Tuesday, February 23, 2016

R.I.P. Douglas Slocombe (1913-2016)

Douglas Slocombe
On February 22, 2016, legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe died at the age of 103 in London, England following complications from a fall. Over the course of 40 years, he participated in making dozens of films ranging from comedies by the Ealing Studio to his final works with Steven Spielberg on the first three Indiana Jones films. What he leaves behind is an impressive body of work that challenged the visual appearance of film and made it into something far more beautiful. While his eyesight diminished following complications in the 80's, he continued to be an active and lively speaker until his death, proving just how passionate and dedicated to film he truly was.

Slocombe was born on February 10, 1913 in London, England to a journalist father. The young son desired to be a photojournalist, resulting in his lucky involvement with the beginning of World War II. During his time filming the war, he participated in a documentary called Lights Out, which covered Goebbels burning a synagogue. During this time, he was temporarily arrested before fleeing back to England where he worked with the Earling Studio company. This was where he got his start as a cinematographer, though he claimed that some of his early work as amateurish, and he wasn't entirely fond of the transition from black and white to color.

During his time with Ealing, he worked on the Alec Guinness comedy Kind Hears and Coronets, of which featured the gimmick of Guinness playing eight different characters. The catch was that in one scene, there would be six of these characters within frame. In order to achieve this shot, Slocombe connected the camera to the floor and slept in the studio to keep people from touching him. When it was done, the image would be so flawless looking that nobody could tell. He was also praised for his ability to shoot different genres effectively. His time with Ealing was fruitful, producing dozens of films that helped him find his style.

Ealing shut down in 1955, and Slocombe had to move on to other works. As a result, he moved around between projects, including the Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole period piece The Lion in Winter. He wouldn't receive his first Oscar nomination until 1972 for Travels With My Aunt. However, he had received three BAFTAS over his career and was heavily rewarded in his home country of England. He would also be nominated in Best Cinematography for Julia and Raiders of the Lost Ark - the latter of which he made sure to film the other two sequels The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade. He never won.

His work continued to be praised. Critics enjoyed his nuanced cinematography for the James Bond film Never Say Never Again and Roger Ebert especially loved how Slocombe was able to make the barren deserts of Jesus Christ Superstar not look so empty. His career was fruitful thanks to his ability to shoot with ease and beauty. By the time that he retired in 1989, he had an enviable body of work that was so influential, Janusz Kaminski famously borrowed the cinematographer's style when Steven Spielberg returned to Indiana Jones with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The reason that Slocombe retired was more due to an unfortunate health problem. Over the course of the 80's, he fell victim to decreasing vision problems. By the end of the decade, he was suffering from a detached retina and would also have a later failed surgery that only made things worse. Despite his impairment, he was still capable of holding conversations and being present up to his final years. 

Among his comments was the awareness that, at the rare age of 102, he was surprised to have outlived everyone he's worked with. He was rewarded as a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008 as well as an Honorary BAFTA ceremony in 2009. His legacy lived on with many cinematographers learning from his style. Whether it be his early Ealing comedies or the later Spielberg adventure movies, Slocombe left a strong and beautiful mark on cinema that definitely made a difference in how we perceive the world around us. 

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