Cinematographer. Nationality: British. Born: Margate, England, 23 March 1925. Career: Messenger boy with a documentary film unit, then cameraman; 1965—first film as cinematographer, The Knack—and How to Get It, first of several films for Richard Lester; supervised development of "Wendy Light"; 1977—cinematographer for TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Awards: Academy Awards, and British Academy Award, for Out of Africa, 1985.
Films as Cinematographer:
The Knack—and How to Get It (Lester); Help! (Lester)
Marat/Sade (Brook); How I Won the War (Lester)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (Richardson)
The Bed-Sitting Room (Lester)
The Devils (Russell); The Boy Friend (Russell)
The Homecoming (Hall); A Delicate Balance (Richardson)
The Three Musketeers (Lester)
The Four Musketeers (Lester); Mahogony (Gordy)
To the Devil a Daughter (Sykes); Robin and Marian (Lester)
Joseph Andrews (Richardson)
Hanover Street (Hyams)
Endless Love (Zeffirelli); Chariots of Fire (Hudson)
The Hotel New Hampshire (Richardson)
Return to Oz (Murch); Out of Africa (Pollack); White Nights (Hackford)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Lemorande); Sky Bandits (Perisic)
The Good Mother (Nimoy); Last Rites (Bellisario); Masquerade (Swaim)
Hamlet (Zeffirelli); The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (Sellars); Memphis Belle (Caton-Jones)
The Object of Beauty (Lindsay-Hogg)
Hallo Mister God, This Is Anna (Fairfax); Used People (Kidron)
This Boy's Life (Caton-Jones); Bopha! (Freeman)
Milk Money (Benjamin)
Jane Eyre (Zeffirelli); Bogus (Jewison)
Night Falls on Manhattan (Lumet); Obsession (Sehr); Critical Care (Lumet)
Gloria (Lumet); Tea with Mussolini (Zeffirelli)
By WATKIN: articles—
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1985.
Eyepiece (Middlesex, Great Britain), vol. 13, no. 5, 1992.
On WATKIN: articles—
Screen International (London), 27 September 1975.
Chase, Donald, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February and April 1986.
McCarthy, T., in Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, September/October 1989.
* * *
David Watkin stands out as a maverick even in a field renowned for individualism. One of Britain's most gifted cinematographers, Watkin has always spurned the conventional in the pursuit of his art. His love of experimentation, whether in lighting, composition, or use of film stock, has earned him a reputation as a true innovator. His originality has been brought to bear on such diverse subjects as the Beatles, Jesus of Nazareth, the Four Musketeers, Robin Hood, and the inhabitants of Oz. Watkin's work has displayed a variety of texture, ranging from the crisp, high-contrast photography of The Knack to the muted visual narrative of Yentl.
Although Watkin believes in matching his style to directorial intent, he favors naturalism. Working with director Caton-Jones, he photographed This Boy's Life, the cinematic adaptation of Tobias Wolf's memoir, a disturbing childhood portrait of boredom and violence. Watkin's naturalistic cinematography in This Boy's Life has been praised as among the most remarkable features of the film. Concrete, Washington, is rendered as visually dreary as its name suggests. In the film, images of the mundane, of the brutal in Concrete, are juxtaposed with the state's more majestic landscapes—the resulting photographic contrast reinforcing the central character's sense of entrapment in a dull world and an abusive situation.
Few cinematographers are better at using light to echo the experiences of real life. Yet despite the breadth and quality of his achievements, Watkin has not earned the recognition enjoyed by many of his contemporaries. It was only when he earned the 1985 Academy Award for Out of Africa that Watkin stepped out of the shadows and shared the spotlight with the top names in cinematography.
Watkin's early career was spent in documentaries. Starting out as a messenger boy, he worked his way up through the industry, making his debut as a cameraman on Holiday in 1955. He switched to features in 1965. At that time, a crop of young directors was struggling to help the British film industry break free from the constraints of studio production and was developing a fresh, more natural visual language. Cameramen such as Watkin, with backgrounds in the more adventurous fields of commercials and documentaries, were eagerly sought out by these directors. Watkin was chosen by American-born director Richard Lester to film The Knack, a witty statement on the changing moral climate of 1960s London. Watkin's giddy camerawork intensified the film's mood of spontaneity, and his sharp, monochromic photography underscored its thematic emphasis on opposing viewpoints. Watkin and Lester have since worked together on more than a half-dozen films—the director's eclecticism in subject matter having been equally matched by the cinematographer's stylistic diversity. Their collaboration includes Help!, a vividly colored Beatles romp; How I Won the War, an antiwar movie in which alternating use of colored, monochromic, and tinted footage functions as a Brechtian alienating device; and The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, for which Watkin harnessed the dazzling light of the Spanish locations to create exceptionally rich tableaux.
Watkin is nothing if not unconventional. When filming Out of Africa, he reversed traditional applications of film stock, using fast film for night and interior shots (situations in which slow film would normally be used) and slow film for exterior shots. The intention was to give the film a soft quality, appropriate to its lush, romantic mood. For The Charge of the Light Brigade, Watkin used Ross Express lenses, equipment which had long since passed out of favor with most cinematographers because of its unpredictable effects, but which Watkin drenched certain scenes in a single, dramatic color—in one case a lurid red, in another an electric blue. Stark coloration of this kind is typically shunned by filmmakers because of its highly stylized effects, but for Watkin it was a way of signposting the film's shifting emotional currents. Although Watkin is now very much part of mainstream cinema, in his early career he was associated with directors who were themselves considered unconventional—Ken Russell, Peter Brook, Tony Richardson, and Lester.
Watkin's ingenuity is best exemplified by the "Wendy Light," a lighting unit whose development he supervised. The "Wendy Light" consists of some 200 bulbs and is mounted on a crane at heights of up to 150 feet. It functions as a single, powerful light source capable of producing natural effects in both exterior and interior conditions. The unit creates the type of shadows and degree of smoothness found in the real world.
Watkin brings a painterly quality to his work. Like the Dutch artist Vermeer, he often illuminates his subjects with light passing through windows. Yentl, The Hotel New Hampshire, White Nights, and The Four Musketeers all contain striking examples of his use of this technique. His work is full of arresting images—a decaying apple in Robin and Marian, a huddle of athletes running across the sand in Chariots of Fire, an eviscerated serviceman in Catch-22, and the majestic Kenyan plains in Out of Africa. Yet while there are certain Watkin trademarks, it is incorrect to describe him as having a fixed style. He has always varied his techniques to fit narrative logic and to facilitate the director's aims. One needs only compare Marat/Sade's dizzy camera movements and unpredictable changes of focus (designed to simulate the feel of live theater) with the stately images of Out of Africa to appreciate the range of his professional vocabulary. Although his opinions on certain matters are unshakable—the superiority of Zeiss lenses over all their competitors, for example—after nearly 30 years in features, Watkin is still striving to attempt something new.
—Fiona Valentine, updated by Carrie O'Neill