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Back to Work

Cinematographers Deepa Keshvala, James Rhodes, Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC and Nanu Segal share their on-set experiences since returning from lockdown.

Nick Cave, front man of The Bad Seeds, sits alone in an abandoned conference room, quietly writing in a notebook. Closing the book, he stands and begins to walk, moving through a series of equally empty spaces: down a wide staircase, through a mural-lined hallway, across an auditorium. Finally, he strides through an oversized doorway and into an expansive theater, where a grand piano is situated in the middle of the otherwise unadorned floor. Taking a seat at the piano bench, he moves his hands to the keys and begins to play.

Photographed by Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace streamed to a ticketed online audience as a one-time-only event on Thursday, July 23. The feature-length performance is among a host of projects that have rolled camera since the motion-picture industry began to reemerge from the lockdowns imposed earlier this year in an effort to quell the global spread of COVID-19. 

In the U.K. in particular, “It has been extremely busy,” cinematographer Deepa Keshvala says. “I have never shot so much in such a short space of time.” Still, the uptick has favored some types of production more than others. “Things still feel patchy,” cinematographer Nanu Segal notes. “Commercials definitely seem to be picking up more than drama.”

Alongside commercials, music videos and concert-style performances similar to Idiot Prayer have also experienced a recent boom. Cinematographer James Rhodes’ first job out of lockdown was for one of the first streaming concerts, which found singer-songwriter Laura Marling performing alone in London’s Union Chapel on June 6. Rhodes describes the venue as “a bit in the round, with a stage wrapped in a horseshoe of pews. To not be restricted to filming it as a normal stage performance was really thrilling and let us make the most of the room.”

Working with director Giorgio Testi, Rhodes suggested extending the location’s existing stage outward and then shooting with the cameras looking toward the pews — the reverse of what a typical filmed performance would look like in that space. “It’s infinitely more interesting to view the room from that perspective,” Rhodes says, “and also it’s a nice wink towards why we’re here — because the audience can’t be.

“We had three operated cameras and one static,” he explains, “and it was all Primo Zooms except the static, which was on a tripod up at the top row with a gorgeous 10mm Primo. The idea for the static was to make it about the room and have an ultra-satisfying shot that we could cut to and hang on for a while. And then we had an 11:1 [24-275mm] Primo Zoom on a 6-foot slider on the deck so it could be as low as possible and make the most of the lighting in the background, and two 19-90mm Primo Zooms, one on a Steadicam and the other handheld. The 19-90mm is my favorite Steadicam zoom; it’s the perfect range and it’s not too big.”

Two sets were captured with Marling, with the first streamed live to viewers in the U.K. and the second recorded to be streamed across the pond some hours later. During the first performance, dusk light was still visible outside Union Chapel’s windows, but by the second set, night had fallen. “Because we were in a church, I really wanted to use tungsten and to mix it with daylight,” Rhodes says. “My approach was to mix tungsten and [natural] daylight for the first set, and then mix tungsten with some daylight color-temperature fixtures for the second set.”

The production’s lighting package was primarily sourced through Panalux. “We had a big festoon with lots of 25-watt tungsten bulbs on the upper balcony, and then I had a 2.5K HMI follow spot to put a shaft of light in the haze,” the cinematographer explains. “As a sort of key light, we used a 5K Molebeam, and then it was about adding structural highlights in the background. We had three 2K Molebeams on the ground level, dimmed for a warm tungsten glow, and then loads of 650s that we used to uplight the archways in the ground-floor architecture. We also had a few Sunstrips on either side of the 12-by-12 deck that we built above the pews, where Laura spends most of her time performing, that we could modulate depending on the shot. The lighting was all back to a desk, so we were tweaking constantly.”

Panalux also provided most of the lighting package for Idiot Prayer, Ryan’s first job since late February, when he had shot pickups for a feature. “Nick is friends with the director John Hillcoat, who was in Australia, and John sent references to Nick about different styles of lighting,” Ryan says. “One of the things Nick really liked was a still from the first version of Suspiria, a picture of the actress lit with a pastel green against a pastel pink. So the idea was that there’d be one color on him and a contrasting color on the architecture.”

