Sadly timed with talk of the new, yet retro-minded generation of Star Wars cinematography, today also brings news of the death of Gilbert Taylor, the director of photography whose credits include the first Star Wars film, Dr. Strangelove, The Omen, Repulsion, and many other classics. Taylor was 99.
Taylor began working in the British film industry in 1929 as a camera assistant, later serving during World War II by shooting the results of nighttime bombing raids. His first credit as a cinematographer, on 1948’s The Guinea Pig, kicked off a long and incredibly diverse career that included working with some of the medium’s greatest directors—particularly Roman Polanski, with whom he collaborated on films such as Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, and Macbeth.
Taylor’s wife is quoted by the BBC as saying Taylor once turned down working on a James Bond movie to work with Polanski “because he thought Roman was a very interesting guy,” which captures both Taylor’s choice of artistically intriguing projects over popular ones, and the fact that—as one of the most in-demand (and expensive) cinematographers around—the fact that he could afford to do that.
Polanski, in turn, had taken a great interest in Taylor due to his work on two movies where he’d created uniquely striking imagery within the limitations of black-and-white stock: Richard Lester’s Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, and especially Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Taylor would later speak most fondly of Strangelove, creating the fantastic angles and shadows of its famous War Room set being “sheer magic” to him.
Taylor had a far more frustrating experience on Star Wars, with George Lucas’ unavailability on set and refusal to meet with him, his strange requests for heavy camera filters, and the general mess of shooting in the Tunisian desert leaving Taylor feeling somewhat overwhelmed. But Taylor persevered and made his own filming decisions using his years of expertise, and—despite meeting resistance from Lucas, a squabble finally resolved by studio executives who sided with Taylor—he created the look of (and saved) the film that would go on to become his most famous credit.
Among Taylor’s many other works were Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, 1980’s Flash Gordon, and TV’s The Avengers. He retired from feature filmmaking in 1994, though he continued to direct commercials as well as paint. In 2001, Taylor was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the British Society of Cinematographers he’d helped to found.