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A Few Words About A few words about...™ Wolf Hall -- in Blu-ray (1 Viewer)

Robert Harris

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Based upon the premise that it was BBC / PBS, and based upon the historical novels by Hilary Mantel -- novels of which I was aware, but had not read.

So basically, I went in blind.

Two minutes into the first episode (of six), I knew I was seeing something special, and the story had not even begun.

I was viewing a night sequence, as photographed by British cinematographer Gavin Finney.  And I was viewing, as I usually begin with TV/Cable fare, on an LCD flat panel, the way that the rest of the world sees these broadcasts.

Those who know me, and my predilection for quality cinematography, will understand that I felt I was seeing some very special, as I turned off the episode almost immediately, and began again...

in projection.

What had immediately caught my attention were two things.  First, I had the feeling that I was viewing something very organic and natural.  Second, I was viewing a night exterior, that was fully enveloped in what appeared to be a wonderfully natural velvety darkness.  But a darkness into which one could see incredible shadow detail.

Two episodes in, after confirming that not only was I seeing something special as far as the cinematographic concept was concerned, but also an extremely natural feel from the actors -- led by Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.

I was watching the Tudor Court, some five centuries past, with actors playing the roles of Cromwell, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn -- but it did not appears, as historical films often do, to have the actors spouting important sounding dialogue, as if they knew, as they were speaking that every single word might change the fate of humanity.

These were people in their seemingly natural state, half a millennium ago.

I was so taken the Mr. Finney's work (and that of his crew), that I felt the need to contact him, via his representation, hoping that he might have a moment to respond -- as he is in great demand.

Asking basic questions, especially about the night shoot, I received the following initial response, which we followed up later with additional queries.  The initial comparison to the great John Alcott's work on Barry Lyndon, and candlelit interiors was enough to get my mind racing.

Thank you for your very kind words about my work on Wolf Hall, we all worked very hard on the project so it's lovely for it to be appreciated.

Not everything in the papers or on the web was reported accurately. Eg we didn't film all the day interiors with only natural light (some of them, yes), we made it look that way with artificial light. The night interiors were, indeed, largely lit just with candles and firelight, but not always.
 
To answer your main question, all the night exteriors were lit with traditional film lights. The Arri Alexa combined with Leica Summilux-C lenses performs brilliantly in low light, but even it would struggle in the middle of the countryside at midnight! Different locations required different equipment. At Berkely castle (standing in for Esher) we used two helium balloon lights, one on a crane and the other floating above the inner courtyard attached to guy ropes ( I think I have pic of this). At Montacute (standing in for Greenwich) we used 2 x 1/4 Wendy lights through heavy diffusion on a large crane to light the front elevation and grounds and 2.5kw zap lights on the ground to light the east wing.
The trick with exterior night lighting is to get the lights as far away and high up as possible, and then balance them with local practicals. In this case the actors were carrying lanterns with candles in them, so I still set the lighting level at 1600 ASA / T1.4 to get the most out of them. I also favour large soft sources with a white or silvery cyan hue. I've never yet seen a real nighttime lit with a big blue hard backlight (except in films).
 
We did a lot of testing to achieve the candle lit interiors, obviously following on from what Kubrick and Alcott achieved in Barry Lyndon, but with all the modern technology at our disposal. We tested pretty much every available digital camera and lens combination before settling on the Arri Alexa (at 1600 asa) and the fairly new Leica Summilux-C lenses which are still sharp and contrasty wide open at T1.4 and have a painterly bloom around candle flames (I didn't use any filtration or smoke in the night interiors). 
 
Lighting with candles is tricky as they are both an art department prop and a lighting source, so getting them in the best place to both look correct and to light the actors properly was a steep learning curve. We also used candles as fill light. My gaffer, Andy Long, had several metal trays made up with reflective sides and backs that carried 30 church candles each. These could be used on stands out of shot to fill in or improve modelling and contrast in actors faces. We also employed flags and nets that cut the light from candles during takes as I moved through a room. You may also notice that I very rarely lit all the candles on a candelabra, as we found this often made the walls they were near too bright, so I only lit the room facing candles.
 
