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Remembering Robin Browne BSC

Apr 4, 2024

It is with huge sadness that I am letting you know of the passing of a very dear friend and utterly brilliant colleague, Robin Browne BSC (Honorary full member). We had an email from Robin’s wife Judy last Thursday 28th March that Robin had finally slipped away, with Judy and their children Debbie and Justin at his bedside in their Bloomfield Hills, Michigan home where they had lived since 1991.Robin had been bravely and resolutely fighting cancer for at least ten years with the help and guidance of wonderful doctors in both Huston and Detroit. Sadly though it took its toll and after a brief stay in hospital, he spent his final 10 days at home.                     

During that 10 years he made every effort to keep in touch with friends and colleagues in the UK and  even when exhausted, managed to come to London and meet up at Operators’ night and simultaneously celebrate his birthday.        

As chronicled in Phil Meheux and James Friend’s wonderful BSC book “Preserving the Vision”, Robin had a fantastic career as a camera assistant, sometimes working with the likes of aerial cameraman Johnny Jordan on projects including “The Battle of Britain” and “Catch 22” (during which tragically Johnny Jordan lost his life). He moved on up into operating and was soon working as a DP often leading specialist units in aerial and visual effects. ( “A Bridge too Far”,  “Gandhi” “The Sphinx”, and numerous Bond movies ). He was perfectly suited for these kinds of jobs as his personality and demeanour elicited incredible loyalty and professionalism from his crews. His calm polite and intelligent manner, immaculate planning ,  developement of new equipment and techniques  ( Astrovision pressurised camera system with Bob Netmann) and camera / projection stepping motor control units with Ron Bicker, plus engineering of Vistavision cameras and projection equipment with Roy Moores at Merton Park, were all due to his visionary thinking and tenacity. I was fortunate enough to be one of his assistants for the VFX units on “Time Bandits” “Watcher in the Woods” “The Keep” ,for a year on “Moonraker” and 18 months on “Krull”. Needless to say he taught me a lot! He also photographed many 2nd and splinter unit on films such as  “Passage to India”,”Jewel of the Nile” “Air America” and “Evil under the Sun” plus he helped plan and shoot many complex VFX commercials before the CGI days. 

In 1991 Robin chose to move to Detroit to be near Judy’s ageing parents and thus his career took a slightly different course . He worked on a number of American projects and did a considerable amount of work on car commercials with a Detroit company, but as tax incentives etc in Michigan were withdrawn work became more sporadic he spent a lot of time and energy developing scripts and projects relating to research about the ciphers hidden in the texts of William Shakespeare and co. Right up to the last months of his life he was still developing these projects, and hopefuly  one day they will reach the screen. 

Robin leaves his wonderful wife Judy and  children Debbie, a very talented photographer and mother of four , and Justin who is a successful Steadicam operator in L.A. And not forgetting Debbie’s husband ,Troy.  We send our deepest condolences to them all. May he rest in peace.  With much love,

Jamie Harcourt Assoc BSC

Robin Browne, DP and VFX wizard owned a truck load of wonderful cameras and everything needed to create magic – harnessing & bending light before computers took all the fun out of it. His career spanned both eras, analogue and digital, so they frame much of the following.

It was my good fortune to meet him in 1980 when I was the runner on ‘Time Bandits’ and it is entirely his fault I then ended-up in the camera department. That pre-digital age and photo-optical way of doing things remains just as relevant today because an analogue mind-set and in-camera techniques helped lay the foundations for the digital CGI world that followed and has informed all VFX ever since.

In my book, Robin was the font of all VFX knowledge. His unit always had its own stage – one that would be divided into different zones by huge black velvet drapes which made it possible to shoot three or four things at once. It was a perpetually dark space like a physics lab where he examined the stitching in reality to see how it could be unpicked and photographically re-assembled to suit the script.

One day on ‘The Keep’ [1982] we got three almost empty cans of rushes off to despatch before tea time. In total, maybe ten seconds worth of stop-frame. Then a final shot was scheduled that required everyone’s participation…

– up in the gantry, a Photo-Sonics 4E had been rigged to photograph a water effect. A masterpiece of engineering, at 360fps the 4E zips through a 1000′ in 45 ear-splitting seconds. The plan was to shoot, rewind the film & double expose it. Hands-up, working at high speed is addictive – it gives you a rush, so no one demurred when Robin then wanted to cane the same 1000′ load twice more. Ever the optimist, he’d based his exposure on three passes with latitude for a fourth. The only real question was how much stress the film & perfs could take?

When a film camera locks-up at 360 the result is pretty dramatic and it took an hour to hook out all the mangled stock. Unperturbed, Robin needed to be sure it wasn’t simply bad luck the film had snapped, so we started again with a fresh load…and exactly the same thing happened soon after the camera hit speed on the fourth pass. We had our answer – and since it was now well after midnight Robin decided he had enough intact footage of the element and it was time to retreat.

Working with him opened a door on every aspect of the photo-chemical process, not least the humble ‘dip test’ – a few frames of exposed neg one of us would develop in a small tank to check exposure. Each test always came out black like you’d screwed it up – but when you rubbed away the backing layer under a tap of running water, suddenly you were looking at what you’d shot only minutes before! One frame at a time, you never stopped learning.

These memories go back forty years, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed in the digital era and is still hard to achieve – if you make something look real which obviously isn’t real, there is a risk all you have is a clever VFX shot plus a chorus of “so what”. That rabbit hole and the context around each effects shot was always uppermost in Robin’s mind when he was working out the best way to film something.

‘Plus ça change’ – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The first movie I ever took my son to see was a Pixar CGI animated film called ‘Bugs Life’. It starts with a high, wide shot of a sun-kissed valley and cranes slowly down through trees and grass to the ground

…and right there at the end of the drop is an almost imperceptible crane bump someone smuggled in as joke. I was probably the only one in the cinema who noticed it, but I loved that fleeting moment, and way back in 1998 it seemed like the legacy of analogue was in good hands.

The pace of change has been relentless and as Robin used to point out, cinema has programmed humans to perceive the world in new ways – and he’d add that the purpose of VFX has always been to serve the story not wag it. Less is always more – that was his credo….we have to think twice before doing things just because we can.

In life and work he was a wise, gentle soul who never had a bad word to say about anyone. In this game it is sometimes politic to loose your rag simply to get things moving – but for good or bad, that wasn’t in his nature. Robin had incredibly high standards as well as impeccable taste born out of a deep love of art, music & literature. He was also amazingy generous with his time & knowledge, and I cannot thank him enough for the profound effect he had on my life and so many others.

Steve Parker

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