DoPs Barry Ackroyd, Danny Cohen, Greig Fraser and Neville Kidd have between them shot films and shows including The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips, United 93, Jason Bourne, Green Zone, Detroit, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, Room, Lion, Zero Dark Thirty, Snow White and the Huntsman, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Who, Outlander and Sherlock.
The four tell Michael Burns the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to create the work
The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips, United 93, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Raining Stones, Jason Bourne, Green Zone, Detroit, The
I think you put together your personal style, based on the mood board, the period of the film maybe, and the director’s view of it.
Once you’ve got the right equipment, once you’re surrounded by professionals on the day, you can achieve a look, a feel, using all your experience and all the talent that’s around you and make the film that you were always intending to make. Because no-one can really predict it. But that’s definitely with directors that you have a particular relationship with.
I like to think that there is a strong vocabulary or an accent that you hear or see when you look at my films.
My history is in documentary and I’m deeply entrenched in realism, in the intimate relationship between the camera and the subject.
I handhold the camera and I’m usually just on the edge of the scene, which is a very documentary thing. You intimately link to the subject but you are not necessarily feeling the pain or the joy; you’re just absorbing it all.
Cinematography is an art form, the most personal and unique way of communicating that we’ve developed.
It’s about communication, it’s about people being moved by that wonderful thing of light-exciting chemicals… that is now light-exciting silicon chips! But as long as we have a lens in front of the camera the process remains the same.
What has changed is not the cameras so much as visual effects and CGI work – knowing that the background can be fixed, or that we don’t need to be in that location. The digital grade is just a whole new level of the dynamic. The quality of film-making has improved because of that.
I don’t tend to light exteriors at all. It’s fighting nature. You enhance what you can.
I have one secret weapon when working with available light [for internal scenes] – it’s just a down pipe, a drain pipe.
I got in the habit of taking a Kino Flo tube and a pipe just a little bigger than that. You cut out an 18inch section of the pipe, spray the inside white, clip the tube inside that and then you have a light, like a black down pipe, a stick, and then you can just move that around.
You can hide the pipe just behind a chair or a table and it’s just low enough to disappear behind that but throw light in the right direction. It might just lie on the floor and output a little under-light on someone’s head behind the chair, or just under the chin. To do that is the most subtle thing. It’s how I would get the best from what seems like a very natural unlit scene.
My method comes from my documentary background. I presume that the environment that has been chosen – usually a location – is the environment, and the look is how it should look. And the performances in it, although they’re by actors, and sometimes non-actors, should be as real as life is.
So I give [the actors] all the space and we dance around them a little bit. We hide in corners and position two cameras so we get simultaneous action, and no-one is too worried about continuity. But within that is a classical framing. It’ll drift with the eye if someone turns their head.
I can just listen, look and react in the same split-second way that you do in real life. You’re already informed with the script, with knowing what the actors are like, with knowing what the director is after and what the story requires. In a documentary you may never have another chance. If you miss that moment, you’ve missed it but in film you can do that. I think it would terrify a lot of people. I find it the most relaxing way to make a film.
I get terrified if anyone wants me to turn every shot into the most beautiful painting. I think what I do is much more like sculpture.
Every frame is precious to us and we make it work. An editor comes along and turns it into a masterpiece. It is this great collaboration. The whole film industry is about collaborating and showing respect for each other. That’s why I love it.
The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, Room, Victoria and Abdul, Final Portrait, This is England, Creep, John Adams, Longford, This is England’86
I read a script to start with and then we start a conversation. That’s the beginning. But all directors work completely differently. That’s the one thing that is completely consistent – they are all completely inconsistent and different. Nothing prepares you for the next project.
How you prepare for each film changes. I did a film called Final Portrait, directed by Stanley Tucci, about Alberto Giacometti the artist. Weirdly, when we were testing the film there was a really good retrospective of Giacometti at the National Portrait gallery and there are tons of interviews and photographs on YouTube. It was a matter of going through lots of material about how his studio looked and what could make the film interesting. Sometimes, if it’s an original screenplay, then it might bear no resemblance to reality at all. In a way you’ve got far more freedom, because you can make it all up from scratch.
I take tons of photos. If you’re discussing something a photograph is something concrete that you can show a director and he can say “that’s interesting, or that’s boring” and you get a sense of their taste.
The composition leads the eye to where you, as a storyteller, want the audience to be thinking about. Composition is a massive part of the filmmaking process, what you put in the frame and what you leave out of the frame is key.
Aspect ratio is always an interesting one. It’s changing, it’s something that isn’t locked in stone any more. I’ve shot lots of films that are classic wide, but I did something at the end of last year for the BBC and we shot that 2:1 which is a framing I hadn’t shot on before. Essentially that’s come about because of people watching more Netflix and the big audience at home. It’s just a bigger frame that fits on a TV – there’s less banding top and bottom.
If it’s all going to be hand-held then the equipment needs to be sympathetic to that. You have to have a slimmed down, simple workflow. If it’s all something in a studio on cranes or a dolly then you might go a different way with a much bigger camera because you can and it makes sense. It’s just all part of the process of putting a project together, looking at all the different things you need to do and how they work for the story. It’s all narrative-driven.
Lighting technology is changing. Ten years ago you had to deal with three different sources – tungsten light, HMI and fluorescent lights. LED lights have come along. They consume a lot less power, you can get quite big lights now that run off 13A domestic. The equipment changing has a big impact on how you work because you can just light things with smaller lights potentially. It gives you more tools to make interesting films.
