In this month’s Storyboard, a Renaissance for Huge, Wonky gets writer’s block and Stink heads to a swingers’ pool party
Da Vinci’s Demons titles
These are Huge Design’s titles for the second season of the Starz network’s US show Da Vinci’s Demons, a retelling of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. The director of the titles was Paul McDonnell with art direction by Hugo Moss and Tamsin McGee. The lead illustrator was Nathan Mckenna and the composer Bear McCreary.
Titanfall intro movie
Spov mixed archive and cgi for its intro movie for the Xbox One First Person Shooter game, Titanfall
For the intro movie for innovative Xbox One multiplayer game, Titanfall, Spov’s Dan Higgot and Allen Leitch decided against the traditional “performance capture and dire dialogue” route often followed by game intros. Instead, the film is a mix of space-race archive and stunning cg vistas of alien worlds.
“It was our job to put some meat on the bones of where the action’s happening and the universe it was all happening in,” says Spov founder Allen Leitch. “Respawn [the game’s developer] were adamant that it was a human universe the game was talking place in. It was our world not a parallel dimension. That’s why we kicked of with archive footage of the space race and life on Earth.”
The look and feel they wanted was “much more about describing the beauty of space,” says md Dan Higgot. “We’d actually watched Lawrence of Arabia when preparing the pitch thinking about the beautiful strange places on Earth that we could use to film this plausible alien environment, rather than making it fantastical or Star Trek-y.”
An influence also came from shots taken on Nasa’s Cassini mission to Saturn that had a “really peculiar and particular quality,” says Higgot. They had a “very subdued colour palette and a very clear light. Because it was authentic footage from space we felt that we could use it as part of our aesthetic. We weren’t trying to make science fiction but for it to look, to the best of our knowledge, like space travel would look like.”
The sparse subdued palette also extended to the script, which contains only a tiny amount of dialogue. “You need something enigmatic, not something overly expositional,” says Leitch. “We were pushing for it to be devoid of dialogue, but I can see why it needs to be there.”
“You have to be economical,” agrees Higgot. “You have to tell the right amount to set the scene but not too much. With this movie as with many others we had a back and forth conversation with the client about what should be in the script. There’s a tendency to want everything but if you have too many narrative points to hit it’s just rushed and overwhelming.”
And in the end, the client gave Spov a lot of space. “One of the main points in our brief was ‘don’t fuck it up.’ We’ve been assured that we didn’t,” says Leitch. “They trusted our judgement and vision and processes in terms of how we were going to make it look and what the final result was going to be. They placed a lot of confidence in us.”
Loud Like Love
This is Stink director Saman Kesh's latest video for Placebo for the track Loud Like Love. It's a follow up to last year's Too Many Friends and again features the voice of American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis who reveals another unfortunate sequence of details and events – this time at a 1960s swingers' pool party.
Writers’ Block is a short film written and directed by Tom Gran and Martin Woolley (AKA The Spin Kick Brothers) and produced by Wonky Films with the support of IdeasTap. Set in a prison for criminally poor writers, it follows a gang of cons who get hold of the script to their own lives and attempt to re-write it in order to make their escape.
Blinkink’s The Layzell Brothers transformed real telephone conversations into a surreal animated series for Three Mobile through Wieden + Kennedy London. Clips were taken from real customers calling Three Mobile’s free compliment line, the nickname line, the time-wasting line and the lullaby line, and transformed into animated vignettes.
Intro designed the opener for BBC Sport’s 2014 Formula One coverage. Idris Elba voices the film that introduces the new era of turbo-charged, power-train-driven F1 cars which means F1 must be 'sculpted from scratch' with a new 'Goddess of Speed standing on the start-line ready to blow you away…' It was ordered by BBC Sport's Richard Gort and directed by Julian Gibbs.
For BBC1’s WW1 drama about a military field hospital, the production team built a frontier town from scratch. Jon creamer reports
Writer and executive producer Sarah Phelps and production designer Cristina Casali explain how they brought a 1915 First World War field hospital to life with contemporaneous photographs, plans and diaries and US drama Deadwood as inspiration
How did you initially think the camp should look? SP These hospitals grow like mushrooms. They start off in 1914 as a few tents, an operating theatre, a couple of wards and ‘we’ll be home by Christmas having spanked the Hun’s arse and sent him home without his tea.’ But they grow and grow. I looked at maps of hospitals and plans and by the end of 1918 they are like cities. So I thought about it like Deadwood in that every day it changes and grows and builds and gets new little nooks and crannies and dark corners where things happen. It’s such a rich environment. There’s always people coming in, and everyday people are leaving.
