Large Format

Recently I shot my second online cinematography course, provisionally titled The Secrets of Cinematography, which will be out in the spring. In it I shoot on a Z Cam E2-F6, a full-frame camera. As far as I can remember, the only other time I’ve shot full-frame was for the miniature map in Above the Clouds, captured on a Canon 5D Mk III. So I thought this would be a good time to post a few facts about large-format, and a good excuse to get some more use out of this graphic I created for the course…

First of all, some definitions:

  • Super-35, about 24x14mm, has been the standard sensor size since digital cinematography took off in the noughties. It’s based on an analogue film standard which has its own complex history that I won’t go into here.
  • A large-format digital cinema camera is any that has a sensor larger than Super-35. It’s not to be confused with large-format still photography, which uses much bigger sensors/film than any currently existing for moving images.
  • Full-frame is a subset of large-format. Confusingly, this term does come from still photography, where it is used to identify digital sensors that are the same size as a frame of 35mm stills film: 36x24mm.

These are the differences you will notice shooting in large-format versus Super-35:

  • Lenses will have a wider field of view. (You’ll need to make sure your chosen lenses have a large enough image circle to cover your sensor.)
  • If you increase your focal length to get the same field of view you would have had on Super-35, perspective will be rendered exactly the same as it was on Super-35…
  • … but the depth of field will be shallower…
  • … and you may see more imperfections at the edges of frame where the lens is working harder. (A Super-35 sensor would crop these imperfections out.)
  • Picture noise will probably be finer and less noticeable due to the photosites being larger and more sensitive.

In the case of full-frame, the crop factor is 1.4. This means you should multiply your Super-35 focal length by 1.4 to find the lens that will give you the same field of view on a full-frame camera. (Some examples are given in the graphic above.) It also means that you can multiply your Super-35 T-stop by 1.4 to find the full-frame T-stop to match the depth of field.

For a detailed comparison of Super-35 and full-frame, check out this test by Manuel Luebbers.

Large Format

What I Learnt from DSLRs

RedShark News recently published an article called “The DSLR is now dead”, based on the fact that the Canon 1D X Mark III will be the last flagship DSLR from the company and that mirrorless cameras are now first choice for most photographers. This prompted me to reflect on some of the things I learnt when I bought my first (and only) DSLR.

It was 2011, and I documented some of the challenges my new Canon 600D created for me in this blog post. But what the DSLR did really well was to introduce me to a workflow very similar in many ways to the bigger productions I’m working on now. Previously I had shot everything on prosumer camcorders, so the following things were new to me with DSLRs and have been constant ever since.

 

Shallow Depth of Field

I had been used to everything being in focus, so not really thinking about my aperture setting, just turning the iris dial until the exposure looked right. My Canon 600D set me on a journey of understanding f-stops, and eventually choosing a target stop to shoot at for focus reasons and then using lighting or ND filters to achieve that stop.

 

Prime Lenses

My lenses

Although for several years I owned a Canon XL1-S, which had interchangeable lenses, I only ever owned a couple of zooms for it. As far as I’m aware, no prime lenses to fit the XL1-S’s proprietary mount were ever made, so prime lenses were completely new to me when I got my 600D. As with aperture, it forced me to think about what field of view and degree of perspective or compression I wanted, select the appropriate lens, and then place the camera accordingly, rather than lazily zooming to get the desired framing.

 

Dual-System Sound

It’s weird now to think that I used to be tethered to the sound recordist before I switched to DSLR shooting. At the time I was doing most of my own editing as well, so syncing the sound was a pain in the arse, but it was a valuable introduction to this industry-standard way of working. It’s also weird to think that clapperboards were optional for me before this.

 

Building a camera rig

All my cameras before the 600D had a built-in viewfinder, handgrip, shoulder mount (if the camera was large enough to need one) and lens (except the XL1-S), and there was no need to add an external battery plate or a follow-focus. The idea that a camera rig needed to be built, and that it could be customised to suit different operators and situations, was a novel one to me. I have to say that I still prefer cameras that have more things built in, like the Alexa Classic. A good part of the reason I rarely use Reds is because they don’t come with viewfinders. Why anyone ever thinks a viewfinder is an optional part of a camera is utterly beyond me. It’s an important point of stabilising contact for handheld work, and your face shields it completely from extraneous light, unlike a monitor.

