Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff isn’t so much a biography as a valentine to the visual artistry of film. Cardiff, a cinematographer who died in 2009 at the age of 94, is naturally interviewed and profiled and lauded by talking heads from Kirk Douglas to Lauren Bacall to Martin Scorsese. But Cardiff is quick to discuss the directors, assistants, and actors who aided him in his craft, and the gorgeous films that resulted are pedestaled as often as his particular talents.
Cardiff, who, incredibly, worked from 1935 until 2007, is widely regarded as “probably the greatest color photographer that ever lived,” as one of the commentators remarks. The Englishman saw films transition from silent black-and-whites to Technicolor talkies to digitally enhanced technological marvels. There are lots of war stories here, with Cardiff recalling, for example, how he introduced a fade-in by breathing on the lens, and an assistant marveling over the shots they achieved with “spit and cardboard and rubber bands.” After each tale, the end product is shown off, with much attention paid to The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and other films helmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Director Craig McCall devotes much of the doc’s 90 minutes to the advent of Technicolor and how Cardiff became a master of it. A painter as well as a cinematographer, Cardiff didn’t create his own works as much as he copied the greats—particularly Impressionists—noting their use of lighting and applying it to his day job. (His portraits are as astounding as his films, nearly identical to their originals, and it’s clear he learned their lessons well: A Black Narcissus actress notes, “He gave me half of my performance with the lighting.”) Cardiff was also a skilled still photographer, and he shows off some breathtakingly beautiful portraits of actresses like Audrey Hepburn.
Throughout, Cardiff remains charming and egoless despite his obviously abundant gifts. McCall chose well in allowing his subject to speak for himself and highlighting the films he worked on more than the people he worked with or those he influenced: Seemingly every compliment is justified by an example of Cardiff’s work, and acknowledgement is spread among crew, resulting in a biography that never buckles under excessive fawning. Cardiff even demures when the subject of CGI is brought up, claiming that “the standard of photography has improved enormously.” (Scorsese, meanwhile, says what the rest of us are thinking: that modern-day effects “lack authenticity.”) Cameraman is a pleasure to sit through even if you’re not familiar with the man; for cinéasts, it’s required viewing.