What about the detail of the camp? SP It’s very ‘army’ but at the same time hotch-potch and mend-and-make-do. Everything’s stuck together and comes from other campaigns. They were these formal army spaces but people lived in them and amongst all this army discipline and teetering towers of paperwork there are odd little objet trouvé that people had picked up. Anywhere there’s a war there’s stuff left by the side of the road – pianos, an ornament or bits of china and it drifts its way into this formal military atmosphere of the hospital so it is both utterly army and at the same time messy and chaotic.
How did you find the location? CC We went for a recce to Le Touquet in northern France. It’s this Victorian rich persons’ playground in the grounds of a beautiful pine forest. The sea and the pine forest were what we were looking for. Then we looked around Bath, Bristol and Wales. We eventually chose Charlton Park in Wiltshire because it has got a big pine forest, mature pines, and it’s quite flat. It worked really well. We did a fair bit of work to it, we put a big road in and then built our camp with its perimeter walls and tents and buildings.
What was the overall feel you wanted to create? CC The feel I wanted to capture was that it was a frontier town, so everything’s made locally from the same type of wood. The camps had to be extremely organised in their layout and be as efficient as possible in terms of not wasting money so they have a starkness to them. From the photographs in The Imperial War Museum, it’s like watching Deadwood grow. There’s nothing in the distance just lines of tents going up. It’s the frontier and they’re pioneers, they’re making things with their hands out of bare wood. The photos we found in the Imperial War Museum were a constant source of inspiration. We had them all up in the design office and made a bible from them and distributed to them to everybody. I relied on them.
How did you find the medical equipment? CC For the medical instruments there are people who collect stuff and they are willing to hire it out for close ups. There’s a lot around but there were various things we had to invent. Traction was just in its infancy. That was fun to try to work out. The start of the series is set so early in the war when everything was quite ad hoc. They had people in the UK knitting blankets and gloves and scarves and sending their old blankets and eiderdowns and things. It wasn’t just the bog standard get 500 beds all the same as they didn’t have enough resources to do that. There are plans and handbooks about setting up camps that we found but they are an idealised version of what really happened.
What about the tents and buildings themselves? CC We were going to be outside in a field all through the summer, autumn and winter so the practicalities of filming had to be looked at. The tents had to be a certain weight as they had to survive us filming in them as well as the winter. They had to be completely watertight which most canvas tents aren’t so we used a new fabric that’s completely waterproof but looks like canvas. It’s made in Denmark and we had it made in various colours and then brought it over to a guy in Bradford who stitched it all together. He had to pattern cut each tent. When they arrived on set they were crisp and lovely so we had to break them down and age them.
The Crimson Field is BBC1’s First World War drama set in a burgeoning field hospital in northern France in the early days of the war. Production
BBC Drama Production Length
6x60-minutes BBC executive producer
Anne Pivcevic Writer and executive producer
Sarah Phelps Commissioned by
BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson and Danny Cohen (when BBC1 controller) Cast
Suranne Jones, Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Kerry Fox Producer
Annie Tricklebank Directors
David Evans, Richard Clark and Thaddeus O’Sullivan Editors
David Head, Peter Oliver, Victoria Boydell Composer
Rob Lane Colourist
Vince Narduzzo DoPs
Tim Flemning, Matt Gray Production designer
Cristina Casali Post production
Outpost Facilities Camera
In this month’s Storyboard, MPC built this kitty for Three; Art & Graft takes a trip for Virgin and Glassworks keeps it Raw for G star
MPC and Traktor
MPC animated the singing kitty for W+K and Traktor’s brilliant new Three Mobile spot. MPC’s vfx team developed and animated a digital double of the real cat, Bronte, complete with skeleton, muscle structure, luxurious fur and singing talent. As the real Bronte has fur with substantial depth, the team looked at other breeds for reference like the hairless Sphynx as their shoulder blades and wrists are easier to study. Bronte was also given a bath so MPC could study him while he was wet to better see his joint movements. MPC used proprietary software tool Furtility to develop Bronte’s fur, and filmed an actor singing the song’s lyrics, along with references of cats yawning and snarling, to capture the mouth movements for Bronte.
