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Behind the Lens: From 7 to 56 UP with George Jesse Turner

COW Library : Cinematography : George Jesse Turner : Behind the Lens: From 7 to 56 UP with George Jesse Turner
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: From 7 to 56 UP with George Jesse Turner -- Cinematography Editorial

George Jesse TurnerGeorge Jesse Turner
United Kingdom All rights reserved.

My link with Michael Apted goes back to the early days of Granada TV, where I started as an 18 year old in 1963. Granada Television didn't have their own film division then; all the filmmakers were freelancers. I worked as a camera assistant on World in Action, a kind of 30-minute version of CBS's 60 Minutes.

At the end of 1968, I became the main cameraman on World In Action, which I did until the end of the program in 1998. In 1968, Michael progressed to shooting dramas, and I operated on many of the dramas he directed. Little did I know in 1968 how strong that link would become.

In 1977, I got a call to work on 21 UP, the third in the UP series. Because I knew Michael, I said fine and on 21, although I did 90 percent of the shooting, I learned a lot from another cameraman, Mike Dodds, who had also been a freelance cameraman on World in Action. 7 UP had been shot as a one-off program for the World in Action series, transmitted in 1964.

Seven years later, in 1971, World in Action did a follow-up on the children, and by 21 UP, a pattern was emerging that, as long as the participants wanted to do it and Michael wanted to do it, we'd shoot a new UP every seven years.

By 28 UP, the participants were getting married and some had families. It's been a journey that every seven years we all look forward to taking part in. Although I don't work full-time now, I'm going to keep myself fit and hope the eyes keep going so I can do it again when they're 63.

Seven Up! was shot in 1964 by director Paul Almond; Michael Apted was a researcher on that first documentary. In 1970, 7 Plus Seven was shot, and Michael directed, produced and narrated. I could have filmed 7 Plus Seven, but at that time the Vietnam War was on and I spent quite a bit of time there, as well as Cambodia and Laos, with World in Action. At age 14, the young people were much shyer than they'd been at seven. Most seven year olds are just funny. At 14, you felt they weren't comfortable. It was a good job we did it because it was important to creating this ladder. By the time there was 21, there was quite a contrast between the seven year old and 21 year olds.

The original documentary was the inspiration; the tagline was "Show me the boy and I'll show you the man." It sounds daft but it was trying to show a microcosm of different people in post-war Britain. Nobody knew at the time when we saw Nick in the Yorkshire dales that he'd be living in the States and become a professor and talk about fission and fusion. You're thinking, heavens, this is a long way from a village in the Yorkshire dales; his parents were farmers. He probably never dreamed of that when he was seven and going to this little country school.

Nick at 42 years in 1999, as seen in 56 UP. ©ITV. A First Run Features Release.
Nick at 42 years in 1999, as seen in 56 UP. ©ITV. A First Run Features Release. The original 7 Up was broadcast in 1964 as a one-off World in Action Special featuring children who were selected from different backgrounds and social spheres to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future.

We can see ourselves in these people in the UP series. I could have lived in Southport all my life, and then someone asked me, have you thought about working in TV? Here I am 50 years down the road, and I'm as enthusiastic about working in TV as I was in 1963. You never know how your life will come out.

21 UP was shot with a 16mm Eclair film camera; the sound would have been recorded separately on the Nagra. And, of course, we had the clapperboard and all the other things you had to have. There wasn't a huge choice of lenses at the time; we had a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens, both made by Angenieux. The type of color film stock available was either a 100 ASA or 200 ASA rating. We had to light most interiors, but were very limited with what we could do at nighttime. The more light sensitive lens that could open to F1.8 weren't readily available. It was a challenge but something we'd grown accustomed to, and we knew tricks of the trade.

Michael Apted (left) with George Jesse Turner.

At night, we'd try to shoot against windows for nice silhouettes; we'd get people close to windows walking outside to get a nice change of mood. When we had sequences inside a pub and had to light it, we wanted the freedom to shoot, whether they were playing darts, having a drink or just sitting and chatting in a quiet corner. We couldn't say, hold on a bit we have to re-light. We have to be in a position where if they say something funny, we've recorded it.

We wanted to capture it all in the most natural way we could. You have one chance to do it. When you set up to film something, you think there will be a magic moment, maybe in the first five or last five minutes; 95 percent of the time, I've been able to capture those magic moments that take place spontaneously. And don't forget that a film magazine is 10 minutes long, so there's a satisfaction with that. We're all spoiled now that we can record for three hours without having to stop.

With regard to the film magazine's 10 minute length, it reminds me of a producer in World in Action news who said, if they can't say it in 10 minutes, they can't say it at all. But sometimes if you interview someone for an hour, they have a hard time remembering what they said 45 minutes earlier. The person you interview for 10 minutes may never have been filmed before and it can be an ordeal. You can make people more nervous than they already are.

