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Challis, Christopher (1919-)


Main image of Challis, Christopher (1919-)

Like Jack Cardiff, Christopher Challis spent the formative part of his career associated with the Technicolor company, which he joined in the late 1930s after a spell at Gaumont-British News. Initially employed as a technician on some of the early British three-strip films such as The Drum (d. Zoltan Korda, 1938) and The Four Feathers (d. Korda, 1939), Challis subsequently assisted Cardiff on the World Window series. He served in the RAF film unit during the war, before returning to Technicolor production as Cardiff's operator on his films for the Archers. In 1947 Challis himself shot End of the River (1947), a minor black-and-white film directed by Derek Twist for Powell and Pressburger, but his real break came with The Small Back Room (1949), also in black and white, photographed in an expressionistic, low-key style.

Challis then embarked on a series of major Technicolor projects. Both The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth (both d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1950), demonstrate his ability to imbue the landscape with an almost elemental quality which shapes the lives of the characters who inhabit it. On the latter production, shot on location in Shropshire, Challis attributes this sensibility to Michael Powell:

Mickey used to stay with the camera crew, he never really stayed with the unit. We always had pretty early calls but if on the way to the set, or equally on the way back at night, we saw something or the weather was odd or strange, he would quickly say 'we have to use this', so we would shoot. I remember a sequence with Jennifer [Jones] with the sundial outside the house in the mist. We arrived at the location an hour before anyone else. It was only just beginning to get light and Jennifer was there having her make-up done and Mickey suddenly said 'this weather is fantastic, let's get Jennifer quickly'. So we got the sequence. That is very much how he worked - using fleeting moments and weaving them into the story.

The treatment of landscapes, the light coming through the trees, the billowing clouds juxtaposed against deep blue skies, invoke both tranquillity and mystical power. The interiors are similarly impressive, particularly the expressive use of low-key and coloured lighting - the amber light which features strongly towards the end of the film anticipating the heroine's impending doom.

Challis proved that he was equally at home in the artifice of the studio with the opera and dance film Tales of Hoffman (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger 1951), a logical progression from The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger 1948), this time with no framing narrative. Hein Heckroth's sets relied on an economic theatrical style which utilised gauze drapes, dyed and decorated to suit the setting, cellophane and muslin. It was also decided whenever possible to create optical effects in the camera. The use of light to achieve such effects was obviously crucial. Challis had the luxury of shooting everything wild, without sound, which meant there were no mike booms to contend with, placing all the emphasis during shooting on the visuals: the movement, colour and spectacle of the dancing. The camera was also unblimped throughout which made it much smaller and lighter. Consequently, the crew were able to film on a huge stage at Shepperton originally built at Isleworth for the production of Things to Come (d. William Cameron Menzies) in 1936. Once again the 300-amp water cooled super spots used on The Red Shoes were brought into action. Coloured lighting set the mood in each act, with a great number of filter gels used on the key and fill lights. Challis explains:

Act I, a light-hearted tale of Hoffman's love for the doll Olympia, is designed frivolously in yellows, browns and glittering cellophane. In Act II, set in Venetian courtesan Giulietta's Palace... the decadent richness of the Borgias with rich purples, blacks and golds. For the last act, which tells of Hoffman's mature love affair with the consumptive singer, Antonia, the designs are in cool greys and greens.

The other key three-strip film photographed by Challis during this period is Henry Cornelius's Ealing-esque comedy Genevieve (1953), featuring the Old Crocks car race from London to Brighton. While the film eventually proved popular at the box office, the budget was too small to accommodate the rental of studio space and so the film was made entirely on location:

We shot under any light conditions. Henry used to come up to me every day and ask, 'What about the light - can we still shoot?' So I gave him a light meter with a bit of red tape on the dial and told him that when it goes below the red tape there was no possibility of shooting. And that's the way we made it.

Challis continued to work regularly with Powell and Pressburger on projects like the comic operetta Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955), in CinemaScope. To compensate for the lack of depth, Challis makes a virtue of the horizontal axis which is broken up by the application of blocks of colour. The comic possibilities of staging action in adjacent spaces cut off from one another - such as different hotel rooms - is also explored to the full. The musical sequences are somewhat confined to a proscenium arch, but the colour and vigour of the execution of such sequences wins through. This was followed by two VistaVision productions for Rank. The Battle of the River Plate (d. Powell/Pressburger, 1956) features striking dawn images of the iron-grey British warships steaming to engage the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, while Ill Met by Moonlight (d. Powell/Pressburger, 1957), one of only two British VistaVision films shot in black and white, has a rich glossy look perfectly suited to a romantic adventure story, much of which takes place at night. Despite these achievements, Challis was never very happy with the VistaVision process, noting that the horizontal registration had a tendency to scratch the film.

By the late 1950s Challis had joined a small group of British cinematographers specialising in international widescreen productions. His work embraced a range of different formats and genres from the CinemaScope swashbuckler The Adventures of Quentin Durward (US, 1955), to 70mm action comedies in the vein of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (d. Ken Annakin, 1956) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK/US, d. Ken Hughes, 1968). He also established a close working relationship with the American director Stanley Donen on films like The Grass Is Greener and Surprise Package (both 1960), Arabesque (UK/US, 1966), Two for the Road (US, 1967), Staircase (US/France/UK, 1969) and The Little Prince (US, 1974). Challis retired from the business in 1985 after completing work on Joseph Losey's last film, Steaming (1984).

Duncan Petrie

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

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)

Last of the Powell/Pressburger partnership - a WWII naval drama

Thumbnail image of Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)

Whimsical children's film that marked Powell and Pressburger's swan song

Thumbnail image of Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)

David Niven stars in an entertaining tale of revolutionary France

Thumbnail image of End of the River, The (1947)End of the River, The (1947)

Brazil-based melodrama starring Sabu as a young man accused of murder

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Genevieve (1953)Genevieve (1953)

Cheerful light comedy set against the London to Brighton car rally

Thumbnail image of Gone to Earth (1950)Gone to Earth (1950)

Rural melodrama of a young woman pursued by predatory men.

Thumbnail image of Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)

Dirk Bogarde-starring drama based on a true story of WWII Crete

Thumbnail image of Miracle in Soho (1957)Miracle in Soho (1957)

Slight but poetic story about unexpected love in postwar Soho

Thumbnail image of Never Let Go (1960)Never Let Go (1960)

Grimy, brutal thriller with a strikingly vicious performance from Peter Sellers

Thumbnail image of Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)

Powell & Pressburger musical comedy based on 'Die Fledermaus'

Thumbnail image of Small Back Room, The (1949)Small Back Room, The (1949)

Tense drama about an alcoholic bomb disposal expert

Thumbnail image of Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)

Visually ravishing Powell & Pressburger film of the Offenbach opera

Thumbnail image of Villain (1971)Villain (1971)

Underrated gangster drama starring Richard Burton

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Thumbnail image of Powell and PressburgerPowell and Pressburger

Creators of some Britain's most vivid and imaginative cinema

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