Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

In August 2016 I was recommended to a production manager who was crewing up a small pick-ups shoot in London. The pick-ups were for Rory’s Way, or The Etruscan Smile as it was then known, a $12 million feature based on the best-selling novel of the latter name, starring Brian Cox and Thora Birch. Apparently test screenings had shown that the film’s ending wasn’t quite satisfying enough, and parts of it were to be remounted.

I was given a storyboard consisting of actual frame-grabs from the original version of the scene, alongside notes explaining how the action would be different. Not to give too much away, but the scene involves Brian’s character in bed, and a baby in a cot next to him. The changes simply involved Brian giving a different reaction to what the baby is doing. The bed was to be set up on stage against a blue screen, and composited into backgrounds extracted from the principal photography footage. The baby’s performance was not to be changed, so he was to be rotoscoped out of the original footage too.

I was sent the camera report, 2nd AC’s notebook and script notes from principal photography. The crew had known that the view out of the bedroom window would be added in post, and that separate takes of the baby and Brian would be digitally combined, so they recorded plenty of information for the VFX team. Between the three documents, I had the focal length, focal distance, aperture, white balance, shutter angle, filters, lens height and tilt of every set-up in the scene.

My next step was to email  the main unit DP, who was none other than Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE – the man behind the lens on Thor: Ragnarok, Nicole Kidman vehicle The Others, two of the Twilight films, and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Needless to say, I was honoured to be recreating the work of such an experienced cinematographer.

Unit still of Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AE on location in Scotland for “Rory’s Way”/”The Etruscan Smile”

Javier told me that he had shot with Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, and explained the feel and colour of lighting he had been going for. He had used an 81C (coral) filter to warm up the image a little, and a 1/8th Black Promist for diffusion.

After that, I sat down over coffee with Ben Millar, my gaffer. We analysed the footage from principal photography and reverse-engineered the lighting. I say “we”; it was mostly Ben. This is why a DP hires a good gaffer!

The pick-ups shoot was a single day. The afternoon before, the director and the camera department convened at the studio. The plan was to go through each of the set-ups using a stand-in in the bed. For each set-up, we first used the camera logs and script notes to put on the correct lens and filters, and set the sticks to the right height and tilt. Then, with a print-out of the original shot taped underneath the monitor, we nudged the camera around until we had the closest possible match in framing. This done, ACs Max Quinton and Bex Clives marked the tripod position on the floor with tape, writing the lens length, height, filters etc. on the tape itself to make things super-efficient the next day.

The pick-ups set was nothing more than a bed surrounded by blue screens. The bright gap between the screens represents the window from the original location.

On the morning of the shoot, the lighting department had two or three hours to set up before Brian was called. We used mostly Kinoflos, with a lot of flags to represent window frames through which light sources had been shining on the original set. The VFX supervisor Stephen Coren and I checked the histograms on the monitor to ensure the blue screen was lit evenly and to the level he required.

We were ready to roll in plenty of time, and things went more or less to plan, with the addition of an extra shot or two. The editorial team were in the next room, checking our shots against the original material, and they reported that all was well.

We finished up with a single wide night interior shot for an earlier scene in the movie. This was an interesting one, because we had to extrapolate the lighting for the whole room from a single close-up that had been shot in principal photography. Our wide shot, recorded entirely against blue, would be dropped into a wide shot from principal – a daylight wide shot, that would be digitally painted and retimed for night.

At the time of writing, Rory’s Way has just hit UK cinemas, but I have yet to see it. For all I know it might have been re-edited again, but hopefully my shots are still in there! Either way, it was a fascinating exercise to analyse and reproduce the work of a top cinematographer.

Pick-ups for “Rory’s Way”

Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?

In an eye-opening 2014 investigation of gender within the UK film industry, Stephen Follows showed that just 92% of DPs are men. Why is this?

“Women just aren’t interested in that techie stuff,” is a common refrain, but then how do you explain the much greater percentage of women working in stills photography (anywhere from 17% in the UK to 51% according to a US report)? I believe the difference is that, unlike photographers, cinematographers are surrounded by large crews – and the attitudes and prejudices of those crews can hugely impact how comfortable and welcoming a career it feels.

Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood's first female camera assistants
Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood’s first female camera assistants (1976)

An excellent female camera assistant I once worked with mentioned, towards the end of the shoot, that she almost turned down the job. It was because of something a male member of the production department said to her during preproduction: “Can you even carry heavy camera kit?”

I had actually had a conversation with this man earlier in prep concerning the way he spoke about women, and his defence was that he was joking, he didn’t mean it. But even if this was true, the fact remains that the project nearly lost a very competent and experienced member of the camera team (who, for the record, had absolutely no problem lifting a heavy camera package onto my shoulder day in, day out for weeks).

How many  productions, I wonder, have lost talented female crew members because of similar misogynous remarks or assumptions? And how many such remarks does it take before some women might say, “Well, I’m a great camera assistant and I’d love to be a DP some day, but I’m giving up and switching careers because I just can’t take all this sexist bullshit any more”? How many such remarks until some women might even start to believe that they really can’t do the job as well as men?

Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others
Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others

This is surely part of the reason for the huge gender disparity amongst cinematographers – because some women have been teased, doubted, persuaded and bullied out of the department, maybe not openly, maybe not directly, but gradually and insidiously with a bigoted remark here, a misogynous joke there, and so on. And whether it’s intentional or not, it has an effect. Even calling lamps “redheads” and “blondes” is another grain of sand on the ten mile beach of misogyny. (Instead call them 800s and 2Ks – little things like this do add up.)

The responsibility is on all of us, men especially, to make sure we are not contributing to this culture, that we are calling out this behaviour when we see it, and that our departments are comfortable places to work for both genders. Some producers and directors complain that there simply aren’t enough women applying for positions in the camera dept, but if together we can create an environment that values them, I believe we will eventually find just as many women applying as men.

I’ll leave you with a couple of articles that highlight some of the excellent female cinematographers working today:

IndieWire: Top Women Cinematographers Reveal 7 Best Tips for Career Success

And So It Begins: Why are there no Female Cinematographers?

Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?