Cinematographers Shed Light On "Small Axe," "The Handmaid’s Tale," "The Nevers"
John Boyega as Leroy Logan (l) and DP Shabier Kirchner on the set of "Red, White and Blue," one of the "Small Axe" films (photo by Will Robson-Scott/courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)
DPs Shabier Kirchner, Stuart Biddlecombe and Seamus McGarvey discuss their approaches, collaborators

One DP landed a major career break from an Oscar-winning filmmaker and now finds himself front and center on the awards show circuit.

Another took on a high-profile show, his first episode being directed by the cinematographer who preceded him.

And our third cinematographer, a two-time Oscar nominee, is in the conversation for his second career Emmy nod--this time for a fantasy drama on HBO.

Here are insights from Shabier Kirchner on Small Axe (Amazon Prime), Stuart Biddlecombe on The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) and Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, ISC on The Nevers (HBO).

Shabier Kirchner
Among the accolades earned thus far this awards season by Small Axe, a five-film anthology from writer-director-producer Steve McQueen, are a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in TV (John Boyega), Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a prestigious Peabody Award nomination, and a BAFTA TV Award-leading tally of 15 nods. The Peabody honors the most powerful, enlightening, engaging stories in media that reflect pressing social issues and bring out the most vibrant emerging voices of the day. 

Small Axe gives voice to culture, specifically London’s West Indian community, tracing the Caribbean immigrant experience through the racism of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s and in doing so casting a light on injustices today. The films capture a celebration of people and culture, the resilience of family as well as the value of protest and resistance against brutal oppression.

And in turn chosen by McQueen to help capture all this was cinematographer Kirchner who’s grateful for the opportunity--not just as an artist but for the chance to do justice to his West Indian ancestry. 

“As a storyteller, I try to in every project carve out some part of myself connected to the material,” related Kirchner. “Usually it’s little pieces here and there. With Small Axe, I wasn’t aware going in that it would be everything, my whole DNA, conscious and unconscious. There was a direct tether. After I finished shooting, I thought I would be burnt out and exhausted. Actually I felt really full. It took a long time for me to digest all of this food.”

Key in helping Kirchner get the Small Axe gig was cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, BSC, a long-time collaborator of McQueen. Bobbitt, whose exploits with McQueen include shooting the Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, wasn’t available for Small Axe. Bobbitt harbored hope that McQueen could find the right person to lens Small Axe, somebody from that culture as well. Bobbitt reached out to Kirchner and they met in New York, striking up a rapport. From that sprung a call to Kirchner from McQueen. 

“He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Kirchner of McQueen. That opportunity, continued the DP, was not just to work with McQueen “in this sphere and on that level” but also “to help recognize myself, my history on screen in a way that I can continue it for others, handing this West Indian Black culture down to my peers and other people.”

Kirchner wound up shooting the five Small Axe films--Mangrove, Lover’s Rock, Education, Alex Wheatle, and Red, White and Blue--on five different formats, tailored to the nature of each story, the chronology extending from 1969 to ‘82. “This was never about how to homogenize the whole series in a visual way,” related Kirchner. “Cinema is about language. Each is its own film, with its own identity and language. The approach had to be completely organic to the story that needed to be told.”

Mangrove centers on the Mangrove Nine, a group of British Black activists who protested against police harassment at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, west London. The Mangrove Nine were accused of inciting a riot and went on trial in 1971. 

Kirchner and McQueen opted for 2-perf 35mm film with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for Mangrove, the longest of the Small Axe films. The aspect ratio was to frame the Mangrove Nine, the nine characters, as a community. 

“We wanted to fit that sense of community into one frame,” explained Kirchner, underscoring the battle of “community versus institution.” Furthermore, 35mm film grain lent itself to the feel, design and emotion of the era. Kirchner deployed the Arricam LT as well as the ARRIFLEX 235 lightweight 35mm camera for select handheld shots and scenes within tighter confines.

Lover’s Rock takes us to a house party in Ladbroke Grove, west London, as we see people dancing about and interacting as the night goes on. A love story eventually emerges in the film which was lensed digitally on the ARRI Alexa Mini for a contemporary feel and to tap into the advantage of being able to roll continuously for long stretches of time.

