RICHARD BLANSHARD: MOVIE PHOTOGRAPHER.
Richard Blanshard was born in Essex and grew up in Pinner. He is an all rounder, having worked in music and film. He left school at fifteen and first worked for Kodak in their motion picture department. He has won a number of awards, including the Arri John Alcott award. He has worked with many notable film directors, including Fred Zinneman and Brian De Palma. Asked what cameras he uses, he said, they include the Red Dragon and Red Weapon. Sony is used for his still work and he helped them launch their Alpha range. Nikon was the camera of choice when he shot film. He has been an honorary friend of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) for over fifteen years. He regularly supplies them with images he has taken at their various functions.
Where were you born?
I was born in Essex.
Where did you go to school?
I grew up in Pinner, Middlesex. I also went to school there.
Were you interested in photography as a child?
My father had a chemist (drugstore) shop and he used to process films. I got involved in the processing and printing. I started taking photographs when I was about seven. My father sold cine cameras and he sold one to a brother and sister. They liked to go out for days to Windsor and Henley for picnics, and they wanted to shoot film with both of them in the shot. So, I would go along and film them. I was shooting super eight film when I was around nine.
Where did you train?
I left school at fifteen and went to work in the motion picture department at Kodak. I was trained as an optical printer. After Kodak, it was to a school of photography. Later, I moved on to become an assistant, shooting everything from a jumbo jet to a wedding.
How did you get the opportunity to work on features?
I went to work for a company that did photography for film companies. From the age of sixteen I was going out photographing people such as Robert Mitchum. I also covered press launches and royal premiers. A job came up to work in Cannes, France. Everyone said no, but I said yes. It meant taking pictures during the day and processing and printing at night. After that I covered the film festival for twenty-five years. I photographed Gene Kelly and Fred Astair. I was assigned to the stars and one of them was Muhammad Ali. All my assignments were from film companies to photograph the actors. I was their personal photographer during the Film Festival. During those years I worked for Lew Grade at ITC. I used to shoot the stills on their productions and then moved on to features.
You have many talents – which one do you lean towards the most?
I love to direct and produce. I like to shoot my own stuff. Unless I can work with someone I would say was on the same page, you don’t always get what you need. This mainly applies to documentaries. Unlike a feature, you are only working with a small crew. I tend to edit as I shoot.
Have you any favourite features you have worked on?
The Kray’s was a good film to work on. I shot a short super eight film that helped them get their finance. I have been very lucky. Judge Dredd was an extraordinary film visually. It wasn’t a huge hit but it was a huge amount of work. I have enjoyed them all because they have all been different.
As a musician do you do session work and have you written songs?
I have played with Paul Young, Barbara Dickson, Elkie Brooks, Cliff Richard and many others. Music and photography are similar. The camera is like a musical instrument.
How many instruments can you play?
I play sax and the flute. I also sing and do backing vocals. I have backed for a number of people, including Kim Wilde. I have also produced albums.
You have worked on projects of your own. Is it sometimes difficult to get a project off the ground?
It’s tough. With television today there is a lot of reality and quiz shows. We always have interesting ideas and projects, but sometimes it is hard to make them fly.
Do you always approach a potential buyer before embarking on a project?
Yes, I think that people who go off and make films, hoping someone will buy them is reckless behaviour. You need to know you have got a taker. It has to be someone that wants it; otherwise you can lose a lot of money. Documentaries are about passion. What is passion for you isn’t necessarily a passion for other people. For me documentary filmmaking is harder than features because your subject is changing all the time. When you have a ninety-page script, you have your road map; you know the beginning, middle and end. You know what people are going to say. In documentaries things change by the minute. You are re-writing the script every day. The person you thought was going to be brilliant is rubbish, and suddenly the one you thought was rubbish is brilliant. After working on documentaries you know how to make a drama look real because you have experienced real situations. That is why a lot of cinematographers who have worked on documentaries are so brilliant at filmmaking. They add another dimension to their dramas because they look through the viewfinder and can say this does, or doesn’t look real.
Have you a particular favourite out of your projects, and if so why?
I worked on a film called Let Him Have It, about Derek Bentley, who was hung for murder. One of the things that made me happy was the power of the film. I made a film about his sister, Iris, who fought all her life to try and get his name cleared. She died before he was pardoned. The film helped the family to get a financial settlement. For me that was a really important film.
When shooting stills in studios and location, how long do you stay on the set?
We used to be on set for the whole film. The publicity was so important on the films I worked on. I would take pictures with the actors, even when they weren’t on the set. Sadly, today, the still photographer on some films has become an afterthought. If I am asked to do stills on a film now, I would go and do the making of, as well as the stills. A lot of actors hate having their picture taken.
They don’t mind while they are acting, but some don’t like it if they are taken after. It is a tough job to be a stills photographer these days. The actors are so precious about their image and you have to be aware of lighting.
Would you like to direct features?
I would like to at some point. You have to find the right vehicle. I think you have to be careful. If I am going to make a film I want it to be seen. I don’t want to make a film for my own vanity and ego.
Do you write scripts?
I enjoy writing and I have written for all the documentaries I have done.
Do you have any industry heroes?
Yes, they include cinematographers Oswald Morris, Douglas Slocombe, Dick Pope and Alex Thomson. David Lean was a huge influence on me. When I saw Great Expectations, as a kid, it just blew me away. I am more into people who do inspirational material.
Finally, do you find it a lot easier using digital equipment and what do you think of the quality compared to film?
I think we all miss film to a certain extent. That is the way the world has gone. In our craft we have to use all the tools that are available. You have to have your head around everything that is out there because different people will want you to use different equipment. Sometimes I can make the choice, other times I am told what to use. I am so pleased I was brought up on film because it gives you a discipline; you know when the moment is to film. People who have grown up with digital just shoot, keeping the camera running. All this makes it a harder job for the editor.
What I don’t like at the moment is that some people say we will fix it in post, rather than get it in the camera. If you have got it in the camera you have nailed what you want. What I love is looking through a camera. What I hate is looking at a monitor. To me, unless you are looking through the camera you are not connected to it. I sometimes struggle with digital because sometimes it takes me off the camera and I feel detached from it. I was shooting in Nevada and there wasn’t an eyepiece for the camera, even though I had asked for one. There was a monitor on top of the camera and I couldn’t see what I was shooting in the blazing sunshine of the desert. I felt I wasn’t in the scene. I am more comfortable using digital cameras that are more like film cameras. Sometimes on a monitor you don’t notice everything. When you look through a viewfinder you often see things you miss when looking at a monitor. I usually avoid having monitors around as I find them distracting. The technical stuff sometimes gets in the way of making the film. Regarding archiving, they are archiving digital files back on to film because film has proven to be stable. With digital archiving the file has to be transferred to new formats that come out, which seems never ending. With film we know it will be there for at least a hundred years. Film stocks are so clean now that it is possible to get excellent quality by transferring one to the other and back again.
David A Ellis©chestercinemas.co.uk