Giles Nuttgens is the the talented cinematographer behind crime drama western Hell or High Water starring Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster and directed by David McKenzie.
Today he joins us for another Film Doctor In Conversation.
Ladies and gentleman, meet Giles!
Tell us about your background. Did you come from a filmmaking or a creative family?
Although I didn’t know anyone working in cinema I had a contact with a producer who worked in local television in the BBC. Even as a teenager, already experimenting with stills photography, I was very convinced that I wanted to be involved in the documentary film world.
My first experience seeing a film crew was watching a cameraman being held by his legs by his assistant over the side of a viaduct above the River Dee in Wales. He had an Arriflex 16 BL on his shoulder and he was trying to do a shot developing from the river below up to the aqueduct. As a young kid it looked like an exciting way to make a living – there was something glamorous about the whole process, even though it was only regional television. It certainly seemed a lot more interesting than working in many other occupations, something that became firmly lodged in my mind.
Despite being academically useless at school I remember telling the careers officer when I was 14 ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m going to be a cameraman on the BBC’. He laughed appropriately at my impossible dream.
Tell us about working at the BBC. What shows did you end up working on?
The truth is the BBC wasn’t easy to get into. It was a two year process to get there. I first applied to join the film department and the response was a very simple ‘no’. The people that were getting onto film crews were people with very specific degrees or talents or had already shot a film. I’d used a still camera and processed my own black and white images and that was about it.
My knowledge of cinematography was next to zero but they were offering other technical posts, one of which was a camera assistant in studios and outside broadcasts .You could get in with much more basic technical knowledge proving an extensive interest coupled with a certain amount of research into broadcasting and cameras. It seemed to me that that was my only option. I was 18, I wasn’t really that aware of the difference between the work of an assistant film cameraman and that of an assistant working with electronic cameras.
In reality the gulf between the two units was huge, it was going to be a much more difficult transition than I had expected.
What happened in the BBC in those days, was that you got a job and then you were on probation for a year. On the day that I cleared my year, I walked out of my department, went down to the film unit and said ‘I want to go out with a film crew. Is there anybody who will put up with me coming along and watching them?’ Of course they all laughed but one of the people working there, Jeanne Thomson (now co- owner of Films at 59 in Bristol), must have seen that I was earnest and introduced me to Davy Helm who was the news crew film cameraman.
I started going out with the news crews on my days off. They were shooting stripe at the time, where the magnetic sound track went down the side of the 16mm reversal film, the recordist connected to the camera by cable.
News crews were only two people, a sound mixer and a cameraman who loaded his own film magazines. They taught me to load, giving me that much coveted experience and relieving the cameraman of this duty. It was an advantageous situation for us both.
I’d work four days in the studio with electronic cameras for which I was paid and then three days out with the news crew. The second time that I went out with the Davy he handed me a 16mm Canon Scoopic and I ended up shooting the launching of one of the last vessels to leave the dockyards in Glasgow. I hardly knew how to read a light meter!
The excitement of shooting for that was incredible but it took a long time to actually make the permanent transition into the film unit which I did by moving to Ealing Film Studios and then on to BBC Bristol. By that time the transition had become a case of do or die for me…..shooting film with the independence of a small crew was what I had come to the BBC to do.
In Bristol I worked as assistant to a young cameraman, Andrew Dunn, who was becoming very well respected through the brilliance of his camerawork. He went on to shoot The Madness of King George, The Edge of Darkness and the Bodyguard. When Andrew left Bristol to shoot for cinema I obtained his job as cameraman at the BBC.
I knew I had been very lucky in meeting someone who was determined to end up in feature filmmaking. That contact gave me that same desire. He was a very formative influence in my career.
Where did you go from there and how did The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Electric Moon come about?
A lot of it is chance. Some of these things come about because you’ve put yourself in the right position and you’ve made specific decisions.
I had quite a lot of luck at a certain point. I became a film cameraman very young at the age of 25. I had about 5 years working as a documentary film cameraman. They were great years doing fantastic jobs! Towards the end of that period, lots of things started to change.
