The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Ula Pontikos BSC

May 5th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Ula Pontikos. In this interview she talks about the beginning of her career and technical changes in the last 15 years as the industry has shifted from film to digital, the various facets of cinematographer’s responsibilities on and off the set, and her approach to choosing the productions to work on. Around these topics and more, Ula dives deep into her work on the TV mini-series “The Game” and the recently released “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”.

Ula Pontikos on set. Photography by Stefan Lange.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Ula: When I was studying at Ravensbourne College (I’m originally from Poland), I met Allan Fyfe who taught me basic knowledge of film cameras. Allan used to work for Arri Group and he took me under his wing. I bothered him with countless questions about cameras and lenses, but that did lead me to my first job as a trainee! I was really lucky in that role, as I worked for Chris Menges BSC, ASC on “Dirty Pretty Things”. Chris always made very detailed notes, and I was charged with taking continuity stills on his Polaroid camera and noting the contrast ratios.

From there, I assisted for another 6 years before I got accepted to the National Film and Television School. Coincidentally, my last job as an assistant was again with Chris.

The NFTS was such an inspiring place. Nic Powell was the head of the film school, and enthusiastically supported students with their personal project ideas. Mine was directing and filming a short documentary in Xinjiang, China. Equipped with a stripped down version of Aaton XTR (I took video assist off and had only one magazine) and 10 rolls of film, my boyfriend at the time and I filmed a documentary about the jade diggers of Yurunkash River. The story was really about trying to strike it rich, to get the big prize of one million yuan. They came each winter to dig the river bed, by themselves or as groups, but they all hoped to get lucky and win that lottery.

Cinematography of “China’s Wild West” by Ula Pontikos.

I felt very lucky when my documentary “China’s Wild West” premiered at Sundance in 2009, which was my dream festival.

Since graduating the NFTS, I’ve concentrated on narrative form. I had a number of jobs shooting shorts which led me to my first feature film “Weekend” with Andrew Haigh.

Kirill: Do you find yourself surprised when you join a new production and start working on it?

Ula: I feel I do my best work on projects that I feel passionate about. I love reading scripts that spark my imagination. I love feeling moved by the characters and the feeling of connecting with protagonists.

Every story is different. Every single project that I’ve done so far came with its own challenges. And every project has different technical aspects: from a handheld look to multiple cameras, to long takes, to back projections. I love the challenge and surprise of each new job.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: Do you feel that the barrier to entry into the world of film is getting lower? The cameras seem to be getting better and cheaper every year, and one doesn’t need to put in as much money into telling their story as they would have to perhaps 10 or 15 years ago.

Ula: Dramas are not a cheap art form. A lot of talented people are involved, and long hours are spent on each project, with health and safety aspects and budget responsibility also playing an intrinsic part.

I was on the NFTS cinematography selection panel last year and was in awe of the creativity of the future student hopefuls. Digital has allowed young filmmakers to experiment more and practice the eye of creative storytelling.

But on the other hand, there is a lot to learn after film school. My job is not only about creativity, it also has a very technical and managerial aspect. It is about planning ahead and knowing how to achieve a desired look within the budget and schedule. It requires managing three departments (camera, grips and electrical) and communicating clearly about not just present but also future tasks. To achieve all that, it is essential to have experience.

Kirill: For you personally, how was the transition from film to digital? What do you think of the technical differences, as well as how it is changing the dynamic on set?

Ula: Digital filmmaking is just another tool, not a separate skillset. Cinematographers are responsible for making artistic and technical decisions during the project and this still applies: digital requires a similar knowledge of cinematography.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

My approach on set, whether I use film or digital, is to use a light meter and my eyes. I make sure that the negative or the chip is exposed to a desired effect and my preparation before the project would be similar for both media.

However, looking back at old DoP masters they dealt with slow stocks, bad viewfinders and lack of monitors on set, and had superb control of the exposure and technical knowledge of film stocks. Nowadays, people are a lot more confident with digital technology, and can immediately see what they are getting. That also changes the dynamic on set, allowing for longer takes and greater confidence about the final image.

