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Tracey Ullman: one of a kind

It’s 30 years since Tracey Ullman last made a show for the BBC before becoming one of the few British stars to crack the US market in the 1980s.

Last seen on the BBC in Three of a Kind and A Kick up the Eighties, the comedian and one-time pop star started work on the Tracey Ullman’s Show for BBC1 since February.

Featuring impressions of Dames Judy Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as Camilla Parker Bowles, former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the show stems from an invitation last year to meet with BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore and head of comedy production Myfanwy Moore.“We hit it off,” says Ullman, who was struck by the number of women at the top of the corporation. “When I was there years and years ago, it was five men in bowties who talked about the war and The Goons…it was so male dominated.”

Out of the meeting sprung the idea of making a multi-camera show, in which Ullman looks at how Britain has become a multi-cultural melting pot. She portrays diverse characters living in, or visiting, the busy global hub that is the UK. Aimed primarily at a UK audience, Ullman clearly hopes the show has international legs too; it is being sold globally by DRG.

Ullman, who has dual UK-US nationality, is quick to dismiss perceptions that she is out of touch with the UK because of her long stint in the US. “People think I haven’t been in Britain for years, but I have – I just haven’t worked here.” Her daughter lives and works in the UK, and her husband Allan McKeown – who died in December 2013 – produced many TV and stage shows through his indie Allan McKeown Presents.

“Emotionally it was great to get out after having worked with my husband for 30 years,” says Ullman, adding that the show is a co-production with the BBC and Allan McKeown Presents. “So he is still presenting me…”
Ullman teamed up with a group of writers to script the show, many of whom had worked on Veep with Armando Iannucci, including Georgia Pritchett, Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, while The League of Gentleman’s Jeremy Dyson supervised the scripts. Dominic Brigstocke (I’m Alan Partridge, Green Wing) directs, while Caroline Norris (Raised by Wolves) produces. “It’s a quality group of people,” says Ullman.

The show was shot entirely on location, unable to secure studio space as the UK production sector is so busy with drama, film and TV shoots. “There was nothing available”, says Ullman. “But you can just be completely mobile now, and set up a video village anywhere.”

Ullman says the TV landscape has changed hugely since she last worked here. Moving to America in the 1980s, she was struck by the number of strong female comediennes on television, such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin. “I came from a country where we just had Benny Hill girls…you had to run around in a bikini in the early 1980s in England.” Ullman, Pamela Stephenson and French and Saunders were among the stars who helped shake it all up. “Thank God, it has changed so much,” she says.

Ullman is also quick to stand up for the BBC, endorsing Iannucci’s defence of the corporation in his MacTaggart lecture. “The BBC is under terrible threat. There are still lots of people at the BBC who don’t make a fortune, but want to make the best programming and aren’t affected by sponsors. If we lose it, it will be terrible.”

Tracey Ullman’s Show begins on Monday January 11 on BBC1 at 10.45pm

Posted 08 January 2016 by Tim Dams

Director Sue Bourne on The Age of Loneliness

“All I want the film to do is to start people talking,” says filmmaker Sue Bourne about her latest BBC1 doc, The Age of Loneliness. Best known for her single docs such as My Street, Mum & Me and Fabulous Fashionistas, Bourne’s latest tackles what she calls the silent epidemic of loneliness in the UK.

Greenlit by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore, it features 14 contributors talking frankly to camera about one of the last taboos in a society that professes to be more connected than ever.

It took Bourne and producer/cameraman Daniel Dewsbury (pictured) four months of research to find the right contributors, whittled down from 500 people who were contacted. The key challenge, she says, was how to tackle the issue without making a miserable film. She’s done this by speaking to the young and old – a student, a young mum and a divorcee as well as older contributors.  “Loneliness is almost as bad for young people as it is for their grandparents now. They are feeling disconnected. But they were the hard ones to get. They don’t like talking about it or admitting it.”

Bourne’s great skill as a documentary maker is pulling out the extraordinary from the apparently ordinary. She persaudes contributors to open up and tell stories that resonate with us all. “I do spend a long time getting to know them,” she admits.

