The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Tony Miller

November 13th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

One is a beautiful amalgamation of fragility, poignancy, irreverence and razor-sharp wit. The other is a breathtaking journey through a Victorian metropolis that reflects on the inescapable pervasiveness of bigotry, prejudice, racism and intolerance. Meet the cinematographer behind “Fleabag” and “Carnival Row”.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tony Miller. In this interview he talks about the beginning of his career shooting documentaries, the transition of the industry from film to digital, various facets of the role of a cinematographer, and choosing his projects. Around these topics and more, Tony dives deep into his work on the first season of “Carnival Row” and two seasons of “Fleabag”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Tony: I studied drama at Bristol university, as I thought that I wanted to be an actor but soon realised it was not my bag and I found myself drawn to cinematography.

When I left university, I self-funded a film documentary about the student uprising in Burma. I crossed the border illegally into Burma in 1988 at age 22 and filmed the first big genocide in which thousands of students were killed, and then crossed back with the film footage.

It was a big risk, but it helped kick-start my career, and I landed a big Channel 4 commission to go back and make a full one-hour documentary.

After the Burma experience, I spent 18 months filming a portrait of whale expert Dr Roger Payne. I then ended up shooting documentaries for the next 12 years, many were anthropological and that was an amazing time. There was a British tradition of verité documentary filmmaking and I was very lucky to join the tail end of it. I travelled with the same crew for about 9 months a year and was booked up often a year ahead. All was shot on film. By 26 I had been Emmy nominated and Emmy awarded.

I think that what it taught me was how to light with what I had. How to shoot handheld. What mattered and how to cut it in your head – work out what you needed to tell the story. You didn’t have a second chance or take. You really had to cover things very quickly and find the emotion and drama in how you shot those images. I found that it was a wonderful school for cinematography. All my heroes – Chris Menges, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson had started in this way. (They all continue to insist on operating by the way).

Film was a craft and when you did not see it processed for some weeks you had to know exactly what you had shot. So, you shot tests – multiple tests when you had down time and worked out what latitude you had – what made things look more contrasty… What stock to use when the light was harsh.

Film was an expensive commodity, so you thought carefully about what you shot.

At some point I started shooting commercials, and then I started to be offered drama and fiction work. By my mid-30s, I realized that I didn’t want to be traveling around the world 9 months a year. I did my first big TV drama when I was 32, and my first movie a few years later. However, shooting fiction I soon realised that I was still often away 9 months a year!


Cinematography of “Fleabag” by Tony Miller.

Kirill: Is there anything that still surprises you when you join a new production?

Tony: I’m always nervous the first few days, and I’m amazed how much there is still to learn. Every project is challenging, it is what makes it fascinating. I think if I felt it was easy, I wouldn’t do it anymore.

It’s still remarkably challenging on so many levels and the opportunity to do something new and different and sensitive is always there. Human nature is vast and so is underscoring the drama with light and a camera.

And on another level, you’re dealing with politics which is such a big part of our job. The bigger the production and the bigger the budget, the bigger the politics gets. Politics is a tricky business! You work with directors who are all very different and your relationship is always a close one. I’m continually surprised and fascinated by what we do.

Kirill: You mentioned that you started back in the days of film as medium, and nowadays digital is almost everywhere. Does it feel sometimes perhaps overwhelming how fast that technology is evolving in last 5-10 years?

Tony: Yes, it does. I’ve talked a lot at various events – BSC and Cameraimage about HDR and how it will take over all of our homes. I think it’s wonderful. I used to hate it, but after having seen “Roma” in HDR and also in a theatre, I thought that HDR looked more amazing and had more depth. I have now done six productions in that format and adapted to some degree how I shoot for HDR.

It is in a way a metaphor for how fast change comes at us these days. You have to keep up with the technology, but I have a crew that does some of those things for me.

But digital has opened the realm of cinematography from a niche profession that used to have maybe 30-40 DPs in Britain who were working at a high level, to now around 400-500. There are other reasons for it, such as people coming here from Europe and everybody seeming to want to shoot in England, but fundamentally it has made the craft of cinematography far more accessible and I think that is a great thing.


Breaking the fourth wall on “Fleabag”, cinematography by Tony Miller.

Kirill: How do you see the balance between the artistic side of what you do (finding the right way to tell that story) and the technological side of it (keeping track of all the latest cameras, gadgets and software)? Is one more important than the other for you?

Tony: But it’s all about the artistry. It’s all about how you read the story, how you tell the story, how you underscore the story, how you reveal the emotional beats. There are all the key elements that shape your approach on operating a camera and finding the decisive moment.

How do you crescendo to that moment? How do you back off? How do you underscore those key moments in a scene? Is it a close-up or is it a big wide shot? Experience really helps, but it doesn’t mean you’re always right. The big lesson in cinematography that I love is that often I’m right, but frequently I’m wrong.

Technology is really important. Those are our tools of the trade and they keep getting simpler and better – like LED lighting which is revolutionising how we work. I still use big tungsten sources, but LED is making me think and it saves time.


Cinematography of “Carnival Row” by Tony Miller.