Producer choice came in, where producers and directors had the option to use people from outside instead of being limited to staff cameramen from within the film unit of the BBC. It suddenly became a level playing field with everybody in the freelance world and a lot of them were very very good! Any form of complacency that we’d had because the jobs came to us automatically had to change and much of the better work was, quite rightly, farmed outside, eventually resulting in the total dissolution of the film units.
The other big thing that happened at that time was that I was very much involved in observational documentary filmmaking. I’d assisted some great cameramen. They were brilliant at handheld, their eye was fantastic, they could light. They could deal with a real situation and create a sequence which was continuous and would tell the story of the documentary very efficiently. These were amazing skills.
It had been a great training and we were working in a world which was very free in the sense that we would go out and we would shoot a documentary and the film would form itself as you interviewed people or covered events. The narrative argument would become clear through the material we captured.
Then there was an editorial decision to control the material that needed to be shot to fit in with the pre-conceived idea or script. That completely changed the nature of what we were doing. Documentary making was creeping into reality TV. We were no longer covering real events as observational documentarists and in some ways not depicting wholly truthfully what we were finding.
On one occasion we were actually sent out to reinterview someone to get exactly what the ‘script’ required. I felt that documentaries were heading in the wrong direction.
Bit by bit, it was starting to get less interesting. Electronic News Gathering came in so we started to be separated from our 16mm film cameras and shoot with very primitive electronic cameras. Their quality was absolutely tragic and we were once again physically linked to the sound recordist – it was a ten year step back. It killed us creatively.
Within a small amount of time the BBC got rid of over 50 film crews in Ealing and the Film Unit in Bristol was disbanded. Everybody went freelance.
I had already focus pulled for Andrew on a film called Blackeyes directed by the writer Dennis Potter which we shot on 35mm, not regularly used by the BBC except for title sequences and optical effects. Andrew and I worked as freelancers but in Ealing Film Studios.
The producer was Rick McCallum who went on and joined Lucasfilm and produced The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and later of course Star Wars. That’s where my contact with Lucasfilm came from.
What did you learn from your early experiences in film? How did that inform being a primary cinematographer?
I managed to obtain a movie for Film Four called Electric Moon . A four month schedule in Central India with a director from New Delhi.
I hadn’t shot TV drama, I had shot documentaries and when lighting for interviews, the interviewee didn’t get up and move around.
I wasn’t used to what happened when actors go from A to B.
I had an idea about how to approach lighting having observed many cameramen – but the reality of being in a different country without backup and having to make actors look good and dealing with a schedule was totally new. I learned a lot very rapidly.
It actually took weeks to get our film prints back from the laboratory in Madras, to see our dailies. I think I probably had more confidence that I should have had considering my limited experience but that came from those years out on our own whilst shooting in the BBC.
When I returned to the UK, Rick McCallum offered me work as 2nd Unit DP on ‘Young Indy’ and during the first series offered me an episode shooting main unit in Benares, knowing that I had already shot in India. It went well but I knew I needed a really long stretch of work to firm up everything I had learned out there.
I started working on a TV series called Thieftakers with a very visually inventive director called Colin Gregg. I worked for four months shooting every single day. I needed to learn to shoot at a pace and to gain more experience. It would give me the confidence to go back and move into features a couple of years later.
When did you start travelling to work outside of the UK? Was that on Indiana Jones?
Yes, Indiana Jones was shot all over the world but the thing to remember was that we worked in the BBC so we had been traveling forever. When I was 24, even before I was officially a BBC cameraman, there was a job that nobody wanted to do so I went off and lived in the Amazon jungle for 3 months living rough to shoot a documentary there, just myself, a director and a sound recordist. Was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I think one of the reasons that Rick employed me on Young Indy was that he knew I was flexible and could make things work pretty much anywhere.
It’s true that to go back out to India and work with 100% Indian crew seemed perfectly normal to me. Likewise it seemed normal to me that I couldn’t communicate with most of the crew.
There were no safeguards but also there were no rules and that means that I had a great amount of liberty to try out things and learn by your own mistakes.
When you started working on theatrical films, did anything change for you?
The people that I got on with were the directors that were in their 60s and had a lot of experience. I saw it as an education, drawing from their many years in the business. I had struggled at points on the two movies I had shot, like anybody, during the learning process.
It took me a little more time to develop a style, if I could say that I have one. The demands of shooting film for the big screen are very different to that of shooting for TV.
