It goes without saying that the film industry is a hard one to break into, and many people hoping to do so take all the advice they possibly can. With this in mind we were under pressure to get someone good as our film expert and since Spielberg was busy, we thought we’d look a bit closer to home.
Robin Vidgeon teaches cinematography at Met Film School, but his career spans 50 years with camera credits including Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Great Gatsby, to name a few (and there really are a fair few!). Having worked with many of the industry greats and with a clear passion for all things film, chatting away, I quickly realised we’d found the perfect person to advise and inspire budding filmmakers. With industry insight, helpful tips and an interesting take on laziness, this is one interview you’ll want to print out and keep on your journey into a career in film.
What first attracted you to working in film?
Well I’ve always been interested in films. I remember, when I was about 11 or 12, I used to make my mother take me to see movies. I found it absolutely fascinating. I used to do black and white photography at home and develop my own films, then I started doing colour printing as well and it just all went on from there.
So how did you first break into the industry?
When I started, some studios carried lots of different camera crews who were permanent staff and I became a member of the union on a provisional ticket and went to Pinewood. Then in 1956-57, they got rid of their five crews and made it all freelance, so I came out of the industry not knowing anybody. I did know about equipment though, and I met a camera crew, a DOP and an operator at Beaconsfield Studios which is now the National Film School. It was almost the last film that was shot there, a film called Circus of Horrors, and for some reason, the DOP, myself and the operator clicked. We worked together for 26 years as a working camera crew. with a world of different directors and producers; I was very lucky.
That does sound lucky – but I’m sure your success was also down to hard work?
It was hard work. But I just loved every minute of it; I still do.
Do you enjoy teaching as well?
I love working with students because you can look for the wow factor, and once you’ve found it, that’s what makes it worthwhile. We’re there to encourage and answer questions.
Obviously you’ve got quite a lot of very impressive credits to your name. Is there any project that really stands out for you?
I’ve loved them all but the two that really stand out for me are with two first time directors. The first was Clive Barker who did Hellraiser. He’d never made a film before and somehow I was put up for it, got it and we did two more after that. But Clive was a first time really brilliant director because he had new ideas. DOPs are there to help interpret those ideas and put them on the screen, especially with someone who has never done it before. And it’s their work, it’s not mine, you’re there to serve the director.
I’ve done a lot of work with first time directors which I really enjoy and then Tony Hopkins came up with Uncle Vanya in which he wanted to star and direct. It was the most amazing experience working with him, again because he had new ideas.
He is! And he does a great Tommy Cooper interpretation as well.
Having worked in both film and television, how do you find the two differ and is there one which you prefer?
For me, they don’t. The only difference is budget. For me, film is film. It doesn’t matter if it’s 65mm or 16mm. My job as a DOP is exactly the same. Now, even with digital, as well as film, my job is still the same and the operator’s job is the same. I tell all students, I don’t give a damn about what’s on a tripod or dolly behind me; looking at a film set, I light it to the way the director and I have talked about it. Because that’s what cinematographers do.
So has your work changed much since the advent of digital?
No. When they brought out the first digital cameras about ten years ago, they said to us, this is exactly like shooting film. Forget it’s a digital camera, nothing changes the way you film. Well, it has changed to a point, because now there are so many people who can change and manipulate the cinematographers work after it’s been shot. But we have a big fight on because when we light a set, that’s what we and the director expect to see. It shouldn’t be altered. Unless you’re doing a full CGI picture, but for me, that’s not my work in the end because it’s all electronic. If you’re shooting a straight film, with a digital camera, for me, there’s no difference.
I didn’t expect that answer!
Well the discipline is the same. And that’s what I try to teach to people who want to work in the camera department. It’s a discipline that has lasted several years and digital has made newer filmmakers very lazy. It’s not a good situation to be in at the moment and we have to keep trying to teach people that you have to shoot films with the same discipline that has been used for all these years.
Leading on from that, how much of cinematography do you think is an art, and being creative and how much of it is technical knowhow?
Forget the technical bit. The cinematographer is like a painter; we paint with light. I mean, you talk to all the top American DOPs, DOPs here, people who have won Oscars for their work, they were painters of light. It’s what old farts say, because that’s what it is. I walk into any film set in any studio or on location and I know the script; that film speaks to me. I light that set to the script. And the next day when I see my rushes, that’s what you see on the screen.
So when you look at a script, are you, in your mind, picturing how you’d like that to look?
Yes. You read a book; it puts pictures in your mind. You see what the author is telling you and it’s the same when reading a script for me. Whether it’s dusk, dawn, night time, a storm, a sex scene, romantic, a horror – the words conjure up images in my mind and when I get to the set, I try to interpret that. That’s what all cinematographers do.
Knowing what you know about the industry now, is there anything that you would have done differently?
The only thing I might have done was left my camera crew. Five years before I was about to leave we were going from picture to picture and it was Temple of Doom, the second Spielberg I did, when I was getting offered jobs to light commercials and videos and I said, listen it’s time to move on. I think I should have five years before.
Why do you think you didn’t?
I don’t know. I suppose because every time we were on a movie, about a month before, we’d be offered more films to do. So we were always working.
How important do you think getting qualified is to a career in film? I know it’s one of those industries where you have to possess some raw talent but how important do you think it is to get that training behind you before you start work?
I’ve been asked this question before at the school open day actually. Two mothers asked me how important I thought it was to have an MA or a BA when you leave the school. Well obviously, the theory is very good but I’m not a theorist. I am a hands on person and I think that’s why students like it because I work with cameras with them, I work with lights with them.
If you’re good at the job you’ll succeed. If you’re passionate about it, you will succeed. I’ve never asked a student, have you got a specific qualification otherwise you can’t come on the set.
So it’s less about actually possessing a certain level of qualification and more about doing it so you get the training that you can use on the film set?
Yes. You’ve got to have the training. You can’t start fresh from university and become a DOP. You’ve got to know what you’re doing and do the other jobs.
Is that not different with digital? Because you can shoot as much as you want as it’s cheaper than film?
That’s actually a problem we have in the industry at the moment. We talked about laziness, on big sets now, they’re not rehearsing anything, they just say, we’ll just shoot it. And when they finish the take they say ok, keep running – because it takes a lot to fill up a hard drive and the director’s not even watching what’s happening, he’s behind the set watching on a monitor. That’s how bad it is. It’s because people are not being trained in how a five man camera crew works. That’s my prime job in life – to teach these film students that they must have the discipline of a film camera.
Film is not dead. Film is very much alive. Spielberg won’t shoot digital, Scorsese won’t shoot digital. They’re purists and they want the look of film. You can’t really tell the difference on a laptop or an iPad, but you can on an eight foot screen.
Thanks Robin! If you want to learn about film, have a look at the courses available here.