If you examine Tim’s filmography on IMDB two things strike you, his grounding in innovative British TV shows, challenging what could be achieved on TV whilst still being shot really fast, I’m thinking of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes in particular; Then there are the more recent crop of productions in the new landscape of global productions that streaming has engendered, there is Killing Eve and Doctor Who (yes, Dr Who, the latest incarnation of the show has gone all cinematic); Finally there is the sheer volume of work on his filmography. Actually that’s three things isn’t it… We spoke to Tim about his latest project, The Last Kingdom season 4.
Other career highlights must include shooting the first mainstream British television drama, (The Road To Coronation Street) commissioned to be shot entirely on the Canon 5D Mark 2 DSLR back in 2010. Talking to Tim soon reveals his love of the craft over the specifics of kit, ask him what’s most memorable from a cinematography point of view and he cites the things he shot on 16mm back in the day as having that something extra; in the quality of the image, the colours and the way it handled light in the almost alchemical process of capturing the image.
Another thing that soon comes out in a conversation is his love of shooting action. When I first spoke to him he had not long finished the latest season of Strike Back that shows on Sky. The series follows ‘Section 20’, ‘a secretive unit of British military intelligence’, and there is nothing else quite like it out there. It manages to pack more into one episode than many ‘action’ productions get in a whole season. If anything it harks back to 70s shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals in its un-PC delight in sex and violence. I love it.
When Tim mentioned that he was about to swap guns for swords and shoot several episodes of season 4 of The Last Kingdom in Hungary I made him promise (I think I might have begged in reality) to do another interview. So in a short break between episodes we sat down to talk about the project. Carnival Films produce the show, originally for the BBC but now for Netflix.
The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction series based on Bernard Cornwell‘s ‘The Saxon Stories‘ series of novels. Set in the late 9th Century and focused on the life of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, played by Alexander Dreymon. Filmed primarily on location in Hungary and at Korda Studios in Budapest.
Tim is filming alternate episodes of the show, and has just spent eleven weeks in Hungary filming his first batch of episodes. Two DPs doing alternate episodes allows one to prep the next episode whilst the other is being filmed, I asked Tim to talk me through the preparation process for the project.
Preparation for Filming
‘The first discussions are rather abstract, talking around stylistic concerns and any reference and ideas that the directors have along with my ideas. So it’s a very informal, non-technical, non-specific couple of days going through the project. And it’s a lot of fun, at this stage there is nothing riding on it, we don’t have to worry about budget or equipment. It’s a bit of blue sky thinking about what we would really like to do. A lot of that is done here in the UK before we go to Hungary.’
‘Once we get to Hungary it’s straight onto location recce’s, seeing the fixed locations that are established, then onto prospective ones that might be used. Then we try to tie up between all the ideas and conversations we’ve had with the reality of the specific locations. This is all a constantly evolving process over many weeks, you’ll inspect, reject, go back and reconsider. You’ll lose locations for whatever reason so you’ll find alternatives. I see it as a whittling process, starting with a big block of wood and you whittle away until it becomes a finished object.’
‘Then another journey starts once you start filming, a fresh set of factors enter the equation, actors for example. They have ideas about the script and what their character should or would do. Then cast and crew availability, transport and logistical interferences that can throw you off track.’
‘The thing is to have those initial ideas locked down so you can adapt, if you haven’t thought it through well enough and you have to change it you can come unstuck. if you know absolutely what it is you want to achieve it’s actually surprisingly easy to adapt.’
That adaptability is surely one of the key talents required for a production such as this, with its mix of big outdoor scenes and variety of interior sets, ‘For the first two episodes I’m doing the balance was around two thirds outdoor and one third indoor. The second batch of two for me are mostly indoors with machiavellian scheming and people hiding in dark corridors’.
Around half the sets are built in studio space whilst the rest, such as the village of Winchester, are standing sets that have been built for interior and exterior filming.
‘The sets are amazing and actually it’s useful when a spanner is thrown in the works with a location, as there is generally a set that you can fall back on, even if the script has to be reworked as an interior shot. The working sets allow you to go from exterior to interior and back out again without need ing a join.’
