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Lenses in focus

As cameras become more powerful, a far greater range of lenses are being used to give shows a distinct look. Tim Dams talks to leading DoPs about the lenses that make their kit list

The changes that have swept through the camera market in recent years have made the choice of lens ever more important to a production. In particular, the surge in popularity of large sensor digital cameras means that lenses are now one of the most important factors for giving shows a distinct look.

Many opt for lenses that can counter the clinical sharpness of digital cameras.

The effect of quality lenses can also be more easily appreciated on digital cameras, given their advances in resolution, high dynamic range and wider colour spaces.

“Lenses are the last item a DoP has left these days to give a show a certain look and feel,” says DoP Micheal Snyman, whose credits include BBC hit The Night Manager.

It means a much wider range of lenses are now being used, from Primes (lenses with a fixed focal length), zooms as well as specialist lenses such as anamorphic or vintage.

They are being used on a much wider range of productions too, with high end lenses often being used on lower end productions. Indeed the lenses themselves often cost a lot more than the cameras they are put on.

The choices available also mean that a DoP will spend more time experimenting with lenses before a production to establish the perfect look.

DoP Gavin Finney, who won Baftas for his work on Wolf Hall and The Fear, says: “Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.”

In drama, many DoPs will use a combination of lenses – Primes from manufacturers such as Cooke, Arri and Zeiss, Leica and Panavision – as well as zoom lenses from the likes of Angenieux, Arri and Fujinon.

DoPs prefer to use Primes where they can. “I feel a prime lens will always give you better backgrounds and you stay true to your look,” says Snyman.

However, zooms bring the advantage of flexibility and speed during a shoot. DoP Brendan McGinty, who works across drama, commercials and factual and won an RTS Award for his photography on ITV's The Secret Life of Twins, says Angenieux zooms have been the mainstay of Hollywood film-making for the past 30 years. “They are incredibly good zooms.”

Finney says he will use Primes where he can, but with very tight schedules being able to change focal length quickly is a great help. He cites new zooms like the Arri Alura. “They are even sharper and have better resolution than some Primes. They are also very neutral, so they match a wide range of other lenses.”

Zooms, of course, are most popular in sport, documentary and factual production where the action is often fast moving. Here lenses such as Canon’s 17-120 mm CN7 Cine-Servo zoom and Fujinon’s Cabrio 19-90mm T2.9 zooms are regarded as good quality lenses at the more expensive end.

The increasing dominance of the precise, often clinical look of digital cameras has also boosted the popularity of anamorphic and vintage glass.

Anamorphic lenses impart a shallower depth of field, oval bokeh (the photographic term for the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light) and vignettting (a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the centre).

McGinty prefers modern, spherical glass but says anamorphic lenses bring a painterly quality to production, imbuing it with romance, nostalgia and sentimentality. In commercials, this can prove a big hit for a DoP. “The client will look at the monitor and think, ‘Wow – that is magical – you have transformed my world,’” says McGinty.

Finney says the decision to go with anamorphic or spherical is dependant on the story. “Like most DoPs, I love the anamorphic aspect ratio and would shoot practically everything this way if I could. Framing in 2.40 is beautiful, and dynamic, and the shallow depth of field of anamorphics gives you great separation between foreground and background.”

Finney notes that anamorphic lens choice is more limited and they are heavier and slower, so it depends on how a DoP is going to photograph the film. “We couldn’t have gone anamorphic on Wolf Hall because the lenses are too heavy and too slow. I tested a wide range of anamorphic lenses for a feature film coming up and it was amazing the range of different looks available within the anamorphic family. Iespecially liked the new Cooke anamorphic range.”

Most anamorphic lenses are expensive, but there are cheaper solutions available from manufactuers such as Holdan.

Vintage lenses can also help to counteract the over-sharpness of some modern cameras, as well as helping to evoke a period feel in drama. Their popularity is such that Cooke recently announced it is bringing back its Speed Panchro lenses from the 1920s-1960s, but with PL mounts for modern cameras.

Q&A: Gavin Finney
DoP credits Wolf Hall, The Secret Agent, Unforgotten, The Fear, Mr Selfridge

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I always have a full set of primes from 14mm to 180mm and then two or three zooms. If we have two cameras, we usually share the same set.

What lenses did you use on Wolf Hall? We used Leica Summilux primes. They are very fast at a true T1.3 with no visible vignetting, loss of contrast or sharpness. This was crucial in being able to shoot just by candlelight. They also have virtually no chromatic aberration, but do have a slight pleasing bloom around highlights, which meant I didn’t have to use any filtration at night. Another selling point is they are around 1kg lighter than Master Primes, which counts for a lot when you are shooting hand-held 10 hours a day!

