When you think of your favorite images from your favorite movies, I think it’s a fair question to ask who you think is responsible for those images. More often than not, people praise the director for anything they like about a movie, and it is rare that the public even acknowledges that there are cinematographers, much less single one out for praise. I admit that when I visit a set, the guys I get most excited about meeting are the directors of photography. I think these guys are magicians, and the best of them have created things that have never existed anywhere, and they’ve made it look like all it took was a camera.
I always encourage people to check out “Visions Of Light,” a beautiful documentary about the art of movie photography, and I love how the film puts some of the industry’s giants front and center, tying them to their accomplishments and restoring some balance in terms of who we credit for those shared memories that have made movie fans of us all.
I was sad to hear today about the passing of Gilbert Taylor, but the man was 99 years old. He leaves behind an amazing legacy, a career that started in 1930 when he worked as an assistant camera man and clapper loader. He worked his way up, and by 1948, he had moved up so he was the cinematographer. He worked in the British film industry, one film after another, for years before he worked on something truly memorable, but I’d argue that very few artists ever have a year like he had in 1964.
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” is a masterpiece, a brilliant dark comedy, and a big part of what I find amazing about the movie is the look of it. Each space in the movie is perfectly designed to not only accentuate the lunatic reality of the movie but to also create some very evocative lighting that makes the entire thing feel heightened. The War Room may be one of the great film sets of all time, and the way he shot it was brilliant. Working with Kubrick, Taylor’s style in the film was outrageous and surreal in a way.
His work on “A Hard Day’s Night” stands in direct contrast to that. There’s something so spontaneous and documentary and explosively energetic about the photography in that film that I credit Taylor with the giddy buzz that I get from watching it just as I much as Lester or The Beatles.
Those two films, taken together, may represent two of the most influential movies ever in terms of style. They’ve been absorbed completely into pop culture and they’ve also been imitated endlessly. I can’t imagine a world where Gilbert Taylor’s work on those films didn’t exist because they cast such wide shadows. The same is true of “Repulsion,” one of several movies he shot for Roman Polanski. “Repulsion” makes me feel mentally ill when I watch it. That’s about as high a compliment as I can pay it, and part of the reason it affects me that way is because of the work Taylor does, the way he pushes right in on Catherine Deneuve, determined not to miss a second of her meltdown.
He got to work with Hitchcock towards the end of his career, on “Frenzy,” and while I know it’s not one of the top-tier Hitchcock films, there’s something compellingly seedy about the way “Frenzy” plays. It’s sweaty and ugly and genuinely dirty, and I think that was exactly what Hitchcock was trying to accomplish.
“The Omen” was a major moment for Taylor, and a year later, he helped quite literally change the industry with his work on “Star Wars.” He and George Lucas did not see eye to eye at all on how the film should look and feel, and Fox backed Taylor when it came down to it. It may have made for a tense relationship with Lucas, but I’m glad Taylor stood his ground. The way he shot that world, the way he worked to help sell the special effects used throughout, Taylor was a huge part of the success of “Star Wars.” I consider him as key to that movie as Marcia Lucas or John Williams or Ralph McQuarrie.
The John Badham “Dracula” may not be great, but it’s beautiful, and “Flash Gordon” looks sillier every single year, and I love it for that exact reason. In both cases, Taylor’s work is very different, and it was a real testament to the way he served the material rather than things working the other way around. His last few films were pretty rough. He did the Tom Cruise/Shelly Long pop-your-cherry comedy “Losin’ It,” as well as the Tom Selleck burglar film “Lassiter” and the Curtis Hansen Hitchcock-light thriller “The Bedroom Window.” None of that work particularly stands out, but no matter… by that point, he was already very old, and he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.
I hope Taylor’s name is celebrated today, because I know for a fact that his work isn’t going anywhere. My kids are already familiar with his work thanks to “Star Wars,” “Flash Gordon,” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” and I think he worked on many films that will stand the test of time, that will continue to be part of our active pop culture for decades more. He was a major talent, a consummate professional, and he had one of the great movie eyes.
Our thoughts are with his friends and family, and we’ll definitely throw on a few of his films this weekend as a reminder of just what a giant he was.