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Menges, Chris (1940-)

Cinematographer, Director, Producer

Main image of Menges, Chris (1940-)

Equally comfortable in drama and documentary, big-budget cinema features and low-budget television, cinematographer-director Chris Menges has amassed one of the most impressive British filmmaking CVs of the last half-century. A double Oscar winner for Roland Joffé's films The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), he is just as renowned for his contributions to Ken Loach's films and to Adrian Cowell's campaigning TV documentaries - one of which led to a real-life adventure as gripping as any fictional thriller.

Born into a musical family (his father was the composer and conductor Herbert Menges), he first became involved with film in 1958, at the age of 17, when he was taken on as an apprentice by his parents' neighbour, American documentary filmmaker Alan Forbes. He then worked as an assistant editor, soundman and camera assistant before joining the team of Granada TV's World in Action (ITV, 1963-98) as a cameraman in 1963. Much of the rest of the 60s was spent covering conflicts around the world in such places as Angola, Burma, Cyprus, Nepal, South Africa and Vietnam, often undercover. In an interview for the American Society of Cinematographers, Menges reminisced:

"Those types of documentaries expose you to a different world. You learn about composition, and how it affects the story, and about natural lighting. You experience those things by observing. You also learn to fit into the environment with the indigenous people and that there is no one right way to tell a story. The experience of being a fly-on-the-wall while shooting documentaries helps you develop as a filmmaker."

He also assisted cinematographers Brian Probyn and Miroslav Ondricek, in which capacity he was camera operator on Ken Loach's feature debut Poor Cow (1967) and Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968). Promoted to cinematographer on Kes (1969), he would shoot many of Loach's films over the next two decades, including the features Family Life (1971), Black Jack (1979), Looks and Smiles (1981) and Fatherland (1986), as well as the TV drama The Gamekeeper (ITV, tx. 16/121980) and the controversial political documentaries that Loach made for LWT and Channel Four in the early 1980s.

Menges had been used to chasing the subject with his camera, but in tandem with Loach he devised a new approach whereby the space in which they were shooting would be pre-lit and the actors would have a considerable amount of freedom within that space. As Loach put it in an interview with Graham Fuller:

"We wanted to light the space so that the light fell democratically but unostentatiously on everyone. Not only is it more pleasing that way, but the lighting isn't then saying, 'This is the leading actor in the scene or the film and these other actors aren't so important'. This is what we did on Kes, and it became a central tenet of how we worked."

Menges continued to work in documentary, travelling with director Adrian Cowell to shoot The Opium Warlords (ITV, tx. 9/10/1974) in Burma. They entered the country illegally and remained trapped there for 18 months after getting caught up in a skirmish between the Shan State Army and remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang forces.

By the turn of the decade he had built a reputation as one of Britain's outstanding feature cinematographers, thanks to collaborations with many of the country's major filmmakers. In addition to Loach, they included Stephen Frears (Gumshoe, 1971; Bloody Kids, ITV, tx. 23/3/1980; Walter, Channel 4, tx. 2/11/1982), Franco Rosso (Babylon, 1980), Neil Jordan (Angel, 1982), Alan Clarke (Made in Britain, ITV, tx. 10/7/1983) and Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, 1983; Comfort and Joy, 1984).

Incongruously, he was also second unit cinematographer on The Empire Strikes Back (US, 1980), which gave him valuable experience of big-budget production logistics and special effects. He drew on this and his extensive knowledge of south-east Asia when shooting The Killing Fields (1984) for Roland Joffé. It won him the first of two best cinematography Oscars, the second for Joffé's The Mission (1986), shot in demanding jungle locations in four South American countries.

Menges then made his directorial debut with A World Apart (1987), for which he received much acclaim, especially for his sensitive direction of the teenage Jodhi May, playing the 13-year-old daughter of prominent apartheid activists in 1960s South Africa. It seemed to herald an equally high-profile directing career, but Menges' three subsequent features - CrissCross (US, 1991), Second Best (US/UK, 1993) and The Lost Son (UK/France, 1998) - were less well received, and by the mid-1990s he had resumed his former profession in collaboration with Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, US, 1996) and Jim Sheridan (The Boxer, US/UK, 1997).

Since 2000, Menges has continued to shoot high-profile feature films, mostly in the US, though he was reunited with Stephen Frears for Dirty Pretty Things (US/UK, 2002) and with Ken Loach for Route Irish (2010).

Michael Brooke

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Ken Loach's only children's film, an adventure set in 18th century Yorkshire

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Mournful comedy about a Glasgow DJ caught up in an ice-cream war

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Powerful early-Thatcher era drama about the prospect of life on the dole

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Documentary about the famous anti-nuclear protest march

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An introduction for young people to the world of employment

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Short film about a woman's gradual realisation of her life's emptiness

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20th-century class politics explored through the death of a lifelong activist

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Stunning Stephen Frears/Poliakoff drama about a prank gone wrong

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Low-key drama exploring the class divide in rural Yorkshire

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Tim Roth's incendiary debut as an intelligent but nihilistic skinhead

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Ken Loach's analysis of the early impact of Thatcherism on workers

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Ian McKellen stars in a moving drama about a mentally disabled man.

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