However one of the things that was drummed into us in the BBC was technical proficiency. Printer lights were set by our heads of departments with each laboratory which put everyone on a level playing field. You could see who was controlling negative exposure perfectly and who wasn’t.
Exposure was placed where the maximum latitude was obtained on the negative. Even on documentaries every foot of exposed film was viewed on prints projected by your manager and commented on. It made the cameramen very precise.
Moving onto features I had to start viewing negative development as part of my creative process. Contrast could be manipulated by negative exposure or through push or pull processing, changing the time the negative is in the bath.
It opened up many possibilities but also created variables with potential for error. It’s a big jump from having to work to a fixed standard.
And sure, every small error is magnified on a big screen. The most recent film I shot was on black and white stock which we’re still in post at the moment for. I had to use every bit of experience I’d ever had in terms of shooting film to manipulate the detail within the shadows, control contrast and grain levels.
I pretty much had to make a decision on each sequence, depending on the location, light and the actor’s costumes, about how to rate the film – a choice between how much detail in the blacks was required compared to detail in the bright skies.
On Double X the latitude is way less than modern stocks or digital. However it has a beauty and texture no other medium could give you. Every time the dailies came back to us on the set we were knocked out with the force of the image.
That’s what you learn by shooting film. Fortunately, after shooting so many movies, it becomes second nature. You know how to correct the problem as soon as you see the dailies and it’s a satisfying feeling!
20 years of working in film, manipulating and learning, started with the technical demands of the BBC.
So Hell or High Water – how many weeks did you shoot and prep for?
We had about a month for prep and we shot for 35 days. Our big problem was that we only had Chris (Pine) for the first two weeks as he was going straight on to Star Trek. We had to pull our shoot forward to accommodate their schedule which gave us less prep time than usual.
That was very hard for David (Mackenzie), it was very hard for the location manager, the designer and half of the production team to get everything going in limited time. We promised to do all of the work with Chris within a set period, which I think was 11 days. The eleventh day overlapped with Jeff, also fitting into Jeff’s dates.
It meant that within the first shooting week we had to rob all the banks, shoot all the getaways, the sequences at the ranch burying the cars. The amount of pressure on us for the first week was pretty enormous. It was tense!
At the end of the first week, we had to shoot the sequence in Post which was for the final robbery where everything goes wrong. As we were in New Mexico in the summer, we had a lightning storm so we had to shut down. We had to stop shooting and we lost half a day. The next day we had to make back all of that time.
The great thing about David is that he is in the editing suite every night so we send the morning’s dailies off, they are edited during the afternoon and we go and see the cut sequences as soon as we’ve wrapped. We are mainly interested in how the tone of the film is developing and whether our original intentions in terms of the mise-en- scene is actually translating into something meaningful for the audience.
At the end of each week he shows the crew and actors 25 minutes of cut material. Out of the chaos that seemed to be happening on set, they suddenly saw something that was a very sophisticated piece of work.
It’s David’s way of working – it’s super intelligent.
Did you use multiple cameras on the film?
No, we didn’t. It was a single camera shoot with mainly long takes covering the whole scene (plan sequence) with any coverage required done rapidly hand held normally in the last hour of the day. I tend to light the whole scene in one go so changes between set ups are small.
By the time we shoot, David and I have worked out the overall feel of the film, the emotional tone we are aiming for and the precise breakdown of shots is done on the day.
It is essential that we have a very clear idea of the ambience and world we are intending to achieve so before we went into prep, I flew out for a week and five of us went on a trip around Western Texas. We saw all of the towns in the script so we already knew not just what these places looked like but what they felt like. We knew it was essential to be able to portray the socio-economic history of our world in the story.
We went to a small town in the middle of nowhere called Hope. At one point it was a hope, it was a place where pioneers stopped. Now all the businesses had closed down and the hotels abandoned. David had to get us to understand the backstory and encompass that feeling through the image and through the landscape and the location.
One of David’s strengths is relating the story with visual narrative, something he sets up very well at the beginning of HOHW.
