Hollywood Flashback: In 1978, Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth First Got 'Superman' to Soar
"He was like a human computer when it came to mixing effects and cinematography — and this at a time when there were no computers," says director Richard Donner of the late Oscar-winning DP, who helped create more realistic flying sequences in the superhero film.
This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The fact that Geoffrey Unsworth was David Lean's original choice to shoot Lawrence of Arabia speaks volumes about how respected he was among British cinematographers. (The reason he wasn't behind the camera on Lawrence is that he had already committed to doing the forgettable Danny Kaye comedy On the Double.) Unsworth had started out as a camera assistant on black-and-white films at London's Pinewood Studios in 1932, but it was with color that he really made his mark.
The first film to bring international attention to his work was 1964's Becket, starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, for which Unsworth received his first Oscar nomination. (He'd eventually win two: for 1972's Cabaret and 1979's Tess.)
It was a few years later, while shooting Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Unsworth demonstrated that his ability went beyond putting lush images onscreen: He also was enormously skilled at integrating cinematography and special effects.
That talent was put to good use on 1978's Superman, where he helped develop a photography process that produced more realistic images for the flying sequences. "He was like a human computer when it came to mixing effects and cinematography — and this at a time when there were no computers," says Superman director Richard Donner. "His mind was totally attuned to the visual. George saw how to transpose the ideas to celluloid. And he was a great guy — the personification of a wonderful English character."
Unsworth only worked on two films after Superman: The Great Train Robbery and Tess. In 1978, while on location in France during the third month of shooting Roman Polanski's take on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Unsworth, 63, died from a heart attack. Most of his completed work was on exteriors in the film's first half. The remainder was shot by Ghislain Cloquet. They both received Oscars for best cinematography.