From Oscar-nominated Australian writer Tony McNamara (The Favourite) comes the wildly comedic rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) and Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), in a genre-bending, anti-historical ride through eighteenth-century Russia. Learn how Australian cinematographer John Brawley brought the hit Hulu series The Great to our screens.
By John Brawley.
I’d previously worked with the creator/writer/producer of The Great, Tony McNamara back in Australia on Puberty Blues, Tangle and Offspring. I already knew McNamara was a brilliant writer and that it was going to be a really special project to be part of. There wasn’t really an interview, just the two of us chatting over the phone a few times. He sent me the scripts, along with the pilot which had already been shot by Anette Haellmigk and directed by Matt Shakman. Both Game Of Thrones alumni. The pilot was already really strong out of the gate though we did end up re-shooting about twenty-percent of the pilot episode.
My first thought reading the script was this is not your normal costume drama, this was something else. It was like nothing that I’d read or seen on television before. It has an amazing rhythm and cadence to the dialogue and the way McNamara wrote the characters. Hulu describe the show as genre-bending, and I think that’s more than just a marketing phrase.
McNamara and I talked a lot about the tone for the series straight away. He used phrases like ‘punk period’ and ‘anti-history’, and we wanted to shy away from anything traditional and expected with period dramas. We didn’t want it to look ‘chocolate box pretty’. It’s meant to feel contemporary and naturalistic.
At one point, when I asked straight away what The Great was about, he described it as, “A woman wakes up and realises she’s in a really bad marriage, and everyone in the apartment block she lives in knows her business.” The fact that this story plays out in a royal court setting in 1850 is very much secondary to that storytelling imperative.
In fact tone was really the most important thing to get right for McNamara, who ended up writing nine of the ten episodes. That was one of the major changes from the pilot, to veer towards a lighter and more comic touch. The thing about The Great is that you can have these absurd moments, but also there’s a genuine underlying pathos that comes from genuine truth. We never thought of The Great as ‘comedy’ to be played for laughs.
Just being a costume or period drama show also creates a lot of expectations for the established audiences of those shows and we wanted to be really upfront visually that this was going to be a very different experience. This wasn’t a BBC period drama and we needed to slap the audience in the face with that right up front.
We deliberately decided we weren’t going to make any use of the usual tropes and visual signatures of period shows. We actively avoided sweeping crane shots and beautiful staging where everything is packaged and presented to the camera. Where you’d expect to see lots of smoke or atmosphere we would chose to keep it clear, when you’d expect a dolly shot we’d go more handheld, and so we just actively tried to take the road less travelled in terms of what traditional period dramas would normally do. We really were trying to make it just feel very contemporary.
Most of the references for the show came from the many discussions about story tone rather than for visual reference. Amadeus (1984, cinematography by Miroslav Ondříček AČK ASC) and Barry Lyndon (1975, cinematography by John Alcott BSC) were the obvious ones that did actually reference visual approach for us as well as the storytelling approach. However Marie Antoinette (2006, cinematography by Lance Acord ASC) also for little for things like the non-period moments and historically inaccurate approach. That film famously has a pair of Converse dressed in a shot of her extensive shoe collection.
Production designer Francesca di Mottola did a fantastic job and the sets were amazing to shoot in. Everything is real and authentic without being specifically accurate to period. As we did with camera staging, she approached the design in trying to be true to the tone of the script rather than historically accurate.
The pilot episode was shot over twenty-one days entirely on location and a lot of it was shot at one of the most photographed historical homes in the United Kingdom, Hatfield House, doubling for Peter’s Palace. Once the show was green lit it would have to be shot on stage instead of location.
For the production of the series we would have only twelve shoot days per episode and most would be done on stages. We ended up recreating some of those rooms and spaces from Hatfield fairly accurately, including the huge large hallway. At one point the art department had purchased and used all the gold paint in the United Kingdom and they had to stop work on painting the beautiful ceilings till they made some more!
