He is sitting in my seat. He looks so young in a baggy, blue woolly jumper, old jeans and scuffed black leather boots, and his hair is all over the place. He stares at me through thick, black-rimmed glasses, but says nothing. The producer has decided that he should shoot the commercial, and not me. The director is nowhere to be seen; although I’m sure she has agreed and doesn’t want to face me. Why he should want to shoot and not direct baffles me. But as it’s been well over a decade since he shot anything, maybe he is easing himself in gently. While I’m incredibly angry at being swept aside, I grudgingly bow to his immense experience and movie-making genius. I ask if we can exchange emails and he gives me a look over his glasses that says, “Who exactly are you anyway?” He pushes a piece of paper towards me, along with a pen. I desperately want to get to know him and yet I’m boiling with anger and frustration at being given the boot; and after all the months of conference calls, meetings, castings and location visits too. Already walls are being painted, and there’s a melee of activity as he acquaints himself with my Canon EOS-1D MkIVs and 5D MkIIs. But more, he is especially interested in the huge array of prime lenses; giving me the occasional sideways glance and asking the odd technical question. There was no mention of painting walls in the storyboards and that’s my bloody equipment! Finally, I decide enough is enough and get up to leave. I politely shake his hand and then find the producer. “I hope you’re satisfied. You know he’ll go over budget and the film will be finished sometime in the next century, by which time it will finally get some critical acclaim when you’re all dead! Oh, and you can keep the equipment!” (After all, I don’t want to upset him.) I am met with indifference. Nobody seems to care, and why should they? He is running the show now and they will all bask in the association with a movie-making god and go on to have hugely successful careers, while I disappear into obscurity. It’s 5.30am. I open my eyes, blinded by the oncoming light through the VELUX window. Bloody hell, that was Stanley Kubrick… and I walked off set. Shit! You bloody idiot! You could have assisted him, cleaned his shoes, combed his hair, polished his glasses, made his coffee; anything, but walk off set. The dream was so real. I am genuinely angry at myself and want to rush back to sleep, find Stanley and apologise. I lie for a while, replaying the dream, then smile to myself. It isn’t all bad. At least the project is still mine..
I would have become a photographer much sooner; rather than continuing to art direct others because I lacked the confidence to pick up the camera myself. So much of what we do is about having an open mind and being confident. So many successful people say ‘yes’ first, then worry about the ‘how’ later.
Funny what goes through your head a week before a shoot, and how all the months of preparation, niggles and concerns, ideas, thoughts, inspirations – not least your own apprehension and fear of failure (both with the project and the wider concern of a potential career in filmmaking) – manifest themselves in the subconscious. This mishmash of thoughts, which finally formed to make this nocturnal adventure-come-nightmare, were almost certainly triggered by Dmitri Kasterine’s portrait of the great man, shot on the set of A Clockwork Orange in 1969. But why have such a dream? I suppose there is probably a direct correlation with the scale of the project, amount of time invested and the stakes – both personal and professional – when it comes to the moving image. The saying, ‘You’re only as good as your last job’, often seems to jostle its way to the front of the queue of an overcrowded pre-shoot consciousness. I studied graphic design through the early to mid-1980s, when there was the very definite view that we were all specialists. It was an Eighties thing. I, for one, carried this attitude right through the Nineties and, quite possibly, would have become a photographer much sooner; rather than continuing to art direct others because I lacked the confidence to pick up the camera myself. So much of what we do is about having an open mind and being confident. So many successful people say ‘yes’ first, then worry about the ‘how’ later. This confidence, together with the ability not to be afraid of making mistakes, is at the very heart of my personal approach to filmmaking – or indeed, anything else – these days.
This film – the second commercial for luxury fragrance house, Amouage – is the fourth collaboration between director Charlotte Lurot and myself. We pore over the storyboards for months prior to shooting. She gives me huge freedom and has the patience of a saint when, at times, I completely ignore the script; seeing something left or right of camera that I must capture, moving the crew and shooting handheld from the hip – or guerrilla-style, as it’s sometimes referred to – one of the many benefits when shooting with HD DSLR.
Honour is a three-minute love story, loosely based on the opera Madame Butterfly, shot on Canon EOS-1D MkIVs and 5D MkIIs, and with just about every lens I could lay my hands on – I think 12 primes in all. Two location visits had established the exact time and place of each take, along with lens choices, effects, dolly shots and props. Each scene was lovingly crafted to follow the available light around our location; a dilapidated old manor house on the Great Tew Estate in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. With the help of Ajnaware’s Sun Seeker app – if you haven’t already got it, you will almost certainly want this invaluable tool – we were able to pinpoint the position of the sun with total accuracy, two months prior to filming. Although shooting with HD DSLR relies on a tiny crew (mine numbered five, including me), there was still hair, make-up, models, production staff, special effects (smoke, dust and haze) and runners, as well as a 30ft Winnebago and large ARRI truck, complete with generator, technician and stacks of HMIs, frames, silks, flags, clamps, dolly and track, to throw into the mix. My brief was to try and shoot each scene as if it were an individual photographic ad campaign, striving for perfection within every take. As I walked on to the set I couldn’t help wondering: “When did this all happen and how did I get here?” It seems like only yesterday that I first picked up a Canon EOS 5D MkII – and now all this? I often ask myself the question: “Would I be shooting films at all if it hadn’t been for the 5D MkII?” I think the answer would probably be no. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I’m here. The journey to this point has been far from easy, which brings a deep appreciation of every opportunity and a strong desire to succeed.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed by the filmmaking process, so I quite literally blinker my eyes to the activity around me and stay in a bubble surrounded by my crew. Secure in the knowledge that I am in the safest hands possible, with mutual understanding earned the hard way from years of working together; everyone sharing a passion to do something extra special. This collective enthusiasm and expertise resulted in the single biggest achievement of the project, as we managed to fulfill my goal of shooting the entire film in available light. The final result is probably the best example I have so far of the tremendous capabilities of Canon primes in conjunction with HD DSLRS.
Talking with Grant Scott on the Hungry Eye podcast got me thinking about photographers who have become filmmakers; Stanley Kubrick being a great example. He once said: “To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did, you may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography.” But why should I be doing this? Is it that, somehow, I feel that seeing others succeed will make me feel better? If so, does this show a lack of confidence deep down that needs reassurances, or is it purely inspiration? Maybe it’s a little of all three, but I am a firm believer that photographers can become filmmakers if we are prepared to take the plunge. Some may want to go back to school, and I can understand why, yet I like the freedom to explore this medium with a blank canvas and much of what I’ve learned has come the hard way, through trial and error. As the commissioned work increases I am finding myself more and more in the company of directors, producers, DoPs, editors, writers, gaffers, grips and all manner of film industry folk and, as a consequence, every shoot becomes an opportunity to learn something new. The step change in thinking from photographer to filmmaker may appear simple at first, but as I move deeper and deeper into the world of the moving image, so does my thought process. Putting it very simply, I have to be careful not to get too bogged down by the look of the moment and forget the multitude of possibilities that arrive with movement. I still love shooting stills and my passion for both being in and capturing the moment will never go away. However, I believe that making films is the best medium I have found for creative expression, storytelling and, most of all, it’s an enabler of taking one’s vision and then expressing and sharing that with a wider audience.