Cinematographer Alec Mills has been responsible for the look of many well-known movies, which includes The McKenzie Break, Death on the Nile, Return of the Jedi, Christopher Columbus and seven Bond movies. They include: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy who Loved Me, Moonraker, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill.
Alec Mills was born on 10th May 1932. He has written a book about his life called Shooting 007 and other celluloid adventures. ISBN: 9780750953634. It is published by the History Press and has 256 pages. There is a foreword by the late Sir Roger Moore.
Were you interested in films as a child?
Yes, but unfortunately my parents couldn’t afford to take me to the cinema so our gang of naughty boys found a way of sneaking into a cinema without paying. Eventually we were caught and my parents were questioned by the police-leaving Dad to read the riot act to me, but this incident was a clue to where my future lay. It was Mum who took the next step to my future employment.
I understand you started your career at Carlton Hill Studios at fourteen?
Yes, Carlton Hill Studios was a small studio, which mainly filmed second features; I worked for them before going into the Navy for my national service. They had two small stages, one of them very small, but I seem to recall that one of the stages had a rather large supporting post in the middle and all the sets had to be designed around this structural feature. I had three enjoyable years there.
Click on the above picture to watch excerpt of GREY FRIARS BOBBY
I read that you worked extensively for the Walt Disney Company as camera operator. How did this come about, apart from working over here, did you do any shooting in the States for them?
I worked for Disney as a focus puller and later as a camera operator. This was the late fifties/early sixties, focusing on such films as Kidnapped (Scotland), Greyfriars Bobby, Three Lives of Thomasina (Scotland again), and Swiss Family Robinson (Tobago). I operated on Guns in the Heather (Ireland), and Diamonds on Wheels, which I think was mostly in and around Pinewood, but nothing in America.
After this I see you worked on The Saint series. What TV work was like compared to features, and how long did it takes to shoot an episode of The Saint.
TV series are more demanding than a film because they have much smaller budgets, meaning that you have to cover more pages in a day. On Soldier, Soldier I believe we had to do about eight pages a day; episodes usually took one week occasionally two depending on the script. It was filmed on 35mm film.
In 1969 you operated on your first Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Was it a demanding shoot, and how long did it take?
It took about six months with our locations in Switzerland and Portugal, leaving the studio sequences completed at Pinewood. All films can be very demanding, Bonds are no different. Principal photography on a Bond schedule usually takes about six months, but there are several units (first, second, model units, and sometimes flying or underwater units), all of which had at least one camera operator.
Which Bond took the longest to film, and which proved the most difficult. What film stock did you use on the Bonds?
They are much the same in terms of length. Generally they take about six months. Location work can be very tiring, I remember that the six-months of concentrated filming on Licence To Kill at Churubusco Studios in and around Mexico City was very draining, not to mention the very humid conditions we experienced in Florida and Key West. Even when that was finished there was still six months of editing, but that didn’t involve me till the final grading, which usually takes a few days. As for the film stock, my preference was always Kodak.
Click on the above picture to watch the trailer of RETURN OF THE JEDI
How long was the shoot on Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and were there difficulties. Was it filmed on 65mm and have you ever shot in that format?
No, it was filmed in 35mm: Arri BL cameras with anamorphic lenses supplied by Joe Dunton Cameras. It was an enjoyable film to work on at Elstree Studios, but it was also very political. For example, I wasn’t taken to America to work on the Yuma and Crescent City sequences at the end of the UK shoot because I dared to disagree with one of the producers at the rushes. As for 65mm, no, I have never shot in that format.
Did you find it easy to switch from operating to director of photography?
No, because I had very regular employment as a camera operator. After making the decision to move up to director of photography I was lured back to the Bond team, filming Octopussy as camera operator, but with the promise of lighting work in the future. I must say that John Glen made good on his promise later on. After finally making the decision to go up to lighting, things start to change when my life – my film world – suddenly died on me! It was like getting over a serious operation.
Would you tell me more about working with your friend Roger Moore?
This relationship started on The Saint television series back in 1966 when England won the World Cup! Roger was very tall and I am short, where I often had to stand on a box when we are filming close ups. We had a very ‘jokey’ relationship, I mean he was always playing practical jokes on me or was winding me up. This was the beginning of a long and close friendship, where I endured many years of suffering as Roger’s stooge!
You worked on seven Bond films, two as director of photography. Did you enjoy them all?
Yes, everyone and what a wonderful company Eon Productions are to work for. Cubby, Barbara and Michael are like a family to me. Even to this day I receive Christmas cards and sometimes gifts from them. They don’t forget you even after years of retirement.
Was it a lot easier to get in the business when you started? Do you think people should still start at the bottom rather than going straight in as a director of photography after film school? Isn’t it better to go through the ranks on film sets, as you did?
