For his 10th film with British filmmaker Mike Leigh, cinematographer Dick Pope BSC, was given a subject that many could only dream about: a biopic about Joseph Mallord Turner, known as “the painter of light”
Celebrated by critics at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, a film with visual influences rooted in the romantic paintings of the 19th century, but that is still a character study as well as a simple pictorial tribute, Mr. Turner won the Best Male Actor Award (Timothy Spall) and the CST/Vulcain technical artist prize for best cinematography for Dick Pope.
“Mike Leigh is a filmmaker unto himself”, explains Dick Pope. “He has a way of working that is unique, which consists in rehearsing for months and months in advance with his actors, in places more or less similar to those in the film. Then he dives into the shooting, without sharing the script with the crew. He thus gradually uncovers the plot like a puzzle, and the construction of the image is done as and when the action unfolds in the location we previously scouted together”.
Despite being shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Mr. Turner is not a film of landscapes. Three quarters of the film takes place indoors. “Mike had particularly liked the 2.35:1 format on his previous film Another Year, and although at first I wasn’t sure of the merits of this choice for Mr. Turner, he quickly convinced me otherwise.” Pope explains, “Particularly the use of the wide format to construct the narrative in the interiors.” The result is a smaller number of shots, and the use of the frame width to develop the characters entering and exiting the shot. Another way that framing was used was to show things through the perspective of the painter, staying mostly in interior shot and reverse-angle shot.
As is usual for Mike Leigh, the film was shot entirely on location. The crew alternated between some authentic historic sites (Petworth House, home of Lord Egremont, main patron of Turner) and reconstructions (the National Gallery of 1840, recreated in Wentworth Wood House). Even Mrs Booth’s tiny home in Margate was shot on location, with an actual view of the harbour in a house whose ceiling height was just over 7 feet. “One of our main influences in this area was clearly the strategy developed by Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott on Barry Lyndon, explains Dick Pope, “shooting in natural locations, and using almost only very mild external light sources, with little lighting in the scene itself”.
After 24 years of regular collaboration, this is the first time that Dick Pope and Mike Leigh chose to work digitally. But why go digital to make a period film about one of the pillars of romantic painting? “To tell the truth”, says Pope, “I think philosophically this question does not arise because Turner was a visionary, constantly searching for new techniques. He had a passion for astronomy, physics, science, as we can see in some scenes from the film with his discovery of the prism or the camera obscura. So shooting in digital seemed natural to me”.
To do so, the filmmakers chose a combination of ARRI ALEXA cameras and Codex recorders. “Personally, I had just finished shooting Angelica in New York, another project set in the Victorian era, with this configuration,” explains Pope, “I didn’t even shoot any tests to make my decision for Mr Turner. For me, RAW was an obvious choice. For example, the first shot of the film, set in a little hazy Dutch landscape, with the sun just above the horizon, would probably have been impossible without the latitude that RAW can provide in the highlights. We never had any concerns about skies or burned exposures, and this allowed me to go farther and farther as the shooting progressed”.
Working with DIT Peter Marsden (Argo, Into the Woods) on the set, Dick Pope also used Codex Vault to secure the rushes. “It’s a wonderful tool, with which everything is now done on site. We literally have the lab with us, and the entire film production is controlled live”, Pope notes. “We were also able to organise screenings of synced digital rushes every night, old school, with the technical crew. Mike greatly values this ritual, which allows him to listen to feedback from his collaborators. There is a sense of theatre troupe in this ceremony, a sense of shared creation that is very close to what we had when we used to shoot on film. The actors are not invited, however, leaving them completely free from any influence in their acting for the scenes to come.”
Peter Marsden kept the workflow simple, “Working with Mike Leigh, we tried to minimise anything ‘technical’, to allow for his style of working with the actors, and that included minimising monitoring onset” he explains, “we had a 17” OLED monitor, but it was kept at a distance from the actual set. So anything fussy like having specific LUTs on a scene, or adjusting CDL wouldn’t work.”
He used two Codex Vaults – one for an initial check and backup on the camera truck, and one for generating dailies and archiving to LTO. “I created two ARRI Look files which were applied to the viewfinder & monitor output from the ALEXA,” he adds “it warmed up the highlights, and cooled the shadows. Dick Pope & Gordon Segrove, our focus puller, and I had studied Turner’s works and noticed that idea in many of them. We applied these simple looks to dailies in a semi-automated method, by using the ‘Look’ metadata field on Vault.”
“THIS FILM WAS A JOY TO SHOOT”
In terms of light, the film is bathed in a gentle atmosphere, reminiscent of Turner’s paintings. “I used almost no direct light”, explains the cinematographer. “Everything was done in reflection or through many layers of diffusion.” The only scene that is a slight exception to the rule is the photo shop, in which the painter sitting in front of the camera is literally blinded by the sunlight from a mirror. “It seemed pretty funny to me to see this character whose paintings are bathed in a perpetual gentleness, finding himself tricked by the harsh light of this new way of capturing images.”
For the colour palette, Dick Pope and his assistants tapped into the exact chromatic scale of the paintings of the master on display at Tate Britain. “The colours used for the workshop or the scenes at Mrs. Booth’s are exactly the same as the pigments chosen by the father of the painter at the chemist at the beginning of the film”, he says. “The calibration later allowed us to refine things, adding a bit of yellow green in the highlights without touching the faces, and green blue “teal” in the shadows... a characteristic combination of Turner’s paintings.”
For the lens selection, Dick Pope remembers testing almost every lens available at Movietech in London. “Leica Summilux, ARRI Master primes, Cookes S5... everything was tested. But I needed something a little older, optically speaking, for this film, especially with digital... Finally, I heard of an old Cooke Speed Panchro series dating from the ’50s, used during the first ascent of Everest! These are lenses that have since been re-mounted and are now in great demand in advertising. A very retro lens construction, with tiny rear lenses... They have a very gentle, very romantic character, and are truly lovely at 75mm or 100mm on faces. They were a fundamental tool for this movie along with ALEXA and Codex”.
This film was a joy to shoot”, admits Pope. “We had resplendent weather for the duration. Perhaps Turner’s blessing from heaven? I don’t think the project could have been done with grey or cloudy weather because, as the painter admits at the end of the film: ‘Sun is god’”.
Images courtesy of Entertainment One and Sony Pictures Classics
B/W image courtesy of Peter Marsden