This is Blinkink director Noah Harris’ “psychedelic and elemental promo” for Julio Bashmore’s track Peppermint. It’s billed as an “extreme descent into a deep, immersive chasm of in-camera graphic design and propulsive stop-frame animation.” The execs were Bart Yates and Nathan James Tettey and the producer was Debbie Crosscup.
G Star RAW film
Glassworks made this film for The New York Fashion Week launch of G Star denim’s ‘RAW for the Oceans’ line – denim made from plastic bottles and junk littering the oceans. The film’s simplistic style was created using traditional hand-drawn, cell animation to bring Otto the Octopus to life. Pharrell Williams provided the music.
Art & Graft
Virgin Atlantic’s new inflight safety film Trip, was created by Art & Graft. The film combines an illustrative approach with 3D and 2D techniques. All the character animation was made using traditional frame-by-frame techniques. “Elements were modelled in 3D, allowing us to ’wrap’ our illustrations around them giving the scenes fantastic depth and space,” says Art & Graft.
Quite Frankly and Prime Focus created this high speed and cg film for Omega to promote its involvement in the Winter Olympics.
Inspired Films and Trainor Davies Design completed this paper-based animated campaign for Macmillian cancer charity.
Fine Living rebrand
BDA Creative has rebranded the full on-screen and off-screen design system for lifestyle channel Fine Living. The idents show various objects from the five Fine Living pillars – home, travel, cuisine, wellbeing and style – floating elegantly through different bespoke environments before coming together to create the master channel logo.
Director Daryl Goodrich and Centre Screen had to sum up what it really takes to be an Olympic athlete – in 180º. Jon Creamer reports
Production house Centre Screen won the bid the create the AV content for the newly re-opened Olympics Museum in Lausanne. They brought in Daryl Goodrich, the filmmaker behind the London 2012, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and Qatar World Cup 2022 bid films, to create the centre piece of the museum. Goodrich raided the Olympic film archive, projecting key moments on to various surfaces mixed with new timelapse and high-speed imagery to create a 5K 180º surround-sound film that could sum up an Olympian’s experience.
Goodrich has an enviable track record directing sports films having made the bid films for a run of successful World Cup and Olympics bids including London 2012. For Inside the Race, he had to create a museum-based film that could play on a 180º screen and encapsulate the pain, determination and elation of an athlete performing at the Games.
What was the brief?
The film was to be the main attraction for the newly rebuilt Olympic Museum and had to be about everything the Olympics stands for including the Winter and Summer Games with a balance between men and women, individuals and teams.
What was the idea behind the film?
Within the narrative we focused on five different emotions – focus, concentration, pain, desire and determination – reflecting the stages that an Olympian goes through while taking part in the competition. The film is almost like a three act structure and within those three acts there are the moments that every athlete goes through – preparing themselves psychologically and physically, the barrier that every athlete faces and the difference between crossing it and not crossing it.
What was your starting point?
Given the budget we couldn’t recreate the Olympics. There was no way we could recreate the 100 metres final and make it look convincing so we knew we were going to be working with archive material. But everyone’s seen a lot of this material before so I was really keen to take ownership of it and make it look original and give it a whole new life.
What archive was available to you?
We had access to the whole back catalogue so there was a lot of material from the Olympic Broadcast Service and the International Olympic Committee. We were quite specific in what we were looking for though – moments that would fit in these chapters we were creating.
What else did you want to do with the archive?
Once we got a core series of clips together we started to do a rough offline to build this narrative structure. But we still needed to be able to create ownership of this footage. That’s when we started to project it against other materials, materials stretching and being torn to represent the sinews of muscles pulled to their max. We set up a whole series of rigs with materials in vices so they were being tightened and stretched. We had tabletops full of pins and projected the archive against them, we had razor blades, paint bubbling under heat. It was like being a student again.
Was projecting the archive a practical consideration too?