She spent three months filming, all around the country. “I didn’t want it to be London-centric, I wanted to show that loneliness is everywhere.” The interviewees were filmed in their homes; Dewsbury used the new Sony FS7 and prime lenses. “This is not a point and shoot doc. This is beautiful portraiture of people in their space,” says Bourne.

Bourne accentuated the sense of loneliness everywhere by using a drone to film interviewees outside their homes – in towns, city suburbs and in the countryside: “It is like we are looking down on it on every street, in every community, in every part of the country.”

The Age of Loneliness airs tonight at 10.35 (7 January) on BBC1

Posted 07 January 2016 by Tim Dams

Tom Harper on directing War and Peace

The director of BBC1's War and Peace, Tom Harper, on the challenges of adapting Tolstoy’s classic novel for the small screen

Director Tom Harper’s credits include The Woman In Black 2, The Scouting Book for Boys, Peaky Blinders, Misfits and This is England ’86. For the past two years he’s worked on BBC1’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, from a script by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice). He directed all six episodes

How did you approach adapting such an epic novel? Reading the script and the book, it was very apparent to me that the characters still feel amazingly modern and vibrant – even though the book was written over 150 years ago. It felt very relatable to me living my life now. So I didn’t want to impose too much of a stylistic approach on it. I saw my role and my creative team’s role as bringing it to life for a contemporary audience, in as truthful a way as possible.

Were you influenced by the many other previous onscreen adaptations? I looked at the other very good adaptations – the (Sergei) Bondarchuk (1966) and the BBC (1972) versions. For all the wonderful things about them, they feel quite of their time. The Bondarchuk battle scenes are phenomenal, but I don’t think for a contemporary audience, after Saving Private Ryan, that you can just sit back and watch a battlefield from afar and for it to feel exciting. So you have to use a different visual language. If you are telling a story now, the audience expect different things – to feel like they are in it. It is about trying to convey what characters are experiencing and feeling at any given moment.

What were the key challenges for you as a director? The amount of preparation I needed to do. And also trying to keep it all in my head. There was so much going on, and so many different aspects to the shoot. It was also really hard just finding locations. In the UK we take for granted that we have all these historic houses that we haven’t touched for 500 years. Whereas in eastern Europe, that is not the case with two world wars and a revolution. That was why we were spread across three countries in the end.

And casting? The great thing about working on War and Peace is that people want to be involved with it. Working with great actors makes my job very easy.

What was it like shooting in Russia, Lithuania and Latvia? They all had different benefits and challenges. Russia has a different sort of infrastructure to the UK, and different working methods. And there is a language barrier. We often needed translators, which slows everything down. We had wonderful co-producers who made everything possible, like filming in St Petersburg outside The Winter Palace and at Catherine Palace. Naively, I thought we could turn up and be ready to go. But like every other modern city, St Petersberg has loads of traffic, street signs, cables and modern things that get in the way. But they gave us permission to close down streets, and film in the busiest areas. We also filmed during the white nights, when it is light all night. There’s a scene where Pierre is crossing the bridge in St Petersberg one evening. That was filmed at 1am in the morning. Lithuania had wonderful villages of wooden buildings, windmills, country roads and farms. And Lativa’s renovated Palace Rundale has lavish interiors which we used.

What did you shoot on?  Arri Alexa. Digital cameras offer a lot of benefits: you can shoot a lot, you can shoot quickly, you can shoot repeat takes, and we had a lot to get through. We used anamorphic lenses, not for the aspect ratio, but for the focus fall-off. The DoP George Steel filtered quite heavily to give it the feel of a period film, referencing big movies of the past.

Did it require a lot of vfx? Quite a lot, mostly for things that don’t exist, like Moscow in 1805, which was burnt down. We also used vfx for the battle scenes, for the replication of soldiers and lots of smoke addition. And also to paint out wires and aerials and modern stuff. Every time you go outside there are a lot of challenging things to avoid for a drama set 200 years ago. You could either pick a tiny spot and shoot there and limit your frame size or you shoot wider. We wanted to go as wide as we could – it’s such a big story that we want to see St Petersberg and the locations as much as possible.