One thing I talked a lot to di Mottola was having realistic sets with actual ceilings. If you go into a lot of homes and palaces from those periods the spaces are vast and the ceiling often has had a lot of effort and detailing. Given that so much of the show would be on stage, I wanted to be able to feature the ceilings and make the most use of those huge spaces. The palace sets, built in London’s 3 Mills Studios, are deliberately disheveled and dirty with food left everywhere and people fornicating in corridors in the background. It has the feel of a run-down share house.
The set dressing too was also an attempt at an honest approach on what it was in that era, without glamorising it. We wanted imperfections, the rawness, rough looking, a bit haphazard and unplanned. There’s scuffs on the floor and sections of wall that have been burned by fire.
In pre-production, I did do a lot of testing with di Mottola around the curtains and drapes and the window treatments. We had enormous windows that were going to be the main source of daylight, but we didn’t have the room or budget for even scenics or translites, so we needed to find ways to be able to light through the windows and not really see out of them too well.
There’s incredible detail to the sets, with a lot of plaster and hand painted designs along with the suitable ageing and treatment. At one point we had 450 people doing construction and set decorating. It was massive, and the tight deadline meant as we neared production they started working in shifts around the clock to complete the sets in time for us.
The whole show was such a huge undertaking with such a tight schedule that many of the sets were still being finished as we started shooting so that gave us the opportunity sometimes to make small changes to the sets to benefit the shooting style as we were shooting within them.
On my last couple of shows I’ve been using an App called Basecamp to co-ordinate and share information. On The Great I added the production department to this and this meant a lot of the conversations and visual references that di Mottola and I came up with were in one location that everyone could access and look at. The production design department was so huge, there were dozens of people, so it was great to have a way of talking about where we were going with the visuals and for everyone to be able to see that.
Later on as I developed the visual manifesto with my co-cinematographer, Maja Zamojda BSC, we were also able to keep sharing that information and have it also go to the makeup and costume departments as well.
The pilot had been shot ARRI Alexa SXT with Cooke S5s but I was keen to explore our options. I’d talked to Tony Mac, about looking at larger format and so I organised a pretty extensive test of the larger format cameras. We tested ARRI Alexa 65, Panasonic DXL2 and Sony Venice along with a bunch of different lenses.
On my last few shows I’ve done these as a kind of typical scene from the show, almost like shooting a scene as it would be shot. I feel like it’s a better way to ‘test’ everything because you’re also prototyping how things work on set as well as the end pictorial result. I get the stand-ins for the lead to wear costumes, and stand-in sets, or at least set dressings and light it the way I’m expecting to approach the lighting of the show. After shooting with each camera and lens combo, I do a quick edit and make a blind test and take it all the way through post testing our whole workflow.
As this would also be my first HDR finish, I wanted to make sure I was across all of that as well. After a lot of scrutinising of the finished material – without anyone except me and the colourist knowing which footage was from which camera – we all decided we liked what the Alexa 65 offered with the ARRI DNA primes.
Then, of course, the studio found out! Our post-production turnaround time was so tight that we would be on air only four weeks after we wrapped, and considering the post was between London and Los Angeles, there was a lot of concern about being able to move the Alexa 65 files around fast enough.
That news came quite late to us, actually the day we were to start in person pre-production at ARRI Rental UK, so at the last second we went back to what was used in the pilot, SXT’s and Cooke S5s shooting ARRIRAW. Despite Hulu’s usual requirement for a 4K camera, they gave us a free pass. Alongside the SXT we also added the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 cameras and ZEISS Super Speed lenses for their smaller size.
Throughout the testing I really was happy with the Alexa’s ability to nicely hold the candle flames which was also a comfort going into my first HDR finish. The Ursa Mini Pro G2 can also cut so seamlessly with the Alexa SXT footage that it also opens up a whole different way of using the camera to get to the style that we were wanting to find. I’d say that about seventy-percent of the show is Alexa and thirty-percent is Ursa Mini Pro G2.
Early on, the setup director, Emmy-winner Colin Bucksey asked me about ‘the football’. I’ve always been camera agnostic and like using different builds of different cameras to do different kinds of shots. On my previous show The Resident, for FOX, I’d ended up shooting a lot of it on a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2. Bucksey happened to be good friends with Emily Van Camp, one of the acting leads from The Resident and she’d told Bucksey all about the ‘Football’. So an Actor told the director that I’d never worked with previously about a shooting approach I’ve been using for the last few shows.