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Just one more thing for 2019

October 28th, 2019  |  General

One last thing I wanted to do with hero images for interviews. Now on larger (desktop / laptop sized) screens the interview title blurb is displayed on top of a translucent scrim along the bottom edge of the hero image. Maybe now I’m done for 2019…

Full width and hero images in WordPress

October 24th, 2019  |  General

As the follow-up to yesterday’s post about using edge-to-edge, full-width images in the interviews posted on this site, here’s the technical background on how this can be enabled in WordPress. First, add this snippet to your stylesheet:

.post .fullbleed {
  width: 100vw;
  position: relative;
  margin-left: -50vw;
  height: auto;
  left: 50%;
}

What do we have here? We start with the vw unit which in CSS stands for viewport units. This snippet says that an element marked as fullbleed should be positioned relatively to its normal position, with the combination of position, left and margin-left positioning it to start at the left edge of the viewport and span the entire viewport width. The height attribute forces the layout engine to preserve the original aspect ratio of your image.

If you have a breakpoint for smaller screen sizes, add the following snippet as well (tweaking the max-width media selector based on your breakpoint):

@media (max-width: 480px) { 
  .post .fullbleed {
    max-width: 100vw;
  }
}

To make sure that an element marked as fullbleed continues spanning the entire viewport on smaller screens. From this point, any image marked with <img class="fullbleed"> will be shown in edge-to-edge, full-width mode. You can view such images in this interview.

The same technique can be applied to images that you want to appear wider than your main content column, but not necessarily full-width on larger screens. For example, here is the snippet for images that span 80% of the viewport width:

.post .halfbleed {
  width: 80vw;
  position: relative;
  margin-left: -40vw;
  height: auto;
  left: 50%;
}

Note that width and margin-left are updated to stay in “sync” (one as the double of the other), but left stays the same. On smaller screens, you can tweak such elements to span the full width of the viewport instead – overriding width and margin-left:

@media (max-width: 480px) { 
  .post .halfbleed {
    max-width: 100vw;
    width: 100vw;
    margin-left: -50vw;
  }
}

From this point, any image marked with <img class="halfbleed"> will be shown in 80% viewport width on larger screens, and in edge-to-edge, full-width mode on smaller devices. You can view such images in this post.

Finally, how do you display a full-width hero image at the very top of your post, before the title block? We start with a couple of custom fields. You can find the “Custom fields” block right under the main editor area when you add or edit your WordPress post. Here I’m going to use image_before_title_url and image_before_title_caption as the names for these two custom fields, but of course you’re free to use your own names, as long as they are used consistently.

First, you need to configure your theme to emit the hero image block if it has the information for it. This is a one-time operation. Open the wp-content/themes/your-theme-name/index.php file and locate this line: <h1><a href="<?php the_permalink() ?>"><?php the_title(); ?></a></h1>  (which might look a little bit different depending on your theme). Add the following section right before this line:

<?php $hero_url = get_post_meta( get_the_ID(), 
      'image_before_title_url', true );
  if (is_single() and ($hero_url != '')) {
    echo '<img class="fullbleed" src="' . $hero_url . '"?>';
  }
?>

<?php $hero_caption = get_post_meta( get_the_ID(), 
      'image_before_title_caption', true );
  if (is_single() and ($hero_caption != '')) {
    echo '<span class="caption">' . $hero_caption . '</span>';
  }
?>

Next, upload your hero image to the media section. After it’s done uploading, do not choose to insert it into the post. Instead, copy the full URL of that uploaded image. Now go to the “Custom fields” block and add a new field named image_before_title_url with that copied URL as the value. Optionally, if you want to display a caption under that hero image, add another field named image_before_title_caption with the caption as the value.

What do we have here? The first snippet checks the presence of the image_before_title_url custom field associated with the current post. If that field is present, it also checks whether we’re emitting a single post. I personally found that displaying the hero image before the post title block makes browsing your main page a bit more disorienting. If both conditions hold, it emits the <img class="fullbleed"> element with the source pointing to that custom field value. The second snippet checks the presence of the image_before_title_caption custom field, and emits the corresponding span.

You can see how a full-width hero image before the title block looks like in this interview.

Tending the web garden, 2019 edition

October 23rd, 2019  |  General

As I wrote late last year, software is never quite done. And so goes yet another year tweaking the presentation layer on this very site. Back in 2014 I’ve switched to using 2x / retina images on modern screens, going back to the archives and resourcing all the images in the interviews that have been published until then. From that point on, all the interviews published here showed higher-resolution images when appropriate. And yet, that wasn’t enough.

The film medium is by its very nature a visual one. Stills from film productions, be they movies or TV shows, demand the same full-width treatment as the production itself. I’ve spent most of my summer going back to older interviews and resourcing all the images (yet again) to even higher resolution. Now those stills are displayed in full-width, edge-to-edge format no matter what device you’re viewing them on. In addition, I’ve started to switch all the interviews to use the leading hero image that is displayed before the title block. Here is how it looks like on smaller, phone-sized screens:

And this is how it looks like on larger, laptop / desktop sized screens:

This is probably it for the 2019 edition of tending this little web garden of mine. What will the year 2020 bring?

Stay tuned for a more technical overview of how this can be achieved in WordPress.