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Notes on ‘A Dialogue with Billy Williams OBE, BSC and Vanessa Whyte’

Study Life … Study Portraiture … Study Light … Study Human Behaviour …

On Wednesday 22nd February Creative Conversations hosted A Dialogue with Billy Williams OBE, BSC and Vanessa Whyte as part of the Film and Television Production programmes at the University of Greenwich.

Billy Williams OBE, BSC is an award winning cinematographer with a distinguished career in film. Best known for Women in Love (1969), On Golden Pond (1981) and the Oscar award winning Gandhi (1982). Vanessa Whyte has had her drama projects screened worldwide, winning awards at various film festivals. She is part of the new UK female cinematography collective illuminatrix and has featured on Women’s Hour and Broadcast Magazine discussing female cinematographers.

Vanessa Whyte opened up the conversation by asking Billy Williams OBE, BSC to discuss his beginnings in the film industry. As an audience member, it was immediately clear to me that he worked extremely hard in order to get all the opportunities to travel the world and shoot the films that he did. The four years working alongside his father as a teenager gave him a certain discipline. The camera had to be cared for attentively because a damaged camera would have meant no more work.

As Vanessa continued to ask Billy insightful questions about his career and the way he worked, there was a great understanding that students and practitioners could use Billy’s wisdom to encourage new learning, to make new practical and creative considerations in their own works. Here are some of the most interesting insights from the evening:

“Shooting in black and white film is a discipline that teaches an artist to study light.”
Light and shade is incredibly important consideration when shooting a film in order to achieve the desired aesthetic. In a mostly digital practice, where colour is almost always used, it can be easy to forget that monitoring the tonal values (light and dark/highlight and shadow) will help a cinematographer shoot the best possible image. It is not necessary to shoot on black and white film to pick up this skill. It is about being able to observe the amount of light vs. the amount of shadow. Billy pointed out that the majority of master painters, such as Rembrandt, predominantly painted in colour but would have focused on strategically placing highlights and shadow in their paintings in order to add depth and drama. The same can be done by cinematographers.

“Study portraiture.”
One of Billy’s top tips for students who attended the talk was to study portraiture. Portraiture in cinematography means being able to tell the audience something about the character, it’s much more than simply recording facial expressions. A cinematographer must be able to put across a character’s identity in a way that will also enhance the storytelling in the film. It is worth noting that more often than not, portraiture is flattering. In order to flatter a subject, it is necessary to relate back to the study of light. Knowing how light and shadow will fall on the contours of a face is crucial. If a shoot is going to take place at an exterior location, it is the cinematographer’s responsibility to think about what time of day the shoot is going to be and again consider how this will affect the contours on the actors’ faces. From there it will be possible to know what lighting decisions will need to made regarding equipment and set up etc. The role of the cinematographer (especially in Hollywood and commercials) has traditionally been to ensure that the subjects on camera always look good, whether that be beautiful and/or strong.

“Make the actors feel welcome.”
An interesting subject that came forward during the dialogue was how to work with actors. With cinematography, the actors may not be the first element that is considered. Especially with lighting, camera angle, camera movements being at the foremost. However, as Billy advised, it is crucial for all crew to make the actors feel welcome on set. When the actors feel confident in what they have to do, their body language will be more natural and this in turn will influence more natural camera movements and framing. The rehearsals don’t need to be a long process, Billy suggests thirty minutes for a main scene, so that the cinematographer can focus on framing and positioning before the performers are in full hair and makeup. Rehearsals also give the cinematographer the opportunity to ‘study human behaviour’. Knowing what is a natural action, reaction and movement enables the cinematographer to develop better camera fluidity and overall a better understanding and connection between actor and camera. Billy stated he has never worked from a storyboard before. Storyboards are unable to allow for movement, the actors’ proportions or speed etc. and tend to be restricting in comparison to live rehearsals with actors.

“Be committed. Be prepared.”
The film making process is a collaboration and relies on making decisions and working seamlessly as a team. A cinematographer has many responsibilities but must be able to communicate with the rest of the crew. Billy spoke about how it is important to read the script and have discussions with the director, production designer, costume etc. All elements come together in a big way, with small considerations affect lighting and camera decisions in terms of practicality and also aesthetic. For a cinematographer on location, the smaller the light unit, the quicker and easier shooting is going to be. For Billy this was difficult because technology was limited. However, for Vanessa, she was able to work with Panalux to develop her own LED light unit, in order to adapt to the needs of a demanding remote location shoot. Being limited on weight and space, she needed the most flexible and reliable kit possible to enable her to capture the story in a limited situation.

“How to focus the audience’s attention is a skill vital to the cinematographer”
Ultimately all image making is for an audience. To successfully engage an audience, storytelling is key. Storytelling revolves around creating drama and to demonstrate this, the event audience were shown clips from Women in Love (1969) and Gandhi (1982).The scenes from Women in Love that were shown included; the cattle scene with Glenda Jackson, the evening lake scene and the wrestling by the fireplace scene. The use of lighting (in some cases lack of lighting) and camera movements all contribute to the deliberate focusing of the audience’s attention.

“Don’t over-cover as this takes time”
Interestingly, Billy mentioned that, when he shoots, he considers where the cuts in the edit may go. Making this consideration doesn’t restrict the editor’s options but instead presents more. Allowing enough time in the shooting schedule to get enough coverage is key, however over-covering takes away valuable time, so there needs to be a balance. Continuing with the topic of Post Production, the colour grade is a process which should have the input of the cinematographer. As a DoP you will have spent many hours, possibly even weeks or months, trying to shoot a certain aesthetic. If it is possible to be there for the colour grade then it is important to discuss what you want to be enhanced or taken away.

All of the above was demonstrated with clips from Women in Love (1969) and Gandhi (1982).