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Alec Mills (1932-2024)

20th February 2024

British cameraman and director of photography, Alec Mills, has died aged 91

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Matthew Field looks back on the life of British cameraman and director of photography, Alec Mills, veteran of seven James Bond movies, who has died at the age of 91.

Alec Mills certainly played down his talents when he once said, “On location, God lights the scene. I just help by filling the shadows.” In a career which spanned more than 50 years, Mills chose to remain in England and never chased a career in Hollywood. Instead, he carved a profession on his home turf which Bond director John Glen said, earned him the reputation as one of the British film industry’s finest cameramen.   

Born in west London on 10 May 1932 his love of film came at an early age watching Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton silent films in the local church hall. It was his mother, Lil, who encouraged him to enter the industry and without telling Alec, arranged an interview for him at Carlton Hill Film Studios in Maida Vale, “It is interesting - if not downright strange - that, with my love of the cinema, it had never occurred to me to be part of it.” In 1946 at the age of 14, Mills began his career as a tea boy and was quickly promoted to clapper loader and focus puller. Mills enjoyed a steady career throughout the 50s and early 60s working on films for stalwarts such as Guy Green, Joseph Losey, Ken Annakin, J Lee Thompson, and future Bond directors Lewis Gilbert and Val Guest.

By the mid-1960s Mills had advanced to camera operator and made his debut shooting Roger Moore’s hit TV series, ‘The Saint’. His introduction to the James Bond family came via Albert R. Broccoli’s ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (1968), working on the second unit directed by Peter Hunt, shooting the title sequence of vintage race cars competing in the Grand Prix races of 1906 to 1909. Cinematographer Michael Reed recalled, “Peter [Hunt] wanted Alec to operate the camera awkwardly; he wanted it jerky with the camera panning left and right sometimes missing the cars and then catching up with them as though the operator is trying his best, to keep the cars in frame. I’m afraid this thoroughly upset and depressed Alec because he thought he would be accused of being a bad operator when the film was released in cinemas. The following morning when he arrived at the studio, he was so annoyed, at having to operate the camera so badly the previous day, that he refused to watch the rushes with me. When the film had its premiere, and the film critics reviewed the film they mentioned how the opening sequence of the film looked so authentic.”

This successful collaboration led Peter Hunt to use his Chitty camera crew for his directorial debut 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. One memorable moment for Mills was dangling beneath the cable car on set at Pinewood Studios as George Lazenby made his daring escape from the wheelhouse atop Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress, Piz Gloria, “When winched towards the giant cog wheels at 15mph I needed to be confident that the cable car would stop at exactly the right time and place.”

Mills other notable credits during this period include Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ (1966) Brian G Hutton’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968) and Roman Polanski’s ‘Tragedy of Macbeth (1971). He worked with Peter Hunt on the Roger Moore pictures, ‘Gold’ (1974) and ‘Shout at the Devil’ (1976) and with Lewis Gilbert on ‘Operation Daybreak’ (1975) and ‘Seven Nights in Japan’ (1976).

Mills’ next Bond was 'The Spy Who Loved Me'. While the movie took him to Egypt and Sardinia it was a moment on board a nuclear submarine at Faslane Naval Base in Scotland that remained most memorable, “Lewis [Gilbert] suddenly came up with the idea of filming head-on, a torpedo being loaded into the tube. To meet with the director’s wishes I would be required to ease myself backwards into the heavily greased confines of the tube pulling my handheld camera with accessories along with me. In the receding background Lewis and Roger were grinning, their echoing voices in the chamber asking, ‘Can you swim Alec?’ Roger was pointing his finger indicating that he was close to the firing button. This was no time for accidents or one of Roger’s practical jokes. In the black, claustrophobic silence with the nose of the torpedo only inches from the lens, I finally yelled ‘CUT! I can’t swim!”

When EON lost their cinematographer Claude Renoir during the pre-production of 'Moonraker' it was Mills who first suggested Frenchman Jean Tournier as a replacement having first worked with many years before on ‘Allez France’. When John Glen took the helm of 'For Your Eyes Only', he personally requested the services of Mills to operate for Alan Hume. After location work in Rio, Paris, and Venice on ‘Moonraker’, the twelfth official EON Bond began filming in the less glamorous English fishing port of Grimsby shooting establishing shorts of the British spy trawler, St Georges, “The director’s choice was for the camera to sit more or less on the surface, suggesting a periscope viewpoint. With my past experience of filming in the North Sea I was not sure this would work, knowing all too well that salt water and handheld cameras just do not mix. Even so, what we managed to achieve in the constant swell was not as bad as I had feared – also considering that I cannot swim.”

Following Hume’s successful work on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ his team joined the George Lucas’ production, ‘Return of the Jedi’ (1983) - the third instalment in the Star Wars saga. However, it was an experience that Mills recounted in his autobiography with bitterness and resentment. 

