Cinematographers on avoiding convention

Established directors of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and Seamus McGarvey have talked about avoiding tried-and-tested filmmaking techniques and embracing creativity.

The two production professionals spoke to industry delegates at the Empire Live event in east London on 25 September.

Both men have vast experience of both big-budget studio shoots and smaller independent productions. Mantle’s credits include the upcoming Trainspotting sequel – his fifth collaboration with director Danny Boyle – as well as Oliver Stone’s Snowden and the comic book adaptation Dredd. 


McGarvey’s recent credits include Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (pictured below), Gareth Edwards’ version of Godzilla and Marvel’s first Avengers movie.

Both men agreed that working on larger projects can often lead to a more conservative approach to the craft of cinematography as there is so much more money at stake and producers are less keen to take creative risks. In these situations there is a strong instinct to make the safe, more conventional technical choices rather than playing with more artistic statements. 

Mantle worked with US filmmaker Ron Howard on the 1970s-set Formula One racing drama Rush (pictured above) and was able to get financial support to experiment with different techniques to capture the kinetic energy of the racing sequences.

“I had to convince a small number of naysayers that different methods could work and I had Ron’s full support as well,” Mantle said. “Ron is very strong on story but he was less experienced with the technical elements we were using on the film – he was very eager to push himself.”

Nocturnal Animals

Both cinematographers talked about the benefits of working on sets where the key production team has a shared vision and feels able to communicate openly during the process.

“It’s good to be on sets where the director takes a bit more time choosing the right lens for the shot, and the right camera set up, and then aligning that with what the actors are doing,” said McGarvey. 

“It’s about the uniformity of vision, because I think that’s very noticeable in the final film. It’s also good to be ‘switched on’ to any moments of unscripted inspiration an actor might have on set that help elevate the whole project.”

McGarvey and Mantle also weighed in on the debate about whether digital will eventually eclipse film. McGarvey was keen to try to find space for both formats and professed his excitement at an upcoming job that with involve working with film after several back-to-back digital projects.

Mantle had more nostalgia for the film formats he had grown up on. “I like the greater range of contrast between black and white that film offers,” he said. “But I also get the advantages of digital for filmmakers who have less money and perhaps less experience.”

Rush image: Jaap Buitendijk/Universal Pictures. Nocturnal Animals image: Merrick Morton/Focus Features


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