One DP recently garnered his first career Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award nomination.
Another lensed a film which made a major splash at Sundance, was acquired by Warner Bros. and is scheduled to premiere at theaters in August.
A third cinematographer recently wrapped his second Netflix series, continuing a collaborative relationship with one director and forming a new one with a directorial duo.
And our fourth DP reflects on a hybrid documentary/narrative series for Amazon Prime, which also contains elements of improv.
Here are insights from Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC on Bohemian Rhapsody, Ben Smithard, BSC on Blinded by the Light, Darren Lew on Maniac, and Arlene Nelson on This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy.
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC recently earned his first Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award nomination on the strength of Bohemian Rhapsody (Twentieth Century Fox). The lauded feature--which won four Academy Awards including Best Leading Actor for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, and Editing for John Ottman, ACE--takes us from Queen’s beginnings through its ascent to super stardom, reflected in the rock band’s stirring performance at Live Aid.
For Sigel, one of the prime creative challenges posed to him was capturing the look, spirit and feel of that Live Aid performance. “Our entire story leads to a show, done in the flat light of day, against a backdrop that was purposefully austere. What’s more, you can see the very same performance on YouTube as it was broadcast by the BBC,” related Sigel. “Production design, choreography and costume design were all beholden to reproduce this historic event faithfully, and they did a phenomenal job. But I was free, actually obligated, to show a new perspective. For me, this meant telling the story from the inside out, and in two tracks. One was to show what was going on internally with Freddie, the band and the important people in his life. The other mission was to express the magical relationship Freddie had with the audience. As he said, he was singing to the guy in the last row.
“If you look at the camera choreography,” continued Sigel, “it is totally different than the BBC. Much more muscular and subjective, often putting the audience in a place they’ve never been. I tried to set this up with the opening aerial that goes from high above the stadium to a close-up of Freddie, and around him, bringing the audience back in to the shot.
“I also took limited license with the lighting. While it had to stay daylight, I tried to build a subtle arc to allow the stage lighting to have an increasing influence as the gig went on. Queen came on at 6:40pm, so it wasn’t a big cheat. Some of my favorite shots are where you see a hint of the fading sun through the gaps in the stadium roof. As simple as it sounds, the nightmare was doing this over seven days in the ever-changing British weather and hoping for at least a little continuity. We couldn’t afford to silk the whole stage, so I had to try and control it piecemeal.”
Sigel marvels over Malek in the role of Mercury. “Rami is a meticulous and wonderfully collaborative performer,” assessed Sigel. “To this day, I don’t understand how he grew into the skin of Freddie so fast. We had a terrific movement coach, Polly Bennett, who worked with him relentlessly. Our first week shooting was Live Aid, which was crazy, but because the choreography was fixed, I could plot some very specific camera moves, which was helpful. The dramatic material was equally fruitful with Rami. Even though he was going very deep to channel this idiosyncratic character, he was always very camera-friendly. We found a chemistry very early and it carried us through the show.”
Regarding his camera and related choices in taking on Bohemian Rhapsody, Sigel explained, “The story takes place over 15 years, 1970 to 1985. This period also saw a seismic cultural shift, from the height of the counter-culture to the decadence of the ‘80s. I wanted to find a language that expressed that.
“The movie begins on the Alexa ST with netted vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses. It is handheld, and through a very specific LUT. By the late ‘70s, it is all Alexa 65, DNA lenses and a very clean, slightly desaturated LUT, mostly on cranes, dollies and Steadicam. We also had a few specialty scenes. Freddie’s childhood was 16mm, although it was cut from the film. Top Of The Pops was Betacam, the video format of the day. The ‘I Want To Break Free’ music video was 35mm, shot with the same 35BL and zoom lens that filmed Freddie’s very last images before he passed away.”
As for his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Bohemian Rhapsody, Sigel succinctly shared, “How much I love shooting music.”
Ben Smithard, BSC
Also carrying musical overtones is Blinded by the Light, director Gurinder Chadha’s film which had a rousing debut at Sundance, leading to it being acquired by Warner Bros. Slated to hit theaters in August, Blinded by the Light introduces us to a 16-year-old British Pakistani boy whose life is changed in 1987 when his friend loans him Bruce Springsteen cassettes. Stirred by Springsteen’s music and lyrics, the lad is inspired to find his own voice as a writer, push back against the racism around him, and challenge his father’s dogmatic views.
Ben Smithard, BSC, an Emmy winner for Outstanding Cinematography for the limited series Cranford, shot Blinded by the Light, marking a return engagement with Chadha.
Smithard recalled, “Gurinder asked me to shoot Blinded By the Light after collaborating on Viceroy’s House, a film about the partition of India in 1947. I love shooting period historical films and Blinded by the Light fit into that category of interest for me. Also the period it is set in (the 1980s) is also the time that I did most of my growing up as a young person so the story had an additional resonance. I remembered the music, politics, clothing, social upheaval and general atmosphere of England in the 1980s. Gurinder often talks about the film being a kind of sequel to her 2002 feature Bend it like Beckham, which I didn’t shoot, but for me in the look of the film it’s personally a sequel to The Damned United, my first feature film from 2008. It has that same gritty feel of the streets, buildings and landscape. Blinded by the Light is a very different kind of film, it is more upbeat and has a stronger message about the joy of growing up, even if it’s in a place that is falling apart at the seams. I also loved all the music and I was a Bruce Springsteen fan so that made it easy to accept the film. I adore working with Gurinder so it was an easy decision to make when she asked me to shoot Blinded by the Light.”