And tell us a bit about the lighting on the film
In Hell or High Water, almost all the keys are unfiltered hard light. Sometime it is more marked than at other moments. There’s a scene at a diner where Chris and Ben are far away from the windows and as I always try and light from the outside (I aim to keep all lights off the set so the actors feel the space rather than the presence of the crew) I didn’t have enough lighting power to create soft sources that would give me the exposure I wanted at that distance.
The film budget wasn’t great and I had taken a risk in terms of cutting my lighting equipment down. I just thought ‘I’ve got to hit them hard and make this work and make this into something different’. It was a challenge to make them look as good as they would be with a controlled soft light but both of them took the light so well it set up the style for the rest of the film.
Most of the main source lights remained hard and undiffused.
What is it about you and David that makes you want to keep on working together?
When David did Young Adam, the script came to me through one of the actors in a rather roundabout way. I read the script and I thought it was amazing. I didn’t have a massive amount of experience but I thought ‘I’m never going to see another script like this’.
I forced the production team and David to meet me. I got on a plane and went straight to Glasgow. I sat down with him to talk about the script. David asked how I thought it would look and I said “I don’t know yet how it’s going to look, I just need to know how you want it to feel”.
Although it sounds a little pretentious I really meant it – the script had evoked a strong emotional response in me because I had lived in Glasgow years before and frankly had not enjoyed being there.
The film was about people living on the edge of poverty in 1950‘s Glasgow, it was a period of great social change and we were there in 2000 witnessing the dying breaths of the heavy shipbuilding industry that had been the lifeblood of Glasgwegian wealth for a century. In fact, as we were shooting the last cranes for the last shipyard were taken down to make way for luxury apartment blocks.
It’s an amazing film from David’s point of view. There was something very specific about the period we were creating and the period we were shooting in. It had a £6m budget produced by Jeremy Thomas. I couldn’t believe I’d been given the opportunity to work with a young director with a very unique viewpoint on filmmaking, working with incredible actors and with one of the most interesting film companies, RPC, in the UK.
That was a very big experience for the two of us together so when other films came up we just carried on. There’s a solid trust between us and David gives me a lot of freedom with framing and lighting but maybe because he knows we’re working on the same wavelength.
There was an overall understanding between all of us on Hell or High Water, the critics have praised it for each element complementing all the others. I just think we all had the same aim in mind.
You’ve got a director credit coming up. Tell us about that?
It’s a project I’ve been working on for about eight years. It’s about a child slave in Pakistan. It’s there but in permanent development in terms of the script and in terms of financing.
I’m a DP. I’m good at working for people. My role is an advisory one as well as technical and to realise the intentions of whichever director I am working with.
The possibility of directing interests me primarily to have the experience of working directly with actors. I think that in the long run it would make me a better and more comprehensive DP.
Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
I had advantages and a very disciplined education in film. It’s very difficult for me to say how people could gain that experience now. I’ve been super lucky.
I’ve always thought that music videos are a particularly great way to learn. Lighting continuity isn’t important so you can try everything under the sun within the same space. You can have one shot that’s red and one shot that’s blue. What’s interesting is that you’re actually developing different forms of lighting and taking chances on every single shot that you do. I think that’s a really fantastic thing!
You have to have some sort of discipline. Limitations are going to be placed on you. There are more barriers now that there is more technology around. The crew are bigger, there are a lot of technical and shoot requirements that can hold you back.
It’s about dealing with a certain situation under stress and – despite that – keeping your mind focussed and your camerawork directed towards achieving your goals for each picture.
Being a cinematographer is a long way from just capturing images on your phone. Do go out and film but do it with a camera with interchangeable lenses that help you understand optics and focal lengths and depth of field….it’s a very different discipline and recording images isn’t enough. You have to learn to manipulate the world you see in front of you, to put your own version of it down onto whatever support you are using – film, video or digital.
You need to know a lot about life as well. You’re going to be in front of an actor who’s been doing it for 40 years, had the most amazing experiences and had contact with incredible people, and you’re going to have to come up to their level – in cultural references, in filmmaking references. Study everything. See everything. Go to the theatre. See all the classics and study scene construction. Read as much as you can. Expand your horizons.
I’ve never met a DP that’s great that wasn’t an amazing person. Go out and get a camera but also go out and meet people and talk and travel and learn. All of that stuff will make you who you are and who you are will make you the DP that you’re going to be.
Thank you, Giles!