The Eye Behind The Lens

An interview with acclaimed news cinematographer, Australian Cinematographers Society ambassador and Hall of Fame member David Brill AM ACS.

By Kevin Hudson ACS.

The fall of Saigon, David Brill AM ACS in center, in 1975 – PHOTO Derk Halstead

In Buster Keaton’s silent cinematic masterpiece The Cameraman (1928, cinematography by Reggie Lanning and Elgin Lessley) reference is made for us to “not forget the news reel cameraman … the daredevil who defies death to give us pictures of the world’s happenings.”

In the world of news cinematography, the name Damien Parer is a heroic one who gave us unforgettable film of muddy footprints slipping down the treacherous Kokoda Track in his Oscar winning film Kokoda Front Line (1942). Introducing us to the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, those Papuan heroes, aiding wounded Australian soldiers. Footage that captured a nation’s identity, since the Second World War. Parer was inducted into the Australian Cinematographers Society’s Hall of Fame in 2019.

Another brilliant cinematographer was Neil Davis ACS whose courage and skill in the art of storytelling encouraged teenagers like me into a career of video journalism. Tim Bowden’s book ‘One Crowded Hour’ is a great read for any young cinematographer. In the same breath rolls out the name of cinematographer David Brill AM ACS. This genius of the lens was already a legend by the time I began my career in news cinematography thirty plus years ago.

What I try to do is get into the soul of the people,” says Brill. Weeks into my career I was introduced to Brill, in pubs from Balmain to Paddington by a news cameraman in training, catching up between his international assignments. And he was filming for his beloved Four Corners program. “There were two things I wanted to do. One was to be a photographer for LIFE magazine the other a cinematographer on Four Corners.

Brill has covered peacekeeping missions, conflicts and wars from Vietnam (including at the fall of Saigon), Somalia, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uganda, Guatemala, Laos, Iraq (four times), both Gulf Wars, The Falklands, Cambodia, Sarajevo, Serbia and Grenada.

Brill became the only living cinematographer inducted to the Australian Media Hall of Fame when in 2018 he joined cinematographers Damian Parer and Neil Davis. Brill had been inducted into our ACS Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) and our own ACS Ambassador. He is a founding member of the ACS Tasmania Branch (since 1964) and is always very proud to promote the Society at every opportunity he gets around the world. Brill has received international recognition with six United Nations Media Peace Awards, and in 1975 a National Thorn EMI award for his coverage of the ‘Fall of Saigon’.

Fortunately for me the end of the eighties was still a time of the news camera assistant. There were a lot of film cinematographers working in the industry. The first cameraman I worked with was former Cinesound chief cameraman Kevin Roche. Roche had six decades behind the lens as a storyteller and had been a consultant to the Australian film, Newsfront (1978, cinematography by Vincent Monton ACS, and camera operator Louie Irving ACS). Roche had covered the actual devastating Maitland floods of 1955.

Reporter Peter Munchtin with David Brill AM ACS on the outskirts of Saigon during the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 – PHOTO Supplied

The film to video transition occurred early in television news, current affairs and documentary cinematography. The broadcast video picture could now be sent via microwave and satellite links to newsrooms and transmitted to the audience so they didn’t have to wait for film to be processed.

The number on the television dial meant little to Brill as he would pass on his knowledge to those in his company. All you had to do was ask questions and listen. Brill is an incredible storyteller both in conversation and on screen as cinematographer. “We are the storytellers, reporting from the scene. Filming the pictures, lighting, sound recording, interviewing, driving the style and direction of the assignment,” he explains. “The reporter rarely came out on the road throughout my early career. It was all left to me. It was what I did and what was expected of me. To tell the story.

It was outside the ‘Meet the Nominees’ event at the 2019 National ACS Awards in Melbourne that I ran into Brill. It was like we had not been working or living in different parts of the country. Later on that evening, Brill presented me a Gold Tripod, a moment I will never forget. I like to remind him that there was a hundred years of cinematography experience on stage at that moment. “Almost,” he says.