Which lenses did you use on the Secret Agent? We used Panavision Primos. They just had the right look for the way we were representing that period. It’s quite a gritty story and I liked the transparency of the Primos without looking too modern.

How long do you test with lenses before a shoot? A lot, I’m always going into test rooms, even before the main test period to try out different looks. Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.

Do you prefer one particular brand of lens? No preference, they are all good and all have their particular merits. We are very fortunate to have such a wide choice. Cookes are great for flattering faces, Ultra Primes are cooler and more clinical, Leicas are slightly warmer but very sharp, and amazing wide open. I’m always searching for a new look that is appropriate to the story we are trying to tell, so I wouldn’t want to be constrained by owning my own lenses or always using the same set.

Q&A: Michael Snyman
DoP credits The Night Manager, The British, 
Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I like to use the Panavision Primo series for most of my drama work at the moment. I really enjoy the look of these lenses. I feel out of everything on the shelf these days they compliment HD incredibly well. If I’m shooting with multiple cameras on any given day I find HD cameras vary in colour greatly. The Primo’s have no or very little colour difference from lens to lens which is a really good starting point to try balance things up between cameras. They also flare beautifully and do incredibly well in the highlights and lowlights.

What lenses did you use on The Night Manager? I used the Primo’s on The Night Manager. They really do cover a great range of lens sizes. I liked them for their speed, colour and I they feel gave the show a certain quality, a kind of buttery feel.

Anamorphic or spherical? I don’t think you can say anamorphic vs spherical. There is no comparison to be made. Some shows beg for anamorphic and some don’t. They are so very different and they accomplish two very different looks. I feel like a lot of TV is missing anamorphic. It is such an amazing format and with the newer generation cameras it has become so much more cost effective to shoot with anamorphic. The only ones preventing us from shooting anamorphic are the format requirements from the broadcasters. I feel like they are missing a trick for sure.

Are you a fan of vintage lenses? I love to use vintage lenses. I feel they bring something to the party that HD could do with; they are softer, more cinematic and they break down the sharpness of everything. You have just got to know what you are dealing with in terms of look, colour and the actual mechanics of the lens.

Q&A: Brendan McGinty
DoP credits The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list? For zooms, I only ever call on Angenieux. Tonally, they hit exactly what I would like from a zoom lens and integrate perfectly with the primes I favour. Its all about the relationship between the sharp area of the picture and the defocused area, and theirs’ is gorgeous. Master Primes are my favourite primes, not least because of their speed. They can hit T 1.3 and be sharp and linear. I also use Ultra Primes, particularly if I am looking for more lens flare in a project.

What lenses did you use on Secret Life of Twins? (McGinty won the RTS best photography award for Secret Life of Twins) I went for more exotic glass – the Russian Luma Tech Illumina Mk.II lenses. They are fast aperture lenses. We shot lot of that film wide open on these very fast lens at T1.3 – the same T stop as Master Primes. But what they uniquely had was tons of flare. Their bokeh is also very ‘painterly’. They are not lenses for something like a car commercial where you want any degree of precision. But they were perfect for the film. We wanted our foreground twins to sort of pop against a more painterly defocused background.

Anamorphic or spherical? I am definitely more in the world of spherical glass. I think that in my heart I am a ‘realist’ and I like to relish in the beautiful reality of the world. For certain projects, where I’m shooting something very romantic and I want the world to look photographically artificial, then I will employ anamorphic glass. I shoot a fair bit of ‘beauty’ work in the commercial world, and anamorphics can be great for that.

Do you prefer to invest in lenses or cameras?
The investment in lenses is probably a safer bet. Camera formats come and go, but people are still shooting on lenses 100 years olds.

Posted 27 October 2016 by Tim Dams

Riding the drama boom

With drama production buoyant, there are concerns the scripted sector is facing a ‘sub-prime mortgage moment’.

Late last month, the cast of Netflix’s The Crown sat down for a read through of the entire second series of the £100m drama. The first series of the expensive royal biopic only launches in November, but Netflix is already committed to series two.

Four years ago Netflix wasn’t producing any originals – now it has 30 scripted shows in production. And this number will only rise as the company targets $6bn in content spend next year, and is aiming for a 50:50 split between original commissions and acquisitions.

Netflix is just one of many companies like HBO, AMC, Sky and Amazon to have clocked on to the power of expensive, high quality scripted to attract subscriptions and audiences. Amazon, for example, recently announced that it plans to double its budget for original content to an estimated $3bn.

