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Camerimage: ‘Killing Fields’ Cinematographer Chris Menges on Keeping it Real

Cinematographer took lessons learned shooting documentaries into his fiction film work

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Whether shooting handheld on film in a war zone or creating a chilling digital period piece for “The Reader,” it’s never about technique or technology, according to two-time Oscar winner Chris Menges.

Instead, the master cinematographer advises, “It’s about tone.”

The lenser of Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” presented his inspirations and lessons at Poland’s Camerimage fest Wednesday as dozens of industry vets and emerging shooters leaned in for counsel from the soft-spoken D.P.

The fit 74-year-old, who shot Steven Knight’s “Redemption” last year as his 59th pic, is remarkably humble about his work, citing story, director, actors and location as primary building blocks for good film before getting to crew.

“If you’ve got locations right, you’re onto a winner,” he says — although the effort to capture the authentic backdrop of Southeast Asian conflicts of the 60s for the “World in Action” weekly news series nearly cost him his life. Menges and a colleague were lost in the jungle and on the run from the Kuomintang for 18 months and believed dead before they finally made their way back to freedom. During the desperate sojourn, Menges’ son was born.

His early documentary training, which also involved slipping into restricted areas to shoot the African National Congress under Apartheid and breaking into Tibet along with helmer Adrian Cowell and journalist George Patterson to document brutal Chinese oppression, was the best schooling a filmmaker could hope for, he recalls.

Now, after decades of work, often with directors attuned to documentary-style minimalism such as Ken Loach and Neil Jordan, Menges still insists on authenticity.

Often he’s found that’s best achieved by giving actors space to create — and move — without cameras in their faces. While working with Loach on the seminal film “Kes” in 1969, Menges says, it was all about long lenses and shooting from a distance.

“We would always work outside the circle of performance,” he says.

For a cinematographer who prefers to operate the camera himself with as little fuss as possible, an Oscar can be rather annoying, Menges confesses — let alone two. “I think in my case it did me no favors,” he says.

Nor do hazards to good camerawork end once the shoot wraps, he says. A pervasive issue with home vid releases coming out in different formats from the one a film was shot in is just one example.

Cinematographers must fight to ensure their vision reaches future auds, according to Menges, because film is “a labor of love – that’s something that should be fought for.”

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