Brill has spent decades being the eye behind the lens roaming the world filming peacekeeping missions, conflicts and humanitarian stories and wars from Vietnam until the present day. He was the first Australian network bureau cameraman in the United States, the Soviet Union and Vietnam (Hanoi) for ABC-TV Australia. Providing documentary cinematography for ABC’s Four Corners, SBS Television on Dateline as a video journalist, reporting and filming his own stories and filming for international networks across Europe. “Reporting the highs and lows of humanity so that the audience can try and understand the reasons why,” he says. “It is the people that I care about the most.

The hardest part of being a war cinematographer is not knowing where the battlelines are. You feel very vulnerable,” says Brill. “There’s no frontline. In the wars I’ve covered the enemy can be at the end of the street like when I was in Sarajevo. They can be in the villages, the forest, the jungle, the desert or the city. The enemy can walk around the corner in front of you. There is the constant worry of stepping on a landmine or whether there is a sniper that has you in their scope. You can be anywhere and a bullet can hit you. It’s the tension day in and day out of just not knowing where they are and what is going to happen.” I asked David if he would go to a war zone again and the answer is “Oh yes. Of course I would, for the story.

Brill’s journey began growing up in Longford, Tasmania. A small country town just like Sorell, in Tasmania, where Neil Davis grew up. Brill recalls, “Once a week Life Magazine would be delivered to the newsagent and I would run down and would be the first one to get it. I read it from cover to cover. It was the power of the pictures that got me in. Life Magazine had it all, it was the brilliance of the photography. Photographers like Larry Burrows, English-born Australian Tim Page and Sir Donald McCullin captured my attention.” As a student studying at Scotch College, Launceston, Brill had the photography bug as a 14-year-old. Brill was President of the local Kodak Club and received further encouragement at 16-years-old when his father “bought me a Rolleicord 2 1/4 inch square which was my first professional camera.

Brian Curtis & Associates in Hobart gave Brill his start as a trainee photographer at the biggest commercial photographic studio in Tasmania. “It was Curtis’ brother, Warwick Curtis, a superb photographer and cinematographer who gave me tremendous opportunities and really helped me,” says Brill. “I have always been grateful for his wisdom that he passed onto me. I completed my cadetship and left to take up a job as a field photographer for the Tasmanian Government, Hydro Electric Commission. 

David Brill AM ACS with the commander of Serbian forces (right), Bosnia in 1992 – PHOTO Supplied

Picture magazines including LIFE Magazine were beginning to lose their prominence with television’s introduction. It was 1960 when television was first transmitted across Tasmania. So, by 1966, it was still pretty new. “I thought that cinematography, particularly news, current affairs and documentary programmes such as Four Corners were so important and television was so powerful, it probably could be better than working for LIFE Magazine,” he says.

Brill embraced his new opportunity as a trainee cine-cameraman with ABC-TV in Hobart. Two senior news camera staff were on annual leave and Brill was now covering the catastrophic 1967 Tasmanian Bushfires. With a Bell & Howell 16mm camera, he was surrounded by the ‘Black Tuesday’ firestorms. “Many homes in Hobart and surrounding areas were being consumed by these dreadful fires, and 62 lives were lost,” says Brill. “It is the sound and smell that warns you of the approaching front. The dreadful thick smoke arrives and it consumes you. A blanket of embers fill the sky before that smoke turns day to night. The 22-year-old trainee stood his ground among the island state’s worst bushfires. Among all this devastation Brill found time to assist families whose houses were already on fire, by helping them remove paintings, furniture and books. 

Brill filmed the fires with his Bell & Howell. “A beautiful camera,” he says. “Three turret lenses: 10, 50 and a 75. One hundred feet of film, two minutes and forty seconds, that’s all you had to tell a story. You were expected to film a story on one roll. Film wasn’t cheap and neither was the processing. The ABC didn’t own camera cars so we had to use our own car on assignments and they gave us some compensation. It was late in the afternoon and my film needed to be at the laboratory for processing before the news deadline. The only access road back was surrounded by fire. There I was driving my brand new gold Cortina down the road and by the time I got past the fire the extreme heat had blackened and blistered the paint on my car.

Witnessing all this devastation the young news cinematographer learned the power of good pictures. “When the film was sent around the world and brought aid to Tasmania I realised just how powerful good pictures and good journalism could be,” he says.

