The Tyrannosaur and Submarine cinematographer shed some light (sorry) on his craft at a BAFTA masterclass at the Exposures Film Festival in Manchester last month. Jacob Harbord reports back.
Those lucky enough to get their hands on tickets to this sell-out event were treated to a laid-back evening with Erik Wilson in Manchester’s Cornerhouse Cinema. A highly personable speaker, it was refreshing to see someone so talented maintain a humble and unpretentious air.
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by any aspiring filmmaker is the catch-22 situation whereby nobody will hire you to do something you haven’t done before. Wilson’s key tip for overcoming this obstacle was to shoot whatever you can, whenever you can. He confessed to having initially worried about his artistic integrity when taking on less prestigious jobs, but Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer for Walk The Line) assured him that everyone must start off by seizing every opportunity available.
A brief glance at Wilson’s CV is testament to his taking this advice to heart, with a number of ‘mini-careers’ across a variety of genres. Rather than hoping for a big break, aspiring filmmakers should also recognise that their career path is in fact constituted of a series of small breaks. While those early jobs may be nothing to brag about in the years ahead, through gaining as much experience as possible you’ll learn a number of useful tricks and make valuable friendships along the way. The contacts you make within your peer group become ever more important as time goes by; Wilson first met writer/director Richard Ayoade on the set of an Arctic Monkeys music video, and it was Ayoade who eventually hired Wilson for his first feature film.
Understanding the relationship between the free-thinking of pre-shoot preparation and the pragmatism of hands-on production is the key to gaining an insight into the creative decisions which have shaped Wilson’s work. He described how the whole process begins with settling down in a comfy chair with a new script; he looks for scripts which excite the imagination, as those that fail to do so are best left alone. Having gathered his thoughts, Wilson then approaches the director to pitch his vision; for Tyrannosaur, this was simply to make it “look like a Western.”
Next comes the fleshing out of these initial ideas, the building of a visual style appropriate for the film, and storyboarding each shot. Wilson shared a delightful comparison of early test-footage from Submarine’s ‘kissing-under-the-bridge’ scene with how it appeared in the final film. The similarities between each demonstrated the extraordinary detail in which each shot must be planned, yet the differences illustrated the extent to which even simple sequences can be dramatically improved by the hard graft of talented cinematographers.
While planning Submarine, Wilson and Ayoade built up a large image library and honed in on the cinematography of the late Néstor Almendros (Love On The Run, Love In the Afternoon, My Little Loves and Days Of Heaven). Having found a strong source of inspiration in his work, Wilson decided to eschew the elaborate lighting often used on film sets and to use only natural, indirect sunlight alongside a limited range of artificial lights which could be plugged into household sockets.
When they wanted to shoot during the night, they simply had to go where there already was enough lighting!Using Super 35mm film, Wilson chose an Arricam for the majority of sequences; while he stated it doesn’t much matter which camera you use nowadays, some will always be more appropriate for certain situations than others. The laborious process of pre-production planning which informed these bold choices in lighting design and equipment was what, ultimately, allowed Wilson and Ayoade to create Submarine’s celebrated aesthetic.
However, when probed on his position on the distinction between film and digital formats, Wilson simply said that “when using digital you sleep well and, when using film, you don’t.”
Perhaps the stress of waiting to hear from the developers is what prompted Wilson to shoot on digital for his next feature, Tyrannosaur. Using a Red One and generally adopting a more conventionally high-tech approach demanded they use the full gamut of film lighting techniques available; the Canon 5d was used for night-time scenes because of its superior performance in low-light.
In contrast to the extensive creative freedom afforded him whilst working on Submarine, a degree of liberty he doubts he will ever enjoy again, Wilson’s approach to Tyrannosaur was far more hands-off. With such a strong script and incredible actors, he felt it was his responsibility to disturb Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman’s stellar performances as little as possible. This meant still and considered camerawork.
The one scene in which he claimed to have truly left his artistic imprint was a sequence of Mullan and Colman sharing a cup of tea: it begins with both in the frame and, as the disjunction in their outlook becomes apparent, the camera jerks slightly; as the conversation becomes more polarised, they stand alone in the frame and we cut back-and-forth between them.
Wilson’s approach to cinematography comes across as pragmatic and professional, one based on the recognition that his powerful and original vision must be realised within a film industry defined by budgetary constraints and creative compromise. Wilson would be the first to concede that being a cinematographer isn’t easy; he admitted that it’s hardly a lucrative profession, yet one which demands long periods of time away from home and a great deal of luck. However, such is the price of doing what you love. He urged young filmmakers not to try second-guessing what others wanted in the hope of making themselves more marketable. To be a truly great cinematographer, your own perspective on how to best meet the needs of each project must come first.
In a nutshell, Wilson’s top tips for becoming a successful cinematographer are: shoot a lot, seize the day and make plenty of friends.
BAFTA Youth Board member Jacob is currently doing an MA in Visual Anthropology with Ethnographic Film at Manchester University. Find him on Twitter at @JacobHarbord.