Art and Craft of Cinematography – interview with Tony Miller BSC
by Kirill Grouchnikov”
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”.
Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.
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.
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
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!
Is there anything that still surprises you when you join a new production?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
When you meet somebody new at a party and they ask you what do you do for a living, how do you convey this complexity of art, technology, politics, managing people, managing budget and so many other things?
I never tried. I take a lot of it for granted – I just do it.
Your question is making me think about it right now, because you’re
asking me. I guess much of it comes from experience through the years
– that is something that definitively matters in cinematography.
It is a profession that requires many skills. One key one is communication
– and finding a collaborative way to work with all crew. They
contribute so much, and I often find my gaffer has many great ideas
that enhance and develop what I want to do. Same with the grips and
the rest of the crew. Cinematography is always collaborative.
I have a very good friend who’s a surgeon. Now he actually goes
out saving people’s lives. He operates the da Vinci machine,
and just recently he removed someone’s prostate in Brazil when
he was in London. That’s something, and he has to manage a huge
array of things – a big team, research, follow ups, a complex
technical machine that’s always changing and evolving…
and then his suffering patients. Sometimes we over mystify the role
of the DP.
In some ways there is cross over with all these professions…
unlike the surgeon who deals with real lives, we play with train sets
and pretend it is a matter of life and death!
Getting closer to “Fleabag” and “Carnival Row”, how do you choose your productions?
It depends. Sometimes you go through a period when you don’t
have a lot of choice, and sometimes you have lots of choices.
If we talk about “Fleabag”, I’d never really wanted
to do comedy. But then I met Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I interviewed with
Phoebe and Harry Bradbeer the director, (whom had asked me to work
with him before). Phoebe had such a sharp and layered sense of what
she wanted to do with this comedy. She saw it as a film about life
and not as a comedy. She was utterly inspiring and challenging and
it was a very easy choice. I turned down a movie to do it.
The challenge on that job was to break the fourth wall. Fleabag turns
to us – the camera – and in a way, she makes us all complicit.
She’s talking to us, and we all relate to the Fleabag character
through the camera. In a way, she reflects our own experience.
We chose the anamorphic 2.39-1 format as we wanted it to be naturalistic
but also cinematic. We wanted Fleabag to be radiant and beautiful
every time she turned to us. We absolutely didn’t want this
to be theatrical in any sense, and by that, I mean anything that was
We wanted it to be naturalistic and if we felt the cinematography
then we had failed. I spent lots of time shooting tests with all the
lenses at different heights, getting to know Phoebe’s face,
so that by the time we came to shoot it, we had a shorthand and an
instinctive set of tools. I handheld the whole film, as it gave me
an immediacy and I became another player in the drama. I insisted
on operating it – the camera was another player and I could
not have separated the roles of DP and operator.
I had not intended to go back and shoot series 2 having consciously
avoided series 2’s previously. Phoebe just called up and said
I had to do it. And I am really happy that I did as she produced such
an amazing sequel that has such depth and maturity.
I believe that that series is highly layered with emotional beats.
One of the reasons it’s so good is that Phoebe implicates us
all in so many ways. Secondly, it’s very funny. And thirdly,
I think that we hopefully managed to shoot it in a way that underscored
that without drawing attention to the cinematography. In the end,
you have to really understand the material you’re shooting.
That is one of the most important things to me.
If you ask me how do I react to a script, it’s all about the
And then “Carnival Row” is a completely different kind of show.
The only thing “Fleabag” and “Carnival Row”
have in common is that they are both Amazon shows. Fleabag was a very
small budget and I think “Carnival Row” is the biggest
show they’ve ever made. Doing noir-style period dark drama is
more my bag historically and what I have done the most of. But in
a way they demand similar skills of course.
“Carnival Row” had a variety of cinematographers, and
that’s not traditionally what I like to do. Most of the work
I’ve done has been mini-series, movies of the week, feature
films or TV drama series I’ve shot entirely myself. There’s
not many that I’ve done that had multiple DPs. It can make it
hard to keep visual consistency. But it was a challenge and fantastic
to work on such a large canvas.
