Friday, 13 November 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old, pioneering film camera engineer and Prince of Studio Lighting called Bill Vinten

Bill, who had a career connected to film and television which spanned 50 years of the twentieth century and was inspired by his father to use his practical genius to solve the problems of camera management and studio lighting, has died at the age of 95.

What you possibly didn't know about Bill, that he ;

* was born in the summer of 1920 in Kingston, Surrey, the son Ellen and William, who ten years before had borrowed £600 from his wife and set up 'W. Vinten Cinematograph Engineers' manufacturing Kinecolour projectors in Wardour Street in the heart of London's film district, made the first metal camera and during the First World War and designed a camera for the Royal Flying Corps, the Model B, the first that could be operated while hung over the side of the cockpit.

* later remembered, at the age of 8 or 9 'toiling up three flights of stairs', walking around the old workshop and the smell of machinery and cutting oil, before it moved to Cricklewood when 'Mother had to sell the house to help pay for the factory to be put up and the family lived in a flat above it, which for me was fine, I enjoyed that. The only spooky thing was you had to park your bike round the back of the factory, then walk through this absolutely blacked out, silent factory and though the stores. At 10, 11, 12, I can remember feeling very spooky walking through the silent place before getting up into the family home. But it did give me the wonderful opportunity to learn all the machine tools.'

* looked up to his father as 'a great machinist ' who if he said : "Can I have a new this or that for my bike ?"  Would say : "Why don't you go down and make one rather than go to the shops and buy it ?" He taught me to use lathes and milling machines in my teens. That's been useful all my life.'

* was seventeen when his Father died in 1937, leaving his eldest son Charles in charge of the Company and witnessed the 'The British Kinematograph Society Journal' pay tribute when it acknowledged that the  Kinematograph Industry had : 'lost not only an outstanding personality technically, but a man of vision, shrewdness and quiet generosity, whose qualifications gained him not only universal respect but the personal affection, and, in many cases, gratitude, of those who were fortunate enough to know him well.'

* left school before the outbreak of the Second World War and studied mechanical engineering and tool making at Northampton Engineering College and following a car accident, as a student which damaged his left eye, had a brief stay with the company, but because of his stormy relationship with brother Charles, left and took a number of engineering jobs.

* then had 'the offer of a clapper/loader job from family friend Claude Friese-Greene'(right), embarked on career as cameraman' and recalled : 'Doing a film called 'The Silver Darling' on location in Wick in Scotland. We used a Vinten, an old Model H. The film was the story of herring fishing.'

* was drafted to work as a cinematographer with the Royal Navy Film Unit which was, as he recalled : "a bit of a funny outfit actually because film types and naval discipline didn't mix very well, but we did our best and we made a lot of training films" while at the company the increased demand for reconnaissance cameras saw the family business's military contracts secure a world market presence, particularly with the F24 camera and recalled : "It was an enormous surge of work. In 1938/39 there was probably 35-40 people. By '43 there was over 300. We had to convert the company very quickly from a hand built engineering company into a mass production company. We did it in about 3 months, but it was a bit of a rush. The people we employed, none of them were engineers or operators. They came from all walks of life - musicians and writers who had nothing else to do."

* after the end of the War in 1945, 'worked in the Gate Studios in Elstree, the smallest and therefore the cheapest to run Rank Studio, so we used to get a lot of experimental projects coming in. We did all the work for the 'Independent Frame' there. The idea was that you'd have very little furniture,  no sets, just back projection screen and you would back project all the sets. David Rawnsley (left) was chief of it. We did all the research there for the back projection machines, getting a completely flat back projection and being able to shoot it at various angles at the same speed.'

* started as a camera operator and and rose to lighting and participated in the Studio's ground breaking innovations when 'they had the idea of putting television camera on the studio floor for the very first time and recording the image remotely in a separate room. It was Cintel - Cinema Television - who got this idea going. We had three American Du Mont cameras on the floor and they modified an old projector as a recorder. We made a film called 'Mister Marionette' with that system.'

* found himself : 'lighting for television, which was a bit of a shock as it was an entirely different technique. Those 3 inch image orthicon cameras needed light everywhere. Any deep shadow and it all went grainy and grey and horrible. I had to relearn all my lighting technique. I went down to the BBC now an again to see what they did : they just poured light on from every direction. So I tried to refine it and make it a film-type look for television cameras.'

