Tag Archives: Gavin Finney

DP Chat: Good Omens cinematographer Gavin Finney

By Randi Altman

London-born cinematographer Gavin Finney, BSC, has a wealth of television series and film experience under his belt, including Wolf Hall, The Fear and the upcoming series based on the film of the same name, Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. One of his most recent projects was the six-episode Amazon series Good Omens, starring Michael Sheen (Aziraphale) and David Tennant (Crowley) as an angel and a demon with a very long history, who are tasked with saving the world. It’s based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Finney was drawn to cinematography by his love of still photography and telling stories. He followed that passion to film school and fell in love with what could be done with moving images.

Let’s find out more about Finney and his work on Good Omens.

How would you describe the look of Good Omens? How did you work with the director/s/producers to achieve the look they wanted?
There is a progression through the story where things get increasingly strange as Adam (who our main characters believe is the antichrist) comes into his powers, and things in his head start manifesting themselves. It is also a 6,000-year-long buddy movie between an angel and a demon! There is Adam’s world — where everything is heightened and strangely perfect — and Aziraphale and Crowley’s world of heaven and hell. At some point, all these worlds intersect. I had to keep a lot of balls in the air in regard to giving each section its own look, but also making sure that when these worlds collide, it still makes sense.

Each era depicted in the series had a different design treatment — obviously in the case of costume and production design — but also in the way we shot each scene and the way they were lit. For instance, Neil Gaiman had always imagined the scene in the church in the blitz in Episode 3 to be an homage to the film noir style of the time, and we lit and photographed it in that style. Ancient Rome was given the patina of an Alma-Tadema oil painting, and we shot Elizabethan London in an exact recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The ‘60s were shot mainly on our Soho set, but redressed with posters from that time, and we changed the lighting to use more neon and used bare bulbs for signage.

I also graded the dailies throughout production on DaVinci Resolve, adding film grain and different looks to different time periods to help anchor where we were in the story. Neil wanted heaven and hell to feel like two parts of the same celestial building, so heaven occupied the best penthouse offices, and hell was stuck in the damp, moldy basement where nothing works properly.

We found a huge empty building for the heaven set that had shiny metal flooring and white walls. I frosted all the windows and lit them from outside using 77 ARRI Skypanels linked to a dimmer desk so we could control the light over the day. We also used extremely wide-angle lenses such as the Zeiss rectilinear 8mm lens to make the space look even bigger. The hell set used a lot of old, slightly greenish fluorescent fittings, some of them flickering on and off. Slimy dark walls and leaking pipes were added into the mix.

For another sequence Neil and Douglas wanted an old-film look. To do this, ARRI Media in London constructed a hand-cranked digital camera out of an old ARRI D21 camera and connected it to an ARRI 435 hand-crank wheel and then to a Codex recorder. This gave us a realistic, organic varis-peed/vari-exposure look. I added a Lensbaby in a deliberately loose mount to emulate film weave and vignetting. In this way I was able to reproduce very accurately the old-style, hand-cranked black and white look of the first days of cinema.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I’d worked with the director Douglas Mackinnon a few times before (on Gentlemen’s Relish and The Flying Scotsman), and I’d wanted to work with him again a number of times but was never available. When I heard he was doing this project, I was extremely keen to get involved, as I loved the book and especially the kind of world that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett were so good at creating. Fortunately, he asked me to join the team, and I dropped everything I was doing to come on board. I joined the show quite late and had to fly from London to Cape Town on an early scout the day after getting the job!

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
We shot on Leica Summilux Primes and ARRI Alura zooms (15.5-45mm and 45-
250mm) and ARRI Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini cameras outputting UHD 4K files. The Alexa camera is very reliable, easy to work with, looks great and has very low noise in the color channels, which is useful for green/bluescreen work. It can also shoot at 120fps without cutting into the sensor size. We also had to make sure that both cameras and lenses were easily available in Cape Town, where we filmed after the
UK section.

The Alexa output is also very flexible in the grade, and we knew we were going to be pushing the look in a number of directions in post. We also shot with the Phantom Flex 4K high-speed camera at 1,000fps for some scenes requiring ultra-slo motion, and for one particular sequence, a specially modified ARRI D-21 that could be “hand-cranked” like an old movie camera.