David won the Visnews ‘Cameraman of the Month’ Award for this footage from those bushfires. It was a £10 cheque from Visnews, now Reuters. A year before the Australian Government had introduced the decimal system and the average 1967 Australian wage was $58 per week. Television had become the most important means of communication, touching people more intimately than any other medium. 

I started in news when no one came out with you. No reporters, no producers. You did the whole lot. You were the storyteller. No standups like there is today. Just powerful cinematography and the script was written back in the newsroom to my pictures.

David’s early skills had him appointed to be the first ABC cine-cameraman based in Singapore, covering South East Asia including the Vietnam War. “I was engaged at the time, and they asked if I was getting married,” he says. “Then they got cold feet, just in case something happened to me like I got badly injured or even killed while reporting from Vietnam. They took the job away. It still upsets me fifty five years later. It was a job of a lifetime.

David reflects “on the other hand, looking back, I was sent to Sydney to work on Four Corners, a program I had loved since I was fifteen years of age. I learnt so much in many ways. It wasn’t long after joining the Four Corners team that I went to Vietnam. I was now filming documentary length stories on the Vietnam War and working with people like Mike Willesee AO and John Penlington. They were wonderful reporters, so many wonderful people in my time on Four Corners. My sound recordist Robert Sloss is still my oldest friend to this day. The reporters changed with each assignment but he and I had a wonderful working relationship and great respect for each other.

David Brill AM ACS with tanks firing into Sarajevo during the former Yugoslavia war in 1992 – PHOTO Supplied

Brill admired war cinematographer and fellow Tasmanian, Neil Davis. “What I learned from Davis is if you think it’s worth it for the story, to go the extra mile,” he says. “It’s not just about a good shot, it’s making good sequences, that’s what television storytelling is about.” Davis filmed for Visnews. “All the American networks wanted Davis to work for them. He was the star. Davis was happy working for Visnews because it gave him freedom to cover the war how he saw it. Davis picked up early how to be not only a great cameraman but also a great reporter. He had been trained in cinematography at the Tasmanian Government Film Unit, shooting 35mm film for many years. Most people don’t know that. He was developing into a wonderful documentary cinematographer. He loved cinematography like I do. 

Davis had a big effect on Brill’s life. “In Vietnam and Cambodia we would sit at the end of the day in bars and chat, having a beer, I would just listen to him and learn from his experiences on how to cover war,” says Brill. “It’s in the faces, hands and mannerisms, that’s where the power of television is found. People make the story. Anyone can shoot guns going off. But what do those guns do to the innocent? The suffering.

In one of Brill’s films we see a young girl being brought into a Saigon hospital on her grandmother’s back. “This child had part of her leg blown off in crossfire,” he says. “Her parents had been killed. She just stared at me. She kept staring at me with her big eyes. Staring right through the lens. It was so powerful. There was just no expression, nothing.” Brill knew the impact that this child would have on the audience. “She said it all about the horror of war.

After filming a sequence with her artificial leg being put on, the staff raised her up at the hand rails to encourage her to walk a little and gain her own independence. “I zoomed in very slowly on her face and held it for a long time to get the expression on her face and she began ever so slightly to smile. It was so powerful to witness. I just kept that sequence going and going and going,” says Brill. Two minutes of the forty-five minute Four Corners program was taken up with this one piece of film. The following day it is believed that former prime minister Gough Whitlam said at Parliament House, ‘Did you see Four Corners, comrades? Did you see that little girl? What are we doing in Vietnam?’

The Vietnam War was the first televised war in history. The world’s media were reporting daily on the American troops but the Australian Four Corners team of Brill, reporter Mike Willesee and sound recordist Rob Sloss wanted to tell another story from this war zone. Travelling with South Vietnamese forces under the command of General Thieu Quan Tri, the small crew arrived by military helicopter to a well-known Viet Cong village. They leapt off the helicopter and jumped onto an armoured personnel carrier (APC). “We had a slate board, it was a bit like Hollywood. Slate one and off we go into battle. It seemed unnecessary that we needed to use slates especially when the bullets were going off all around you,” says Brill. 

