Cinematographer had affinity for natural light

Times Staff Writer

David Watkin, an innovative British cinematographer who won an Academy Award for “Out of Africa” and whose many films included “Chariots of Fire,” has died. He was 82.

Watkin died Tuesday of cancer at his home in Brighton, England, his friend Chris Mullen announced on Watkin’s website.

“He was seen as someone very risky, and David was taken up by particular directors who wanted a different look to their films. They wanted a cinematographer who challenged everything,” Mullen told the Argus, a Brighton newspaper.

After filming the comedy “The Knack . . . and How to Get It” (1965) in a high-contrast style for Richard Lester, Watkin worked with the director on about half a dozen more films. They made the Beatles lark “Help!” (1965); “How I Won the War” (1967), a parody that alternated colored, monochromic and tinted footage; and “The Three Musketeers” (1974) and “Four Musketeers” (1975), in which Watkin made excellent use of the Spanish locations’ natural light.


Critics compared Watkin’s use of light to that of the Dutch painter Vermeer, who often illuminated his subjects with light filtered through windows. Watkin’s affinity for natural light is on display in “Yentl” (1983), “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1984) and “White Nights” (1985).

In “Chariots of Fire,” Watkin collaborated on one of the more memorable scenes from 1980s cinema: the opening sequence of the male athletes running across the sand to the now-classic music by Vangelis. “Watkin’s haunting, glowing photography” helped make the scene “burst from the screen with almost intoxicating excitement,” Sheila Benson wrote for The Times in her review of the 1981 film.

For “Out of Africa,” Watkin strove to give the movie a softness that would match the lush, romantic mood set by director Sydney Pollack. Watkin accomplished this partly through experimentation, shooting during the day with film traditionally used at night and vice versa. The result was sumptuous. His wide panoramas and warm interior shots helped create “a well-defined, faintly magical, perfectly appointed past,” Benson said in her 1985 Times review.

Watkin is also credited with developing a system of lights for night shooting that effectively simulates natural light. Mounted on a crane, the unit can be hoisted high in the air, creating shadows and degrees of smoothness that are found in the real world. Because movie electricians had nicknamed him Wendy, the device is known as the Wendy Light.

On film sets, Watkin was known for catching a nap between lighting setups. He playfully defended the habit by saying, “It’s the only thing you can do on-set which doesn’t make you more tired.”

Francis David Watkin was born March 23, 1925, in Margate, England. He was the youngest of four sons of a lawyer and his homemaker wife.

After briefly serving in the British Army during World War II, Watkin began working as a messenger in the film industry. By the mid-1950s, he was shooting documentaries, and he segued into feature films in the mid-'60s.

He made more than 60 films and often worked repeatedly with the same director. He filmed at least four features for Tony Richardson, including “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968) and “The Hotel New Hampshire.” For Franco Zeffirelli, Watkin shot “Endless Love” (1981), “Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre” (1996) and “Tea With Mussolini” (1999). Asked when he first developed a passion for photography, Watkin said he hadn’t yet. His main passions were classical music and literature.


Watkin is survived by his partner, Nick Hand, the Times of London reported.