A tricky one this; I grew up in the film world going from grade to grade, experiencing both the good and bad in different ways. Though I enjoyed my time at Beaconsfield, I was concerned about the NFTS’s tendency to concentrate on training cinematographers rather than teach them about the technical side of the camera department, optics and the responsibilities of the lower technical grades in the camera department. Just being capable of lighting a film set doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run the camera department; there is no substitute for on-set experience and spending time in each grade. The notion of pushing students to light and operate immediately not only places more pressure on the student, but it is also not necessarily in line with best practice of the camera department.
Did you keep the same crew?
As much as was possible. For many years Danny Shelmerdine was my clapper loader, Mike Frift my focus puller, then Frank Elliott. After getting my break on the Bond films as cameraman I was delighted to use Mike Frift as my camera operator. In the old days camera crews tended to be very loyal to each other, which is something I like to see continue. My gaffers usually came from the old school, working with John Tythe and Roy Larner, and I mustn’t forget Geoff Chappell who for so many years serviced and maintained my light meters.
Did you learn about lighting as a camera operator?
Yes, I learnt a lot from the likes of Jack Cardiff, Jean Tournier and Mike Reed whilst operating. Confidence is essential in all things even if internally you are very nervous. We all feel nervous at times and this is not made any easier by tight schedules and limited budgets, but we can’t show it. The largest sets that I ever had to light were usually on Bond films, but I tried not to overdo it, especially as I recall the producers were so concerned about their budgets.
Did you ever work on green screen?
Not much as this was specialist work at the time. I preferred not to use green screen as it is much nicer to see what you are filming, rather than have to imagine what it will look like on the screen when the post production process is complete.
How much creative freedom did you have setting the style?
I nearly always had the freedom to express myself. The one exception was on Biddy, where as I recall the director, Christine Edzard, wanted to keep the camera very static and leave any movement in frame to the actors – a bit like a theatre audience watching a play.
Did you prefer location filming or studio work, and did you have a favourite locations in the world?
Filming in a studio was lot more controlled, but location work can be more challenging depending on the location, not forgetting the weather. As for a favourite location, I was lucky to work on many wonderful locations around the world, especially with the Bond series, where every one of them was interesting. For the most part I got my work through personal contacts with the producers and directors who I had worked with previously. I had an agent, but curiously enough I don’t remember getting any work through the agency, only through my own contacts.
Finally, some say the director’s strength makes everyone secure – would you agree with that statement?
Possibly. But there are times where the director’s choices can be difficult for the cinematographer, but we take on all the challenges we are faced with!
David A Ellis©chestercinemas.co.uk
As local theatre company Tip Top Productions celebrates its 10th anniversary at its base within the the former Chester Gateway Theatre, Paul Crofts looks back at how the company came to make the theatre its home and carrying on flying the flag for the arts in Chester at a time when the City had no large scale performance venue.
We have no theatre in Chester” has been the comment I have heard made so often over the last 10 years and it is one which has driven me to distraction trying to correct! When the Gateway Theatre closed, people assumed the building was closed, empty, and sure, it was, but only part of it and only for 6 short months! The story didn’t quite end there, read on to find out what happened next….
Having staged “Hello Dolly”, the last ever show to be performed on the main stage at The Chester Gatweway Theatre back in March 2007, Tip Top’s Chariman Peter Swingler approached Chester City Council with a view to using the building until such time as it was needed for demolition. Although the main auditorium could not be used, The Council allowed use of the Studio Theatre and so in August 2007, with a lease in place Tip Top Productions subsequently moved in to the building to originally produce just one season of plays in the former 140 seater Manweb Studio prior to the building being required to make way for the Northgate Development. The first show was “We Love Musicals” a West End and Broadway Musicals compilation show
With the theatre now re-born as The Forum Studio Theatre, they set about building up their core audience and bringing new talent to the theatre. The company have since gone on to establish the venue and their popular productions as firm favourites on the Chester Arts scene. Fast foward to 2017 and the company which is run by Tip Top’s members and a small band of dedicated volunteers has celebrated 10 years at the theatre with its 2017/2018 season well under way. Tip Top’s 10th anniversary in Chester comes at an extremely exciting time for culture and the Arts in the City.
The Chairman and founder of Tip Top productions, Peter Swingler OBE said “When the Gateway closed in 2007 I was its last Chair and along with the staff we prepared an exit strategy that would have resulted in demolition of the building and the construction of a new theatre. Who would have believed that 10 years later Tip Top Productions operating as The Forum Studio Theatre is about to celebrate its continuing activities on the site while joining in with the city’s celebrations as we salute the opening of Storyhouse In the meantime The Forum Studio Theatre will carry on presenting community and professional work until the Northgate development requires the site.”