 

Tapeless recording

The 600D was my first camera to record to memory cards rather than magnetic tape. It was certainly scary to have to wipe the cards during a shoot, being careful to back everything up a couple of times first. Data wrangling was a tricky thing to deal with on the kind of tiny-crewed productions I was usually doing back then, but of course now it’s completely normal. Just last week I shot my new cinematography course and had the fun of staying up until 2:30am after a long day of shooting, to make sure all the footage was safely ingested! More on that course soon.

What I Learnt from DSLRs

“Annabel Lee”: Using a Wall as a Light Source

Here’s another lighting breakdown from the short film Annabel Lee, which has won many awards at festivals around the world, including seven now for Best Cinematography.

I wanted the cottage to feel like a safe place for Annabel and E early in the film. When they come back inside and discuss going to the village for food, I knew I wanted a bright beam of sunlight coming in somewhere. I also knew that, as is usual for most DPs in most scenes, I wanted the lighting to be short-key, i.e. coming from the opposite of the characters’ eye-lines to the camera. The blocking of the scene made this difficult though, with Annabel and E standing against a wall and closed door. In the story the cottage does not have working electricity, so I couldn’t imply a ceiling light behind them to edge them out from the wall. Normally I would have suggested to the director, Amy Coop, that we flip things around and wedge the camera in between the cast and the wall so that we could use the depth of the kitchen as a background and the kitchen window as the source of key-light. But it had been agreed with the art department that we would never show the kitchen, which had not been dressed and was full of catering supplies.

The solution was firing a 2.5K HMI in through one of the dining room windows to create a bright rectangle of light on the white wall. This rectangle of bounce became the source of key-light for the scene. We added a matt silver bounce board just out of the bottom of frame on the two-shot, and clamped silver card to the door for the close-ups, to increase the amount of bounce. The unseen kitchen window (behind camera in the two-shot) was blacked out to create contrast. I particularly like E’s close-up, where the diffuse light coming from the HMI’s beam in the haze gives him a lovely rim (stop sniggering).

Adding to the fun was the fact that it was a Steadicam scene. The two-shot had to follow E through into the dining room, almost all of which would be seen on camera, and end on a new two-shot. We put our second 2.5K outside the smaller window (camera left in the shot below), firing through a diffusion frame, to bring up the level in the room. I think we might have put an LED panel outside the bigger window, but it didn’t really do anything useful without coming into shot.

For more on the cinematography of Annabel Lee, visit these links:

“Annabel Lee”: Using a Wall as a Light Source

“Annabel Lee”: Lighting the Arrival

Last week, Annabel Lee – a short I photographed at the end of 2018 – won its sixth and seventh cinematography awards, its festival run having been somewhat delayed by Covid. I’ve previously written a couple of posts around shooting specific parts of Annabel Lee – here’s one about a Steadicam shot with a raven, and another about the church scene – and today I want to dissect the clip above. The sequence sees our two young refugees, Annabel and E, arriving at the Devonshire cottage where they’ll await passage to France.

I was a last-minute replacement for another DP who had to pull out, so the crew, kit list and locations were all in place when I joined. Director Amy Coop had chosen to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic glass, and gaffer Bertil Mulvad and the previous DP had put together a package including a nine-light Maxi Brute, a couple of 2.5K HMIs and some LiteMats.

The Brute is serving as the moon in the exteriors, backlighting the (special effects) rain at least when we’re looking towards the driver. (If you’re not familiar with Maxi Brutes, they’re banks of 1K tungsten pars. Ours was gelled blue and rigged on a cherry-picker.) The topography of the location made it impossible to cheat the backlight around when we shot towards Annabel and E; rain doesn’t show up well unless it’s backlit, so this was quite frustrating.

We didn’t have any other sources going on except the period car’s tungsten headlights. It was very tricky to get the cast to hit the exact spots where the headlights would catch them while not shadowing themselves as they held out their hands with umbrellas or brooches.

