Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week cinematographer and Ron Howard’s second unit DP Michael Wood!
What was your relationship to film growing up, when did you realise that you wanted to be a cinematographer and how did you go about it?
Well… I was not one of those kids growing up making Super 8 movies or dreaming of being a Cameraman or a Director!
My Dad was in advertising and my dream was to be a Creative Director at an agency. I left school at 16 and after bumming around for a year was going to start at an agency but my Dad convinced me (this is 1982) that I needed to go and work at a Post-Production house as ‘that was the future’.
So I went to a post-house but they also did OBs, and I preferred that. I had a ball and fell in love with cameras. All video (tube!) cameras but still cameras. But then through various reasons I started working on some film jobs through the same company. That was it, I was hooked.
There was a legendary career focus-puller Mike Evans who took me under his wing and took me to the rental houses and showed me the ropes, taught me to load my first mag (an ARRI 3 mag for the record). For various reasons though around that time I got on a plane to Australia for a year (and stayed for 17…) and it was there – in 1987 – that I started my journey in the camera dept as a Clapper-Loader.
Originally I wanted to be a career Operator, but then I discovered ‘light’… and so I was the ripe old age of 24 before I decided that I wanted to be a DOP. However I did love films, I just NEVER imagined it was a career one could have. It was beyond my comprehension that people did that for a job. Daft as that sounds.
But given my age, the original Star Wars and Close Encounters were important for me as a kid. In my teens I discovered Scorsese and Cimino; Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, and my life changed!
Vilmos (Zsigmond) was the first DOP I could name and whose work I admired and looked out for. It was the first time I became aware of the role and its input.
You assisted six Academy Award and BAFTA winners – who were they and what did you learn about your craft through working with them?
John Seale, Andrew Lesnie, Russell Boyd, Dean Semler, Dion Beebe and Eduardo Serra. Just to clarify I assisted them on commercials and only Dean had his gong at the time.
It’s been over 20 years since I stopped pulling focus, so hard to recall many specifics. Also I was assisting a lot of top-drawer DP’s who specialised in commercials, whereas these guys skills were story-telling, which I didn’t really get to see on a commercial!
I guess John Seale taught me the most, everything was so finicky and image-centric on commercials whereas John taught me you are there to service the Director and their script. So slap zooms on, fluid heads, one film stock, anything to give the Director more coverage/time with the actors. Work fast, don’t be precious!
You worked on 600 + commercials as a DP. What can a DP/filmmaker expect from working in that world creatively/technically/politically? Would you say working commercials is an essential part of becoming a DP?
No, commercials definitely aren’t essential. Let’s be frank, I don’t believe anyone becomes a DOP to shoot commercials! I fell into it as a loader, then as a focus-puller so when the phone started ringing for DOP work it was commercial producers and directors. Like many DOPs I got pigeonholed.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and was living the life of riley. Work was in abundance in Australia at that time and I was riding the crest of the late 90s wave!
The commercial industry has changed beyond recognition since those days. Budgets, time and expectations have all changed and it’s gone from being Director driven to client driven.
Politically you tread the line between client, agency, producer and director. I was often shooting multi-million pound ads for 60” screen-time, so the pressure could be immense for the cost per second the client was paying. The film I shot this year the budget was less than commercials I was shooting 18 years ago.
I honed my lighting skills in commercials. You are (were!) given the time and the money to get it right and looking amazing and you had to deliver, (and with much less options in post/the grade). If a pack-shot was going to take you 4 hours to light you were given that time without question but your finessing had to justify the time you were given and the cost!
So my light obsession began in commercials. I studied – and still study – light intricately. The sad thing now is it doesn’t really exist like that anymore. When I shoot commercials now I shoot the same pace as a feature. That fastidious attention to detail has gone. Maybe a good thing as that ‘was the 90s’, but I’m glad I got to experience it.
How did you make the transition between commercials and 2nd Unit on features?
I’d been trying to shoot a feature or get into 2nd unit for a long time, but it was eluding me!
A very dear, longtime friend, (Anita Overland) who I first met in commercials in 1987 was producing Rush and they needed someone for 2nd Unit. It was a (very!) long shot as it was an important film and all I had was commercials. But Anita got me through the door and then I convinced Anthony Dod Mantle and Todd Halliwell (2nd unit Director and Ron’s right-hand man) that I was the man for the job! And I got it and I got on very well with them both and loved the final result!
How did you end up working with Ron Howard and what have you learned working with Ron so far?
I met Ron on Rush and we got on and he liked my work. Anthony Dod Mantle was very particular about some stuff but he gave me total free reign with a lot. Ron liked what he saw and Todd sang my praises!
When ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ came up Ron and Anthony wanted me for 2nd Unit. Todd wasn’t available, and Ron didn’t want another ‘Director’ diluting his vision so he wanted me to shoot it (and Direct from the floor) and he would oversea and direct via a video-link.
Ron’s a legend, I love him and his work. He’s an incredibly down-to-earth guy with the most amazing child-like energy. Respect, trust and breaking down the key elements of a scene are what I take away from Ron. Tell the story! He’s a Master story-teller and anyone who wants to be a features DOP must want to tell stories above all else!