From one song to the next, the cinematographer adds, those color schemes would change. “I got lucky that he had all his notes in front of him on the piano, so one of our lights was able to bounce off of that, and that lit him up really nicely. We also had a couple of big doorways in the background, and I put a big 5K Molebeam though each of those. And then he let me do one thing which I really wanted to try, for the track ‘Man on the Moon.’ I’m a big fan of the Henri-Georges Clouzot film Inferno, where Romy Schneider’s got a light revolving around her — it’s hypnotic. So I did a chase going around him with a 15-foot square of Astera tubes that we built with gaffer Andy Cole. It feels a bit like Nick’s in space while he’s singing. 

“Nick sent the playlist a week before,” Ryan continues, “so I knew the songs, but I didn’t know what order they would be in — which meant [the shoot] was very loose and had an energy that, if it had been much more rehearsed, probably wouldn’t have been so palpable. You get a sense that it’s a bit rough around the edges, because it really wasn’t planned. It was a bit of a jam session with the lights to see what worked; we developed it as we went along on the day. Candy Jackson was the desk operator, and she was brilliant. It was all about trying to facilitate what Nick wanted, and all he wanted was to be free to play songs and not be waiting for us, essentially.”

That loose approach also applied to the camerawork, performed with a pair of Alexa Minis, one on a SuperTechno 30 crane with a 19-90mm Primo Zoom, and the other on a dolly. For the dolly camera, which Ryan operated, the cinematographer carried PVintage, Primo, Super Speed and H Series primes; although he wasn’t shooting large format, he particularly favored the latter. “I used them quite a bit and really liked them,” he says. “I’ll certainly use them again.”

Cave and crew captured the 20-song set in one 8-hour day. “Some of the songs ended up being edited down to mostly one camera, and those have a real draw to them, a real energy,” Ryan says. “Nick Emerson cut it; he figured out early that if we keep it as simple as possible, that would draw the audience in a bit more. He really did a great job.

“My friend Deepa Keshvala, who’s also a cinematographer, was the other operator,” Ryan adds. “The two of us know each other well. She had the Technocrane and I was on the dolly, and we said, ‘You shoot that bit and I’ll shoot this bit, and we’ll see what happens.’ Most of the time the dolly camera was on a tighter lens, and then Deepa had the Technocrane so we could be versatile and quickly get a new angle without too much waiting around.”

“Robbie works in a very intuitive way, and he really gave me freedom to move around anywhere,” Keshvala explains. “Being friends meant that I could interpret his thinking, which is key when you’re on a two-camera shoot, with one on a crane. Nick performed each song once or twice max, so we had very little room for error and just had to get into the zone and catch a rhythm — which, thanks to our friendship and understanding of one another, I think we managed to do.”

As a cinematographer, Keshvala’s work since coming out of lockdown has included a string of commercials, including a spot for Louis Vuitton and one for the Nando’s restaurant chain. “For Louis Vuitton,” she says, “we took the Revolution lens system, a full set of Primo Classic and Close Focus primes, and an Optex 6mm. The director, Bafic, wanted to keep the aesthetic in line with his previous films for Louis Vuitton, which featured super-wide-angle macro shots and a rotating lens. We were shooting in set builds of various sizes, and the Revolution allowed us to get right up to our subject and rotate simultaneously. 

“For Nando’s,” Keshvala adds, “a large part of the creative was centered around a series of extreme crash zooms, so we shot mostly on the Angenieux 24-290mm and Primo 19-90mm.” Panavision provided grip support to both projects — including a SuperTechno 30 and Super PeeWee IV dolly for the Louis Vuitton spot — while lighting was sourced through Panalux. 

Segal’s recent work, meanwhile, has included a commercial for McDonald’s. “Aside from a car rig, the shoot was entirely handheld,” she says, adding that the camera package from Panavision was “kitted out with Canon K35s. I love to shoot as much of the sensor as possible, and the K35s have great coverage, with no vignetting on the wider focal lengths when shooting in Open Gate 3.4K RAW [with the Alexa Mini]. This, combined with their small footprint and beautiful, gentle quality, made them my first choice for the naturalistic, handheld style that director Jake Mavity was looking for.” Working with gaffer Gavin Walters, Segal notes that “Panalux supplied the lighting for the shoot.”

