GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHERS


#1: 1971

#2: With Todd-AO camera

 

   


ROBERT L. SURTEES

 

Born: 9 August 1906, Covington, Kentucky, USA, as Robert Lee Surtees.

Died: 5 January 1985, Monterey, Calif., USA.

Education: Withrow High School, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Career: Entered the film industry in 1927 as c.asst to Gregg Toland, Joseph Ruttenberg, a.o. Worked at Universal from 1927-29. Worked in the Universal Studios in Berlin, Germany, from 1929-30. After his return to the USA he worked at First National, Warner Bros., Pathé and MGM.

He ph the first film in Todd-AO ['Oklahoma!'] and MGM Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70 ['Raintree County'].

Was a member of the ASC.

His son Bruce [1937-2012], one of his former operators, was a doph.

Awards: 'Oscar' AA nom [1944; b&w; shared] for 'Thirty Seconds over Tokyo'; 'Oscar' AA [1950; color] for 'King Solomon's Mines'; Look Magazine Award for Film Achievement [1950]; 'Oscar' AA nom [1951; color; shared] for 'Quo Vadis?'; 'Oscar' AA [1952; b&w] for 'The Bad and the Beautiful'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1955; color] for 'Oklahoma!'; 'Oscar' AA [1959; color] for 'Ben-Hur'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1962; color] for 'Mutiny on the Bounty'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1967] for 'Doctor Dolittle' & 'The Graduate'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1971] for 'Summer of '42' & 'The Last Picture Show'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1973] for 'The Sting'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1975] for 'The Hindenburg'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1976] for 'A Star Is Born'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1977] for 'The Turning Point'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1978] for 'Same Time, Next Year'.



GO TO FILMS

 

As a studio cinematographer for MGM for almost 20 years, Robert L. Surtees photographed films in almost every popular genre, from small comedies such as 'Lost Angel' to westerns such as 'Escape from Fort Bravo' to blockbuster musicals like 'Oklahoma!' When he began working for MGM in the early 1940s, the studio system was in its heyday and the classic Hollywood style - characterized by an even, balanced lighting, match cutting, and linear narratives - was the norm. During that era, the producers and the studio exerted creative control, not the directors. Thus, each studio developed its own 'look.' At MGM, this look was one of opulence, which was revealed through the use of high-key lighting. Surtees's work at MGM at this time was indicative of that studio's style. During the 1950s, when the studio system began to crumble partly from the competition of television, films became grander in scale and larger in scope. Widescreen films and spectacular Technicolor epics were popular successes, and Surtees's filmography from this decade reflects this trend. The decade of the 1960s was one of transition in the industry when the old studio system finally gave way to the rise of independent producers and the importance of the director as the creative force. Surtees's tenure at MGM ended in 1962 and he became a freelance cinematographer working for such stalwarts as William Wyler ['The Collector'] as well as for up-and-coming directors like Mike Nichols ['The Graduate']. Surtees continued working into the 1970s, by this time for the 'new Hollywood', characterized by independent producers and directors whose personal vision shaped the style of a film, sometimes in a rather self-conscious manner. It is fitting that Surtees was chosen by Peter Bogdanovich as the cinematographer for 'The Last Picture Show', for the film subtly alludes to the end of the old Hollywood studio system - a system that Surtees saw rise and fall. It is a tribute to Surtees's talent and adaptability that he could succeed from one era through he next.

Searching for one type of film or a particular style that Surtees specialized in is difficult. However, after analyzing his filmography and studying reviews of his films, it can be said that Surtees was adept at lush Technicolor cinematography, particularly that found in such big-budget A-films as 'King Solomon's Mines', 'Quo Vadis', 'Ben-Hur', 'Mutiny on the Bounty', and 'Doctor Dolittle.' Analyses or critiques of these films do not fail to mention the excellent or beautiful cinematography. As one critic so eloquently stated, "Each frame of celluloid is like a painting." [From article by Susan Doll on the filmreference.com website.]


