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McCullin in Kolkata

Directing a documentary about the legendary photographer

Don McCullin has been filmed discussing his photography many times in his long career, but rarely has he been shown shooting in the field. So when plans were mooted for making a documentary showing him in action, everyone involved was excited by the prospect. The only thing delaying the film was deciding on exactly where it should be done. ‘We were initially planning to film Don in The Lebanon, but Isis moved in to the area and it was too dangerous,’says his manager, Mark George. ‘We considered filming Don photographing Roman buildings in Turkey, but his name has been made photographing people, so we really needed to show him doing that.‘Then Don said,


“If you want people, we should go to Kolkata. It’s the most unbelievable city in the world.” When Don tells you that, you know you’re on safe ground.’


While Mark, also the film’s producer along with producers Lance Miller and Janet Glasbergen, made all the necessary preparations for the shoot to take place, director Clive Booth brought on board the experienced cinematographer Chris Clarke as director of photography. They would be joined by Don’s assistant, Roger Richards, and sound recordist Sean Smith. Prior to heading for Kolkata, Don was recorded in a studio in Soho, London being interviewed about his career and his insights on photography. This material became important for linking the whole film together at the editing stage.


Finally, after months of meetings and preparations, the team travelled to Kolkata in spring 2017. Don knew the city well and had put forward ideas for locations, but it was agreed there wouldn’t be a pre-arranged storyboard for the shoot.‘We were going to an environment that was rich in imagery for both Don and us,’ says Clive. ‘He had chosen several places to shoot over a three or four-day period and it was really about putting him in that situation and enabling him to do his thing without us being intrusive. This was the key to making it work. Then we would retrospectively cut the film from what we shot.’ While Don photographed Kolkata with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Chris and Clive (as well as directing, Clive acted as a second camera man) filmed Don using Canon C300 Mark II bodies. They opted to use EF zoom lenses, predominantly the 16-35mm f/2.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8. They shot everything using natural light and almost always with the cameras hand-held. Chris says, ‘We wanted to kind of replicate Don’s approach to photojournalism. He has two cameras and two lenses and that’s it, off he goes. We wanted to keep that kind of ethos. In practical terms we had to be fast on our toes, because of where we were shooting. These environments were either really cramped, or places that were quite open but with thousands of people in them.’ Filming was done in intense periods of work during the early morning, then Don and the crew would have a break around the middle of the day. This was partly because of the intense heat and humidity and partly due to the harsh sunlight in the middle of the day. However, it was apparent to Clive that his shooting methods were bearing fruit.


‘I could see straight away that our approach was working,’ he says. ‘On the first day, we did a shoot at the market in the morning, then in the afternoon we were thrown into the middle of a chaotic environment where Don was photographing in the middle of all this traffic. Health and safety went out of the window. At the end of it, Chris and I agreed it was the most exciting day’s shooting we’d ever had in our careers.’Everyone involved was amazed by Don’s extraordinary energy for a man in his 80s. ‘The years just disappeared and his reactions were phenomenally quick,’ Clive continues.‘He was like a caged animal in the car, champing at the bit to get started. Something would catch his eye and he would say, “Stop, stop, stop! We’ve got to get this,” and he would be off. Don is always looking, the radar’s on the whole time.’ Chris agrees, ‘When he sees an image appear in front of him, he has to stop conversation in mid-sentence and go and shoot it. He’s so passionate about what he’s doing. He’s not just out there trying to find a great composition; that’s really the by-product of his fascination for people. Watching him work was incredible.’ One behind-the-scenes aspect of the shoot was kept secret from the crew by Mark George and was only revealed once they had returned to England. Before going to Kolkata, he had tried to hire some lighting equipment and was told it would be very expensive as he had to employ 18 local people on the shoot. Mark soon realised he was dealing with organised criminals in the city, a kind of Indian Mafia. ‘They said, “If you don’t employ us, we’ll find out where you’re shooting, beat you up and take all your cameras and equipment. Don’t think the police will help – we own the police.” I struck a deal with them in the end and said I’d employ five of them. They didn’t turn up, except on the last day, when all 18 appeared. They all had broken noses and cauliflower ears – you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with them.’


The team returned from Kolkata with over 15 hours of footage. The time-consuming process of editing the film took around three weeks and was done by Clive, his editor, Tristram Edwards and copy writer Paul Kendall who transcribed every word Don uttered both on the shoot and in the pre shoot interview ‘Cutting the film, matching Don’s spoken insights to the images and including some of his fantastic one-liners was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,’ Clive says. The resulting 19-minute film is an insightful and revealing portrait of a master of photography in action, in an environment that excites him. ‘The film’s unique element is that it shows how he does his stuff and you can see his tradecraft,’ says Chris. ‘It’s not just about how he takes pictures technically, but how he conducts himself with people in difficult situations – things that are so interesting to watch him do.’’ For Clive, it’s been an all-consuming project and he’s delighted with the outcome. ‘There’s no single aspect of the film I’m not immensely proud of,’ he says. ‘That includes the subject-matter, the cinematography, the music and the editing. It’s really about showing Don in a way that most people won’t have seen him before and I’m grateful to Canon for giving us the room to do it as we wanted. For me, hand on heart, it’s the best piece of work I’ve ever done.’ Story: David Clark for Canon Pro Network.


Director/Second Camera: Clive Booth Cinematography: Chris Clarke / Producers: Mark George, Lance Miller and Janet Glasbergen / Editor: Tristram Edwards / Camera Assistant: Roger Richards / Sound: Sean Smith/ Post production: nicebiscuits / Sound Design: Tim Lofts / Kolkata Producer: Leonie Edwards Jones / Music: Ambi Subramaniam and Tanmoy Bose / Client: Canon Europe / Thanks to: adobe, codexdigital and F-stopgear