In this episode, my guest is Chris McGuire – one of the top camera operators working today in Hollywood.
And he happens to be from Manchester.
Here, Chris shares stories from the very beginnings of his career working with corporate video in Manchester to finding himself on the set of Harry Potter filming Lord Voldemort’s big entrance.
Today he lives in Atlanta, GA and is one of the most sought-after camera operators in the business.
Get ready for some serious A-list name dropping!
-LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION HERE-
➤ I love that you still have your Manc accent!
Well to be honest with you, put me put me in a room with an Englishman I’m gonna go back to the old ways.
➤ Oh wait so, does that mean when you’re in LA you don’t sound like this?
Well not really, I mean I have to change certain things to be [American]isms because otherwise Americans don’t understand me which is really annoying. You know, things like water you know they if I don’t say [American accent] water, they don’t understand what I’m saying. It’s nuts!
➤ I’m surprised because — water — you’re not even doing the missing out the ‘t.’ You’re not even saying like ‘wo’er’.
Mate, tell me about it. I mean sometimes I’ve had people say the most ridiculous obtuse things back at me. [Impersonating] ‘Do you want a raspberry juice?’ ‘No a water! A water please!’
➤ Okay, I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say when it comes to steadicam there’s only one name; there’s only you. You’re literally a living legend — especially in the UK and I think now in Hollywood as well. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
Well I mean you know, once you’re into the kind of, hall of fame per se, you know, you’re in that premier league of operators — I mean there’s still the greats out there that I really look up to like Chris Haarhoff and Scott Sakamoto and Colin Anderson and Steve Campanelli, you know these are all guys that I really was in awe of. And the nice thing is, now — I like to think I’m in the club with these guys — they’ll take time to talk to me and they know me and that’s pretty incredible, to come from where I come from and then be welcomed into a group of professionals. Each and every one of them are incredibly modest and humble and you realise just how lucky you are to be to be a part of that.
I still have to step away from myself and go, ‘You’ve done well son!’ you know what I mean? ‘You’ve achieved something that you wanted to and you just kept tapping away.’
➤ When did you first pick up a camera? Were you one of those kids whose dad had a VHS camera? What was your first contact with this?
My old man was a P.E teacher at St Ambrose in Hale Barns and he did cross country. So he had little cross-country teams with the lads. My dad managed to get hold of a SL-F1 Betamax and he’d have this portable recorder strapped to him and the actual camera, the tube camera and he’d be running around the cross country course filming his teams running. And then he’d put little videos together and give them to the parents.
➤ That’s ahead of his time!
Oh this would have been early 80s, yeah absolutely.
➤ No P.E teacher back then was doing that!
No, I mean he had a real passion for it and he had a passion for movies too and I guess that was where it all comes from for me.
➤ And do you remember your first ever job in the industry? First ever job getting paid to press record on a camera?
Well, I started off as a teleprompter for Autocue. I worked in a bar – an American bar. It was one of the first American themed bars that they set up and there was one in Poynton and I trained to be a cocktail bartender when I was like 18. But then a guy that was coming in, he’d come in early doors, a guy called James cooper, he ran Autocue North and because we had conversations and you know blah blah blah.. and one day he just said, ‘Why don’t you come out with me [on a shoot]?’
I went out with him and the first ever job that I was involved with was like a spoof campaign commercial with Screaming Lord Sutch — this interview with him and this John Major look alike!
I mean it was one of the longest days man. I mean the first taste of the industry wasn’t a nice short day. I think it ended up being a really long day and that was it right from day one. It was, ‘Well, if you want to be in this…’
➤ This is how it’s going to be!
‘This is the reality of working in this field. You’re not gonna know what time you’re gonna finish.’
➤ Yep. So you did autocue.
Yeah, I stuck with James doing autocue. I ended up doing stuff at the BBC. In fact, I always remember — I forget which show it was — but I always remember it was one of my first jobs on my own that he sent me out on, I remember it was on a Pedestal camera and basically I was trembling because I was going to have to touch the camera.