You mentioned using Resolve on set. Is this how you usually work? What benefit did you get from doing this?
We graded the dailies on Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve with our DIT Rich
Simpson. We applied different looks to each period of the story, often using a modified film emulation plugin. It’s very important to me that the dailies look great and that we start to establish a look early on that can inform the grade later.

Rich would bring me a variety of looks each day and we’d pick the one we liked for that day’s work. Rich was also able to export our selected looks and workflow to the South African DIT in Cape Town. This formed the starting point of the online grade done at Molinare on FilmLight Baselight under the hugely capable hands of Gareth Spensley. Gareth had a big influence on the look of the series and did some fantastic work balancing all the different day exteriors and adding some magic.

Any challenging scenes you are particularly proud of?
We had some very big sets and locations to light, and the constantly moving style of photography we employed is always a challenge to light — you have to keep all the fixtures out of shot, but also look after the actors and make sure the tone is right for the scene. A complicated rig was the Soho street set that Michael Ralph designed and built on a disused airbase. This involved four intersecting streets with additional alleyways, many shops and a main set — the bookshop belonging to Aziraphale.

This was a two-story composite set (the interior led directly to the exterior). Not only did we have to execute big crane moves that began looking down at the whole street section and then flew down and “through” the windows of the bookshop and into an interior scene. We also had to rig the set knowing that we were going to burn the whole thing down.

Another challenge was that we were filming in the winter and losing daylight at 3:30pm but needing to shoot day exterior scenes to 8pm or later. My gaffer (Andy Bailey) and I designed a rig that covered the whole set (involving eight cranes, four 18Kw HMIs and six six-meter helium hybrid balloons) so that we could seamlessly continue filming daylight scenes as it got dark and went to full night without losing any time. We also had four 20×20-foot mobile self-lighting greenscreens that we could move about the set to allow for the CGI extensions being added later.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
The script inspires me artistically. If I don’t love the story and can’t immediately “see” how it might look, I don’t do it. After that, I’m inspired by real life and the way changing light utterly transforms a scene, be it a landscape or an interior. I also visit art galleries regularly to understand how other people see, imagine and communicate.

What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
Obviously, digital cinematography has had a huge impact. I trained in film and spent the first 16 years of my career shooting film exclusively, but I was happy to embrace digital when it came in. I love keeping up with all the advances.

Lighting is also going digital with the advent of LED fixtures with on-board computers. I can now dial any gel color or mix my own at any dimmer level from an app on my phone and send it to dozens of fixtures. There is an incredible array of tools now at our disposal, and I find that very exciting and creatively liberating.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I tend to work on quite long jobs — my last two shows shot for 109 and 105 days, respectively. So keeping to sensible hours is critical. Experienced producers who are concerned with the welfare, health and safety of their crew keep to 10 hours on camera, a one-hour lunch and five-days weeks only. Anything in excess of that results in diminishing returns and an exhausted and demoralized crew.

I also think prep time is incredibly important, and this is another area that’s getting squeezed by inexperienced producers to the detriment of the production. Prep time is a comparatively cheap part of the process but one that reaps huge dividends on the shoot. Being fully prepared, making the right location and set design choices, and having enough to time to choose equipment and crew and work out lighting designs all make for a smooth-running shoot.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
This goes back to having enough prep time. The more time there is to visit possible locations and simply talk through all the options for looks, style, movement and general approach the better. I love working with visual directors who can communicate their ideas but who welcome input. I also like being able to ditch the plan on the day and go with something better if it suddenly presents itself. I like being pushed out of my comfort zone and challenged to come up with something wonderful and fresh.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I always start a new production from scratch, and I like to test everything that’s available and proven in the field. I like to use a selection of equipment — often different cameras and lenses that I feel suit the aesthetic of the show. That said, I think
ARRI Alexa cameras are reliable and flexible and produce very “easy to work with” images.

I’ve been using the Letus Helix Double and Infinity (provided by Riz at Mr Helix) with an Exhauss exoskeleton support vest quite a lot. It’s a very flexible tool that I can operate myself and it produces great results. The Easyrig is also a great back-saver when doing a lot of handheld-work, as the best cameras aren’t getting any lighter.

