It was in 1947 that Bert Easey, then head of the Denham and Pinewood studio camera departments, first put forward the idea of forming a society of British cinematographers. Most of Britain’s distinguished cameramen were gathered for an industry dinner at the Orchard Hotel in Ruislip. Among the enthusiastic diners that night were such behind the camera luminaries as Georges Perinal, Desmond Dickinson, Guy Green, Robert Krasker, Harry Waxman, Otto Heller, George Hill, Jack Hildyard, Alex Tozer, Gordon Craig, Max Green, plus many other leading cameramen and representatives of various camera departments.
Bert Easey’s vision was that it would be a non-political guild or society, made up of feature production cameramen in the UK, based along similar lines to that of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers which had been formed in 1919. With the enthusiastic approval of the assembled gathering and The British Society of Cinematographers Limited was born in September 1949.
The 55 original members were each issued with a £1 share and their objectives were fourfold:-
- To promote and encourage the pursuit of the highest standards in the craft of Motion Picture Photography.
- To further the applications by others of the highest standards in the craft of Motion Picture Photography and to encourage original and outstanding work.
- To co-operate with all whose aims and interests are wholly or in part related to those of the society.
- To provide facilities for social intercourse between the members and arrange lectures, debates and meetings calculated to further the objects of the Society.
(Picture above: Signatures on menu card)
Freddie Young, at the time chief cameraman at MGM in (picture above: signature on menu at original aunigural meeting)
Borehamwood, took the chair as the first president. Bert Easey was elected secretary and treasurer. Guy Green took on the role of vice-president and Jack Cardiff, Lovat Cave Chinn, Desmond Dickinson and Derick Williams were elected to the board.
The aims of the Society, however, weren’t entirely to the liking of the union, the Association of Cine Technicians, forerunner of BECTU. Freddie Young recalled meetings with the union organiser George Elvin: “He wanted us to be a branch of the union,” he said. “We wanted to have a society to meet in a friendly way to discuss cinematography.”
Initially, the Society’s meetings were held at the Orchard where the management curtained off a room. When the Orchard was refurbished, board meetings rotated around governor’s homes every six weeks. Although the dinners were most enjoyable it was very hard on the wives and was certainly impractical for those board members who had to be at the studios for early starts. It was decided to move them to weekends and these continued at Pinewood and Rank Labs until 1990.
That year, through the auspices of Shepperton chief, Denis Carrigan, the Society acquired an elegant club room, situated in the Old House where the corridors and meeting room display photographs of presidents and the honour boards listing the achievements of past and present members.
On December 7 1951, the Cinematographers held the first of its celebrated Operator Nights. The Orchard at Ruislip was the venue and the cost to attend that first function was just one guinea or in current money £1.05p. It was introduced to give DOPs the opportunity to express their gratitude to their operators. Over the years it has developed into one of the Society’s most successful annual functions and currently has a regular December slot at Pinewood Studios.
The Operator’s Night is also the occasion when the Society hands out its prizes for the year.
The first among these was The Bert Easey Technical Award, named in honour of Bert’s tireless energy and unflagging enthusiasm that brought about the birth of the BSC. The award is a gift of the Board and only given to an individual or company who has contributed something outstanding in the way of endeavour or equipment. The initial award went to George Ashworth, Chief Engineer, Denham and Pinewood Studios, for outstanding work in designing and perfecting a beam splitter camera which advanced the technique of the travelling matte process. Over the years it has been bestowed on companies such as Lee Filters, Arnold and Richter, Eastman Kodak, The House of Samuelson, Panavision, Technicolor, Lee Electric and Rank Taylor Hobson for their cinematographic contributions. Talented individuals including Wally Weevers, Garrett Brown, Denys Coop, Bob Gottschalk, David Samuelson Les Ostinelli, Joe Dunton, Roy Moores, Jean Pierre Beauviala, Karl Kelly, Laurie Frost, Bill Chitty, Charles Staffell and Harry Baker are among those who have also been honoured.
Two years later, the BSC Best Cinematography Award was inaugurated and voted on by the entire membership. Its first recipient was Ossie Morris for John Huston’s ‘Moulin Rouge’. Ossie’s award was a silver tankard. Later, Academy Award winning production designer Ken Adam was invited to design a futuristic golden camera for the annual winners. Each year the name of the winner of the Best Cinematography award was engraved on a plaque on the Society’s Golden Camera, a magnificent model of the celebrated Mitchell N C Camera. Crafted by renowned Pinewood camera engineer George Ashworth, a veteran of the first ever meeting of the Society, the model is on display in the glass case in the main entrance at Pinewood when not on show at BSC events. More recently Honour Boards, which line the corridor towards the ballroom, have been produced to record award recipients. The Golden Camera has also been presented to those members honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award and another category exists, called the Special Achievement Award.
In later years ARRI contributed to the Operators evening by sponsoring the ARRI John Alcott Memorial Award, an award in memory of John Alcott, BSC who won many accolades for his work on Barry Lyndon and died tragically at a young age. This is given to the person who, in the opinion of the board, has contributed most towards perpetuating the original aims of the Society.
Past winners include: Les Ostinelli, BSC; Peter Newbrook, BSC; Wolfgang Suschitzky, BSC; Eric Cross, BSC; A.A. Englander, BSC; Ossie Morris, BSC; Paul Beeson, BSC; Harvey Harrison, BSC; Alan Hume, BSC; Alex Thomson, BSC; Joe Dunton, BSC; Michael Samuelson, BSC, Robin Vidgeon, BSC, Frances Russell and Mick Mason.
In 2001, Roy Field was the first to receive a further new award, the Charles Staffell Award for Visual Effects which had been instigated in Charles’s memory, by Kevin Francis.
