Interview with London-based Director of Photography and BSC Emerging Cinematographer nominee 2019, Chris Dodds, about his career and behind-the-scenes info on his recent short film Rocket Boy (directed by Simon Sorted, UK, 2019, produced by Russell Curtis).
- Chris Dodds‘ website & showreel – ou can watch the short film Rocket Boy (5mins 16secs) in full here as well as see other examples of Chris’ work: http://www.chrisdodds.co.uk/#/short-rocket-boy/
- Rocket Boy official site, trailer and behind-the-scenes footage and photos: https://www.rocketboymovie.com/trailer
This interview is written principally for Film students and those aspiring to be in the film industry, as well as for anyone who shares a love of film, including members of FILMBOX Community Cinema, Beckenham, SE London.
Like just about every event, everywhere, in these extraordinary times, FILMBOX Community Cinema’s 18 March screening of the feel-good Springsteen-inspired Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha, USA/UK/Fr, 2019) was cancelled, along with our local première of a short film Rocket Boy (Simon Sorted, UK, 2019) plus a Q&A with its Director of Photography (and a 2019 BSC Emerging Cinematographer award nominee), Chris Dodds, which was to start the evening.
This was especially sad for reasons close to home, as Chris was one of our very best students at Langley Park School for Boys (Beckenham, South East London, UK), and his mother, Sandra, is a long-standing former Governor of the School and currently the Social Secretary on the Committee of FILMBOX Community Cinema, which is based at the School.
Not to be daunted, Chris and I decided to exchange our Q&A by email and we offer it to you here as an insight into one of the most important roles in film-making, at a time when everything in the film and creative industries has stopped for the time being. However, young people at schools and colleges everywhere still, and must, have dreams and goals and so we hope that this Q&A will inspire some to make their own films, even, or especially, now, as it’s never been easier, technologically, to make a low-budget short film yourself. Please share this interview and short film with anyone who might find it useful or of interest.
Interview Questions – Vivienne Clark (Founder of FILMBOX Community Cinema and Film/Media Studies teacher at Langley Park School for Boys):
Q1: When did you realise that you wanted to make films?
CD: I first caught the film-making bug whilst at school at LPBS. We didn’t have a Super8mm or VHS Camcorder at home, so when we got access to the old S-VHS cameras that the School had and I picked one up, it immediately felt like something I enjoyed and was good at. Soon we were shooting shorts as part of our A-level Media Studies course and it was on my first short Late*, (about a school boy who was running late for an important exam), that I shot as part of my A-Level exam coursework, that I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
*VC: We had to stop showing it to subsequent students, Chris, because it sparked what became known as the ‘Running Man’ short film sub-genre in our Department, as it was so frequently imitated! Do you still have it somewhere?
VC: Thanks for sending me a copy; it was great to see the old LPSB school site and recognise so many student and teacher faces, as well as your parents and grand-parents. I remember that trip we made to see Lily Savage in Croydon worked its way into the film! I also remember the continuity issue with the arrival of snow and how Matt Perdoni did an excellent and exhausting job as the running man. It also sums up how so many students feel facing exams every year – except this year of course – no exams. The music you used takes me back too. But it is a textbook example of how students can develop confidence and flair with moving the camera, being brave and experimenting with angles and positions – yes and it was in a pre-a Health & Safety culture in schools too so the running and traffic make me blanch now. We had NO PROPER EDITING facilities at the time – we had a digital mixing desk, really meant to be used for live amateur TV camera mixing and so students had to time-consumingly crash edit between two VCRs with HUGE tapes in – kids today are spoilt rotten with digital editing on computers and phones!
CD: Needless to say LPBS had an incredible Media department in the 1990s with the team of ‘Malyszko & Clark’, as we knew them back then. Their passion for film, and encouragement for us to become film-makers ourselves, gave many of us the confidence to enter the film industry. Without them I’d have worked in a much less rewarding profession. So it’s their fault that some of us ended up in this industry!
VC: The pleasure was all ours Chris.
Q2) How and where did you study and how did you get started?
CD: After my time at LPBS, I studied a BA degree course in Film & Media Studies at the University of Stirling, with a fellow LPSB student Neil Flaherty (who is now a first assistant and camera operator in feature films). Our first year at Uni covered much of what we’d already studied at A-level Media (which in those days was thankfully very Film-heavy) but we used our prior knowledge to our advantage, as the theoretical work was very familiar to us (film noir, textual analysis skills and a basic intro to film-making terms and processes) and so we got busy making short films and experimenting with lots of kit in our first year which led to our year abroad. I managed to get on an exchange program where I studied at the University of Kansas. In the States the colleges have such bigger facilities, we were shooting on 16mm, editing on Avid systems, they even had two sound stages and a foley suite. So being there meant that we really learnt a lot about practical film-making and we spent a lot of time working as crew on each other’s short films.
