A modern day western shooting rural thriller, "The Levels".
“'The Levels' is a contemporary crime drama; a violent tale of love, murder and revenge, set against the haunting landscape of the Somerset Levels. When Michael Beck is released from prison he returns to his small rural community hoping to start a new life and looking to make amends for past wrongs with his family and with Madeleine, his former lover. By blending the modern crime drama with the Somerset landscape, it pays homage to the mythology of the American West in a uniquely British folk tale....”
Tony and John had already packaged together a detailed mood book of the kind of look they were going for. Their references were “No Country for Old Men”, “The Assassination of Jesse James”, and “Unforgiven.” The first two were shot by Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is a favourite of mine. So, a chance to channel my inner Deakins was a great incentive. One thing I did notice was that all of these films were shot with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. A very wide screen, rather than the more traditional 16:9 or 1.85:1 ratio. I suggested we shoot the film in this 2.35:1 ratio as our film was all landscapes and farms and it lended itself nicely to the format. Tony and John wanted that bleak, somewhat static to the film. No slick, saturated, glossy images, much more sparse and desaturated. I loved the challenge of going for that look.
The camera of choice was the Canon C300. Small and compact enough and shoots at 50mbs for a good quality image. A nice set of Cooke Panchro primes lenses were added to the kit. It is said prime lenses give a better quality image, but they can slow you down a little if you want to change the shot by a nudge as you have to physically move the camera in or out. However, Primes make you more disciplined and force you to think about what size shot you would like, to help tell your story. We used mainly the 25mm for wides and 50mm for close ups. The 100m (nicknamed the “Tony Scott lens” as it was the longest we had) came out for nice long shots of actors driving or walking towards the camera.
One particular shot presented itself to pay homage to another favourite DP that I admire, John Seale. Famous for work on “The Perfect Storm”, “Dead Poets Society” and “Rain man”, Seale also shot the Harrison Ford thriller “Witness”. One famous shot in that film was near the end of the movie when the villains are approaching the hero's farm. We found ourselves with a similar path with a nice long muddy driveway and we decided to put the 100mm lens on to shoot villain, Tim Henley, approaching. We decided one long shot would tell the story. The Jeep approaches and then Tim gets out and walks towards the house. All credit to camera assistant Adam Lanfranchi too for pulling focus on a 100mm lens over 75 feet! Tim was sharp all the way. Clint Eastwood has a nice mantra I like, when he says, “One thought, one shot. Don't guild”. We adopted this, as we didn't feel the need to cut in with lots of close ups or extraneous shots to help tell the story which was told perfectly well in the wide shot.
We dealt with a lot of skies in this film, which are particular favourite of mine, photographically. I love filming a great looking sky. So whether it was for controlling exposure or for enhancing mood we carried with us a lot of ND (Neutral Density) graduated filters. Sometimes we stacked two in 0.9 and 0.6 strengths, to help bring out the sky even more. If the sky was overcast and exposed okay, we could still use them to help create an even darker sky and enhance that bleak, stormy feel. If the sun was out, they brought the sky down in exposure to help us shoot the foreground well too.
As the C300 allows you to dial in the colour temperature on the camera, sometimes I went off 5600k daylight and either dropped it down to 4300k to make the image bluer and colder or pushed it to 6000k to make the sun a little orangey like when we shot an early morning scene in a church yard. Taking the cues from the natural sky, it was nice to take the image a little further. I find you don't want to bake the image in too much colour wise as you might find yourself in trouble come the colour grading after the edit and you might want to pull it back a bit.
We also had some car mount work in this film. The C300 lends itself perfectly for this as it's fairly light weight and can be used with a Limpet car mount and magic arm suctioned on to the side door. Lots of kit insurance is great but that still doesn't stop me wrapping the camera and arm in more than enough hard chains, steal wires, and rope. I've found with car mount work, the background passing through frame is so important. White skies are bland and any chance to get trees, clouds with blue skies, or buildings in should be grabbed. It also gives a nice representation of speed. As found with previous work you can also afford to stop down with your exposure a little as people are used to it being a little darker inside a car and also over exposure with skies and faces looks nasty and can ruin your sense of travelling if you can't see things passing outside the window. To take this one step further, if it's white outside, and the camera is steady, it could easily look like you're not even travelling! You would know as the director or cameraman but the audience wouldn't.
