From when he was a child, Jack Cardiff was involved in entertainment. His parents were vaudevillian performers and as a child, Cardiff appeared in silent films in the early years of film making. By the time he was a teenager, he was a fourth assistant director on "The Informer" (1929). From there, he steadily worked his way to being a camera operator which is considered the first British film that used Technicolor, "Wings of the Morning" (1937).
Early in his career, one of the lessons Cardiff remembered was this:
"There are several aspects of lighting. There's a broad sweep that's sort of impressionistic and reasonably realistic, but some of our British cameramen, and the French cameramen, too, were sort of 'itty-bitty'. George Perinal was considered one of the best cinematographers at the time, but he used dozens of lights-- a little bit here, a little bit there-- and it didn't look natural. A big director who had been a cameraman came over from America to do a screen test, and when this director came on set, he said: 'Are you ready, Peri? Peri said, 'Yes.' Then the director said to the gaffer, 'Kill that one, kill that one...' and he killed about 10 lights. Watching that was a lesson to me: Simplicity."
When he emerged as a cinematographer, Cardiff's cinematography was both simple and dynamic. Who can forget the beautiful color and lighting he used for the finale of "The Red Shoes" (1946)? It is the film that Scorsese says inspired him to become a filmmaker because of the way he describes as Cardiff's lighting on Moira Shearer as "radiant." It is one of the iconic films Cardiff worked on for Powell-Pressburger, who were most commonly known as "The Archer" films. Although he did not win an individual Academy Award for his cinematography, a year following "The Red Shoes", Cardiff received his first Academy Award for "Black Narcissus" (1947). Where Cardiff worked with the mystery and fantasy of "The Red Shoes", the "Black Narcissus" was a psychological drama about a nun's convent who are isolated in the Himalayan valley.
In the 1950s, Cardiff worked with John Huston on "The African Queen" (1951). On how he photographed Humphrey Bogart, "Bogie didn't care much about the way he looked in front of a camera, but you had to watch his toupee. It had to be fitted properly, and the lights had to be placed so that they didn't show up the gauze upon which the fake hair was stuck." Cardiff also worked with Bogie and Ava Gardner on "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954).
By the 1960s, Cardiff retired but he was convinced by Kirk Douglas to return as cinematographer for Douglas' directorial debut, "Scalawag" (1973). In the early 1980s, Cardiff made two surprising career moves. He was responsible for the cinematography of two films that starred two of the biggest action heroes of all time - "Conan The Barbarian" (1982) and "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985). He brought distinction to the photography and lighting of those films that set them apart from other films in the action genre.
It took almost twenty years in production, but in 2010 a documentary was released of Cardiff's life and work titled, "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff." It features interviews with the directors that he influenced with his work including Scorsese and the people he worked with in the industry. Cardiff is also featured talking about his work and his process. It was released one year after Cardiff's passing and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival as a part of their "Cannes Classics."