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Posted 29 February 2016 - 01:26 AM
"Douglas Slocombe, who has died aged 103, was one of the finest cinematographers of the 20th century whose work became indelibly associated with Ealing Studios’ celebrated post-war comedies; 40 years later, he was Steven Spielberg’s director of photography on three Indiana Jones movies.
A former photojournalist, Slocombe joined the payroll of Ealing Studios while filming documentary footage for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. For the next 17 years he worked as their main cameraman, responsible for the pristine black-and-white camera work – the “real blacks and pure whites”, as he put it – that were as much a part of the films’ appeal as the performances.
Slocombe’s approach was both low-key and innovative, and he was as much at home with macabre horror (such as his 1945 debut Dead of Night), as with realistic drama or the sparkling comedy of The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Lacking any formal training, he had to learn for himself how to simulate natural light on a closed set, using negative over-exposure for a nightmarish or dreamlike atmosphere. In the days before sophisticated post-production effects, he relied on the camera to create the desired shot.
One of British cinema’s most famous scenes, in Kind Heart and Coronets (1949), was also the one of which Slocombe was most proud. It was a sequence in which six characters played by Alec Guinness (members of the same aristocratic family) appear sitting side by side. Slocombe decided to achieve it by nailing the camera down and rewinding the negative again and again. To guard the camera against unwelcome knocks, he slept on the floor of the studio until shooting was complete.
After the closure of Ealing Studios in the late 1950s Slocombe freelanced for numerous companies, shot Cliff Richard’s musical The Young Ones (1961) and won a Bafta for his work on Harold Pinter’s claustrophobic adaptation of Robin Maugham’s novella The Servant (1963). Having shot the India sequences on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he was rehired four years later for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For Slocombe, now in his sixties, the change of pace was considerable. Spielberg favoured “a very, very tight schedule, enormous numbers of set-ups every day [and] very large sets that he didn’t want laboriously lit.”
Yet the experience was also one of his most memorable, earning him an Oscar nomination, and Slocombe returned for the next two films in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. With this, his 80th and final project, Slocombe found himself photographing fictional distortions of his very first subjects, the Nazi party.
Born in London on February 10 1913, Douglas Slocombe was educated in France, where his father George was a celebrated Paris correspondent for the Daily Herald. Douglas returned to Britain in 1933 and worked for British Universal Press before departing for Danzig with a view to becoming a photojournalist. His images of a synagogue draped in the Nazi flag caught the attention of the American film-maker Herbert Kline, who supplied him with a professional film camera and enrolled him for his documentary, Lights Out in Europe.
Slocombe managed to lug his 35mm Bell and Howell Eyemo camera to a Goebbels rally, but was soon arrested for trying to film a synagogue as it went up in flames. On the advice of the Polish authorities he left for Warsaw and met up with Kline. They escaped the advancing German army by way of Stockholm, and Slocombe’s footage featured in the completed film."
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