During my last summer of study I did a bit of work as a runner for free, on a music video in Chislehurst caves then a TV pilot, which led to a paid gig for BBC History File. Once I completed my studies I already had a runner’s CV and I applied to every commercial production company listed in London. Only one came back to me with a reply; Park Village Productions had a vacancy, and after an interview (I wore a suit to it. Runners definitely do not wear suits, I don’t recommend it – but it seemed to go well), they offered me an in-house job as a runner. Right place, right time – lucky really. I learnt the ropes there and started studying how to be a camera assistant, loading magazines with film, using slates, making camera sheets and becoming familiar with the internal mechanisms of 35mm cameras. In the years that followed, I climbed the rungs of the camera department ladder working on commercials mostly, some features, lots of music videos and some TV drama.
Q3) What are your personal favourite films?
CD: The Godfather Parts 1 & Pt 2, Cinema Paradiso, The Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, Skyfall, Atonement…
VC: Very interesting choices, they all share some astonishing cinematography at the service of great story-telling, as well as some stand-out directors and creative personnel.
Q4) What does a DP do and what roles did you take on to work your way up to being a DP?
CD: The Director of Photography’s role is to interpret the script alongside the director and decide upon and implement all elements of lighting and photography of the film.
Working with a lighting crew and camera crew, the DP lights and frames each set up and essentially photographs the action as discussed with the director.
I took a traditional route to becoming a DP. When I started it was commonly accepted that you must do your time as an assistant before you earned the right to step up the ladder. These days the industry is much more accessible and DPs can still climb the ladder or, if they’re talented, often jump straight out there as a DP from Uni. However I find that my years of experience working as an assistant with some great DPs and directors have put me in good stead now. I’ve seen and experienced most situations and problems on set and I now know how to deal with them. Without that knowledge and experience as an assistant, you’re learning those lessons as you go, which is fraught with danger.
Q5) Who are your favourite DPs or favourite cinematography in specific films?
CD: Roger Deakins (born 1949) is seen as the UK’s and one of the world’s finest cinematographers by many at the moment. He has shot such incredible work – many Coen Brothers films, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, No Country for Old Men. When I saw 1917, (for which he won his second Oscar) my jaw dropped watching some of the sequences. Plus he shot my favourite Bond film, Skyfall.
VC: His Oscar for Blade Runner: 2049 in 2018 was considered by many to be very late in coming, given his amazing body of work.
CD: I also really like Gordon Willis’ work (The Godfather trilogy, Klute, All the President’s Men, Manhattan), the ‘Prince of Darkness’ as he was nicknamed. He was the Rembrandt of cinematographers.
I love Robby Muller’s work especially in Paris, Texas and The American Friend. I worked with one of his gaffers last year in Amsterdam. I listened to everything that guy told me that day!
Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, 1900, Reds) is incredible in his use of colour. And more contemporary cinematographers such as Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year, Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon, Honey Boy) are my current favourites. I could go on!
Q6) Why do you like your job? What kind of a team do you work with? Names of key roles…
CD: Most of us film people know how lucky we are to do what we do. Yes, there is a lot you have to sacrifice to do your job and it can be a struggle to be financially comfortable for many years. But as a DP the enjoyment comes from trying to create beautiful images for a living. You get to witness and capture some incredible things, whether that is a performance of a world-class actor, musician or athlete, shoot some of the world’s most beautiful and interesting places, travel the world and hear stories, meet people and visit places that you wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to – all whilst getting paid for it!
But being a cinematographer for me is particularly rewarding because you are the one that gets to photograph the film, not the director (although you are there to capture their vision). I started out wanting to direct, like so many do, but I found that I just didn’t want to give up the actual process of shooting. So a DP I became. You have less authorship as a DP in this industry because of the way the structure is set up, but to be the one responsible for capturing the images is for me the best role on a film set.
The size of the crew depends on the size of the project. But a typical crew that a DP would be in charge of would consist of two teams: firstly, the electrical department (Gaffer, Best Boy, Sparks and Riggers) who set the lighting and secondly, the camera department which consists of a Camera Operator, Focus Puller, 2nd Assistant Camera (Clapper Loader), Grip, Video Playback Operator and DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) who each have a role in facilitating the camera equipment, lenses and dolly or crane.
