Monday, June 17, 2013

Richard Wolff on Cinematography, Photography and Art

Richard Keith Wolff has worked in the camera department on many animated commercials, feature films and TV series, including The Wind in The Willows, Heavy Metal, The Iron Giant and many episodes of Futurama, as well as working on independent films. He also works as a freelance photographer, photographing a wide variety of subjects. FLIP asked him to talk about his work.

FLIP: You worked for many years in the animation industry and now work as a photographer. When did you start in animation and what inspired you to work in the industry?

RKW: When I completed my diploma course at the London Film School 1970, I worked initially as a freelance assistant camera operator on live action documentaries. Later I saw that Halas & Bachelor Animation Studios were crewing up for people to train and work in their rostrum camera department. The way I looked at it was this: that animation is the marriage between art and film, and these were my favourite subjects. Later I started my own rostrum camera studio.

John Halas by Richard Keith Wolff
FLIP: What made you switch to working as a photographer - what made you make such a big change?

RKW: I did not really regard it as a big change because as a rostrum cameraman I always regarded myself primarily as a photographer. The only difference is that on an animated film project I am filming artwork with drawn characters, rather than photographing real people and the world outside the window.
Image by Richard Keith Wolff
FLIP: When did you start doing stills photography?

RKW: My stills photography work began before I became involved with animation. At Film School they had darkrooms for still photography, which I made extensive use of. While I was a film student I would also moonlight as a freelance photographer, often photographing musicians.

John Lennon by Richard Keith Wolff
FLIP: When did you leave the animation business?

RKW: After working in Los Angeles for a number of years I returned to London in 2000, where I continued to work in animation for about three more years. Gradually though I crossed over to stills photography. My feeling about animation is that it is a bit like being in a cult religion (maybe one without deities), but one with some fun people.

Bryce Canyon by Richard Keith Wolff

FLIP: What motivated you creatively in your work as a stills photographer?

RKW: I was doing some work for a musician/celebrity photo agency called Retna Pictures, because I admired the work of the photographer who started the company - Michael Putland. (The photo agency has since been split up and sold on). I knew what a musician was but I wanted to pose the question - what is a celebrity? It seemed to me that the people that most interested me were not the ones getting much attention.

Tracey Emin in front of Peter Blake's painting: Marcel Duchamps plays Chess with Tracey Emin
RKW: I find myself drawn to artists, the art scene and, in the widest possible sense of the word: "art". For example that might include animation, film, performance, music, and authors.

However, before you can have art there needs to be a minimum level of civilisation, of peace. We are a country at war, and we have been at war for some years. Moreover we are apparently committed to maintaining these wars and even starting new ones. It is not reasonable to ignore this level of violence which has replaced diplomacy.
Brian Haw, long term war protestor
Flip: How does your anti-war position relate to photography?

RKW: My position might be more correctly described as: anti-crimes against humanity, but anti-war is maybe close enough. It can have a pertinence in photojournalism, because you can cover the peace campaigns, for example. Also a voice could be given to the victims of war. The real battle is for the narrative.

Moazzam Begg, former Guantanamo detainee. Portrait by Richard Keith Wolff
FLIP: Who is your favourite photographer and why?

RKW: I do not like to commit to one favourite photographer because my taste is evolving. But perhaps one favourite that I would like to suggest is Man Ray. Man Ray regarded himself primarily as a painter and an artist, which he undoubtedly was. However I think as a photographer he was, in a sense, in his own mind at least, slumming it. Man Ray has said that photography is not art.  But at the same time he contradicts himself by proving the opposite in his own photography. 

FLIP: What type of photography inspires you most?

Optical Jazz Image by Richard Keith Wolff
RKW: Abstract photography. Because it is purely visual almost narrative free, and enigmatic. Which does not mean that I do not enjoy the narrative story-telling of film. It is possible to be enchanted by more than one thing.
Image by Richard Keith Wolff
(Editor's Note: For more on cinematography, see our interview with Cinematographer Barry Grossand read about the debate over 24fps vs 48fps, here.)


  1. What a great interview! Very insigntful questions, and amazing answers. Well done, chaps. Richard, I'm blown away by your work!

    1. Hi Stephan,
      I am very pleased by your encouraging response to the interview. If you would like to see more work, some my work can be viewed on:

  2. Incredible images that are so diverse and great interview. I am very impressed!

  3. Fascinating interview - great last sentence 'it is possible to be enchanted by more than one thing.' Impressed by all the images included especially 'optical jazz'.

    1. It really interests me that people like 'optical jazz' I have got quite a lot of feedback on this image. You can can find some more images from the Optical Jazz series on my website in one of the web galleries that is titled "Illustrated Music". If interested please see:
      Also if you have a chance to look around the website I hope you will see that indeed I am enchanted by more than one thing

  4. It is always inspiring when someone makes you pause and look at the world slightly differently. This interview has done that. I will look out for your work.

    1. Thanks for your kind words about my work, if you would like to see more images please look at:

  5. Very nice interview!! I had the great pleasure of having Richard shoot some of my animation work in Soho in the 80's and 90's.
    Always super professional and humble.
    Nice one FLIP
    Philip Vallentin
    Espresso Animation