What about the scale of the production? The speaking cast was 130, but the biggest days would involve 400-500 extras. There was a huge logistical and filming crew too – and over 220 locations. We were in Russia for about three and a half weeks, Latvia for three weeks and Lithuania for the rest of the six month shoot.

Posted 05 January 2016 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Stick Man

South African artists were instrumental in creating BBC1’s 
very English Christmas animation Stick Man

The animated films based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s books have quickly become something of a Christmas viewing tradition for British families. Since 2009, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom have all premiered on BBC1 on Christmas Day.

This year, it’s the turn of Stick Man. First published back in 2008, it’s the story of a happy-go-lucky father stick who is separated from his family and struggles to get back to them in time for Christmas.

Stick Man has the same quirky look and rich tone as its predecessors, and is again produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of indie Magic Light Pictures. But the production of Stick Man was very different. For a start it has a new director, London-based Jeroen Jaspaert, whose credits include CBeebies’ Bing Bunny.

The animation team is new too. Animation for the previous films was outsourced to Germany’s Studio Soi. This time, however, Magic Light chose South African animation studio Triggerfish to do all the prep work and production.

Magic Light’s Michael Rose said he tried to make the film in the UK and Europe again, but couldn’t get the £1.6m budget to work – despite the existence of the UK animation tax credit which has revitalised the UK sector. Stick Man, explains Rose, is the largest and most technically complex of the four films – with lots of sets, characters, water and snow. “Our £1.6m didn’t stretch far enough,” he says. “Whereas going to South Africa, not only do they have a 20% tax credit, but the exchange rate is very favourable, so we get a lot more value for our money.”

Rose says the South African animation industry is developing fast. He’d got to know Triggerfish in recent years, and had been impressed, citing projects such as Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba as examples of their “technically superb cgi work on a modest budget.” Rose adds: “We thought if we ally their cgi skills with our storytelling this could be a tremendous partnership.” A crew of about 75 people worked on Stick Man at Cape Town-based Triggerfish, overseen by co-director Daniel Snaddon.

Rose points out that a large proportion of the Stick Man work was done in the UK, including post, direction, sound, storyboard and development – on which Magic Light could claim the UK tax credit too.

Stick Man is also made in a very different way from its predecessors. The first three films were created by compositing cg characters over model sets. This gave the films a very distinctive, tactile feel. But, because Stick Man needed so many different environments – from a park, to woodland, rivers, the sea and homes – the whole project was produced in cg.

Even so, the ambition was to maintain the feel of the earlier films. “We wanted it to be as close as possible to the other films. Computers are always trying to smooth things out and you can get a very floaty effect that you see in some cheap TV animation. So the art was really to push the computers and artists involved, to base everything as closely as possible on real models and their imperfections.”

The team also spent a lot of time working on the snow and water scenes, which feature heavily in Stick Man. Both are difficult to get right in animation. “It’s tremendously complex getting water that looks like water, but that fits in the animated world,” says Rose.

Meanwhile, Magic Light attracted a high profile voice cast to Stick Man, including Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon and Sally Hawkins. Their voices were recorded in brief sessions just after the initial storyboard and animatics had been completed; the animators then used their voices to build their characters around. At the end of the process, the voice cast returned to do pick ups.

Post production was all done in the UK, and here Magic Light drew on people that it had worked with on the previous films: including sound designer Adrian Rhodes, editor Robin Sales and colourist Robin Pizzey. Rene Aubry again provides the original score, which emphasises Stick Man’s journey from happy times with his family to getting lost in the forest, and back home again.

In all, the production has taken over 18 months, and Magic Light is now turning its attention to a two-part animation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes for Christmas 2016 for BBC1. Magic Light hopes that Stick Man will have as wide an audience as its predecessors – which have sold to 180 countries.

Looking back, Rose says the big challenge has been to ensure a much loved book works in a new medium. “It has got to be a film which works in its own right. But we wanted the experience that families have of reading the book to translate to the screen.”

