Friday, 14 April 2017

RIP Michael Ballhaus

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This week European cinema lost one of its most accomplished and widely respected cinematographers. Michael Ballhaus, best known for his work with Martin Scorsese, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 81 following a short illness. Scorsese has already offered his own tribute to the man he described as "a precious and irreplacable friend". I would now like to add my words, limited though they are, to the chorus of mourning (which, given today is Good Friday, seems appropriate).

When I've paid tribute to other cinematographers, like Gilbert Taylor and Douglas Slocombe, I've consistently pointed to the fact that their profession is one of many in Hollywood which seldom gets the credit which it deserves. Many people who gain familiarity with a director's work tend to assume that every decision about a camera movement, or how a scene is lit, is done to the director. In fact, many of these decisions are a collaborative process between director and cinematographer, which often results in long-term partnerships (such as Roger Deakins with the Coen Brothers, or Wally Pfister with Christopher Nolan).
 
Ballhaus worked with Scorsese a total of seven times, starting on After Hours and finishing up with The Departed. Scorsese has credited Ballhaus with revitalising his career, giving him the confidence to experiment more with audience expectations. In the documentary Getting Made, Ballhaus talks about Scorsese's tendency to see the film already completed in his head, with his role being to decide whether such shots could be achieved in the real world. Their partnership created, amongst other things, the fantastic long tracking shot in Goodfellas where Henry and Karen enter the restaurant.
Away from his work with Scorsese, which brought him Oscar and BAFTA nominations, Ballhaus lent his keen eye to a number of other visually striking films. In the 1980s he worked with Paul Newman on The Glass Menagerie, rubbed shoulders with comedy legends James L. Brooks and Frank Oz on Broadcast News and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels respectively, and complimented Mike Nichols behind the camera on Working Girl. In the 1990s he lensed Bram Stoker's Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola before teaming up with Newman's Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford on Quiz Show. Even the few obvious duds in his career - Wild Wild West, for instance - are made more watchable by his work.
Should you wish to pay tribute to Ballhaus in amongst your long Easter weekend, I would recommend The Last Temptation of Christ or Goodfellas as great places to start. If you want to learn about Ballhaus' work on Goodfellas, you should watch Getting Made: The Making of Goodfellas on YouTube (Ballhaus' contribution begins at about 16:20). RIP.
Daniel

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