Some of it’s in 16mm, some of it’s in 8mm, some of it’s black and white, it’s a whole mixture of things. It was going to look like a mish mash. We projected it and then reshot it in HD as it gave us the ability to be able to blow it up to the size required. This approach meant that it didn’t matter what format the archive footage was in, it would be given a new lease of life and shown in a completely unique light.
What did this 180º format entail?
I’d never worked on this format before. In the exhibition, everything’s being projected from five projectors to make the format. So for the time-lapse stuff on the mountain at Jungfrau and the Rome Olympic stadium we shot on a rig with three HD stills cameras. The archive projections we reshot at 5k but also we created compositions so you’re focusing in and then exploding it out to full frame. Editorially and visually it just adds to the drama and impact of the experience.
Could you use the width of the format much?
Early on in the process I wanted to take the viewer on a journey across the screen but actually that’s almost trying to be too clever. It can be a bit of an overload. The viewer’s focus is on the middle of the screen and everything else becomes a bit peripheral. It’s too distracting and you can lose the focus of the story.
Was it a steep learning curve to make this instead of a standard format film?
Luckily I made sure I had a DoP who’d done a lot of wide format museum films before and the editor was also technically very good, so I just minced around in the middle.
Details Executive director and producer
Dave Postlethwaite (Centre Screen) Director
Daryl Goodrich DP
Jon Pegler (Centre Screen) Motion graphics
Ben Adam Harris and Daniel Lusby (Centre Screen) Editor
Paul Trewartha Sound design
Bent Ear Exhibition design
Mather & Co Cameras
Canon 5D’s (timelapse), Phantom (high speed), Red Epic (filming the projected imagery)
In this month’s storyboard, Trunk blows up Lily Allen, Blinkink bends time, Fieldtrip eats its spinach and Blac Ionica heads towards the stars
Lily Allen promo
Trunk’s Alasdair+Jock were commissioned by Sam Seager at Parlophone to create a lyric video for Lily Allen’s new song Air Balloon. The balloon writing fills and deflates bursting with little puffs of smoke. The producer was Richard Barnett, the illustrator was Jock Mooney and animation was by Layla Atkinson, Pedro Lino, Alasdair Brotherston and Leslie Dart.
Passion directing team Tendril provided the animation and design for an interactive HTML5 story and game ordered by the Royal Canadian Mint to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Canadian Arctic Expedition. Parents and children use the site to retrace the epic voyage of the 1913 HMCS Karluk crew.
citroen in space
Blac Ionica created this launch spot for the new Citroen Grand C4 Picasso, a seven seater big enough to fit a family of astronauts. The ad was ordered through Havas Worldwide. The lead animator was Barney Hewlett, the lead compositor was Jamie Howlett. The grade was by James Banford at The Mill and sound design was at Angell Sound.
Becky & Joe
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared II, “an unsettling lesson in the dangers of time and the perils of metaphysical introspection” is the sequel to Blinkink directors Becky & Joe’s original mind-bending viral Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. It was created using a combination of puppetry, 2D animation and stop-motion models with lyrics and music written and composed by Becky & Joe.
Fieldtrip animation team againstallodds got to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Popeye in this animated spot for Hill Holliday and Bank of America. To achieve the look of the motion and characters, the directors studied original model sheets from the 1930’s as well as the full animations created from them. Each frame of the spot was hand drawn, but on a tablet instead of paper. The final animation was then put through an ageing process. Shadows were added to characters and cast against the background to create the effect of an overlaid cell. Colours were muted, hues shifted, and scratches and grain were added to give the animation a filmic quality. (video to come)
Plenty’s VW ad
Jelly London directors Plenty created five TV spots through DDB Mexico for VW showing the car’s eco credentials with a paper folding ad.
For Hidden Kingdoms, the NHU drops the viewer directly into the world of tiny, unseen animals. Exec producer Mike Gunton tells Jon Creamer about filming life through a tiny lens
It has a very different look to most NHU shows. Was that intentional?
Yes, but not for the sake of it, it was driven by the editorial intent. You can’t explore the miniature world beneath our feet in a conventional way – either photographically or narratively – the physics of that world are so small and move so fast and the creatures live in such extraordinary ways that we had to reimagine natural history filmmaking. We’ve evolved almost a new sub genre of natural history.
The viewer’s dropped in amongst the action,why?