A half hour animated film based on the children’s picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Stick Man tells the tale of a happy go lucky father’s epic journey to make it home in time for Christmas

Production Company
Magic Light Pictures
Michael Rose and Martin Pope
Jeroen Jaspaert
Daniel Snaddon
Polly Hill
Line Producer
Mike Buckland
René Aubry
Sound Designer
Adrian Rhodes
Rob Pizzey
Robin Sales
Casting director
Karen Lindsay-Stewart       
Animation Studio
Triggerfish Animation Studios, Cape Town
Goldcrest Post
Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon, Russell Tovey, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville

Posted 09 December 2015 by Tim Dams

The graphics of Bond

Ever since the early days of 007, the on screen graphics have been an integral part of the Bond movies.  Key locations such as Q’s lab and the villain’s lair are lavishly equipped with monitors, screens, computers and phones – all filled with eye-catching high tech screen graphics.

For Spectre, the job of designing these complex graphics fell to Rushes MGFX Studio, led by Barry Corcoran, and John Hill of Vincent who joined the team as creative supervisor.

They worked closely with the Bond production team, including director Sam Mendes and DoP Hoyte van Hoytema, who wanted to capture all of the screen graphics in-camera. It meant all of the screens had to be populated with the graphics on set, rather than being added later in post production.

This would allow the actors to interact with the screens. “If you capture these things in camera, they look much better – with the light spill coming off onto their fingers and faces,” says Corcoran.

But it meant the design work had to start well in advance of initial shooting so it was ready for the start of the shoot.

The brief was to ground the graphics so they appeared realistic and believable, but had a ‘near future’ look which would still look fresh in years to come. For the MI6 technology, Rushes devised a proxy operating system, with an app-based, slightly military feel. “We wanted it to look and feel like an existing product that would be available in a few years time,” says Corcoran. Banks of monitors showed off this work in Q’s lab.

An even greater number of screens were used in villain Oberhauser’s lair, to display complex analytical data infographics and specially adapted news footage.

To lend a realistic feel to the graphics, the work was based on extensive research into areas such as nanorobotics and the latest military and medical thinking.

One scene, for example, sees Bond injected with a ‘smart bullet’ tracking device, with its journey into his arm followed on a computer screen. Rushes animated the hand and arm, and designed the smart bullet and showed its journey into his bloodstream. This five second shot took the Rushes team up to three weeks to create.

The graphics were often called on to showcase Bond’s gadgets. Here the Rushes team was briefed to not just show the graphics – but to help drive the narrative by explaining how they worked. The brief, says Corcoran, was, ‘Don’t show me a picture of a rocket launcher, I want to know the inner workings of it, and how it is going to rotate and where the switch is that Bond is going to flick.”

In all, a core team of four, which scaled up to nine when required, spent 13 months working on the motion graphics for Bond.

Posted 03 December 2015 by Tim Dams

Feature films buoy London's post production scene

Like a bespoke studio lot, Soho is home to an array of post production, vfx and sound facilities. A swathe of features have coursed through London this year, from tentpole features like Spectre and The Martian as well as British films such as Dad’s Army, The Program, The Lady in the Van and Youth.

And most companies say they continue to be busy with feature film work. “It’s buoyant,” says Steve Milne, executive chairman of Molinare, which has provided full post and vfx on Dad’s Army, completed DI on Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein and has just started work on Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie and is about to begin on James Marsh’s Deep Water starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. He predicts a vintage year in film for the post house in 2016.

Visual effects
Framestore head of film Fiona Walkinshaw also says the London post and vfx scene is very busy, pointing to the large numbers of films that are shooting in the UK – and the difficulty that many are having in finding studio space.

Framestore, which has 750 staff working in London, has recently provided vfx on films like Working Title’s Everest and StudioCanal’s Paddington, as well as big US tent pole The Martian directed by Ridley Scott which also shared its vfx work with MPC and The Senate.