The cinematographer had a French Eclair 16mm camera and the film magazine jammed. “I thought, oh damn, what do I do now,” he says. “I called out ‘Stop stop, stop the battle… please!!!’ and the Colonel was there with me so they stopped the advance.

The tropics were so hot that the film had fallen off the bobbin. It was well over 40 degrees and the changing bag was absorbing the heat. “My film was so soft in the bag, it was no longer tightly rolled,” tells Brill. “My hands were sweating as I handled the loosely bound film. My heart is stopping now re-living the moment. It felt like an eternity rolling the film back on the bobbin, it was most likely ten minutes later and the battle restarted. Fortunately I managed to save a lot of the footage, all while sitting on the armoured personnel carrier.

David Brill AM ACS filming in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2006 – PHOTO Supplied

Directing and filming a sixty minute documentary on Cambodia in 1973 for German television public broadcaster ZDF Television, Brill talks about a time he was caught in no man’s land. “Mortars were hitting the ground and the shrapnel explodes up, so as long as you lay down low and there is enough distance between it hitting the ground and you, you won’t get hit,” he says. “I had found a small dugout barely three feet long and a foot deep and lay with my head down as the mortars and the bullets wizzed past me. I remember the bullets flying over my head. It is really frightening, you start saying to yourself, what am I doing here?

You won’t change the world, but you can make the people aware of what is going on,” says Brill. “To me, observational cinematography is an education tool. It’s a great privilege to do this type of work because it is real. You’ll have an interesting life and you’re doing something worthwhile.” Looking back over much of his six decades in filmmaking and news cinematography, Brill can see the importance of his stories. “It is in many ways more important now because it’s history so it has gone into another dimension. That is what has kept me going through the ups and downs of life.

Ray Martin AM told Australian Story that, David Brill represents the cameraman’s lament in television.” I think he feels, rightly, that he ought to be recognised. But it’s a fairly thankless task. At the end of the day, it’s going to be some reporter’s mug up there that collects the award and meanwhile the cameraman‘s out there still dodging bullets.

Trying to explain war David says, “It’s the smell, the noise, the people with their lives destroyed. That is why I think ANZAC Day is very important. Words don’t need to be spoken. All the diggers know the horror. They know the loss. You can see it in their eyes. It is the mateship and the sense of respecting lost friends, those who never made it home. Those that never got a chance. Lives lost. Remembering that in Vietnam there had been so many people who were conscripted by the Government. Broken bones, broken souls, most of them from my experience have been to hell and back. 

Dateline sent Brill as a video journalist filming a group of Vietnam veterans on a pilgrimage to face the horror of their war. “Fifty years had passed since they had been in Vietnam,” he says. “Many suffering the effects of the war, including PTSD, divorce, alcoholism and drug addiction. The veterans had been told by their psychiatrist to go back to Vietnam. ‘Face up to your demons. It will help to take the pain and the guilt away and make you feel better’.” Through the lens for two weeks Brill watched the guilt and shame leave them. “It was the first time in their lives that they were at peace with themselves,” he says. It’s a moving piece of storytelling called ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. The documentary earned Brill one of his six United Nations Peace Media Awards.

David tells me of SBS producer Geoff Parish, “It’s like having a good editor. They can make such a difference to your story. Parish was like that. He was marvellous, contributing so much to the end result of my stories.” Brill and Parish worked closely for ten years at Dateline and the pair are still great friends. “He arranged my work on screen tremendously. He was the best producer I’ve ever worked with.

Not wanting to be labelled only as a war cinematographer or a war junkie, Brill recalls when assigned as the first ABC cameraman, producer role in their Moscow bureau. It was November 1989 and Brill was going to Germany for the coming down of the Berlin Wall. Travelling from Moscow gave Brill easy access to East Berlin. With most of the world’s media gathering in West Berlin this was a unique opportunity. 

Departing the airport, by hire car, Brill arrived at his hotel in the late Autumn afternoon. “I could hear the sound of jack hammers,” he says. “I started to see big industrial lights being turned on. I walked from the hotel and got closer to the wall. There they were beginning to pull down a section of it. Since being built under the cover of darkness in 1961 till now (1989) it had divided the city, divided families.