 

'Oklahoma!' [1954]: The original Broadway run of the musical production of 'Oklahoma!' started on 31 March 1943 in New York. It ran for more than five years on Broadway and ended after 2,212 performances on 29 May 1948. The motion picture production of 'Oklahoma!' was started in July 1954 at the MGM Studios in Hollywood with a budget of over 4 million dollars and was completed after 107 production days on 6 December of that same year. Stage 2 of the MGM Studios was used to set up the first Todd-AO projector and curved screen to check the daily rushes.

Before the actual photography had started, extensive tests of the new American Optical lenses were carried out. The test shots were made with an old Mitchell Paramount 65mm camera from the Thirties with the new lenses mounted on it, by cameraman Harry Stradling. But in order to see these rushes they had to fly to Buffalo, as that was the only laboratory capable of developing and printing 65mm film. The first Todd-AO screenings took place on 14 August 1953 at the Regent Theatre in Buffalo. They used a 25 years old Ernemann 70mm projector.

The whole production was to be shot simultaneously in 70mm Todd-AO as well as in 35mm CinemaScope because at the time of filming they were not sure of the success of the new 70mm process. So each scene would be shot with two cameras side by side. However the ultra-wide Todd-AO lens rarely permitted a CinemaScope camera working alongside the 70mm camera, so this plan was dropped in favor of shooting most of the scenes twice, first with the 70mm camera and second with the CinemaScope camera. Sometimes three cameras were used; a 70mm with the ultra-wide angle lens on it, a 70mm with the 'normal' Todd-AO lenses and the 35mm camera.

The World Premiere of 'Oklahoma!' in 70mm Todd-AO took place in the Rivoli Theatre in New York on 13 October 1955. The New York Times wrote in a positive review: 'Fortunate was it that the authors held up the filming of their show until, by chance, the development of large screen techniques became the urge in the medium. Fortunate was it too, they decided upon a system as favorable in basic respects as the new Todd-AO. 'Oklahoma!' Is here. But what makes it most fresh and exciting on the screen is the range and grandeur of the images and the extraordinary quality of the sound!'

With the Todd-AO camera and the wide-angle lens cameraman Robert Surtees has shot beautiful backgrounds of yellow cornfields. Old-fashioned blooming farmhouses, open plains and a fantastic natural blue sky full of fleecy clouds often resulting in feelings of a real sense of depth in many of the outdoor scenes.

 

 

'Oklahoma!' [1954]: The Todd-AO ultra-wide screen format created immense problems to the cinematography. Widescreen formats offered too much to look at in the frame. In this, preserving the focus of interest in the scene became the chief concern. Focusing the attention on a particular subject in the scene was sometimes achieved by lighting it distinctively compared with the rest of the scene, or by placing a large object on one side of the frame occupying a good portion of the front. Robert Surtees used this in 'Oklahoma!'. In addition, Surtees avoided centering a figure in the middle of the frame, as he paid attention to the general balance of the composition. Reframing was replaced by letting characters move within the frame instead of following them. Todd-AO lenses magnified the image and made them sharper, but this in turn created problems in painting the set, and make-up. Painting the set required exhaustive care in preserving an authentic outlook - if such preparations were overlooked, the effect would be visible to the camera. [From a dissertation by Bassim Sannah, 2004.]


'Oklahoma!' [1954]: Much of [the film] was shot on location in Arizona, near Nogales on the Mexican border. The real Oklahoma, it turns out, had too many oil wells to pass for the turn-of-the-century version of the state. Planting 2,100 stalks of corn that would grow 'as high as an elephant's eye' for Curly to ride through singing 'Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'' began almost a year before location shooting commenced. By the time the company began shooting in late July of 1954, the corn was 16 feet tall...as high, Oscar Hammerstein noted, 'as the eye of an elephant who is standing on another elephant.' Some of the corn was transplanted into moveable boxes so the camera could pass through.
'Oklahoma!' had one of the biggest location shoots to date, including some 70 trucks and trailers and a crew of 325 people. Daily thunderstorms and flash floods had the crew singing 'the mud is as high as a Cadillac's eye' as nervous executives waited for the sky to clear. One crew member was actually struck by lightning, but was not seriously injured. The peach orchard planted near the house did not bear enough fruit, and every day the crew hung two thousand wax peaches on the trees. Because not many theaters were equipped to show the Todd-AO system, the film was actually shot twice, in CinemaScope as well as Todd-AO. 'Oklahoma!' cost a total of seven million dollars, the most expensive film ever made to that time. [From the TCM website.]