The Football is a nickname one of my first assistants camera gave the G2. I guess because of the way I carry and operate it is similar to the way American’s carry their footballs. I started using it as a way to quickly get inserts or details. Often on the crazy episodic television schedule you don’t have a lot of time for those kinds of visual embellishments that don’t have cast in them, so you try to get it right then if you can as quickly as you can. I started going in at the end of the regular coverage of a scene and doing what became known as a ‘football pass’.
Usually by this point the actors know the scene well and are almost throwing it away. During the coverage I’d watch what the actors were doing and make a little laundry list of shots and story moments I can get and then I run a couple of takes at the end but just with a kind of freeform and improvised operating style with the camera and steal all those little moments on the fly.
We’d do it at the end of the Alexa SXT takes, when the actors have already expended themselves, and they tend to throw it away a little bit more and you can get very loose. Interesting things can happen. We’d run a couple of takes and I would jokingly say to the actors, “I’ll go to whatever’s good. If you’re interesting in this take, I’ll be on you.” I tried to make it a bit competitive with them. They actually started performing to camera.
Some of the most important and charged moments in The Great are from Football/G2 passes. It’s a great way for the editor to cut to a shot that will give you a totally different energy. It kind of becomes a visual seasoning or condiment to the main coverage. You wouldn’t aim to cover a whole scene this way, but it gives you a very different kind of coverage, a shot that’s more hyper-subjective. It gives you great transparency and insight into what a character’s thinking. Director Shawn Seet (The Code, Underbelly) described it as ‘visual jazz’ and I think that’s a great term for it. You never know what you’re going to get !
I went in not expecting to use the G2 as much as I did on The Great, but once Bucksey discovered the football, he really liked it and used it a lot, and it became part of the visual manifesto and then part of the show’s language. The URSA Mini Pro G2 has such a small footprint and the built in monitor allows me to get unconventional shots by getting the camera into places and move it in a way that I couldn’t do with a larger camera. You can’t even get an Alexa Mini this sort of adjustable on-the-fly in such a minimal size, believe me my assistants camera have tried to get me off it on every show!
I love that the G2 shoots RAW and that the built-in monitor allows me flexibility to pivot during improvisational operating. Sometimes, I’d stop and start within the take to get fourteen different shots in a very short amount of time. They do not look like regular television coverage. They’re very unconventional shots that you’d never bother setting up specially, but I can find them very quickly in the moment by being able to move the camera around.
In short, the idea is to provide overlapping coverage. We would shoot the scene in a regular way with the SXT, and then we’d go back and overlap the coverage with the G2. Then the editor could choose to use it or not. Choose to season, so to speak. We had no issues inter-cutting. It’s pretty seamless a most people can’t tell how many and which shots are which. Most don’t even notice that there’s two different cameras being used in the final grade.
Haellmigk shot the pilot episode and then, as always happens with pilots, they wanted to change some scenes going forward and so I shot the reshoots for that episode. Shooting alternating cinematographers is fairly commonplace on larger scale television shows and allows for the cinematographer to work more collaboratively with the director in pre-production rather than just putting it altogether on the first day of shooting.
On this show we did block shooting in two-episode blocks, I did blocks one, three and five. Maja Zamojda did blocks two and four. There are definitely challenges in continuity and consistency of look and tone as each block you have a new director, first assistant director, cinematographer and editor too sometimes so there’s a lot that is very different. Zamojda and I together in pre-production put together a manifesto of bendable rules to follow throughout the show and hopefully help us be more consistent in the look together across all five blocks. This sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t but that’s like filmmaking in general where it’s collaborative problem solving and as each of us were reacting to the performance of the same actors and script written entirely by the same writer it naturally created consistency.
I’m very, very story driven in my own process and so everything I do is with the aim to create the best space possible to enable the actors to tell the story. This show already had an amazing script and with an absolutely incredible ensemble cast led by Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, my process was all about making sure that they had what they needed to really thrive and to give them the most encouraging and safe space possible for them to work in. It’s a comedy of the absurd, though I never really saw it as a comedy but tried to simply approach it as drama.
