Peter Suschitzky, BSC, Director of Photography on The Empire Strikes Back, is the son of a famous cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky, who came to England from Vienna, via Holland, in 1935 and who became closely connected with Paul Rotha of the British documentary film unit.

Born in Hampstead, London, Peter entered the British film industry in his late teens. Having been almost literally raised in the world of filmmaking, his progress was rapid and, by the age of 22, he was a fully recognized cinematographer.

His first film as Director of Photography was It Happened Here, a clever evocation of what Britain might have experienced if Hitler had won the war. In the late 1960's he photographed Privilege and Charley Bubbles. It was in association with director Ken Russell that he graduated to movies of international stature, photographing Valentine and Lisztomania. His feature credits also include All Creatures Great and Small.

Like many top cinematographers working today, Suschitzky also photographs commercials between feature assignments. These have taken him to many countries (including the United States and Australia) and have won him several awards, including a Best Commercial award at Cannes. The Empire Strikes Back is the first space fantasy he has photographed.

Upon completion of his work on Empire, he was interviewed in London by David Samuelson as follows:

DAVID SAMUELSON; It is my impression that you were "born" more into photography than into the film industry, per se; isn't that the case?

PETER SUSCHITZKY: Whilst I was a child I had learned a lot about photography and my father certainly helped me, teaching me all the processes of printing and developing. I remember starting out with gold-toning daylight printing in those days. My first camera was a Kodak box camera, but I developed lots of other interests when I was growing up and it certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion that I should go into films straight from school. However, I took various exams at the end of school and was almost on the brink of pursuing something to do with music when it occurred to me that I should really follow what I knew I could do rather well, namely, photography.

QUESTION: From that general interest in photography, how did you focus your emphasis toward cinematography?

SUSCHITZKY: I had always been interested in film work, but I thought I would go to film school in order to find out if that was the direction I really wanted to follow. I went to a film school in Paris called IDHEC. When I finished there, I got a job as a clapper-loader boy in a small studio in London. Very soon after that I managed to move on from that studio (which was only making commercials) to another part of the same company that was producing documentaries for TV. I spent six months there and at the end of that time I was asked by the head of the company if I would like to go to South America to be a cameraman on a series of documentaries. So there I was, after only maybe a year and a quarter in the industry—I was 20 or 21, I think—being asked to go and be a cameraman.

QUESTION: And how did it work out?

SUSCHITZKY: It was a one-man-band operation just myself and a journalist—and I spent a year in South American, hardly ever seeing rushes. I think I picked up an awful lot of experience in what it means to be in films, because I had to do sound recording, see my equipment through customs and book hotels, as well as do the lighting and the operating, the loading and everything that a one-man-band does. When I got back to England I was fortunate enough not to be obliged to work because I had saved up some money. At that time I had a call from an ex-colleague of mine who was making a film on weekends in 35mm, and he asked me to photograph it. It turned out to be a film called It Happened Here, directed by Kevin Brownlow. It was my first feature film and it subsequently had quite a wide public distribution. I think I was 22 at the time and it really was plunging in at the deep end, as my previous experience had not quite prepared me for a feature movie. But the results seemed to be all right, and I just learned by my mistakes.

QUESTION: What was your next step?

SUSCHITZKY: Well, I now had something to show—which is always the first stumbling block for any cameraman, director or actor—and that helped me eventually to obtain the assignment for my first professional feature two or three years later. I then photographed two features for Universal. One was Albert Finney's Charlie Bubbles and the other was a film with Peter Watkins called Privilege. That was a good period in British films, the mid-Sixties, when there was a lot of activity over here. I was really very fortunate and took advantage of my luck. Since then I have not, perhaps, photographed as many feature films as I could have, because I have never liked going straight from one film to another. Even so, I suppose I must have been involved in 20 features as a Lighting Cameraman. Going backwards, the most recent pictures have been The Empire Strikes Back, Valentino and Lisztomania (with Ken Russell), another two films with Peter Watkins, three or four with Warris Hussein (including a film with Sandy Dennis called The Millstone), a film with John Boorman called Leo The Last (starring Marcello Mastrioanni), two films with Claude Whetham (one of which is often called That Will Be The Day), and a film with Peter Hall, Midsummer Night's Dream. I am probably leaving out quite a few as I go through, but those are the principal ones. Now I am nearly 40.

QUESTION: How did you get involved with The Empire Strikes Back in the first place?

SUSCHITZKY: I was approached about photographing the original Star Wars, so my contacts with George Lucas and Gary Kurtz date back a few years now. In any event, as I suppose everybody knows, I didn't do the film; Gil Taylor did it. But then they approached me again about photographing The Empire Strikes Back. This happened a good year-and-a-half before production began, which was certainly the longest term of involvement I have ever experienced. I was always impressed with the extent to which they planned and the way they thought everything out so very thoroughly. Over the course of that year-and-a-half, I had several meetings with them, either here or in Los Angeles. If I found myself over there, I would go up to San Francisco and visit their studio and talk with the people who were going to be doing the model work. I'd ask their advice and give them my opinions and feelings about what I would be doing, and we had a fairly useful exchange, I would say.

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