Inside the cottage it’s a story point that the electricity doesn’t work, so until E lights the oil lamp we could only simulate moonlight and the headlights streaming in through the window. These latter were indeed a simulation, as we didn’t have the picture car at the time we shot inside. There was a whole sequence of bad luck that night when the camera van got stuck on the single-lane dirt track to the cottage, stranding certain crucial vehicles outside and sealing us all inside for three hours after wrap, until the RAC arrived and towed the camera van. So the “headlights” were a couple of tungsten fresnels, probably 650s, which were panned off and dimmed when the car supposedly departs. We also tried to dim them invisibly so that we could get more light on E as he comes in the door and avoid the Close Encounters look when the window comes into shot, but after a few takes of failing to make it undetectable we had to abandon the idea.

We also didn’t have the rain machine for the interiors, so as E opens the door you might briefly glimpse water being poured from an upstairs window by the art department, backlit by an LED panel. We put one of the HMIs outside a window that’s always off camera left to give us some “moonlight” in the room, create colour contrast with the tungsten headlights and the flame of the oil lamp, and ensure that we weren’t left in complete darkness when the “car” departs. Annabel looks right into it as she hugs E.

When the action moves upstairs, an HMI shines in through the window again. I remember it gave us real camera-shadow problems at the end of the scene, because Steadicam operator Rupert Peddle had to end with his back to that window and the talent in front of him (though the clip above cuts off before we get to that bit). The practical oil lamp does a lot of the work making this scene look great. I was sad that I had to put a little fill in the foreground to make E’s bruises at least a tiny bit visible; this was a LiteMat panel set to a very low intensity and bounced off the wall right of camera.

It’s worth mentioning the aspect ratio. My recollection is that I framed for 2.39:1, which is normal for anamorphic shooting. With the Alexa Mini in 4:3 mode, 2x anamorphic lenses produce an 8:3 or 2.66:1 image, which you would typically crop at the sides to 2.39 in post. When I arrived at the grade Annabel Lee was all in 2.66:1 and Amy wanted to keep it that way. I’m not generally a fan of changing aspect ratios in post because it ruins all the composition I worked hard to get right on set, but there’s no denying that this film looks beautiful in the super-wide ratio.

Finally, let me say a huge thank you to all the people who helped make the cinematography the award-winning success it has become, crucially drone operators Mighty Sky, underwater DP Ian Creed and colourist Caroline Morin. I’m sure the judges for these awards were swayed more by the beautiful aerial and aquatic work than the stuff I actually did!

“Annabel Lee”: Lighting the Arrival

Time Up for Tungsten?

Poppy Drayton, in “The Little Mermaid”, lit by a tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Last October, rental house VMI retired all of its tungsten lighting units as part of its mission to be a Net Zero company by 2030. I know this mainly because I am currently writing an article for British Cinematographer about sustainability in the film and TV industry, and VMI’s managing director Barry Bassett was one of the first people I interviewed.

Barry is very passionate about helping the environment and this is reflected in numerous initiatives he’s pioneered at VMI and elsewhere, but in this post I just want to discuss the tungsten issue.

I love tungsten lighting. There’s no better way to light a human face, in my opinion, than to bounce a tungsten light off a poly-board. (Poly-board is also terrible for the planet, I’ve just learnt, but that’s another story.) The continuous spectrum of light that tungsten gives out is matched only by daylight.

Dana Hajaj lit by another tungsten 1K bounced off poly

Tungsten has other advantages too: it’s cheap to hire, and it’s simple technology that’s reliable and easy to repair if it does go wrong.

But there’s no denying it’s horribly inefficient. “Tungsten lighting fixtures ought to be called lighting heaters, since 96% of the energy used is output as heat, leaving only 4% to produce light,” Barry observed in a British Cinematographer news piece. When you put it that way, it seems like a ridiculous waste of energy.

Without meaning to, I have drifted a little away from tungsten in recent years. When I shot Hamlet last year, I went into it telling gaffer Ben Millar that it should be a tungsten heavy show, but we ended up using a mix of real tungsten and tungsten-balanced LED. It’s so much easier to set up a LiteMat 2L on a battery than it is to run mains for a 2K, set up a bounce and flag off all the spill.

Shirley MacLaine lit by a tungsten book-light in “The Little Mermaid”

I admire what VMI have done, and I’ve no doubt that other companies will follow suit. The day is coming – maybe quite soon – when using tungsten is impossible, either because no rental companies stock it any more, or no-one’s making the bulbs, or producers ban it to make their productions sustainable.

