On Set With Award-Winning DoP Simon Rowling
Posidonius (Rhys Howells) in Thessalus and Medea
Simon Rowling is an award-winning Cinematographer/ DOP, and BAFTA CREW member. He has just wrapped on his third Feature Film ‘Acceptable Damage’ a coming-of-age film about a girl with Aspergers. His second feature, an Art-house Romanian film ‘MEMENTO AMARE’ is currently screening at film festivals worldwide and the Action/Thriller ‘VENGEANCE’ will be released in 2018, with a trailer out shortly. Simon has been filming commercials for the likes of John Lewis, Superdry, Renault, Mars, Samsung, Glenfiddich, Warbuton’s, Playstation and Mini, to name a few. He won two ‘Best Cinematography’ Awards for the short film ‘I AM HENRY’- 2016, and is represented by Screen Talent Agency (UK) and Murtha Skouras Agency (USA). Interview by Massimo Barbato. Film set images by Mathias Falcone.
1. What attracted you to working on ‘Thessalus & Medea’?
The short was incredibly well scripted, which going from Jan Hendrik Verstraten’s previous short film I AM HENRY did not surprise me one bit. The writing gives you an insight into the characters’ lives and their world, but at the same time, entices you to know more.
The whole script painted a very strong picture in my mind, which is one of the most important things I look for. This gave me a very good idea on how to approach the cinematography. It was also the fact that Jan mentioned he wanted it looking like ‘Apocalypse Now’. This is an iconic film, especially for its cinematography, and something I have always wanted to touch upon.
2. What was your overall approach for this film? Where did you go for inspiration?
‘Apocalypse Now’, and the various images that Jan sent over to me, gave me a strong theme to work from. It was this film that won Vittorio Storaro the Oscar for Best Cinematography and in which he used a look called Chiaroscuro. This technique uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms, often to dramatic effect.
Artists who have used this style are Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. Storaro also used saturated colours, fog, hard shadows, firelight, low-lighting, extreme close-ups and silhouettes to build the world in his film, and this too was something I wanted to try and emulate in our short.
It’s important to listen to your Director as a DOP and agree on what you are both happy with. In this case, Jan didn’t want the actors only half lit for most of the film, as they were in Apocalypse Now, so we compromised. I decided upon only moments with silhouettes and faces half engulfed by shadows. This left the sections of heavy dialogue to have more light in them, for which I added a backlight to round off the actors’ faces and lift them from the wall behind, enabling us to see their performances clearer. It was moments like this and Jan’s ideas that really helped me carve out how to light the scenes for the film.
We shot Handheld for most of the film, as I felt that this would lend itself to the intensity of the conversations between the characters and compliment the raw firelight that was around them.
3. What kind of camera, lenses, and lighting did you use and why?
We shot on the Arri Amira (from Manned Camera). This is a lighter version of the Alexa, and as I was handheld for most of the film or on an Easy-rig, this was vital.
I opted to shoot on the Cooke Speed Panchros (from Feral Equipment). These are old Cooke lenses that have lots of softness on the edges, and when wide open the background really swirls around the centre of the frame. I wanted to have the attention on the actors and their performances, so the separation from the background, so using these lenses was vital. To get this, we shot wide open most of the time at T2.3.
The lenses also give you a sense of dreaminess and a slightly distorted reality because of the edges and background being swirly and soft, so this really suited the Greek mythological world of which we were entering.
Lighting wise, I wanted to keep it much simpler than ‘I Am Henry’ (Jan’s previous film), and avoid candles and beautiful light, but rather keep the rawness to the film with firelight as the main source of lighting. We had some intense burning in the background and a shaft of moonlight in Medea’s area behind the curtains, but the rest was all motivated by fire in the fireplaces. For most of the fire scenes we used an SFX expert and had fire rigs with fake logs on top, so the fireplace was continually burning for the long takes. This also lit the actors’ faces. As a backlight, I rigged a 2ft by 2ft flexible panel light. When we weren’t seeing the fire pits or to enhance the exposure we had 2x Arri sky panels on a fire function, simulating the flicker of the flames. This was brilliant for when Thessalus was walking down corridors and for background lighting.
For the moonlight we rigged a pole-cat in the roof and had a Cineo light pointed downwards, giving off a nice soft light from above.
4. What was the most satisfying part of this project?
I would say the chance to emulate or at least touch upon the style of Apocalypse Now and the silhouettes that Deakin’s often uses was something that I really enjoyed creating. The location was an amazing space, a Napoleonic Fort, with tunnels and stairways that resembled a labyrinth. This really helped us create a certain look, as well as the top-notch production design by Belle Mundi, which always makes my job a lot easier!
5. What was the biggest challenge you faced?
I could not seem to get the right angle for the lights to light the actors but not be seen by the camera. Eventually, we used one Skypanel and one Arri M8 as two back cross-keys and the other sky panel programmed in lightning mode. This, as well as a hose aimed at the wall above, seemed to work a treat and I am very satisfied with the overall look we achieved in this scene.
The other main issue was the stairs and amount of kit we had to take underground, but thankfully we had many hands to help and like any bit of filmmaking, we moved the kit from location to location.
6. As a cinematographer, what do you think is the most important aspect of your job?
To understand a director’s vision and how to interpret that into something that looks good on the screen and pushes the story forward.
If the lighting and camera movement does not suit or add to the story, then it’s pointless. You must help to progress the story and actors though your choice of lighting, camera movement, lens choices and colour grading, with each element adding another aspect to the film and enhancing the end product.
7. Which of the films that you have worked on, are you most proud of?
One film that stands out to me is ‘Predator Dark Ages’, as I helped get the funding and produce it. We shot it (in 8 days) over the course of two years, so it was a real passion project, that went on to become very well received by all Predator fans around the world. This made me very proud. However, for my cinematography, I would have to say I AM HENRY, as it was an all-round success and won me two best cinematography awards.
8. How would you advise someone starting out in cinematography?
Shoot as much as you can, and you will be able to learn from your own mistakes. Learn your own lessons and hopefully better yourself every time you shoot something.
Don’t say no to a project if there’s not much of a budget. Just try and make it work, and get the most out of it what you can. Sometimes that is when you become the most inventive and the best results can come out of it.
9. Where can we see your work next?
My first feature film VENGEANCE should be out in 2018. It’s a cool kick-ass film you should definitely check-out when you get the chance. A small Romanian feature I shot in 2017 called ‘Memento Amare’ is currently touring festivals, so keep an eye out for that. I also have various shorts, as well as Thessalus & Medea in post-production, which I can hopefully share with you all in the new year. You can keep up to date by checking on my Instagram and website: @simonrowling_dp and www.srcinematography.co.uk