BAFTA INTERVIEW – ROB HARDY (DP of The Invisible Woman, Blitz)

Hi Film Folk!

Today we share the thoughts of BAFTA-winning Director of Photography Rob Hardy, following his latest film release, The Invisible Woman, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes. Hardy is a seasoned cinematographer, working with actors such as Andrew Garfield in Boy A, Jason Statham in Blitz, and Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer. 



Here are Rob’s thoughts on the craft, technicalities and business of film (as told at a recent BAFTA event):


Childhood and training:

From the moment his grandfather gave him a Super 8 camera when he was 9, Rob Hardy started to use the camera frame to make sense of a chaotic world, even though the gift hadn’t included any film stock. At school, when he told the careers officer that he wanted to make films, it was such an unusual career path that it was considered “practically dropping out of life” and it was suggested that he take physics to help him on his way. He was not deemed gritty enough for Central St Martins: when asked in the entrance interview how he chose camera movements his answer “I saw it in Easy Rider and it felt right” was not what they had in mind. He ended up doing a Masters in Cinematography in Sheffield, because the director’s course was full. There he made music videos and “hooked up with people with the same visual sensibilities” and moved into commercials on returning to London, where one of his pieces of work “hit the zeitgeist” and he was soon in demand. “It’s to do with talent of course, but it’s also to do with association” he says.


“Choreographing images”

Hardy always wanted to move into narrative, drama films, “to be honest, I was being a total snob about this; I didn’t want to be in TV”. And the opportunity arose to make Exhibit A, a found footage drama, he took it. The producer wasn’t convinced that it needed a Director of Photography, as the actors were largely operating the camera themselves, but this is where Hardy started to see his role as “choreographing images”, involving composing the image and playing with light, constantly asking himself “How do you make it feel believable?” When watching his films, the camera often seems to glide or dance around the actors, floating to focus on different areas of the actor’s body, drawing us right into the actor’s movements to capture the emotion. To create a space where this is possible, he often starts by lighting the space or room, rather than the actors, which for him is “part of the excitement, creating an environment and waiting on an actor to play with that … run with that”. In this way, he will often avoid “traditional film grammar” for a more fluid image, but when he uses traditional cuts, he will keep it “slightly off” he says. Take the example of the scene in the safe house in Shadow Dancer, where our main character is interrogated. Classics cuts get us closer, from a wide to a mid, but the angle is off and creates a sense that “we’re leaning across the table: I know it sounds obvious but three inches lower and it wouldn’t be the same”.


Film Doctor - Shadow Dancer


How to frame emotion:

“Always try to be with your character emotionally as you can. You can use traditional film grammar but there’s always something more that you can get.” Working behind the lens, Hardy views his job as framing emotion. He hates “self conscious frames that say look at me rather than look at this”, and recommends being specific about the emotion you’re trying to get across. In Boy A, the protagonist finds himself getting some unwanted attention from the press that might result in his past being revealed. “On the page, it’s a five hander, it’s all about the looks, the glances, his physical proximity to everyone, and the thoughts in his head just whirling”. Hardy felt that the best way to capture and frame this emotion was to “put ourselves in Andrews position” rather than cut between the players in the traditional way, the camera floats between them “just catching it at the right moment…you sense that he’s feeling this pressure”, using a lens that created a slight distortion on the forward motion to give it a little extra emotional pressure. Even when he does use more traditional, static shots, he likes to use the background to echo the characters emotion, and keep that frame expressive, such as trees being whipped by wind in the mid shot of a grieving mother in Red Riding, “echoing her turmoil”.


Plan or not to plan:

Hardy is a strong proponent of being prepared to be flexible. “Generally it’s not planned to the extent that everything is decided when you go in”. He recommends that you talk through the look, the palette of the film, and structure a basic movement that you want from the camera, by reading through he script with the director first. “Planning is creating the foundation of the beats in the story –you may not even know what it means yet” but then once you are in the space, allow the actors their creative license and be adaptable so “it feels organic – be ready for anything, to a certain degree”. He also feels very strongly that you have to commit to how you want to cover the scene, by choosing the way you’re going to do it, and not wasting time shooting two ways of covering the same scene. “When you choose to make a leap you’ve just got to say to yourself that this is all we’re doing, and keep doing it til we get it right”. By talking to the editor, he also can plan the shots they need in the read through, so that he can capture the images they need to do their optimum work. Scenes that are intercut or are non-linear, can be planned before hand in the read through with the editor to get exactly what they need.

