Shoot Story: Suffragette

The movie Suffragette allowed DoP Edu Grau to use a camera he’d almost forgotten about, the camera gave him the freedom to change his style of shooting which in turn totally changed the style of the film

Around 13 years ago the market for 16mm film and television production in the UK effectively ended when the BBC withdrew their permission to use the format on television mainly because the inherent grain caused havoc with their transmission chain. 

That reason was never that persuasive and most people saw it as a way for the BBC to introduce cheaper HD production and in doing so consigned 30 years of experience and archives, let alone cameras to the bin.

With new transmission systems, better scanning technology and arguably better shooting ratios maybe 16mm needs a re-visit.

That’s what cinematographer Edu Grau thought when he decided to use 16mm for day shoots for his new film Suffragette (Arri’s Alexa was used for the night shots). The use of film for daylight and digital for night shoot isn’t new, look at films like ’71 and Deep Water. Also recent TV dramas like The Outcast which used hand-cranked film as a ‘mood changer’ to reflect a character’s angst. Crew costs, abilities and camera packages are there to be negotiated.

Suffragette - Set The Scene

Suffragette tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State. These women were not primarily from the genteel educated classes, they were working women who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing. Radicalise and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality - their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives. Maud was one such foot soldier. 

Speak to Edu about his experience on Suffragette and he quickly exudes excitement about what a revelation it was and how liberating to the extent that it changed the style of the film.

“I was very aware I had a period piece with women in the daytime. This kind of combination isn’t flattering usually for a film. It was a little bit too complicated to shoot on 35mm so we found our way forward by shooting on 16mm which after testing we discovered was amazing for the period. What we also discovered was how easy and practical it was to shoot on. It basically ended up changing the rules and the language for shooting. It was a kind of a textural decision first and it became like a style. 

“You had a lot more freedom and a lot more energy and more attitude. Having done some research I discovered something pretty amazing that the average of great films shot in 16mm against the number of 16mm films in total was very high.”

But shooting this way comes with some limitations and issues, one being shooting at night. Edu “It was too grainy, we needed too much light so we looked at different options including shooting on 35mm but the best thing because of the candlelight we were shooting in (as well as some early electricity) was to use Alexa which lets you shoot scenes only with that and that was something quite special in a way. That’s what our thought process was and how we ended up with that combination.

“’71 was the first movie I saw that used film and digital together. It’s not perfect but it’s a combination between the two formats where you kind of make the 16mm the best you can and makeAlexa not the best it can be. We used the sharpest lenses on the 16mm and softer lenses on the Alexa, we tried to reduce grain on the 16mm and added grain on Alexa. You find that point and it works.  “We also underexposed quite a lot with the Alexa so the blacks start being more noticeable, it’s a little bit more grainy and there is more texture coming out. It has a lack of sharpness and lack of definition that also helps our goal. It was a combination of things and obviously digital grading afterwards helped. 

“I like things to be quite dark especially for this story,  they doing things in the darkness in total secrecy. I thinkshooting 16mm would be something the Suffragettes would do nowadays!!”

Edu explains the liberation that a smaller, lighter Arri 416 camera gave him as ‘Attitude’. Enough to turn Suffragette in to something akin to the Bourne movies. “The attitude that I found using 16mm was a combination of things that I wasn’t even aware of at the beginning. When we started shooting we discovered how light and small these cameras are and how little they need to work. They have a small battery, they have a small Mag, we were working with wireless video assist so we had no cables coming out of the camera. The cameras are super-light, you could shoot forever with the camera.  We were also shooting with more zooms which I don’t think look very good with digital. (The main lenses used were the Angenieux zooms, the three short new ones 15-40, 28-76 and 45-150.)

“On 16mm because they are so sharp, they look very good. So it was a small camera with a small zoom that we could hand hold forever. You don’t need a lot of things to shoot with it and I told the camera operators on the second unit and they didn’t believe me until they tried it for themselves. They had forgotten how easy it was to shoot on film and it affected your attitude to film making. 

“If you have a dolly and a big camera, a lot of cables and a lot of people it just kind of gets in the way. With 16mm you can just change position and change the shot, zoom out and do something different so we ended upwith a shooting style that was a lot more organic and using the zooms makes them one of the assets of the story telling of the movie. We ended up shooting a bit more like the ‘Bourne’ movies! A lot more energetic. 