British producers such as Left Bank (The Crown), Lookout Point (Amazon’s The Collection) and Archery Pictures (Sky Atlantic’s Riviera) have been a key beneficiary of this scripted boom, aided by tax breaks for high-end drama.

It’s a boom that will be highly visible at this month’s Mipcom TV market, which has a record number of international drama screenings including Carnival Films’ Jamestown, about the first British settlers in North America. Other big budget British-made dramas launching at Mipcom include Left Bank’s The Halcyon (below).

US TV networks will make 500 original scripted shows in 2017, almost 20% more than in 2015 – which was itself a record, said John Landgraf, chief executive officer of FX Networks this summer. “We are ballooning into oversupply, and that balloon will eventually deflate,” Landgraf said. “I continue to believe there is a greater supply of TV than can be produced profitably.”

BBC Worldwide chief executive Tim Davie also highlighted the growing competition in scripted last month when he noted that 1,310 international drama series have launched this year, calling it “a staggering number.” Davie was speaking at the RTS London Conference, where the scripted surge became a major talking point. 

Sky Vision boss Jane Millichip caught the ear of the broadcasting bosses in attendance when she warned that warned that the drama sector “could be heading for a sub-prime mortgage moment” if it didn’t invest wisely.
She pointed out that international distributors were investing heavily in drama. “There is a gap appearing in the international deficit and we need to be a little bit wary,” she said.

Millichip cited the example of zombie drama Z Nation (pictured below), produced by US indie The Asylum for cable network Syfy which was sold to Sky’s free to air service Pick in the UK. “I bet Pick wasn’t on their business plan when they forecast their UK licence fees,” she said.

Concerns about the amount of drama being produced run parallel with worries about the rising costs of making shows with film star casting and high levels of creative ambition.

Viewers demand higher quality and ultimately more expensive shows, said Kevin MacLellan, chairman of NBC Universal International. “This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the new reality. Increased choice has resulted in increased expectation.  So we as an industry need to figure out how to pay for all this new higher quality programming.”

Millichip put forward a few ideas for funding that doesn’t come from the international pot, including government funding, foundations, branded content or media agencies. Davie also said he was looking at third party money to fund drama. “There’s lots of capital out there.”

Few at the RTS conference believed the drama boom was likely to run out of steam soon though. Indeed many British broadcasters talked about their plans to push into the genre for the first time.

Virgin Media spoke of its plans to commission a slate of new dramas from All3Media indies, while UKTV’s director of commissioning Richard Watsham said the broadcaster will “definitely commit ourselves to drama.”

BBC1, meanwhile, has an extra £30m to spend on drama following the move of BBC3 online. The latter is still commissioning drama, including the upcoming Edinburgh University-set thriller Clique.

And Sky has an increasingly expensive drama slate, with shows such as The Young Pope, Hooten & The Lady, Tin Star (pictured below) and Guerilla.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos revealed that he is preparing to employ commissioners in the company’s London office amid plans to increase original productions in the UK. The OTT platform is already backing new British projects including Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and a four-part adaptation of Watership Down with BBC.

“Original programming gets more viewing,” said Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos, who explained that originals are good for customer acquisition and help to distinguish Netflix from rivals.

However, the growth in drama investment was also welcomed by many panellists at the conference. Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt welcomed the millions of pounds being invested in drama by the likes of AMC, citing its co-production Humans which was shot in Britain and “did extraordinarily well for us and also did incredibly well for AMC.”

BBC Worldwide’s Davie also noted that dramas don’t need to be high concept or long running to succeed in the international market place. “Happy Valley worked beautifully for me,” he said

And Stephen Lambert, chief executive of Studio Lambert, said it wasn’t too late for indies like his to push into the genre. Lambert, who is making a three-parter for BBC1 about the Rochdale sexual abuse scandal, said: “The only way to de-risk is if you have enough irons in the fire so that the hits pay for the failures.”

NBC Universal ceo Steve Burke also suggested that companies like his would continue to invest heavily in big budget drama. “Today the middle of the market is just gone. There’s no such thing as an okay show. People will do whatever they can to find one of those great big breakthroughs.”

Posted 13 October 2016 by Tim Dams

Mipcom: pick of the British shows

The international market is awash with new dramas, and many of them will be making their debut at this month’s Mipcom international programme sales market, which kicks off in Cannes this month (17-20 October).

Here we highlight some of the top UK shows heading to the Riviera. Drama dominates the selection here. Other big dramas screening at Mipcom include Carnival Films’ tale of the first British settlers in North America, Jamestown, and Company Pictures’ The Missing 2 (both have official screening slots).

