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Behind the scenes: shooting The Survivalist

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09 February 2016

The Survivalist, Stephen Fingleton's first feature length film, earned a Bafta nomination earlier this month for outstanding debut.

Shot in Northern Ireland, it’s a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a time of starvation, where the Survivalist (Martin McCann) lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in forest protecting his crop and cabin from intruders with his shotgun and improvised traps. But everything changes when a starving woman and her teenage daughter ask to share his secluded shelter.

After its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Indiewire cited cinematographer Damien Elliot’s “patient tracking shots”, “exquisite framing strategies”, and “incredibly textured green-and-brown palettes of the outdoor landscape,” for helping to create the film’s suspense.

Elliott used the Arri Alexa Plus as the main camera for The Survivalist.  Many of the film’s scenes are shot in a dark cabin, lit with practical light such as a stove fire and oil lamps.

“I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to use a lot of the lighting tools you’d normally have, so you’re relying more on the camera: you have to use the best, and I feel that’s the Alexa,” says Elliott, who explains that the camera “really allowed us to use some very low light levels.” He adds that in hindsight the new, compact Alexa Mini would have been perfect for the film.

Elliott also used a Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.7k version) for some smaller scenes done in a documentary style, and for some very tight spaces in the cabin set. “The Blackmagic Cinema Camera performed surprisingly well, although I never used it as a B-Camera against the Alexa, that would have been an unfair competition, and would have stood out in the edit.”

Most of the film was shot on two Angenieux Optimo zooms: the 15-40mm and 45-120mm. “I would say that a good half was on the 45-120. After the tests Stephen chose the 45mm focal length as a sort of standard lens, it was a good call. These lenses are so good, really amazing, and with a doubler the longer lens became a 90-240 (obviously there is a stop loss, but we only went that long in daylight so it wasn’t an issue). Having all that range in a compact form was a real benefit....We also had a set of Zeiss SuperSpeeds which we only used on the Blackmagic, and for some flashback scenes, and they worked great – a very different look.“

The edit for the film began on location, where editor Mark Towns and his assistant spent five weeks with their suite set up in a two-berth caravan. Goldcrest carried out the majority of the post in London, but the grade was done in Goldcrest New York by “an amazing colourist” John Dowdell, who Elliott describes as a “legend” in grading and timing.

Asked for his advice on what film-makers should do when planning for a shoot, Elliott’s opinion is straightforward. “It’s just the old adage of test, test, test. The cheapest (and least stressful) place to try anything out is before you go to shoot. We only did one day of camera test in our principal location but it was so valuable, just seeing the main actor in the environment, and seeing how the forest read on camera. It really gave myself and Stephen a sort of head start in visualising certain scenes, angles and focal lengths.”

But he warns against getting too obsessed with technology. “The one thing that can really get in the way of filmmaking is the camera itself. We often get so obsessed with the camera, and sometimes it takes precedence. You have to not let it lead you. You always have to consider it to be just a tool, like all those other tools of the process. Occasionally we wished for a smaller, less intrusive camera, particularly during emotional scenes.”

The Survivalist is in cinemas from Friday 12 February

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