Cinematography of "Hanna" by Ollie Downey.

Cinematography of “Hanna” – interview with Ollie Downey

August 7th, 2020
Cinematography of "Hanna" by Ollie Downey.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Ollie Downey. His work in the last few years can be seen in productions such as “Electric Dreams”, “Harlots”, “Britannia”, “Temple” and others. In this interview, Ollie talks about the cinematography of the second season of Amazon’s “Hanna” that takes us all across Europe, as well as diving deep into a whole new training facility known as the Meadows.

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

Ollie: I always intended to study Fine Art, but had a last minute change of heart. I loved painting but ultimately it was too isolating – I enjoy being around people too much to be standing at an easel all day. I have vivid memories of catching “North by Northwest” on TV when I was very young, and being mesmerised by the imagery. I also spent a big portion of my early teens discovering all those great Coppola and Scorsese films you do at that age. After College a pal got a job as a 3rd AD on a low budget Feature, and they needed a Runner. I really enjoyed it, and just being on set cemented my interest in Camera and Lighting. From there I worked my way up through the Camera Department, always DPing little low budget Shorts and Promos on weekends. After about 10 years the DPing took over from the assisting.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not in your industry, how difficult is it to convey the complexity of what it is that a cinematographer does?

Ollie: I think most people believe you stand there with a camera on your shoulder all day. I tend to say that I’m responsible for the lighting and framing of the show, working with the Production Designer to set the mood.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: Between finding the right artistic expression to tell the story and the technical side of things (lenses, camera bodies, etc), is one more important than the other for you?

Ollie: It’s absolutely the artistic expression of the script that is the most important to me. I think it’s good to forget about the technical aspect altogether until you’ve got your head around the script. Once you understand the story and characters, your visual references fall into place and the technical approach follows.

Kirill: Looking at some of the work you’ve done in the last few years, it spans different genres and periods – from “Temple” to “Electric Dreams”, from “Hanna” to “Harlots”. Is it your intent to explore different genres?

Ollie: Absolutely. I think it’s really important not to repeat yourself. One of the most satisfying parts of the job is creating the look in Prep. Building a library of references and letting that dictate your camera package, lens choices, framing and lighting style.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Hanna”, what brought you to it?

Ollie: I really enjoyed Joe Wright’s 2011 film and its mix of genres. Like most people I’d caught the Super Bowl advert for the first Season, and really enjoyed the show. Subsequent seasons aren’t always an attractive proposition as the look has already been established, but Dana Gonzalez had done such a wonderful job of setting up Season 1. It felt like there was still plenty of room to explore.

In addition the people involved made it very interesting. Series Producer Laura Hastings-Smith produced Justin Curzel’s “Macbeth” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”, and Eva Husson and David Farr were Directing Blocks 1 and 3. Eva comes from a French independent cinema background, and David is the show’s creator. He also wrote the original film directed by Joe Wright. They are different directors, but both very interesting.

Kirill: How did you approach coming into a second season of a show with an established world and look?

Ollie: I think it’s important to be respectful to what has come before, and Dana’s work (particularly in the first Ep ‘Forest’) was a great inspiration. It’s sophisticated, sensitive and cinematic. So whilst the look had to evolve, we wanted to bring the sensitivity of Dana’s imagery into this expansive new world. Whilst Season 1 had a fairy tale or fable like quality, Series 2 is very much a coming of age story with mother / daughter relationships at its core. Although it’s still part action thriller, there’s a real vulnerability to it. The cinematography had to reflect that, and needed to be sympathetic to the emotional state of the ‘recruits’ (the orphaned young women in the training programme).

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: With more than one cinematographer working on the second season, how do you find the balance between bringing your voice and making the whole arc consistent to me as a viewer?

Ollie: I think it’s really important that whatever you do as a cinematographer, it’s motivated by what’s in the script. If everyone adheres to that, it gives visual consistency. We also designed a LUT [lookup table] in prep that all 3 blocks shot with, which gave us our basic look in camera. Props here also to the brilliance of Carly Reddin’s Production Design, Anthony Unwin’s Costume Design, and Sian Wilson’s Hair and Make Up design. What they put in front of the camera also gave great visual continuity. Ugla Hauksdottir and Stephen Murphy did a great job of ensuring that Eps 4 – 6 worked with everything that we’d set up.

Kirill: It felt to me that the second season had a much larger diversity of locations and sets throughout its arc. How busy was that schedule for you?

Ollie: Busy! The travel was one of the most enjoyable (but challenging) parts of the job. We shot the first 3 Episodes over 10 weeks in London, Wales, Paris and Dunkirk, and finished with 2 months in Barcelona shooting the last two Episodes of the series. It was busy but great fun. You really have to trust your HOD’s, because the logistics can be quite daunting.

