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The art of the director of photography

Blog
24 March 2016

Three leading DoPs reveal the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to create hits like War and Peace, The Night Manager and The Secret Life of Twins

WAR AND PEACE

  George Steel
(Credits: War and Peace, Peaky Blinders, The Honourable Woman, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death)

You start off wanting to do the edgiest stuff you can do. [Director] Tom Harper and I wanted to reinvent Tolstoy. In the end you realise the real satisfaction is in telling the story in a simple but beautiful way.  We set out to do something that would appeal to the BBC1 viewer.
 
I had six weeks prep which is probably not enough for something as mammoth as War and Peace.
But you start where you start – and that’s at the script and we went through it scene by scene, working out what can we do here and what can we do there. You construct an ethos or an approach for connecting to the script visually.
 
We wanted it to be slightly old fashioned and referential to the old productions. But we also wanted it to be modern and fresh. Visually we wanted a simplicity to it – a Russianness if you like. The simplicity of Russian film is what makes it so special.
 
The way we lit the series changed as the story got progressively darker. Over time it became slightly grittier, with more contrast, less colour. It started off very colourful, and we eased the colour out.
 
We started episode one in St Petersberg. At that time, it was the most modern of cities. We wanted it to be glitzy, rich, glistening and very glossy looking.
 
In the grade, we started off in a direction that was quite Russian and quite dark. But you don’t want to alienate your audience. So, as hesitant as I was to change the look, we did change it, to make it brighter and more accessible.

Colour was really important to the story. I love colour. But in period photography you are slightly limited in your sources, to firelight and candles, so there’s a limited palette of colours. But I was keen, because people had such amazing costumes, to keep the colour in it – and not for it to become de-saturated. Lots of people use de-saturation as a short cut for filmic, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe what is filmic and cinematic can be still colourful.
 
We used the Alexa XT. We shot using 1970s Kowa anamorphic lenses which we cropped out into 16.9. I like the slight aberration of the anamorphic lens. It gives you a bit of a period look in that things are not entirely faithful and they are slightly different.
 
We shot most of it at T4 [focal length stop], because I wanted a bit of depth of field. It is very trendy nowadays to shoot very wide open, with a shallow focus. I don’t particularly like that – I find it distracting and gimmicky. And, when you have great actors, you don’t want to miss anything. An actor like Paul Dano likes to bob and weave – he’s a hard actor to keep in shot. It’s that sponteneity that makes him great, so you don’t want to be worried about him being in focus as well.
 
We shot lots on sticks, a dolly and a gimbal. This helped give a classical feel. We only shot handheld in the battle, just for flexibility. And we shot the Rostov family all handheld, to give them a slightly different edge so they were slightly more bohemian. But it was also about creating a difference. We shot the Bolkonsky’s in their grand palace on a dolly and sticks. For it to be effective you need to chop against something. The Rostovs were meant to be the people we related to more.
 
The inner life of the characters in the book is the hardest thing to depict. For the most part it was shot single camera, but we did have a second camera, and we were always ready to shoot if we spotted something – such as sky, snow or shadows.

The reason I am a DoP is to photograph what actors can do. It doesn’t matter what distractions or explosions there are. If there is no emotional core there, there is no point.
The job of the DoP is to give the actors the most comfortable environment in which to be able to do what they do. Being an actor has got to be one of  the hardest things in the world. Everyone thinks they can be an actor. But when you see what great actors can do, you realise how special it is.
 
You have got to create an environment where it is as stress free as possible. So on a practical level, you shouldn’t create an environment where an actor can’t move more than three inches without having to be relit. You should light the set and let them walk around. And if they go dark, they go dark.
 
In my mind there is no division between me, the director, crew and actors; we are one. We are creating something together.
 
Being a DoP is not just about practical skills. It is about who you have become, why you are that person, and why you decide put your little spin on the visual. Good cinematography is something you feel not necessarily see.



THE NIGHT MANAGER



Michael Snyman
(Credits: The Night Manager, The British, Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent)


When I read the initial scripts, I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition they portrayed. The images that presented themselves in my head were no short of spectacular.

I have been fortunate to work with [director] Susanne [Bier] on a few projects prior to The Night Manager. We have a well-earned creative trust in one another.

Our art director, Tom Burton, had done some initial groundwork on the locations.
We began collaborating on the scripts, which set us on a location hunt through Europe for roughly six weeks of conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas. I continuously fed this information back to Susanne for some consensus as her knowledge of Europe and its nooks and crannies is so profound. The puzzle slowly started to come together. The journey through Europe was visually so important to grasp the atmosphere of these locations and then to translate them into the script. It gave me a good sense of where this film should live cinematically.