Does it feel sometimes unpredictable
what gets popular with the audiences, and what seems to never quite
find its own niche and fades away quickly?
It does. In terms of recognition, probably some of the best work I
think I’ve ever done was with Brothers Quay. They’re Pennsylvanian
identical twins with a niche arthouse following. The work I’ve
done with them has been seen by a few people, but I’m very proud
There’s quite a lot of films that have a political content to
them that I care about. “Small Island” got a lot of recognition
but not necessarily a huge audience, and I was nominated for a BAFTA
I think the arena’s changed with all the viewing platforms.
To get on a big Netflix or Amazon series, you have to be doing work
that gets big viewing figures. Regardless of what people say, you
get hired for the size of the show you shot and how successful it
is. It’s less to do with your talent, unfortunately.
I’ve had 30 or 40 offers of comedy in the last two years since
I did “Fleabag”, and I’ve turned them all down.
I don’t want to be typecast for comedy, and I don’t know
what I could contribute.
It’s the same with the awards. I gave up thinking whether I
would win an award for this or that. Being nominated for Emmy’s
or Bafta’s is great of course. The award that I’m really
proud of is the BSC award for a show I did with Gabriel Byrne, “Quirke”,
because it was from my peers and other cinematographers. But as far
as awards go, you just cannot judge what’s going to win in terms
My advice to young cinematographers is always to be careful with building
the profile of your career, and that means doing mainstream work.
But also do the small projects and be varied in what you do. Make
sure you do work that your heart is in.
Speaking of scripts, do you find that the more interesting ones come from episodic / streaming productions and not necessarily from the feature film world?
I’ve read about 7 or 8 movie scripts this year, all in $3-8M
bracket, and I’ve been unconvinced that any of them will a get
a decent theatrical release. I’ve done about 8 movies, and none
of them had a serious theatrical release. They’ve just died,
and that’s really tragic. You put so much effort in it, and
some of them don’t even surface on IMDB.
Episodic TV series are wonderful at the moment. The scripts are so
good. There’s so much money that is available for some of the
shows. When you have $6-10M an hour or more, that’s huge. You
can also tell a story in longer form. But it’s not just that.
That’s where the interesting projects seem to be at the moment.
And some of them are just starting. Look at Apple, YouTube, Disney,
NBC – they’re all only just kicking off. It’s the
golden era of TV.
That reminds me of episode 3 on “Carnival Row” which is the back story of how the two main characters meet. Certainly, if it was a feature film, there wouldn’t be as much time to explore that back story.
It was a complicated project at the start with a few key personnel
including the DP and director getting fired and so there were a number
of DPs working on the first two episodes, including myself. Never
a great way to start.
And then episode 3 was the only one that had its own narrative arc
which I shot from beginning to end. The earlier episodes were re-shot
and re-cut to put them together. In a way, that’s how sometimes
these big series work. For me episode 3 (“Kingdoms of the Moon”)
was the most enjoyable, because it had the most coherence.
I loved how that episode fully opened the third dimension for the fairy characters to inhabit. How did you approach designing and defining those viewpoints to bring us into this vertical world?
Working with Anna Foerster the director was fantastic. She worked
with Roland Emmerich as his director of photography before becoming
a director. She was a highly talented and demanding to work for, but
I got on extremely well with her and we became great friends.
From the beginning our references were very much around that vertical
world. We looked at the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and his
Escher-like drawings. The paintings of Atkinson Grimshaw. We looked
at honeybee hunters in Nepal, and their vertical world of precariously
climbing cliffs to get honey out of various areas. It was part documentary,
part fiction and part art. Our interest was at all time to exaggerate
the sense of the vertical world and make it feel dangerous.
We used drones, technocranes and cameras hanging off cliffs, we picked
our locations carefully. It sounds banal, but they were very critical
elements in how we formulated the look for that episode. Due to the
early departure in the first couple of weeks of the original DP, I
had a lot of license to establish a look, and that was a big help
for both Anna and I. We were able to very much enjoy shooting those
How do you prepare for the integration of visual effects in your shots?
Anna (Foerster) had done loads of second units as DP on visual effects,
so she’s a master at them. You take that together with Betsy
Paterson who was the fantastic VFX supervisor on “Carnival Row”.