Am I ready to give up tungsten completely? Honestly, no, not yet. But it is something I need to start thinking seriously about.

Time Up for Tungsten?

What is a French Over?

Film industry jargon isn’t shy of national references. A Dutch angle is a canted shot. To Spanish a piece of kit is to get rid of it (a corruption of “it’s banished”). To German a light – I think – is to lie the stand horizontal, attach the head, then raise the whole thing vertical. Or maybe that’s Italianing. I forget. But what is a French over?

It’s a type of over-the-shoulder shot. It requires the two characters to be bodily facing in the same direction, like on a bench or in the front seats of a car. If the camera shoots from behind their bodies, it’s a French over. Here are a few examples.

“Norman” (2010, DP: Darren Genet)
A commercial shot by Patrick O’Sullivan
“À bout de souffle” (1960, DP: Raoul Coutard)

A French over feels a little more conspiratorial or voyeuristic than a standard over. It gives the viewer a sense that they’re privy to a confidential conversation.

It works well for bench scenes because benches often have nice vistas in front of them which you can keep in the background of your close-ups, and you don’t have to cross the line to do a wide shot behind the bench showcasing the whole view.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015, DP: Robert Elswit, ASC)

It’s far easier to shoot French overs in a car because the operator can simply sit on the back seat rather than trying to jam the camera onto the dashboard.

French overs allow the editor more flexibility too. A typical problem of covering dialogue scenes where characters are facing the same way is that you can often clearly see the foreground character’s mouth, which locks the editor in to maintaining lip-sync every time they cut. In a French over you only see the back of the foreground character’s head so this problem is eliminated.

They’re not to everyone’s taste though. You certainly see less of the actors’ faces than in a standard over, and if the cast are not going to turn to look at each other very often their emotions could easily end up unreadable. If that’s not the effect you want, standard overs would be a better choice.

What is a French Over?

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Iris in Your Lens

Inside a lens, amongst the various glass elements, is an ingenious mechanism which we call the iris. Just like your biological iris, it controls the amount of light passing through the pupil to form an image. I’ve written about the iris’s use to control exposure before, and its well-known side effect of controlling depth of field. But here are five things that aren’t so commonly known about irises.

 

1. f-stops and the entrance pupil

This image shows the exit pupil because it’s seen through the rear element of the lens. A view through the front element would show the entrance pupil.

The f-number of a lens is the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the aperture, but did you know that it isn’t the actual diameter of the aperture that’s used in this calculation? It’s the apparent diameter as viewed through the front of the lens. A lens might have a magnifying front element, causing the aperture to appear larger than its physical size, or a reducing one, causing it to appear smaller. Either way, it’s this apparent aperture – known as the entrance pupil – which is used to find the f-number.

 

2. No-parallax point

The no-parallax point of a lens is located at its entrance pupil. Sometimes called the nodal point, although that’s technically something different, this is the point around which the camera must pan and tilt if you want to eliminate all parallax. This is important for forced perspective work, for panoramas stitched together from multiple shots, and other types of VFX.

 

3. Focus

If you need to check your focal distance with a tape measure, many cameras have a handy Phi symbol on the side indicating where the sensor plane is located so that you can measure from that point. But technically you should be measuring to the entrance pupil. The sensor plane marker is just a convenient shortcut because the entrance pupil is in a different place for every lens and changes when the lens is refocused or zoomed. In most cases the depth of field is large enough for the shortcut to give perfectly acceptable results, however.

 

4. Bokeh shape

The bokeh of a 32mm Cooke S4 wide open at T2 (left) and stopped down to T2.8 (right). Note also the diffraction spikes visible in the righthand image.

The shape of the entrance pupil determines the shape of the image’s bokeh (out of focus areas), most noticeable in small highlights such as background fairy lights. The pupil’s shape is determined both by the number of iris blades and the shape of their edges. The edges are often curved to approximate a circle when the iris is wide open, but form more of a polygon when stopped down. For example, a Cooke S4 produces octagonal bokeh at most aperture settings, indicating eight iris blades. Incidentally, an anamorphic lens has a roughly circular aperture like any other lens, but the entrance pupil (and hence the bokeh) is typically oval because of the anamorphosing effect of the front elements.

