a dark suit and tie. From this I moved into TV dramas and on the series The Shrinks I became a Director of Photography (DP) because the original DP was sacked and Colin Gregg and Jackie Stoller gave me their vote of confidence when my name was put forward.


Colin also used me on other productions such as Guilty, and I worked on BBC1's Pie In The Sky with the wonderful Richard Griffiths, who had a tendency to doze off when not in shot. Staying with TV dramas I worked on Cadfael with actor Derek Jacobi. Herbie Wise was the Director and it was shot in Hungary. We had to deal with temperatures of up to 10 degrees below, but we were able to be very creative artistically, a bit like trying to recreate a Canaletto. And sometimes the weather was kind - one morning we were shooting a scene in a field with a burnt out farmhouse. There was a heavy frost giving just the right atmosphere and, as if on cue, just when I needed it, the sun came out, giving a truly magical shot.


ITV's Peak Practice gave me the opportunity to be involved in some fantastic and amazing exterior shots of the beautiful county of Derbyshire. We had to shoot at least five to six minutes per day, but sometimes eight minutes. In order to help with Photography we would often look at the script in advance and see what sort of lighting might be required. The photography needs to capture the feeling of the script, for example if it needs to be low key or if there is an opportunity to capture a moment of humour then you may change the lighting to give the story a bit of a lift.


As a Director of Photography, it is important to know your lenses, and whatever shot is required of you it is vital to maintain consistency of the look and design of the photography. The things that can put pressure on you on set include strong winds and cloud affecting the light, and also if you are working with an inexperienced actor who fluffs their lines and you have a Director under time pressure. You have to be something of a politician to help keep the peace!


I would say the key to success as a Director of Photography is to know your craft and never say no to any challenge. I remember working on a film called Country Dance starring Peter O'Toole and Susannah York, directed by Lee J Thompson and the Director of Photography was Ted Moore who had been the DOP on The Man For All Seasons staring Paul Schofield. Ted was having a difficult time with Lee and often wanted to escape into the wonderful countryside we were filming. I remember in those days I would call the Director of Photography 'Sir'. One day I asked Ted for some advice and he said never say no, because once you have said no you have lost the challenge. Accept the challenge and you never know what will come out of it. I accepted a challenge when I joined Lee Electrics and look where I am today.


The differences in shooting for TV and movies are less so these days, budgets are much tighter, but the new technologies can actually add to the costs, because 30 years ago using 35mm film you would achieve much of the adjustment through the camera rather than in post production. You would still have blue screen, but the adaptability came through the lighting and the lenses. Budgets in many respects have not really increased in real terms in the last few decades. The Producers wish to use high definition and will not use either 16mm or 35mm film cameras, but I think this is a missed opportunity because 16mm, for instance, could be transferred into a digital version which can be adapted but in the first instance 16mm film is no more expensive possibly cheaper than working with HD (High Definition) and Digital. Also 16mm cameras are very practical and robust and less fiddly than HD cameras, which are much more expensive to repair. Today we have digital systems such as progressive scanning to make digital look like film but IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A PRODUCTION LOOK AS IF IT WAS PHOTOGRAPHED USING FILM THEN USE FILM, and in doing so it will be cheaper.


When filming you have to be very careful of health and safety issues and the aspirations of the Director are quite often curtailed by these issues and the potential costs. You also have to be very careful with framing because there are so many things that can come into shot when on location. For instance when I was filming Brother Cadfael we had to be careful of telegraph poles and had to take them out in post-production when we were filming on the set of Shrewsbury Abbey in Hungary.


More recently I worked as Director of Photography on Burlesque Fairytales written and directed by Susan Luciani who was a Runner on another film I was working on. She showed me the script which I found very interesting, and eventually we sat down over a curry to discuss the possibility of making of the film. She asked me to be the Director of Photography. I asked if there was any money, and she said 'no!' However, I liked the script and I liked Susan, so I agreed to do the production albeit on my terms so it fitted in with my availability. She managed to secure the services of Jim Carter to appear in the film, as well as Barbara Flynn and I think the budget overall was about £35,000. It took a year to shoot using the inside of an unused church to look like a theatre with the crypt areas being the bar of the burlesque club. There were plenty of burlesque scenes to film.


The production was shown at Cannes and then went around the various Festivals. One day I had a call from Susan to say that I had won a 'Stiffy' which caused a stir in the pub, but is the Seattle Truly Independent Film Festival Award for cinematography. I have not yet seen the award, but Susan has taken me to lunch a few times and given me about £50 towards petrol costs incurred during the shoot!


The project I am currently working on is a Rebecca Tranter picture called Father Cooper, which is awaiting finance to be finalised.


On another side of the business I work with The Plant Room based at Pinewood Studios. The company was established by Phil Bradshaw and Chris Woods and we have a number of cameras including an Alexa Plus. This type of camera has been used on Upstairs Downstairs and Hugo and is currently being used on the new Bond, Skyfall. The Plant Room is a small family run business and very different in ethos to Arri, Team Two, or Panavision.


Away from feature films I have worked on different documentary projects all around the world. I remember on one documentary we were filming for the Royal Navy two of the ship's crew members had died in Trinidad and as befitting their sea background they were buried at sea. You never know what you will encounter day to day.


I tend to be very critical of other people's work as well as my own, and when I am at home I drive my wife mad by analysing what I am watching on the screen.


I am a Member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC), and have been involved with the organisation for about 10 years. When you are proposed as a member you have to put forward three movies you have photographed, or one of your productions can be a one off drama for TV. I remember about a week after meeting the panel I received a phone call from Robin Vidgeon who said 'pour yourself a large scotch, you're in'.


One of the funniest incidents to occur on set was when we were working on the Pink Panther films. I remember the sketch in the lift beloved of many TV outtake shows when the actors kept breaking into giggles because the scene was so funny. After about 10 takes we still could not keep it together so the director Blake Edwards sent us all home. The next day we were more composed and managed to do the scene within 2 takes. When I worked on The Pink Panther Strikes Again there was a big food fight scene, and it became a mass bundle with food being thrown at everyone so that we were all covered. It was a stupid plot, but was very successful.


This is the great thing about my job - there are always new challenges, confronting the unexpected and having fun too!'

Julian Wilkins

Julian Wilkins is Editorial Director for Blue Pencil Media Limited. Julian has a LLB (Hons) in law and M.Phil in law as well as a Diploma in European law and was admitted as a solicitor in 1988; he practices in the area of media, entertainment, and intellectual property law as a consultant for Devereaux Solicitors in London. Julian is also a Notary Public and CEDR accredited commercial mediator. Julian has written for academic publications and contributed to an Exhibition Catalogue about 1960s photographer Philip Townsend. Julian is a member of the International Association of Entertainment Lawyers and also the British Institute of International and Comparative law. Julian is a finalist in The Media Lunch Club “Short Circuit” script competition to be held in November 2011. Julian’s comments “The rapidly changing world economy and technology is presenting incredible opportunities for the Creative Industries and Blue Pencil hopes to reflect and contribute to these changes.”

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