Being a DOP is a bit like being a chameleon. Each project is so different from the next and you continually have to re-invent yourself. Initially, everyone interprets a script differently and I like to just listen and draw from that. It’s a very interesting exercise to do. You will be amazed how different people visualise things. The art is to take from that what you can and interpret it in your own way visually, draw from your experience and with collaboration put it on the screen.

My approach right from the outset was to treat The Night Manager as a feature film and to try to service the ambition and scale that the scripts deserved. Trying to fit the complex nature of the scripts into a schedule and then realising our budget was not without its challenges.

At the outset I was concerned about the pitfalls of lighting and photographing (operating a camera) such a huge and complex script.
I was always aware not to fall into that trap of compromising the look and feel of the show “just to get it done”; actually in hindsight, it put me inside the story, it put me into our amazing casts’ every action, nuance and subtlety that they so brilliantly portray.

I use both Alexa and Red. For me it is about what you want to achieve out of the script and what it demands. The Night Manager was so diverse and vast I really enjoyed using the Red Dragon. There is a certain ‘organicness’ that is created by this camera that I felt would be great for the story. I have had a great relationship with the camera. I can shoot in very low light with the Dragon sensor. I know how the pictures work and how to work them in post -production. We ran two cameras most of the time to get that “off angle” that is so appealing.

There were so many different worlds in the scripts that it presented me with the opportunity to treat each location with a different look and feel. It came down to how the lighting should work, how the camera should move and how the relationships between the characters developed.

It was important to us not to be contrived but to rather find the subtlety in our approach of TNM. All the creatives were on board with this concept.

Zermatt, London, Devon, Cairo, Istanbul and Mallorca all are so diverse from one another.
We doubled Morocco for Cairo due to the present instability in Cairo and Mallorca for Istanbul for schedule purposes. The logistics involved were a constant challenge.

One of our major challenges was our demanding schedule, which was in constant flux due to the mere logistics involved.
There was a lot of improvisation that took place and changes were constant, it was demanding on all the assistant directors involved to make our seemingly impossible schedule work. I think when we finally reached Mallorca there was a huge sense of relief amongst everyone.


THE SECRET LIFE OF TWINS



Brendan McGinty

(Credits: The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants)


In The Secret Life of Twins, we were looking at identical twins, so any location that was evocative of symmetry was key to us.
We looked for those mirror opposites on locations. More than any shoot I have done, my response on Twins was more to shape that it was to lighting.

We decided not to use handheld. I love handheld – you can be very responsive and the camera can be anywhere you want it to be. But what one has to sign up for with handheld is its visual signature, the camera’s point of view and presence in every image. For the audience it is not invisible or neutral. It is why someone like David Fincher doesn’t like handheld – he loves camera movement but he doesn’t want the heavy-handed signature of handheld.
 
I used a fairly obscure set of Russian lenses, Lumatech Illumina. I discovered them through a commercial I’d done. They are extraordinary, and flare like hell. They were perfect for Twins, but I haven’t used them since. They hit the right note for that project.

Over the last five years I have increasingly, and now almost exclusively, used the Red Epic
– its most recent manifestation being the Weapon and the Dragon prior to that. I like the ergonomics of the small camera. I think Arri have now got there with the Mini, which is a brilliant camera too.
 
I love shooting in Raw. With my background as a stills photographer I have existed in the world of Raw colour space for a long time, and I can’t go back. I just think with a 16bit colour space – even if I ‘bake’ a look in for a given project – that Raw is always there as a sort of negative. You have enormous latitude that you can retain in post if you want but also throw away if you don’t want to. 

In the doc world, I live on Angenieux zoom lenses. I use the Optimas, the shorter zooms. I am not really a fan of zoom lenses as lots of DoPs aren’t – with good reason. But Angenieux are the exception to that – they are every bit as good as the prime lenses I like. I’m also not sure any lens flares as beautifully.

When it comes to primes, my go to lenses are Master Primes. I would definitely point to Emmanuel Lubezki’s sensational work at the moment. His current style has a lot to do with the wide Master Primes he is using. I love what he is doing. I look at The Revenant, that very close up, close focus, extreme wide angle work – and don’t think he could do it on any other lens other than Master Primes. The lack of distortion and extreme geometry in them allows you to get very close to someone without distorting them in a way that some wide angles do. In many ways, I think they are the most naturalistic of lenses.

A lot of lensed have too much ‘lens’ in them. Vintage anamorphics are perhaps the most distinctive case of that. To my taste there is possibly too much anamorphic at the moment. I love using them on promos or fashion pieces. But for drama or something more ‘real world’, I find the ‘lens’ in them often too much with their horizontal flares and barrelling. I often find it too heavy handed a signature and it can take me out of the piece.







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