 

5. Diffraction spikes

When the edge of an iris blade is straight or roughly straight, it spreads out the light in a perpendicular direction, creating a diffraction spike. The result is a star pattern around bright lights, typically most visible at high f-stops. Every blade produces a pair of spikes in opposite directions, so the number of points in the star is equal to twice the number of iris blades – as long as that number is odd. If the number of blades is even, diffraction spikes from opposite sides of the iris overlap, so the number of apparent spikes is the same as the number of blades, as in the eight-pointed Cooke diffraction pictured above right.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Iris in Your Lens

“Die Hard”: A Masterclass in Composition

I hope you have all enjoyed Die Hard as a traditional staple of your Yuletide festivities. Every time I see it I am in awe of, among other things, the composition by DP Jan de Bont, ASC and camera operators Michael Ferris, Michael Scott and M. Todd Henry. Let’s have a look at some of the beautifully framed images and see what some of the hallmarks are.

 

Low Angles

“From up here it doesn’t look like you’re in charge of jack shit.”

So many low angles in Die Hard, some motivated by the blocking but many simply to make the characters seem larger than life.

 

No Rule of Thirds

“There are rules for policemen.” / “Yeah. That’s what my captain keeps telling me.”

De Bont uses the full width of the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame to creatively place his subjects, rarely obeying the Rule of Thirds and often squeezing characters right into one side of the frame.

 

Short-siding

“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.”

Short-siding means placing a character close to the side of the frame which they’re looking towards, and this happens quite often in the film as well.

 

Deep Raking Shots

“Welcome to the party, pal.”

The filmmakers love to have a row of characters ranging from near to far. Even in over-the-shoulder shots, de Bont frequently adds an extra element in the background, continuing the depth procession begun by the foreground shoulder and mid-ground actor.

 

Dutch Angles

“You oughta be on fucking TV with that accent.”

Jan de Bont is from the Netherlands, so every shot… But I’m talking specifically about the canted shots which underscore the deception of the scene where Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber pretends to be a hostage (with a highly convincing English-German-American accent) and the subsequent shoot-out in the computer room.

 

There are also a lot of great camera moves in Die Hard, but that’s a post for another Christmas. Happy new year and yippie-ki-yay, motherfuckers!

“Die Hard”: A Masterclass in Composition

My Best Blog Posts of 2021

Anyone else feel like this year was two steps forwards and two steps back? The current panic and looming threat of restrictions seems very much like how we all felt last year. All that’s needed to complete the effect is a last-minute U-turn to prevent Christmas mixing.

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough that the year as a whole has treated me quite kindly. In keeping with tradition, I’ll round it off with a list of my favourite blog posts.

 

“Superman II” Retrospective

This was originally written for RedShark News, a website about moving image technology and production news. The editor let me do a series of retrospectives about classic films and how they were made, most of which have subsequently made it onto this blogSuperman II was one of the first I did and is still one of my favourites. The story behind its production is so unique, with the first two films being initially shot back to back, then the second one being temporarily shelved due to budget overruns, the director being fired and much of it being re-shot. I had to cut a few hundred words out for the RedShark version, but you get the full-fat edition here on my site.

 

Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

I first read about the Soviet probe Luna 3 in Giles Sparrow’s coffee-table book Spaceflight. I have been fascinated by space travel ever since watching all the programmes celebrating the 25th anniversary of the moon landing in 1994. When I discovered that Luna 3 had a photographic developing lab inside it, I knew it would make a great article. Again this appeared first on RedShark News.

 

Undisclosed Project: Experimentation

I spent most of this February and March in prep for a feature adaptation of Hamlet starring Sir Ian McKellen, which was an absolute privilege to work on. Although I wasn’t allowed to name it at the time, I posted weekly blogs about the prep process, of which “Experimentation” is my favourite. This instalment covers the camera- and lens-testing process and includes a video of the results. Hamlet itself is likely still at least a year away from release, but rest assured that I have written a production diary and it will be posted when the film is out… or scroll down for a sneak preview!

 

The Cinematography of “Alder”

This article gets to the core of what I like this blog to be about: sharing my own experiences of cinematography, analysing the decisions I made, and sharing the results. This is the story of Alder, a fairytale short filmed in a single, packed day!

 

Tungsten bulbs emit an orange light - dim them down and it gets even more orangey.The Art and Science of White Balance

Another keystone of this blog is reference information about the technical side of cinematography. This article aims to cover everything you need to know about white balance and colour temperature.

