Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Original at Glasgow University
Chris Challis was involved with the Archers from their second Technicolor production, A Matter of Life and Death onwards, however his major original contribution to the Archers came after the period which this project is focusing on, the mid 1940s, in the final part of the Archers' lifetime, from 1948 to 1956. He is included here because he remains a key figure in the Archers' history due to his early presence and later importance. Challis is an exception because all the other key figures in the Archers were the head of their respective areas during the mid part of the company's career, either leaving or joining in the period highlighted by this project.
Chris Challis, looking through the view finder on
The Red Shoes
Challis worked for Gaumont British News and then Technicolor in the 1930s. He was employed as a technician on early British Technicolor movies such as The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939) for Zoltan Korda. After this time Challis began to work regularly with Jack Cardiff, assisting him on the international showcase films for Technicolor, the World Window series. Serving in the RAF during the the war he returned to Technicolor production at its end, rejoining Cardiff as his camera operator for what was for both men their first Archers movie.
Challis shot his first film as lighting cameraman for the Archers-produced The End of the River (1947). This film, directed by Derek Twist (the second and final Archers movie not to be written, produced, and directed by Powell and Pressburger) was an an artistic and commercial failure, disliked for its dullness by its producers despite being filmed on the Amazon river. Unpreturbed however Challis was given the next Archers film to shoot, his second black and white film in a row, after ten years of specialising in colour. Reunited with art director Hein Heckroth and the Powell/Pressburger directing team Challis realised more of his potential. The Small Black Room, a dark tale about an alcoholic bomb defuser in the Second World War, was the most 'real world' production of the Archers since I Know where I'm Going with no colour or fantasy experiments. It was not shot in the realist vein of The End of the River though. Instead it is full of low key noir/expressionist touches, chiaroscuro lighting, claustrophobic interiors, cluttered city streets, which are starkly contrasted with the climax of the film on a long strip of shingle off the west country coast. Despite the critical acclaim for the film it bombed at the box-office. Indeed the Archers were never to regain their war-time and early post-war success again. To take this as a reflection on Challis' contribution would be unfair for his camerwork consistently gained plaudits from the critics and industry.
The Archers returned to colour for their next three films, starting with The Elusive Pimpernel(1949). Kevin Macdonald described Challis' contribution to the following film Gone to Earth (1950). "Christopher Challis's photography is extraordinarily vivid, and the countryside of the Welsh Marches is brought to the screen in a series of starling images". In his book on British cinematographers Duncan Petrie states "both The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth, demonstrate his ability to imbue landscape with an almost elemental quality which shapes the lives of the characters who inhabit it".
The final round of Archers films came after a break of five years. They shot the Technicolor operetta Oh Rosalinda! (1955), in widescreen, where Challis and Heckroth make extensive use of the wide horizontal frame, breaking it up with blocks of different colours, to compensate for the lack of depth (of field) afforded by the widescreen process. After this Challis shot in Vistavision for The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and in black and white Vistavision for Ill Met By Moonlight, the final Archers film.