I think the most important part of my job as cinematographer is to create a safe space for the cast and a collaborative space for the director to get what they’re needing and really go for it to find where those moments are. I think the most underrated part of the process in making any show is blocking and staging, especially in television where there usually aren’t any rehearsals in pre-production like you’d have on a film.
So I really try to emphasise how important that is in giving the actors and the director that time to really nut out the scene. That allows me then to plan coverage and light the whole space for that performance so that once the cast are back from costume and makeup we can just go go go to get as much as we can on camera. I’ll always choose to get more takes and setups over tweaking lights once cast are on set.
Something I’ve been doing for a long time is to start with the closer coverage first and then work back to the wider shots. This way you’re spending more of your time on the performance and I find the actors really start to like it. They come onto the floor ready to go at it from the start and it’s a very energising way to shoot.
I also take a lot of stills on set. I love operating but now on the shows I work on I have two or three full-time operators and so I only get to operate when it’s in ‘football’ style and I think there’s such an important connection between operators and actors that creates a huge amount of trust. I can’t always do that these days but I find that taking photos between takes or right before action is called helps me to bond with the actors and gain their trust as well as helping me with my lighting process.
I’m not a cinematographer who likes that whole DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) tent on set. I prefer a simplified workflow not an extra circus you have to drag around with you. I would much rather work like we did in the film days with a lot of testing in pre-production to understand what the camera could and couldn’t do and you just expose and shoot with that in mind without needing to tweak or grade it on set. That way, you can spend time with the actors and director on the floor. I’d rather do another take than go into a dark tent and look at a waveform of some shot that might change in the edit anyway. I feel like I wanted to be connected to what’s happening out on the floor and you lose all that in a DIT tent. I’ve always had this philosophical idea to treat the DI (Digital Intermediate) like film and to leave the grading until you are sitting with someone like our colourist Paul Staples who knows what they’re doing and you’re also doing it within the context of the final cut. Taking the stills helps me feel good in the moment about what’s going on in the lighting.
At the end of the week I’ll also email out the photos to the producers and heads-of-department and it gives everyone such a boost to look at the successes that we had during a long week of shooting. Sometimes we can get so lost in the battles we didn’t win during the week that it’s easy to forget all the great stuff that we were able to get on camera. I like reminding everyone of that. I was lucky to work with some great directors on this show; Colin Bucksey, fellow Australian Ben Chessell and Geeta Patel. They were all very talented directors with totally different ways of working.
Normally on the shows that I do it’s single episodes that each director does and there’s no pre-production with them. You sometimes feel like you’re just getting to know them right when it’s all about to end. This time, I was in pre-production for four weeks and then shooting for five or more weeks. I was really able to get to know them and the ways in which they like to work. I really valued having that extra time to be able to understand how to really help get to where they wanted to be for a scene. Our schedule was so tight for a period show and so we had to be creative in how we best managed our time and got the best performances and be adaptive on the day. It can literally take two hours for a costume change on a period show. All three directors were very collaborative and I was very lucky to have their trust. Each episode block has its own style and tone and I think that adds to the story arc of the whole season. Audiences can get bored if it’s all expected and each of these directors brought something new.
When I was brought on as the lead cinematographer, I wanted to work as much as I could with Zamojda to put a camera department together that would be first class. She was a London local so I leant on her a lot for some help there with the local knowledge. We also managed to find a lot of antipodeans which was really nice to hear the accents every day.
We had two full-time camera crews; James Layton ACO who was our A-camera and Steadicam operator, a very experienced and excellent local. Greig Fraser ACS ASC had just finished Dune so I was able to nab some of his crew, like New Zealander Phil Smith who came on board as our key first assistant camera. I got some of Fraser’s electrics team too. My regular B-camera operator, Jessica Clarke-Nash, filled the B-camera spot and did some awesome second unit cinematographer work as well. She brought over Charlie Whitaker from Sydney as her first assistant camera as good crew was in short demand in London at the time we went into production.