Red, White and Blue explores racism in London’s police force. It tells the true story of Leroy Logan who as a youngster saw his father assaulted by two police officers. As an adult, Logan joins the Metropolitan Police to help reform it by changing racist attitudes from within. This film was shot on 3-perf 35mm, said Kirchner, to center on the face of Logan (portrayed by Boyega). 

“John Cassavetes would say the greatest landscape is the human face,” related Kirchner. And this shooting format mined that landscape.

Kirchner went with 16mm film for Education, which takes us to the 1970s’ state of educational segregation, and a perverse school-to-prison pipeline which banishes children from society and opportunity. Kirchner explained that 16mm grain promoted a feeling of closeness that was intimate yet imperfect while paying visual homage to some of the BBC films from that era.

The DP took the digital path with the large-format Sony VENICE for Alex Wheatle, which told the story of the writer’s life and what he experienced during the Brixton Uprising of 1981. This marked Kirchner’s first deployment of large format which he gravitated to for this film because, he observed, “It was very much about what is happening in the foreground but not negating what’s happening in the background.” The surrounding environment and characters in the periphery, he explained, were just as important as Wheatle’s experiences.

As for his experience collaborating with McQueen, Kirchner shared, “He empowered everybody on set,” embracing a philosophy of “the best idea wins. He very much encouraged all of us to have skin in the game, giving everybody a sense of ownership.”

At the same time, continued Kirchner, “Ownership is what Small Axe was about--a community coming together to do the undoable in the case of Mangrove.” 

The cinematographer then observed, “What was happening in front of the screen was also happening behind the camera,” in that artists came together while being “pushed outside of our comfort zone,” all motivated by a great sense of purpose and responsibility in telling the Small Axe stories.

Kirchner’s work on Small Axe has been recognized with Best Cinematography honors from both the Los Angeles and New York Film Critics, nominations from the BAFTA TV Craft Awards and the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) Awards, among other kudos. 

Furthermore, Kirchner’s awards season has not been confined to Small Axe. Earlier this year director Annie Silverstein’s feature Bull earned Kirchner a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography.

Stuart Biddlecombe
Hidden, a low budget show for the BBC, was not aptly titled. Thankfully it came into view one fateful moment for cinematographer Biddlecombe who described the Welsh serial TV drama as fairly low profile. But one day an episode of the show was being streamed on an iPad within view of Mike Barker, executive producer and director on The Handmaid’s Tale.

As told to Biddlecombe, Barker asked what that show was on the iPad. This led Barker to Biddlecombe which in turn led to the DP coming aboard season three of The Handmaid’s Tale. Biddlecombe was immediately thrown into the deep end, lensing an episode marking the directorial debut of Colin Watkinson, ASC, BSC. Watkinson was the original cinematographer on The Handmaid’s Tale, for which he earned three Emmy nominations, winning in 2017. 

“I found myself lighting Colin’s (directorial debut) episode,” recollected Biddlecombe. “He was great. He guided me through, giving me the opportunity to not only follow in his footsteps shooting the show but also to put my stamp on the work.”

Biddlecombe loved the season three experience and was asked back for season four, which currently has him in the Emmy conversation. It also afforded him the opportunity to work with series star Elisabeth Moss in another capacity as she took on episodic work as a director. Her orientation is what’s been Biddlecombe’s experience during his entire tenure on the show. 

“It’s always what can we do to help this story. The script is everything,” he affirmed. “If you don’t do that justice, you’re not doing your job. With Lizzie, she’s asking is this the best way we can photograph this scene. If the answer is no, we figure out and find something else. She has the courage to do that,” not succumbing to the conventional TV pressures of needing to shoot X-number of pages a day. “She is a master at figuring out what can we do to make this the best it can possibly be.”

