Keep things simple, know your environment and never be scared to mess things up. BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Lol Crawley (The Crimson Petal and the White, Ballast, Four Lions) gives his top lighting and filmmaking tips.
Published 28 February 2013
Words by Anna Hoghton, based on Crawley's BAFTA Cinematography Masterclass at Watershed, Bristol on 20 September 2012.
For a cinematographer, or filmmaker in general, there are two main things needed for success. The first is your artistic voice and having something to say.
The second is having the confidence to say it. Some filmmakers can finish their media degrees and surge straight into their first full-length feature film, which is great. Crawley needed to know more about it and build his confidence before he did this. Often when you first step onto a film set, he explains, you spend a lot of the time getting in the way.
3. GET A CREW THAT LIKES YOU
A good crew, especially one that likes you, is essential for any production. Never take for granted a crew that will go with you and allow you to try new things. One of the most important things to come out of Crawley’s film education in Newcastle was meeting future collaborator Duane Hopkins, who he later collaborated with on his graduation short, Routine, and first feature, Better Things. Crawley explains how those early collaborations were key in getting him where he is today.
4. LESS IS MORE
Working with Hopkins helped Crawley in more ways than one. The director’s pared back ‘stop acting’ approach to drama ("Duane would see people arguing in a supermarket and approach them to be in a film") suited and enriched Crawley’s own shooting style. Hopkins was equally economic with his camera work, not moving the camera unless there was a reason to or a meaning he wanted to convey. "Just do less," Crawley concludes.
"When lighting any location, sit in the space for half a day, during the time of day you are planning to shoot in. See what it does."
5. USE NATURAL RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO YOU
On a par with the ‘do less’ approach, Crawley is a big fan of using real locations, as he did on Better Things. As long as the location looks good, is well lit and has consistency, it’s better than any studio shoot. For one shot in The Crimson Petal and the White, the location had a metal ceiling which Crawley used to light the actors. This distinctive top lighting gave the shot a burn-out effect that Crawley then pushed further in DI, so suddenly the location felt less like a room and more like the bow of a ship.
6. RESPOND TO YOUR ENVIRONMENT AND FILM INTELLEGENTLY
A films student in the audience admits that he often doesn’t think as much about lighting his films as he should and asks what minimal kit he would require to light a location on a student-budget film. Crawley responds, "When lighting any location, the biggest thing is just to know your location. Sit in the space for half a day, during the time of day you are planning to shoot in. See what it does. Just being there will throw up ideas you won’t have come up with sat on a sofa, storyboarding. Respond to the space and allow that to come through in your work. If you want natural keep lighting and operating as natural as possible, if you want something a bit more stylised you will manipulate that naturalness in different ways depending on what you’re trying to impose."
7. SCRAP THE STORYBOARDS
When beginning work on Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Crawley and Hopkins first started planning shots using "ridiculous" storyboards. "Storyboards fail," he explains, "because you then spend too much time on shoot looking at them and not at the location or the performance and seeing how that comes together. That is what you should be responding to." Taking a different tack, Crawley began filming the actors’ rehearsals. Once Hammer saw how Crawley’s shooting style responded and interacted with the environment, the storyboard approach was soon scrapped. Crawley won the Cinematographer Award at Sundance Festival in 2008 for Ballast and Hammer often refers to Crawley as a co-author of the film.
8. DO WHAT YOU DO AND EVOLVE
Once you get a bit more advanced as a cinematographer, think about what you do well. What skills do you have that marry up to the script you are working on and what can you add to it? How can you add your voice, your style? This is harder for a cinematographer and designer than a director, but it is still very possible. Equally, allow that style to evolve. Don’t go into any project with a specific set aim or objective. Allow yourself to be flexible. Don’t be a one trick pony.
9. BE INSPIRED BUT DON’T EMULATE
So you think a certain director, cinematographer, designer etc. is great? There’s already one of them. Find your own voice and put your own stamp on whatever you’re making.
10. BE BRAVE
Don’t be afraid to try stuff out and f**k it up sometimes. That’s the only way you’ll learn and be able to get something great.
Watch a video of Lol Crawley's BAFTA Masterclass over on the Watershed website.