The cultural aesthetic of the Britpop and New Labour years was shaped partly by the cinematographer Brian Tufano, who has died aged 83. In films such as Trainspotting (1996), East Is East (1999) and Billy Elliot (2000), he combined social realism and absurdist fantasy, smudging the joins between the two. A typical Tufano production, said the film-maker Saul Metzstein, had “technical polish and a cinematic ambition at odds with its financially modest status”.
He worked for the BBC throughout the 1960s and 70s with directors including Lindsay Anderson, Ken Russell, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. But it was in his work with a younger generation in the 90s that his imaginative cinematic sensibility was most strongly felt. For Danny Boyle, with whom he had already made the BBC period drama series Mr Wroe’s Virgins (1993), he shot the gruesome thriller Shallow Grave (1994) and then Trainspotting, an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel about heroin addicts in Edinburgh.
During the surreal and repulsive scene in which Ewan McGregor, as the junkie Renton, climbs head-first into a filthy toilet bowl, Tufano achieved a trompe l’oeil effect by shooting the action sideways on. Hidden behind the bisected toilet was a chute into which McGregor climbed. It was Tufano’s idea to have him twist his protruding legs as he wriggled out of view, to give the impression that he was snaking around the U-bend.
The cinematographer was not surprised that people remembered the scene: “If you see somebody going head-first down a toilet, it’s bound to stick in the memory somehow.” Thoughts of the film’s longevity, though, were not foremost in his mind at the time. “The general feeling was that once it hit the screen we’d probably never work again,” he said.
The reverse was true. For Damien O’Donnell, he shot East Is East, based on Ayub Khan Din’s play about an Anglo-Pakistani family running a fish and chip shop in 1970s Salford. When the theatre director Stephen Daldrymigrated to cinema with Billy Elliot, the lively, sentimental story of a miner’s son (played by Jamie Bell) who displays an aptitude for ballet, it was Tufano who brought the script’s fairytale escapism to life against the backdrop of the 80s miners’ strikes.
Tufano went on to shoot other debuts: Metzstein’s verbose comedy Late Night Shopping (2001), the teen crime drama Kidulthood (2006) and its sequel Adulthood (2008). He preferred working with first-timers “because they don’t bring any baggage with them … I’m a bit off-the-wall with some of the things I suggest and they tend to listen to me, whereas the others don’t as they tend to get nervous.”
Born in west London, to Alice (nee Barfield) and Antonio Tufano, known as “Tom”, a barber of Neapolitan descent, Brian was evacuated to Wales during the second world war. It was there, as a child, that he first visited a cinema and developed a love of film. Back in London after the war, he lived close to the BBC’s Lime Grove studios, and used to hang around outside watching props and equipment being ferried in and out.
His mother wrote a letter to the BBC asking the broadcaster to employ him. He was first taken on as a projectionist in 1956 and then proceeded through the ranks, beginning with the post of trainee assistant cameraman, becoming a qualified cameraman in 1963.
It was on his four films with Frears, including Alan Bennett’s Sunset Across the Bay (1975), that he became “more interested in using the whole frame rather than just following the action. Sometimes we would film in such a way that the action was subservient to the frame.”
In the same year, Alan Parker requested him to shoot his own BBC film, The Evacuees. “He was a hard taskmaster, both tormentor and teacher,” the director said. “What he taught me was that however little time there was, everything … could be a little better if you didn’t settle for what was easy and obvious.”After leaving the BBC, he shot The Sailor’s Return (1978), Jack Gold’s film about a young west African woman in Victorian England, and Franc Roddam’s swaggering debut Quadrophenia (1979), based on the rock opera by the Who.
In the 80s he was based in the US, mostly shooting commercials. He provided additional cinematography on Ridley Scott’s futuristic noir Blade Runner (1982), which was shot by Jordan Cronenweth. He also conjured outlandish visual spectacle in Dreamscape (1984), an ambitious thriller that takes place partly inside its characters’ subconscious.
After his earlier films with Boyle, Tufano shot the director’s third picture, A Life Less Ordinary (1997), in which angels play Cupid with mortals on earth. Other credits include Fred Schepisi’s intricate film of Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders (2001), starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren.
On one of his last movies, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010), starring Andy Serkis as the singer Ian Dury, he found himself out of step with the director, Mat Whitecross. “[He] was interested in shooting the film like one long music video, whereas I wanted to get inside Ian Dury’s head, because that’s where the story was,” said Tufano. “And because Andy is such a brilliant actor, I could see it going on before my very eyes, and I wasn’t able to get it on camera.”
From 2003 to 2016 he was head of cinematography at the National Film and Television School, where his students included Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who went on to shoot The Girl on the Train (2016) and A Quiet Place (2018). “He taught me how to navigate the industry … and how to truly embrace the cinematographer’s role and give yourself and your ideas to the vision of directors,” she said. “He inspired me to become the DP [director of photography] I am today.”
One of his strengths was a certain directness. When Christensen burst into his office complaining that she was stressed because of problems with crew and equipment, Tufano “turned around in his squeaky old office chair, looked at me and just said, ‘You’re not stressed. Stress is when the phone doesn’t ring. Please stop whining and get out of here. Make it happen.’”
He is survived by Kate, his daughter from his first marriage to Pamela Copeland, which ended in divorce in 1990, and by his second wife, Sarah Pykett, whom he married in 2005, as well as by two grandchildren, Lilly and Thomas.
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