In the trenches… literally
Director of Photography Stephen Murphy brings the full grisly spectacle of the First World War to David Roddham's short film , Coward…
David Roddham's Coward is a short film of rare scope. "There was no difference between this short and a feature," says cinematographer Stephen Murphy. "The scale of this project was incredible. We had over 100 crew for most days, we were rigging pyro and effects work to cover very wide shots across several acres of land, encompassing a large number of cast, and we were working in the most brutal working conditions I've ever encountered. Dave pushed us all to deliver as high a level of visual storytelling as you'd find in a large feature. The results speak for themselves."
Prior to going to cinematic war, Murphy and Roddham originally encountered each other when the writer/director was working in special effects and Murphy was a camera operator. Before long, Murphy was shooting Roddham's first short film Fifth Street – starting as they meant to go on, shooting on Super 35mm Fujifilm Eterna Vivid 160T 8543. Luckily that ambition paid off.
"Fifth Street has done well, winning several awards at festivals in the US," says Murphy. "We enjoyed working together, so he began to talk to me about Coward several years ago at the very beginning of script development."
The pair decided from the outset that they were tired of handheld, shakycam visuals spliced to within an inch of their fast-edited lives. From inception on, Coward was always intended to showcase a classic style of visual storytelling: "Carefully composed wide masters, telling our story with a minimal number of edits."
The pair's implicit trust and mutual respect gave Murphy a great deal of latitude, which was a boon for the DP given the resources at his disposal.
"Dave gives me a lot of freedom to take risks in my work," says Murphy. "Occasionally I went too far, but Dave has always been very supportive and constantly encourages me to be brave in my visual interpretation of his scripts – an artist can't ask for more then that."
And their shared passion extends to their preferred shooting format.
"35mm is still the best acquisition format, both for aesthetic, economic and workflow reasons," Murphy states. "For this project, I wanted to introduce Dave to the majesty of anamorphic photography. For me anamorphic 35mm IS cinema. Nothing comes close to it. It's the format I associate with childhood memories of cinema. To achieve this, we primarily shot on Fujifilm's Eterna 500T 8573 using a Panavision Millienium XL. And, thanks to Lee Mackey at Panavision, we were able to dig out some very old lenses that perfectly matched our visual approach. I was able to achieve a painterly softness in the color palette and, by shooting at a decent T-stop (usually between T4 and T5.6), I was able to control my contrast ratio sufficiently to retain a nice solid black."
But none of this technical surety could dilute the cold, hard truth of where they had chosen to film their Great War epic. If one is going to film trench warfare, one might as well film in, well, a trench…
"Shooting in the trench was extremely difficult for both cast and crew," nods Murphy. "But that physical difficulty translated to the film and really helped us get across just how horrible the conditions that these soldiers had to deal with were. Our main set was built about an hour north of London and consisted of a trench approximately 250ft long, cut 10ft deep into about 700ft of rotovated 'No Man's Land'. Luckily, I had it oriented so that we would always be shooting into the sun and it was oversized by about 20 per cent to accommodate our requirements. But shooting in January meant the weather conditions were brutally cold, and we were adding either movie rain or snow for a large element of the shoot – but it gave us fantastic footage.
"I had Steve Warner, our effects supervisor, set up large sources of both black and white smoke, scattered throughout the location, that I could use to help control contrast within areas of the frame," Murphy adds. "I cannot stress enough how large a contribution Steve and his crew brought to the project."
In fact, as we wrap up the interview, Murphy is convinced that the British crew are the reason the film turned out as amazingly well as it did. "The UK has always had a fantastic reputation for having a very talented crew base and I think Coward helps prove that," he says. "I don't think this project could have been made anywhere else in the world."
For further information on Stephen, visit www.stephen-murphy.com