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!