The British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who has died aged 99, was best known for his camerawork on the first Star Wars movie (1977). Though its special effects and set designs somewhat stole his thunder, it was Taylor who set the visual tone of George Lucas’s six-part space opera.
“I wanted to give it a unique visual style that would distinguish it from other films in the science-fiction genre,” Taylor declared. “I wanted Star Wars to have clarity because I don’t think space is out of focus … I thought the look of the film should be absolutely clean … But George [Lucas] saw it differently … For example, he asked to set up one shot on the robots with a 300mm camera lens and the sand and sky of the Tunisian desert just meshed together. I told him it wouldn’t work, but he said that was the way he wanted to do the entire film, all diffused.” Fortunately for everyone, this creative difference was resolved by 20th Century Fox executives, who backed Taylor’s approach.
Back in Britain at Elstree studios, Taylor found John Barry’s sets, particularly the Death Star, were all black and grey, with little opportunity for lighting at all. “My work was a matter of chopping holes in the walls and working the lighting into the sets, and this resulted in a ‘cut-out’ system of panel lighting using quartz lamps that we could put in the walls, ceiling and floors. This lighting approach allowed George to shoot in almost any direction without extensive relighting, which gave him more freedom.”
Despite his Star Wars fame, Taylor was a master of black-and-white cinematography. Witness the splendour of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (both 1964) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Of this, Polanski wrote: “As I saw it, the only person who could do justice to our black-and-white picture was Gil Taylor, whose photography on Dr Strangelove had deeply impressed me.”
Gilbert (sometimes credited as Gil) Taylor was born in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire. The son of a prosperous builder, he was expected to join the family business, but his mother was perceptive enough to persuade his father to let him take a camera-assistant job.
At 15, he worked as assistant on the last two silent films made at Gainsborough studios, in London. He soon went to Elstree studios, to the north of the city, where he was clapper loader on Alfred Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen (1932). More significantly, he was assistant and camera operator to Freddie Young on Herbert Wilcox’s Nell Gwyn (1934) and Paul Czinner’s Escape Me Never (1935).
Taylor’s apprenticeship was interrupted by the outbreak of the second world war, when he joined the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve, his primary mission being to photograph the targets of nocturnal raids over Germany after the bombs were dropped. “This was requested by Winston Churchill, and my material was delivered to 10 Downing Street for him to view. On the opening of the second front, I took a small operational unit of cameramen to cover every kind of news story, including the liberation of the concentration camps and the signing of the armistice.”
After the war, Taylor returned to studio work as camera operator on two Boulting Brothers pictures, Fame Is the Spur and Brighton Rock (both 1947), for which he did some second-unit photography. This impressed John and Roy Boulting, especially his work on a deep-focus dream sequence in the former. As a result the producer-director twins gave Taylor his first job as director of photography on The Guinea Pig (1948), followed by Seven Days to Noon (1950).
It was then that Taylor started using bounced or reflected light. The indirect lighting of a subject or background gave the films a more naturalistic look, in contrast to the glossier direct light used by most of his contemporaries. This method was particularly effective in the realistic monochrome pictures directed by J Lee Thompson: The Weak and the Wicked (1954) – a women-in-prison drama – Yield to the Night (1956) – with Diana Dors, without makeup, awaiting execution – Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) – dowdy Yvonne Mitchell waiting for her philandering husband to return – and No Trees in the Street (1959), set in a pre-second world war London slum.
In contrast, also for Thompson, was Ice Cold in Alex (1958), much of it shot in Libya, brilliantly capturing the heat and dust of the desert, as John Mills and company battle to get an ambulance to Alexandria after the fall of Tobruk in 1942.
Away from gritty realism, but still using black and white, Taylor linked up with Lester for two groundbreaking pop musicals, It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) and the Beatlemaniacal A Hard Day’s Night.
“Dick’s enthusiasm for music and film-making blended in mad unison appealed to my mental and physical state at the time,” Taylor commented. “When the Beatles came of age, I was given a poor script by Dick, who said we basically had to make it up as we went along. The only thing set was the music; the rest we had to invent daily! The raw quality of the shoot was there onscreen.” A Hard Day’s Night was shot documentary-style in several real locations, much of it with multiple cameras.
In the same year Dr Strangelove gave Taylor fresh challenges. “Strangelove was at the time a unique experience because the lighting was to be incorporated in the sets, with little or no other light used,” Taylor explained. This strategy is exemplified by the elaborate scenes set in the war room, designed by Ken Adam, with a gleaming, black Formica floor and a wide circular table lit by a ring of overhead fluorescent fixtures.
When Taylor was asked to shoot Repulsion, he turned down the chance to make the James Bond movie Thunderball. “Our first day’s shooting left me amazed and a bit perturbed by Gil Taylor’s way of doing things,” Polanski wrote in his autobiography. “He mostly used reflected light bounced off the ceiling or walls and never consulted a light meter. As the rushes were shown, however, he possessed such an unerring eye that his exposures were invariably perfect. We differed on only one point: Gil disliked a wide-angle lens for close-ups of Catherine Deneuve, a device I needed in order to convey her mental disintegration. ‘I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,’ he used to mutter.”
Nevertheless, Deneuve looks extremely beautiful in many sequences, despite Taylor shooting much of the film with a handheld Arriflex with a very wide lens, as did her sister Françoise Dorléac in Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac (1966), also with Taylor, whose third and last film with Polanski was Macbeth (1971). Although shot in colour, it is as near to black and white as possible, with its grey, misty landscape.
When Hitchcock invited Taylor to be his director of photography on his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), he had no recollection of the 18-year-old clapper loader who had worked for him exactly 40 years previously. “Hitchcock never looked through the camera,” recalled Taylor. “He would give me a list of shots and ask: ‘Can we do this today?’ I had to persuade him to go to rushes after nearly four weeks.”
Taylor gave Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) a diffused, dreamlike look, which won him the British Society of Cinematographers award. After Star Wars, Taylor, who never made a film in Hollywood, went on various locations for Meetings with Remarkable Men (Afghanistan, 1979), Dracula (Cornwall, 1979), Escape to Athena (Greece, 1979), Flash Gordon (Scotland, 1980) and Green Ice (Mexico and New York, 1981), though the movies were not worth travelling any distance to see.
Taylor retired from films in 1994, but continued to shoot commercials for a few years. Most of his retirement was spent painting and farming, but he still got a kick out of being contacted by Star Wars fans for his autograph.
In 2001, Taylor, who made his home on the Isle of Wight, was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the British Society of Cinematographers, and an international award by the American Society of Cinematographers in 2006. He is survived by his wife Dee, a one-time script supervisor.
• Gilbert (Gil) Taylor, cinematographer, born 12 April 1914; died 23 August 2013
• This article was corrected on 28 August 2013. The original used an image from The Empire Strikes Back, on which Gilbert Taylor did not work.