For a bedroom/amateur cinematographer can you explain the realities of a professional shoot?
You win your battles in prep! The 3 Ps of film-making: Pre-Production, Pre-Production, Pre-Production!
If a feature, know that script inside out and ‘understand’ it. Don’t just read the words – hear what the writer is saying or trying to.
It may sound basic but the emotion of the dialogue should drive your lighting and operating decisions. Use the experience of your crew. Get yourself a great gaffer who understands light. And if anything feels unclear, speak up and clarify it. Sure misunderstandings occur, but assume nothing!
Also learn to compromise. With the best will in the world you will do so constantly. It may just be you can’t wait for the light you really wanted, but you have to fit in with everyone else.
It’s a team game, so be a team player!
Other than skills with light, design, camera – what other qualities does a cinematographer need on set and to put themselves out there?
Be nice! Be polite! Be considerate! Everyone has there own issues to deal with on a shoot and on every set-up. It’s all about respect. Be nice to everyone not just those above you. That runner you are treating with disdain, five years from now (particularly in commercials!) they could be the Director or Producer looking to employ you… or not!
Always know why you are doing what you are doing, and if you don’t, act like you do! Be prepared and be punctual – ‘on time is late’!
What work did you do on The Beatles: Eight Days a Week? How did it work and how long did it take?
I shot a lot of the interviews, nearly half in the end I think, although I guess there are probably 1/2 dozen DPs credited. They had already started shooting in the States and to be honest had established the look.
Ron was coming over to shoot Sir Paul, so he asked me to do that one, then I got on with the rest of the team handling all the interviews and so I kept shooting them.
Paul was… a legend! Really nice guy, slow to get rolling but when we got into it he had a lot he wanted to say and all fascinating! We filmed in his recording studio and it was an Aladdin’s cave of rock/Abbey Road equipment/Beatles history. It was one of those days you live for as a cinematographer/film-maker/music-lover!
What were the challenges you faced on this project?
None really! Sorry boring answer! Very straight-forward interviews – two cameras locked-off. Quick minimal budget interview lighting packages, but you can do a lot with a small van of kit and a good Gaffer (Ian Barwick) and assistant (David Penfold).
So it was a great job, and I loved working with the team from the States and Apple. It’s history and history is fascinating!
The biggest challenge for me was staying focused! I would often find I’d forgotten we were actually shooting and I’d be sitting back just listening to the interview…
What are your future plans? What kind of projects are you looking to work on more?
Films really! I’m in the last trimester of my career. I’d like to shoot more films and am slowly moving that way. It’s been a struggle!
Docos still interest me if the subject does. I have just been shooting for a documentary on Nureyev which was wonderful as I’m a bit obsessed with dance and movement at the moment!
We travelled to Ukraine and shot for 3 nights. We built a stage in the forest and flew a theatrical light rig on a construction crane overhead, filming some wonderful contemporary dance representing periods in Nureyev’s life.
I’m lucky with all the documentaries I’ve had a strong personal attachment to but hopefully my next project will be another feature, looking set to shoot early 2017.
How do you balance work with play/family time?
Very well! I love my job, but for me it’s that. I throw my all into it when I’m shooting but it’s not the main thing in my life, that’s my family. I may be off on a film for a while, but the reality is I’m not flat-out as a DOP. So I may do four months on a film, but then I may have two months off and I love that time.
I’m really good at time off! I love cooking so between jobs I’m happy to revert to house-husbandry. It brings me a lot of joy. The kids are used to it also, and they know when I’m gone I’m gone, but when I’m around I’m very involved and very much around!
What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer and what do you look for in a decent 1st and 2nd AC?
A/ Keep shooting! It’s easier than ever to shoot these days with digital acquisition but then obviously that much harder to get noticed.
Watch films with the sound off to see why they’ve constructed a scene the way they have and why they’ve selected that coverage. Does it still hold up?
I suppose also the one thing I’m rubbish at… networking! It’s true – it’s not what you know, it’s who. 20 reels can all look similar artistically and technically but if you are there, at that event, at that party, in that room and you meet that Producer or Director, you’re in with a shot.
But as I say, this is advice I should heed myself and steadfastly don’t!
B/ Obviously they’ve got to be able to do the job, but remember you will be spending up to 60 hours a week in very close proximity to this person so you’d better like them!
They may have the most incredible CV of films you revere, but if they are bullish, arrogant and rude they’re not for me. But hey, personal choice, you may like that style – some do!
I like quiet diligence and a nice personality. I like my AC to be respectful and polite. It’s a really tough job these days. Focus-pulling is way harder than when I was doing it. You never get rehearsals or any time anymore, but even so they need to try and stay level-headed and respectful to those around them, even if they aren’t being shown that respect themselves.
As for a 2nd AC, they have to be stealthily efficient. If you hardly knew they were there but everything flowed seamlessly, they’ve done a great job!
Thank you, Michael!
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