Q7) We often see these names in the credits but many people have no idea what they mean – what do these people do on set?
CD: · Gaffer: The gaffer is the lead electrician and the most useful and important member of crew for a DP in my opinion. This relationship is key, as they rig and set lighting to help the DP create the images they want. A good gaffer is key to any cinematographer’s success.
· Best Boy: The best boy is the second in charge in the electrical department below the gaffer. The best boy might typically pre-rig a set ahead of shooting. They are also in charge of personnel and ordering lighting equipment for their department.
· Key Grip: The key grip is in charge of anything to do with rigging or moving the camera, whether it be on a dolly, tripod, crane, car rig, low loader or rickshaw.
Q8) What should we look out for in ‘Rocket Boy’? Can you tell us how long it took, what your set-ups were like etc? Challenges?
CD: I had worked with director Simon Sorted on commercials and corporate films for a few years before we made Rocket Boy, so we already had a good working relationship. He has a great interest in space exploration and man’s attempts to reach the moon. So, when he came to me with the idea of shooting a short film based on the first-hand account of someone who had witnessed the Apollo 11 launch I was very interested. Simon wrote the script about the boy, which would play over the voice-over interview which he had already shot in the States a couple of months’ before. I was delighted that Simon wanted me to work with him on this fantastic idea, and we began to plan the look of the film and the practicalities of how we might achieve it.
Rocket Boy was shot over two days. The first day was in a studio in Acton, which took in the flight sequence of the rocket which had lots of in-camera effects. Simon and I knew Martin Godward at Pirate TV, who is one of the industry’s leading Special FX artists, and he gave us all his experience and all his ‘toys’ at a reasonable price for the day. These shots were the hardest to shoot as we were filming at around 1000fps (frames per second – typically films are 24fps) extreme slo-motion with a big lighting set up, fire effects and smoke, all with a skeleton crew, studio space and little time.
The second day was shot at a location in Kent. We were looking for a typical American homestead and luckily this place had just appeared as a location for film and photography shoots. Our talented production designer, Laura Napier, dressed the house with props and set dressing that would be right for 1969 America and we framed it as much as we could to lose anything typically British that gave the game away. We were also very lucky to have a bright sunny day to sell the idea that this was 1960s Florida.
We had only a few hours with our child actor, a boy from West Wickham (close to Beckenham) as I later discovered, small world – so we had to forget shooting with nicely-composed tracking shots and tripod. Instead we had to compromise and shoot most of the shots handheld or with a gimbal (Steadicam-type kit). Most of the footage of the boy in the kitchen was shot over several hours but, as we were not moving location, the lighting didn’t need to be changed that much, so once we got each shot we could move swiftly on.
We shot digitally on a Red Dragon camera and we chose to shoot on anamorphic lenses which, because of how they are built, give you a very distinctive look, with very shallow depth of field, horizontal lens flares, lots of warping of the image etc. If you watch Close Encounters of a Third Kind you will see what I mean. Other films we used as motivation for our cinematography and mood were ET and 2001. We also shot Super8mm footage to add another element of the era that was supposed to be our out-of-shot parent shooting a home movie. Our reference for this was the opening title sequence of The Wonder Years TV series which the director Simon and I grew up on in the early 90s. I hope anyone who remembers that USA TV show might recognise this reference in that sequence.
In Rocket Boy production photos: The kit I’m holding is a gimbal (a motorised camera support which smooths out camera movement) called a DJI Ronin 2, which we mount the camera onto. There are various new gimbals that perform similarly to the Steadicam in that they smooth out tracking shots, and can be operated in a variety of ways to reduce unwanted camera shake. They are very heavy though. 1917 actually used a combination of gimbal work with an Arri(flex) Trinity, a new competitor to the Steadicam, as well as cranes. The camera movement in this film was beautifully done and showed what can be achieved with modern camera rigs. The behind the scenes documentary on YouTube shows you how some of those incredible shots were achieved.
We shot on the Red Dragon, which is a slightly older model of Red cameras, which a friend of mine rented out to us. On the SFX shots we used a Phantom 4K camera which is the industry standard for very high frame rate shooting. Most of the Red footage was shot 6K anamorphic, which gives you huge files and resolution. These are then compressed for the offline edit, before reverting back to the RAW footage for the colour grade which we did at Absolute Post in Soho. For me the cinematography on Rocket Boy was achieved 70% on set and 30% in the grade. We had an amazing colourist, Matt Turner, who is one of London’s finest colourists, work with us on this. A good colourist/grade is key to good cinematography.