More days than not we had a third camera team that was made up of dailies but we had our regulars who would be there most of the time. One of which was Claudio Napoli who was able to be with us in his home country of Italy when we were shooting there which helped with overcoming the occasional language barrier.
The United Kingdom has a great system for the camera department that I would love to see adopted elsewhere. They have an attachment to each camera which allows people to be trained on set by the camera department, and so have valuable experience before being put into such a vital role as a second assistant camera. This role was incredibly important and they were such a valued part of our team with the whole shoot running that much smoother with that extra set of hands per camera. On The Great we were joined by Julie Sande, Camilla Piana Brizia and Ella Mills in those roles.
Almost all interiors from Episodes 2 to 10 are on stages built in London’s 3 Mills Studio. It was a challenge right from the get go as we were building very grand and huge sets inside of what is really a small group of stages, which was originally a gin distillery so wasn’t really purpose built for what we needed.
Most of our sets went right up to the fire lane in most places and were so tall that there wasn’t much space above so that presented me with huge challenges with lighting. I couldn’t put stands inside the fire lanes to light through the windows and I couldn’t hang much from the roof as there wasn’t a grid and the ceiling wasn’t built to withstand those weights. It took some creative thinking along with my gaffer and rigger to come up with what we did.
We essentially built a series of chain motors on sleds we could drag along on tracks. We could then raise or lower the light via the chain motor and drag it into position on the sled. It was pretty crude but it allowed us to use the space above the fire lane to rig lighting. I always wanted to light from outside the set and only have practical lighting within the set. This allows the cast to move freely around the space and operators aren’t hindered if an actor veers off course as there are no ‘unlit’ areas.
On The Great, all the practical lighting was candles or fires and the benefit of shooting in the United Kingdom was that they’re very well prepared for period shows and so they just turn up and present single, double and triple wick candles knowing from experience that we would need a mixture. We did some testing and mostly settled with double wicks for on camera and we had some single wicks in the background sometimes. The triple wicks just weren’t realistic in the way they would flicker and ran down very quickly.
We had a candle maker on the job and from memory it was an eight-week lead in for candles. In the end we used over 100,000 candles over the course of filming The Great.
I’d also often use candles for lighting off camera too as we had characters with glasses and it was much nicer to see the reflections of a real candle than the straight lines of a lighting grid. It just felt to me like a much more authentic way of lighting and would use silver reflectors behind them to increase level rather than introducing a light.
We’d continue with candles on our location work which presented some challenges too as we’d have British heritage people watching our every move and we would only be allowed to have six candles lit at any one time. Sometimes we’d have to add a few Astera tubes with a candle flame effect cycling on them. This worked to some degree but I feel like they don’t quite look the same when you can see the reflection in someone’s eyes of the tube’s clean vertical line.
For all my lighting from outside windows I mostly used a lot of Tungsten lighting just because they look so beautiful for skin tones. Our lead actress chose very bravely to wear barely any makeup and so it was on me to keep her glowing as much as possible. LEDs are great but when it comes to skin tones and beauty I find they can have a kind of pallid effect and she was already very pale and translucent and so I tended to try to use real tungsten.
Between the tungsten and the candles you might call it old fashioned vintage lighting but I found the simplicity of it helped sell the tone we were striving for. Comedy lighting is often brighter and higher key but that wasn’t what we were going for and I guess that’s when we really honed in on this being a drama that was funny rather than a straight out comedy and so we decided to light it and treat it like a drama.
Trying to light like this in a dramatic way but with naked flames with candles and fires certainly gave me new challenges, delivering in HDR and with not having access to good HDR monitoring on set I have to admit I was pretty nervous about it all. My starting point was to expose the candles flames and let everything fall in underneath that. Since candles are usually the brightest object in the scene and I wanted to retain detail in them I began by setting the exposure so that the candles weren’t clipping with then everything else being lit up to those levels. That was my primitive, lay person, no HDR monitor, on-set logic, which I think worked out pretty well in the end.
