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Obituary: Christopher G J Challis FRPS (1919-2012)
- Published 8th June 2012
Christopher Challis joined The Royal Photographic Society in 1936, gaining his Associateship in 1945 and Fellowship in 1948. He remained a member until his death on 31 May 2012 aged 93. He was a respected cinematographer and an accomplished photographer working on more than seventy feature films since the 1940s.
Challis was using a stills camera while he was still in single figures after his father gave him an early fixed lens Leica camera. He took stills on some of his early movies most notably The Drum (1938) where he filmed in Chitral high in the Himalaya. On The End of the River (1947) he photographed then unknown tribes people deep in the Amazon jungle, after three months travel from Belem, mainly in canoes. Many of his stills photographs were published. He catalogued most of his film work on stills but as he grew as a cinematographer his stills work became less significant. He used his Leica as his preferred tool until his later years with people being his chosen subject and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he adored black and white film for both stills and moving pictures.
The London-born Challis was in his teens when he worked as a camera assistant for Gaumont British News and became an apprentice technician at the Technicolor laboratory in the 1930s. He was then taken on as a technician on early British Technicolor movies such as The Drum and served as a cameraman for the RAF during the second world war.
After working as camera operator on a number of films for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, he made his debut as director of photography on The End of the River in 1947. After this he returned to worked as a camera operator under Jack Cardiff on The Red Shoes taking the demotion so that he could work with Cardiff on the film.
He then returned as director of photography where he was cinematographer on most of Powell and Pressburger's later films, including The Small Back Room (1949), The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), amongst others. His expertise in colour cinematography made him a popular choice for British films of the 1950s, and he made a number of successful comedies, including Genevieve (1953), The Captain's Table (1958) and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965). He worked on a variety of projects, such as The Spanish Gardener (1956), the 1960 war classic, Sink the Bismarck!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). He continued actively working until the mid-1980s.
Challis was nominated for several BAFTA Awards for Best British Cinematography, including a win in 1966 for Stanley Donen's film Arabesque. BAFTA held a tribute lunch for Challis in 2011. His autobiography, Are They Really So Awful?: A Cameraman's Chronicle, was published in 1995.
Martin Scorcese said of him: "It is not possible even to begin to take the full measure of the greatness of British filmmaking without thinking of Chris Challis" adding "Chris Challis brought a vibrancy to the celluloid palette that was entirely his own, and which helped make Britain a leader in that long, glorious period of classic world cinema."
The actress Jenny Agutter recalled working on The Riddle of the Sands (1979): “Chris looked on, pipe in mouth very much the sailor at ease in his surroundings. His quiet sense of humour and the enjoyment he found in his work made filming great fun. The result on screen was always stunning”.
Challis, who was predeceased by his wife, Peggy, is survived by his daughter, the novelist Sarah Challis.
Dr Michael Pritchard