She’s absolutely wonderful and was brilliant to work with. I
had recently done a VFX heavy version of Peter Pan.
The three of us worked collaboratively. Every sequence that had VFX
in it was storyboarded, and we worked on it as a team. You asked about
filmmaking earlier, and that’s an instance where we’re
all using our experience or knowledge collectively for the best of
the production. I should also add our stunt coordinator Steve Griffin
who helped us put this together. It’s really an integration
of all departments, starting with Anna’s experience.
As some time passes after your involvement with one of you production ends, and you sit down do watch it for the first time, do you get to enjoy the story or do you look at how the whole thing was put together in post-production?
I do both. I’m not a big fan of the grade on “Carnival
Row”. It’s quite crushed, and blacks are very dark. I
would grade the beats to be more accessible in the blacks and not
quite as dark. But neither Anna or I were involved in the grade as
is often the way – which is one of those strange things about
big series that really needs to change. I cannot imagine any of the
“Fleabag” team not wanting full involvement of the DP
watched that particular episode at a BSC screening and I enjoyed the
story. I enjoyed Cara Delevingne’s performance. She’s
a top supermodel and we don’t expect supermodels to be able
to act, but she can. She does it rather brilliantly. In some ways
I think she’s the strength that underscores the male lead, Orlando
Bloom. There are always discoveries. It’s always interesting
seeing the work and thinking how I would have done that better or
what would I have done differently.
It’s the problem with our craft of cinematography. You look
at things and you think “I could have done that better”
or “I remember I wasn’t feeling well that day, and I shouldn’t
have done that”. You do these things in retrospect and in your
sleep. You wake up and think that you could have done this better.
As you talk about making mistakes and thinking about how to do it better, would you say that storytelling is subjective in a sense that there are different ways to tell the same story?
Absolutely. The big thing is making mistakes, holding your hand up
and saying “Yeah, I missed that, let’s alter course ”
or “let us go with your idea, it is better than what I am proposing”.
I’m pretty decisive on set because I have to be.
There’s a real sense of, as you said, that there’s many
ways to do things, and there’s not always one right way. You
need to underscore your decision-making process with covering all
the emotional beats of the story and lighting the emotion of the scene.
Conrad Hall is the high supreme master of so much of this. Or Edward
Hopper the painter, who would light the scene around the drama. You
look at the image and you imagine a story off that canvas.
Edward Hopper created stories off the canvas. He led you emotionally
to create a story of that picture. His pictures very much tell stories,
which is why they’re cinematic. It’s exactly what a cinematographer
at his best should do – which is to create the mood around the
image that you’re filming. Conrad Hall did this and Vittorio
Storaro is the master of that, although sometimes for me it becomes
too theatrical and I am too aware of the cinematography. But in “Apocalypse
Now” and some of his Bertolucci films it is remarkable how much
of the movie’s emotional language is in his lighting.
I’ve just done a Netflix series set in the 1890s with a great
young director Johnny Kenton. It’s a big series and we were
struggling with a gang of young guys who are at the centre of it.
I wanted to ground them, and somebody mentioned the “Fleabag”
technique. I tried that and it really helped to be close and wide
with them handheld and feel the visceral movements. We were quite
in their face in a way, and it really worked in a show that’s
a carefully lit period drama. Sometimes it takes someone completely
unrelated to come and suggest something, and it works when you’d
least expected it. Something that works against the style of the film
and helps to ground it and reveal it.
We as cinematographers need to be humble. Our crew help us, guide
us and steer us the right way. Being a cinematographer, I would say
it’s about experience, but also about being collaborative and
being able to make mistakes. That is key. Fight for what you truly
believe in and move on and alter course with ease when you know it
is better. “Hold on tightly, let go lightly”. (Peter Brook’s
You probably spend a lot of time obsessing over the different ways to tell that story. But if we’re talking about me as a viewer, do you want me to notice your work, or do you want it to appear almost effortless and not call any attention to itself?
I mostly want to be effortless. I come from a documentary background,
and I feel that if you’re aware of the cinematography, then
I failed. And that applies to that most projects that I do, possibly
with the exception of the Brothers Quay.
