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Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)

Main image of Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)

A veteran with more than 50 years experience, Desmond Dickinson established himself as a cameraman during the late 1920s at Gainsborough, Welsh-Pearson and then Stoll studios, where he remained for 16 years, earning a reputation as an innovative and economical technician specialising in low budget quota production. While most of his pre-war output is minor fare, one notable exception is the quirky whodunnit The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939), directed by Thorold Dickinson, who gave Dickinson his major break during 1943 after a spell working on propaganda and training films. Men of Two Worlds (1946), a drama set in Tanganyika. was intended to counter German propaganda against Britain's role as an imperial power. Thorold Dickinson, by now a leading figure in the Army Kinematographic Service, suggested that the film be shot in Technicolor. The Ministry of Information approved the request and in October 1943 a crew set off to film the location scenes and back projection plates in Africa. Shooting proved extremely arduous and was restricted to the early morning and afternoon as the overhead midday sun flattened out scenery and made faces difficult to photograph. They also had to finish around five as the setting sunlight become too yellow to give true colour value.

Desmond Dickinson shot this material on Monopak stock using an Eclair camera, as Technicolor refused to allow any of its four three-strip cameras out of the country during wartime. Unfortunately the stock was already stale when it was sent to Africa and by the time it was processed - which could only be done in Hollywood - 90 per cent of the footage shot was unusable. The bulk of the scenes had to be recreated from scratch in the studio at Denham using glass shots for backgrounds. Dickinson achieved some of his most interesting work in the night-time scenes, particularly those featuring the native dancers, the drarnatic juxtaposition of their bodies bathed in orange firelight and deep black shadows. The technical problems in achieving such effects are documented by John Huntley:

To get the sudden transition from firelight to moonlight took a few rehearsals as the orange are lights on the gantries had to synchronise with the dousing of the fire by water.... The sudden complete contrast of glowing firelight and soft, brilliant moonlight, added to the colourful costumes, make these sequences some of the finest of English Technicolor achievements. The longest tracking shot on this production was made on these sequences. Starting in the gloom - deepened by the glow of the fire in the middle distance - the camera tracked in for 75 feet right to the edge of the fire until a close shot of one of the leaping figures almost filled the screen.

Dickinson also photographed Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), another landmark of British filmmaking during this period. Production once again took place at Denham studios on big open sets. Olivier decided that an appropriate style be found to allow him to film shot in a particular way to convey a certain atmosphere but also to allow some flexibility in the staging of the action. As Dickinson recalls: "The first time I met Olivier he said, 'I want this picture to be sharp all over so I can have a great big close-up in the foreground, but the back of the set must also he sharp.'"

Deep focus was practically unknown in Britain at this time in its fully realised form. Although the dominant photographic style had moved towards a much sharper and contrasty look, this had not led to the re-creation of the extreme depth of field achieved by Gregg Toland in such Hollywood films as Citizen Kane (US, d. Orson Welles, 1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (US, d. William Wyler. 1946). Toland achieved the effect by way of a combination of wide-angle lenses and a very small aperture. Dickinson was restricted to a 'normal' lens as Olivier wanted a certain naturalism in the image, with no distortion. However, depth was created by shooting the film at apertures of between f11 and f8 - the widest aperture used according to Dickinson's operator Ray Sturgess. By comparison, most British films during the 1940s continued to be shot at much wider apertures.

Stopping down requires a corresponding increase in lighting and as much as "sixteen times the normal brilliance" was used on the production of Hamlet. This made it impossible to recreate some of the lower key lighting effects in designer Roger Purse's sketches, particularly on some of the bigger scenes where more lighting was necessary to match long shots with close-ups. The film was shot on Eastman Kodak 'plus X' stock with the French Eclair camera Dickinson had acquired for shooting the Monopak sequences on Men of Two Worlds. However, the subsequent depth of field enabled Olivier to revert to long takes with actors free to wander around the set. The soliloquies in particular were planned with a great deal of movement and consequently the film is full of long takes with the camera panning, tracking and craning around the sets of Elsinore.

Hamlet was to prove the major achievement of Dickinson's career. He continued to be a prolific technician but failed to follow younger contemporaries like Jack Cardiff or Robert Krasker into the international arena as the British industry went into decline. Among his more notable films during the 1950s and 1960s are collaborations with Anthony Asquith, including The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); a handful of features utilising new widescreen technologies such as The Black Tent (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1956), in VistaVision, and the low budget horror City of the Dead (John Moxey, 1960), effectively photographed in atmospheric black and white.

Duncan Petrie

This entry is taken from Duncan Petrie's The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Used by permission.

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