Peak Drama

DOP Si Bell joins the Shelby family and their empire of crime for Series 5 of Peaky Blinders 

Words Phil Rhodes / Pictures BBC pictures

peaky-blinders-1.jpg

Series 5 of Peaky Blinders opens with a man on horseback riding across open country under a sky of roiling cloud, a backdrop so striking that it’s easy to believe the shot is a composite. In fact, it’s the work of DOP Si Bell and his crew as they leveraged some of the miserable weather that occurred in September last year, right at the beginning of a six-episode production marathon that would take in all of northern England.

It’s a familiar part of the world for Bell, whose career began at Northumbria University with an interest in directing, though he quickly refocused to camera. “We got to shoot on film,” he recalls. “They had 16mm cameras. I wanted to learn more about the camera side, and worked as a clapper loader on film shoots with some pretty good cinematographers.”

Series DOP Si Bell kicks back on-set

Series DOP Si Bell kicks back on-set

After graduating in 2007, Bell entered the industry as a camera trainee, working under Sam McCurdy, BSC, Lol Crawley, BSC, and Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC. All the time, though, Bell was shooting his own material. “I was a loader and assistant for three years, but I was shooting on the side. I tried to shoot as much as I could in the early days. When I was on bigger dramas, I was trying to do short films on the weekend with kit loaned from Jamie at Picture Canning.”

Bell moved on to shoot “a lot of short films, low-budget features and a couple of commercials”. He recalls: “I did a film called Electricity that was at the BFI, which was well-received. That helped me get into the TV side of things.” 

peakyblinder2.jpg

Bell first encountered Peaky Blinders director, Anthony Byrne, on Ripper Street, which was “one of my first TV dramas”. Bell adds: “That was a big break. It was a big budget compared to what I was doing then.” 

For Bell, Peaky Blinders was a long-held ambition: “I was a big fan of the show, so I’d always wanted to do it. From a cinematography point of view, it’s very highly regarded.” 

Byrne, Bell says, had “always spoken” about wanting to do Peaky Blinders. “I’d always had chats that he was chasing it and he wanted to do it… When he was going into it, I knew I was quite likely to get it.” Those initial conversations happened in the middle of 2018 and, when pre-production began, Bell took full advantage of a generous ten-week prep period. “It’s such a big thing to plan,” he says, mentioning particularly the delay between the recce and shoot. “There were so many locations that we recce’d in September and shot in January where we needed multiple machines, rigging and scaffolding to achieve what we wanted.”

peakyblindera4.jpg

Getting all this right was a matter of meticulous planning. Bell reports: “We had 91 lighting plans and 91 different lighting set-ups. We did them on Shot Designer, so everything was organised: which machines, what lighting we had rigged. We used the art department plans, put our information into them and printed out a 91- page document with every single plan for the rigging crew so everything was completely clear – what needed to be done, which blackout tents, what rigging was needed. 

“It was a pretty detailed schedule in that sense; definitely the biggest lighting job I’d ever done.”

NETFLIX INVOLVEMENT

Bell was under no pressure to use the same equipment as previous seasons – quite the opposite, in fact. “Netflix was more involved in this season. It wanted to shoot 4K and it didn’t want the Alexa, so we picked a new camera. We ended up on the Red Monstro, because we needed a 4K camera.” Creatively, too, Bell was given free reign. “It wasn’t like doing a normal ongoing series, the execs were very much ‘we want you to take control of it’. We wanted it to look like Peaky, but it was very much ‘bring your sort of take’ to it.”

This fifth series of Peaky Blinders was shot over a gruelling 77 days between September 2018 and January this year. The Monstro used on the shoot was fitted with a customised EVF dioptre developed by Picture Canning in collaboration with Red, and production support was provided on-site by a level 3 Red technician and off-site by Picture Canning’s Red-certified warehouse team.

peakyblinders5.jpg

The original intention was to shoot on the Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses, which was already a departure from the norm. “Being a series that was already successful, there’s a lot of pressure to do Peaky as Peaky,” Bell explains. “It took a while for me to be convinced to go down the anamorphic route, because I hadn’t shot that way before and I didn’t feel like we should be changing anything.” But, after testing various anamorphic options with the Picture Canning team, Bell was convinced: “It’s a subtle change, but one that reflects the different time period and story while staying true to the overall look and feel of Peaky.”

Although the team also tested different camera systems at the outset, the selection of the Alexa Mini was almost inevitable, as the camera has become the de facto choice for shooting drama. But Netflix’s decision that the series needed to be delivered in true 4K meant the team needed to return to testing to choose between the Red Monstro 8K VV, Helium 8K S35 or Gemini 5K S35 and the Sony 6K Venice.

