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Les Wasley BEM (1928 - 2014)

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Les Wasley BEM (1928 - 2014) - ACS Hall of FAME 2013

Image: Les Wasley working from HMAS Melbourne in 1961, using a French 35mm Eclair Caméflex, also a favourite of the French New Wave for its hand-held flexibility.

Les Wasley BEM

Les the age of 16 after leaving school he secured a job at Cinesound Studios at Bondi Junction in the film-examining department.

Les developed a passion for all aspects of film production but when war broke out in Korea in 1952 he volunteered for the Special Services branch of the Australian Army.

At the end of the war he returned to Cinesound and when the company was awarded the contract to produce the Channel Nine news broadcast he regularly began shooting news stories.

Les joined Movietone News in 1960 where he also wrote commentary for the news he filmed and in 1964 he filmed a documentary of Sir Donald Campbell's world land speed record attempt in a jet-propelled car at Lake Eyre.

In 1966 he joined the ABC-TV camera department where he shot both documentary and news items.

Les covered conflicts in Belfast, Lebanon and Vietnam and was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1960 for allowing a team of doctors at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital to stop his breathing in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of artificial respiration.

Les Wasley BEM was inducted into the Australian Cinematographers Society Hall of Fame in 2013.

'I can remember when the great fires were on in the Blue Mountains in the late 1950s, standing where the flames were leaving the railway line and ash falling … Here we were covering a bush fire in shirts and ties – this is how we dressed because we were professionals.’

That was Les Wasley, as recorded in Martha Ansara’s The Shadowcatchers: A History of Cinematography.

He died at the age of 86 in a house fire, along with his daughter Lindy, who saved her mother and then tried to rescue him. It was a terrible end for a man capable of lifelong friendship, who was part of the evolution of television news and carried his own dark shadows of war.

Les Walsey started work at Cinesound at the age of 16, around the end of World War Two. In 1948, he met a young Ron Windon, whose father was chief electrician at Cinesound. At the time, the company was discovering that any dreams of re-entering feature production were doomed, as the British owner, J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors, had no interest in supporting a competitor to its own films in the Australian market. But Cinesound had survived with a complex services structure which was a fine training ground for young recruits. As Windon explained, 'Les was there working part time in the camera department, part time in sound, and part time in editing.

It was the genesis of his skills as a cinematographer, which became legendary. Said Windon, 'His editorial experience had a lot to do with it. We had no journalists. The cameraman or cinematographer would get a phone call, about a fire or a flood or a building falling down and the editor in chief sent us out on our own. If you were lucky, you had and assistant, but that was all. We then wrote a dope sheet, and we would go back to Cinesound and write the commentary.

'Les was great because if a story was sixty seconds or ninety feet of film, most other cinematographers would go out and shoot a thousand feet for the editor to cut. Les would shoot two or three to one – he knew exactly in his mind how long a shot should be when he was rolling.'

Before television, cinema newsreels were the only way in which audiences could see the real-life dramas of the world, so shooting had the frenetic pace of genuine news carriers. Want to see the Melbourne Cup? By next morning it was in the newsreel cinemas and on the way to the suburban picture palaces, because the race had been shot the previous afternoon, rushed to the airport and hurtled into the processing bath at Cinesound that evening, to be edited, narrated and release-printed overnight.

In 1952, Les Wasley left Cinesound to volunteer for the Korean War. He joined to fight, rather than film. After his discharge, he returned to the company and the peaceful technology of 35mm.

By the time Windon arrived at Cinesound himself, television had taken the force out of newsreels, which had moved to more meditative pieces like fashion shows or the construction of the Boeing 727. Legendary director Ken. G Hall had left the company to make independent features, found success with Smithy, about Charles Kingsford Smith, but was thwarted at every turn until he moved to Channel Nine in 1956.

The impact of television reads like an early version of the current turmoil about new media and digital delivery. Cinesound took up a contract with Nine to supply its news coverage, which kept Wasley on the beat until he moved to Movietone around 1960, working with Syd Wood, on whom Newsfront was based. There he shot a film of Donald Campbell's successful campaign to take the world land speed record on Lake Eyre. You can see his storytelling skills and lovely tripod work in every frame (despite one messy jump cut).

In 1966, Wasley was brought over to the ABC by the legendary chief of the cine-camera department, Bert Nicholas, also a former cameraman with Cinesound.

Two years later, he met David Brill, transferred from Hobart to Sydney as a cameraman. 'I got to know Les pretty well, and he was wonderful to me, coming out of Hobart at that young age.

'There was no mucking around – he was just the ultimate professional which came from his early days at Cinesound on 35mm. Cinematographers were the superstars in those days. Les was an editor as well, a very good editor. He sort of edited in camera. He wouldn’t waste film – he knew exactly what he needed.'

Brill went off for extended periods of time to work for the ABC internationally, while Wasley was retained more firmly in Sydney. Over the years, he worked mostly for Four Corners and This Day Tonight, and covered conflicts from Northern Ireland to Lebanon.

By now, Ron Windon was running a commercial production company, and working with many others to develop the Australian Cinematographers' Society. David Brill worked with Wasley one more time, in one of the more desperate moments in the history of the news cinematographer's craft in Australia.

By 1975, Brill had been in and out of Vietnam for five years. Alan Hogan arrived with Les Wasley to cover the fall of Saigon for Four Corners, and they all ended up travelling together on a morning helicopter to Xuan-loc, which had been torn to pieces by heavy fighting. It was the last major city on the road to the Vietnamese capital and, according to Brill, 'we wanted to see how close the North Vietnamese Army was.'

While Brill was shooting his own footage for ABC News, he became an awed spectator of Les Wasley at work. The defences collapsed before their very eyes, and they joined the lines of running fugitives desperate to make the last helicopter.

'Les was a very intelligent man,' he said, 'and you can see it in the way he filmed. It was all going on in his head. The way he filmed that story was one of the best docs I have ever see in war, including Damien Parer and Neil Davis'.

Here it is, all shot in a much looser style, randomly posted to Youtube, with pictures so crappy it is almost hallucinatory. But it doesn't matter..

We think of a life in terms of its public high points, and for a documentarian that is inextricably tied up with the events that swirl around the camera.

But Les Wasley carried on with his ordinary life, and married, and had two children and nested in his house until he retired from the ABC around twenty years ago. He admitted to Brill that the Korean War had 'knocked him around a bit.'

'He told me that it made him quite a nervous person. He would be a little bit fragile. He couldn’t tolerate fools very easily, or people being rude to him, etc.'

Ron Windon remained close to him right up until the end, and rang him just two weeks ago.

'What did he do after he retired? Nothing. He had a small yacht, a 23 foot Bluebird yacht on a mooring at Bayview and he used to sail that occasionally,' he said.

'Les spent the last ten years virtually bedridden – he had a heart problem. He also suffered with depression as a result of his years in the Korean War, and then covering the Vietnam War, he always kept the pictures of the dead and mutilated bodies in his mind.'

There is an interview with Les Wasley and Alan Hogan on the Australian War Memorial site, part of the material shot by David Bradbury in 1976 for Frontline.

David Tiley
Editor Screen Hub

Footnote:

Ken G. Hall, the film Smithy or Pacific Adventure as it was renamed by the Americans. The film was made by KG while he was still CEO of Cinesound - he was not freelance. KG left Cinesound in 1956 just prior to television being broadcast in September of that year. Can't remember the exact date he left to join Ch9.

Ron Windon ACS
ACS Historian

 

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