To listen to more of Billy Williams’s stories, go to the playlist:
Born in London in 1929, cinematographer Billy Williams shot more than 40 high profile films throughout his career, being nominated for an Oscar for ‘On Golden Pond’ and ‘Women in Love’, then winning the Oscar for ‘Gandhi’ in 1983. He received an OBE in 2009. [Listener: Neil Binney]
TRANSCRIPT: So I… I began working with students in… in Rockport, Maine, mainly American students but also from… from all over the world, but then they were fee paying, and I found there was a huge difference in the number of questions I would get from the students in America as compared to… to those in England in that the moment I walked through the door in America I would be asked a question and those questions would continue throughout the day which started at eight in the morning and finished at 11 o’clock at night so they were constantly on the go. I found in England I’d get the first question as I was leaving, on my way out somebody would ask a question, because there’s a certain reluctance there seem to be, main… mainly English students, to actually ask a question and… and I’ve tried since then… since those early days, to impress on the group that I’m with, ‘Look I’m here to answer your questions and there’s no such thing as a silly question. If it’s something you want to know or don’t understand then… then ask about it, and we can talk, and… and if I know the answer I’ll give it to you’.
Because, what was good for me, being put into this position was that, you know, most of my working life, you know, I’m photographing on set, I’m working very closely with the director, and my operator and gaffer and so on. And coming from what my discussions have been with the director, and what the script tells me and what the actors are doing, I just go out and do it, light the set and so on. It’s very rare for anybody to question what I’m doing. Although occasionally, like John Schlesinger did once or twice, he’s saying well…John would say, ‘well, you know, that doesn’t look quite right, do you… do you really need that light there or couldn’t you do it a bit differently or…?’ And so on, and he’d make a really positive contribution to what I was doing. But it was… it’s very rare for anybody to, kind of, question what you’re up to, because you know it’s, that’s ones job, you’re left to do it. So what was good from my point of view was perhaps to look at a film I’d done in the past, to look at it with… with a student group and for us to discu… to discuss how it was done and why it was done. Why did you put the light there, you know, why didn’t you put it somewhere else? And, why did you make it blue and…? Things like that. And so you are then forced to re-examine what your thoughts were when you did it in the first place, and… and to communicate, this was really what it was about I think. To communicate your though… your thoughts and your vision, to be able to express in words what you’re trying to put into pictures. And you… I found I could do it sometimes by illustrating a certain method and also encourage the group to express themselves because as time went on, I found the best way of doing these workshops was to write a series of exercises, little scenarios in which we could have two actors playing out a scene. And the… each scene that I’d written would have a different feel to it in terms of the dramatic content of the scene and the time of day. Like I would write scenes of a day interior perhaps with the curtains drawn and the curtains being opened so that the light would change, or there would be scenes by candlelight or scenes by firelight or scenes with an intruder coming in at night with just a torch as source of light.