Framestore has just started working on Andy Serkis’ take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book for Warner Bros, which Walkinshaw says will “probably be the biggest film that we have ever done – all the main characters are computer generated.” She reckons up to 250 people will work on Jungle Book: Origins at Framestore at its peak. 

London’s status as magnet for international talent and its reputation for quality, as well as the UK’s generous film tax credits, mean that the capital can more than hold its own in the increasingly global battle to win business from US studios.

Marvel, for example, has become a constant presence in London, carrying out vfx here on superhero films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and about to start on Doctor Strange.

Warners has also invested heavily in the UK since embarking on the Harry Potter films. It has developed Leavesden and acquired Soho facility De Lane Lea, while producing big budget features such as Pan, In the Heart of the Sea and The Man from Uncle.

The latest James Bond film, meanwhile, spread its work among a host of London post houses. Spectre's vfx work was shared between Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative, ILM, Peerless and Bluebolt, while Framestore worked on the iconic title sequence (pictured above).  Rushes supplied Spectre's impressive UI screen graphics, while Company 3's Greg Fisher was responsible for the grade.

Competition remains fierce, though, against countries such as Canada, the US, India and New Zealand. A number of UK vfx companies are reportedly downsizing in London at the moment, amid fears of a ‘race to the bottom’ between facilities looking to undercut each other on price to attract footloose US features.

However, Walkinshaw believes London will continue to hold its own, citing in particular the talent on offer in areas such as R&D and supervising shows. “London is incredibly innovative – it never ceases to amaze me how good senior London talent is,” she says, adding: “Our prices are competitive and the quality of the work is good and the talent base here is so strong.” It means US studios can feel confident in assigning work to London companies.

Digital advances
And there is ever more vfx work to do. Vfx houses are now completing more and more work on features as advances in computer technology allow effects to become ever more integral to the film-making process.

For example, some 65 of the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity were fully digital. “Being able to do something like that really wasn’t possible five years ago – you couldn’t have contemplated making that film and rendering it at photo-real quality.”

It means the shot counts handled by the likes of Framestore are rising dramatically. “We could end up doing 1000 shots on The Jungle Book, whereas seven or eight years ago 100 shots would have been a big award on a film,” says Walkinshaw.

A Marvel film might now contain 3000 shots or more, meaning that the work will be shared around multiple vfx houses in London.

This could rise further still. The leading vfx houses see great potential in creating ‘digital humans’ who can double up as actors in certain scenes. For the moment, it’s difficult to do as faces are so intricate and viewers are quick to spot a digital version that isn’t quite natural enough. But, says Walkinshaw, “We are getting very near to a place where we could create a digital human that would be believable in a shot.”

Full service post
By contrast, smaller budgeted British and European independent films work with many medium sized Soho facilities. Lipsync, for example, has recently worked on projects such as Trespass Against Us, Alone in Berlin, The Falling, A Royal Night Out and Mr Turner. The market, acknowledges Lipsync owner Peter Hampden, is very competitive “driven by challenging budgets.”

Lipsync offers all aspects of post, including sound, grade, flame and vfx, arguing that it can “maximise production resources and pass on economies of scale” to producers.

Hampden says its primary business is offering post services to TV and film producers. To help attract this business in a competitive market, Lipsync can also provide finance too, and began investing in features in 2007. This year it struck its 100th post investment deal with The Nice Guys, Joel Silver’s forthcoming film starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and directed by Shane Black.

Competitor Molinare has also been stepping up its presence in the film post market. With a long TV heritage, it only entered the film picture post market in 2005 and the film audio market in 2013 after a complete rebuild of its studios.

But it believes there are lots of opportunities for UK facilities in film. Milne reckons that the success of projects like Pride have helped Molinare’s audio reputation. “There used to be a clear gap between TV drama and independent film markets but now with talent moving seamlessly between the two, Molinare is well positioned to benefit.”

Tellingly the facility is working on Ken Loach’s next film – and also won picture post on Netflix’s £100m series The Crown, directed by Stephen Daldry – neatly demonstrating the wide range of projects that UK facilities are now working on.