 

R. Surtees [top left] with the Todd-AO 70mm camera with the 'bug-eye' lens

[Bottom] another Todd-AO camera and [right] the CinemaScope 35mm camera


 

 FILMS

1942

This Precious Freedom [Arch Oboler] b&w; short/2 (or 4) reels; in July 1944 add scenes were shot to get a 61m feature: 'Strange Holiday/The Day After Tomorrow/Terror on Main Street'

1942

Jacaré [, Killer of the Amazon] [Charles E. Ford] b&w; dram doc/65m; or ph James B. Shackelford

1943

Heavenly Music [Josef Berne] b&w; mus short/22m

1943

Don't You Believe It [Edward L. Cahn] b&w; short/11m; ep #41 of 'Passing Parade'-series

1943

Nursery Rhyme Mysteries [Edward L. Cahn] b&w; short/11m; ep #42 of 'Passing Parade'-series

1943

Election Daze [Herbert Glazer] b&w; short/11m; ep of 'Our Gang'-series

1943

Lost Angel [Roy Rowland] b&w

1943

Meet the People [Charles Reisner] b&w

1943

Two Girls and a Sailor [Richard Thorpe] b&w; uncred cph (?): Robert Planck

 

 

1944

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo [Mervyn LeRoy] b&w; cph: Harold Rosson

1944

Music for Millions [Henry Koster] b&w

1944

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes [Roy Rowland] b&w

1945

Two Sisters from Boston [Henry Koster] b&w

1945

No Leave, No Love [Charles Martin] b&w; cph: Harold Rosson

1946

Tenth Avenue Angel [Roy Rowland] b&w; extensive retakes in April 1947

1946

The Unfinished Dance [Henry Koster] c

1946

Cynthia/The Rich Full Life [Robert Z. Leonard] b&w; uncred cph (?); ph: Charles Schoenbaum

1947

The Kissing Bandit [Laslo Benedek] c

1947

Big City [Norman Taurog] b&w

1947

A Date with Judy [Richard Thorpe] c

1948

Act of Violence/Deadline Assault [Fred Zinnemann] b&w

1948

Big Jack [Richard Thorpe] b&w

1949

That Midnight Kiss [Norman Taurog] c

1949

Intruder in the Dust [Clarence Brown] b&w

1949

King Solomon's Mines [Compton Bennett (in 1950 replaced by Andrew Marton); Andrew Marton (2u) & Richard Rosson (3u)] c; addph (e.g. stampede seq): William V. Skall, John Schmitz, Frank Phillips & Gene Polito; principal ph Africa October 1949-January 1950 + studio February-April 1950; 'The African footage was shot on Technicolor's Monopack - actually 35mm Kodachrome reversal color film. Technicolor made b&w separations from the processed Monopack and regular dye-transfer printing from matrices followed. Although this was a major advance, the results did not equal those of the three-strip method [used in the studio scenes]. It was also decided that no lights would be used in Africa - only reflectors, thereby eliminating large generators. Even the Mitchell BNC, then the standard production camera, was turned down in favor of the Mitchell NC.' [From article by Rudy Behlmer in 'American Cinematographer', May 1989.]