Bell’s long-standing relationship with Picture Canning’s managing director, Jamie Hutchinson, proved invaluable for securing the new kit. Years ago, when Bell was learning the trade and working as a camera trainee and clapper loader in the north-east, he built his showreel using discounted or borrowed kit from Hutchinson at Picture Canning’s Newcastle branch, and they have both continued to support each other since.

peakyblinders6.jpg

The camera testing concentrated mainly on the low-light scenarios that came from the script, down to a cigarette lighter at times. Natasha Larkin, Picture Canning’s bookings manager, explains the extent of the tests: “When we started testing, they weren’t sure they had to shoot in 4K. We tested a few set-ups; we had the Sony Venice there, the Alexa Mini, the Alexa LF and a Red Helium, which is the Super 35 8K, rather than the full-frame version. We also tested the Leica Summilux spherical lenses and were looking at the anamorphics, the Cooke S6s and XTals, which are unique-looking lenses and bring a lot of character.” She adds: “There was some talk to mixing spherical and anamorphic for different scenes, but then they settled on the anamorphic look.”

peaky-blinders7.jpg

LENS CHOICE

Bell and Byrne discussed a popular, but potentially tricky lens option. Bell explains: “Anthony wanted to shoot anamorphic and that was one thing we did, but I was thinking, ‘You know what, it’s such a tight schedule’. I was worried about using these anamorphic lenses with the close focus issues. I’d never shot a TV drama on anamorphic, but it worked out really nicely and had a nice look to it.” 

peakyblinder7.jpg

Bell chose Cooke’s anamorphics, particularly the 65mm macro, “which we did a lot of development shots on. It got us out of any problems with the close focus”.

There were flame and fire tests done for flaring and the team decided on the Cooke S6s, partly because it was a bigger set. 

Larkin explains how the final choice of camera was made from the usual drama suspects, including new full-frame models: “The size of the body of the Alexa LF was inhibitive in the end, mainly as there was so much Steadicam. The Sony Venice was nice, but at the time the firmware was still quite limiting in terms of frame rates and other settings. They liked the Mini over the Red Helium, but once Si saw the Monstro, he was sold on it.”

Production on Peaky Blinders Series 5

Production on Peaky Blinders Series 5

Paul Staples, senior colourist, Encore Post Production

Anyone whose career started in photochemical film still enjoys a measure of respect based on that. Colourist Paul Staples started working at the Todd-AO film laboratory in 1998 when the it was still based in Camden Town, grading dailies on the night shift before graduating to a more senior position. 

In 2008, he moved to St Anne’s Post, which would become Encore, and specialised in long-form high-end drama. Staples met Anthony Byrne and Si Bell working on the historical drama Ripper Street, a partnership that he remembers “was referenced in my initial meeting with Anthony” for this project.

“I worked on a lot of drama projects,” Staples continues, “and generally kept busy, but it was Broadchurch that really changed things for me. Originally I was given an open brief by director James Strong to ‘show him something different’ – which I think I did.” 

Staples had previously won a Royal Television Society award for his work on White Heat, shot by Broadchurch DOP Matt Gray, BSC, and finished Hanna in HDR10 for Amazon Prime.

“I’ve been a fan of Peaky Blinders and always thought it was a stylish show,” Staples says. “Anthony and Si were very clear, though, that Series 5 is set in a later period. They were very keen for the grade to reflect that in terms of look while still retaining its trademark cool style.” 

Staples worked in Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve, producing a Dolby Vision master using the Sony BVM-X300 OLED display, and describes the experience in glowing terms. “Grading was unlike any other project I’ve been involved with,” he says. “Every time I applied my base grade, I’d get goosebumps. The images are so beautifully iconic. It’s unlike anything else.”


MORE GRIP FLEXIBILITY

With an eye on grip, director Byrne was, Bell says, a big fan of the flexibility provided by Arri’s Trinity stabiliser. “We had a Steadicam, but we also had the Trinity, so you can boom the camera low and then jib up to head height. We had that for some development shots. The shot in the Garrison where we reveal the pub and the little lad comes in; that big development shot was done on a dolly with the Trinity. That was a really difficult shot to light as well, but you can get the camera in places you never would be able to achieve with Steadicam or dolly alone. Anthony loves that,” says Bell.