The Last Kingdom Season 4 is filmed with a 2 or 3 camera setup, crewed by a regular team, so unusually for Tim he’s not operating a camera ‘The schedule is tight, and being such a busy shoot it’s actually a bit of a relief to not be operating a camera.’ Mostly shot hand held, the B camera is generally a steadicam. Cameras are ARRI Alexa Minis partnered with Zeiss Ultra Primes, ‘it’s a simple lo-fi package, nothing fancy at all, we need the cameras and lenses to be as nimble as possible. I guess I could go for fancier lenses, even go anamorphic to give it a grander scale, but actually the Alexa looks so good. As long as it’s well lit the lenses are fine, I quite like the Ultra Primes, yes they are a bit old now but I like the look of them. Plus they are really small and light so the operators don’t feel the weight of them at all.’
Palmer shot some of the most recent Dr Who season with anamorphics, and although he loves them ‘you are limited, especially if you want to work quickly, everything takes longer. And really I’m not a slave to equipment, I’d be happy just to go out with a single camera and a lightweight zoom and shoot a whole movie – as long as the story is good, it’s well lit and operated of course!’
The Last Kingdom has never been shot as to look as if it is consciously in the past. The combination of hand held shooting and spherical primes positions the viewer right there in the story more like a documentary than a historical epic. ‘I’ve tried to give it a bit more shape I guess – on one of the studio sets, for the great hall of Wessex, it had an open ceiling, so I asked them to put a roof on it. I feel that firstly it can never look that naturalistic when you are lighting a set like that from above, and secondly I always like to get low and show the scale of the room and see the ceiling. They were quite reluctant to put a hard roof on it, but the production company were overjoyed with the look once I had shot some tests with it in place. I want the spaces to feel like real spaces, if I have to constrain the way I light it for the sake of reality then it is completely worth it’.
Looking to where Tim’s inspiration for lighting and composition comes from he values his love of photography and describe the library in his head of all sorts of movies, photographs, books and artworks that he can dip into for inspiration.
‘I read the script and ideas just come to me from memory, then really enjoy puling out references of a particular photograph or painting’.
There is a battle in one of the early episodes on a beach (I’m being a bit vague here of the exact location to avoid spoilers). Tim describes the shot; ‘it was written originally as more of a skirmish, but it needed to feel bigger as it was an opening scene. Then there are the challenges of only having a day to film it and of course the tides. So I don’t know why it popped into my mind, but in the film Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne 1990) [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099871/] there is a battle scene where things start to go wrong very quickly. It’s a brutal, fast battle, but you don’t actually see very much and it’s a brilliantly shot scene that feels ‘big’ without being big. So I referenced this and the director and producers really responded to it as being a good way to handle that sequence. So it’s just having that archive in your head to call upon is invaluable.
‘My favourite film maker and greatest inspiration has always been Stanley Kubrick. If I could watch nothing else but his films for the rest of my life I would be happy. I looked at quite a bit of Full Metal Jacket as inspiration for this, not so much the fight scenes, but the characterisation pieces were really useful. Then the way violence is portrayed in A Clockwork Orange, as short sharp and brutal had relevance for the way we shot the raids’.
The scale of some of the scenes demands meticulous storyboarding;
‘The storyboards aren’t just for us, there are so many departments involved in the construction of some sequences that everyone needs to understand exactly what shot is coming next. We can discuss every frame of an action sequence with VFX, special effects, wardrobe, props, art dept and lighting grips so that everyone knows what’s needed’. Change can be forced upon a production of course from factors outside of theri control, ‘case in point – we had a big scene involving a boat at sea to be filmed in the tank at the Budapest studios. So we had the boat in the tank with a wave machines and blue screen around, we were filming hand-held on the characters for dialogue scenes. All going fine until the waves rocked the boat so much that the mast came loose and for a moment looked as if it was going to fall over completely. So the mast had to be repaired, losing us a couple of hours, but the boat eventually goes out again and promptly started leaking! Before you know it you’re three hours behind but still have to make the day. We ended up shooting well past sunset but luckily I had enough lighting on call to be able to light it for day – These thing do happen and it’s a case of being prepared and able to improvise. Essentially the story board was still shot, just not in the way envisioned.’