Apart from that, comfortable footwear and warm, waterproof clothing are essential!


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

‘Wolf Hall’ DP Gavin Finney: modern tech for a period drama

By Ellen Wixted

Based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall was adapted by the BBC in conjunction with PBS as a six-part series for television.  When the show first aired in the UK in January on BBC Two, the first episode attracted nearly six million viewers. In the US, the April premiere drew 4.4 million viewers on PBS and through streaming services.

Capturing the volatile mix of sex, politics and religion that defined Henry VIII’s Britain, Wolf Hall was directed by Peter Kosminsky and shot entirely on location by cinematographer Gavin Finney, BSC. The show stars Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

I spoke with Finney about how he achieved the series’ distinctively fresh, contemporary look. The story of Henry VIII is familiar, but Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell is a significant departure from tradition. I asked Finney what the response to the series has been in the UK, and he was quick to note that while the historical events are well known to Brits, the show’s goal was to do justice to the novel — which is, at its heart, fiction. “Cromwell was the first plebeian power broker who wasn’t aristocracy or clergy,” Finney points out. “He was a mercenary, a lawyer and a banker.

Gavin Finney, behind the camera.

Gavin Finney, behind the camera.

In that time, especially, you had to be fleet of mind to stay alive. Typically, Thomas More is presented as a saint, but in Wolf Hall his darker side is portrayed, albeit with deep religious convictions. What’s great about Hilary’s writing is that no one comes through as an ogre or an angel.”

Documentary Immediacy Meets Historical Drama
Unlike most period dramas, which lavish visual attention on every surface, Finney notes that Kosminsky wanted the visual world of Wolf Hall to feel more like a documentary than a traditional drama. “For the people of the time, these weren’t historically important sites or fabulous costumes, they were the buildings they lived and worked in, and the clothes they wore.”

In the 16th Century, art played a key role in helping define the visual approach. “The witnesses to that time were the painters” points out Finney, noting that the team spent time in London looking not just at the Hans Holbein paintings that figure prominently in the story, but also at works by later painters from Caravaggio and Rembrandt to Vermeer and Gerard van Honthorst. “In that era, people are always painted by windows, and night scenes show how that world looked by candlelight. Peter staged the action so that interior shots are illuminated by natural looking light from the windows, and nighttime scenes are lit using candles.”

In part an aesthetic choice, the strategy had clear practical benefits as well. “Because we were shooting in some of the UK’s most important historical buildings — many of which Cromwell, Henry and Anne had walked through — we couldn’t just stick film lights in those rooms.” It also meant that the actors’ movements had to be carefully orchestrated in order to ensure they were illuminated, particularly in night scenes.

While accurate period detail was important, both Finney and Kosminski wanted that authenticity to be communicated without the visual grandstanding typically associated with period dramas. “We wanted the camera to be loose and fluid and reactive to the action, so the series had the immediacy of a documentary.” To that end, the team shot the entire series handheld — including most wide shots — to help place viewers in the action and give the show its unusual sense of intimacy.

The story is filmed almost entirely from Cromwell’s point of view. While true to the author’s intent, it also reinforces the show’s immediacy. “Almost all of the scenes in the show are witnessed from where Cromwell is standing,” explains Finney. “We don’t see Henry until nearly the end of the first episode, because Cromwell doesn’t meet him until then. Even though we had access to these amazing architectural spaces, we avoided using crane shots to move down through them because doing so wouldn’t make visual sense or be true to the novel.” The one exception — an aerial crane shot at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral — adds emotional impact in large part because it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the show.

Putting Digital To The Test
While Finney has extensive experience with both film and digital capture, Wolf Hall was Kosminski’s first foray into digital production. Two key requirements were that the camera had to be handheld, and the image quality — both in daylight and low light — had to be pristine.

The team spent weeks shooting test scenes with actors using a dizzying array of cameras and lenses. Cameras tested included the Red Epic and Dragon, the Arri Alexa and Amira, the Sony F55, the Canon C500, C300 and even the Canon 5D Mark III. They also tested multiple lens packages: the Cooke S4 series, Zeiss Master and Ultra Primes, Canon K-35s and Leica Summilux-C lenses. Shooting candlelight proved especially challenging with some of the camera and lens combinations — notably the Red cameras with Ultra Primes. The light from the candles reflected back onto the sensor and created a double image.

