Picking Up Speed
Renowned cinematographer Chris Doyle, HKSC, takes on a challenge of shorter scale with The Boy And The Bus…
Few people in this world are as travelled as Australian-born, Asia-based director of photography Chris Doyle. He's lived and worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Israel and Thailand. He speaks fluent Cantonese, Mandarin and French. He's shot films for big name directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Chen Kaige, Gus Van Sant, Barry Levinson, Jon Favreau, Zhang Yimou, Phillip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan and Jim Jarmusch. He's directed his own film, Away With Words, in Cantonese, English and Japanese. And now he's filmed a 30-minute drama for BBC World called The Boy And The Bus, a low-budget project that appealed to him because he and producer Simon Pitts have an unusual history.
"A couple of years ago, Simon did a very perceptive analysis of what does and doesn't work in some of the films I've made," Doyle explains. So when Pitts came to him with what the cinematographer describes as a piece of "Olympic porn", he decided to "jump into the orgy head first" – which presented him with some immediate practical challenges.
"The story – and 60 per cent of the images – focus on a 10-year-old boy running through hilly, uncultivated farmland, so we had to convey movement and follow the emotions on his face," Doyle says. "So, how do we introduce the subtleties of cinema language with no steadicam, no tracks, no grip department at all and the near impossibility of even using my favourite hand-held camera? These were my initial logistical concerns on this film. But you find a supermarket trolley, or a stretch of road and a long lens, or you 'cheat' close-ups and, yes, handhold and fall in the mud from time to time. The energy is more implied than executed and the dynamism of the angles implies a superfluity of possibilities."
Even under such stripped-down, rough-and-ready production circumstances, Doyle chose to shoot The Boy And The Bus on his preferred stock, Fujifilm Eterna 400T.
"It's my favourite because I push and pull it and basically disrespect all that Fujifilm's chemists have to tried to teach us about stocks," Doyle chuckles.
Shooting on an Arriflex 16mm, predominantly with zoom lenses ("My technical knowledge only goes as far as finding the 'on' button – and I just as often bump the other one on the back!"), Doyle felt that the Northeast English landscape – and its variable weather conditions – lent itself to the Eterna stocks. And the limited equipment available to his crew actually played to the stock's aesthetic strengths. "Climate and space inform much of what I do – they inform the style, choices and rhythm, and even the equipment and materials," he says. "The greens of this rural landscape needed latitude and nuance. We had no generator. The only lamps we could use had to fit in one van and be juiced off the power of the local house."
Wouldn't it have been easier to shoot on digital in such conditions? "You use a pot, not a microwave, to make good rice," Doyle replies. "People still use oil paints. When I have used digital, I've been using uncoated lenses to introduce the unexpected, to destroy the image a bit. Film, though, is a privilege, a choice and has a unique resonance, look and an 'operatic' voice. Our only challenge is to fight for that voice. Fuji's challenge is to be our accompanist, in spite of the challenge of economies of scale."
"My films are all different," he continues. "They're made with different people in different places under different conditions – but, ultimately, for the same ideal end. In much of what I do, the money seems as 'independent' as the style and structures of the actual films. And the workday is as eclectic as the scripts. It's the people who hold it together, who fuse something into a form that's usually unknown to ourselves up to that point."
Finally, when asked if he enjoys this mode of short-form filmmaking, Doyle pauses for a moment. Yes, he likes making short films, but most shorter projects tend to be commercials, which he believes he's less "suited" to.
"I'm often offered commercials, but letting me loose in a corporate meeting is like giving me the floor in an AA purge or to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," he laughs. "I sweat more over a commercial than I do a film, because there are too many fingers in my pie. But, aside from that, I feel anyone of good intent takes every project to their heart. A film of any length is free range, organic, fresh, not pre-tested and tried."