Gripping Yarns

Clapperboard / Dennis Fraser MBE

Gripping Yarns

Clapperboard / Dennis Fraser MBE

The evidence of a pre-eminent career in the film industry is to be found all around the St Albans office of Dennis Fraser MBE, former film industry key grip and current MD of grip rental company Chapman UK.

Most eye-catching are the framed photographs of Fraser chatting to famous directors, including Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison and John Huston.

“I have had the chance to work with some of the best directors and cameramen in the world,” says Fraser, looking back over a 63-year career in the industry with credits as key grip on films such as Where Eagles Dare (1968, dir. Brian G Hutton, DP Arthur Ibbetson BSC), Fiddler On The Roof (1971, dir. Norman Jewison, DP Oswald Morris BSC), Chariots Of Fire (1981, dir. Hugh Hudson, DP David Watkin BSC), Firefox (1982, dir. Clint Eastwood, DP Bruce Surtees ASC) and Pearl Harbour (2001, dir. Michael Bay, DP John Schwartzman ASC).

But perhaps the professional recognition of grips in the UK film industry, through the setting up of NVQ qualifications, is 81-year-old Fraser's most significant achievement.

Fraser's office has racks of files which document the evolution of Creative Skillset's NVQ qualifications for grips and crane technicians, a project which Fraser championed through the Grips Branch of BECTU and still remains passionate about.

The NVQ guarantees that an army of well-qualified professional grips will continue to be one of the key attractions underpinning the UK's success in attracting inward investment filmmaking.

“The reason films come here is because we offer some of the best technicians in the world. I wish they had these qualifications across the industry,” insists Fraser, who points out that there are over 150 qualified grips in the UK now. The success of the NVQ scheme has prompted other film crafts, such as focus pulling and camera loading, to evolve their own professional standards.

Fraser bemoans the fact that these crafts are still not given the status they deserve in filmmaking, with most of the plaudits still focussed on actors, directors, and cameramen.

“The truth is that a good grip does a crucial job on a film, working very closely with the director and cameraman, who tell them what shots they want to achieve. You can't really make a film without them,” he says.

Dennis Fraser with Clint Eastwood
Dennis Fraser with Clint Eastwood

The irony is that Fraser's enormous contribution to the film industry has been well-recognised; the recipient of two lifetime achievement awards from Grip Branch and Skillset, he is an honorary friend of the British Society Of Cinematographers and the recipient of two awards for excellence from the Guild Of British Camera Technicians. He also received the coveted ARRI John Alcott Award for Technical Achievement in 2007.

But top of the pile must be the MBE he received in 1993. His first reaction on seeing the letter from 10 Downing Street was that it must be some kind of joke. It was his wife who pointed out that the letter was likely genuine because it was signed by then Prime Minister John Major.

Speaking in his St Albans office, Fraser still seems a little surprised about being a recipient of an honour from the British establishment, as if people who leave school at the age of 15 with little in the way of formal qualification don't really get honours.

“I was somebody who was good with his hands, but who had little formal education,” recalls the former amateur boxer.

Fraser’s career in film started when he became a painter's labourer, first at the National Studios and then MGM Studios, where he chalked up over 100 films including titles including Goodbye Mr Chips (1969, dir. Herbert Ross, DP Oswald Morris BSC) and Kelly's Heroes (1970, dir. Brian G Hutton, DP Gabriel Figueroa).

Exposed to the craft of gripping, and taken under the wing of well-known industry figures such as Pat Newman, it was here that Fraser learnt his trade. “I loved gripping and simply wanted to be the best at it,” he recalls.

The best thing about working at a studio was that it was all about rising through the ranks and learning about the whole filmmaking process on the job, explains Fraser.

“That way you understood every job on set, from what a focus puller would do to how to load a camera. Today's new talent tend to know about photography because they want to be directors 90 per cent of the time, but – put simply – they just don't have enough knowledge – something that applies to all grades right up to the director,” he says.