 

[Left] with Mervyn LeRoy [viewfinder] and actor Robert Taylor [right] - "Quo Vadis"

 

1950

Quo Vadis [Mervyn LeRoy & (uncred 'Fire of Rome' seq) Anthony Mann] c; assoc ph: William V. Skall

1951

The Strip [Leslie Kardos] b&w

1951

The Light Touch [Richard Brooks] b&w

1951

The Wild North/The Big North [Andrew Marton] c; rapids seq ph: Harold Lipstein

1951

Scaramouche [George Sidney] c; fill-in ph (for 2 weeks); ph: Charles Rosher

1951

Invitation [Gottfried Reinhardt] b&w; uncred cph (?); ph: Ray June

1951

The Merry Widow [Curtis Bernhardt] c

1952

The Bad and the Beautiful [Vincente Minnelli] b&w

1952

Ride, Vaquero! [John Farrow] c

 

"Mogambo"

 

1952

Mogambo [John Ford] c; cph: Freddie Young; gorilla ph: Jack Whitehead

1953

Escape from Fort Bravo [John Sturges] c

1953

The Long, Long Trailer [Vincente Minnelli] c

1953

Valley of the Kings [Robert Pirosh] c

1954

Oklahoma! [Fred Zinnemann] tao70 & cs/c; 2uc: Floyd Crosby; fill-in ph (while Surtees was ill): William C. Mellor; filmed July-December; see above & Todd-AO

1955

Trial [Mark Robson] b&w; started as a b&w CinemaScope film, but after objections from Twentieth Century-Fox the film was made with spherical lenses

1955

Tribute to a Bad Man [Robert Wise] cs/c

1955

The Swan [Charles Vidor] cs/c; cph: Joseph Ruttenberg (loc ph North Carolina + studio; fell ill and was replaced by R. Surtees)

1956

Raintree County [Edward Dmytryk] MGM Camera 65/c; shooting started in April, but prod halted mid-May due to Montgomery Clift's car accident; prod resumed late July; see MGM Camera 65

1957

Les Girls [George Cukor] cs/c

1957

Merry Andrew [Michael Kidd] cs/c

 

 

1957

The Law and Jake Wade [John Sturges] cs/c

1958

Ben-Hur [William Wyler; (chariot race) Andrew Marton & Yakima Canutt] MGM Camera 65/c; 2uc: Piero Portalupi (race); 3uc: Harold Wellman; Filming required the use of six $100,000 cameras that shot in 65mm, called MGM Camera 65 in the credits. According to several contemporary reports, Panavision, Inc. developed ten new lenses specifically for the production, in order to provide the sharpest focus possible for the MGM Camera 65 process. The lenses were manufactured by Steinheil, an old German company, and developed for Panavision under the personal supervision of company president Robert E. Gottschalk. The 65mm process, Panavision lenses and lighting techniques were described in detail by Surtees in a feature article in the October 1959 issue of American Cinematographer. According to Surtees, the lenses and 65mm film stock enabled him and the other cameramen who worked on the picture to shoot extremely wide shots, such as those in the chariot race sequence, that were also very sharp in the release prints. Surtees went on to relate that two or more of the six cameras were used for each of the action sequences. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Cinerama proposed having their three-strip cameras shoot side-by-side with the cameras that M-G-M was to use in Italy, but Loew's Inc. officials rejected the idea. [From the TCM website.]; see MGM Camera 65

1959

It Started in Naples [Melville Shavelson] vv/c

1959

Cimarron [Anthony Mann & (uncred) Charles Walters] cs/c

1961

How the West Was Won [Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall & (uncred transitional seq) Richard Thorpe] cr (+ cs & up70)/c; 5 seg + transitional seq; co-pick-up ph; ph: William H. Daniels, Joseph LaShelle, Milton Krasner & Charles Lang Jr.; filmed May-November 1961

1961

Mutiny on the Bounty [Lewis Milestone & (uncred; started film) Carol Reed] up70/c; addph: Harold Wellman; filmed 1961-62

1963

PT 109 [Leslie H. Martinson] p/c; 2uc: Mark Davis

1964

Kisses for My President [Curtis Bernhardt] b&w

 

[Top/left] with dir John Sturges and actors George Maharis & Richard Basehart

"The Satan Bug"

 

1964

The Satan Bug [John Sturges] p/c

1965

The Collector/The Butterfly Collector [William Wyler] c; UK ph: Robert Krasker; 2uc: Norman Warwick

1965

The Hallelujah Trail [John Sturges] up70/c

1965

The Third Day [Jack Smight] p/c

1965

The Chase [Arthur Penn] p/c; uncred cph (started the film, fell ill and was replaced by J. LaShelle); ph: Joseph LaShelle