The not-taking-the-easy-way-out orientation is also reflected in the decision as to how to best depict June’s journey from Gilead to Canada across the Great Lakes. While CGI and in-studio options were on the table, ultimately, said Biddlecombe, the producers opted to “do it for real.” While that would “make life very hard for us,” it would lend the most authenticity to the storyline. An arduous three days of shooting around Lake Ontario reminded Biddlecombe of his BBC days, in this case working with a small crew, adapting to tricky situations with physical limitations. Biddlecombe was proud of what they accomplished. The shoot took place last December with COVID-19 procedures and protocols in place. The production team did yeoman’s duty in making sure the proper precautions were taken to ensure the well-being and safety of cast and crew.

Biddlecombe has also maintained the camera continuity started by Watkinson for The Handmaid’s Tale, going with the ARRI Alexa Mini. “It’s very much a handheld show,” said Biddlecombe, noting that the Mini gives freedom of movement and flexibility to get into tight spaces, lending proximity to the series’ stellar acting performances.

Biddlecombe’s credits beyond The Handmaid’s Tale and Hidden include such TV fare as Doctor Who, Father Brown, Call The Midwife and Sherlock.

Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, ISC
Twice a Best Cinematography Oscar nominee--for Atonement in 2008 and Anna Karenina in 2013--McGarvey is now in the Emmy banter for his work on the first two episodes of The Nevers, the fantasy drama created by Joss Whedon. 

Of course McGarvey is no stranger to the Emmy Award proceedings or to Whedon. On the former score, McGarvey garnered an Emmy nomination in 2017 for his work on the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror. And for director Whedon, McGarvey shot the Marvel blockbuster feature, The Avengers.

The two McGarvey-lensed episodes of The Nevers were directed by Whedon. The story is set in Victorian London which is rocked to its foundation by an inexplicable supernatural event that gives certain people--primarily women--extraordinary abilities, from the wondrous to the disturbing. All those who belong to this new underclass, though, are in grave danger. Marshalling their powers to protect them are feisty widow Amalia True (portrayed by Laura Donnelly) and brilliant inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly). True and Adair have to stand up to brutal forces determined to annihilate their kind.

The coupling of drama and fantasy piqued McGarvey’s interest who observed that the way The Nevers unfolds “contradicts what you sometimes hear about the DP who does the pilot and the second episode being responsible for setting the tone and look for the show.” Rather, continued McGarvey, there’s a dynamism in the script in which the story expands, generating a momentum of its own. “It was exciting to know that other photographers would come in my wake and be able to do their own thing even though the action is set in the same world.”

McGarvey said that in terms of tone, Whedon aspired to “not a modern story but one with modern ideas in a Victorian setting. That’s what he was keen on doing--not to do something period or overly reverent to Victorian films you see that are all about sets and costumes. He wanted something that had the verve of a modern drama set in those times, showing London during that era.”

McGarvey went with the ARRI Alexa SXT for The Nevers, along with the Alexa Mini when scenes were set in tight spaces. He paired the cameras with Panavision Primo Prime lenses. 

Another pairing was particularly gratifying to McGarvey. The Nevers marked his first time working with renowned gaffer Tom Gates (Game of Thrones). 

McGarvey assessed, “Tom was a fundamental collaborator on The Nevers. His reputation is so glowing and sterling internationally, especially in Britain.” 

In that McGarvey was not shooting the entire series, Gates served as “the through line of setting the production,” said McGarvey, adding that the series required “speed while preserving artistic integrity. Tom is an artist first and foremost and that’s what’s lovely about him. He is a wonderful spirit on set with a sense of focus and calmness under pressure.”

McGarvey felt a deep spirit of collaboration and camaraderie on The Nevers. The ambitious series, he said, gave everyone the sense that “we were all making this, wanting it to be at its best, That’s what keeps me wanting to shoot more and more until I can’t shoot anymore. It makes me look forward to the next time.”

As for what’s next, McGarvey just wrapped a major feature and at press time was about to embark on another. The latter, currently in pre-pro, is Wonka, a Warner Bros. film from director Paul King. Based on the early life of Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka, the musical stars Timothee Chalamet in the title role.

Regarding the recently completed movie, McGarvey had lensed Cyrano for director Joe Wright and MGM.


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