As ever, there will be a big British contingent at the market. Some 2,000 of the 14,000 participants are from the UK this year, according to Mipcom organisers Reed Midem.

Riviera (Drama)
Producer Archery Pictures/Primo Productions
Sky Atlantic
Sky Vision
Riviera’s south of France setting is bound to prick the interest of buyers at Cannes - as is the talent attached to this Sky Atlantic thriller set in the opulent world of the ultra-rich.
Created by Oscar-winning writer and director Neil Jordan, and co-written by Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, the 10-part series stars Julia Stiles, Adrian Lester, Iwan Rheon and Lena Olin.
Sky Vision’s director of drama and comedy Kylie Munnich said: “From the powerful opening scenes, buyers and audiences will be hooked by this visually stunning, original drama, set in a world we could only dare hope to know.”
Riviera launches on Sky Atlantic in 2017.

The Halcyon
Left Bank
Broadcaster ITV1
Distributor Sony Pictures Television
Left Bank’s 1940s set drama is one of the buzz titles at Mipcom this year, with a world premiere screening on the Sunday night of the market.
The Halcyon tells the story of a glamorous five-star hotel at the centre of London society at the start of World War Two. Starring Steven Mackintosh and Olivia Williams, it shows life in the capital through the prism of war, and the impact it has on families, politics, relationships and work, set to the music of the era.
Sony’s president of distribution Keith LeGoy said: “This new series has it all: exceptional writing, gripping storylines, a spectacular setting and a stellar cast.”

Rillington Place (Drama)

Producer A BBC Studios production in association with Bandit Television
Broadcaster BBC1
Distributor BBC Worldwide
Hollywood stars Tim Roth and Samantha Morton lead the cast in this drama about serial killer John Reginald Christie and the miscarriage of justice that saw a man hanged for a crime he didn’t commit.
The 3x60 drama is directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and written by Ed Whitmore (He Kills Coppers) and Tracey Malone (Born To Kill). BBC Worldwide’s president of global markets Paul Dempsey, said: “A true crime story starring world class talent combined with executive producer Phillippa Giles, known for her work on the award winning Luther and Silent Witness amongst others, at the helm, makes for a great drama.” 

The Level (Drama)

Prod Company Hillbilly Films
Broadcaster ITV1
Distributor DRG
ITV crime drama The Level leads distributor DRG’s slate at Mipcom.
Starring Philip Glenister, Karla Crome and Laura Haddock, it’s glossy thiller that tells of a young detective (Crome) and her loyalty to a drugs trafficker (Glenister). She is sent back to her home town to help solve a murder, to which she’s inextricably linked, but her past begins to cast a dangerous shadow and she has to fight to stay one step ahead of her colleagues – and the killer.
EVP content & acquisitions at DRG Noel Hedges said: “British Crime series have long been popular with international buyers and we have good early interest for this title, as well as some early pre-sales.”

Gun Shop (Factual)

Producer Rogan Productions
Broadcaster C4
Distributor Cineflix Rights
A British documentary set in a US gun store, this film explores one of the most contentious issues in America. “It’s the type of high quality, fixed rig character-led shows in demand from buyers all around the world,” says Cineflix’s Chris Bonney.

Common Sense (Entertainment)

Producer Studio Lambert
Broadcaster BBC2
Distributor All3Media International
The latest show from format kings Studio Lambert, Common Sense is comedy round up of the week’s top talking points - brought to life by ‘normal’ people in everyday situations – at work, on a tea break or relaxing in a bar.

Exodus (Factual)

Producer Keo Films
Broadcaster BBC2
Distributor Hat Trick International
BBC2’s acclaimed series captured the personal stories behind the migration crisis, giving 75 cameras to people embarking on perilous journies to Europe. Hat Trick International’s Sarah Tong calls it a series that is highly relevant for a global audience.”

Posted 12 October 2016 by Tim Dams

London Film Festival: best of British

The London Film Festival might not have the stature of A-list festivals such as Cannes, Toronto or Berlin (just 14 of its 246 features are world premieres), but it is an excellent showcase for British talent and the best of world cinema.

Some 29 British features play in the line up, from established UK directors through to first time feature directors.

Festival director Heather Stewart says the UK film industry is in good health, emphasising the “breadth of UK talent on display” at the festival. She compares Amma Asante’s ‘impassioned’ opening drama A United Kingdom with Ben Wheatley’s closing night gala Free Fire (pictured above), a ‘freewheeling, kinetic shoot-em-up’. Says Stewart: “You couldn’t find two more different films.”