Occasionally I employed film lights, for instance if we couldn't get a real candle near to an actor due to location restrictions, and also if the real fire in the fireplace was too noisy for quiet dialogue, but most of the scenes were lit just with the candle or firelight you see. This worked particularly well in a scene in ep 2 where Johane puts out the candles one by one, leaving Cromwell lit by one candle and the firelight. The scene where Cromwell's household is woken up by one of the king's men is also lit by the candles the actors are holding. The art dept were a great help; imagine keeping 200 candles lit, not dripping wax, and at the correct length for continuity! Lighting at such low levels also requires an extremely skilful focus puller, which we had in Christopher Reynolds.
 
Day interiors were mostly lit using 18kw daylight lamps on large cranes outside the windows, with natural bounce off the wooden floors (or unbleached muslin) inside as fill. We also used large soft sources such as Dedo Octadomes.
 
The other unusual approach was that we shot pretty much entirely hand held. I am very happy to answer any other questions you may have, and If they would be helpful to you, I have some behind the scenes shots and also frame grabs straight out of the Alexa.
 
Best wishes
Gavin Finney BSC
 
A few production images were also sent along, which I'll append here for your viewing pleasure:
 
First a night exterior:
 
WH - talk 18.jpg
 
And a few more examples of the day shoot:
 
WH - talk 13.jpg
 
IMG_2014.JPG
 
IMG_2018.JPG
 
You can visit Mr. Finney's site here, where you'll find that he's shot some other wonderful productions:
 
 
 
If you've followed along this far, you know what's coming.  This is not going to be a pan.
 
Wolf Hall is one of the most brilliant historical productions to come along in quite awhile.
 
The series (all six hours of it) is currently under $24 on Amazon.
 
I could rave on about its quality, but best that you see for yourself.
 
And if you're wondering what a production looks like shot with an Arri Alexa Plus and Leica optics, this is your chance to immerse yourself.
 
It goes without saying that Mr. Finney is due a huge thanks for making himself accessible.
 
Very Highly Recommended
 
RAH
 

Robert Harris

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With Mr. Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons on it's way to Blu-ray, and The Other Boleyn Girl (which also features Mr. Rylance) already available on Blu, one could have a very interesting Tudor Festival.


RAH
 

RMajidi

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Wow! Wow! Thank you!

Already ordered this and awaiting receipt following recommendations by fellow members on A Man For All Seasons thread. Expected the acting to be phenomenal, but cinematographic comparisons with Barry Lyndon? Seriously? Wow!

What a month ahead with the arrival of A Man For All Seasons from TT!
 

Billy Batson

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I looked forward to this, but found it very uninvolving, & because of that, a bit boring, but I'm in a tiny minority, the rest of the world loved it.
 

John Hodson

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Well, you're far from alone in that view; Wolf Hall does appear to have divided opinion.


Personally, I loved every delicious minute - the wonderful script, the brilliant performances (particularly the astonishing Mark Rylance), the beautiful score, and, yes, that £20,000 candle budget really was worth every penny...
 

Michel_Hafner

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Any idea why this is "only" stereo? Is the US disc 1080p24 or 1080i50? The UK seems to be 1080i50. Was this shot 25 fps?
 

theonemacduff

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Fantastic. A must-see, obviously, just from a lighting point of view. I love reading about how the light is achieved on any given production. I particularly enjoyed reading this --


"The trick with exterior night lighting is to get the lights as far away and high up as possible, and then balance them with local practicals. In this case the actors were carrying lanterns with candles in them, so I still set the lighting level at 1600 ASA / T1.4 to get the most out of them. I also favour large soft sources with a white or silvery cyan hue. I've never yet seen a real nighttime lit with a big blue hard backlight (except in films)."


Thanks RH, for fowarding the message.
 

bigshot

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BBC is doing some great things. I just finished watching The Missing and all eight episodes were tight as a drum. I'm not big on recent period stuff, but I'll check this out.
 

