The American Society of Cinematographers will recognize Gilbert Taylor, BSC this month with its International Achievement Award, which is presented annually to a director of photography whose main body of work has been created outside the United States. Taylor will be saluted during the 20th annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards on February 26.
“It’s a great honor for a British cinematographer to be considered for this award, and I offer my grateful thanks to all those who contributed to this being given to me,” says Taylor, whose feature credits include A Hard Day’s Night; Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Repulsion; The Bedford Incident; The Tragedy of Macbeth; Frenzy; The Omen; and Star Wars. He adds that his Hollywood-based contemporaries “across the pond” at the ASC had inspired him creatively and challenged him to excel. “I had such respect for Gregg Toland and so many other cameramen there. And while I never got the chance to work in Hollywood, this award, coming from such a pool of massively talented people, has truly inspired me all over again. It’s fantastic.”
Taylor was born in April 1914 in Bushey Heath, England. As with many other great filmmakers, his career was born out of pure chance. The son of a prosperous builder, Taylor was being groomed to join the family business. “At the age of 15, I was studying to be an architect but didn’t want to be an architect and didn’t want to go into the building trade,” he recalls.
When a fortuitous offer of a camera-assistant job was made by a neighbor, “my perceptive mother persuaded Father, who was against it because the film industry was full of ‘harridans, whores and gypsies,’ to let me take the job. I entered the film industry in 1929 as assistant to Bill Shenton, a top cinematographer. We made the last two silent pictures to be made at Gainsborough Studios, and my first work was to handcrank a wooden Williamson camera, load film, and deliver small tests in a thermos flask for the cameraman. I even acted in a few movies. After that, Bill took me to Pathé Studios in Paris to make several French boxing movies, and then we went back to Gainsborough Pictures in London, where we made Third Time Lucky , my first sound picture. I was by then captivated by the magic smells of film stock, acetone and makeup that permeated the studios! After eight months, I went to Elstree Studios to assist and load film for Freddie Young [BSC].”
Taylor worked with Young on several films, including Rookery Nook (1930), Nell Gwynn (1934) and Escape Me Never (1935), and remembers him as a tough taskmaster: “Freddie Young was the kind of man who would have you scrape the darkroom floor with a penknife and polish it, and would then walk in with muddy boots and complain that it was still filthy. But I learned a lot from such cameraman as Fritz Planer, Percy Strong and Günther Krampf, and they let me do second-unit work when they were tied up. They took the credit, but I learned from it!”
By 1934, Taylor was also taking assignments as an operator, and he continued doing this for the next five years. In November 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve “and did what was supposed to be a three-year photographic course in 16 weeks.” He distinguished himself with six years of wartime service as an officer and operational cameraman. He was trained to fly as a mid-upper gunner in Lancaster bombers, but his primary mission was to photograph the targets of 1,000-plane nighttime raids over Germany after the bombs were dropped. “This was requested by Winston Churchill, and my material was delivered to 10 Downing Street for him to view. He was keen for the public to see what our lads were doing. I did 10 of those operations, including raids on Cologne and Dresden. On the opening of the second front, I took a small operational unit of cameramen to cover every kind of news story, including the [liberation of the] concentration camps and the [signing of the] armistice. You may ask how these experiences helped to prepare me for my film career. Well, they certainly made me tougher.”
After the war, Taylor returned to the studio and worked as an operator for Jack Hildyard and Harry Waxman, among others, but it wasn’t long before he caught a career-making break: “I operated for Günther Krampf on Fame Is the Spur in 1946, and he asked me to photograph his second unit.” Directed by John and Roy Boulting, the picture follows a character who rises to Parliament by championing worker’s rights, only to find that power corrupts. “I shot a dream sequence in which the army attacks a gang of striking miners,” explains Taylor. “They wanted it done in deep focus with heavy filtration, and I did it. I was given great praise and then wanted to forget operating!”
Sensing the talent in their midst, the Boultings contracted Taylor to shoot three pictures, including Journey Together (1946), which detailed the life of three aspiring RAF pilots; The Guinea Pig (1947), starring a young Richard Attenborough as a working-class boy at an upper-crust private school; and Seven Days to Noon (1950), a thriller about postwar paranoia over the atomic bomb. He eventually shot four more features for the Boultings.
On The Guinea Pig, Taylor first used bounced light as a means of compensating for a “contrasty batch of stock that couldn’t be changed because of postwar shortages,” he told Eyepiece. “I put a big sheet of backing up [over] the top and put a 4K on it from each corner and filled the shadows to make [the image] less contrasty.” The result was a more naturalistic look that inspired Taylor to gradually move away from the contrasty and glamorous direct-light approach of his peers.
Over the next decade, Taylor continued to refine his use of reflected and bounced light while maintaining contrast. He explains, “If you look at my work, you’ll see that I almost always worked a little above the average key light because the use of bounced light served to fill the shadows a bit, just enough so that I could take my key up past the middle on the printer scale if center was a 12, then I was at about a 14. That gave the image extra guts, so I was always generous with my exposures to get that extra contrast. I’d just blast everything with light.”