“I wanted to create striking visuals…” reminisces 88 year-old Oscar-winning cinematographer, Billy Williams, famed for his work on the Ken Russell classic, Women in Love. Keeping a 200-strong audience captivated, the Walthamstow-born cinematographer went on to frame his various successes and challenges in a scintillating talk that encompassed a career of more than four decades.
Presented with a choice of heading into the city and working for his uncle as an “office boy”, or the ever more glamourous option of travelling around the country with his father as a cinematographer’s apprentice, Billy chose the latter and quickly learned his trade shooting documentary features in the middle-east, in areas of Iraq like Mosul, where he filmed “incredible archaeology, now sadly destroyed.”
This work then led to a fortuitous meeting with infamous producer Harry Saltzman, who teamed Billy up with flamboyant director Ken Russell after viewing some of his work on Tony Richardson’s Red and Blue, exclaiming “Let’s give this kid a break!”
From the flickering amber firelight that surrounds Oliver Reed and Alan Bates as they do battle in the nude, to the azure, English countryside providing the backdrop for lovers Tibby and Laura whose fate is sealed as the sun fades, Billy’s unusual use of filters throughout day and night scenes won him acclaim against his contemporaries, who found this unique technique and use of colour powerful and suited to Russell’s exuberant style.
Billy also recounts that there were also moments of difficulty in many of his productions; from making “Oliver Reed jump into the river three times” to “examining the face of a working coal mine with Russell”. In remembering his work with the femme fatales of Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, Billy recalled Hepburn’s tenacity and desire to wind-up new directors with extraordinary rages and tantrums “using language that would make a Sergeant Major blush”, and unfaltering professionalism from Elizabeth Taylor, whose first take was “always perfect”.
Billy’s talk ended with a Q&A from the audience, who asked what it was like to work on Oscar-adorned Gandhi, which he explained was “a rewarding film to work on”, though he became ill as the film went to production, leading to his shared Academy Award. Billy continued to explain his desire to keep working “in film schools and talking to students…It’s very rewarding and keeps me in touch with what is going on, by being on-set and doing workshops.”
In examining the future difficulties facing would-be cinematographers, he said: “The trouble is, everybody seems to have an opinion. People passing by, walking on set… In my mind, it’s the cinematographer and the director. These two must work together alone at this point to create the film.”
An exhibition of photography by BU MA Cinematography for Film and Television students is also on display in the Lees Lecture Theatre lobby, on Talbot Campus. The SHOT17 exhibition represents the culmination of ten photographic briefs given to students as part of formative non-assessed assignments.
The exhibition is free to attend and open to all, Monday - Saturday, 9am - 6pm, until Friday 14 July.