Since 2007, Tip Top have presented approximately 6 “in house plays” each season and played host to various touring professional theatre companies, concerts, (tribute bands, Abba, Queen, The Beatles), book launches, Chester Literature Festival, Rock Choir and countless other events. Tip Top also stages it’s own fully professional traditional Pantomime which is now a firm fixture in the City’s Christmas Festivities. The company also stages a large scale Musical annually at Theatr Clwyd and maintains an excellent relationship with that venue.
I knew of J W Ellis through my grandmother Ellen Whitehead. He lived with an uncle John Tomlinson at a farm in Ewloe Green, together with his brother Joe Ellis. My grandfather Samuel Parsonage Whitehead was the organist at Ewloe Green Presbyterian Chapel and ran a concert party The Green Bob’s, in the Sunday school building. Whether John and Joe were in this I don’t know, but both brothers were good singers and my grandparents had numerous musical evenings at their bungalow in Wood Lane Hawarden, which included my mother Mary Vera. J W Ellis was in the police force but then got a job as a cinema manager with Gaumont British and was certainly based at one time at the Coleseum Burslem, Staffs.
My grandmother’s brothers were all involved in the coal minding and clayware industry and often went to Staffs to stay for a holiday with uncle John Heaton and his wife and children. When there they would go to the Coleseum to see films, and as the cinema had a Compton organ John Ellis would let my grandfather play it.
John Ellis eventually returned to Chester to manage the Odeon (Gaumont British Cinemas having been taken over by Odeon) and I think his wife’s name was Noreen, and they lived in the vicinity of Walpole/ Chichester Street, I think. My grandparents when they visited Chester would often call in at the Odeon to see John Ellis. I do remember he died quite young and my grandparents and parents went to his funeral. Many of the wreaths were displayed in the florists shop over the road in Hunter Street Alderley Hall.
Long before I ventured into the world of cinema, I was intrigued about the cinema screen. How was the black border or masking attached to frame the picture. What was it made of, and what it was attached to,etc. The answers, I soon found out were varied. It might amaze you to find out that projection screens were in use by a number of travelling showmen in the 1600s. In the beginning, a sheet, or a white washed wall would suffice for the early audiences.
By the 1910s, purpose-built cinemas appeared to meet ever-increasing demand of film-goers, so screen size started to increase. The standard screen in most cinemas was approximately ten to fifteen feet wide, with screens up to 24 by 18 feet installed in larger theatres. Information about the material these early screens were made of is far harder to come by. Indeed, for much of the history of projected images, the wall or screen that displays the projections seems to have very little attention given. It is odd that comparatively little detail has been paid to projection screens. Not only does this seem to be an intriguing part of projection history, but the type and quality of the screen so clearly affects a film viewing experience in a number of ways. The clarity, brightness, colour and contrast of the image are all crucially important to many spectators – whether or not they are consciously aware of it – as is the absence of distracting imperfections such as visible seams or marks on a screen’s surface. The screens were replaced with more substantial material, similar to woven canvas which could be pulled extremely tight to give a taught smooth surface. In the late 1920s, ‘’cloth’ screens were fashioned from a cotton muslin type material which was webbed, eyeleted and stretched across wooden frames on the front wall of the auditorium,’ but these yellowed quickly due primarily to the amount of smoking that regularly took place in auditoria. Businesses such as Harkness Screens, though, managed to capitalise on this situation, and enterprising individuals like Tom Harkness developed business relationships with laundries that could wash the screens, and sold cinemas with the idea of having multiple screens so that they could have one laundered while another was in use.
This sort of marketing created repeat business, of course – as did the shrinking usually engendered by repeated washes, where old, shrunken screens could be sold on to smaller theatres and re-used again! In the 1940s, plastics started being used to make cinema screens in the United States, in an attempt to combat some of these problems. This practice soon spread to Europe, although the new material of course gave rise to new problems and challenges – not least of which was managing to make invisible seams. Plastic screens became the norm during the 1940s.The surface was either white or grey. It was discovered too that there were advantages if the screen was sprayed silver, which reflected the light off the surface towards the audience giving a brighter, sharper image. As sound came in, the screen tended to muffle the sound. When screens started to be made from plastic, they were perforated to allow the sound to pass through. A detailed piece on screens up to the present day will appear on the website “Cinema Facts” page soon.
The three videos below give an idea on how cinema screens have progressed through the years, and how they are installed.
In OCTOBER’S UPDATE ~
ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING! The background of the first & last General Managers of Chester’s Odeon, Harry York & Andy Elvis
David A Ellis interviews Richard Blanshard. The stills photographer to the movies
…AND~ much more!