Chadha and Smithard developed a bond on Viceroy’s House which he described as “a big, complicated film to shoot, and lots of our collaborative spirit and understanding came from that experience. Shooting in India is amazing, and the scale is out of this world, so we had been through a lot together before we started Blinded by the Light. We approached the film as we would any other, talking, visiting locations and discussing every aspect of the film and story. We also did a small shoot in New Jersey before we started shooting the main film so that allowed us to have a few detailed discussions before the craziness of the principal photography.”
Some of that craziness was rooted in being true to the period piece. “The biggest challenge by far,” assessed Smithard, “was the period details, primarily the cars. Sometimes it’s harder shooting a period film that is closer to contemporary times than it is shooting a film that’s set 100 years ago for example. You can’t just rock up on a street and start shooting a film set in the ‘80s. Everything is different, the cars, street furniture, clothing, buildings, much more so than anyone would think. On a low budget that can be extremely trying, and it was a constant problem for us. Luckily we had a great production designer, Nick Ellis, who worked tirelessly with his team to sort as many problems out as they could with the small budget.”
Smithard deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini, shooting ARRI RAW, with Zeiss Ultraprimes and Angenieux zooms. “I love the Alexa Mini because it’s so flexible and easy to use. The Ultraprimes are probably the best set of lenses designed in the last 20 years; it’s a large set of focal lengths and they are very neutral lenses which I prefer as a starting point for cinema. The Angenieux Lenses are the best zooms around, and I spend a lot of time on the zoom when I’m operating. I may change prime lenses from film to film but I am rarely without some Angenieux zooms. I also shot some of the footage in New Jersey on a Canon C300 MK2, which I think is a brilliant camera.”
In addition to Blinded by the Light, Viceroy’s House and Damned United (which was directed by Tom Hooper), Smithard’s body of work includes the features Goodbye Christopher Robin and My Week With Marilyn (both directed by Simon Curtis), and TV fare such as the critically acclaimed film The Dresser and The Hollow Crown series, for which Smithard earned a BSC Award nomination.
DP Darren Lew goes way back with director Cary Fukunaga, starting with a collaboration on “Go Forth,” a commercial for Levi’s which won a 2010 AICP Show honor as well as a Cannes Bronze Lion--both for cinematography. Lew later directed and shot second unit on Fukunaga’s True Detective (season one) for HBO. And then the director and DP made their first trip to Africa, working with a sparse crew to do a short of their own, Sleepwalking In The Riff. “It was a great exercise in building confidence that we could do something almost anywhere with very few resources, not even a script,” recalled Lew. “Cary and I shot it ourselves on Canon 5Ds. People still write me to this day about that film. Sometimes I get treatments for commercials and people reference that film in their treatments.”
Most recently Lew teamed with Fukunaga on Netflix’s Maniac starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. The visually captivating limited series, a mix of dark comedy and drama, centers on two struggling strangers who connect during a pharmaceutical drug experimental trial involving a doctor with mother issues and an emotionally complex, malfunctioning computer.
While the show is a departure from the norm, so too was it different from the standard series working formula which often entails multiple directors and rotating DPs. Instead Fukunaga directed and Lew shot all 10 episodes. “To do this much work in a set amount of time on a show with this much ambition was perhaps the biggest challenge,” observed Lew. “The series deals with different realities, flashbacks, flash-forwards, moving through different eras--the Middle Ages, the 1980s, all over. It’s ambitious in its scale and to keep that all together was one huge challenge. Our style was to keep a light touch, to devise a look that let’s you feel like you’ve gone into these different time periods without being heavy handed. It takes more work to do something with this kind of a more delicate approach.”
Additionally shooting in New York took on another dimension as Fukunaga and Lew shied away from iconic locations familiar to most people. “We wanted to find a New York that people to a degree didn’t know so well. We went to locations where people weren’t used to seeing filming. And Cary wanted to see most of those places in 360 degrees, which meant lots of planning, logistical work and rigging to make that happen. What’s great about Cary is he’s an uncompromising director, always creatively interesting.”
The camera of choice for Maniac was the Panavision DXL, paired with Panavision anamorphic glass and complemented with an array of zooms. “Panavision is one of the few places that has a department that can customize lenses,” related Lew. “They have a number of vintage lenses that have made a lot of films we’ve loved over the years. Panavision is the one place that can make those lenses work and adapt to modern cameras and formats. We wanted to shoot Panavision C series anamorphic lenses which are beautiful. Panavision pulled together a full set for us, enabling close focus and affording us as many in-between focal ranges as we could get. Some of it they had to build from scratch, making a new lens out of older elements. We got the C series look and used some E series as well.”