That's the knowledge gap that the NVQs for grips attempt to plug.

“The big breakthrough is that now key grips, who are responsible for hiring the entire grip team on a production, won't hire somebody without a qualification,” says Fraser.

"A good grip does a crucial job on a film, working very closely with the director and cameraman, who tell them what shots they want to achieve. You can't really make a film without them."

- Dennis Fraser MBE

When his time at MGM Studios ended, Fraser was well-known as one of the best key grips in the business, a reputation confirmed by film industry luminary Sir Sydney Samuelson.

“I called him Mr Reliable. Dennis was simply the most experienced, most reliable key grip in the industry,” recalls Samuelson.

Samuelson's comments are backed up by director and actor Clint Eastwood, with whom Fraser worked on many films including Kelly's Heroes and Firefox. “Dennis is a solid pro and a great guy. We have worked many years together and he is topflight,” says Eastwood.

Samuelson adds: “Dennis was a techie who you definitely wanted on your production (if he was available), because he had a reputation for reliability and solving difficult problems on-set. If you had a tricky picture, Dennis would sort it with the minimum of fuss. No matter how difficult it was to get a shot, he would find a way.”

“When Norman Jewison did some of his big pictures in the UK, and the money was in place, on day one he'd sit down with his production manager and the first item on the agenda would be 'make sure Dennis Fraser is available'.”

Fraser's relationship with Jewison began with MGM musical Fiddler On The Roof – he went on to work on other Jewison movies such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Rollerball (1975), both lit by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe BSC ASC.

It was the beginning of a successful freelance career which saw Fraser notch up a string of notable credits throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s including Cross Of Iron (1977, dir. Sam Peckinpah, DO John Coquillon), Chariots Of Fire and An American Werewolf In London (1981, dir. John Landis, DP Robert Paynter), before setting up his own rental company, Grip House, in 1984. With five partners he set out with the ambition of making the world of grip kit more exciting, more versatile and – crucially – safer.

“I tried to do something different when I started up Grip House – to change the concept of gripping,” he says. “Of course there were already cranes and dollies, but not much else. We designed sliders, tongues, car rigs, specialised cranes and the Fraser Dolly – a unique, multi-purpose, flexible dolly system which is still in use today.”

<em>Rollerball</em> (1975)
Rollerball (1975)

Fraser also lays claim to creating the first generation of specialised crane technicians. “I refused to dry hire a crane – unlike some companies – they had to go out with somebody I knew would be able to use it safely.”

When, in the 1980s, Grip House got into financial difficulties, Fraser's business was rescued by Sir Sydney Samuelson, to whom Fraser remains eternally grateful to this day.

After 40 years as one of the film industry's best-known grips, working long hours often on location, Fraser decided to retire, making only the occasional foray into features. He's handed the baton onto his son Kevin, who like his father, now has a string of big feature credits to his name.

But Leonard Chapman, boss of Hollywood-based grip rental company Chapman Leonard, was about to spoil Fraser's retirement plans. Having known him professionally for years, he asked Fraser to run the company's new UK and European HQ.

Chapman Leonard has pioneered some of the most exciting kit on the market today, including PeeWee's dollies, Lenny arms, Titan and Super Nova cranes, and the submersible and versatile Hydrascope telescopic crane. Fraser estimates that Chapman Leonard’s grip equipment is used on around 90 per cent of features worldwide.

One thing that Fraser hasn't changed from his Grip House days to Chapman UK is his focus on health and safety. “I would go as far as to say that I am a bit paranoid about the condition in which my kit goes out,” he declares.

Take a tour of the company's sizeable St Albans warehouse facility and it's obvious that everything is in immaculate condition.

“I see Lennie [Chapman] a couple of times a year and he has become one of my dearest friends,” reveals Fraser. But no prizes for guessing the big topic of conversation on Fraser's USA trips. “We spend all our time talking about grip equipment.”