Fortunately, John Hembrough (Camera Operator) and Phil Whittaker (Grip) are regular collaborators and they are brilliant. I also worked with Andy Bailey (Gaffer) for the first time, and he and his team did a great job across wildly different terrains, from drizzly forests in North Wales, to 5th floor apartments without lifts in Paris on the hottest day ever recorded there (42° C!). The final two Eps were the busiest though. Barcelona is (Creator/Exec/Writer/Director) David Farr’s favourite city and we were determined to show it off in all its glory. It was logistically challenging as we were often shooting two locations a day, but we worked in some wonderful places, and were fortunate to be working with an excellent local crew. Spanish Gaffer, Jose Luis Gonzalez was running two teams (a shooting crew and a rigging crew) for the duration and really worked wonders.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: What motivated the decision to go with mostly natural lighting, and was that limiting in some cases?

Ollie: So first block Director Eva Husson’s background is in French Independent cinema, and she was keen that the visuals were subtle. She felt that the story lines were heightened enough without flashy cinematography. That meant shying away from any visual tropes like shafts of light, haze or uncorrected green fluorescents. I agree with Harris Savides’ belief that if you are aware of the cinematography, then you aren’t fully invested in the story telling, and it was vital that we connected with the characters (and in particular the younger members of cast). So although the show was traditionally lit, we were aiming for something a little more naturalistic.

Kirill: How challenging was it to film forest scenes?

Ollie: Forests are never straight forward! Mobility and weather inevitably slow you down. We also had lots of short scenes – characters traveling to and from locations and it’s challenging to keep those visually interesting. Prepping thoroughly is vital – we knew exactly where tracks could be laid, and decking would be needed, well in advance. Phil Whittaker and his Grips team did a great job in arduous terrain.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: I loved the navy and bright orange colors in girls’ rooms in the Meadows facility. What kinds of discussions went into defining color palettes for the sets in this season?

Ollie: We were very fortunate to have a great Production Designer in Carly Reddin. She did a brilliant job working across all 3 blocks simultaneously, often in different countries. Initially there would be long conversations between Eva, Carly and myself based on Carly’s designs. Occasionally we would shoot tests to see how something looked on camera. We were also aware that some elements from Season 1, like the Trainees jump suits, had to be accommodated. The show definitely becomes more colourful as the Season progresses.

Kirill: How did you approach filming the fight between Marissa and Hanna in the truck? How do you convey the constrained physical space in such an environment?

Ollie: We shot the exterior truck work on location in the port at Dunkirk and the interiors back at our Unit Base (and main location) just outside London. Our stunt team choreographed the fights. They would shoot and edit rough sequences whilst prepping, and then forward them on to us for approval or notes. Led by Lee Sheward they did a great job of designing a fight that worked in such a constrained physical space. Because we were shooting in mid-summer, we had to tent the truck for lighting continuity, as the roof was translucent. We then punched sky panels through the roof which gave us our base level. We shot close on wide lenses partly through necessity, but also to accentuate how claustrophobic the space was.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: How much planning and preparation went into the scene where Hanna is walking through the Passway medical facility after she took that pill?

Ollie: It was a tricky shot because we had to avoid the cameras reflection as it follows Esme towards the smaller room at the far end, and then also figure out a way to see her reflection in one way mirrored glass as she sits down. So the Art Department put in a piece of glass that could be angled to avoid John Hembrough, our camera operator, being reflected on the way in. Once we were happy with the travel, we removed the glass and shot a plate of Esme sitting down from the POV of the mirrored glass (matching distances, lens length, lens height, angle and stop) and comped it in.

Kirill: What motivated the choice of lighting, soft focus and blurred edges in the flashbacks in episodes 7 and 8 where Carmichael is meeting with Robert Gelder?

Ollie: We wanted to play on the impressionistic nature of memories so we shot with some old C-Series Anamorphics wide open (and then cropped them to 2:1 aspect ratio). They are beautiful old lenses and full of imperfections or aberrations.

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

Kirill: How did it feel to sit down and watch the show when it was released? Can you fully enjoy it as a “regular” viewer, or do you catch yourself thinking what you could have done differently?

Ollie: I think you’re usually pleasantly surprised. The last time you see it before transmission is in the grade when it’s easy to fixate on little things that you could have done differently. When you’re watching it on the run, and with sound, it makes a huge difference.

Kirill: What stays with you after a production is over?

Ollie: It depends on the production – after “Hanna” it was how lucky we were to be traveling all over Europe doing a job that we love. We had a great team of people both behind and in front of the camera.

Kirill: Do you see the light at the end of this Corona “tunnel”?

Ollie: Obviously it’s going to take some time for the Industry to adapt. Shooting schedules may have to expand to allow for safe practices, and foreign travel may be limited for a while. Insurance though may be the biggest hurdle. Some of the larger streaming services may be able to look after themselves, but they will be in the minority. If a key member of cast or crew becomes ill and you have to stand down for a couple of weeks, the cost is astronomical for an insurer. Fingers crossed, the new Government insurance package in the UK makes a difference.

Kirill: Ignoring this forced break, what keeps you going in this field?

Ollie: I think it’s a mix of being pretty bad at everything else, and genuinely loving what I do. The excitement at the beginning of every new project, the camaraderie, the people, that common goal…

Cinematography of “Hanna” by Ollie Downey.

And here I’d like to thank Ollie Downey for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of ciematography. You can find more of his work on Vimeo and Instagram. The first and the second seasons of “Hanna” are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.