Life behind the lens: from Star Wars to The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Renowned cinematographer reveals secrets of his career
It’s not every day you get to chat with an acclaimed cinematographer but that’s just what film studies students from the University of Bradford got to do in their latest Zoom chat.
Peter Suschitzky has worked on some of the biggest movies ever made, from Empire Strikes Back from the original Star Wars trilogy to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and many more besides.
He took time out of his day to speak about the highlights of his career and deliver advice to budding filmmakers AND in the process he revealed some of the secrets of cinematography. One such was that the lighting for some of the lightsaber scenes he shot on Empire was inspired by techniques he learned working on The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Peter was actually George Lucas’s first choice for the original Star Wars film but did not get the job after its producers hired another director of photography - however, when the film became a smash hit, Lucas suggested he worked on the sequel with its director Irvin Kershner… and the rest is history.
Asked if there were any difficulties with lighting the film’s famous lightsabers, he said: “I had worked on the Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1974 and towards the end there’s a sequence with the RKO radio tower. It’s a mast with lightning flashes emanating from it and I thought of using something called 3M material to stick on it - it’s similar to what they use on road signs, so that when car headlights catch it, it shines brightly but if you stand off to one side, it gets dimmer. So, I said why not stick some 3M material on the lightsabers.”
It was one of numerous fascinating moments during the hour-long session, during which he spoke about his illustrious career and in particular his long-term partnership with director David Cronenberg, working on films including Naked Lunch, Crash, A History of Violence, Cosmopolis and many more. He has also worked with directors John Boorman, Ken Russell, Bernard Rose, and Tim Burton.
Modestly describing his own career as a “series of lucky breaks”, he recalled his first day at film school in Paris, aged 19, when an aging professor born in 1905 took him through the steps of filmmaking using a hand-cranked camera. He later went to work in London, the US and South America, making documentaries, clinching his first film, It Happened Here: The Story of Hitler’s England, in his early 20s.
He said: “It’s always a thrill that creeps up on you when you realise you are working on something that might actually do well, because filmmaking is a risky business and even if the script promises a lot, between the script and the delivery are a lot of pitfalls.”
His advice to film studies students: “All your experiences act as a kind of mosaic and help form your character. I never start a film wanting it to look a certain way. I would urge you to see as many films as you can, from all genres and to read as many stories as you can, from ancient Greek myths to stories by the Brothers Grimm, to understand how stories are told. Stories are pretty much the same, what changes is context and style. The best movies are not made in a haphazard way - directors have to be brave enough to tell actors where to stand and what to do.”
The webinar was organised by University of Bradford film and television lecturer Jacqueline Griffin, from the Department of Media, Design & Technology, who previously worked with Peter in the film industry and still runs her own business, C & C Media, directing short films and music videos.
She said: “I think it’s crucial to give students the opportunity to hear from amazing people like Peter, who has worked on films which have inspired so many people.
“To know that he worked hard to get where he is but also had a little luck along the way is also inspiring. It shows students they just have to keep going. We can teach you all the skills but you also have to apply those yourself, so hearing that from someone who has been there and done it is invaluable.”
She added more sessions were planned.
Bradford is the world’s first UNESCO City of Film, in recognition of its rich film heritage, inspirational movie locations and many celebrations of the moving image through festivals and other events.