Old Master of color has earned the gold

Jack Cardiff, who used Technicolor the way the great painters used paint, will get an honorary Academy Award.

March 25, 2001|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jack Cardiff, at age 87, is the first cinematographer to receive an honorary Academy Award - it's usually bestowed on stars like Kirk Douglas and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. Cardiff has earned it.

He pioneered the use of Technicolor as a vast expressive palette when others looked on it as eye candy. He worked with poetic intuition, proving that Technicolor's intricate light-splitting camera and three strips of film could achieve the limpidity of Old Masters, or the undulating shades of the impressionists.

Martin Scorsese considers Cardiff's location shooting on "The African Queen" and studio work on "Black Narcissus" high-water marks of realistic art and all-out artifice. But speaking with me and swapping e-mails from Kent, England, Cardiff pooh-poohs any talk about the good old days, and sounds optimistic about capturing living detail in the digital age.

"Technicolor will glow in history as the creator of colored films," he says. "The emergence of Eastman color, and now the incredible digital explosion, will never take away Technicolor's glory. But, personally, I feel one can confidently embrace the new technology - it is all up to the cameramen to create effects as before."

Cardiff is part of the filmmaking generation that came to maturity with the medium. "I can't really believe it myself that I started in movies so long ago," he says. "I started as a kid actor, 4 years of age, in 1918. And the first cinematograph show in London, brought over from France, was in 1896. Incredible!"

The son of music-hall parents, he skipped from one school to another, becoming an inveterate reader and a fan of the National Gallery and the Tate. His performing career and formal education both ended with puberty; compelled by the illness of his comedian father to find a job before age 14, he began as a director's gofer, then worked his way up from the bottom rungs of the British studios' camera departments.

"American cameramen were my heroes in my teens," he recalls. "When I was at the Denham studios, they were being run by Alexander Korda, brilliantly, as the nearest thing to Hollywood you could imagine."

In 1936, he was summoned by representatives of an American company: Technicolor. They planned on exporting the process to the United Kingdom and wanted to employ a British cameraman. When Cardiff came to the "audition," he remembers:

"Those who had already been interviewed came out very groggily; they said all the questions were so technical. So when I got in and heard the same questions, I said, `I don't think I'm your man, because I'm a mathematical dunce.' They asked, `Well, how do you expect to get on?' I said, `I study light, and I study painting, and I study light and painting together.' "

Cardiff discussed Rembrandt, Vermeer, the candle lighting of Georges de la Tour, the camera obscura of Pieter de Hooch. He nailed the job. "My technical knowledge was low - and always has been," he confesses. "I've always relied more on ideas."

Cardiff's breakthrough came during World War II, with a Ministry of Information feature - a tribute to the Merchant Navy called "Western Approaches" (in the United States, "The Raider").

In his memoir, "Magic Hour: The Life of a Cameraman," Cardiff's account of filming this tale of a German U-boat, an English lifeboat, and an English ship separated from its convoy boggles the mind. He took the huge Technicolor camera on a lifeboat for six months during wartime, with 22 merchant seaman and the script girl and the director (Pat Jackson), as real U-boats carried on their raids. He lost a day's shooting because a torpedoed cargo of oranges covered the ocean. He watched four ships go down in a convoy on the way back from New York, and still shudders at the horror:

"The entire night sky lit up with red. I saw a boat about 200 yards away just heaving over, with trains on it and tanks, all sinking, with all these men in the water. It was a terrifying experience. That movie was made like a documentary, and, my God, it was a documentary."

Even after this exploit, Cardiff still struggled in the world of commercial features. He went back to the subsidiary role of second unit photographer. But it wasn't long before England's spunkiest young master tapped him on the shoulder.

"I was doing a rather tricky shot of animal heads on the wall for Michael Powell - whom I'd never met - on `The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,' " Cardiff says. "Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me say, `Very interesting.' It was Michael Powell himself. He was studying the lighting - you know, I had taken all day on it - and asked, `Would you like to photograph my next film?' "

For Powell, Cardiff would go on to shoot "A Matter of Life or Death" (in the U.S., "Stairway to Heaven") and "Black Narcissus," as well as the classic ballet fantasy, "The Red Shoes."

Cardiff modestly refers to "Black Narcissus," for which he won the 1947 cinematography Oscar, as "a piece of cake," and adds:

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