Asif Kapadia’s biopic of Amy Winehouse is a technical as much as a storytelling triumph. Tim Dams on the making of the archive doc
Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Amy Winehouse is his first since the Bafta-winning Senna. It’s released this month on the back of strong reviews after a well-received screening at the Cannes Film Festival. The Guardian, for example, called it “intimate, passionate, often shocking, and almost mesmerically absorbing.”
But the film, which recounts Winehouse’s story chronologically from her pre-fame teens to her early death from alcohol poisoning, is as much a technical as a storytelling triumph. As with Senna, Kapadia has boiled down 1000s of hours of footage to make the 127-minute Amy. The film has taken over two and half years to make, he says.
Kapadia worked with the same Senna production team to hone and craft the film. Many of the techniques are the same too: there are no talking heads or a single voice over, but rather recorded interviews and archive audio tell Amy’s story seamlessly over a complex patchwork of footage. This looks effortless in the final film, but it left no room for shortcuts during production. The archive visuals had to carry the film alone.
The big challenge, however, was in the quality of the footage available. Much of the Senna archive was cinematic, shot by professional sports cameramen. In contrast, the material on which Amy is built comes from home movies, television news reports, YouTube clips, concert videos and mobile phone footage.
Almost none of it was filmed with the big screen in mind. “It was really hard taking this material and making it work theatrically,” says Kapadia. “People have no idea how hard it was.”
For a start, every shot had to be stabilised, reframed and colour corrected. Many had to be slowed down or speeded up. Nearly all had to be reformatted to suit the 1.85: 1 widescreen format that is common in cinemas.
One of the team behind Amy was colourist Paul Ensby of Company 3, who also worked on Senna. A key part of his job, he says, was to make the raw material acceptable for the big screen. That meant toning down and controlling “really vivid, garish video style colours” and “putting them into a film colour space”. He took the harsh edges off the TV footage, creating a ‘film curve’ around the sides to so it is not so bright and strongly lit. This helped create shape in the image, says Ensby.
He would also subtly try to focus the eye of the viewer on what they need to see, edging out non-essential material by reframing or darkening certain areas. “I’m trying to concentrate the eye on what we need to see,” he adds. “Otherwise it could be a tough watch because there is so much going on, like paparazzi flash bulbs.”
Kapadia also picks out key members of the team behind Amy, such as editor Chris King and online editor Jamie Leonard for their role in telling the Winehouse story effectively and making the film look so strong. The edit process took 20 months alone. “Every shot had to look as good as possible,” he says. Kapadia says that every image has been worked on, whether to reframe it or simply to bring out the eyes of the contributors, to make the film as cinematic as possible. “There’s a hell of a lot that has gone on in every single shot.”
He also cites the work of Matt Curtis, who was responsible for the graphics and titles. They play a subtle but crucial supporting role in the film. They are an almost continual presence, individually placed in different parts of the screen to explain who is speaking or to spell out the lyrics of Winehouse’s songs – which themselves assume a tragic resonance when set so strongly against the film.
And Kapadia is quick to emphasise the vital importance of sound in a documentary about a musical icon. Like the visuals, much of the original audio was amateur – from phones or home video. The film was mixed at Twickenham Studios by Tim Cavagin and Dafyd Archard, while supervising sound editors Andy Shelley and Stephen Griffiths worked on the dialogue and sound design. “The sound is what elevates it,” says Kapadia.
Reflecting on process of bring Amy to the big screen, Amy, Kapadia adds: “It is the most technically challenging film I have ever done. On a technical level it is far more complicated than a drama.”
Asif Kapadia Producer
James Gay-Rees Exec producers
David Joseph, Adam Barker Editor
Chris King Co-producer
George Pank Archive producer
Paul Bell Original music
Antonio Pinto Production manager
Raquel Alvarez Post production super
Miranda Jones Supervising sound editors
Andy Shelley, Stephen Griffiths Colourist
Paul Ensby Online editor
Jaime Leonard Graphics and titles
Matt Curtis Production co-ordinator
Alice Cady Researcher
Jack Symes Post production coordinator
Nadiya Luthra Re-recording mixers
Tim Cavagin, Dafydd Archard Sound mix technician