Kirill: Between the artistic and technical aspects of finding that look, staying on budget and managing dozens if not more people on set, how many hats do you wear as a cinematographer? Can one be a successful cinematographer if they only focus, say, on the artistic side of things?

Ula: Success is such a difficult thing to measure. It is an individual’s approach to what makes them successful, not the number of awards on their mantelpiece. It’s very important that you never lose sight of your creativity, that you don’t give up on finding the right approach to the story. You need to keep on top of knowledge of new technologies and techniques, but also to be sensitive to actors and their emotional journey. Cinematographers also need to be good with people. It is an extremely collaborative environment. As a head of department, you need to get out what is best in people, especially when it is 4am and you are running over. Some jobs take a few months and some take a year to complete. People skills are important.

You get tested constantly. It helps to be flexible and calm, and to stay on top of the project.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: Having said all that, how do you describe what you do for a living when you talk to somebody outside of your field? How do you convey the complexity of all these things that you juggle every day on set? If you asked me 20 years ago, I would say that the job of a cinematographer is to put the camera on their shoulder, point it to the action and press some kind of a red button to start rolling.

Ula: I’m not sure that my parents fully understand the ins and outs of my job, and that’s fine. I say that I’m in charge of pressing that red button [laughs]. That’s good enough for me.

I’d say that my job is a collaboration with the director and actors of how to visually tell the story through using lights and camera movement. It’s not a role that’s easily defined to people outside of the film industry.

Kirill: Do you have a personal preference between director of photography and cinematographer?

Ula: Cinematographer seems to be more in tune with what I do, and it’s easier to understand. In Polish, it’s described as ‘Picture by’ in the main credits or the job position is called ‘Film Operator’ which is confusing. At the end it’s all about terminology.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: Moving on to talk about your other productions, how was “The Game” for you?

Ula: We filmed it back in 2014 so it was a few years ago. It was incredible. It was a brand new experience to work with a much bigger crew and budget. Also the story was set in the 1960s so it wasn’t contemporary. We were quite pressed for time as we had only 5 weeks to complete three episodes and there was a lot to learn.

As on every job, I gain more confidence and build on my experience. My gaffer Andrew ‘Tala’ Taylor was fantastic at his job, but he needed to see that I was technically capable so he tested me as gaffers sometimes do.

It was a privilege to be first-block cinematographer, with the very experienced cinematographer Sam McCurdy doing the second one.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: How do you find your own take on one of the more frequently featured locations such as MI5?

Ula: Before I came on the project, the location for MI5 was already chosen. Niall MacCormick, the director and Michael Howells, the production designer, loved the idea of setting it in the brutalist architecture of the old Birmingham Library. It was about showing old royal locations like Whitehall versus the modern brutalist MI5. The library was about to relocate to a new building and they gave us a permission to film. It had the most beautiful concrete pattern on the ceiling but as the building was in disrepair, a lot of the lighting fixtures weren’t working. I wanted to use the available light with minimal stands on set, so we had the challenge of replacing the old fixtures and adding new ones for the desired exposure and camera composition.

The main concept of this location was that one can be watched from every corner. Michael used the entire floor and set up glass dividers which swivelled horizontally to avoid camera reflections.

Our gaffer Tala had the tricky task of adding additional fixtures in the spaces which became the interview and conference rooms. It was difficult because the concrete ceiling wasn’t amenable for hanging the fluorescent fixtures. We had electricians working for over a week to install the additional required lights according to my lighting plans. I also used diffusers to give an overall softer feel. We shot “The Game” before newer LED technology had fully entered the market, so the fixtures were heavier and less controllable than they are today.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

To add to the feeling of being observed, right at the beginning of Episode 1 we used a long zoom-out shot where you see part of the location. This ended up being one of my favourite set ups of the show. I was inspired by the composition of “Parallax View” and usage of zooms on “The Conversation”.

Michael Howells was such a fantastic designer and tragically passed away last year. I was deeply saddened, especially as I always hoped to work with him again. His talent and charisma were so inspiring. There was always a great composition to find, a reflection in the table to catch.

Kirill: I liked the visual warmth of the place. Compared to the usual militaristic setups with steel grays and blues, it felt quite a nice place to work at with all the yellows and reds, even though it’s a spy headquarters.