1966

Lost Command [Mark Robson] p/c; addph: Jack Willoughby

1966

Doctor Dolittle [Richard Fleischer] tao70/c; spec pfx: L.B. Abbott, Art Cruickshank, Emil Kosa Jr. & Howard Lydecker

 

[Cap] with Mike Nichols - "The Graduate"

 

1967

The Graduate [Mike Nichols] p/c

1968

Sweet Charity [: The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved] [Bob Fosse] p (+ 70bu)/c

1968

The Arrangement [Elia Kazan] p/c

1969

The Liberation of L.B. Jones [William Wyler] c; 2uc: Jordan Cronenweth

1970

Summer of '42 [Robert Mulligan] c

1970

The Last Picture Show [Peter Bogdanovich] b&w

1971

Cabaret [Bob Fosse] dir Fosse wanted to hire R. Surtees as the doph, but top executives refused because they saw Surtees' work on 'Sweet Charity' (1968) as one of the film's many artistic (and commercial) problems; prod was ph by Geoffrey Unsworth

 

[Right] with dir Mark Rydell - "The Cowboys"

 

1971

The Cowboys [Mark Rydell] p (+ 70bu)/c

1971

The Other [Robert Mulligan] c

1972

Oklahoma Crude [Stanley Kramer] p/c; spec pfx: Albert Whitlock

1972

Lost Horizon [Charles Jarrott] p/c; 2uc: Harold Wellman & Bruce Surtees

1973

The Sting [George Roy Hill] c; spec pfx: Albert Whitlock

1974

The Great Waldo Pepper [George Roy Hill] tao35/c; superv air seq: Frank Tallman

 

[Black hat] with dir Robert Wise - "The Hindenburg"

Photo Thys Ockersen Archive

 

1974

The Hindenburg [Robert Wise] p (+ 70bu)/b&w-c; spph: Clifford Stine; spec vfx: Albert Whitlock; matte ph: William Taylor

1976

A Star Is Born [Frank Pierson] c; prod started in late 1974 dir by Jerry Schatzberg

1976

The Turning Point [Herbert Ross] p/c

1977

Bloodbrothers/A Father's Love [Robert Mulligan] c; spph: David Quaid

1978

Same Time, Next Year [Robert Mulligan] p/c

 

 FILMS AS CAMERA ASSISTANT/OPERATOR

1931

Devotion [Robert Milton] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1931

A Woman Commands [Paul L. Stein] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1931

Lady with a Past/Reputation [Edward H. Griffith] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1932

Week Ends Only [Alan Crosland] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1932

The First Year [William K. Howard] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1932

State Fair [Henry King] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1933

The Warrior's Husband [Walter Lang] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1933

I Loved You Wednesday [William Cameron Menzies & Henry King] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1933

The Worst Woman in Paris? [Monta Bell] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1933

The Devil's in Love [William Dieterle] co-crew member; ph: Hal Mohr

1934

Change of Heart [John G. Blystone] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr

1934

Charlie Chan in London [Eugene Forde] co-c.asst; ph: L.W. O'Connell

1934

Under Pressure [Raoul Walsh] co-c.asst; ph: Hal Mohr & L.W. O'Connell

1934

A Midsummer Night's Dream [William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt] co-c.op; ph: Hal Mohr

1935

Captain Blood [Michael Curtiz] 2nd cam; ph: Hal Mohr & Ernest Haller

1936

Top of the Town [Ralph Murphy & (uncred) Walter Lang] c.op; ph: Joseph Valentine & (uncred) Hal Mohr

1937

Mad About Music [Norman Taurog] 2nd cam; ph: Joseph Valentine

1938

Exposed [Harold Schuster] c.op; ph: Stanley Cortez

1938

Little Tough Guys in Society [Erle C. Kenton] co-2nd cam; ph: George Robinson

 

 MISCELLANEOUS

1955

Around the World in Eighty Days [Michael Anderson (replaced John Farrow)] advisor Todd-AO process; ph: Lionel Lindon