|Arthur Wong: I was only 17 (1972) when I got into this business, and I am 49 this year. That was over 30 years ago. Actually my old pa was also a very famous cameraman in the 1950s. [Yet] I don’t know why, when I was young I didn’t have any interest in photography. I just LOVED watching movies, every time when I got some pocket money I would bring my two little brothers to the cinema to see the after-hours pictures. The price was low and they were all foreign films. At the time I was very small and didn’t even understand the subtitles. But I loved to go in a big dark room with a lot of people; it took me to another world and I would fall into it. [Films brought me] this kind of feelings.
So eventually, my two little young brothers ended up going into this business. My first brother is working as a director in television, the biggest channel, TVB, and he’s been working for television for over 20 years. And my second brother is also a cameraman and a director.
As for me, I worked for almost a year in the field for a local picture. I got this job thanks to my father. At this time, we didn’t have any film school in HK. After one year I went to work for overseas productions. There was a time, with the Bruce Lee’s spirit, when a lot of overseas productions came to HK to make kung fu pictures. And I worked as a clap loader, only for loading the film. And it sucked me very much [into the film making process] because I felt I was getting into real film productions.
At that time in the 1970s, local HK movies gave up all the ‘synch sound’ techniques, because they thought the cameras were too big and the setting up took too long. So they used a small two C camera, the camera hip and the tripod. You could lift it with one hand. It was very fast to do all kinds of set ups with it.
So once I felt into the overseas productions it really moved me because the director of photography was doing very precise lighting, and when we were shooting everybody has to keep quiet and fall into the mood [of the scene]. That brought out my interest for film-making. After that I went to Golden Harvest, just one year as second assistant cameraman. And then I worked for two overseas productions, which were Golden Harvest co-productions with Australia and America.
After a year, my father’s assistant wanted me to give him a hand, and work with him. My father at this time was working for the Shaw Brothers studio, the biggest [studio in HK], which was producing more than 130 films a year. I didn’t like to work with my father. Even though I was promoted to cameraman, people would say that was because of my father.
After that, an old producer who was my uncle, came and said: “it’s not important if you follow your father to be successful, it is the important that if you believe in yourself you can have what your father has. He is getting old, you know. If you can give him a hand, make his work easier, then he can work longer.” That’s what he said. In Shaw Bros, you got a great number of opportunities. And at the time, there were 15 or 16 staff cameramen. So my uncle said “if you believe in yourself, this is a good opportunity for you to become a cameraman there.”
So I grabbed the opportunity and went to the Shaw Bros and got the red carpet [treatment]. Because that year they changed the policy in Shaw Bros. In the past cameramen always wanted to request somebody as their assistant cameraman [in their contract]. The year I joined in they changed their system; all cameramen didn’t get to choose any of their assistants by contract. So for me it was a chance. I worked on13 features in 13 months (laughter). At the beginning, I hoped I could have a chance to follow all of them.
My look [as an assistant] when I was working there was totally different from the other assistants. Nowadays, you can see assistant cameraman wearing a lot of tools [around the belt], but at this time it was very easy. An assistant cameraman was only wearing a shirt with a lens paper [in the pocket] and nothing else. Everything else was just left at the back of the [camera] tripod. Since I was coming out from the overseas productions, I learnt from them, and [I] looked very outstanding and different [compared to assistants for local productions]. So all the cameramen wanted me in their team. Some of them were my father’s friends. Others heard I worked for overseas productions. They all wanted to talk to me and see what I could do for them.
Wong taking he light on the set of The Warlords, with actress Xu Jinglei
The way it works in the Western world is quite different from here. In the West, only the director of photography (DP) has the authority to hold a light meter to measure the light. But here, the assistant measures the light for the cameraman and report to him things such as how the highlights are. So I gave them [the HK DP] a big help. They trusted me to give them things like the contrast, let me do more things. And then they liked me very much. Since then I had the red carpet treatment.
At one point, I didn’t sleep for 7 days and nights. I had 4 units (4 pictures) on my own almost at all times. So everyday I got 2 or 3 units shooting simultaneously. If I was able to do unit A and unit C I would and I’d hire somebody to cover B for me. Then I told all the cameramen I was already involved with three pictures, they’d say: “It’s OK, I have John working with me. For the big scenes, we’ll call you, and then you come, ok?”