Making light of a long life behind the lens

By Jon Moreno

Published on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 16:15


Making light of a long life behind the lens

Isle of Wight cinematographer Gil Taylor on the set of Star Wars.

THERE cannot be too many people who have come up against Star Wars director George Lucas and got away with it but Newport man Gil Taylor did and helped the sci-fi epic become one of the greatest films made.

In a career spanning eight decades, 92-year-old Gil is one of the most talented cinematographers this country has produced with his work credited on numerous television dramas and more than 70 feature films.

Cinematography, the discipline of making lighting and camera choices when recording film images, is one of the most pivotal roles in movie making.

In the industry Gil is highly respected and the Island’s Oscar-winning director, Anthony Minghella, counts himself as one of his fans.

His body of work, which Star Wars (1977) undoubtedly tops, includes The Omen (1976), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Ice Cold in Alex (1958).

And Gil has collaborated with top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick and actors Gregory Peck, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough, Harrison Ford and John Mills.

The father of four, with five grandchildren, retired from movie-making 12 years ago and moved to the Island two years later with Dianne, his wife of 45 years.

His son Peter, a camera operator, is the only member of his family to follow in his footsteps.

Gil enjoys Island life, the climate and its people.

"My first wife and two children visited the Island several times because I wasn’t allowed to go abroad while under contract to a movie company," said Gil.

He spends much of his time painting mainly rural scenes and snapshots of people he worked with on movie sets.

These include The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the leading stars in Star Wars, notably Sir Alec Guinness, whom he particularly admired.

Reflecting on his incredible career, Gil said he was glad he did not follow in his father’s footsteps into the building trade but instead accepted, when aged 15, the opportunity to join the film industry under cinematographer William Shenton.

In 1929, with the Gaumont-British camera department, Gil assisted Shenton on the last two silent pictures made at Gainsborough Studios.

Following a spell making French boxing movies at Pathe Studios, Paris, he returned to Gainsborough where he made Third Time Lucky (1930), his first sound picture.

He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, distinguishing himself during the Second World War as an officer and operational cameraman.

Although Gil trained as a Lancaster bomber gunner, his primary mission was to photograph the aftermath of German bombing raids. His work was delivered to Downing Street for Churchill to personally assess.

At Belsen, Gil saw many harrowing sights from behind the lens. He watched a Canadian officer, so disgusted by the deliberate blinding of a Jewish child, shoot dead the German soldier responsible.

After the war, having worked as a cameraman on Brighton Rock (1947), he made his bow as director of photography, reuniting with Richard Attenborough on The Guinea Pig (1948).

Gil went on to make 25 feature films in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The chance to work with Polanski was too good to turn down and he snubbed a James Bond movie in favour of the drama Repulsion (1965).

He earned BAFTA nominations for Repulsion and Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966) and an Oscar nod followed for his third collaboration with the Polish filmmaker, Macbeth (1971).

"Polanski is a very intelligent man and wonderful company, always alive and keen to share everything with you," said Gil.

Earlier this year Gil’s career was marked with a coveted American Society of Cinematographers’ International Achievement Award, a follow-up to his BSC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Although he is proud of his work on Star Wars, mention of George Lucas and Gil looks perplexed and shuffles uncomfortably in his seat.

Lucas wanted to use heavy filtration throughout filming but Gil opposed the idea. 20th Century Fox backed Gil’s recommendation and Lucas never spoke to him again.

Gil had more joyous times working with other directors, particularly with Hitchcock on his penultimate movie, Frenzy (1972).

"Hitchcock would give me a list of 12 shots to do and would let me get on with it. He loved me and I loved him. He was a real gentleman."

Gil looks back at the golden age of cinema with satisfaction but so feels disillusioned with today’s special effects-laden offerings he no longer goes to the cinema.

"Cinematography is a magic job. You need to know what you are doing and be believable. It is an art you need to love and have in your blood."

*This feature was originally published by the Isle of Wight County Press in 2006 and has been made available online following Mr Taylor's death.

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