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Wood, Ross Matthew (1916–1980)

by Sue Terry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

This is a shared entry with Frederick Sydney Wood

Frederick Sydney Wood (1914-1983), film cameraman, was born on 26 September 1914 at Redfern, Sydney, child of Sydney-born parents Frederick Sydney Wood, linotype operator, and his wife Olive Ross, née Young. Syd’s younger brother, Ross Matthew (1916-1980), also a film cameraman, was born on 5 August 1916 at Paddington, Sydney. They were educated locally, and both joined the Bronte Surf Club. Ross was also a member of the gymnastics club, and said later that this helped him understand how to film body posture and movement.

With the Depression under way, Syd had various jobs, including in a newspaper office, before he obtained a position with Fox Movietone News in 1931 as their office boy. Ross joined Movietone in 1933, first helping Hugh McInnes who was filming cricket at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and soon after becoming the office boy when Syd moved into the cutting room as editor. One of the office boy’s tasks was to go to the State Theatrette every Friday to watch the latest newsreels and jot down the stories to make sure Movietone was not being scooped and did not duplicate any stories the following week.

During the 1930s Syd worked mainly in the cutting room, becoming chief editor in 1934, while Ross became an assistant-cameraman. Believing it would enhance his skills in the film industry, Ross studied art at East Sydney Technical College in 1936-39. He said that this training gave him essential grounding in colour, balance, composition and design. Syd married Joyce Hunter Morison (d.1960), a commercial artist, on 29 April 1939 at St Mary’s Church of England, Waverley. Six weeks later, on 10 June 1939 at St Barnabas’s Church of England, Waverley, Ross married Mary Iris Sinclair, a finance clerk. On 19 January 1963 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Syd married Patricia Isabella Dunn, née Waldron, an office manageress; they later divorced.

Syd enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 24 April 1942 and, after initial training, was transferred to the staff of the director-general of public relations in Melbourne. Promoted to sergeant in October, he served with New Guinea Force until March 1943. He then took up duties with the Military History Section, Allied Forces Land Headquarters, Melbourne, where he worked with Australian artists and writers such as (Sir) Ivor Hele, (Sir) William Dargie and Jon Cleary, and began his career as a cameraman. In June 1944 he was promoted to lieutenant. From August that year to May 1945 and from July to November 1945 he travelled with the section’s field team, filming military activities in the South-West Pacific Area. Returning to Australia, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 February 1946. For several months during the war Ross worked in the Pacific as a war correspondent for Movietone News.

After the war, enjoying opportunities for travel and self-expression as a newsreel cameraman, Syd worked in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, and covered Australia’s top news stories such as the Redex car trials and the 1955 Maitland floods. David Elfick, a film writer and producer, considered Syd’s coverage of the floods to be his finest story. He shot Movietone’s film, Wings and the Primitive (c.1952), in colour.

On his return from the war Ross worked briefly (1945-46) for Cinesound Review but left when he realised that being in the same industry as his brother might cause problems. Their situation, as cameramen for opposing newsreel companies, inspired the film Newsfront (1978), for which Syd was a technical adviser.

The first feature film Ross was involved with was Red Sky at Morning (1944); he was co-editor at the invitation of a Cinesound colleague, Alex Ezard. They made this film outside business hours. His first feature film as cameraman was Strong is the Seed (1949). During the 1950s Ross was a camera operator or cameraman on significant productions, including the multi-award-winning documentary The Back of Beyond (1954), the critically acclaimed feature Three in One (1957), American productions such as Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), and the television series The Adventures of Long John Silver (1955) and Whiplash (1961).

Many major companies in Sydney, among them the Shell Film Unit, Video Studios, Artransa Pty Ltd and Visatone Film Studios, employed Ross. In 1965, with four others, he established Ross Wood Productions Pty Ltd, which specialised in commercials. He enjoyed the creative challenges they presented and the company won several national and international awards for them. Ross improvised and invented technologies—such as distortion lenses and a snorkel lens—for which he won awards. He argued that having to devise and compromise made a cameraman think.

The brothers were part of a small group who founded the new Australian Cinematographers Society in 1958; Syd served as its first president (1958-63), and Ross headed, with John McLean, the educational committee and organised many successful instructional evenings.

Syd spent his whole career (1931-75) in newsreels. He was the archetypal newsreel cameraman; his retirement coincided with the end of newsreels in Australia. He observed that ‘A newsreel cameraman has to learn to expect the unexpected–that’s his business. When it happens, he just adapts to it and keeps going’. A fine raconteur, with a good memory and an ability to tell stories with humour, he was in demand as a speaker for community groups such as View Clubs.

Ross is recognised as one of Australia’s greatest cinematographers for the quality of his images and the technical skill and innovative approach he brought to the profession. Suffering from motor neurone disease, he organised his own wake, early, at his studio in Paddington so that he could be present. Survived by his wife and their four sons, he died on 3 October 1980 in his home at Maroubra and was cremated. His widow created the Ross Wood Snr memorial award to recognise significant contributions to the advancement of cinematography in Australia. Syd died of cancer of the tongue on 20 January 1983 in his home at Hillside and was cremated. The younger son of his first marriage survived him; the elder had died in 1970. Ross (1997) and Syd (1998) were both inducted into the Australian Cinematographers Society Hall of Fame.

Select Bibliography

  • Cinema Papers, March-April 1975, p 76
  • Cinema Papers, March-April 1976, p 378
  • Cinema Papers, March 1983, p 9
  • Focus: Australian Cinematographers Society, February 1983, p 1
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 December 1975, p 4
  • S. Wood, A Detailed History of the Australian Cinematographers Society (http://www.cinematographer.org.au/01_cms/details.asp?ID=491, accessed 4 May 2011, copy held on ADB file)
  • National Film and Sound Archive. G. Shirley, interview with Ross Wood, typescript, 1974-75
  • National Film and Sound Archive. G. Shirley, interview with Alex Ezard, typescript, 1980
  • National Film and Sound Archive. H. McInnes, interview with Syd Wood, typescript, 1975
  • National Film and Sound Archive. M. Ansara, interview with Ross Wood, typescript, 1978
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, item NX95472
  • private information

Citation details

Sue Terry, 'Wood, Ross Matthew (1916–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wood-ross-matthew-15625/text26826, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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