12.3.1928 - 20.10-2010
Robert Paynter, who died on October 20 aged 82, was a much-acclaimed cinematographer, best known for his work with the directors John Landis and Michael Winner, and for shooting the Michael Jackson video Thriller (1983), the most popular music video in history. Directed by Landis and shot by Paynter on 35mm stock, the video is a 14-minute dance extravaganza that features a scarlet-clad Jackson eventually metamorphosing into a ghoul. By 2006, nine million copies of the video had been sold, and in 2009 it was the first music video to be inducted into America's National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.
Robert William Paynter was born on March 12 1928 in south London and educated at Mercer's School, Holborn, and, during wartime evacuation, Collier's School, Horsham, the town where he later settled.
As a 15-year-old boy scout, he helped out on a propaganda film made by the Ministry of Information during World War II. His scout leader thought he could do well and helped him get a job at the Crown Film Unit. Bob went on to run errands for the Colonial Film Unit, a unit working under the aegis of the Central Office of Information, which made films for showing in the British Colonies about life in Britain. It was only when a crewmember became ill and he offered to take his place that Bob got a taste for filming. The Crown Film Unit ran out of steam after World War II and Bob went on to work as an assistant cameraman for British Transport films. Paynter worked alongside contemporaries including David Watkin and Billy Williams eventually shooting several shorts for BTF, including Snow Drift at Bleath Gill (1955), depicting the rescue of a goods train trapped by blizzards on the Yorkshire moors. Critics admired Paynter's enduring head-on image of a snowplough charging at full speed into a huge drift, the locomotive spouting smoke and debris in all directions as the line workers cheered on the crew.
From the late 1950s and throughout the ensuing decade, Paynter was the cameraman for dozens of television commercials for ITV, promoting brands such as Kellogg's, Mars, Guinness and Oxo, for which he shot several campaigns in his own home. His career in feature films began with Michael Winner's Hannibal Brooks (1969). Winner's regular cameraman had declared himself too old to be climbing mountains in Austria with heavy equipment, and Paynter was recommended to succeed him. He remained with Winner throughout the 1970s, on pictures including Lawman (1971); Scorpio (1973) and The Big Sleep (1978). When Marlon Brando starred in Winner's The Nightcomers (1971) he was particularly impressed by Paynter's ability to set and light a shot professionally and at speed. "I never knew you could make films so quickly," the actor remarked.
In the 1980s Paynter worked with John Landis on the comedy-horror An American Werewolf In London (1981); the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983); and Spies Like Us (1985). For the director Richard Lester, Paynter also shot Superman II and Superman III (1980 and 1983). Paynter had been at the centre of a controversy surrounding Superman II (1980). When the original director, Richard Donner, was fired, he was replaced by Richard Lester, who scrapped a great deal of his predecessor's footage. (The "Donner Cut", with the restored material, was released in 2006.) Lester had a less realistic, less epic conception of the story, preferring to relate it to its comic-book genesis. He brought in Paynter to recreate the look and feel of a comic book. Consequently, Paynter used pastel colours and static framing to produce the desired flatness of a comic strip. This style was continued by Lester and Paynter with less success in Superman III (1983). Paynter also provided bright, cartoonish colours as director of photography for Frank Oz on The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986). In 1989 he showed off the art of the cinematographer in When The Whales Came. The film starred Paul Scofield and Helen Mirren, with Paynter employing much soft-focus camerawork to evoke the idyllic island of Bryher in 1914. His other credits included Strike It Rich (1990), written and directed by James Scott and based on a Graham Greene novella, Loser Takes All (1957). Starring Robert Lindsay as a London accountant who falls for a pretty American (Molly Ringwald), the film gave Paynter an opportunity to vary his palette from the drabness of 1950s London to the garish picture postcard colours of Monte Carlo. Robert Paynter was admired by his colleagues on both sides of the camera. After a career crafting film shoots, he appeared in front of the camera in John Landis's latest film, Burke & Hare, playing a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1828.
He married Marjorie Dawson in 1950, who died in 2001.
Daily Telegraph/Phil Méheux BSC