Ula: I think Sam McCurdy, the second block cinematographer, went colder for the second part. I didn’t want to go with the green monochrome look which is often seen in these locations but still tried to maintain the mixed colour temperatures. So MI5 had a slightly colder fluorescent look and houses were mainly lit by warm practicals, with streetlights of sodium vapour orange lights. It made a contrast with a miners’ strike blackout which was part of the storyline. For that we used blueish steel color to give it a look of moonlight.

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: When you have three full episodes with a lot of recurring sets, do you try to find different angles to keep the storytelling less repetitive?

Ula: We also had different lighting setups like those with the miners’ strike. I think the key with the long boardroom scenes where many characters had their lines, was not to cover from every single angle. There must be a multilayered approach to filming. We had fantastic actors who played it like a game of poker, where the power of who holds the winning cards is always changing. We tried to cover the scene with that in mind and allude to who is leading the conversation. Also, Toby Whithouse, the writer, included some fun montages away from the main dialogue, visually describing the storyline.

Kirill: Does it help that digital cameras are more compact and don’t require as much space to work with for the interior sequences?

Ula: I shot on Sony F65 – it had a really good colour separation, superb blacks and I was obsessed with the camera capabilities. For the smaller spaces which were difficult to get to, like the closets or bathrooms we used F55. The F65 is a big camera and for some reason, everyone was a bit scared by the size of it, despite the fact it was mounted on the dolly which itself took up most of the space!

Cinematography of “The Game” by Ula Pontikos.

Every project for me has a different approach. When I start a new project, as part of the visualisation process, I test a combination of lenses and camera choices. For “The Game”, F65 and Master Primes felt like a right choice for the project.

On the other hand, when we did “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, there was a certain level of softness on the Alexa which I really liked. I wanted to shoot on film, but for budgetary reasons we couldn’t.

As part of the prep for my projects, I do tests and sit down with the director to discuss what combination works best for the mood and feel. For example, I had seen an exhibition by Rinko Kawauchi at the Photographer’s Gallery. Her work is intimate and personal and feels like a captured memory in time. She uses a lot of vailing lens flares which add to the intimacy. For “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” the flares become the memory. We used Uncoated Master Primes to capture that.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: What kind of discussions happened before the production on “Film Stars” began? How deep did you go into discussing the look, as well as the approach to visualising the time jumps in that story?

Ula: Even before I met up with the director Paul McGuigan, I had a hunch that the story would be told in a less conventional way. I knew that the studio sets were going to be our New York and Los Angeles.
To prep for the interview, I read both the script and Peter Turner’s memoir. Peter’s book freely jumped between the present storyline of Liverpool and the memory of his romance with Gloria Grahame which took place in London, New York and LA. So when I finally met Paul, we talked in detail of how to do the transitions, as Paul always wanted to keep the essence and structure of the book in line with the film adaptation.

Paul had already spent time with the production designer Eve Stewart, discussing how the transitions would work. The inspiration was from Gloria Grahame’s 1940s and 1950s movies together with the film techniques of that era. Eve designed composite setups where past and present are joined together. So she combined a big back projection beach set with a small Liverpool corridor; and rotational beds for both the London scenes where their romance began and those in Turner’s house when Gloria was ill.

We also talked about memory, as I mentioned before, and the usage of vailing flares and the feeling of the colour and light of the US locations. In the 1980s all Liverpool streets were lit with Sodium Vapour lights and that became our main palette for the present storyline. The three of us had long discussions about bringing a different color palette to each location and time.

I remember one of the reviews mentioned that the wallpaper in the Liverpool flat was too busy. We had studied original pictures from Peter’s house, and the wallpaper there was equally bonkers.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: When you sit down to talk about your potential involvement in a new project, is it important for you to have similar sensibilities to those of your major potential collaborators such as the director and the production designer?

Ula: It would be exhausting to work on a project where my ideas completely differed from the director’s. It is important to discuss the look during the interviewing process. But on the other hand, it is also good to challenge and be challenged – it’s beneficial to the project and some creative differences are inevitable. That what makes part of the process fun.