With “Fleabag”, even though it breaks the fourth wall,
we tried hard to make the cinematography feel wholly integrated into
the drama, to the point that you do not feel aware of it.
There’s a shot in “Carnival Row” (05:40 into Episode
2, see image below) where we come down towards people getting out
the railway cars. It’s a wire cam shot, and it goes down the
railway line. There’s a guy welding on the railway line, and
then we ducked down underneath and a handkerchief fly’s down.
That’s a shot where it’s quite ostentatious. We’re
on a wire camera, it’s rigged with four cranes with stabilizers,
it goes down and then our grips physically lift off a camera on a
stabeleye and carry it down. It’s a shot that I’m very
proud of because it’s an ostentatious shot that we tried hard
to ground with the background action, so that you didn’t totally
feel the cinematography.
I often avoid doing strong back light. I don’t like smoking
shafts, unless they’re motivated. To me the whole drama is always
about how we emotionally relate to this, how will we connect to it?
What keeps you going in this industry?
It’s three things:
One is I’m absolutely fascinated by cinematography. It’s
always difficult, it’s always challenging.
Two is fear. The first week on set I have stage fright and stage fright
is a great addictive drug!
Three. I love operating the camera. Looking through the eyepiece,
connecting to a new world when I do that, and watching the drama come
alive through the eyepiece and being in the visceral contact with
These three things are absolutely magic. What’s not to like
and like all drugs it’s very hard to cure the addiction. If
I did not do this, I would miss being on a set, I would miss the great
camaraderie of working with a team, and I would miss working and being
challenged by a director.
There’s such a privilege to be able to do cinematography, for
it is a craft and art that costs a huge amount of money and demands
a great deal of people and resources. You cannot go and do it in your
backyard on a scale very easily. Anyway, I like to think I am still
young (54) and this is making me sound old!
Perhaps that answers my last question, which was about whether you’d still be in this creative field if you had all the money in the world.
It’s such a privilege to do cinematography. We pretend it is
a matter of life and death and many producers will see it like that.
But ultimately it is just an art form.
Thinking about your earlier question, it is a pretty complex group
of skills that you bring to play. I’m a commercial pilot, and
one of the things I draw on for piloting is the need for precision.
You have to make the right decisions, and if you make the wrong decisions,
you have to correct them very quickly. And the same goes with cinematography,
it is an art of precision in the end.
There are all these disciplines, going back to looking at art when
I was growing up in Holland, listening to music, shooting documentaries
etc – they feed so much into the art of cinematography. It’s
a multi-skilled discipline in a way. So often you might have all those
skills, but you can’t pull them together. I sometimes see young
cinematographers that only talk about lighting. But how do you cope
with a difficult director or producer who doesn’t want to give
you what you need? How do you find your way through that, because
that’s a big element of what we have to do.
Part of being better at the politics, is trying to live well. That
can be hard for us filmmakers and I often take time out and do different
things away from filmmaking. On set when I am working, sleep is very
important. I try and make sure that I get at least 8 hours sleep a
night. That is private time away from a set, time to get back to some
semblance briefly of normality. I also always travel with my keyboard
and play the piano even if only for ten minutes a day – to curb
It feels that the common thread that runs through these interviews is that people truly love this field, and that they are in it because of that passion, and not for the money or the glamour.
I wonder what drives people to be in other fields? I had dinner a
few weeks ago with my surgeon friend, and I’m fascinated by
his life. He has huge knowledge, skill and experience and he cradles
people’s lives in his hands. He engages in the world in a way
that is far more real. We both carry huge responsibility and we were
discussing how different it was. We both take calculated risks. I
am going to do some work experience with him and see how he operates
physically and with his team!
It’s very easy to over-glamorize the role of cinematographer.
It is a hard life, an insecure life and a tough existence. I think
that the best cinematographers and the best directors that I know
are those who are down-to-earth.
I have had a very diverse career as a cinematographer and worked on
a wide range of projects. Part of that is conscious choice and part
is luck. I have been doing it for 30 years and I can’t think
of anything else I would rather be doing.
Interview by Kirill Grouchnikov -