* began to build his reputation to the extent that : 'When Marconi were developing their 4½ image orthicon and trying to make a far better image someone said : "Bill Vinten's an ex- film camera man who's started lighting for television, why don't we get him along ?" and as a result, gave advice at their research labs at Chelmsford and did the same when Pye were developing their Pesticon and later reflected that he : 'became the one ex-film cameraman who jumped over the wall, so to speak, to light for television, much to the disgust of all the fellow film cameraman, who thought I was helping the opposition. But is was obvious to me that if you could really see, - get instant feedback from - the effect of different lighting, that must be the way for the future.'

* at the age of 32, rejoined his Brother, Charles (right), in the family company and took a seat on its Board in 1952 with responsibility for designing their range of film an tv equipment but continued to land contacts for lighting and found himself well placed when, in 1955, with the advent of commercial television 'High Definition Films were set up to make very nice- looking advertisements and I used to go and light things for them.

* in 1956 created his pan and tilt mechanism for the Marconi Mk III camera in which he eschewed the use of fluid and used risers and cams only to maintain the centre of gravity which made the tilting of heavy cameras relatively easy and considered it to be his finest achievement 'because it was an entirely different approach to a very old problem that had been bedevilling the film industry all its life - trying to make a spring compensate for a rotting mass. My solution was cams : keep the centre of gravity level the camera would be in balance.'

* found his pan and tilt head to met the BBC’s specifications for manoeuvrability and later recalled :  “The moment I knew this was a breakthrough came when Marconi stopped work on their own pan and tilt head. They had already spent large amounts of time and money developing a torque-bar head, but I took the prototype MKIII to them and the research director said to the mechanical designer, ‘well, you can forget that one’.”

* in 1958 , at the Queen's request, to be used for her second Christmas Day Speech broadcast live from Sandringham, designed  the 'Vinten Outside Broadcasting Dolly' to replace its lumbering and obtrusive predecessor and ran it on solid or pneumatic tyres, with a narrow profile which could be wheeled easily along a narrow passage or through a royal living room, at the same time for studio work designed the 'Vinten Pathfnder MkII', converted from the original Pathfinder Film Studio Dolly for television work and which allowed the BBC greater movement and flexibility in drama and light entertainment.

* by 1964 was playing a major role in the Company, 'W.Vinten Ltd' and was responsible for its move from Cricklewood to a new purpose-built factory in Bury St. Edmunds and three yeas later was awarded the 'Queen's Award for Technological Innovation' for his invention of the 'Peregrine crane' and three years later launched the 'Vinten Kestrel Outside Broadcast Crane' which provided a large variation in camera height for location work.

* in 1972 became involved with Dick Hibberd, in the creation of the 'Guild of Television Cameraman' because he : 'rather resented the film cameraman and their attitude, looking down their noses at television and thinking that all 'real art' was in the film world. I thought this wasn't necessarily true. They are two entirely different skills. You couldn't put a film cameraman on a television pedestal, he'd be completely lost, and so I was for starting the Television Guild. The antagonism spurred me on.'

* in 1982 retired from executive duties in the company to became a non-executive director, in the same year that his sister Jean and Company Chairman, Michael Brown, founded 'The William & Ellen Vinten Trust' to provide charitable donations to further the education and training of Vinten employees and people in the local area of Bury St. Edmunds and ten years later retired from the company at the age of 72 and brought the Vinten Family's involvement with it to an end.

* at the age of 90 in 2010, received from the 'Guild of Television Cameramen Award' for 'Fostering and Improving the Art and Craft of the Professional Television Cameraman' and with Chairman Graeme McAlpine praising his  “innovative products” which had “undoubtedly changed the world of broadcasting. The family and the company have provided cameras and cameramen with 100 fantastic years of support”.

* in 2012, in co-operation with the GTC set up the 'Bill Vinten GTC University Award', to recognise universities and graduates who demonstrate outstanding camera craft skills with the winner receiving work experience, paid with expenses, equivalent to £2,500, plus one year’s associate membership of the GTC with President Dick Hibberd stating : “The future and success of our craft relies not on the quantity but on the quality of new entrants," and Chairman adding : "Bill Vinten’s generous offer will allow recognition to be awarded in the most advantageous way to encourage and champion a successful career in camerawork. While craft skills can never replace content, craft skills will always enhance content.”


  1. Thank you. A great tribute.

    Mike Steele

  2. I only just found this. Thank you very much, it is a lovely account of my father's life.