Usually on feature films, the director has been there for much longer, and they already have some ideas on how to approach the script. Sometimes it’s even more personal if it’s a script that they wrote. You need to be respectful of it, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge that either. It’s a collaborative process. There has to be someone with the overall vision to drive all the departments, but then my role is to have creative ideas as well to push boundaries.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: The rotational transition that you mentioned earlier was my favorite part of “Film Stars”, as it goes from the sunny happy place in his memories, back to the colder atmosphere of a few years later. How much effort went into that setup?

Ula: It was the rotational bed! I did something similar in “Lilting” where we panned the camera 360 degrees and actors changed clothes behind the camera. This one was much more complicated. Eve constructed a mouse hole for Jamie to run through, and changed his clothes as soon as the camera panned away from him and Annette Bening making love in the bed in the London set. Meanwhile someone else helped Annette to put on a blue shirt and another crew member changed the bedding and lamps to fit to the Liverpool set continuity. All of it had to happen within one rotation. There was no post production trickery. It was also very important to keep the exposure and lighting according to mood changes. I remember it took us about 15 or 18 takes to get the right one. It was very funny to hear all the noise of reshuffling and redressing which happened behind the camera. And the camera pan had to be precise which was not at all easy with the tabletop-like design. It was pretty tricky to fit the camera on that contraption.

Kirill: It might take two or three seconds on the screen, and it’s only the crew and cast on set who know how much work went into something that appears almost effortless. Do you mind that the viewers might not necessarily appreciate the amount of work that goes into such scenes?

Ula: It should feel unlaboured. The on-set challenges do not matter, and the technicalities shouldn’t take the viewer away from the story. If the viewer is transported and doesn’t notice the trickery, you’ve done the right thing.

The idea for the “Film Stars” was that the memory is floating and comes around. You look at one thing and it reminds you of something else. And then you’re transported to another dimension, and this was the visual interpretation of it.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: Another one of my favorites was the night scene at the beach where they look at this huge shiny moon. I loved the visual aspect of it where his memories seem to be over-exaggerating how it really looked that night. How was that scene done at the technical level?

Ula: The whole scene was done as back projection. We brought Lester Dunton who holds the Guiness world record for the biggest back projection. It was an 80-feet wide screen with 4 x 40K Barco Projectors all meticulously lined up not to show any breaks in the image. The plate was shot by Stefan Lange on newly released Alexa 65. Initially to keep the authenticity and because we were already filming some plates, we wanted to shoot the plates in LA. For the heightened ‘mood’ I wanted to shoot near the sunset and grade the image day for night. Unfortunately the sunset on the California coast in July was setting too far right, so Stefan suggested shooting it in Kent which worked brilliantly. Especially since we were very lucky with the clouds covering the sun to give more of a moonlight feel.

“In a Lonely Place”, directed by Gloria’s ex-husband Nicholas Ray, a similar technique was used on their beach set, using back projection, due to film stock limitations. Despite not being a realistic setup, the core emotion of the story didn’t suffer and we found the old school techniques were really magical. We had been inspired by Gloria Grahame’s film work and wanted to pay homage to old film trickeries.

On the sets of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. Courtesy of Ula Ponikos, photography by Stefan Lange.

One of the challenges of modern back projections were the native colour temperature, which sits around 7000k. At the time, the sky panels had just entered the market and most of them were rented out to the next door sets of “Star Wars”. We had to improvise differently, since I wasn’t keen on putting gels on lights to get the colour right. So I asked Lester to bring an additional projector which I put on the small crane and bounced it into a ultrabounce to give a slight spark into Annette’s eyes. We used the same plate to keep exact colour balance.

We didn’t want to do elaborate digital touch-ups and I was very nervous of having any colour balance mishaps which could become problematic later in the grade.

Another challenge was to keep the projection screen filling the frame and not coming off during the steadicam move to the Liverpool set with Jamie Bell. It looks effortless, but there were a lot of talented people working to make it happen.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite scene in “Film Stars” or are they all your babies, in a sense?