 Film Doctor - The Invisible Woman

The Mid Shot: 

“Personally, think that the mid shot is underrated and misused – the mid for me is perfect – it gives you enough proximity to the characters, to place them psychologically in their environment”.  It’s all done very subtly of course, but as a means of creating emotion and meaning in the audience. Hardy cites the mid as his most used tool. It’s a means of having the actors body language captured, whilst the closeness gives tension, the surroundings can give extra meaning or parallel the characters mental or emotional state. In Shadow Dancer, for example, a long mid shot follows the main actress, Andrea Riseborough, as she boards a crowded tube train in London, to plant a bomb. The camera follows her from behind, drawing our eye to her faceless image, concentrating us there, whilst around her, the crowd moves on the platform, not noticing her. Hardy points out that this long following shot was the best way of demonstrating her situation, there is a great deal of nervous tension as she tries to remain part of the crowd, unnoticed.


Watch a lot of films:

One of the things that you notice about Rob Hardy is that his conversation is littered with film references, especially when he’s talking about his creative decisions. He thinks in terms of films that he’s seen, or directors he wants to emulate. One gets the obvious impression that this is a man who has learnt from watching. He cites Kubrick, and when looking for a way to depict a “descent into hell made more and more disconcerting” for a sequence in Red Riding, he looked to the film Don’t Look Now, for an example of how to make the emotion linear whilst the narrative was not.  He describes Shadow Dancer as looking to French films for it’s influence, as he wanted it to be as “un-Thriller – like” as possible: “Not Jason Bourne”.


On  Collaborating:

Film as a medium is all about playing well with others. “It is incredibly collaborative; the stars really need to come together”. Often working with first or second time directors, Hardy likes to help this along as much as possible, “with discussion beforehand it can become organic on set”. From deciding on a look and style before shooting, and talking with the editor before and during the shoot “as much as I can – if anything can make the film better it’s a dialogue between all departments”. He also picks up little extras “for the editors bag”, clips of fingers drumming or other small moments, to give the editor something to play with and capture the atmosphere. Aware that modern film shoots have “more pressure, schedules are tighter”, he feels that working together means that you can go a lot further creatively. “Prepare a foundation for yourself, when you go into a scene, then you allow your actors to make creative decisions and develop”. A lot of this means planning and collaborating in the initial read through, of working out the emotional beats, but also being open and flexible to work with what is occurring in front of the camera, a process that’s more “organic”.


Film Doctor - Blitz


Filters and lenses:

“Picking the right set of lenses is like deciding who’s going to be your best friend for the next six weeks” The choices about what he will work with is as important to him as who he works with. Before he chooses what equipment to work with, he has an in depth talk with his director, and feeds from there “A discussion you should have and need to have … know the look, know the palette”.  To have a lot of lenses is what he feels is “lazy filmmaking”. He recommends moving the camera more, rather than changing the lens. For him, the ideal shoot would only use one lens: “That would be perfect.”. Interestingly, he says “Lenses have different personalities for different things” For example, in Ex Machina, which has not been released yet,  he chose “fucked up” anamorphic lenses , whilst the 21 is the “comedy lens” in his mind.


The Invisible Woman

Hardy refers to The Invisible Woman as “a love story restrained”. The oppression of Victorian societal norms is what opposes the characters in this film, where Hardy’s “deliberate choices” puts the camera in the role of observer, with a pronounced stillness often found lacking in more recent films. Hardy, working with Ralph Fiennes, wanted this film to be more than another period film: “the thing with period – it’s very much about proximity and believability. We didn’t reference any films that were period because I didn’t believe them”. Instead, they took influences from paintings and drawings from that era, lighting from cabaret, with Hardy pushing David Lynch films on Fiennes as recommended viewing. A perfect example of this is the scene at the race track, shot in one long crane shot, the image lifted right out of a William Frith Powell painting, slowly revealed and very static, one shot with no coverage. To achieve this in a perfectly controlled way, they created a scale model to place the camera perfectly to capture exactly the moment they wanted. The stillness of the camera, held on the characters slightly longer than, perhaps, the modern viewer is used to, creates a tension that draws you into the relationship of the two characters, gives us time to “study the space and stillness, to make us know what it is we’re seeing, the difficulty between the characters, their long hesitation.” It was a creative agreement between Fiennes and Hardy that it be shot on film, because it has a distinct texture which they felt lends itself to how they imagine the period, “all about the texture, the subtlety, the light”.

Rob Hardy’s work in the film medium shows how the camera can be more involved in making meaning, through a frame that’s utilised like a canvas or through dancing through choreographed shots with the actors, but always as a true collaborator with the other members of the team in an organic process. Above all, however, “trust your instincts, and then push it into this machine that is filmmaking”.


This Film Doctor report was written by Hermione Flavia.

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3 thoughts on “BAFTA INTERVIEW – ROB HARDY (DP of The Invisible Woman, Blitz)

  • February 26, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Thanks for this post – it’s a really fascinating insight into the art of cinematography. I recently saw The Invisible Woman and was struck by how authentic it felt; it’s great to get a sense of how that was achieved.


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