 

5 Ingenious Visual Effects With No CGI

Another piece that started life on RedShark News, this one looks at how VFX that nowadays would be computer-generated particle simulations were done in the pre-digital days. I’m fascinated by traditional VFX; I used to tape films and TV shows on VHS and use frame-by-frame playback to analyse how they were done. (One show that went under the microscope in this manner was the 1988 Doctor Who story “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and I was lucky enough this month to interview the digital matte-painter responsible. You’ll be able to read that piece in the January issue of Doctor Who Magazine.)

 

The Colour of Moonlight

Every now and then I write what I think of as an “investigation” post; I dig into a concept like the Inverse Square Law, CRI or the Rule of Thirds and try to find out where it came from and whether it’s actually as useful or accurate as we tend to assume. In this particular post I try to find out where the idea of blue moonlight in cinema came from, and how the exact colour has developed over the years.

 

“Harvey Greenfield is Running Late”: Week 2

The second feature I shot this year was a micro-budget comedy based on a critically acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe show. I posted a production blog as we went along, and I’m picking week 2 as my favourite because it includes the crazy day we shot 11 scenes and over eight pages.

 

“Quantum Leaper”

A tale from right back at the start of my filmmaking journey, this post brought up lots of fun memories as I was writing it. Quantum Leaper is an amateur spin-off of the 1980s-90s cult sci-fi series Quantum Leap, which my friend David Abbott and I made on a Video-8 camcorder in the mid ’90s. Sadly, not long after I wrote the piece, Quantum Leap star Dean Stockwell passed away, but I still hold hopes that Scott Bakula might one day appear in a sequel series to find out if Dr Sam Beckett ever returned home.

 

A Preview of Things to Come

I can’t say at present when Hamlet will be released, but when it is I’ll be publishing my diary from the shoot. I’ll leave you with a preview from Day 1…

We started with scenes at the stage door, one of the few spaces in the theatre that has natural light coming in. Gaffer Ben Millar and I considered trying to add artificial light outside to the main window which was backlighting the scene, but instead we opted to light through a little side window with a Fomex wrapped in unbleached muslin. After a hiccup about blocking and crew shows, we bashed through three set-ups including two using Wes Anderson-esque central framing and eye-lines very close to camera.

Next up was a scene in the substage, next to the boiler room. Here we installed a practical tungsten bulkhead light on the wall as our key, adding to the extant yellowy-green fluorescents that illuminated parts of the background, and the Fomex spilling down a staircase. Lots of black negative space in the frame added to the moody look.

After lunch – during which I sorted out the footage transcoding plan with line producer Stephen Cranny and data wrangler Max Quinton – we moved to the glamorous location of the gents’ toilets for Ian McKellen’s first scene. The location had been very flat and white originally, but Ben’s crew rigged three Astera tubes to the tops of two walls – the two walls that we were mainly shooting towards – and that created a nice wrappy backlit look. Director Sean Matthias embraced the weirder shots I had storyboarded, which I was very happy about!

My Best Blog Posts of 2021

Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

The following article originally appeared on RedShark News in 2018.

Directed by Bryan Singer, of X-Men and The Usual Suspects fame, Bohemian Rhapsody charts the story of Queen from their formation in 1970 to their triumphant Live Aid set in 1985, with plenty of their classic rock hits along the way. Rami Malek (from Amazon’s Mr. Robot) turns in an Oscar-winning performance as larger-than-life frontman Freddie Mercury.

In his tenth collaboration with Singer was director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC. I spoke to Sigel about how he approached evoking an era, recreating the concerts, and lensing a legend.

“Every day was this wonderful trip back in time,” enthuses Sigel, who saw the movie as a chance to relive his own youth. “I love shooting music. There is this wonderful transition from the end of the counter-culture, through glam-rock into the hedonism of the eighties.”

Shooting digitally, Sigel employed both the Alexa SXT and Alexa 65. “I decided the movie needed to have a visual arc that best represented the band’s transition from idealists to rock stars, and all the issues that creates. To that effect, I did the first act with old Cooke Speed Panchro lenses on the Alexa SXT. As Queen is discovered, and begins to be known on the international stage, we transition to the Alexa 65.” Sigel later fine-tuned this arc during grading.

