Director of Photography Ben Smithard BSC describes his first experience of shooting 35mm two-perf on thriller I, Anna...
Filmmaking can be murder. "Thinking of this film as a film noir would have confused the process for me so I looked at the material and photographed it in a way that best suited it," says cinematographer Ben Smithard BSC about his latest film I, Anna, a thriller about a femme fatale who falls in love with a homicide detective. Directed by Barnaby Southcombe and starring Southcombe's mother Charlotte Rampling alongside fellow acting powerhouses Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan, Honor Blackman, Ralph Brown and Captain America star Hayley Atwell, Smithard immediately responded to the moody material.
"It was the film that I had always wanted to make to be honest: intimate, dark, urban, atmospheric," Smithard enthuses. "This kind of film can be a real labour of love for a director, they are not easy to finance and it can take years to get off the ground, so the DP needs to fully understand what the director wants and buy into that aesthetic. I got what Barnaby wanted and it was an interesting experience throughout - he was really great to work with. I told Barnaby that I had always wanted to shoot a French film and at the end of the shoot he turned to me and said, 'Well, now you have done your French film!'
"On a simplistic level, it's a dark story," he continues. "We filmed in London in January and February, which can be pretty grim, so many of the elements fell directly into place; the story is pretty bleak and the characters quite melancholic. The photography - which used Eterna Vivid 250D and Eterna Vivid 500T - mirrors that darkness, that bleakness of expression and performance."
Shooting on 35mm two-perf was a new experience for Smithard, but one he found very pleasurable - and he was more than pleased with the results. "It was very easy in conjunction with the Aaton Penelope," he says. "It looks great and is a fantastic way to shoot for cinema. I shoot a lot of digital, but nothing beats two perf if you've got a tight budget. The camera is small, the film stock amazing and the final look is something you will always struggle to get with digital, whatever anyone says!"
So how does he view the current format shift towards digital in the industry as a whole? "The business, if you want to use that word, is getting more and more complex," he says. "The digital revolution helps us as filmmakers in many ways but it also hinders us. The democratisation through digital capture allows many more people to shoot films in a variety of ways. However, as this has happened, the audience hasn't got larger. So, who's watching all this extra content? The method of storytelling hasn't changed and it doesn't mean that we can't still shoot on film. Everyone knows it still looks more interesting, and the cost difference is a smokescreen. Shooting two perf on an Aaton Penelope for a feature film is in no way more expensive that shooting on an Alexa, and it looks a hundred times more interesting. Isn't that why we do what we do?"
In recent years, Smithard has worked on the likes of My Week With Marilyn, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon comedy The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and Tom Hooper's Brian Clough biopic The Damned United. His next project is a prestigious, star-studded TV adaption of Shakespeare's double-handed Henry IV, with Jeremy Irons on the throne, suggesting Smithard's career is very much on the ascendancy.
A lesser talent might be a bit starstruck at the prospect of lensing British acting royalty, but Smithard displays an emblematic pragmatism about filming whoever's in front of his camera. "I try to treat everyone with the same amount of care and attention, but that's just impossible over the course of a film," he smiles. "It's generally only kids under 11 who look good, however you film them; everybody else needs a little looking after. I'm always sensitive to any actor's needs and I'm there to help them whatever the situation. I would always prefer actors to feel it is okay to come and talk to me about how they want to look… or not look!"
And as the bard said: "The better part of valor is discretion."
For more on Ben Smithard, visit www.bensmithard.com