Ousama Rawi is an acclaimed cinematographer whose body of work stretches back over 50 years. With his latest movie project – “Into Invisible Light” – we were lucky enough to interview him and to get some background about this film and his stunning career.
Hi Ossi, thanks so much for your time and joining us in The Green Room! You have had the most amazing career as a cinematographer but can you tell us how it all started, was it planned or did you just “fall into it”?
It all started when I was very young, about 8 to 9 years of age. I was fascinated by photography and I persuaded my parents to buy me a box camera. The result was that at every opportunity I would bring out the cherished camera and take pictures. Later I was presented with a slightly more sophisticated bellows camera.
A family friend introduced me to an eye-opening realm of developing and printing my own photos. Wow! I was hooked. Cinema fascinated me. And as I watched movies my curiosity increased as to how movies were shot. Pretty soon I made up my mind that I wanted to be a cameraman when I “grew up”.
After the first two years of an engineering course I decided to pursue a film career. I took a position as an apprentice in a commercials film production company. I watched every shoot carefully and absorbed all that went on during filming. Later I met an aspiring director who was looking for ways to shoot a short film he had written. This led to his giving me a break to shoot his film (for free) provided I was able to secure camera and lighting equipment.
The film “HEADS I WIN” went on to get the second prize at the Cannes Short Films Festival. With that as my portfolio I was able to get a job as newsreel cameraman at a TV station, Border Television in Carlisle. After a period of time I resigned from the post and headed to London to knock on Commercials companies’ doors offering myself as a DoP on their commercials. Eventually I got my break.
I had a successful run which then led to my getting my first feature film, “PULP” a Michael Caine vehicle.
Was it always tough to get into the film industry. YES!
More tough than now (in the UK). The film union, ACTT, was tough and you had to be a member to be eligible to work in the industry. To be a member of ACTT you had to have a job in the industry – to be offered a job in the industry you had to be a member of ACTT. A “Closed Shop”.
But as the saying goes, “If there’s a will, there’s a way”.
I loved both of the Shelagh Carter films you worked on“Into Invisible Light” and “Before Anything You Say“ , how did you both connect and how did she convince you to work on these films?
I was approached by a producer at the Canadian Film Centre who asked me if I would volunteer to offer my services as DoP on a student graduation film. Because of my own experience trying to break into the business I was very ready to help in any way I could. That’s when I met Shelagh Carter. We hit it off. I accepted the “gig” and had a great time working with her.
So now whenever she has a project that she asks me to collaborate on, I am always ready to do so.
And both of these films look so beautiful, is there a way to describe how you get them to look so good?
Thank you for your compliment. I approach every project the same way no matter the budget. I film them the best way I can regardless of their budgetary “value”. I shoot them to the best of my ability. I do not alter my standards based on budget. For me, the images travel “First Class” regardless of how much money is available to execute the desired “look”.
Experience has taught me how to “Stretch the Dollar” to achieve a desired look.
Although every film is different, do you always try to work as much in the same way as possible for each shoot?
Generally yes, I try to work the same way. That is to say I pick my own crew, whether they are my regular people or ones that I have to select locally by interviewing. This applies to Camera technicians, Electricians and Grips. I try to develop a close relationship with the Production Designer, the Hair and MakeUp team and the 1st Assistant Director.
This helps make the shoot go as smoothly as it is possible, knowing full well that we’re going to encounter unforeseen surprises and problems.
So I have to mention Don Siegel, you were his DOP on “The Black Windmill” –– can you give us some idea of what it was like working with this renowned director?
Working with Don Siegel was both a pleasure and an eye-opener. I got the call to meet him because Michael Caine recommended me to him. I had worked with Michael on PULP. Don was the most economical of all Directors I’ve worked with regarding film stock. He never demanded “another take” if he felt he got what he wanted, often after the first take. It was a Studio Picture (Universal) and thus there was a Front Office to report to every day. But because of his standing with the Producers, there was never an argument or disagreement about anything. He had Carte Blanche.
I enjoyed his dry sense of humor very much. He did find our quirky English crew politeness to each other curiously too polite for his liking.
I often think of the saying of “hoping for the best but planning for the worst”, can you recall a shoot where it went horribly wrong – if so how did you solve it?
Once on a set of the series BORGIA we were shooting a scene in an old Italian castle that had tiny small slits for windows. It was a day scene that included showing a large banquet hall. So to make it look like all the light was coming from the windows, I had lined up a number of 18K HMI lamps to augment the minimum amount of natural daylight coming through these windows. Suddenly our generator failed. They couldn’t get it started and we were too far away from Rome to get a replacement. We had to make our day because two of the actors needed for the scene were leaving us that evening.
I decided to shoot the scene with available light and explained the solution to the Director. We had to re-design our set-ups to have the performances take place close to the windows. We couldn’t include the large hall in shot as there was not enough light to expose it. The scene worked, it didn’t suffer from the re-designed blocking and the two actors left us that evening with their scenes completed.
The technology is changing so rapidly in film, how on earth do you keep up with it, I don’t suppose that you buy a new camera every week…
You are so right. The technology Is evolving at break-neck speed. We have to keep up with it and be able to accurately evaluate and separate the really useful improvements from the gimmicks. Once I realize the usefulness of a new device, be it a camera or an accessory or lens, I will find a way to make it available for me to use. Sometimes equipment is purchased but a great deal of the time this equipment is rented for a shoot from camera rental companies.
Have we now met or exceeded the capability of 35mm film with digital?
In a way, yes we have. The improvement in sensor and dynamic range technology has really caught up with film and in some cases exceeded it.
And which do you prefer?
I really like both. I like the portability of the film camera, the way you can grab it and go off to shoot something with the minimum of fuss. A digital 4K camera shoot has now become encumbered with umbilical cords, be it for monitors, for backup storage or other needs. But the results from this technology can be amazing. Yet film has that organic look that is uniquely pleasing.
So it depends on the subject of the movie being shot.
Are you able to tell us what you are working on next?
I am currently getting ready to shoot another Shelagh Carter movie. It’s a ghost story with elements of true horror
* For the benefit for those who haven’t seen it, it’s a criminally unseen film with Michael Caine and Donald Pleasance that is rarely shown on TV…sadly.
Interviewer: Steve Grossmith
Guests: Ousama Rawi