By Kirsty Hazlewood, Digital Editor
An industry veteran of some 40 years, Alan Piper began his career at The BBC’s Ealing Studios, moving on to ARRI in the early ‘80s, followed by Cine Europe (later becoming Panavison), and culminating in not one, but two stints at RED Digital Cinema, where he latterly served as managing director before retiring at the end of February 2023.
Cinematography World had the pleasure of catching up with Alan about his illustrious career and the changes he has seen over the last four decades working in the film and television industry.
After leaving school, Alan started out as an engineering apprentice, carrying out fine engineering work, but also nurturing a keen interest in photography. After spotting a tiny advert in The Evening Standard for a camera engineer at the BBC, Alan applied and secured the position, beginning his foray into the broadcasting world at the organisation’s renowned Ealing Studios.
When Alan joined the BBC in 1979, there were 60 TV film crews working out of Ealing, filming dramas, documentaries and news programmes using 16mm film which was the primary format at the time. It was there that Alan crossed paths with camera crew including Chris Seager, Mike Southon, Nigel Walters, John Daly, and Paul Wheeler, who went on to become BSC accredited cinematographers.
Alan’s main role at the BBC was repairing the cameras that with so much use, needed much maintenance, under the wing of his boss at the time, Alan Wiles.
“Alan ran the camera workshop in Ealing. He was a real friend and became a mentor. I didn’t think I’d ever leave because it was such a fun place, every day was an absolute ball.”
After three years at the BBC, Alan was encouraged by his mentor Alan Wiles to apply for a position with a new facility that ARRI were establishing in the UK. Already familiar with ARRI through previous visits to their Munich factory as part of his training, and by then a new father, Alan was enticed by the 50% pay hike that the position offered;
“Really, I would’ve been mad not to go for it and I made the decision to leave the BBC. However, working with the camera operators and the camera crew there really was a lot of fun with so much innovation going on. As a licence fee funded organisation, the BBC couldn’t go out and just buy stuff so they made a lot of things themselves. They had a department called ‘special facilities’ where they would basically bolt a camera onto anything from a jet fighter to a hot air balloon, to a crocodile!”
Hence in 1983 Alan joined ARRI’s UK office at Heston, just outside London as one of the original members of staff. Alongside another camera engineer from the BBC, Alan set up the service department of ARRI GB under managing director Derrick Ross.
In the ten years that followed, Alan went from setting up the service department to running the camera business, becoming head of technical and sales, and witnessing major changes over that time period.
“ARRI grew considerably during the time I was there, it purchased two rental companies. a lighting rental company called Bell Lighting, (which was started by Barry Bell and Tommy Moran – both also from BBC Ealing), then another a camera rental company called Media Developments. And really that was the start of ARRI Rental.
After a decade at ARRI, Alan departed and and joined one of his biggest customers, Cine Europe, as its technical director. At that time, Cine Europe was part of the Samuelson’s Group, which was then acquired by Panavision in 1997. Alan remained at Cine Europe until 2008, although in his last three years he served as operations director at Panavision subsidiary Lee Lighting.
Moving on from Panavision, there was a little known company around the corner trying to get started in the UK called RED Europe. incorporated in August 2008, an office was set up at Pinewood Studios that November for sales, service and repair.
When founder Jim Jannard started RED, he was making a camera at around 10% of the cost of its nearest competitor, that everybody had said wouldn’t work. With cine cameras priced around a quarter of a million dollars at the time, the 4k digital RED One was marketed at just $25,000. In addition, Jannard pledged that the camera would not be superseded by any other product, or if it was, he would keep existing customers cameras up-to-date. So, as soon as the original cameras were sold, if Jannard had revised products, he recalled the original cameras and had them all updated at his cost.
“All we were doing at that time was sending out invites, if you like, to all the customers in Europe who’d bought a RED One, and we were sending out FedEx return labels and getting the cameras in, updating them and shipping them all back.”
Alan recalls that for probably the first year of business, updating RED cameras was his sole focus, with the business moving into full blown European sales mode the following year, and culminating in 30 staff employed in a distribution warehouse.
RED quickly became a favourite among directors and cinematographers, including Steven Soderbergh, one of the earliest to use a RED camera when he shot both instalments of Che in 2008, David Fincher with The Social Network (DP Jeff Cronenweth) in 2009, and Peter Jackson using it to shoot The Hobbit in 2011.
More recently Mank (DP Eric Messerschmidt ASC), which won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design, was shot on a specially made RED Ranger Helium Monochrome black and white camera.
“RED was a disruptor and it still is,” says Alan “There was no other product at that price point that could get the quality of a digital stills camera into motion pictures, which was Jim’s original dream. It went a long way to democratising filmmakers.”
However, all changed in 2017, with a change of management deciding to reduce the service side of RED Europe, closing down the distribution warehouse and ultimately cutting the footprint at the Pinewood location in half.
With his skills redundant, Alan departed RED and spent two years with Take Two, before, in 2019 a further change of management occurred, previous decisions were reconsidered and Alan was lured back;
“I enjoyed my time with Take Two, but RED Europe was my baby. Leaving the way that I left wasn’t very nice, but returning was an opportunity to get things back on track, albeit a very different animal than it was.”
Returning to RED the second time, just before the Covid pandemic, meant that Alan witnessed first-hand the shape of the business changing entirely, with staff working from home and the new Gresse Street office mothballed for two years.
“I was pretty nervous, because I can be a bit skeptical of these things, but what transpired was that people did a very good job working from home. it was two years before we really started coming back to normal business, and by then people were keen to get back together. The experience changed everybody, but certainly for the better.”
It also made Alan much more comfortable with the idea of retirement:
“Having people working from home taught me some things and taught them some things. But it worked very well. And it has made it easier for me to step away.”
With an excellent team now back in place, and RED running smoothly, Alan now feels the time is right to pass the baton on, and let his team get on with business from their Fitzrovia headquarters.
“I think I’ve done as much as I can, like I said, there’s a good team of people there and it pretty much runs itself with the help of RED’s network of distributors and dealers.
In a career of some 40 years, Alan has many cherished memories but one really stands out;
“My favourite recollection of all, which has really stayed in my memory, was looking after Stanley Kubrick’s cameras during the shooting of Full Metal Jacket, which was filmed in the docklands area of London. That was a remarkable experience. Kubrick brought in half the Belgian army and their tanks to stand in for the American army and had palm trees planted in skips that he would move around to create the illusion of different locations. It was quite astonishing what he did. I was working with ARRI then and they supplied his camera kit, so every weekend would be a location trip to Beckton Gasworks fixing cameras.”
So now on to the next chapter for Alan, unless the industry draws him back in?
“I can resist everything but temptation,” concludes Alan, “Over but not out.”