One of the big numbers on the film was the pub fight scene. We were lucky to have the Sheppy Inn, in Godney, to ourselves for a whole day so we could do what we wanted staging wise. A nice personal challenge arrived at the end of the day when we lost the daylight outside. We then shot night for day for the next 4 hours. I had placed a 2.5k HMI outside through the window firing through a 6x6 diffusion for our daylight source but when we lost the natural light, it forced me to light up the inside to match what we had already established earlier in the day. The lighting plan below shows the layout and placement of lights.
For the medium shots of actor Oliver Park, we had 6 lights up lighting him and filling corners with daylight. Not only did we have to get the light level up and at the correct temperature but also the shot itself had to look good as if we had shot it in better conditions. A lovely challenge that I think we rose to and I couldn't have done it without camera assistant/gaffer Adam Lanfranchi and Charlie Button. The Pub bar inside had a series of tiny practical orange lights in the ceiling. These allowed for some lovely motivated tungsten sourced back light. So we rigged a few Arri 300w lamps and left them uncorrected to accentuate this. It provided a nice mix with the daylight one side and tungsten the other, especially on actress Kate Davies, playing Madeleine the pub landlady.
Smoke was the last ingredient to be added. We filled the room with smoke to help diffuse the light even more, spread it in to the corners and reduce the contrast. It also adds wonderful atmosphere to almost any scene, perfect for the look we were going for. When lighting lead actor Oliver Park, I liked to key him from the side to make him a little more rough and tough looking and to add texture to his face. When it came to Kate Davies, I brought the keylight, in this case a 4x4 kino flo round to the front on her face a little more. Filling out the face kept her looking good.
Below is the night for day shot of actor, Oliver Park.
This scene continues outside in to the pub car park where we meet the villains. There's a great app that I have on my phone called “Sun scout” which came in to play here. Sun scout lets you know the direction and trajectory of the sun through out the day. It just so happened that the sun would stay perfectly over our right shoulder as we stood in the car park for the remainder of the shoot day. This allowed us to shoot our wide, with the sun staying pretty much on the same side of camera. It's best to shoot actors and scenes on the “fill” side of their face, on the opposite side to the keylight or main illumination. This enables the light to wrap itself around the face and provide you with texture. With the sun staying on the same side meant it lent itself to this practice perfectly. No lights were used outside, I just controlled the hard light with a 6x6 diffusion frame and sometimes added a smaller 3x3 frame for wider shots too. The pan glass came in handy here too checking the sun for when it might be moving behind or emerging from clouds.
I try to shoot most things at a stop of F4. Sometimes we went to F2.8 when lighting dictated but most of the time it was at F4. It's a nice stop with a good depth of field and not everything is completely soft and out of focus in the background. That shallow focus is a nice look but if every shot is like that it doesn't give you much sense of place and you can't see the background or where you are half the time. The C300 has up to 4 stops of ND in the camera so on exteriors, I used these to bring the stop down.
Tony and John were wonderful directors. Totally in sync and knew exactly what they wanted. I think of them like the Coen brothers. They fulfilled their role and met me in the middle with the image like every director/DP relationship should be. It never swayed into the DP running the show if the director doesn't know what they want or need, or the opposite, not listening to the DP's input. It felt like a perfect balance to me. More of that please.
I found on this shoot it's best to remember that every shot has to be the best it can be. Don't cut corners, as they add up. Spend those little extra few minutes getting it right and finessing. No-one remembers the day you finished shooting a little later, but everyone with see if the scene doesn't work as it's missing a shot. Overall I really loved working on this project. A great cast and crew, and it was a nice opportunity to do some challenging and rewarding work. Occasionally just tipping outside of your comfort zone which is always good. Oh and some of the camera department's jaffa cakes (my pay!) did go astray and I have my suspicions as to the culprits, but that's something to keep on top of for next time...