Brill’s NASA media accreditation from 1979 – PHOTO David Brill AM ACS

I just couldn’t believe this was happening,” he says. “The wall started to crumble, filming away I looked towards no man’s land and West Berlin. The East and West German soldiers were just looking at each other. It was a very strange feeling. For me I was witnessing an important part of world history. When the wall was coming down I picked up some of the grey concrete pieces of the crumbling wall. I put them in my pocket and I still have them at home. Generations of East and West Germans were reunited with their families after 10,316 days of political separation. It was very moving for me”.

Discussing style in filming current affairs and documentary cinematography, “I’d rather film with natural light, not to over light locations,” says Brill. “I am trying to get the balance right, between a good quality picture and telling the story. I put a light up when I need it. I love pushing the lens to its limit. You get in there and see the lines and texture in faces, the eyes, showing that really raw look. Capturing their soul, their personality. 

I still love the look of film but video has the advantage that you can go back to your hotel room and look at it,” continues Brill. “Sometimes I would have thirty 400-foot rolls of film beside my bed for three or four weeks not knowing if there was a scratch on the film or a hair in the gate. So many sleepless nights worrying about that and then there were the times the lab would cook the film. Getting that phone call from the editor saying ‘there was something wrong with your stock!’ All that wasted time knowing we could not replicate the moment.

Brill is proud of his time devoted to humanitarian storytelling. He has been cinematographer and director on so many documentaries. While filming a documentary in the Congo he caught up with a young Australian doctor, Dr Rowan Gillies, who was the International President of Doctors Without Borders (MSF). It was an incredible example of Australians, unsung heroes, working around the world. During the two-and-a-half weeks Brill was filming, Gillies performed hundreds of operations.

Documentaries on aid agencies, Care Australia, OXFAM, Doctors without Borders, filming stories on the nurses, staff and doctors who were making a difference by offering their time to those less fortunate. “I think this work is more important in a lot of ways than most of the political stuff I’ve done,” says Brill. “You’re helping people understand the reasons why. It also comes with the hope of raising money for those charities that are helping the less privileged.” It does come with a sense of guilt because, “by plane, I can be less than twenty hours from being back in Australia. It really illustrates to me that we live in a very lucky country.

One great moment from Brill’s career came when at the New York bureau for ABC Television. Brill was the cameraman and producer who went to Newport to cover the 1983 America’s Cup campaign. It would be one of the greatest sporting moments in Australia’s history. ABC Radio sent journalist and reporter John Highfield from the London bureau, “Highfield was a delightful man and one of the ABC’s top foreign correspondents for many years, he was very helpful to me. Holding the reflector and even doing the sound.

Every day of the six week campaign Brill had a 2.5 minute news story and a 6.5 minute current affairs story to film on Australia II and its secret winged keel. “The camera I had was brand new, just out of the box, a Sony 300 SP,” he says. “I was the first to shoot video for the ABC because at that time there were union problems in Sydney. The camera equipment had to stay in the boxes. I was still shooting film in America until it was sorted out. The problem for me was there were no film cameras left shooting news and current affairs in the United States. I had a CP-16 with magnetic sound strip on the side of the film. The America’s Cup was such a big deal that the unions and ABC agreed to give me permission to shoot on videotape.

Everybody else in the United States was shooting video and they used to laugh at me coming along with the old CP-16 film camera. ‘Hey, Dave, you’ve still got that old film camera going?’ It was quite embarrassing but it was a time of great change,” he says. 

David Brill AM ACS at the ACS Headquarters in Sydney 2018 – PHOTO David Lewis ACS

Australia II had been down one race win to three in the best of seven races. Australia II fought back to three all and it was now the final race. It was about 4.30pm local time and it appeared Australia II was beaten. Brill was grabbing a cup of tea at the bottom level of his media boat. ‘Hey what are you doing, Dave’ came a voice. “I said, ‘we’re not going to win. It’s over. The Americans are in front. I‘ll go back up in a minute mate to get the finish.’” ‘No, you’ve hit the front!’ he replied. Brill rushed back up to his shooting platform as Australia II was moving in on ‘Liberty’ and about to go back into the lead. John Bertrand and his team were getting back in front of the Americans. So, at 5:21pm, Brill filmed Australia II crossing the finish line.

