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Northern Lights

An Interview with Ulf Brantås

By the early sixties, George Sidney’s 1948 version of The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly, had finally arrived in northernmost Sweden, offering the young Ulf Brantås a Technicolor taste of what would become his future career. “This gives you an impression of how remote we lived,” Brantås muses. When his family moved to Stockholm in the late Sixties, Brantås senior took his son to the large, widescreen theatres for the first time.

“I’m still trying to recover from seeing Kubrick’s 2001- A Space Odyssey,” he laughs. “I was eleven at the time. But I was not interested in a career in cinema until my early twenties when I began working for director Roy Andersson.”

With an initial passion for editing and script writing, it was only when Brantås joined Andersson’s team of runners that he developed an interest in cinematography.

“We did some commercials for the Swedish Labourers’ Union and Roy ordered me to go up north shooting footage from the steel mills that was later cut into the commercials. So he literally planted a camera in my hands, for which I am very grateful. The first time I worked on a feature it was as a DP taking over from a legendary Swedish cinematographer Jörgen Persson, who’d decided to leave. I had the delicate task of continuing.”

The film in question, Kvinnorna på taket, won the two cinematographers a joint award for Best Cinematography in the 1989 European Film Awards, which cannot have hurt in drawing attention to the new talent in town. Not long after, Brantås was to meet an individual who was to dramatically influence the path of his early career.

“Lukas Moodysson was collaborating with Swedish producer Lars Jönsson who suggested me to Lukas for his short, Talk,” reflects Brantås.

“We met in his flat in Gothenburg and since I was not very impressed with how I presented myself and Lukas objected to everything I suggested, I thought I’d never see the man again!” Brantås was surprised then to receive a call from Moodysson offering him the job. This collaboration would go on to span three feature films: Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love, Together and Lilya 4-ever, the last winning him Best Cinematography at Sweden’s Guldbagge Awards in 2003.

“Working with Lukas definitely influenced my style but not in a deliberate way; he is not an advocate for spending too much time on the technical aspects of filmmaking,” explains Brantås.

“Lighting set-ups and blocking was kept to a minimum and we sort of ‘collected’ the scenes with the different camera setups. As a result, I personally got more interested in capturing the beauty of the performances rather than the technicalities that normally guide a cinematographer’s work.”

There was, however, ample opportunity for experimentation, as Brantås elaborates. “In Show Me Love we had used a zoom, crashing in from a wide to a close-up, in order to save time; this was originally intended to be cut out but the editor decided to keep it.

“In Together we continued this zooming style and lit entirely with practicals. Lukas then wanted to shoot Lilya 4-ever on a consumer video camera but I thought that was out of the question as it was made for a theatrical release, and for once Lukas, who is very stubborn, agreed to this. However, the look had to remain
like something shot under documentary conditions.”

In 2004, Brantås was lured to the UK by the BBC to shoot their TV film, May 33rd, directed by David Attwood, the first of three Brantås/Attwood/BBC collaborations, most notably To The Ends Of The Earth, which earned him a BAFTA nomination. In the 2006 version of Sweeney Todd, directed by Dave Moore, with Ray Winstone as the eponymous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, taking a supporting role was rising star Tom Hardy, who by design or by good fortune would be photographed by Brantås on two subsequent productions, HBO’s Stuart: A Life Backwards, and now, Wuthering Heights, in which Hardy plays the moody foundling, Heathcliff.

Wuthering Heights, ITV’s first big period drama for early 2009, teamed Brantås up for the first time with British director Coky Giedroyc (Oliver Twist, The Virgin Queen). “Coky loves Fujifilm and I was more than happy to try it for Wuthering Heights,” explains Brantås. “She has a very strong opinion about different colours in the costumes and production design and has a good eye when it comes to combining the work of all the different departments into one image; for example how a certain cream-coloured dress would look up on the moors when next to the grey-green heather.

“I was interested in using Fujifilm stock for the wide range of emulsions, where there is an opportunity to combine lenses and stock for the most optimal results.

“I have used Fujifilm before but merely for shorts and commercials, not on any major TV dramas or features, and I’ve never had until now the opportunity to use the wide range of stocks which I think is the big advantage with Fujifilm. That is, to be able to work on basically the same stop and without a package of NDs in front of the lens to make the image in the eyepiece and what hits the emulsion as undistorted as possible.

“Originally my plan on Wuthering Heights was to use a stock for each different situation as I was so pleased with our tests, but out of consideration to the schedule we reduced that number. In the end, we used the ETERNA 500T, ETERNA 250D and ETERNA Vivid 160T.

“A few weeks into the production we decided to bring in a camera operator to give me more time to supervise the lighting,” continues Brantås.

“We chose Lucy Bristow, who I had previously worked with on Low Winter Sun and of whom Coky had the highest regard. Lucy added just the skill needed, which counts for all my crew really,” Brantås adds, underlining the essential team work forming the foundation of any cinematographer’s creation.

“I had the fortune to work with some truly excellent craftsmen: focus puller Joe Maples, clapper/loader Ben Appleton, grip Mark Jones and gaffer Bill Astin who was an absolute gem!” Now back home, Brantås has fond memories of England’s northern countryside, a modest offering compared to his native Sweden; a land of mountains, vast forests and desolate moors reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s tragic novel.

“We had the opportunity to shoot in some amazingly beautiful locations in and around the Yorkshire moors, and it is hard to pick one day or a specific location that was my favourite,” Brantås recalls.

“There were quite a few moments when I was sincerely telling myself to try and do justice to it all.”


Wuthering Heights, to air on ITV 1 early in 2009, was originated on 35mm Fujicolor ETERNA 500T 8573, ETERNA 250D 8563 and ETERNA Vivid 160T 8543

Ulf Brantås   |   Wuthering Heights   |   Fujicolor ETERNA 500T   |   Fujicolor ETERNA 250D   |   Fujicolor ETERNA Vivid 160T   |  

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