➤ I know that feeling. Big moment!
This was like, ‘Wow!’ This was the big boys’ world now, you know what I mean? And I was scared to hell I was going to drop the camera or do something wrong or whatever. And I got through it and asked for a bit of help and put the teleprompter on there and you know got the job done.
And ever since then it was different kind of jobs, doing studio stuff, doing corporate stuff and then as I progressed, obviously meeting people, I ended up managing to get an assistant job with Mike Turnbull with Walker Turnbull Television. And then basically, that was it then. I started assisting Mike and Russell and saw many many different things.
The one thing that really attracted me to the motion picture was the way the camera moves. So I eventually stumbled across Steadicam, you know obviously the go-to is always ‘Rocky.’ And I decided to explore that avenue and basically went and bought my first rig. It was a SK2 from — was it Tiffen at the time? — but it was a guy called Robin Thwaites who sold me my first rig.
It was only a lightweight rig and could only really take camcorders which is what I was using at the time anyway for the TV stuff, so I figured that if I got my own rig, I could train myself and use the cameras that I already had on the jobs that I was already doing but basically offer them the Steadicam to get a different look. So that’s basically how I got time in the rig and got paid for it and trained myself.
➤ History was made!
And then eventually I got to meet Howard [Smith – at MK-V] through buying that rig and and he really had some interesting ideas about making modular systems.
➤ Yeah that was groundbreaking.
Yeah, I do feel that he was pretty instrumental in that. So I got with him and obviously he was doing big movies. He was doing like ‘The Saint,’ and ‘Entrapment’ and all those things which was for me, I was in awe with. So I was hoping that maybe knocking about with him a little bit I might get a sniff of any scraps of stuff, like you do. I mean that’s how these things work, you know.
➤ And that’s how it’s supposed to work!
Well absolutely and Howard was very gracious with his time and taught me things, all incredibly useful. And the whole modularity developed into, ‘Well why couldn’t you have a situation where if you flip the rig upside down –’, the camera would just flip within a roll cage, so that you could do a quick low mode switch. So he did that with the roll cage and then he basically said, ‘Well why don’t I put motors on it and why can’t I keep it level?’ So that opened up a whole new thing.
And then basically, we would go around demoing the MK-V AR to anybody that was interested and that included the guys that he knew already on Harry Potter so we went and did demos for them on ‘Chamber of Secrets’ I think it was and then eventually we got the call for ‘Order of the Phoenix,’ to go in and do some AR stuff.
And cut a long story short, I ended up doing my first ever motion picture on the stage at Leavesden in the Ministry of Magic. I was doing the big 360 around Harry and Bellatrix and it’s when Voldemort appears to them in ‘Order of the Phoenix.’
So that was my first big movie. And then basically I was on such a buzz from that, it was like, ‘Right, this is it! I’ve got my foot in the door. I’ve done it. I’ve proved I could do it. Now it’s up to me where I want to go with this.’
➤ I love it!
And then basically we got call backs. I went back and did more on Harry Potter and as we were doing that the gear was getting taken more seriously, doing more demos for people and being invited to to do stuff. We did the big trade shows in Los angeles and Las Vegas.
With that, I ended up meeting Christy who’s my wife now here and then basically I started spending more time in the States. I would bring my gear over with me and see if we could set up demos for people.
There was one story that I kind of regret, to a certain extent but then knowing more about the guy I’m glad I didn’t go and do it: I was invited to go and demo on ‘Transformers 2.’
➤ Michael Bay!
Yeah and I was so annoyed because I’d been hanging around all day in Los Angeles and my wife was living north of L.A and it was a good hour and a half, two-hour drive if you were going to be stuck in traffic.
So I’d left L.A before the traffic started and then I get this call from Peter Devlin who was the sound recordist on it and he said, ‘Michael really wants to see the rig,’ and I was like, ‘[groan]’ and I’d just got home, back to my wife’s place and I was actually leaving. I had to leave early next morning to come back to England so I was just like, ‘You know what? I really can’t make it.’
