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 I was not very good 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!
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 production 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 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.
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.
Sometimes we over mystify the roll of the DP. 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 (read
more here), 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
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 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 rolls 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 emotional beats.
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 of it.
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 for that.
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 many 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 of recognition.
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 inc the DOP 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 two episodes.
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 and director.
I've watched that particular episode at a BSC screening and I enjoyed the story. I enjoyed Cara Delevingne's performance. 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.
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 this too, 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 Allen. 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 famous dictum).
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 (Ep 2 05.40) 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 flies 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 conspicuous 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 lens and being in the visceral contact with that
These three things are absolutely magic. What’s not to like? As with all serious 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 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.
Yes, 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 the insanity.
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-glamourise 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.
It's very easy to over-glamourise 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.
Interview by Kirill Grouchnikov -