In 2011 to coincide with the launch of the new BSC Website, the Society introduced the Best Cinematography in a TV Drama Award.
In years past members entertained their wives at the BSC Ladies Night, an annual Black Tie event, held for 25 years at the Savoy Hotel. Honoured guests over the years included such celebrated names as Sir John Mills, Sir Dirk Bogarde, Otto Preminger and Peter Sellers.
Other annual events in the BSC Calendar include the Annual General Meeting held at Pinewood Studios in late May or early June.
(Picture Above: Members gathered on the Pinewood Terrace following the Annual General Meeting in 2010)
In the summer, the Society gathers again at Pinewood for the BSC Summer Luncheon. First held in 1987, in the conservatory at Shepperton Studios, to honour the founder and veteran members of the Society, it proved such a success that a similar lunch had to be organised the following year to thank the Society’s patron members. In 1989 it marked the Society’s 40th anniversary and has now become an important summer gathering of cameramen, patrons and friends.
A new initiative in 1993, inspired by Joe Dunton, was the Society’s first Equipment Show, which featured the latest innovations from camera and lighting companies. Initially held at Shepperton, it was to prove so popular that further exhibitions were held in subsequent years at Pinewood, Mister Lighting and Grip House, Dukes Island and it later found an annual home at Elstree Studios.
The show is growing and will expand into the BSC Expo becoming a more international biennial event.
(Picture above: BSC Show 2010 – George Lucas Stage, Elstree Studios)
Joe Dunton’s leadership again came to the fore when, in June 1997, assisted by the British Film Commission, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Federation of Electronics Industries, the British Society of Cinematographers flew the flag at Showbiz Expo in Hollywood.
Over 30 exhibitors, fronted by leading British technicians representing various facets of the film industry, came together in the colourful British Pavilion. It was deemed an unqualified success after 21,000 people visited the show in its three days, and has now developed into more valued exposure for the Society.
In addition to the strong ties with friends on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Society has bonded with its European counterparts in a Federation of Cinematographers called IMAGO. Started by the BSC, the Italians, Germans and French, Imago has grown to encompass twenty countries and is ever moving forward to promote better communication between cinematographers world wide.
On the home front, the BSC has had great success with a series of Question and Answer screenings with the appropriate Director of Photography answering questions from an audience comprised of BSC members, the Guild of British Camera Technicians and film students from around the country. Not only new films have been shown but classics such as Oliver Twist, photographed by Guy Green in 1947, with both Green and his operator Ossie Morris in attendance and The Innocents with Freddie Francis. Further screenings have been run over the years and in 2011 the newly elected President introduced a series of Grand Master, State of the Art and Indie screenings with a move to London venues.
In 2001, BSC Masterclasses were introduced, a training initiative hosted by BSC Dop’s for members of the camera department. The Society also continues to expand its ‘Portrait Series’, which feature interviews with renowned BSC directors of photography. The most recent being an Interview with Chris Challis, produced and directed by Richard Blanshard.
In 2009, spearheaded by Sue Gibson and funded by SKILLSET, the BSC undertook an ambitious evaluation of 18 different film and digital cameras, the results of which premiered at the BFI Southbank, and were showcased in Bristol, Glasgow.
The BSC is also an active member of the Cine Guilds of Great Britain and together with other groups such as film editors, sound technicians, camera technicians, location managers, special effects and stunt co-ordinators, enables the industry to be heard with one voice. It also fosters close ties with the BKSTS.
The British Cinematography Scholarship Trust, a charity founded by the late Michael Samuelson, was also supported by the cameramen. These post-graduate courses, at the Royal College of Art and the National Film and Television School, are virtually the only way that cinematographers of the future can learn their craft. The first, awarded in 1996, was the Freddie Young Scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Subsequent scholarships in the names of Freddie Francis and Oswald Morris have gone to the National Film School of Beaconsfield.
In 1996 ‘Cinema 100’ plaques, which marked the centenary of cinema, were awarded to Freddie Young and Jack Cardiff. The first was unveiled at the Odeon Leicester Square following a 70mm screening of ‘ Lawrence of Arabia’ and the second following a packed screening of ‘The Red Shoes’ was sited outside Theatre 7, Pinewood.
In 1958 the first newsletter, edited by Technicolor’s George Gunn, was produced. Since then Doug Hague, Sir Sydney Samuelson and Les Ostinelli carried on the good work. In 1990, Alex Thomson took over and under his amusing Editorship, its distribution has expanded to reach all corners of the world in the form of a quarterly newsletter, published and circulated by Kodak.
Not a Society to ignore its cinematic roots, in January 1999, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the BSC honoured the cinema pioneer, William Friese-Greene. ‘The First Cinematographer’, a bronze homage by Diana Thomson FRBS was unveiled at Shepperton Studios before an invited audience, which included some of the Friese-Greene’s descendants. It will remain on permanent display. Another cast is situated at Panavision’s offices at Greenford and a third, sponsored by Fuji, stands in the main hall at Pinewood Studios. A fourth cast was sited by Panavision at its USA headquarters in Woodland Hills, California.
(Pictured below with the bust are Diana Thomson and Freddie Francis, then President of the BSC.
After the Society’s formative years, Bert Easey retired as Honorary Secretary in 1964 though he continued as honorary treasurer until his death in 1973. George Gunn took over and later Les Smart and Joan Calvert. In 1983 Frances Russell took the post and still currently handles all administrative and financial affairs, now ably assisted by Audra Woodburn and Gemma Davies.
From the original 55 members, the society has expanded to encompass 270 members and the patronage of 35 patron members.
In words of one of the past Presidents Mike Southon: “May the initials BSC after a name continue to feature heavily on awards lists around the globe.”
We thank Les Ostinelli, John Willis, John Gainsborough, Frances Russell and Phil Meheux for their contributions to the above history of the Society.