I always wonder how I feel about that. I’m actually kind of glad that it didn’t happen.
➤ Interesting! To be fair, whenever I see Transformers, I’m not just saying this, I do think of you because he moves the camera a lot and there’s so much 360 steadicam. Have you ever worked with Michael Bay?
Well it leads me nicely into — I did ‘Bad Boys For Life’ and there’s a scene in where Michael Bay is the compère at the wedding. And so I do this big 360 with Michael Bay…
➤ ..but he’s not directing it.
He’s not directing it. Actually I had to direct him and we had to figure out our timings as I was doing this big 360 around him so it’s kind of funny how that came around to that situation.
➤ So when did the thought of moving to America permanently come up?
Honestly I’d kind of gotten a bit tired of England, really. I think I always had a pining to be in America. Americana had always interested me.
➤ I love that you say that because not many Brits admit that.
Yeah, I do admit it and you know as a British person wanting to do all those things as a kid like play basketball outside, to jet skiing, to fishing when you wanted to fish — you didn’t have to buy into being a full-time fisherman, you know what I mean? You look at the guys that fish [in the UK] they’re tooled up and they’re doing overnights. And well, I just want to do a bit of fishing you know? Everything like that, especially the outdoor things, I always felt in America that kind of stuff was just taken for granted, it was just easy.
I’d been coming to the States before then to do different shows, you know. I did a Bee Gees documentary and we were over here in Miami and L.A. I did an Elton John thing, that was the first time I was in Atlanta which is where I reside now.
In fact, one of the best shows I ever did was this thing called ‘Moments in History’ for ITV. And basically it was one of the first jobs I did with my little lightweight Steadicam. We’d take famous photographs like, for example, the little girl covered in napalm running from the Vietnamese village. We went to Chicago to film that girl that was obviously now a woman and we filmed her meeting the guy that didn’t didn’t take the photograph but he was the sound recordist who was trying to help her. They’d never seen each other ever since then. And we did this little meeting and filming that was just incredible.
We also went to Little Rock where the black girl was walking into the school and was being spat upon by all the white kids because you know she was the first — they were integrating. And we filmed the the two people in the photograph: the black girl and the the white girl who’s essentially pretty much spitting on her. We went to the school, the exact place that the photograph was taken and we filmed those two meeting each other again.
Incredible. So America – I’d always been very keen to get to America and I’ve been very lucky in that while I was doing all the documentaries and stuff, the holiday shows, I got to see a lot of America. So that was really great. So then coming to L.A and meeting my girlfriend and now the mother of my children, my wife — everything just seemed to fit into place. And the career was a part of that. I was lucky that it was a career where I was going to be able to jump continents easily.
Yeah so that all worked out good and then I ended up going back and forth from L.A to England trying to do jobs, trying to keep busy because obviously being the new boy on the block you know you’ve got to keep tapping away. And the good thing was because I had equipment that nobody else had, I became a little bit of the guy in Hollywood.
Yeah so I ended up getting a lot of commercials. The first movie I did in L.A was ‘Iron Man 2’.
➤ Yes I’ve seen that famous picture of you with Iron Man and War Machine – I don’t know if the main guys were in there or the stunt guys.
No, it was the stunt guys. Yeah, I ended up doing second unit and then I did main unit with Scarlett Johansson in the corridor. This is all with the AR. And yeah, basically that was it.
Then I started doing stuff abroad for American DP’s and I was very lucky that Julio Macat asked me to do a movie very early on in Bulgaria with Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas called The Code and basically he helped me get into the union over here. So he grandfathered me in and I became part of the union and I applied for green card. Everything was legit and then I applied for citizenship probably about four years ago now, so I’ve been a citizen for four years.
➤ Nice. Congrats!
Do you feel in Hollywood — how do they view Brits? Is there an advantage to being a Brit in Hollywood?