1918 - 1993
Leslie Wheeler was born in Enfield but grew up in Ealing, West London. His father, Thomas Wheeler, a precision engineer, was involved in the design and manufacture of early motion picture cameras and projectors as was Thomas’ brother Jass, which inevitably had an influence on the young Leslie.
About to finish school and look for work (circa 1936) his father announced that if he joined the film industry, he would cut him off without a shilling so when Leslie came home to announce he had got a job with Kodak Research Department at Harrow, his mother hid in the kitchen saying he could tell his father when he got home. As Tom was hanging up his bowler hat Leslie made the announcement, Tom looked him straight in the eye and said, “Well done lad”!
It was the job with Kodak that led him to become a senior member of the physics department. During WWII, the RAF asked if it were possible to make a film so sensitive that they would not need to use parachute flairs to photograph Berlin at night after a bombing raid to see how effective it had been. Being aware of hypersensitisation (flash fogging) Wheeler made experiments to find out what could be done and discovered that extreme sensitivity could be acquired but after a certain time the fog level would increase and all you got was very fogged film.
This led to Leslie heading a team to build a machine to hypersensitise or flash fog the emulsion (pre-flashing the emulsion before exposure effectively increased its speed) plus an associated processing machine and shipping both to an airfield in Scotland to be nearer to Berlin aeronautically speaking. Hence at the end of the war, Wheeler was an expert on film stock processing.
In 1948, he joined Ben Getz to help set up the MGM studios in Borehamwood. His title was Head of Sensitometric Control, which, curiously was part of the sound department as in those days sound was recorded on film using a variable density method so the processing was critical.
A few years later, Wheeler left MGM to set up his own company, General Photographic Supplies. This venture only lasted a few years as the BBC came along in 1955 and asked him if he would join their Planning and Installation Department (P&ID) to help design and install new processing machines at Alexandra Palace to mainly process newsreel footage. This he did getting Newman and Guardia to manufacture the machines known as the Lawly Junior. Later they combined to design and manufacture a much smaller machine known as the Lawlett for use in the BBC regions.
By 1960, Wheeler was head hunted by Ilford Limited to become Head of Motion Pictures with a prestigious office in Wardour Street. Here he instigated several new film emulsions including HP5. He spent many happy years with Ilford but eventually became exasperated in their refusal to manufacture a Colour Motion Picture stock despite having a very good emulsion already available. Wheeler was convinced that without a colour emulsion the Motion Picture Department could not survive. This brought him into contact with Fuji Film in an effort to persuade Ilford to market their colour film in the UK, Negotiations fell through and almost simultaneously Fuji’s European head office in Dusseldorf and Leslie ‘phoned each other, after which Leslie set up the Fuji Professional Division in London in 1972. Wheeler spent some nine years with Fuji right up to his retirement in 1983.
He is well known for writing his seminal book “Principals of Cinematography” (1953) a book which ran to four very successful editions. The last of which was heralded as the definitive work on film technology. Other books were: How to Process Substandard Film (1956); Sensitometric Control in Film Making – Engineering Monograph (1960)
He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1974 ‘for his outstanding contributions to cinematography,’ a fellow of the BKSTS and invited to become a member of the Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers of America as well as a member of the British Society of Cinematographers.
Leslie had an extremely happy marriage to Vera, née Clapham, who with outstanding loyalty typed the final manuscripts of all Leslie’s books. They produced one son, Paul who joined the BBC Film Department in 1965 and went on to fulfil his childhood ambition of becoming a BBC Film Cameraman and subsequently a freelance Director of Photography and a member of the BSC (1991).