Ula: I believe that on every project there is the defining scene: the essence of the story where all comes together. For me, the defining scene was when Gloria told Peter not to notify the family about her illness. To heighten the mood, I took the fresnel lens out of the fixtures to create the shimmer of raindrops projecting onto the wall. I love the lighting contrast on the faces. But most importantly, Annette’s performance gave me goosebumps when I was filming the scene. I felt really close to the character and empathizing with her decisions. I also felt that we understood what was it all about. It’s hard to explain. It takes a while for everyone to exactly know what story you are making. You fall in love with the script and the ideas, but it takes a few weeks to really figure the essence of the story. For me there are always one or two defining scenes in a film when I just get it. It just might take some time to find that moment.

On the sets of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. Courtesy of Ula Ponikos, photography by Stefan Lange.

Kirill: Speaking of such emotional scenes, do you ever find yourself having to step away from those emotions, as you are in charge to capture that moment, to find the right angle for it?

Ula: I love when it happens. It’s great. And actors respond to it as well. It encourages everyone when they see that it’s affecting you emotionally, and I think it’s important to share it. That’s when you know that you’re on the right path.

I do get involved, and it depends on the type of the project. It doesn’t work on every scene. Sometimes it gets quite technical, but when you get an emotional part, it’s also good to let the actors do what they do best, and let the camera observe it. Then you can watch the movie while you’re making it. It’s great.

Kirill: What stays with you a few years after a production is done? Do you remember only the good parts, the bad parts or some kind of a mix of two?

Ula: It depends on the project. The more time passes, the more of a viewer I become. I love watching films at festivals. I remember vividly when my first feature film “Weekend” premiered at the SXSW festival, I got moved by the audience reaction to this small budget movie: it’s at these moments I forget what happened on the film set and enjoy the film as a viewer.

Unfortunately I didn’t have that opportunity with “Film Stars” as I was on another project until I presented the film to the BSC viewers.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: Do you get to enjoy movies when you see them in the movie theater, or do you find yourself looking at the technical details of how specific shots were made?

Ula: I find it important to switch off my technical side and get engrossed with the story. Inevitably, the longer I work the harder it becomes. My partner is not in the film industry, and their experience can get tainted by my geekery over a shot or a lighting set up! As much as I can though, I try to enjoy the movie from the audience perspective and allow myself to be transported by the story. I just love movies.

Kirill: It still amazes me that I can sit in a dark room, look at a screen which is a hard rectangle of pixels and believe that I’m in the world of that story for however long that story happens to be told by its creators.

Ula: Yes, it is incredible but not only cinema has that power. Recently I went to see a play called “The Jungle” which was playing at the Playhouse in London. In there, we were led through the back of an ramshackle Afghan cafe, experiencing the smells of cooking. It was truly immersive experience which felt like being transported to Calais to the shanty town before it was bulldozered by the French police.

Cinematography of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” by Ula Pontikos.

Kirill: When you’re on a production, you are away from your family and friends for long stretches of time, and there’s a lot of pressure to keep it on time and budget. What keeps you going in this field?

Ula: I really love my job. It’s different. It’s magical. No two days are the same. It’s an endurance test for myself and the crew, it takes a lot of emotion and stamina, but it’s extremely fulfilling. It’s creative, and a fabulous way to earn a living

Kirill: If you look back at your studies, do you see that some people have left the industry after a few years of being exposed to the pace of it?

Ula: Stuart Bentley and I were the same year at NFTS, and we are still going [laughs]. There were six of us in the cinematography department, and all of us are working cinematographers. Nobody has stopped yet!

At the BSC there are many cinematographers who have retired from actively shooting on set but are still involved in the industry. For example, Nigel Walters is involved with the protection of cinematographers’ image rights via IMAGO, and others are teaching at the film school. It’s a vocation, not a job and and it’s hard to retire from it!

On the sets of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. Courtesy of Ula Ponikos, photography by Stefan Lange.

And here I’d like to thank Ula Pontikos for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of cinematography, and on what went into creating the worlds of “The Game” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, as well as for sharing the background materials for the interview. The film is out on BluRay, and other physical and digital formats. You can also find Ula on Instagram and Vimeo.

Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!