the early years

The Early Years

I have always been interested in film making. As a child I used Lego to make film sets with the lights, camera and cranes all made from the little bricks. I built a pretend camera made from a wooden fruit box and a round aluminum cupcake tray as a lens. I wrote “BBC tv” on the side of it and ‘filmed’ my sister running up and down the garden.

When I was 14, I read a book that changed my life, ‘The work of the Motion Picture Cameraman’ by Freddie Young. I read it cover to cover several times. From that moment on, I wanted to work in film.

A couple of years later I met Alexis Cahill, we used to skip school and go to Brompton Cemetery with a Super 8 camera to make short films. Alexis would direct, I photographed and our friends would star. When on holiday together to Sicily we made a “French Connection” style film using people who Alexis talked in to appearing in the film.

Alexis’s father was a commercials producer and once made a commercial with Freddie Young. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the set where I met Freddie. He was very kind and encouraging to me he let me “bash” a cable during a tracking shot. The day was long, I got tired and sat down in a canvas chair. I must have dozed off, as I was awakened by Freddie gently pulling me out of the chair by my ear, I had not seen his name on the back.

When I was about 17, I met Ricardo Coll who was attending the National Film School in Beaconsfield, England He was trying to reedit a student film he had photographed. There had been 2 attempts to edit this film but both the director and editor had given up. Ricardo needed a finished piece of work in order to continue his studies. I had never been in a cutting room before but in the time honored tradition of the film industry I learnt on the job. Over 6 weeks we cut 8 different versions of the 40 minute film, screening them to the editing tutor Ernest Walter and later to Colin Young the head of the Film School.

During the time I was in the cutting room I would meet other students in the canteen. They would always need crew for their films. In theory students would work on other students films, but in practice it was difficult to find enough people to crew even the smallest films. So there where a large number of ‘outsiders’ ( people like me who where happy to work unpaid on productions ) I spent 3 great years working on over 20 productions, as Electrician, Gaffer, Grip, 1st & 2nd AC then as a Camera Operator. I even did a few days as a sound recordist. I had a wonderful education at the film school, while never becoming a student.

I met so many people who went out of their way to help me, who have since gone on to great things. Syd Macartney was the cameraman on the very first day I spent as crew on set. He was very patient and took time to explain everything. He let me work as an spark on the graduation film he was shooting, ‘Larry’s Party’ directed by Terry Winsor. Also on that film I met the camera operator Denis Crossan.

Denis asked me to Gaffer a film he was lighting for Claire Williams. I continued to gaffer film school productions working with DP’s Gabriel Beristian, Martin Fuhrer, Sue Gibson and others whose names I’ve forgotten. (sorry)

Denis persuaded me to try the camera department. I became a camera assistant and we had a great time working on many varied projects including Steve Hilliker’s legendary “Sphere – The Spores of Doom” and a strange French film with a woman giving birth to a frog and a banquet scene with 500 frogs hopping around on the table.

We also had a fine time in Scotland shooting ‘The Seven Men of Glen Morrison” directed by Iain Wise. Shooting in the Highlands in November was quite an ordeal. One of the film school’s many “Fitzcarraldo‘s”.

This picture shows me aged 19, on a National Film School production. “The 7 Men of Glenmorrison”, shot around Invermoriston in the Scottish highlands in September 1982

The people in the picture from left to right are: Ian Wise – Director, Shorty – SFX, Sue – Continuity, Mohamed – Sound and Me – Camera Assistant.

Iain, Shorty, Sue, Mohamed & I

Denis then DP’ed ‘Voice of the Lobster’ directed by Bernard Rose. They offered me the chance to operate, which I jumped at.

I then operated on another film Denis photographed, “The Informer” directed by Ashling Walsh. Shot in county Wicklow just south of Dublin. I had my 21st birthday there. The picture is of me operating, Sean Van Hales was the grip and an enthusiastic PA whose name I forget.

Bernard was offered a music video to direct, his first paying job. He asked Denis to light it, I tried to work on it but in those days (1984) the film technicians union – the ACTT was very strong, and I was not allowed. although there was no union agreement for music videos at the time. A great pity as the video was ‘Relax‘ by Frankie goes to Hollywood.

One of the benefits of being an accredited student at the film school was a ACTT union ticket upon graduation. They were difficult to get, and without it I could not work on feature films, commercials, most documentaries or on ITV productions. I was able to work on BBC productions, mainly Panorama, and non union corporate films.

Application forms for union membership were impossible to get, there were vague and unachievable rules for getting one. You basically had to have worked for x hundred hours on productions that could not and would not hire you because were not a union member. But once you had the form filled out you were almost guaranteed membership.

My mother saved the day, She wrote to the union saying she was a recently divorced middle aged woman who wanted to tell her story through the medium of film. By return of post there was a huge envelope from the union. Inside were leaflets, booklets, stickers, notepads and an application form.

To be continued……