Peter at 56yrs 2012 in his band The Good Intentions with fellow band members Gabi (left) and Francesco Roskel (right). Photographer Harriet Gill. (c) ITV
Peter at 56 yrs 2012 in his band The Good Intentions with fellow band members Gabi (left) and Francesco Roskel (right). Photographer Harriet Gill. ©ITV

I learned very early on, that if the person wants to sit in that chair because it makes them more comfortable, then that's where they'll sit. I like to film into corners -- not against a flat wall, which isn't interesting. So if you know you're shooting someone for 10 minutes, you can give the person a chance to breathe, get a cup of tea, and come back and be more comfortable. With tape, you can record them for 50 minutes and they have to talk and talk and talk -- it's a bit like an interrogation. I feel it's better for them to take a break.

Neil and Peter playing chess at 14yrs 1971. 56 UP. (c)ITV
Neil and Peter playing chess at 14 yrs in 1971.

When we do these UP films, each and every one of them is different but it's fairly safe to say that when the participants know I'm there to film them, they are reassured by our familiar faces: Obviously Michael Apted, producer Claire Lewis, sound recordist Nick Steer and myself. They know that we're not there to make them look silly. We just want to make them reflect about something in the past or the future.

You could say they're fairly simple interviews, but we want them to feel relaxed, to talk about family, important things, not money or politics. We put them into situations where they don't feel alienated. And then they come forth with little gems. However long we've interviewed them, Michael has so much good material that editing is a challenge that he relishes.

Documentaries take a bit longer to shoot than a feature. For 56 UP, I think we probably had perhaps 40 days of actual filming. The UP documentaries were all shot on 16mm up to and including 42 UP. We did 42 UP in 1998, and that was the last one we shot on Super 16mm film; the earlier programs are straight 16mm film.

The format in TV at the time was a 4x3 aspect ratio. We shot 42 UP in 16x9 aspect ratio although it wasn't projected theatrically that way. But it certainly had the wider screen, which was a better format to shoot anyway. It worked better for drama; we could do two-shots/group shots. Vistas and buildings look better. Along with the 16x9 format, better lenses came along from Canon and Zeiss that worked much better in low light levels, allowing me to be more adventurous.

For 42 UP, I used an Aaton camera, which was much more portable, much more reliable and quieter, easier to change lenses. I could also change shutter speed to create better effects, if I wanted to do a bit of slow-mo.

Michael Apted

Working with Michael, he'd takes me around to the places he'd like to film, and I have to think how to get the lights rigged in advance. I always have an electrician with me to get the lights in the right position so if Michael says, we're going to be in a church hall then least the lights will be in position. In 56 UP, we filmed at a church that was pretty dark. We couldn't risk available light, so we got a generator and had HMI lights going through the windows and more inside giving some nice fill light so we didn't have sharp shadows.

Camera operator Jason Trench took one half of the church, and I took the other. We tried to avoid disrupting the service, but we had it covered. We couldn't do that for every location, but you don't have that kind of power supply in a church. That becomes more of a production, and when you get that opportunity, even as a documentary, you have to get it right. It's equally nice to get the tools out and remind yourself of what you can do with them, to do it really well. You always want to make it the best you can with the minimum disruption.

49 UP was the first one we did on videotape. I had a very nice Ikegami camera, although I can't remember the model. I liked how it was set up, with four choices for presets. I could preset the color temperatures and you didn't hear about colorists in those days. You'd sit with the editor and once it had been edited and was ready for transmission, you'd then join a guy with a joystick and take a bit of the magenta or cyan out. We thought it was sophisticated but it was so crude. It's so different today. There's nothing you can't do in color correction, and good on it! In my journey of almost five decades, it's been a privilege to use cameras powered with 12-volt car batteries to one that is able to do stills and video. It's like the evolution of the wheel, and that evolution is what it's all about.

The interesting thing for 56 UP -- which was shot in full HD -- is that Granada went back to all the original programs and re-digitized them to be able to marry the old material with what we did with HD, and I think they did a good job. The B&W material shot all those years ago benefited the most, because it was fantastic to start the program with. It almost looks like it was shot today.

Andrew at age 49 in 2006 from 49 UP. (c)ITV
Andrew at age 49 in 2006 from 49 UP.

We weren't keen to record on memory cards. I'm a bit old fashioned. We felt that we still wanted to put a tape into the machine, which could then be retained in archives. It's nice to put it on a memory card or in a computer, but what happens after that? Who looks after those memory cards? There are 125 tapes for 56 UP, and they've been stored with all the material, in a box, and it'll have "56 UP -- do not destroy" written on it. Call us dinosaurs, but we just wanted to have something we could touch. In seven years time, we all know it'll be on a memory card of some kind and there are some great small HD cameras out there now.

