From shooting Stickmen in New Zealand in 2000, winning the AFI Award for Best Cinematography for Home Song Stories in 2007, and lensing the second season of HBO’s True Detective in 2015, Nigel Bluck talks to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
AC: Do you feel growing up in New Zealand gives you a particular eye?
NB: There is a clarity and brightness in New Zealand. There is an awareness of that. I don’t know if that’s because I am a photographer or because I’m a kiwi. The objective eyes sees every place in a new way. It is why there are about about three American cinematographers working in Hollywood. Directors and producers often want an objective eye to come in. A foreign eye, rather than a kiwi eye, is what is significant.
AC: Your first feature film Stickmen (2001) was a pretty bold debut…
NB: Yes, it was also Hamish Rothwell’s first feature film. Rothwell and I were shooting a lot of television commercials together, we were doing everything together. It was a very collaborative experience. We did a bold thing, for the time, in bleach bypassing the film during the ‘interneg’ stage.
The New Zealand Film Commission insisted I have a type of ‘chaperone’ because I was so young at the time, so Alun Bollinger MNZM (Cinematographer, Heavenly Creatures) became our A-cam Operator. It was so great, Bollinger talking me through it, and then also having such freedom. It was a privilege to work so closely with him on my first feature, he is a great collaborator and teacher.
AC: What would you say your learned from Bollinger?
NB: To be a really good cameraman you also have to be a great operator. Good hand-held operating is really an art from. It is such an important chord to know how to play well. Even if it is just one shot. Knowing when to use it is the most important thing, it is the most human and poignant point of view.
AC: Was the bleach bypass you used on Stickmen a major priority for you, or more a result of the conditions of the production?
NB: We did not have a lot of lights, money or time. We shot it fairly naturalistic, then found a way to apply something to elevate the whole thing in a way to create its own visual world. So we applied bleach bypass across the board and worked with extreme contrast. Sometimes it would help us give pretty bland locations a real bite.
I haven’t done it since. It was such an enjoyable process. I miss those days. We committed to a look, and then went ahead with it. Now, the look can change at almost every point. In pre-production, thinking about the image, has changed a lot in the last decade.
AC: Remembering New Zealand’s films from that period, which had a more naturalistic look than Stickmen, it is interesting to see how you moved away from that prevailing aesthetic…
NB: It was less a matter of trying to go against that naturalism, it was more about us asking “what do we need to do to create the right look for this film?” Rothwell is a very smart at working within the populist vein, so that is very much what he wanted to make.
AC: You have got a very distinct visual language throughout Stickmen. Were all of the shots designed, going in?
NB: It was all about keeping the game of billiards visually interesting. I think it worked. People accused us of ripping off Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), but that wasn’t really a part of our conversation in terms of influences, it was just the style at the time.
AC: You made some very unique choices on Stickmen, such as shooting a sex scene through bottles of water. Were you using enlarged props for the billiard balls?
NB: Oh sure, bowling ball-sized billiard balls! It was quite naïve in a way. We wanted to make things exciting. It was very challenging. I was more tired on that film than any other production which was such a mark of how hard we were pushing what we knew.
AC: Did you have to significantly adjust your lighting to that change in scale?
NB: Yes, we did. But we wanted it all to be, very much, in camera. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) was being shot in the background in town, and that was ‘in camera’. It was very much the way of New Zealand filmmaking at the time.
AC: Would you agree that you have a reputation for having a strong personality and strong opinions?
NB: That is partly true. It is a reputation that came I think from being very young and very passionate about the work. I have very much changed my approach as a result. It comes from having a series of very close relationships with directors where we could work that way, to moving outside of those relationships. It’s not quite as comfortable for some people.
A cinematographer should be a collaborator, and should be there to more than just photograph the film. They are there to get inside the director’s head and help them bring a vision to life with images. They are there to help and guide the director on what the best way forward is visually. I really believe that. I have softened over the years, every project has a new set of personalities therefore the approach needs to change in sync with that every time. You need to figure out that early, and figure out how to go forward in the right way for the greater sake of the film at hand.
A cinematographer should be a collaborator…
AC: How do you determine that?
NB: Meet the the personalities involved. Get to know them before you take a stance. I have learned to tread more carefully. When you see films that are considered are great visual cinema, I know it starts from a passion for the image. Some directors have a pure vision, and that should not be messed with. Other people will need guidance. It is about negotiating those egos. People come to making great films from all sorts of backgrounds, look at directors like Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals). I expect it to be different every time.