Billy Batson

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bigshot said:
BBC is doing some great things. I just finished watching The Missing and all eight episodes were tight as a drum. I'm not big on recent period stuff, but I'll check this out.

Yes, I thought The Missing was brilliant. The driving plot point, a young child gone missing/snatched is every parents nightmare, & I know that put a few people off it, but it had so many twists & turns (& going backwards & forward in time, you really had to concentrate), I thought is was the best thing on last year. There was another one, Happy Valley, a kidnap story that was really hardcore, but quite fantastic, I don't know if it will turn up in America. I usually prefer American TV, as films have got worse, TV has got better.
 

YanMan

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Mr. Harris,


Thank you for sharing your exchange with Mr. Finney here at HTF.


Even my wife, who knows nothing about the intricacies of cinematography nor is particularly interested in such things, noticed that something "special" was going on with what she was seeing.


Needless to say, this show has me and my wife completely engrossed. Highly Recommended indeed!
 

Rob Willey

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Thanks for your curiosity RAH. It led to some wonderful insights from Mr. Finney and thanks for sharing them here.


I have been enjoying this production immensely, especially the understated performance of Mark Rylance who does most of his acting by not reacting overtly to the power play constantly swirling around him. The real Thomas Cromwell had to navigate these power plays without provoking any of the players who might one day hold his fate in their hands. A tall task for any actor brilliantly portrayed by Mr. Rylance.
 

marsnkc

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Absolutely brilliant!


I've been rationing myself to one episode per day. One more to go to the dreaded ending.


One thing that nagged me all the way through was the familiarity Cromwell displayed towards his 'betters', especially in that age and that particular court. I didn't believe it for a second - no matter his position - so was delighted last night that he got his comeuppance from Henry and other aristos, not because I lacked sympathy, but because the writers had my fears covered. (Whatever the truth of it all - apparently a huge bone of contention among scholars - as drama the writing is superb).

Kudos not only to Mark Rylance (who I'm ashamed to say is new to me, despite his body of work) but also the marvelous Anton Lesser (from the delightful 'Inspector Morse' prequel, 'Endeavour").


RAH will consider me excommunicate and anathema for saying this but, though I bought both series in Blu-ray, I was unable to get past the first episode of The Tudors, and gave up on The Borgias three quarters of the way through. Never thought such a thing could happen with a project involving the great Neil Jordan, but I found the latter, despite the beauty of it, extremely repetitive.


So it was with great trepidation that I bought this set, prompted by Mr. Harris's enthusiasm for the unique approach taken by the cinematographer. I can't tell my f-stop from my elbow, but while I was impressed with the indoor work, I was somewhat shocked by some of the daytime scenes that looked completely blown out, as though they were filmed during a solar flare and in dire need of a polarizer (an example being an early scene when Cromwell is relating his exploits on the Continent to his sons and other youths, all with washed out faces). I don't remember the light in England, even at noon at the height of Summer, being so harsh, reminiscent more of Southern Spain or California. The result reminded me of those clichéd shots of souls transported to the bright lights of heaven. To be fair, I watched it on an inexpensive, 42 inch led panel in my bedroom (my main, calibrated job was commandeered), but I haven't experienced anything like this with any other movie on it.
 

DavidJ

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Based on your "few words" and particularly the information from Mr. Finney, I am very intrigued. Keeping focus at T1.4 with anything other than a very wide angle is extremely challenging. Christopher Reynolds had his work cut out for him. It'll be interesting to see.
 

RMajidi

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John Hodson said:
Well, you're far from alone in that view; Wolf Hall does appear to have divided opinion.


Personally, I loved every delicious minute - the wonderful script, the brilliant performances (particularly the astonishing Mark Rylance), the beautiful score, and, yes, that £20,000 candle budget really was worth every penny...

John, I just saw your post on the Spartacus restoration thread, which reminded me I hadn't thanked you for recommending Wolf Hall since my copy arrived. Excellent production and superb acting and some enticingly questionable takes and twists on supposed history.


Of course you recommended this on the A Man For All Seasons thread, but it seems more appropriate to respond here under its own thread.
 

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