Because it’s such a bizarre world it was really important we find a way of putting the viewer in the world. The impetus was to try to film these animals as if they were big animals. If you could shrink yourself to their size and film them as if you were filming a lion, how would you film it?
There’s also a real comedic tone to the programmes
That comes from the animals. Everything they do is intrinsically quite funny. All the dials are turned up to 11 so their reactions, their behaviour and their interactions are quite comic. It seemed to us to be a real mistake to not let their character shine through.
You’ve also added lots of cartoonish sound effects
Their acoustic world is quite different so we wanted to create a world where the sounds are slightly out of our experience. And we have had a bit of fun with some of the larger than life sounds to help people engage. We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to get people to break out of their traditional way of looking at nature and saying ‘come down into this world.’
The sequences are very pieced together and constructed, why?
If you’re watching a lion hunt, you can gather lots of images from one vantage point but a mouse is in and out of frame in two seconds. To cover its story we have to remember what it did and build, almost from a storyboard, a shot list of shots you need to recreate the story you know you’ve seen already. There is a construction about it, it’s a reconstruction. This is atypical, but people accept that even in a traditional wildlife film you are showing highlights.
Compositing also plays a big part of that
Compositing is a significant part of it. The reason is the physics or optics of the photography. If you want to capture your animal and its perspective in the same shot, there’s no way we could create an image other than by taking two separate images and compositing them. It’s a solution to an editorial issue which can’t be solved by traditional photography. In other films you don’t have that challenge.
There also seems to be a greater intensity to the photography on this series
Yes, because there’s an intensity to the animals’ lives. Every second of their lives they’re hunting or being hunted. And we have moved to shooting on 4k Red cameras. There is something about the response of that sensor that does give you very vivid pictures. Because we’re shooting raw it gives us the opportunity to get the colours to be as rich as possible. The colours and the detail are very vivid. We’re always trying to give every close up detail, every strand of fur, every whisker, every scale on the foot of a lizard or piece of dust flying through the air
Did you dial it up in the grade?
Because we shot these raw it does give you much more of a palette in the grade and it does allow you to make sure the textures and colours are really vivid.
This show has elements of Life in the Undergrowth but you’ve tilted the camera upwards too
Undergrowth was a very observed approach. This is not under the microscope but in it. Rather than looking down at the subject you get the sense of what it looks like for them, that is the fundamental difference. And technology has come on since Life in the Undergrowth.
What have been the big changes to allow this show?
General miniaturisation. When shooting a lion or an elephant you might take tracks, a steadicam, ultra high-speed cameras, time-lapse cameras. That’s miniaturised down. That visual grammar that you see in normal scale films is transposed into this miniature world. None of these techniques has been completely invented but all been reimagined and rehacked to bring them into this world.
You’ve also shot in 3d?
We’ve been running 3d cameras in parallel, which has involved some re-engineering. We worked with Peter Parks on that. We’re doing a giant screen version of it for BBC Earth that will go to institutions and museums and some theatrical release as well as TVs. On the giant screen these animals do literally become the size of elephants.
details The BBC Natural History Unit’s three part Hidden Kingdoms focuses on the unseen worlds of tiny creatures in various habitats around the globe. The camera takes the perspective of the creatures and the show uses compositing and reconstruction, as well as hints of comedy, to tell the stories and immerse the viewer in those worlds. Commissioner Kim Shillinglaw Executive producer Mike Gunton Series producer Mark Brownlow Producer/directors Gavin Maxwell; Verity White; Simon Bell Photography Rod Clarke; Mark Payne-Gill; Robin Cox; Rob Drewett; Kevin Flay; Jonathan Jones; Tim Shepherd; Alastair Macewen Additional photography Mat Thompson; Howard Bourne; Keith Brust Vfx Burrell Durrant Hilfe Music Ben Foster Film editors Andrew Chastney; James Taggart; Stuart Napier Sound editors Tim Owens; Kate Hopkins; Max Bygrave Colourist Tony Osborne
For the BBC’s new Musketeers series, creator Adrian Hodges had to avoid thigh-slapping cliches while retaining the novel’s sense of adventure. Jon Creamer reports
The Musketeers is Adrian Hodges’ take on the Alexandre Dumas story for BBC1. The 10-part series takes its inspiration from the book but creates new weekly adventures for the famous characters. He explains the creative process
This is not a straight adaptation of the novel. Why?