AC: Watching Son of Gun (2014), would you say that you have a signature approach to lighting rooms?
NB: My mantra is to build the lighting around the architecture of the room. I also always want to pre-empt the block, to a point. And to keep out of the way of the actors. Let them completely commit to their performances. I want to be able to pan wherever I need to, to be able to control the windows as much as is possible, to basically be able to adapt quickly as the blocking unfolds. That’s definitely my goal.
AC: You’re okay to have a signature?
NB: I don’t want to be known for one thing, but I do want to be known for good work.
AC: Framing during the sex scenes in Home Song Stories (2007) gave the scenes a quite voyeuristic feel. Was that in line with the story being from the young boy’s perspective?
NB: Tony Ayres (Director) spoke very clearly from the beginning of making this film from the boy’s point of view. I took this on very seriously but was always trying to find ways of implying this point of view non-literally, for example, not just putting the camera where the boy is in the scene but thinking about how he would see the scene in his head. Even if he is not physically present in the scene. In relation to the sex scene in the car I think you are referring to we kept the lenses long and stayed outside the car and ended up in a high angle ‘god’s eye’ straight down shot. I was playing with the idea of what the boy might see if he was there and what the boy might see if he imagined the scene so mixing observational points of view with an impossible, mind’s eye point of view with the end high angle shot.
AC: Again, you seem to have lit rooms to give maximum freedom to the actors. What would you say is the best way to achieve this without sliding into ‘television lighting’?
NB: I feel like using the real or practical lighting footprint of the location is a really good way to stay away from the dictates of television or three point lighting in that the practicals or the windows in real life are rarely set up in a three-point relationship to the subject in the room. The best way to render an unrealistic or ‘lit‘ feeling image is to imply three-point lighting to a situation where… it doesn’t exist!
AC: How often did Ayres relate to you a personal memory or sensation and ask you to approximate it in your photography?
NB: I cannot recall him saying it looked like this or that in his memory of the events but I do recall him talking about how it felt. That was my springboard or roadmap to the lighting direction.
I have though encountered exactly this on films where the director remembers the quality, the colour, the direction of the light in a scene that is a recreation of real events they partook in. That is always a challenge, but greatly satisfying when you can get it to a place they are happy with. There is that and then there is the affectation of memory and how their recollection of the event differs from what was actually there, which is just human, the trick is when they recall something from memory and you try and recreate it but it is physically impossible.
AC: Certain shots have an edge of glamour, set against the more parochial suburban setting. How did you come up with the ideal balance?
I was heavily into the Wong Car Wai / Chris Doyle collaboration at the time – they are masters at this – so there was a lot of that channelling going on. Part of it was that the beauty of anamorphic lenses and how they lend themselves so well to creating a filmic or cinematic image where a spherical lens shooting the same frame would not. There is a sort of magic ‘layer‘ there in the anamorphic world that layer is perhaps the edge of glamour your referring to. I was also lighting Joan Chen ‘up’ a lot, in a very traditional beauty way. Often trying to find ways of designing a ‘special’, a beauty light for Chen, into the lighting plan.
AC: Would you describe the second season of True Detective (2015) as having almost a romantic look, at times?
NB: The initial conversation was about how to do something distinct from the first season (lensed by fellow Australian Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw ACS) but always specifically correct to season two. We were influenced by noir films of the 1970s and the early 1980s. It had to have a silent cinematic quality. We wanted it observed, very formal, a version of cinematic naturalism. I wanted to keep the image ‘square’ when possible, to not tilt the camera up or down, creating prosceniums as the likes of Kurosawa did, and that was hard to maintain.
You have all of these different directors coming in every episode and they all have a lot of things to bring to the table as they should. They would say, “let’s put the camera on the ground” and I find myself explaining “well we can’t really put the camera down there because we have a visual manifesto to uphold.” That was really interesting, the whole thing of learning about the role of the cinematographer in television. It was very tricky at times as there is a conflict of interest before we even start.
I would set up the look of the show with the show creator, the designer, the first director (Justin Lin) and the producer of the series, then try to maintain it as the directors came and went from episode to episode. It is tough for directors in television, especially those who pick up from where a pilot started. You need to make them feel a part of the overall constructs of the style, yet also stick to a mantra of “this is the construct we are going with because we’ve got to stick to that to keep the language of the entire series consistent and seamless”.
