70 Years of the Operators Awards

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70 Years of the Operators Awards

CELEBRATING TALENT: 70 YEARS OF THE OPERATORS AWARDS

As the Operators Awards celebrates its 70th anniversary, we look back at its formative years and examine the important part the awards still play in recognising outstanding achievement and the camera operator’s vital role in the filmmaking process. 

In 1953, four years after its formation, the British Society of Cinematographers decided to celebrate technical expertise and creativity in cinematography in the form of annual awards. The following year, three BSC Awards were presented, the first of which was backdated to 1951 and received by George Ashworth, a camera engineer at Pinewood, for designing a beam splitting camera. The second, backdated to 1953, was presented to Ossie Morris for his photography on Moulin Rouge. Robert Krasker’s Romeo and Juliet received the third award, backdated to 1954. Celebrating technical achievements, photographic triumphs, or both in unison, the BSC Award was then presented every year.

In the early 1950s, the BSC’s directors of photography organised a dinner at The Orchard in Ruislip to thank their operators and crew for their hard work, talent, commitment, and loyalty. Costing a guinea to attend, the evening featured drinks aplenty, a sit-down dinner, and a speech delivered by a guest of honour. The event marked the first official Operators Night.

Since that momentous occasion, Operators Night has gone through various iterations, from pub crawls and gatherings at The Bull in Gerrards Cross to posh nights at the Connaught Rooms and Ladies Nights at the Spider’s Web in Watford or The Savoy. Over the years, Operators Night has evolved into one of the Society’s most successful annual functions, allowing DPs and their crews to meet socially.

Operators Night 2003. Left to right: Harvey Harrison BSC, Alex Thomson BSC (BSC Lifetime Achievement Award), Nick Phillips (BSC Bert Easey Technical Award for Libra 3), Dave Worley GBCT (GBCT Operators Award for Reign of Fire), Ted Deason (GBCT 1st Assistant Camera Award)

As the gatherings grew in popularity – with attendee numbers growing from the tens to the hundreds – annual visits to drink and dine were held more regularly at Pinewood or Elstree Studios. The BSC President announced the winners and after-dinner speakers such as Richard Attenborough, Norman Jewison, Cubby Broccoli, David Putnam, Terry Gilliam, Robin Williams, Ken Russell, Dustin Hoffman, and Ralph Fiennes, amongst many others, dazzled the room with their speeches.

Having initially handed out the cinematography and technical awards at its Annual General Meetings, the BSC later incorporated their presentation into the BSC’s Operators Night. In 1976, principally to acknowledge the importance of camera operators, the BSC then added the Associate Member category to its membership and Operators Night continued to grow in popularity.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the format of the awards event became more formalised. Panavision and the GBCT joined forces to create the Panavision-GBCT Camera Operators Award and the Focus Pullers’ (Golden Knob) Award. Nominations and voting were conducted by the GBCT membership, with the award being handed out to winners by the BSC President at Operators Night. The first ‘golden camera’ award was presented to Mike Roberts, Associate BSC GBCT, for his amazing work on the Oscar-winning Mississippi Burning, assisted by focus puller, Eamonn O’Keeffe GBCT.

In 2007, the last “golden” awards were handed out at the GBCT’s 30th anniversary dinner and dance, “A Night to Remember”. Held at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, the event saw awards presented to camera operator Roger Pearce and focus puller Rawdon Hayne.

Operators Night 2001. Left to right: Roy Field BSC (BSC Charles D Staffell Award for Visual Effects), Gilbert Taylor BSC (BSC Lifetime Achievement Award), Martin Hume (accepting GBCT Operators Award (TV) to Martin Hume GBCT & Martin Kenzie GBCT for Band of Brothers), Danny Shelmerdine (GBCT 1st Assistant Camera Award)

Between 2006 to 2010, no Operators Awards were presented at Operators Night. Perhaps the incredible ability and talent of the legendary operators who had received the Golden Camera in the past made others reluctant to put productions forward, or maybe it was due to the increasing number of DPs who were operating themselves.

Regardless, something more had to be done to remind the film and television industry about the benefits of having a good operator and the skills they bring to a production. Standing beside a cold, windswept unit base on a beach in Wales, a small group of camera operators – who became the originators of the Association of Camera Operators (ACO) – decided to join forces to form a plan to ensure the role of a first-class camera operator was not forgotten.

In 2010, the ACO was formed, thanks to its hardworking founders – Peter Taylor, Chris Plevin, Rodrigo Gutierrez, Peter Robertson, Peter Cavaciuti, Paul Edwards, and Martin Hume – and additional support from Frances Russell of the BSC and Deanne Edwards of the GBCT. The founders had a clear plan of action, wrote rules and regulations, organised a Board of Management, encouraged other operators to join, and voted in the first President – Rodrigo Gutierrez. ACO Presidents since then were Chris Plevin; Peter Cavaciuti; Ben Wilson; and Sean Savage, with Peter Robertson taking over the reins earlier this year.

Peter Cavaciuti GBCT winning the GBCT Camera Operators Award for Elizabeth in 2005

The ACO’s original aim was to promote the importance of the camera operator’s role to production personnel, while nurturing existing talent and maintaining quality when operating. A decade later, with a trip to Cine Gear in Los Angeles, paid for by sharing a DTI grant with the GBCT, Chris Plevin was able to develop good relationships with the US equivalent camera operating organisations.

The ACO is continuing to develop a truly international profile, with operators joining from around the world, demonstrating the Operators Awards’ global approach. As well as building strong working relationships with BAFTA and the SOC in Los Angeles, the ACO’s website is populated with informative articles, videos of Q&A sessions, and a vast collection of photographs of members at work.

Board members are responsible for patron liaison, membership, events, editorial, diversity, among many other important issues. Funded by ScreenSkills, the BSC and ACO work in partnership on a mentoring scheme to help experienced technicians develop lighting and operating skills. A group of members have also joined forces with the BSC and GBCT to work on the Operators Awards Committee judging panel, which Rodrigo Gutierrez worked to reinstate from 2011 (for Feature Film) and from 2015 (for Television Drama). In collaboration with a designer, Peter Cavaciuti created two modernised Operators Awards which, since their inception, have been sponsored by Panavision and Ronford-Baker. In 2020, RED came on board as an additional sponsor.

David Worley GBCT accepting his GBCT Camera Operators Award from Stephen Fry for Reign of Fire in 2002

The Operators Awards Committee, comprising members from the three societies, continues to evolve and improve the rules for the voting membership, assisted by the ACO/BSC/GBCT Admin Team and David Worley Associate BSC GBCT ACO – the only camera operator to have twice received the golden camera award, as well as the new Feature Film and Television Drama awards.

Operators Night is still going strong 70 years after its inception. For the past three years, Operators Night has been part of the BSC Awards night. This year, marking yet another first, the awards event was celebrated virtually, acknowledging outstanding work in TV drama and feature film. As the industry continues to evolve, long may the celebrations of technical and creative achievements continue.

Thanks to Peter Robertson Associate BSC GBCT ACO; Peter Cavaciuti Associate BSC GBCT SOC ACO; Phillip Sindall Associate BSC GBCT ACO; Sham Whittaker, ACO Secretary; Phil Meheux BSC GBCT; Trevor Coop Associate BSC GBCT ACO for their help with this piece. Additional information was verified by the GBCT’s magazines, including Eyepiece.

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