I didn’t want to adapt the book. That would have locked us into doing a serial with a closed ending. I thought a ‘story of the week’ format with a serial element was the way to go. There are a lot of new shows, particularly from American cable, that are serials and very good but it gets harder and harder to generate new series of those.
What was the tone you wanted to achieve?
It’s a tricky genre; there are many traps in it. If you’re lucky you can make the Pirates of the Caribbean at the comedic end of the spectrum but that is the law of diminishing returns. The other way to go is very dark, very dangerous and very grim, like Game of Thrones. My view was you could have an action adventure but you could also do something that had a realistic background with real consequences and real dramatic tension and danger to it. The danger with this swashbuckling genre is it can be a little bit inconsequential if you’re not careful.
What did you want to do with the characters?
People have a view of what the Musketeers are but we wanted to go a little deeper. Aramis is famous as a womaniser but what are the consequences of that? With Porthos everyone knows him as the drunk fat guy. He’s not that in our show. He’s certainly a larger than life character, but he has a very real background. One of the things not widely known was that Dumas’s father was black. That’s one of the reasons we made Porthos a mixed race character because I wanted to refer to that.
How faithful were you to the period setting?
We’re not recreating 17th century France. If we did nobody would watch. Our show is explicitly a modern show very much in a modern idiom. What you can do is use history as a reference point but we didn’t want to get bogged down. The whole issue of what makes something modern is difficult. Clearly we know what makes Sherlock modern because they literally take it out of Victorian times and put it in the present day. But it’s also an attitude and a way of looking at things. I don’t think of The Musketeers as a period drama, I think of it as an action adventure series. In many ways it’s outside of its period but that’s not to say we weren’t authentic where we could be. But if it’s drama versus history, drama’s always going to win.
Where was it shot?
All the location shooting and studios are in Prague, the cg was done in Prague but the post was done in London. It is of course a financial consideration but it’s also because there are locations available in Prague that you simply can’t reproduce in England or France.
You’re an exec producer as well as lead writer, did you take a showrunner role?
It’s a show I conceived and a show where I was involved in every detail of its production and every detail of its writing. I worked very closely with the other writers, with Jessica Pope, Colin Wratten. It’s a very collaborative process.
How involved were you in production?
I was out in Prague for every block of shooting and I was there far more than I have been on any other show before. When the BBC and I agreed we would do it I was looking to do it in a way much closer to the American showrunner model. The revival of American drama has been so spectacular in the last few years that the days when the writer would simply deliver a script and then walk away are probably gone. For me the way it looks, the costumes, it’s all part of the same deal.
How does that work in practice?
It’s just as case of collaborating as closely as you can with all the key people. You spend an awful lot of time talking together about what you want the show to be and also what you don’t want it to be. Then a lot of decisions would be referred between us. It’s a continuing conversation and it’s about keeping an eye on the detail all the time.
What about the editing process?
The directors always do their own first cut, I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to cut the film but when they deliver a cut, Jessica Pope, Colin Wratten and myself will look at that cut and give them comments. It’s not about writers taking charge but everybody collaborating. I don’t want to imply I told everybody how to do their jobs, that would be absurd. It’s just about making sure everybody’s on the same page all the time
Adrian Hodges’ new Musketeers series stars Luke Pasqualino, Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera and Howard Charles in the title roles along with Peter Capaldi, Tamla Kari and Hugo Speer. It’s a BBC Drama Production for BBC One, co-produced with BBC America in association with BBC Worldwide Creator, lead writer, executive producer
Adrian Hodges Executive producer
Jessica Pope Producer
Colin Wratten Lead director
Toby Haynes Directors
Farren Blackburn Location manager
Jan Adler Art director
Martin Mal Script editor
Madeleine Sinclair Costume designer
Phoebe de Gaye Music
Murray Gold Production designer
William Hughes-Jones Cameras
Arri Alexa Picture post
Molinare Sound post
For the official Mandela biopic starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, Brit director Justin Chadwick had to capture the epic nature of Mandela’s life while also portraying a man made of flesh and blood. Jon Creamer reports
Making a film based on the life of Nelson Mandela would be a daunting task for any director.