By 1982 Mills had begun to carve a career of his own in British television as a Director of Photography. He saw further gigs as an operator a backwards step. When John Glen offered him 'Octopussy' Mills was initially reluctant, “’Alec, do this for me and I promise you will not regret it.’” Mills relented. “Octopussy would bring back many wonderful memories of my youth, as a devoted fan of the Hotspur comic. There again I also enjoyed W.E John’s Biggles series, with his far-flung colonial adventures – a childhood hero. Now, under John Glen’s baton, ‘Octopussy’ would recreate all those wonderful memories.” One of his fondest recollections was operating his trusty handheld Arri 11C hurtling through the streets of Udaipur in the back of a Tuk-Tuk.

When the call came for 'A View To A Kill' Mills this time stood his ground and declined a further Bond as camera operator. In 1986, true to his word, John Glen offered Mills the opportunity he had been waiting for on Timothy Dalton’s 007 debut, 'The Living Daylights'. He recounted to American Cinematographer, “I was working in the States at the time on a film called King Kong Lives for [Dino] De Laurentis when the call came. They said there was a chance I would get the Bond film. I thought that was the biggest joke of the year! You don’t expect to get the Bond until you’ve been lighting for about 10 or 15 years. Alan Hume, my predecessor, couldn’t do it. He was committed to another film. So, it happened, and I can’t tell you — it’s one of the big highlights. The only other highlight would be to win an Oscar.”

Location work in Vienna and the Afghanistan set scenes shot in Morocco showed off Mills’ most creative work. In the Austrian capital the unit shot in the famed Prater Park, seen in Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ (1949), “[John Glen] did say in the beginning when we were discussing the look for the film that he wanted to keep it a little Third Man which is not easy to do because it was black-and-white. We shot in the park at magic hour and of course magic hour lasts about five minutes, then it’s totally night. We couldn’t really light the entire park — although there was quite a bit of light there already — so we just did as many shots as we could and did the rest at Pinewood. In the studio, I tried to warm up the backing a little at the bottom and keep the sky a bit blue to continue that feel of magic hour.” Bond and Kara escape the Russian airbase on horseback at dawn the sun rising over the dusty Khyber Pass. “It was a chocolate-box shot - the sort of thing you do in a commercial. I was very pleased, and it looked very good.”

During the making of ‘The Living Daylights’ Glen recalled one precarious moment, “We were filming quite near to a taxing C-130 when I noticed a panicked expression on the pilot’s face. I looked down to see that the huge propellors were spinning dangerously close to Alec’s head. Alec was blissfully unaware of their proximity, so I quickly dragged him to the ground as the plane rumbled on.”

Mills stressed working at Churubusco Studios in Mexico rather than the comforts of Pinewood Studios on 'Licence To Kill' came with extreme challenges. One of his greatest achievements, on what would be his final James Bond film, was lighting Villa Arabesque in Acapulco, the magnificent white marble home of the Baron de Portinova, “The great compliment was the Baroness who owns the home has been trying to get that same golden tone in her own lighting of the room and she can't get it.”

During the making of ‘Licence To Kill’ Mills revealed a little about his approach to 007, “There is nothing moody or classical about Bond. I liken a Bond film to a Boy’s Own magazine and try to keep the image clean. Everything has to look crisp and precise with a clear, sharp look.” Mills later emphasised to Bond historian John Cork that he thought Bond movies should not look “pretty.” He had a reputation for maintaining a calm and cool camera department but admitted on the first day of shooting, “Inside me, there’s a ball of fire. There is always something new, in each film, especially on the Bonds; consequently, you always have butterflies.”

Post-Bond, Mills continued to work with John Glen, collaborating on a further three films, the last, ‘The Point Men’ (2001), would mark the career swansong for both men. Mills helped launch the Guild of British Technicians in 1978 and served on the board of governors of the British Society of Cinematographers from 1998-2009. Roger Moore wrote in the Foreword to Mills’ 2014 memoir, Shooting 007, “The one thing I enjoyed most about the Bond films was coming together with a family to make the movies, and Alec was a long-standing member of that family. Well, not long-standing in the vertical sense as he isn’t that tall, as the box he often stood on to help him reach his camera viewfinder will testify. But in terms of talent and personality, Alec is a big man.”

Looking back on his career Mills reflected, “If I had three names that I could say I owe for my trade they would be these: Harry Waxman — the most technically proficient cameraman we had in England at the time; Michael Reed, a real gentleman, who taught me how to handle people and get the best from them; and last, but not least, Alan Hume — my predecessor on Bond. The great thing about Alan was his enthusiasm.” Mills once said of his contribution to the Bond canon, “It must be said that my twenty years of working for Cubby Broccoli and his delightful family was one of the happiest professional experiences of my filming career – genuine professional people who I came to respect.”

Alec Mills had been battling dementia for several years and had been living in a care home in Denham, Buckinghamshire for the last eighteen months of his life. He passed away on 12 February 2024. He is survived by his wife Suzy, daughter Belinda and son, Simon, who joined Alec on his latter Bond movies and has become a successful camera technician in his own right.

About The Author
Matthew Field is the co-author of Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. He is a regular contributor to both MI6 Confidential and Cinema Retro. He currently serves on the board of directors of The Ian Fleming Foundation.

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