A Galaxy of Stars

the poster for thunderball

The internet doesn't have a shot of Gil, and neither do I. He did the second unit on Thunderball, so here's the poster instead.

Gil Woxholt

Gil Woxholt was a Norwegian cameraman who started off doing second unit camera and specialising in underwater photography. I first met him around 1988 as I knew his son Severin, with whom I did Highlander2 and Goldeneye . Gil was ebulliently charming and generous to a fault. A dinner with Gil meant you would not be paying - he would surreptitiously deposit his credit card with the maitre'd before anyone got a chance to split the bill. At home, he had a flat with a bar in the corner where he would go and mix drinks while regaling the company with stories. And they were good stories - all about underwater shooting, second unit on several early bonds, and directing second unit on The Heroes of Telemark.

I part-ran a camera Rental company in the late eighties, so we were at one point servicing Gil's personal underwater camera, as we had several others that we used to rent. I used to travel with our cameras on occasion, working as the 'dry' technician. I travelled once to Yugoslavia (can't do that anymore) to film War and Remembrance with Topol - our scene was him escaping across a river. Our own camera housings were sleek tubular devices of low profile, and fitted with a well-engineered pressure hull - that is, they were waterproof because the seals were so tight that the water couldn't get in - although dramatic film shooting is never very deep, these could go down just about as far as you could SCUBA.

Gil's underwater housing was different, and designed by Gil himself - but from a purely practical viewpoint. It was constructed of stainless steel, and was, well, huge . It took a bulky Arriflex IIC with an upright 400' magazine, and was peculiar in several ways: Firstly, that it was a positive pressure housing. The air inside was kept at a slightly greater pressure than the water pressure outside, so water could not come in, even if it wanted to. Since the pressure exerted by water changes over depth and this needed to be compensated for, inside the housing was an air cylinder with its own single stage Cousteau regulator; the housing automatically set its own pressure to the water outside. Ingenious.

Better still, since Gil was so well practised in the art of working with actors underwater, the other main attribute of the housing was a series of bells and buzzers that would enable the actors to be cued on action. (One bell for 'action', two bells for 'cut', two buzzers for going again to reset, etc) These bells and buzzers were operated by Gil using a set of triggers on the grips, where he could also turn the camera on and off. I have a vague recollection he ran the camera mildly undercranked at 23FPS to take the languor out of the shots. A full mag of film lasted four minutes before you'd have to surface to reload; focus was by gears and needed an assistant; large lumps of lead compensated for buoyancy.

Which all sort of explains why the housing was so large and heavy - there was a lot in it. It was joked that if he'd made it a little bigger Gil could have gone in and operated the camera from inside.

I didn't get to work with Gil underwater, sadly, but I did get my day with him on Prince of Thieves , the Robin Hood flick with Kevin Costner. Gil had been doing some second or third camera with them and I was asked to come and focus. So early one morning we were down at the white cliffs of Dover, filming the 'arriving back in England' sequence. There were three or four cameras on the scene where they row ashore, and Gil and I were on 'C' or 'D' camera.

It was a relatively easy shot to operate on but an almost impossible shot to focus - the rowing boat starts about 100 yards off and pulls into shore. Usually when you pull focus you can use stuff on the ground to take a reference from (please note that the focus puller did not have, in those days, a monitor to work from, nor a laser measure, nor able to look through the camera. It was all done by the foot scale on the barrel of the lens). I drew the short straw and am on the Canon 600mm (super tricky) so after shitting bricks for a while I practice on the beach sideways as we're setting up, estimating the distance to a bush or a bucket along the foreshore, then seeing if I was correct with an eye focus. Gil was very jolly and told me quite happily: 'Look, they'll only use the good bits, so if I see it go out of focus I'll grab the (lens) barrel and fine tune it for you'. So it was agreed.

We set up, Costner and Freeman in the rowing boat, a bit of sea fog generated on the FX boats, turn over all cameras and off we went. It was sort of nerve wracking as to a greater extent I was winging it and this was Kevin 'biggest star on the f**king planet' Costner, but as they got closer to the shore and Gil had not intervened, I thought I must be doing okay. But then he took his eye off the eyepiece to wipe the viewfinder: It had misted up, and alas, he would not have seen if I screwed up or not. After we'd cut I asked him how it looked and he cheerfully told me he couldn't see a thing as it had misted up, as I had guessed. But he told me not worry - what I had done was a really good job.

In fact, I never did find out how well I did, as we were not connected to any video assist - we were there as belt and braces. We wrapped the shot and the 'A' camera main unit went in to do the Kevin rolling in the sand sequence, and that was pretty much it for us. For years I thought the fogged eyepiece shot had been left in the final cut, so I knew that camera had been Gil and I, (When you take your eye off the eyepiece the film is fogged by the light travelling back down) but watching it back today on Youtube, I saw no such shot. Maybe I saw a longer version.

That was, alas, the first and last time I worked with Gil. He passed away the same year, and the film was dedicated to his memory - the DOP, Dougie Milsome and he were good friends and went back a long way. Always charming, always generous, always unfailingly polite.

It wasn't my last day on Prince of Thieves, however - I worked focus on one of the cameras on the forest part of Bryan Adams 'Everything I do I do it for you' pop promo. It was directed by Julian Temple who arrived dressed in an impressive purple leather suit. If you're a massive Bryan Adams fan and want to know where that location: There's this abandoned silk mill in the Quantocks, see... It's probably still there.

If anyone has any good stories about Gil that can be reproduced here, let me know.

Recalled 6th June 2020

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