Shooting outdoor scenes in different locations that have to marry up can be a problem if the weather decides to get involved, ‘we had to shoot scenes in Hungary that followed on directly from what we shot on Bamburgh beach. It had been blue skies and sunshine for the beach and then overcast and drizzly in Hungary. But you can’t fight it and I know we’ll just have to be creative in the grade to massage that join, and with some clever editing you now it can be made to work. I don’t actually get hung up on those things anymore, and the viewer will be carried along by the story, they won’t really notice it.’
Indeed, this sense of practicality shines throughout Tim’s work. The demands of shooting complicated shows on a tight schedule requires a combination of experience, pragmatism and crucially an innovative flair to make the most of a situation.
Tim used a DJI Osmo pocket camera. ‘I bought one to use on this and it’s been absolutely brilliant, we’ve mounted it on helmets, swords, chest harnesses or on a backpack when someone is being chased. The picture quality, for what it is, is superb, obviously it’s compressed but when it’s only six or eight frames inserted into an action sequence it’s great’.
The Last Kingdom shoots also make great use of drones, ‘the company we use in Hungary is really experienced and can fly them very low and fast, which is really effective for following horses in chase sequences, where we can stay at knee height. We’ve used them a lot where you would usually have utilised a crane or tracking vehicle’.
‘There is a formula that we use for the battle sequences, you shoot a few general wide shots in different positions with different lenses. Then you go in and cover some specific beats, classic stuff like an axe swing or a sword in the throat, you can cover that pretty quickly with stunts and sword blades added with CGI. When you see it put together it looks really big and impressive’.
We touched upon the improvements in camera technology and ever rising sensor size and resolution, Tim points out a huge advantage of having more pixels, ‘that flexibility is a huge benefit when VFX is involved, on The Last Kingdom there were so many scenes that we had to shoot with a wrong background, not enough blue screen or even trucks in shot. But you have to shoot it as you have to deliver, now we are only shooting in 2K but I can appreciate that if we were in 8K we would have a lot more flexibility in being able to zoom in on the picture in post. It’s both a time saver and a great money saver. When I’m setting up and can see a potential problem I would discuss with VFX supervisor first so that we frame it in a manner that works for them.’
‘I’d love to shoot something in large format, it would be interesting to work with that depth of field. I particularly noticed the first episode of The Umbrella Academy, it was shot on the Alexa 65 and had a real sparkle to it, maybe it was the widescreen spherical rather than widescreen anamorphic that lent it something – I can’t quite put my finger on it but it did look good.’
The Last Kingdom shoot continues in Hungary, once complete it will be broadcast on Netflix. The series synopsis:
Alexander Dreymon reprises his role as Uhtred, joined by new cast Stefanie Martini (Doctor Thorne, Prime Suspect 1973) who takes on the role of Eadith, Aethelred’s new love conquest, and Aethelred’s new right-hand man Eardwulf, played by Jamie Blackley (The Halcyon, If I Stay).
After the death of Alfred, the alliances between the kingdoms are fractured. Uhtred believes the timing is right to challenge his uncle Aelfric, played by Joseph Millson (Casino Royale, Banished), and take back his ancestral home, Bebbanburg. However fate shifts in a different direction, leading Uhtred to realise that his destiny is tied to Alfred’s dream of a united land. This, and Uhtred’s feelings for Aethelflaed, drive him back into the politics that threaten to break out into war.
Returning cast include Ian Hart (Father Beocca), Toby Regbo (Aethelred), Emily Cox (Brida), Timothy Innes (Kind Edward), Eliza Butterworth (Aelswith), Mark Rowley (Finan), Millie Brady (Aethelflaed), Magnus Bruun (Cnut) and Jeppe Beck Laursen (Haesten).
Interview by Iain Hazlewood
You can watch our interview with Tim at the BSC Expo 2019 here