I feel this is a very important distinction between television and cinema, one that we need to find a way of keeping closer. The seamless, silent hand of the storyteller in cinema is largely possible because it comes from one voice. When there are several voices taking turns, as it were, that seamlessness and silence is much harder to maintain.
AC: While filming the first season of True Detective, creator/producer Nic Pizzolatto had a quite tense relationship with the series director, Cary Joji Fukunaga. Did that influence the production’s approach of the second season?
NB: I am sure that was an influence on how things were done, and in Pizzolatto’s defence I believe he was just trying to create a better ‘creative space’ on the second season.
AC: Was Pizzolatto leaning more heavily on you, from episode to episode?
NB: Yes, it’s true. I was spending as much time doing what I do, as figuring out how to do what I do, how to navigate all of the personalities. It’s tough for the directors. The actors would walk past the directors and head directly to Pizzolatto for instruction on their performance. I felt for them. But the good ones figured out how to adapt to that. For the experienced filmmakers it was good, for the less experienced ones it was tough.
AC: What was your approach to saturation on the series?
NB: I tried to let the saturation go where the location we shot in were taking it. It if was a lush green forest, let it be a lush green forest. Why desaturate that? If it is a colourful bar interior, full of Hispanic spot colours, then that is what it is. It should be celebrated. I really enjoy photography which is true to the location. Putting a palette or look over everything begs the question why even go to a location? If you go to a location you need to be true to that location, and represent that photographically. Don’t over saturate it, don’t under saturate it. Work in the ballpark of what that location is and find the way to highlight or single out the parts of the location that speak to the story.
AC: Your framing is very oppressive on True Detective…
NB: True Detective was shot anamorphic. It was an interesting choice for television I think, because we were never going to use the framing of anamorphic. There is nothing for me which compares to anamorphic in terms of the options it gives you for storytelling. To be able to work between extreme deep and shallow focus, to use the whole sensor or negative, to use the whole field of view of the lens and therefore all its aberrations… it just offers you so many options!
Anamorphic framing, however, is very ‘vertically challenged’. That really worked for us, because it became all about claustrophobia. About twenty-million people being jammed into this space, Los Angeles is very low-rise, but also incredibly dense. That was a good starting place. Being able to create this claustrophobia in a general sense then squashing our characters in there and being able to go inside those characters’ heads and find a way to be truly ‘with‘ them, that is what it was all about.
I love film, I miss it every day.
It was also about working with digital, yet also giving it a timeless feeling. I find especially older generation anamorphic lenses to be such a good companion to the digital format, softening the harshness of the sensors and deconstructing the image somewhat. Adding a randomness to an equation that is becoming increasingly predictable in its makeup.
Remember the first season was shot film and that was never really an option for us so it was also about finding a happy transitional format for everyone involved. It’s a contemporary script which we were also trying to reflect in a timeless way and some retrospective modifications were in order, I think.
AC: In the last two episodes the feeling was one entirely of oppression. I think that people really underrated the series.
NB: What happened was that people were comparing the second season always to the first season. Avoiding that expectancy was impossible. I do not know if we could have avoided it. It is one of the issues with the anthology format which we faced. It’s really interesting over here. Television is blowing up. The television format is trying to find its feet. Is it a continuation of film or is it reinventing everything? I hope that it becomes a continuation of cinema.
AC: Would you agree that it is more similar to a ten-hour film?
NB: I would totally agree. But it suffered editorially, it suffered from not having a single filmmaking voice. Pizzolatto is trying to work out how to have the feeling of a singularity of voice, much like the work of an auteur does, but still work with other people as well. It’s a learning process and in some ways a moving experiment.
AC: In one scene in True Detective, Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) speeds down a highway on his bike in pitch black darkness.
NB: Yeah. I was reading the script and he’s riding his motorcycle at night when he turns the bike’s lights off. I thought, “oh, here we go.” That’s a challenge! You’ve got to work it out. I think “if I was the guy on the bike, I’d see the lines, I’d see the speedometer.” I’ve got to then figure out a way to see that with the camera.
AC: What did you do?
NB: The close stuff we shot in a studio. It was somewhat successful. On the road I put a light on the arm car trailer, almost like a flash style, so you could see what the bike sees but it was silent or sourceless. I put in a little bit of road lighting here and there. I also shot everything at 1600 ASA in fact the whole show was at 1600 ASA. As much to give the focus a chance at the fast pace we were shooting.
AC: He was going pretty fast on his bike. Could you always keep up?