Even before Mandela’s recent death (and this interview was conducted just days before) a biopic of such a universally respected figure had the weight of many people’s expectations pressing down on it.
So Justin Chadwick, whose CV takes in The Other Boleyn Girl and Bleak House along with EastEnders and The Bill, was reticent about signing on at first.
“At first I resisted it,” he says. “Mandela’s life represents 100 years of apartheid.” And it was the importance of that life that could stifle the film. South African producer Anant Singh had been shepherding the movie, based on Mandela’s official biography, to the screen for 16 years through various mooted directors. “I’d read a couple of the earlier drafts of the script and it was very reverential to the story and difficult to penetrate in terms of the characters,” says Chadwick. The danger was that the biopic of such a fascinating man could end up being boring.
The turning point came for Chadwick when he opened his Kenya-set movie, The First Grader, in South Africa. Producer Singh introduced him to Mandela’s friends and family. “I went for a cup of tea with Winnie and I was there for six hours.” And the personal relationships behind the politics started to come through. “I was able to find a way in to the story by showing them as men and women, husbands, mothers, fathers. We all know Mandela was a great politician but he boxed, he loved fast cars, he loved clothes, loved women. We show him and his flaws and that makes him real and gives an intimacy to the film.”
The approach was to be more City of God than Ghandi. “I was always talking about how we drop the audience in amongst it. To look at South American movies, look at anything that was away from traditional biopic or period movies. It was important for the crew to not just watch David Lean movies.” But as well as taking the influence of social realism on board “South Africa is a stunning country and we wanted a film that an audience would go to the multiplex to watch that had scale and car chases, that was exciting and visceral” while remaining real.
Creating cinematic scale while being in amongst the action also informed the decision to shoot on 35mm. “I’d been a big champion of HD but when I went to Kenya I shot The First Grader on two-perf 35mm, mainly because we were in a very remote community. You know that with a 35mm camera someone will be able to fix it. It’s a mechanical thing and it’s tough.” It’s also mobile. “You can grab a 35mm camera and be in amongst the crowd. It was freeing. We were able to go into areas that I’m not sure an HD camera would have done in the same way.”
It could also capture the beauty of Africa. “You project it and the level of detail is beautiful and that’s raw, we didn’t have to manipulate that. We were catching crowds, huge riot scenes, helicopter car chases. We needed a medium that would offer a sense of cinema and give it an epic quality.”
Scale combined with realism also came from a technique he’d used on The First Grader – to only use people from the actual communities he was shooting in as extras. The crowd was one of the stars of the film. “You can feel the crowd and that energy in the riot scenes.” During the final scene showing Mandela’s release, “we’ve got 1000 people from that community. We started the music off and the celebrations and within minutes there were 10,000 people there. The cameraman and me just carried on shooting. We got lost for half an hour. One of the line producers caught up with us shouting ‘you’ve got to have a release form from every single person here.’ Many had been there on the actual day. You could feel the emotion, and that informed the performances.”
The performances were also informed by the fact that real extras can’t take too many retakes. “Often we would use the very first take.” And that works for the actors too: “We’re not doing it over and over again. I’ll give the bones of the scene to the actors and we shoot two or three takes and, bang, we’ve got it. It’s very energising for the actors to have that clarity. Yes, you’re doing a movie and it’s got to be perfect but there can be energy behind it.”
The speed was also informed by the fact that this was an independent African movie, and there was a responsibility to “make sure the money went on to the screen” and not on spending days on take after take. And that’s where his TV background helped, says Chadwick. “That’s the training ground for British directors. We’ve got great TV and great crews that work in TV. Some of the crew that did Spooks and Bleak House and The Vice came with me and did Mandela. We know we’ve got to capture it quick. On Eastenders, when you’re doing 17 minutes a day, it prepares you.”
Justin Chadwick is the director of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. Chadwick starred in London Kills Me in 1991 followed by appearances in Heartbeat, Dangerfield, Dalziel and Pascoe, and others. His directorial debut was 1993 TV movie Family Style starring Ewan McGregor. He directed episodes of Eastenders; Byker Grove; The Bill; Spooks, and Red Cap before directing nine of the 15 episodes of the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. Following his movie The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) he directed the feature The First Grader, in 2010 that starred Naomie Harris.