We'd shot a number of the previous UP programs in the winter. For 56 UP, we chose to film in summer, giving us lovely light and long daylight hours. It was nice to see blue skies, green fields, and people walking around in shirtsleeves. We started in July (although I did a bit in May 2011). In one of the earlier programs, we'd filmed Tony Walker, London taxi driver, looking through some locked gates at the remains of Hackney Wick dog track.

By the autumn of 2011, this area had been transformed into the Olympic Park. We obviously were very anxious to film Tony again in the newly built main Stadium. They let us in in September after negotiations allowed us permission to take Tony, as a 56-year old, into the Stadium. The plan was for me to be in a helicopter over the Stadium with as tight a shot as possible on Tony, then widening to reveal exactly where he was. It was a momentous moment for Tony too. He'll tell you that he's proud of being in the program because his children will be able to show their children what he was up to as a 70 year old. Only royalty can do that. For a taxi driver from the East End, it doesn't happen that way.

Michael is very much the captain of the ship. We all feel that we are part of this family, and I don't think any of us at the time thought the journey would go as long as this. Michael is very loyal to the people he has around him. Nick, the sound recordist and Kim Horton, our film editor and myself have stayed on in the same role. He knows this project means as much to us as it does to him, and he knows we'll move heaven and earth to be part of it and we're all proud to be part of it. I hate to say unique, but there aren't that many programs with this longevity. It's been given countless awards, and is an important part of social history. It is something special. We enjoy doing it as long as the participants want us to.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue at age 7 years in 1964 from Michael Apted's 56 UP. (c)ITV
Jackie, Lynn and Sue at age 7 years in 1964.

My exposure to film began as a child. My father had a film camera way back in the early 1930s and I still have his original projector; the amateur gauge in the 1930s was 9.5mm. In the 1960s, we had 8mm. From 1955 to 1961, we used to go to The Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish sea, and my father edited a 90-minute film titled Two In Search of Adventure, which was a way of showing us on holiday and all the historic things we'd seen there. I was always used to seeing him editing film on the dining room table. We'd put a screen up and laugh at each other; that film is very precious to my sister and me.

In about 1961, newsreader Peter Wheeler lived opposite my parents in Southport and suggested to my father that I get into the TV business. At that time, commercial TV was only 5 years old. As a 16 year old, I said, I might be, why not? I wasn't an academic; I was an active, practical person and liked being creative and messing about. In April/May of 1963, I got a call from Peter saying there's a job available with Mancunian Films. I had an interview on a Thursday with Mancunian founder John Blakeley and Bill Lloyd who ran the film department at Granada TV. It sounds daft but I went to an interview in a suit and tie, and they offered me the job and I started on Monday.

The first month I hated it. I was in Manchester living in digs away from my friends. But after that first month - during which I spent time moving 12V car batteries, getting microphones and knowing which one to get - I was taught by a number of very good technicians and progressed. I can list a dozen cameramen who helped me. What I learned very early on was if I didn't understand something, I'd ask and most people were very kind. There weren't many books then about photography and very few courses.

There was a film school in London but nothing in the provinces. Over a period of three years -- from 1963 to 1966 -- I went from moving tripods to loading/unloading magazines, then pulling focus. Then if someone went on holiday, they'd have me go out and shoot a little news item, an accident or fire, with a little 16mm Bolex camera containing a 100-foot roll of film.

I was enthusiastic and people gave me chances. There were great opportunities at Granada through Mancunian. Also, the cameras were becoming more portable. We had the American camera, the Auricon, and then the French brought out the Eclair, the Germans the Arriflex, which were even more portable. Suddenly, the world was our oyster in the fact that you could jump on a jet plane and fly to America. The world just shrank almost overnight, and World in Action that started in 1963 moved from London to Manchester, and that's when I got a chance to join Granada TV as a camera assistant.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, I worked for World in Action going all over the world and also on a number of drama productions as a camera operator. I got the chance to work with different cameramen and also closely with the directors, including Michael Apted. We had to light a lot more in those days. It was a great learning curve - something you don't learn in college but in the field -- and I learned how to make it work.

I started out as this little lad that came from Southport, watching my father's films. If he were alive today, he'd be proud that I made my own way in life. It's not always a bed of roses, but I have the best job for me -- and I could not have had a better job. The variety of the work, the conditions and situations I've been in and seen, the people I've met have all made for a very satisfying career.


The UP series is available as a DVD boxed set from First Run Features.



Re: Behind the Lens: From 7 to 56 UP with George Jesse Turner
by Sam Lanes
A really interesting article.

The UP series are an institution in the UK now. The participants are around the same age as my father, and being able to watch the old clips and see how much the world has changed since his youth is a very special thing.

Also very interesting to see how the technological changes have affected the way the programme is shot. I look forward up 63 UP!
@Sam Lane
by Debra Kaufman
Yes, we are growing up with them! I started watching at 28 UP I believe...the UP series is a pretty amazing document - cinema and anthropology - and, as you said, I look forward to 63 UP as well!

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