“By attitude I also mean that shooting on 16mm means you are not going for the conventional which was like ten years ago shooting on 35mm. You going in a certain direction that ultimately creates a different kind of movie so I have to be in no doubt that if I had shot the movie with Alexa for example that it would be a totally different movie and the style of the movie would be different and the energy of the movie would be different. Shooting on 16mm gave us that thought that anything is possible – you can zoom in here and do crazy stuff with the camera. It was liberating in lots of ways and that created the movie!

“Don’t get me wrong when we first thought about shooting on 16mm I felt like it would be a bit ‘dodgy’  and low resolution. You start remembering film school and the feeling like it doesn’t have the resolution to go on the big screen. Then you start testing and thinking that there something unique about this, it has a look that is very special and very different from anything else. In a way it’s fascinating because movies at the moment have a very similar look, because they have the same texture. There are no movies shot on 16mm anymore so you are already creating something different. All that fear in the beginning becomes like joy when you start seeing the rushes. 

For the film workflow we used CineLab in London and we got the look we wanted, it was kind of easy in a way.

“The camera was an Arri 416 which some people call the greatest camera ever invented but it was invented in the wrong time because it came out at the time that digital was just starting and getting stronger. It kind of disappeared.  I’ve only used it once before. The ergonomics of it, the weight of it, the way it fits in your shoulder, it’s just really nice. There are not many stocks to choose from, only Kodak really. At testing we realised that the 500 ASA was too grainy but the 250 was fine when we pulled the processing about a stop and a half on the stock. So the neg gets softer, the blacks gets softer, the grain also gets softer. It’s just a beautiful technique and perfect for our movie as well as it created those soft tones and softer colour as well.”

Paul Dean, Senior Colourist at Cinelab explains the expanded role the company achieved for Suffragette: ‘The pull/push’ process is becoming increasingly popular as an artistic tool to help create specific ‘looks’.

“In the case of Suffragette Edu used the ‘Pull’ process to under-develop the film to facilitate strong solid blacks and shadows, clean whites and slightly muted colours.

“The use of Kodak 250D stock proved an inspired choice as the stock’s grain structure provided a lovely filmic texture without ever becoming intrusive.

“Edu conducted extensive pre-shoot testing where the various ‘looks’ and colour palette for the film were finalised.

“We then created dailies as close to the final DI grade as possible. This was achieved by a continuous communication feedback loop between Edu and myself.

“Edu would call or Email me a description of the scenes that had been shot during the day, along with their required grading looks.

“This would then be applied to the footage as I graded the dailies, I would then ping Edu stills of each scene so he could see the dailies grade progress in real time whilst on location without waiting to download large video files.

“At Cinelab London we consider it essential to create dailies exactly as the Cinematographer envisioned and as close as possible to the DI grade as we firmly believe it is imperative that the whole of production can see the film come to life truly representing the final product.”

The Digital Intermediate

Rob Pizzey was the main colourist for the film: “The film is shot in a hand held style that gives it a scuzzy reality. We wanted to create a grade that would emphasise this. We used soft contrast in scenes with slightly lifted blacks. The factory where Maud worked had to look grim so we used a cooler colour palette. During the famous Derby scene where one of the Suffragettes runs in front of the King’s horse to demonstrate and gets brutally killed, I subtly changed the grade to flow with the narrative arc of the scene. From a sunny day to a sombre moment when the reality hits that a life has been lost in the struggle for women’s rights.

“The night scenes in the film are more edgy, helping sell the gritty atmosphere that director and cinematographer were creating.

“Auto-tracking on Resolve saved so much time on this film as the camera was always moving around. This enabled me to shape the frame as needed and not worry about switching off layers etc.. I carried out some basic cosmetic VFX fixes in the DI theatre while I was grading using Resolve.

“It was decided to shoot on Super 16mm film for all of the day exterior/interior and Arri Alexia raw for the night exterior/interior. Shooting S16mm really helped me with the gritty period feel. The way that Edu exposed the Alexa was genius. It was very dark but when graded it matched into the S16mm perfectly.

“We knew that grain management would be needed for this project. We chose a commercial Resolve plug-in to remove the grain but decided to write our own plug-in to add grain. We carried out some testing with Edu at a very early stage and we designed a pipeline where we could adjust the level of grain in real-time based on Edu and Sarah Gavron’s (The Director) feedback. We ended up removing grain from some of the S16mm shots and added grain on a few Alexa shots to help balance the scenes.

Posted on October 21, 2015 and filed under case study, cinematography, colour correction, DI, film, Grading.