The big killer in film and TV is time – there’s never enough time to do everything you have to do. The more prepared you are on the day, the more you can achieve what you’re trying to do. When you’re filming and you’ve got a big crew and big lighting setup, in a way you can’t leave too much to happy accidents.
Lion, Zero Dark Thirty, Snow White and the Huntsman, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Mary Magdalene, Foxcatcher, Let Me In, The Gambler, Bright Star
I’m a really big fan of getting involved very early on because the ‘photography can paint a thousand words’. A good, strong script is very, very important… but I believe that the visuals can augment that script massively.
One of the beautiful aspects of the journey of discovery with a director is coming up with the same visual language, coming to the same conclusion via our different paths. And that’s really quite satisfying, when you’ve worked at growing an idea together, either through pre-visualisation, through locations, through discussions, through referencing… and then you come to that end product. It’s a small idea, a seedling at the beginning, that you contribute to and you end up having, hopefully, something really good.
You can over-plan in my opinion. You can basically shoot the whole day in your head and then something on the day happens where something changes. The weather comes in or you can’t shoot in that direction because there’s a truck parked there. If you’re 100% fully planned, that will throw you into a spin. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan or shouldn’t [story]board. I love boarding and I get a lot out of it. It means that we can tick a box, before we’ve even walked on set. Being on set is really expensive time.
We really make sure we have all the tools at our disposal to test. For Mary Magdalene, which I’ve just finished with Garth Davis, we tested 35mm anamorphic lenses because we’d just shot Lion on that. However after we tested all the formats, we decided that 65mm had the most open, the most beautiful, wide scope.
To make a movie that is coherent visually, you’ve got to follow a framework. That framework might be that the lenses are a certain width, the lighting is a certain brightness …there are certain rules that you could follow to make a film feel coherent. For example, on Foxcatcher, one of the rules that I gave my camera operator was to imagine the camera was on valium. If it moves, it doesn’t move in a reactionary way to a sound. It’s a little bit late to an action. A lot of the story is told really slowly, very methodically, quite beautifully in the sense that the pans and moves are slow. Kind of like you’re blissing out.
Camera movement depends on the project. I love hand-held. I loved doing Zero Dark Thirty. It’s one of my favourite camera styles, but at the same time [if] you shot Foxcatcher like Zero Dark Thirty, it would be a different movie. And vice-versa. You just couldn’t. But if you were to mix those two together you can really come up with some interesting drama changes.
I always get to the end of a job and hope I’ve shown the design in the very best way. That’s the design of the costumes too. The art department consists of hundreds of other people too – model-makers, painters, builders, carpenters… I’ve seen these guys labour for hours and days over things. I have a huge amount of respect for that. If I’ve not shown them in the best light, I haven’t succeeded. It would do them a huge disservice.
Doctor Who, Outlander, Sherlock, Childhood’s End, Altered Carbon, A History of Scotland, Lip Service, A History of Celtic Britain
You have a hugely close relationship with the directors. You are given the prep time to spend with the director, to look at the scripts, to find ways of telling the story, what trick shots you want to bring in, whether you want to bring in drones or aerial shots or how many cranes… it’s working out how many ways to slice a pie. It’s working out where to spend the money, where not to.
When you’re doing a lot of VFX work you’ve got to make decisions very early on. You will make a bit of a pre-vis, and the stunts guys will make a pre-vis of the stunts. We’ll make a pre-vis of the VFX work, we’ll combine that and then we’ll get the studio or network approval, and then we’ll film it.
Use camera movement and framing to keep people’s attention. When you look at the scripts, you look at each scene and work out whose scene it is. Who are you going to focus on? Whose story are you telling in that moment? Whose emotional journey do you want the viewer to go with? That kind of dictates where the camera is going.
One of your jobs as DP is to make your world as big as possible. We’re now filming for people with televisions that have big screens. Whereas several years ago you were filming for people watching on a 32inch screen. It’s taking that scope and making it bigger so you can show more of your world than you traditionally could before.
The advances in LED lighting technology mean you can just change colour temperature with the press of a button. It’s made our lives hugely easier. LED takes a lot less power, so power consumption has come down. We use a lot of Sky Panels for street scenes and chase sequences, so we can go from daytime to nighttime without having to change the fixtures. We’ve got far more control than we’ve ever had.
When you’re doing documentary you learn to be adaptable. I think you can take that into the drama world and keep the pace going. In episodic you’ve got to build to get a momentum going to be able to complete the days, and film the day’s page count, on time, on budget.
Traditionally you did one grade but [with Netflix] you’ve now also got to do an HDR grade. But when you put an HDR look on it, it’s phenomenal. It’s almost like it’s ‘two and a half D’. The pictures almost start to pop out at you, because HDR televisions are so much brighter and you have so much more extremes with your whites and colours. It’s absolutely phenomenal to see.
What makes a good DP? There’s a way you see the world and it’s the way you transfer that through the cameras. I read the script and I shut my eyes and I know I’ve done my job when what I’ve seen in my head is what I can see on the monitor. And if you combine that with collaboration, with the directors and the show runners and producers and production designers, I think that’s a huge skill. You can’t have egos that demand attention. You need to be all able to work together for the greater good. The show is number one, everyone is rooting for it, and nothing is bigger than the show.