A golden sunset painted the sky behind Australia II as she came in towards Newport Rhode Island,” says Brill. “My media boat was alongside the victorious Australia II yacht and her crew. I continued to film as Alan Bond jumped on board Australia II, with a case of beer and a large cassette radio playing loudly. The speakers were blasting the Aussie classic ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work. These lyrics made an incredible soundtrack to my pictures showing the joy that had taken over the crew. It was a spectacular moment for the entire crew. Filming this historic event was a great moment for me, too. A truly wonderful experience.

Video was the only way Brill could’ve got it done. It needed to be edited and sent to New York, before sending it to Australia. Brill recalls, “It was wonderful to see your pictures immediately, the quality in those days on video wasn’t very good. I felt it was very plastic on screen and didn’t have the depth, the feel or grain of film about it but it could get to air and importantly transmitted back to Australia via Visnews almost immediately.

Visnews New York Bureau Chief John Tulloh looked after the satellite feeds to Sydney. “Tulloh has been a great friend of mine for over fifty years and a great mentor who really respects cinematographers,” says Brill. “He is like a brother to me. ABC Television were incredibly fortunate to have Tulloh as the Head of International Operations for over twenty years. He was loved and respected by all. One of the greats in our business.

The first ACS member to ever win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography is Dean Semler AM ACS ASC, for his epic feature Dances with Wolves (1991). “He’s a great bloke and one of the world’s greatest cinematographers. The respect Semler has in America alone is amazing. He is still the same bloke he was fifty years ago when we were working together at the ABC in Sydney. Semler was filming This Day Tonight while I was on Four Corners.” The two old friends decided the time was right to film a documentary on Semler, and so Brill filmed and directed the journey as Semler travelled from his home in Los Angeles to his childhood town of Renmark, South Australia.

Semler had just received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). The news that Angelina Jolie had presented this award to the cinematographer had also just reached his old school in Renmark. The documentary is called Dean Semler‘s Road to Hollywood. “I felt really good I made this documentary on Semler. He’s part of Australian history and of our ACS,” says Brill.

But it has always been the humanitarian stories that have drawn Brill’s attention. Working at SBS Dateline as a video journalist and travelling the world with a MiniDV camera, “Filming unsung heroes, for those without a voice in a very dignified way,” he says. “It’s been my experience that what we find among all this misery is dignity and hope. Hope that you can make a difference.

My filmmaking is very raw,” explains Brill. “I am a proud cinematographer. My pictures are not always glamorous but they come from my heart. If somebody in my frame turns the camera turns with them and if they look that way my camera will look that way. It is observational film making. My camera is always going from hand held to the tripod and hand held again as needed. It is knowing when to use the tripod. Filmmaking on the run.

Brill has never stopped having his eye behind the lens, most recently for our Society as he filmed the story of ACS Honorary Member Dorothy Hallam at her home in southern Tasmania. Hallam filmed as a freelance news cinematographer from 1961 for ABC Television in Tasmania. Storytelling a variety of news stories from her Peninsula across two decades. Hallam is the first female cinematographer filming for ABC Australia and she spoke to Brill after he travelled over the Apple Isle to the Peninsula to film the story of the now 96-year-old cinematographer. We’ll be covering this amazing story in the next issue of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

It is a tremendous privilege how the doors open up to you as a cinematographer. You do not take it for granted that people let you in to their lives and you must treat them with great respect,” says Brill. “To me it’s the story that matters with good camerawork, the camera is an extension of my heart, my soul and my eye.

It has been a privilege to bring you part of the story of David Brill and I will leave you with these final words. “I don’t say it’s a calling, but it’s a responsibility. I feel if it is filmed properly and with dignity to show what is going on in the world. As a storyteller, cinematographer, video journalist, it’s wonderful bringing these stories back home and showing it to the audience so they hopefully will understand what is happening in the world.

Thanks for the pictures, mate.

Kevin Hudson ACS has worked as a cinematographer filming news, current affairs and lifestyle programs at the Seven Network for over thirty years. He has received six National ACS awards including four Gold Tripods.

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