NB: We had it rigged or we had a quick arm car at our disposal. I always wanted to enhance the reality of whatever it is that we’re filming. I’m always pushing for reality in action settings, especially in the gunfights. Whether it is a gun or a speeding bike, I want it to be as close to the extremes described in the script. Plus, even if you just get a few shots this way, you can still remember the light, the feel, when you were pushing the bike to those speeds or when the gun was that close to the lens.
AC: Which is why you are grateful for digital?
NB: Absolutely. I embrace digital. I love film, I miss it every day. But digital offers more opportunities with lenses, and to me it is all about the lenses. I bolt the camera onto the lenses, not the other way around.
AC: What about the big shootout in the subway, toward the end of the season?
NB: I used some basic fluorescents to show a base security lighting or ‘safe light’ as it were. We had slightly brighter torches, but all off the shelf stuff. Then carefully placed Sputniks (LED lights which I both own and love) rigged and active that gave us a lot of milage.
AC: Was the choreography of lighting and action difficult?
NB: It’s about adding a bit here, a bit there. It’s about being well prepared for the last 30 seconds before we roll. That is the most important time, even with all the planning in the world, to figure out how to make a shot work really well it is only in the last 30-60 seconds that you finally have all the pieces in play, hopefully you got it right and you don’t need to change a thing but if you don’t have it right better to have preempted what might happen and have answers for that at hand and have your people briefed as to what needs to be done.
AC: Was blocking and marks particularly important?
NB: There were marks, but people had a lot of freedom. Focus pulling has changed now with digital cameras. Most focus pullers work off monitors almost exclusively now. It’s not laziness, that is basically how they have to work these days as the tolerances get tougher. The days of working only with marks, that is changing. Digital is very very unforgiving and even when on a mark there are no guarantees. That and the dusting off of every old lens under the sun which is great. But the marks on them often do not correlate and those lenses like good instruments of any kind change over the course of a day, a week or a month. They need to be constantly ‘played’ or ‘tuned’ in a way.
AC: On True Detective you’ve got three movies stars in the one shot. How do you deal with that? Are you having three conversations with each of them?
NB: Your job, as a cinematographer, is to figure out what they need, what they want out of the scene emotionally and physically, in concert with what the director wants to show. Your job is to make them comfortable on set, to really get a sense of what they need individually, and understand that they are working together at the same time. They all need to be treated differently.
Vince Vaughn, for instance, can’t do a scene without a master shot first. I come to him and say “I’d like to start with a close-up today.” He’d go, “what are you talking about Nigel?” What he’s saying is “I work it out on the wide shot, then I know what I’m going to do in the close-up.” That is his process. I cannot mess with that. He naturally dictates what his needs are. I shouldn’t turn around and say “we need the closeup first.” Then, I go to Colin Farrell and he just says “yeah, whatever.” You have to work all that out, give them what they want all the time. You have to be such a chameleon for those guys. That is part of the job. You can’t operate in a way that goes against or gets in the way of their process.
AC: John Woo talks about different frame rates working better for certain actors. You shot Rachel McAdams as an action heroine. Did you test things like that with her?
NB: A little bit, yes. For example, I had a concept of using very wide lenses, very close, for her and our characters at key moments in the film. In pre-production I tested that out, and it was pretty clear she was not comfortable with that. Physically, she did not want the camera to be that close as it was throwing her off. Dan Sasaki (Vice President of Optical Engineering at Panavision) made a 65mm lens that had some wide lens characteristics. That didn’t work either! Finally Sasaki came up with a very famous and precious 65mm close-up lens that was just right. Just right for getting into the character’s head and allowed me to be close enough to her to be intimate but not too close to be inside her boundary of personal space.
AC: You’ve had some real success with True Detective, and with some of your recent films. What are your long-term ambitions?
NB: My dream and ambition is to make great populist cinema. That is why I live in Hollywood. This is where the conversation happens. The films I watch are not that. I am trying to understand popular cinema, and what the audience wants. I am also trying to understand ‘high cinema’. I am trying to understand the high form of this art, and bring it together with the popular cinema. That is where things have the greatest relevance, the greatest worth. As a working cinematographer I want to work on things which an audience is going to see, to appreciate. I don’t want to make tiny films no one will ever see. I appreciate those film, love those films, but I want to be generous and bring that aesthetic to a wide, popular audience.
Lindsay Coleman is a writer, film academic and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.