I am “freelance” in that I find all my own work and work as an individual. I have an Agent, who represents me, and although I will find work through them, most of my work is found through recommendations, personal contacts and me introducing myself to production companies, directors and producers that I would like to work with. You don’t need hundreds of regular directors to keep busy, we can all only work so much. However, the longer you are in the industry the more contacts you find, and the smaller the industry feels. Then it’s a matter of spinning plates if you’re busy, to keep working with your regular clients and collaborators.
Q9) What websites would you recommend for watching short films and learning more about cinematography:
CD: Vimeo.com is a great tool for watching contemporary work. It is like a Youtube.com for professional filmmakers:
· The Staff Picks: https://vimeo.com/channels/staffpicks are specially-curated films that cover all topics and genres and there are always lots of fantastic films on there.
· There are lots of other short film sites such as It’s Nice That, Nowness etc.
The best way to find more out about cinematography online are podcasts such as:
· The Cinematography Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-cinematography-podcast/id812436884
· The Wandering DP: http://wanderingdp.com
· The Kodakery: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-kodakery/id1075930391
There are lots of tutorials on Youtube also. But to really learn more, books are the key – here are some that I can recommend:
· Cinematography, Film Craft – Mike Goodridge & Tim Grierson
· Cinematography Screencraft – Peter Ettedgui
· A Man with a Camera – Nestor Almendros
· Painting with Light – John Alton
· Writing with Light – Vittorio Storaro
· Conversations with Darius Khondji – Synecdoche France
· Masters of Light – Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato
· The Five C’s of Cinematography – Mascelli
· Magic Hour – Jack Cardiff
· American Cinematographer
· British Cinematographer
VC: I’d also like to recommend the following:
· An amazing BFI DVD – Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, which I know you like too Chris: https://shop.bfi.org.uk/world-cinema/visions-of-light-the-art-of-cinematography-dvd-bluray.html#.XoI6FC2ZM1I
· This website is a useful introduction to some of the DPs mentioned above: https://cinephiliabeyond.org/the-art-of-cinematography-8-essential-documentaries/
· Also BAFTA Guru features interviews with all manner of film-making personnel: http://guru.bafta.org
Q10) How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting your sector of the creative industries – might new opportunities emerge?
CD: Like most industries, the Coronavirus has halted all film production in the UK. There are hundreds of thousands of skilled crew, actors and production personnel currently out of work for the foreseeable future. The vast majority of them work as freelancers without any job security. So, this has hit the film industry particularly hard, as it has done across many, many sectors. For now, television dramas have stopped being made, movies also, no commercials, music videos or visual entertainment apart from the limited amount of broadcast media that is still in production. Once we are beyond Covid-19, I hope that film production will go into over-drive to recapture some of the work that has been halted.
But this crisis has reminded us that we are privileged to work in the sector that we do; we choose to do something that we enjoy for a living. In this respect, it could be considered to be somewhat self-serving. For me, this crisis reinforces a personal respect that I have always felt for people who work in professions that serve other people, teachers, doctors, nurses, the police and armed forces. These professions are dedicated to the service of others and society as a whole. Yes, we as filmmakers create entertainment, information and advertising, but in these difficult times it shows us all the importance of those who work to serve us all. It is a humbling time and I just hope that we as film-makers can also play a part in rebuilding our country and culture to reflect a fairer and more sympathetic society. To tell interesting and entertaining stories, to shine a light on uglier aspects of our society but also to celebrate hope and the wonders of the world – to do our work as filmmakers to help repair and refresh our world once we come out from this crisis.
Q11) What are your own personal skills which have served you well in your job?
CD: As a DP I have found that the personal skills that serve us well are an even temperament, decisiveness and confidence. It took me years to get the latter because there is so much to learn. Also, people don’t want to work with idiots or arseholes, so being friendly and approachable are very important. People understandably don’t want to work with people they don’t like.
Q12) What’s your personal goal – what would be your dream project?
CD: I would like to shoot bigger and better projects as a DP. Rocket Boy was so much fun to make because we were trying to tell a story. For me storytelling is so much more rewarding than just creating lots of beautiful visuals. So I would like to shoot more script-based projects, television drama and feature films. Features are the pinnacle of film-making as a platform. So, my personal goal would be to shoot a few feature films that I could be proud of in my time as a DP; ones that would play in cinemas which my friends and family would be able to see on the big screen.
Note: With our thanks and acknowledgements to Simon Sorted for use of behind-the-scenes photos of and free access to his short film Rocket Boy and of course, to Chris Dodds for his generosity in sharing his experience and work with a wider audience.
Interview copyright © Vivienne Clark – 17 April 2020