When was the decision to become a cinematographer made? Instant or gradual?
I’ve never made a decision to be a ‘cinematographer’ as such. It’s a peculiar word that I don’t entirely identify with and never call myself. It sounds way to grand for me. Perhaps ‘DP’ at a push but I happily call myself a cameraman.
I was a runner at a TV production company for a short while, fancied being a glamorous cameraman, then got into sound which at the time seemed a much easier way into the freelance TV world. Plus it meant I got to hang out with cameramen. Gradually I slid over into more and more camerawork with the advent of smaller, cheaper video cameras. I made my way up to full size cameras then finally left sound behind to be a full time cameraman in the broadcast sector. I had assisted on lots of film shorts over the years and always had bit of a hankering to shoot something more narrative on any format, it was much more about the process of collaborating and having some authorship of a story than about what camera format it was shot on.
Film was hallowed territory and held something unattainable for little old me. I realise that has an irrationality to it now, but as digital cinema cameras became more available the leap to incredible quality images became very natural and achievable for me as someone with mainly video as a shooting background.
How did you get here from there?
I’d been working in several areas but principally doing TV. Docs, current affairs, entertainment, reality, some music promos, the odd commercial. I’d been lucky enough to do some travel, I was doing alright. After ages of talking with my sound recordist about finding some drama to shoot, he threatened me to do it or else, so I posted an open invitation on Facebook for scripts in the knowledge that I had enough like-minded crew I could persuade to get involved and I had great access to kit.
Ben Wheatley, who I had not long met and just done some BBC comedy viral spots with, came back almost straight away with a script he wanted to shoot in a week. It wasn’t a short, it was a feature. Bit mental. That was ‘Down Terrace’ (2009).
How does your craft and schedule change across feature films, commercials, music video and television?
Not enormously really. Having a TV (read cheap) background means I’ve always had the least resources and never very much time so problem solving at speed has become a bit of a speciality. When I did start getting the opportunity of time and money, it came as a bit of a shock. But I’m learning fast about how spend the money on toys and bigger and better lighting set ups. As projects get bigger more prep is essential and I enjoy doing that.
What different things do you have to think about regarding having the project you’re shooting end up on an HD TV or having it up on the big screen?
With the rise of more cinematic TV drama, Ben and I still try and figure out the difference between TV and cinema and we play with that too. A lot of it is about perception I think. Progressive frame rates, aspect masking, a’film-look’ grade, less coverage maybe. It’s a whole bunch of other things too, composition, frame sizes, lens choices but perhaps mostly the edit. It’s not necessarily the camera quality or lighting or camera movement because all those things are clearly very much evident on TV these days. Projection is an interesting process to shoot for, really love having the image seen big! I don’t approach anything differently, it’s all equally important to me wherever its bound for.
Do you have a process on set or at home before/after shooting that keeps your mind/skill in check?
Like anything, it’s something best kept practiced. We’ve shot a film a year now for 4 years and while in loads of ways that is incredibly fast, I want more! I’ve had a fantastically busy and varied year doing all sorts from a comedy pilot up north, a 3D weather documentary in Canada, UK and Japan, a BBC History doc in Jordan, a sitcom in East London and a commercial on an allotment, a feature-length live music doc, as well as shooting ‘A Field In England’. I’m very happy doing lots of different things because you get to apply lots of approaches to basically the same thing – telling a story. That sounds a bit grand but it’s true.
Do you have a camera/piece of equipment/gadget that improves performance and workflow that you prefer to use?
At the moment it’s not about a piece of kit or a camera (although I’m very happy with an Epic or most recently an Alexa) it’s really about people. I have a fantastic gaffer (Martin Taylor) who I’m really enjoying working with, I’ve got a great 1st AC (Nick Gillespie) who is operating more and more for me and also a great DIT (Matthew Oaten). It means you can approach almost anything with the confidence of your team’s ability and that’s a good feeling.
How did you and Ben Wheatley get to know each other?
Ben and I have known each other for nearly 5 years or so now. We both live in Brighton and ‘Down Terrace’ was the first film/drama we both had done, so it really feels like we’re going through all this together.
How many days did you shoot?
Sightseers was shot over four 6-day weeks with one pick up day a couple of months later.
What process do you and Ben have? How do you interact with the script/story? Do you use visual references beforehand/during?