Lew said that the new DXL camera performed admirably, and that “incredible support” from Panavision wasn’t confined to just the camera and the lenses. “Both Cary and I have a relationship with Light Iron, the post house owned by Panavision.” Dailies and post were done at Light Iron; the work done there, affirmed Lew, also helped achieve the desired look.
Looking back on his Maniac experience, Lew observed that he and Fukunaga generally work on intimate projects. Maniac, though, was much larger in scale, with trucks and trailers taking over multiple city blocks. Still, though, they were able to retain that intimacy they crave while working. “I learned more about how do you make a big production feel as small as possible in terms of production, lighting, footprint and mobility so that the actors and the director can have the freedom to explore and be creative,” said Lew. “How to turn around and shoot something else or in a way we hadn’t planned as actors discover something different. We found ways to be light, limber and nimble.”
Lew described himself as “a lucky guy,” crediting UTA with getting him projects that bring him together with stellar directors. Recently he’s done additional photography on The Irishman, collaborating with Martin Scorsese. And over the years, he’s done commercials with Kathryn Bigelow, Albert Maysles, and Darren Aronofsky (Maybelline, and a Meth Project PSA), as well as Phoenix’s “Chloroform” music video for filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and the short film Past Forward for David O. Russell. Lew also shot a segment of the Freakonomics documentary for director Alex Gibney.
“Chloroform” is one of a number of notable music videos shot by Lew. Those clips, spanning such artists as David Bowie, Beyonce, Madonna and Miley Cyrus, have generated collectively some 1.5 billion views. Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” garnered Lew a Best Cinematography MTV Music Video Award as well as a Camerimage nomination. Lew was also a Camerimage nominee for Bowie’s “Blackstar.”
At press time, Lew had just wrapped another Netflix series, Living with Yourself starring Paul Rudd and for which all the episodes were directed by team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Among varied career highlights thus far for cinematographer Arlene Nelson would be shooting A Mighty Wind for director Christopher Guest, and earning a primetime Emmy nomination (along with Nicola Marsh) for the American Masters episode “Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor & The Rise Of The Singer-Songwriter.”
Now Nelson’s most recent addition to those highlights is her lensing of the eight-part docuseries This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy (Amazon Prime), executive produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, among others. The show chronicles the surprising way the economy interconnects and impacts the lives of people all over the planet, told through the curious, thoughtful mind of host Kal Penn, an actor (Harold & Kumar, How I Met Your Mother) who’s also a former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Each episode focuses on a central question about the global economy, including: How can I launder a bag of dirty cash? Why is death so expensive? Does buying knockoff Nikes really fund terrorism? And is it easier for jerks to get rich?
This Giant Beast is a hybrid spanning elements of documentary, narrative, celeb fare (with guest stars like Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, Meghan Trainor, Rashida Jones), and even improv, a challenging mix which attracted Nelson and played an integral role in the series creators gravitating towards her to be the lone DP. Nelson has experience shooting narrative and documentary work, bringing a stylized look to her shooting. These attributes made her an ideal choice for the multi-faceted This Giant Beast. She could thus mesh well with the two directors on the series who worked on all the episodes: Lee Farber and David Laven.
Farber handled narrative vignettes, maintaining more of a conventional relationship with DP Nelson. By contrast, Laven, director of the documentary portions, had an atypical collaborative bond with Nelson. “He gave me freedom to explore this hybrid form, bringing in improv scenes,” said Nelson. “Spontaneous elements of improv took the form of little side scenes which meshed nicely with the documentary portion. The work was a hybrid like Kal (Penn), a comedian who has a serious side to him. We also worked on making traditional interviews as cinematic as possible.”
Nelson noted that when Penn exited or entered a place, she and Laven would make “a little scene or movie out of it. We were making a hybrid documentary/narrative within the documentary portion of each episode, developing our own language while keeping the authenticity of each scene’s spirit.”
Nelson shot in 30-plus cities in more than a dozen countries over four-and-a-half months to capture the many different stories, the serious and the bizarre, in This Giant Beast. She trekked everywhere from monsoon-soaked Thailand rubber tree farms to an airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert, a crypto-mine in Prague and a corruption reporting center in Singapore, utilizing four ARRI cameras--a pair of Alexa Minis and two ARRI Amiras. The latter, she explained, are “fantastic for documentary-style shooting” while the Alexa Minis’ small size brings flexibility and the mobility to get into small spaces.
The DP shared that her earlier collaborations with Guest left a lasting impact on her. Besides A Mighty Wind, Nelson shot several commercials for Guest and worked with his improv troupe. “I love shooting improv, the unpredictability of what’s happening in front of you. It’s raw, real, honest, surprising--and can mix nicely with documentary and narrative.”
Nelson further recalled her first day of shooting A Mighty Wind. She said that a studio exec told her she was the first female DP to lens a Castle Rock/Warner Bros. feature. “That historical first made me realize at that moment just how far we’ve come but still need to go.”
This Giant Beast is Nelson’s first project for Amazon. She’s no stranger to streaming services, though, having shot the Netflix docuseries Ugly Delicious. And in the offing is another yet-to-be-disclosed Netflix docuseries for which Nelson is slated to serve as director and DP.