We had some amazing locations both in the United Kingdom and in Italy. The exterior of the Peter’s Palace was shot at Caserta Palace in the south of Italy and it was truly an amazing place to shoot. It’s often used as a location for filming in Europe and so they’re well set up for film crews. It was incredibly grand and spectacular and for us that was almost a problem, that it was too beautiful and too grand and would make our sets back in England look tiny and not as impressive. We had to choose where we shot within the grounds to make it fit in with our stages and not just go for ‘epic grand palace’ shots.
It was really hard as it’s just so beautiful and as a cinematographer you want to show off such a beautiful place. We had local crew too who were just fantastic and made it such a delight to shoot there. We ended up at Caserta as it was the right era of architecture and there were less restrictions on filming than in other places. We had hundreds of background talent, extras, as well as horses and other animals. We had to make sure we were allowed those numbers of people and that we could have equipment on floors, and block access to public. Caserta was the best of all that.
One of the great locations that I had on one of my blocks was The Russian Front which was actually just a field on a farm in Kent that we had to make from scratch to look like the border of Sweden and Russia at war. We dug up the whole field and made it muddy and war torn. In the schedule we only had one day to shoot there but it took them three weeks to build that location. Having to battle the mud and elements of shooting in England in December, forces some decisions in how you have to shoot something when you’ve got so much to do and so little time. We were forced to adapt but that added a roughness to the footage that helped with telling the story and how unsteady the characters were feeling too.
We also went back to some of the locations from the pilot, which were some trust houses and some privately owned houses like Hatfield House or Wrest park. They’re all amazing as they’re just so intricate and detailed with their individual craftsmanship. Each of them come with their own set of challenges as they all have different rules of what you can and can’t do. It’s a balancing act of trying to get what you need for lighting and shots for telling the story whilst making sure nothing is damaged and that all the rules are followed but really they’re all beautiful to shoot in.
I think that it adds something to the show to be on location as everyone’s behaviour is different and the actors feel it too. It creates authenticity in the way we shoot too. You can’t just float a wall you’re confined by where you are and so can only show that location in a truthful way. An actor can look out a window and see trees rather than a concrete wall and so it helps everyone I think to shoot on location for authenticity even though it’s expensive and makes life harder for crew most of the time.
We had the great Paul Staples as our colourist. He and I worked together first in pre-production setting up the look of the show and the Look-Up Tables for each camera that we would be looking at on set. Then throughout the shoot as we had a tight schedule we were grading early episodes while still shooting later episodes and so I’d go to the grade before or after our shooting day or occasionally on weekends. I was always present for the grades as it’s such an important part of getting the look right on a show like this. For the last two episodes, I had to grade remotely because of Covid-19. He was at home but operating his suite remotely in London, and I was in New Orleans giving notes. It was pretty crazy but it worked.
At the end of each episode we’d have a screening for the producers and then make any final adjustments. We stuck pretty true to what we established as the look in pre-production and so there wasn’t too much deviation from what we saw on set, which I liked. I think all the scenes that come together for the last five minutes of Episode 10, the season finale, would be my favourite. There’s so much energy that’s built up. From the calmness of a moment on a Steadicam shot with General Velementov (Douglas Hodge) surveying the guards and troops, to the extreme close-up on Catherine when she finally takes control of who she is going to become.
Across the five minutes there’s every kind of shot from low extreme wides, to fast action Steadicam on a tracking vehicle to handheld closeups and long lens dolly shots but somehow they all work together to build a crescendo of the series and really tells the story with energy when it needs it and observational calmness too when it’s called for. It was shot across a number of weeks in lots of different locations and was meticulously planned by Geeta Patel and myself and it worked out fantastically. I was very happy when I saw it all come together in the edit that it worked.
Of course looking back you always think you’d like to change something here and there but really it’s a collaborative process that we all come together on the day due to circumstances and creative discussions to get to what is captured on camera. If you changed something here then maybe something else would have changed in some other way there and so looking back I’m not sure I’d change much at all. I’m so happy with how it turned out and of course very happy that people seemed to have really taken to it in a positive way.
John Brawley is one of Australia’s most sought after cinematographers. He shot the first six seasons of the beloved Network Ten series ‘Offspring’, and prior to that shot both series of acclaimed series ‘Puberty Blues’.