“We found the best combination was the Leica Summilux lenses on the Alexa,” says Finney. “Not only were they a kilo lighter — important given that I’d be carrying the weight for hours at a time on shoot days — but the lenses performed astonishingly well wide open. And the Leicas showed the least chromatic aberration of any we tested… even the Master Primes had some color fringing.”

The team shot ProRes 4444 Log C at 1920×1080 onto SxS cards on the camera. Files were then transcoded to Avid. LUTs were applied to dailies to convert them to REC 709, and a preliminary grade was applied using DaVinci Resolve so it was easier to visualize the end result.

“You have to test the full pipeline,” Finney insists. “Ansel Adams wrote in the 1950s that you can’t consider the film, camera and development processes separately. That’s still true today; you need to test your lens, camera and entire post pipeline before you can know what your image will look like.”

A Documentary-Style Shoot
Finney was responsible for filming all of the scenes in the series — literally. Shooting solo for 65 of the 85 filming days, Finney worked with a personal trainer in advance to prepare physically. Here again, approaching the shoot with a small, documentary-sized crew reaped big rewards. “The actors really responded to having such a small crew. They were able to walk into 500-year-old rooms that were dressed and lit the way they would have been at the time without the distraction of a large crew. There’s a scene in Episode 6 at Anne Boleyn’s trial — when [actress] Claire Foy entered the hall the first time, she gasped,” remembers Finney.

While replicating natural daylight through windows and using candles at night for most scenes, Finney used supplementary lighting for some shots. For night scenes, the team built reflective trays that contained 20 to 30 church candles, primarily so the lighting would be responsive to the actors’ movements. “Candles don’t flicker all the time,” explains Finney, “but the flames are very interactive when someone walks past. If you bring in extra light, you want it to behave the same way.” Finney also occasionally used Kino Flo LED lights, dimmed down to between 1.5% & 3% with diffusion filters and color gels.

Subtle Color On A Tight Schedule
Grading was done at Lipsync Post in London using FilmLight’s Baselight. Adam Inglis was the colorist. The grade for all six episodes took 13 days to complete, and both Finney and Kosminsky were present for the entire process. With such a tight schedule, it was imperative that the team collaborated effectively.

“Adam had a very sympathetic style, and really understood the very naturalistic, organic look Peter and I were trying to achieve. We didn’t want anything showy, and Adam was able to achieve fantastically subtle and precise effects very quickly and skillfully,” says Finney.

Reflecting On 4K
With a long and celebrated career to draw upon, I asked Finney about the changes he’s seen in the industry. “Obviously, it’s been a big transition from film to digital,” he says. “Film still has a place, but digital acquisition is now as good in terms of the dynamic range. For TV production, the transition to digital been massively positive; we can now use the same cameras and lenses as the biggest budget feature films, and we have a much greater ability to shape the picture in post than we did in the past. We couldn’t have shot Wolf Hall the way we did without the new cameras and lenses that are available.”

Gavin Finney

Gavin Finney

Finney began his career as a photographer, and he observed that if you want to know where cinematography is going, it’s smart look at the changes in still photography. “Still cameras have reached a point where you don’t need or want more megapixels; it just makes the images slower to process and move around… with more noise and less dynamic range,” he notes. “The public doesn’t benefit. The cameras I’m interested in are the ones that deliver greater dynamic range, less noise and more color depth.”

What does that mean for the push to 4K? Finney had strong opinions on the topic: “4K is great if you like sport, and it definitely matters for visual effects work, but super high resolutions aren’t necessarily great for drama, and I’m not convinced the public likes it either. I’ve never heard a critic wish for higher resolution, and the films that have recently won Academy Awards were all shot at 2K or 3.2K.” Finney notes that streaming services like Amazon and Netflix that are commissioning content are requiring 4K, but that his preference would be to spend the budget in other ways instead. “That said,” he concludes, “if I found a 4K camera that looked great, I’d use it.”