It was no surprise that when the Beatles first film A Hard Day’s Night was released it was a popular success. As the entire planet seemed to be swept up in Beatlemania, it was a no-brainer for United Artists to cash in with what might have been an unimaginative exploitation film. The goal was to get the movie produced quickly and make a substantial profit before interest in the Beatles would begin to wane.
But the Beatles weren’t a contrived pop commodity: They were passionate artists who broke the rules, and that carried over to their first feature film. Beyond the magnetism of the Beatles themselves, there was an abundance of gifted individuals on both sides of the camera who contributed to this film’s artistic success, most notably director Richard Lester. Others included Tony-winner Anna Quayle, wardrobe designer Julie Harris, and actor Kenneth Haigh, who had played the title role in the stage production of Caligula in the early 1960s.
Beatles fans might be surprised to learn who else lent their talents to the film, like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. But there is one individual who had an even larger role in the film’s production, one who links the Beatles to extraordinary legends that include Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. That person is Gilbert Taylor, who was the director of photography for the Beatles’ first film.
Taylor had been involved in film production before any of the Beatles were even born. His career in movies began at age 15 as a cameraman’s assistant at the end of the English silent era. One of his early projects was acting as a clapper loader on Number Seventeen (1932) which was led by a young director named Alfred Hitchcock.
During World War II, Taylor joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, where he was tasked with photographing the aftermath of bombs that the U.K. dropped on Germany, and which was reviewed by Winston Churchill. Taylor participated in photographing other key wartime stories, including the liberation of the concentration camps and the signing of the peace agreement, as Taylor revealed in an American Cinematographer article from February 2006. He is quoted there that his having served in the military for six years “made me tougher,” which aided him in his film career as a civilian.
After the war, Taylor transitioned from camera operator to second-unit cameraman, and by 1948 he would assume the role of principal photographer. Taylor honed his craft throughout the 1950s, and by the ’60s was very much in demand in the U.K. One notable standout was his black-and-white photography on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This political satire tapped on the nuclear fears of the Cold War era, and featured actor Peter Sellers in three different roles. That film was released in January 29, 1964, not long before Beatles made their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9.
Taylor had previously worked with Richard Lester on the director’s first movie It’s Trad, Dad! (1962, and retitled Ring-a-Ding Rhythm for its USA release), a formulaic teen musical that featured a plethora of diverse musical artists that included Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent and Acker Bilk. That experience laid the groundwork for the Beatles film, but scrupulously avoided the earlier film’s tired plotting concepts.
Both Lester and Taylor thought Alun Owen’s script for A Hard Day’s Night lacked detail and, once production began, there would be numerous revisions for each day’s shoot. This process deviated greatly from the rigid methodology of the studio system Taylor was accustomed to, forcing him to be creative by incorporating new techniques.
For the first part of the film, Taylor suggested using a real train rather than a set. Unfortunately, the crew was limited in their lighting options due to budget constraints and British railway policies and, in the bonus materials for the Blu-ray release of A Hard Day’s Night, Taylor mentions that the shoot consisted of long days figuring out the lighting and angles. Taylor somewhat solved this lighting problem by getting permission to have a 4KW generator to power the lamps.
Another example of the improvisational methods used was in the “And I Love Her” segment, where Lester wanted a 360-degree shot to revolve around Paul McCartney as he sang. Lacking the time and budget for a crane, the effect was achieved by placing the camera on a child’s swing that was dropped from the ceiling and walked around Paul. This shot resulted in the camera being pointed directly into an arc light, which the studio thought was a dreadful mistake instead of an artistic decision done on purpose. Overall the minimalist techniques used ended up working to the film’s advantage by adding the air of authenticity, contributing to its documentary-like atmosphere.
Although the Beatles would have little problem appearing charismatic in their first acting experience, they were still new to performing in a movie, and the process of matching their moves over various shots would have been time consuming – testing everyone’s patience and enthusiasm in the process. This was rectified by having a second camera shoot the same scene for coverage, a method mainly used for television production from that era. Taylor would also incorporate the technique of overexposing shots through increasing f-stops, where the over-saturation would mask imperfections (e.g., the grimy backdrops the crew encountered in the theater scenes would appear a more pristine and bright white).
Taylor worked on other high-profile productions after A Hard Day’s Night. He photographed episodes for the classic British TV series The Avengers, and three movies for director Roman Polanski.
A major milestone in Taylor’s career was being reunited with Hitchcock on Frenzy (1972). Instead of the minor role he played for Number Seventeen, Taylor would be cinematographer for the penultimate film from the renowned director, and one considered one of the best in the Hitchcock canon. As outlined in the Hitchcock Wiki the famed director told Taylor he didn’t want the look of a “Hammer Horror” film, opting instead for a “realistic nightmare” that resembled the look of Vermeer paintings. The result is a colorful film that belies the dark subject matter where the plot centered on a series of necktie murders, resulting in the kind of dichotomy that Hitchcock relished.
Taylor was director of photography for one of the biggest movies ever made: the very first Star Wars movie from 1977, which was later retitled Star Wars IV: A New Hope to keep its “chapter” in sequence. As prestigious as that may sound, filming didn’t go as smoothly as one might assume, given the results. Taylor and others in the British crew were used to having more communication with a given film’s director and found themselves at odds with a standoffish director George Lucas. Lucas shunned meeting with Taylor prior to production in Tunisia, leaving Taylor to decide how the film would look, initially at least.
Despite those efforts, Lucas had ideas that were counter to what Taylor had conceived. When filming began, Lucas insisted that the first scenes shot with R2D2 and C3PO crossing the desert dunes of Tatooine had to be diffused, and Lucas wanted this look to permeate the entire firm. The uncharacteristically bad weather only exacerbated the situation to where the sharp, clean images that Taylor had envisioned instead appeared, in his words, as “a grey mess, and the robots were just a blur … the sand and sky just mushed together.”
Taylor thought that maybe Lucas would be happier with another cinematographer and seriously considered leaving the film. But, surprisingly, George Lucas didn’t think there was a problem with Taylor, and regardless of any disagreements Lucas didn’t want to risk delaying the production. Taylor stayed on and attempted to appease Lucas, and in the end Taylor prevailed: Lucas had only one hit to his credit (American Graffiti) and his track record was no match for Taylor’s. When executives at 20th Century Fox viewed Lucas’ approach they agreed with Taylor’s assertions that the use of filtration was problematic, and the studio killed the plan to use it throughout the production. The final film’s crisp images owe much to Taylor’s expertise.
Taylor’s output slowed down in the 1980s, and he photographed one last film (Don’t Get Me Started from 1994) before turning to commercials. Taylor passed away on August 23, 2013, 11 days after his 99th birthday.
While Taylor’s bios may inevitably list the Star Wars film as his chief achievement, it cannot be denied that his contribution to A Hard Day’s Night was equally paramount. The Blu-ray release includes the 1994 documentary You Can’t Do That! The Making of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, hosted and narrated by another future talent who appeared in the movie’s crowd scenes: Phil Collins. In it the late, celebrated movie critic Roger Ebert makes the following comment about the Beatles’ initial film: “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t think we’d be making this documentary if [A Hard Day’s Night] were in color. Because it would not have held up in the same way, and that’s if every single shot had been precisely the same.”
Ebert nailed a major reason for the film’s timeliness, and why A Hard Day’s Night is still regarded as one of the best films ever made. That is in no small part thanks to the enormous talents of Gilbert Taylor.
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