After reading the script, we don’t spend many hours talking about it! We recce a fair bit and Ben will have a pile of films for me to get a feel for the direction he wants to go. As it happens the references have been basically the same so far! I really love absorbing a feeling then getting on set and letting that have its affect, it kind of puts you in a mood that you then approach the whole thing with. Lack of time and money often means you have to work really instinctively so the absorbing of reference prior to the shoot, mixed with ideas and then the blend of locations and performances are what has informed what we’ve done up until now. So there isn’t too much discussion, maybe there should be more but it’s worked for us so far! Ben is always right there behind me watching what I’m doing in any case, if its not what he wants or imagined, he says so. It’s always a challenge, he pushes me to do by best.
How involved do you usually get in the post-production process?
Sadly I missed the grade for ‘Sightseers’ because I was working but I was talking with Rob Pizzey our colourist the other day and we agreed that on ‘Kill List’ and ‘Sightseers’ the grade has been kind of a house-keeping job. Colour matching across a scene perhaps, sharpening eyes, rescuing detail in highlights or with ‘Kill List’ finding some detail in the intense darkness! The films have all been about a certain realism, that we may have played with saturation and darkness at times but mainly its dealing with problems that have arisen on set. Shooting with RAW is great when you’re moving quickly and might not have the facility to maybe fill every shadow or fix the colour of every practical really comes into it’s own when you know you have that latitude in post. I monitor either in 709 or with a monitoring LUT but I always protect the RAW or Log so I know its in there. I know I need to spend more time in colour sessions principally so I know what I can fall back on. Rob told me as long as I keep exposing the way I have been, we’ll be alright, which is reassuring to hear.
What differences did you feel working on “Sightseers”, “Kill List'” and “Down Terrace?” Both in craft and working as a team. How have things changed?
We’ve gradually got a little more sophisticated, the scale of things getting steadily larger. ‘Down Terrace’ was the camera, me, an assistant and Ben And Robin Hill managing the data right there in the house. It was very new for all of us. We’ve all learnt loads and now its a far more natural process to us all but it is ever evolving. As a core team, not that much has changed and often you’ll still find Ben and I working totally together, almost alone in a very tight spot when the shit is hitting the fan. But as I say we have a fantastic team of people, loads of support from superb producers, I rarely feel like I don’t have what I need to do the job, if ever.
You’ve shot digitally with Ben. What are your two cents on the film vs. digital saga and how it’s gone?
I’ve never DP’d on film. There I said it. I’d love to, and I hope it still might happen.
Daunting maybe but digital was never a shock or surprise to me to shoot on video. I read a thing just this morning about the illusion that film is so much more expensive than digital but it made the argument about digital camera costs, the need for upgrades, digital editing, computers, software and data archive costs and that can often outweigh the cost of film camera rental and stock. But I’m alright with digital – it’s been very good to me. And it looks fantastic. It’s not without its flaws, rolling shutter etc but it’s getting better and better almost everyday. And I don’t think there’s any lack of discipline with digital. Yes we shoot a lot of data, but we can, it gives us the opportunity to get stuff right. It’s relatively cheap but we never do that to the detriment of making the day.
And digital projection?
Digital projection can be said to be over-sharp and soulless and sadly there isn’t always a standard to projection conditions, despite DCI guidelines, projector size, distance and capability, screen reflectance therefore luminance can all vary. Actually sound systems seem to be the biggest variable from screen to screen. I’m regularly rushing out of screenings to get the sound turned up. But I’ve also seen some pretty poor quality film projections over the years. This is the LP/CD debate all over again. I collected vinyl for years, the artwork was bigger and better, but I don’t have the room to keep at home anymore..
What’s next for you? Do you have any longer term plans in film or television? Any genre or country you’d like to work in?
I’m speaking to people about some shorts, and some Comedy/drama for TV, but we’re also planning ‘Freak Shift’ to shoot later on in 2013.
What can you tell us about working on The ABCs of Death? How does it all work? Who’s the boss?! Was there a head director for the whole piece?
‘ABC’s Of Death’ was directed in 26 sequences by 26 different directors. We made ‘U for Unearthed’. We shot in one night in a forest somewhere in Sussex.
It was very quick but lots of fun, ie not seen the whole film yet but a lot of our segment got used in the first trailer which was great. There are some crazy looking showpieces from what I can tell.
If you weren’t working as a DOP what would you be doing?
As I say it’s still feels strange calling myself a DOP, I’m a cameraman and I can’t imagine what else I’d be doing? I sometimes imagine what I’d like to do if this all stopped? Maybe a baker. But the hours might get a bit punishing.
What would be your one piece of advice for somebody looking to work behind the camera as a director of photography?
Find lovely people to work with, you can’t do it completely on your own. People you can trust but who challenge you too. Get out there and shoot stuff, find stories, find characters and places to put them. Don’t ever give up.