Posted 02 December 2015 by Tim Dams

What the Dickens...?

Twenty-part BBC1 drama Dickensian is the most complex show Red Planet boss Tony Jordan has taken on to date.
“Every decent show I have been involved with has always been difficult for people to get their head around,” says Tony Jordan, the writer and producer of series such as time-travel cop show Life on Mars and ‘long-con’ drama Hustle.

Jordan is sitting in a smart hotel room in Cannes, where he is selling his latest project, Dickensian, to international buyers at the Mipcom programme market. And it’s clear he’s having some trouble explaining the show’s premise to them. “I’ve got a huge wall to break down. Not a bad wall, just a wall...” Buyers assume he has adapted each of Dickens’ books side by side, and this is just another in a long, long line of adaptations of the author’s work. “But it’s not that,” says Jordan, “It is in no way an adaptation.”

What Jordan has done instead is to take some of Dickens most iconic characters, including Scrooge, Fagin and Miss Havisham, and mix them together in the same place, creating backstories and new narratives for them. “I’ve entwined them and meshed them all up to create something unique,” says Jordan.

Like many classic TV dramas, it’s based around a precinct – in this case a few streets in 19th Century London, where the Old Curiosity Shop sits next door to The Three Cripples Pub, and Fagin’s den is hidden down a murky alley.

Given his background as lead writer on EastEnders, Jordan’s 20x30-min project has been described as a soap-like take on Dickens. But it is a description he bridles at. “I hear that soap thing a lot, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.” Soaps, he points out, have to be contemporary because they reflect the way we live now. “A period drama can’t be a soap,” he says.

However, Jordan reckons his background makes him “perfect” for this project. He left school with no qualifications and famously began his career as a market trader, only starting to write in his early 30s. “Charles Dickens had more talent in his little finger than I have in my entire body…but I am perfect for this because I have an irreverence for the material. I’m not an academic…I didn’t study or do English literature…so it means I don’t feel I have to stick to the letter of Dickens in a way that some others might.”

Likewise, viewers, he says, won’t need to have read a single word of Dickens to enjoy the series.

However, Jordan says he sought to engage with Dickens experts early on in the project’s life, in a bid to assuage fears at any liberties being taken – and he clearly believes he has won them over. The reason, he says, is that the characters remain faithful to those that Dickens created: “Scrooge isn’t gay, Mrs Gamp hasn’t got one leg. Why would I change them? The purpose of doing this is because those characters are so great.”

The origins of Dickensian go back several years to an end of series dinner for Hustle, when Jordan first mentioned the project to former BBC head of independent drama Polly Hill. Jordan worried that it would be too expensive for the BBC, but Hill and former BBC1 controller Danny Cohen backed it. The £12m budget was then raised with the help of an advance from BBC Worldwide.

With the budget in place, one of the key first decisions was where and how to film Dickensian. Jordan says that the weather is a crucial element of Dickens’ story telling – he uses mist, snow and dark nights “as another character.” But that’s a problem for drama shoots. “You know what it is like in modern day filming – just trying to get a night shoot is a nightmare…”, says Jordan. “The more I thought about it, the more I knew we’d have to build the world.”

This is exactly what production designer Michael Ralph has done, creating a specially-built indoor set in West London. It comprises 27 two-storey Victorian buildings set around cobbled streets. “It was built so it could have horses and carriages going round it. It’s amazing, like Harry Potter world,” says Jordan.

Jordan’s Red Planet, meanwhile, is busy on other projects such as Sky1 adventure series Hooten & The Lady and BBC1 musical drama Stop! In The Name Of Love. The indie is clearly benefitting from the rising global demand for original drama, which Jordan says helps to define networks at a time when a growing number of platforms like Amazon, Netflix and Sky are trying to stand out.”The thing with drama is that it sticks. Drama can define a network in a way that nothing else can,” he says, citing the impact of House of Cards on Netflix. “So everybody is running around looking for their benchmark drama, and luckily for Red Planet that is what we make.”