The schedule involved around ten weeks on location, with the balance on set. Despite the long run that Peaky Blinders has enjoyed, very few standing sets exist: “They had one set that was reused, which was the 

Shelby headquarters. Everything else we had to build again. The Garrison hadn’t been in the series for a couple of years, and that was a whole new build. We had the Houses of Parliament, a small set we used for the betting shop, the Shelby HQ and another set we flipped for different purposes – we used it for the Friends’ Meeting House set and another set that I can’t talk about.”

Interior lighting set-ups were driven by the reality that period interior light is motivated by the exterior. “It was a lot of big lights outside windows, 18Ks and 20Ks. Everything was beams – Molebeams, whatever it was depending on the location.”

Outside, similarly upscale arrangements were normal: “Nearly every day we’d have Manitous with 20-by-20-feet blacks on to flag the sun. It was all about controlling the light and making sure it would be ready to go when we turned up. Shoot quickly and get the look we wanted.”

peakyblinders9.jpg

For night exteriors, Bell used a technique he and gaffer Ollie Whickman had developed on the Roman historical epic, Britannia. “Instead of using big lights for night stuff, which was the standard, we started using the Litegear LiteTiles and building them into big 16-by-8-foot rectangles. We put them on the machine and used them like the moonlight, a softer controllable source. We never had them at 5600K, we put a bit of the tungsten into it, so it was normally about 4800K. Depending which practicals we used, we might adjust that depending on how much orange light we had.” This sort of control was common to almost everything Bell used: “We’d have everything on the iPads. In the sets, the practicals would be dimmable, too.”

JAMIE HUTCHINSON AND PICTURE CANNING’S next CHAPTER


peakyblinders11.jpg

The Picture Canning Company started out in the last century. This was a few years before high definition and its main business was renting out mostly ENG camera kits. Current managing director, Jamie Hutchinson, joined in 1998, spending his time in tape duplication suites until he worked his way in to the kit room. 

It’s this kit room background that has provided Hutchinson with such a thorough knowledge of what crews require. 

“I accelerated quickly from camera kit technician through the kit room,” he says. “Then the DV market came in and I headed up the digital side of things.”

He progressed to running the drama department and, in 2004, Hutchinson moved to Picture Canning North, providing much-needed facilities in the north-east. 

“I was given a VW Transporter van, a digibeta camera and DVcam with support kit and went off to work in the area,” says Hutchinson.

Hutchinson’s determination has helped keep the industry going in the north-east, supporting crew by providing work experience, training and kit support.

In the past 15 years, he’s expanded from his parents house to a warehouse in Newcastle, while a move to supplying to high-end drama productions facilitated an expansion to London and Manchester. Yet Hutchinson’s ethos of providing round-the-clock support for clients, big or small, remains a key driver. 

The next chapter is an exciting one with a new venture on the horizon and some big changes that mean Picture Canning will be able to offer even more top quality service and support. 

EDIT AND BEYOND

The edit used offline files created by digital imaging technician, James Shovlar, who applied a close approximation of Bell’s intended grade on a scene-by-scene basis and made the resulting LUTs available for use through post. The final colour pass took place at Encore Post Production under the supervision of senior colourist Paul Staples, with whom both Byrne and Bell had worked on Ripper Street. Bell supervised the first three episodes in full. “We had quite a strong idea of where it was going to go,” he says. “We used the offline as a guide. Paul didn’t just match it, but used it as a reference. Once we’d set up the first couple of episodes, I was quite confident. Anthony was there and he supervised the last three episodes.”

SI Bell and team on very wet location duties

SI Bell and team on very wet location duties

Series 5 of Peaky Blinders is, in some ways, a family affair. “I brought all of my crew onto this series,” Bell says. “No one had done Peaky before. I’ve worked with the grip, Paul Kemp, since I started doing short films and we’ve done almost every job since. He’s a master on the crane and camera movement – he’s not one of these guys who needs instruction for everything. Andrew Fletcher operated the Trinity and Steadicam and most of the A camera. He did a brilliant shot in one of the later episodes where we played this one five-page scene in one shot; it was outstanding. Ollie Whickman is a great collaborator – Peaky was his first gaffer job on this kind of scale and he did a great job.” Finally, Bell is keen to credit focus puller Tom Finch for his skill at keeping the difficult lenses in check.

Bell has since worked on Britannia and a production he describes as “a dark take on A Christmas Carol with Guy Pearce”. Dickens and Pearce? What more could you want for Christmas?


Peaky Blinders is available to stream now on BBC iplayer


Posted on October 7, 2019 and filed under 4k, action, interview.