Since the Laura Marling project, Rhodes’ work has included a commercial, a music video, and another live performance, this time with Lianne La Havas. The commercial found the cinematographer working with PVintage primes, which he describes as “tried-and-true, gorgeous lenses. I started with the Ultra Speeds a long while ago, and they’re equally beautiful, but on a practical level the PVintage make life a lot easier. I really like the 24mm, 29mm and 35mm wide open; they’ve got a magic quality.” He then turned to Panaspeeds for a Celina Sharma music video, pairing them with a Mini LF camera. “That was an absolutely stunning combination,” he says. 

As with Marling’s performance, the Lianne La Havas shoot comprised two sets, a livestream for the U.K. and a prerecorded version for overseas. This time, Rhodes was shooting inside London’s Roundhouse, which he describes as “an equally impressive venue. It’s a circular building with gorgeous old ironwork.” The cinematographer made extensive use of the Roundhouse’s existing lighting rig, which he supplemented with additional fixtures from Panalux.

“Lianne La Havas’ guitar sound got me to thinking in a more vintage way, and I wanted to riff on that idea with the lenses,” Rhodes explains. “I asked Panavision for old zooms that still had a nice range, and we ended up with Cooke Varotals, a 25-250mm that we put on a Scorpio head, an 18-100mm on the Steadicam, and a 20-60mm handheld. Despite being designed for a smaller format than S35, the 18-100mm only cut in at 25mm or wider, so we just set a hard stop on the zoom control to prevent our using the zoom any wider than that. We didn’t have a static wide camera, but with the range of the zooms, any of the three cameras could drop out and offer a wide shot. 

“I wanted the long-zoom camera to have a bit more freedom to move,” he continues, “so I put it on a small multi-jib with the Scorpio head on a Fisher 10 base. That meant I could just freewheel around the floor with a remote head that was variable in height.” 

Panavision and its family of companies have all implemented updated, region-specific policies and procedures to provide a safe experience for clients and employees, and these policies continue to be revised in accordance with evolving local regulations. As she has gotten back to work, Segal shares, “I’ve felt very reassured by all the health and safety practices that have been put in place. I was able to do my research and prep over the phone. I had the customary fantastic service, just not in person.” 

“Panavision have been super-efficient and safe,” Keshvala agrees, “and the kit arrives having been disinfected.” Once on set, she adds, “Everyone is being strict about not touching each other’s kit, and everyone is very much doing their job super-diligently.” 

“All the cleaning protocols and temperature checks certainly redefine the working process on set,” Segal notes, “but the two things that have had the most impact for me have been social distancing and wearing a mask. With the whole crew in masks, communication on set is definitely challenging. I don’t usually use a headset, but on grip Johnny Donne’s advice, I decided to give it go. The headsets turned out to be invaluable, allowing us to communicate easily while maintaining social distance." 

“Taking care of the actors, who aren’t in PPE, is a real priority,” Segal continues. “I have to be constantly mindful about how I work, rethinking how I carry out basic tasks near an actor, like taking an incident light reading, or making small adjustments in composition or lighting.”

“Social distancing and the mask situation can make shooting quite uncomfortable, especially when you’re operating a camera and it’s hot,” Keshvala offers. On the commercials she’s shot since lockdown, she says, “social distancing has meant that we couldn’t have cast within 2m of each other, which can sometimes make it difficult to create the energy we want and need. The new parameters aren’t particularly inspiring, but I continue to welcome the challenge of finding new ways to work and create new images.”

All things considered, Rhodes says, his recent experiences “haven’t felt a million miles away from the normal thing to me. Everyone’s wearing masks and being a little bit more space-conscious, there’s a bit more hand sanitizer, but otherwise it’s kind of the same thing. I imagine going on a drama or film would be different, but for both of the concerts, we were lucky to have an enormous venue, so everyone could keep in their own areas. The room sizes were smaller for the commercial, though, so we were constantly managing how many people were in the room. You’re definitely more conscious of proximity to each other.”

Proximity was also top of mind from a creative standpoint as Ryan and his collaborators prepared to shoot Idiot Prayer. “Nick’s main stipulation was that he wanted to perform in a place that had connections with a lot of people,” the cinematographer recalls. “We ended up at Alexandra Palace in London, which is called ‘the People’s Palace.’ Nick had played there live, he liked that space, and it worked out really well for all of us in the end.

“Nick was supposed to be on a world tour — that’s why he did this,” Ryan adds. “That conduit was being cut off, but he needed to perform and stay connected in some way. It’s not a live gig, but it gives you a sense of something intimate with him, and in these restrictive times it’s certainly something to look forward to and enjoy.”