Still, he has no plans to sell Red Planet, one of the few remaining drama indies in an ever more consolidated production market. “I love the fact that we are completely independent. I have no boss, nobody can phone me and tell me what we should or shouldn’t do. And I like that.”

- Tony Jordan started his writing career at 32 when he submitted an unsolicited script to the BBC. He became a scriptwriter for EastEnders, writing almost 200 episodes. 

- He went on to create acclaimed dramas such as Hustle, and co-created Life on Mars.

- Jordan set up Red Planet Pictures in 2005 as a writer-led drama production company.
- Red Planet’s first commission was Holby Blue, and it has since gone on to make Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper, The Nativity, The Passing Bells and The Ark.

- Red Planet is now making a fifth series of Death In Paradise, new action adventure series Hooten and the Lady for Sky1, and BBC1 musical drama Stop! In The Name Of Love.

Posted 30 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Getting the look: Sunset Song

Michael McDonough, the DoP of Terence Davies’s upcoming film Sunset Song tells Tim Dams why he opted for the large format - and rarely used - Arri 765 camera to achieve the unique look of the film

Sunset Song is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel by acclaimed director Terence Davies (House of Mirth, Of Time & The City).

Starring Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie, it’s set at the dawn of the First World War and is the story of a young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life and the changes wrought by the War.

The film beautifully captures the turning of the seasons, in the years leading up to the War, and shot in Scotland, Luxembourg and New Zealand – the latter so it could capture the harvest cycle.

Critics have noted the cinematography of DoP Michael McDonough. (“He lets the camera glide through magic-hour-magicked corn fields, before a genuinely spine-tingling shift to wintry whites, and fills the frame grandiloquently with brooding expanses of sky,” said The Telegraph’s Tim Robey).

McDonough used both film and digital cameras for Sunset Song, specifically two Arri 765 – 65mm film cameras with Kodak 500T negative and 65mm lenses, as well as Arri Alexa XT cameras shooting 
in 2.8k ArriRaw with the latest Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses.

The choice of the large format, and now rarely used, Arri 765 was “a masterstroke by the production,” says McDonough. “It gave a scope and grandeur to the landscape work that went hand in hand with the idea that the landscape was an equally important character within the story. In many ways, it’s what the film is about – the land will endure.” He adds that the Alexa XT was perfect for studio work – light, agile and considerably smaller and faster than the film camera.

Plenty of pre-shoot testing proved that the combination of digital and 65mm would work well together, says McDonough. “The size of the negative and the lack of substantial grain in the 65mm matched very well with the subtle noise floor of the Alexa XT and they cut back and forth seamlessly.”

The 765 came with its own set of 65mm lenses – rehoused Hasselblad medium format glass. They came pristine, straight off the shelf from Arri in Munich because the large format camera has been such a specialist tool, limited to films such as Little Buddha, Shutter Island and Gravity. 

Similarly the Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses for the Alexa XT were brand new. “So new in fact they only had three focal lengths for us to use – 35mm, 50mm and 75mm. This worked perfectly well in the studio and gave the film a great sense of consistency, backed up by Terence’s preference for beautifully controlled movement and framing.” McDonough adds that the lenses were sharp and clean and true all the way to the corners, “but still have that cinematic quality, akin to the peripheral vision of the human eye – the areas of fall off – that I am so drawn too.”

The “stellar” grade was carried out by colourist John Claude at Dirty Looks in Soho. “I came into the grade a few days late because of work commitments in LA and he had already given it an overall pass and it looked just as we’d designed,” says McDonough, who adds that this was built on the on-location DIT work of Matthieu Straub. “Together we built LUTs for the Alexa which were rich and heavy, meaning I had plenty of negative range underneath, and these were translated to the dailies each day so Terence had a very strong sense in the edit of the finished film. The consistency of Matthieu’s oversight and the rigour of the stage lighting made for an easy translation to the DI suites the majority of the time.”

Looking back, McDonough says shooting on 65mm “was a personal joy for me” and a unique career moment. “It gave such a concrete reality to the landscape.”

Sunset Song is released on December 4th.

Posted 23 November 2015 by Tim Dams
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