Casting her eye through the programme, she picks out two films by British directors playing in the first feature competition: theatre director William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (pictured above), an adaptation of an 1865 Russian novella about a young bride unhappily married to a wealthy mine owner, and debut writer/director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (below), about a young vet and her garrulous father struggling to maintain their Somerset farm. “Both of them are terrifically assured debut feature films,” says Stewart.

Elsewhere, new British talent is on display in Lone Scherfig’s gala feature Their Finest (below), which is scripted by Gaby Chiappe, who cut her teeth on EastEnders and Holby City and also has credits including Shetland and The Paradise.

The crossover between television and film is also apparent in comedy Mindhorn (below), scripted by The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt and co-writer Simon Farnaby. It’s the story of a washed up 1980s TV detective with a robotic eye that allowed him to literally ‘see the truth’.

Sightseers actress Alice Lowe also makes her directorial debut with dark comedy Prevenge (below). Lowe also takes the lead role as a pregnant serial killer – filmed while she was seven months pregnant. Lowe has a ‘unique voice’, says Stewart, noting the film’s ‘energy and inventiveness.’

Elsewhere, Garth Tunley, who previously starred In Kill List, turns director in inventive low budget Brit thriller The Ghoul; and Joseph Adesunloye also makes his debut in the cinematic White Colour Black, about a mixed heritage man exploring his Black British identity in Senegal. Stewart picks Paul Anton Smith’s first feature – Have You Seen My Movie? (below)– as one of the standouts of the festival. It’s a ‘totally brilliant’ montage of footage gleaned from hundreds of films which explores the cinema going experience.

Meanwhile, Shoola Amoo’s feature debut Moving Image (below) explores the gentrification of Brixton, and is billed as a gently probing mash up of fiction, documentary and performance art.

Fittingly, there’s a strong London theme running through the festival. Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest (below) is an animated adaptation of Raymond Brigg’s autobiographical book, while Pete Travis’ latest City of Tiny Lights is billed as modern London-noir.

Posted 06 October 2016 by Tim Dams

London Film Festival: diversity in the frame

The London Film Festival has built a reputation for promoting diversity in the film industry.

Last year, it made a splash by shining a light on films made by and starring women, opening with Suffragette and including galas for features such as Brooklyn and Carol.

This year, the big talking point at the London Film Festival is films made by and starring black talent. They take a prominent place among the 246 features from 74 countries that will unspool over the course of the 12 day event (5-16 October).

So the opening night film is Amma Asante’s Belle follow-up, A United Kingdom, a true interracial love story about the King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the government at the time.

Festival director Clare Stewart describes the film as “really powerfully directed and beautifully elegant – it is fantastic to see Amma going from strength to strength as a director.”

The star of A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo, also takes the lead in gala film Queen of Katwe (below). Directed by Mira Nair, it’s the true and empowering story of a young Ugandan chess champion from an impoverished township in Kampala.

Stewart also picks out other “really strong films” in the headline gala and competition sections that illuminate the BAME talking point – including Nate Parker’s slave revolt biopic The Birth of a Nation; Spike Lee’s hip hop musical Chi-Raq (below); Ava DuVernay’s documentary feature The 13th, about the disproportionate incarceration rates for black men in the US; and Barry Jenkins’ coming of age film Moonlight.

This focus comes as the British film industry grapples with the under-representation of BAME talent in front of and behind the camera. Creative Skillset’s most recent employment census, for example, showed that BAME employment in film production stood at just 3%, despite people from BAME groups now representing 13% of the UK population.

The issue came to a head during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy ahead of the 2016 Academy Awards.

Before that, though, the BFI had make efforts to tackle the issue. Last year it rolled out its Three Ticks model – now renamed the BFI Diversity Standards – to ensure film productions backed by the BFI Film Fund reflected the diversity of the UK.

The BFI has also organised the Black Star season, billed as the UK’s biggest ever season of film and television dedicated to the achievements of black actors in film and television. The Black Star season immediately follows the LFF, and Stewart says she wanted the festival to ‘amplify’ the Black Star programme.

The Festival’s headline industry event – the Black Star Symposium – will explore why opportunities for black actors to shine on screen in the United States and the UK remain limited, and debate what more can be done to effect change. Speakers include Oyelowo, Asante and directors Noel Clarke, Julie Dash and Barry Jenkins.

However, Stewart acknowledges that it would be a difficult talking point to sustain if there had not been enough films at the festival from black talent to help focus the debate.

Fortunately, says Stewart, “it’s a particularly strong year for black stories making it to the screen.”

Posted 05 October 2016 by Tim Dams
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