By Anna Hayward
British film has been thrust into the spotlight this week with the news that Pinewood studios are broadening their horizons to America. Pinewood studios announced today that they would be building their first film and TV studio in the US in Atlanta, Georgia. This exciting endeavour aims to expand Pinewood’s global name and target US audiences. Pinewood is teaming up with RiverRock which is owned by fast food company, Cathy’s, but will be run under the name of Pinewood Atlanta. Brighton Lite speaks to Jeff Paynter about his experiences at Pinewood and about his career as a British cameraman.
Jeff, 60, of Shaveswood Lane, Devil’s Dyke, has had a long career in film spanning thirty-five years. He has worked on blockbuster films such as Voyage of the Damned, American Werewolf in London, Blade Runner and Superman 2 and 3. He left school at eighteen to build his career as a cameraman. He joined the film rental company, Rank, in 1971 which supplied camera equipment for Pinewood studios. Jeff had no college training and has learnt everything he knows while working on films. He said: “There weren’t a lot of film classes or courses at colleges in those days. So most people in the film industry started at the bottom making tea and worked their way up. It was a great way of doing it.”
Much like Jeff’s start in film work the road to building Pinewood studios was not an easy one. The origin of British film in 1888 was when the first moving picture was shot in Leeds by Louis Le Prince. The success of British film rests on Pinewood which was built by Charles Boot in and brought talking films to the British masses. After years of struggling to find financial backing Boot eventually bought a distinguished bankrupt’s estate to build the studios in 1936. James Sloan was brought in to design the studios and together they turned the hundreds of acres of land Boot had bought into one large and small stage, several dressing rooms, offices and anything you can imagine a films studio would require. Pinewood was built with the philosophy that the studio should be self-contained and that the workers should live next door to their work. Pinewood’s first completed production was Talk of the Devil, made in 1936. This cemented the roots of Pinewood as a film studio.
Exactly thirty years later Jeff started his very first job as a freelance clapper boy on Voyage of the Damned starring Faye Dunaway. It was directed by Stuart Rosenburg and Jeff describes it as a ‘fantastic’ experience. The story was inspired by true events concerning the fate of the MS St. Louis ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba in 1939. Jeff described going freelance as ‘tough’ but it helped him build up a reputation in film. A camera crew consists of four people and for each film Pinewood would use a crew like this. The basic crew starts with the camera man, then the camera operator, then the focus puller (the man who focuses the camera while it’s shooting and moving) and finally the clapper loader (the man who maintains the film equipment and loads the film into the camera). He said: “Those are the people that when you watch a movie, they are responsible for the visual look of that film. If a film is well made and the photography is good quality, you shouldn’t be aware of the camera because you become involved in it.” A typical camera crew shooting at Pinewood would shoot with a 35mm film. However this is now ‘dying out’ because of the expense and the invasion of video which is cheaper and more versatile. Jeff said: “It has had a big effect on film production. It’s becoming more CGI.”
Jeff’s big break came when he worked as a focus puller on Superman 2 which was directed by British director Richard Lester. The Superman films were one of the most important productions for Pinewood studios as they were among the top grossing box office successes of all time. Jeff has fond memories of playing darts with Christopher Reeve in between filming. He said: “He was a great guy to work with. He used to do most of his own stunts and sometimes he could be 50 to 75 ft off the ground. The wires were gossamer thin and he was lifted by a huge crane. He worked very hard to get the shots. They were very convincing.” In the late 70’s and early 80’s CGI was an unheard of concept and so Pinewood had to shoot stunts for real. Explosions were shot using dynamite and cranes were used to lift Christopher Reeve in the flying shots. Jeff found it was a ‘pleasure to go to work’ at Pinewood and thought the producers were very good. His favourite moments on Superman 2 were the night shots at Pinewood where the whole New York metropolis was replicated. He said: “It was just like walking down a normal high street. There were real products in the store, very authentic.”
Jeff’s cameraman career is long behind him after leaving the industry ten years ago to set up his own Hi-Fi company. He felt he left at the right time because the magic of films is “not what it used to be”. Jeff added: “It’s lost a bit of the sparkle than when you had to do it all for real. Seeing an actor or an actress do a really good performance is still the most wonderful aspect of a film I think.”
The future of Pinewood seems to be looking across the seas to America. In the past Pinewood resembled a shepherd among sheep in the film industry. However in recent times it has tragically followed other film studios which invest in U.S films to keep their financial heads above water. In 1980 only 31 British films were made because American backing was withdrawn proving that the crux of the British film industry is fuelled by U.S funding. In the same way that video killed the ‘radio star’; CGI seems to be killing the magic of ‘real’ film as more directors turn to 3D to enhance the viewer experience. In the face of financial and technological adversity, the one thing that is certain is that Pinewood will adapt and its legacy as one of the greatest film studios in history will live on.