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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff was born in 1914 into the British music hall environment. His parents were travelling performers and he spent his childhood travelling from town to town. Unable to attend a single school for more than a few weeks at a time Cardiff's education came to him ad hoc. However, he developed a lasting interest in painting while a teenager and this early exposure to and interest in the use of colour and texture would be a profound influence on his choice of career. By eighteen Cardiff obtained work in Britain's film studios and was an assistant on silent features at Elstree.

By the mid-thirties he was an respected camera operator at Denham Studios. When the American Technocolor Company set up in England Cardiff was recruited as their first technician and so operated the giant three strip camera on the UK's first colour film Wings of the Morning (1937). He then became intimately connected with colour photography in England, shooting the travellogue series World Window (with Chris Challis as his assistant). Cardiff shot the travelogues as lighting cameraman, back in Britain he could only obtain work as Technicolor technician or as an operator apart from a couple of weeks on films instructing principal cameramen in how to light for colour. However his break came when he shot some second unit footage for the Archers production The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Unsupervised by Powell or Pressburger, Cardiff lit a highly awkward set and obtained more than satisfactory results, thus catching Powell's eye. This led to his first feature film as principal lighting cameraman at the end of the war on A Matter of Life and Death.

This was a technical challange from the start, being not only highly dependent on a subtle but all pervading use of colour, but because sections of the film, which was divided between settings in heaven and on earth, were to be shot in black and white. Cardiff suggested they shoot not in black and white for the heaven sequences, but continue to shoot the thechnicolour stock, lighting the set for colour, but processing the colour stock as black and white, draining it of colour which gives the image a 'pearly' quality - precisely what the producers were after. Praise for the colour sequences was generous but nothing like as rapturous as that which greeted his next Archers film, Black Narcissus.

Set in the Himalayas a group of Anglican nuns attempt to found a nunnery in a former harem, but the atmosphere of the palace and the surrounding mountain country prove to heady for the nuns who eventually abandon the area after it has driven wedges between them and their vocation. Shot entirely at Pinewood studios in London the Himalayan setting was acheived through glass paintings and a backdrop painted on a wall around the palace set, built at forty-five degrees so as to keep the sun on it all day. In The British Cinematographer Duncan Petrie wrote of the film, "Cardiff's work throughout is among his best: a generally crisp clear quality of light for the Himalayan setting, interspersed with some low key sequences and the use of coloured lights to enhance mood. The camera angles are also interesting and expressive, augmenting the growing sense of hysteria in the convent". Cardiff won an Academy Award for the photography, Herb Lightman, of American Cinematographer, wrote that his cinematography illustrated "hitherto unrealised possibilities for the kinetic use of colour on the screen." He is likely talking in particular about the development Cardiff made with Powell and Pressburger using colour to signify emotion to an extent previously unheralded. In one sequence Sister Ruth, consumed by emotion and lust confronts the man, David Farrar, whom she imagines is attracted to her. His rejection proves too much and as emotion overwhelms her she faints. To signify this heightened state, Cardiff shoots their faces in extreme close-up and when Kathleen Byron, as sister Ruth faints the camera has taken her point of view and as she begins to faint the screen is suffused with red, bleeding in from all sides.

Cardiff's final film for the Archers was the ballet movie The Red Shoes . The film contains a seventeen minute ballet at its centre, which is designed to be. not a reproduction of a stage performance but seen as the dancer, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and her lover the composer Julian, (Marius Goring) are expereincing it, psychologically. This allowed Cardiff, in close collaboration with with the designer Hein Heckroth, composer Brian Easdale and Powell, to experiment with a varitey of optical effects: "I went to town and shot all kinds of interesting ideas, including various speeds. I shot from a six foot rostrum where a ballet dancer jumps off onto a black target - I shot him at high speed with a very wide angle lens so you see him going down. A lot of these were very good but Michael decided that the sequence would be limited to 15 minutes [sic] and that we would have to work to bars of music. But we did manage to do some tricks. When Massine leaps on to the stage he seems to float on air. When he jumped on we went from 24fps to 96, and we had to change exposure at the same time, so when he jumped he seemed to hover. It worked beautifully."

Cardiff's work with the Archers was pioneering in its use of colour and his input was a large part of what made their success internationally and differentiated them from the far less flamboyant British film industry of the time.

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