The cinematographer paired the large-format Alexa 65 with Prime DNA and Prime 65-S glass, testing all the lenses to find the ones with the most gentle fall-off in focus. “Each lens had its own personality, and was never really ‘perfect’. Our 28mm had a particularly crazy quality that, when used sparingly, had great effect.”

One thing that struck me immediately about the cinematography is the distinctly un-British, warm and glowing look, with lots of sun streaming through windows. This was all part of Sigel’s plan, which develops as the film progresses. “What begins as warm and golden, with its own special LUT, grows ever sharper and cooler, even desaturated,” he explains. “The beginning is all handheld and grainy, the rest much cleaner, with the camera on Steadicam and crane.”

Sigel took a down-to-earth approach to photographing Malek’s Mercury. “I always wanted Freddie to feel very real,” he states. “It is important that you sense his vulnerability at the same time as he is projecting the bravado of the consummate showman. Like so many great performers, Freddie exuded confidence and brashness on stage, and yet, had a terribly shy insecurity in ‘real’ life.”

The highlights of Bohemian Rhapsody are undoubtedly the concert scenes. To tackle these, Sigel began by watching every single piece of Queen footage he could lay his hands on, noting the development of the stage lighting over the years. “I wanted to be as faithful to that as I could, while still having it service our story,” he says. That meant eschewing the easily-coloured RGB LED fixtures so common in movies and concerts today, and going back to the traditional method of laboriously changing gels on tungsten units. “We stuck to period lights,” Sigel confirms, “predominantly par cans and follow spots.”

The sheer number of concert scenes was a challenge for the filmmakers, who at one point had to shoot four gigs in just two days. “We had so many concerts to shoot and so little time, I needed to develop a system to quickly change from one venue to the next,” Sigel recalls. “Because Queen’s lighting was based on large racks of par cans, we were able to construct a very modular system that would allow us to raise or lower different sections very quickly. By pre-programming lighting sequences, we could also create sequence patterns with different configurations of light pods to make it look like a different venue.”

The types of units change as the story progresses through the band’s career. “By the late 70s, Queen was among the first bands to adopt the Vari-Lite, which was championed by the band Genesis,” Sigel explains. “That opened up many more possibilities in the theatrical lighting, which also reflected the band’s ascendancy to the upper echelons of the rock world.”

Sigel notes that he embraced all opportunities to capture lens flares from the concert lighting. “There is a great moment during Live Aid where Freddie makes this sweeping gesture through a circular flare, and it almost seems as if he is drawing on the lens.”

The historic Live Aid concert forms the jubilant climax of the film. Queen’s entire 20-minute set was recreated over seven days of shooting. “We photographed it in every type of weather Great Britain has ever seen: rain, sun, overcast, front-light, backlight – you name it. We couldn’t afford to silk the area as I would have liked,” Sigel adds, referring to large sheets of diffusion hung from cranes to maintain a soft, consistent daylight. “So it was a constant battle and the DI [digital intermediate] certainly helped.”

Filming for Bohemian Rhapsody began in autumn 2017, but by December trouble was brewing. Twentieth Century Fox halted production for a while, with the Hollywood Reporter citing the “unexpected unavailability of director Bryan Singer” as the reason. Dexter Fletcher, who had been attached to direct the nascent film back in 2013, ultimately replaced Singer for the last leg of photography.

“A change like that is never ideal,” admits Sigel, “but Dexter was very impressed with what we had done so far. With only a couple weeks to go, he was happy to carry on in the direction we had begun. Obviously he brought some of his own personal touches, but what I noticed the most was the ease he had in communicating with the actors.”

Reflecting on his long history of collaboration with Singer, Sigel is very positive. “When you have done that many movies together, there is a shorthand that develops and makes much of the work easier because you know your parameters from the beginning. Bohemian Rhapsody was truly the ‘labour of love’ cliché for so many people involved; it was quite remarkable.”

Asked to sum up the appeal of Bohemian Rhapsody, the cinematographer declares, “The film has everything – a deep emotional core at the centre of what is otherwise an exuberant celebration of Queen’s music. I also think Freddie’s story of an immigrant outsider just trying to fit in has a resonance today that is very profound.”

Newton Thomas Sigel on the Cinematography of “Bohemian Rhapsody”