Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh on looking at light, place and mystery through the camera’s eye
Whether it’s an art, a craft or a science, filmmaking is undeniably good storytelling, and Stuart Dryburgh is one of the industry’s foremost visual storytellers. An Oscar-nominated cinematographer, he’s shot over 40 films over the course of his career, never losing his sense of adventure - nor his sense of humour - for a day job that ranges from hanging lights from a 17th storey window to imagining fantastical worlds in CGI.
Stuart’s adept at blending the technical with the poetic, bringing together the demanding schedules and construction-site scale of major film sets with the qualities of emotion, light and atmosphere that infuse cinematic narratives with a sense of place and time. He’s also turned his lens on a hugely varied selection of the world’s most visually stunning places - from lush landscapes in China to urban Philadelphia, from sun-soaked Italy to the windswept beaches of New Zealand, where he grew up. We asked him about how he explores and captures place, and how he goes about assembling and unfolding visual narratives: shot by shot, piece by piece.
Tell us about your background - how did you get into filmmaking?
My first calling as a kid was actually music - I wanted to be a radio DJ - but I was talked into doing something that required a university education. My father had studied architecture, and I liked to draw, so architecture seemed like a good choice.
The Auckland School of Architecture at the time was a very creative environment, exploring beyond the normal stretches of building design. There was a lot of social research, and interactive work with communities, and media beyond the pencil line: photography, video and sound recordings. I got interested in film and decided to do my final dissertation as a 16mm film. At the end of it they grudgingly gave me a degree, and I never embarrassed them by practising architecture. I carried on straight into filmmaking.
But I think there's a lot of crossover between architecture and the process of making a film, in the different stages of planning, construction and execution.
What do you see as the role of the cinematographer on the film?
Essentially, the camera lens is the tool through which the narrative is pulled.
We are probably the key visual storyteller on the film, next to the designer and editor.
So how does that visual storytelling work? How do you go about building the journey of the story through the frames that we see?
It comes down to point of view. Do you want to be an eye of God, where you stand back a long way and see something happen? Or do you want to be right inside it, where you really want to feel the visceral experience of one of the characters in the film? If that was the solution, we might do shots that follow somebody very closely - a shot that's right tight on their shoulder, seeing what they see.
How do you approach the places you’re working in?
What I try to do is to find what is beautiful, or important and exciting, or visually striking about a place before I've touched it - before we've worked any film magic at all, before we’ve painted a wall or brought in any furniture or added lighting or shade. Because in most cases that's why you choose a location: because it has some inherent quality.
For example, for Portrait of a Lady, I spent a week travelling around the Italian locations just doing photography with a stills camera, finding out what were the natural qualities, and what would I need to do to freeze those in time with lighting?
That's just me. Some people have a more theatrical approach to begin with, and they want to bring a particular style to the film. It’s not wrong, it's just different.
Is there a particular way you try to look at place, or a metaphorical ‘lens’ you try to bring to it?
There’s a film called To Live And Die In LA, made 20 odd years ago by a German cameraman, Robbie Muller. He was coming to Los Angeles and filming there for the first time, and that gave him a really unique view. He found freeway entrances and billboards, and a way of looking at the city that was unique. It gave you that sense of alienation - a city without a soul, with these characters just rattling around in it.
I hope that in a sense, every time I go to a new place, I bring a fresh eye to it.
We did a film like that in Berlin called Aeon Flux where we re-purposed a lot of really interesting Berlin architecture, old and new, modern and ancient, to be part of this imaginary city of the future.
So how do you go about starting to construct a sense of place for a film?
It's an interesting question because film is such a directed medium. It's not like virtual reality, where somebody comes into a space and gets to explore it. You direct their attention.
There’s a common method where you use a series of photographic images to give the viewer information about where this is. The term used in cinema is ‘establishing shot’. Woody Allen's film Manhattan is a great example of this. The beginning and end of the film are a series of shots of the city. There's a lot of information about place, very quickly conveyed, especially when you're talking about a city like New York, London, Paris or Tokyo - one of these recognisable places that also has a personality of its own.
Very often something about a location will determine how we stage a scene. For example, on Blackhat, the script called for a scene where there's a shootout in a fishing village in Hong Kong. But most of the fishing villages were kitschy or touristy. So we all went out and spread the net wide, and we came up with what's called the public container port, which is a place you literally just drive into and people load containers with recycling and junk, building materials, loaded on these barges. It was like nowhere we'd ever seen before. So instead of running down alleys between fishing village shacks, the scene became a labyrinth of containers and lanes and passages. It was very cool.
What role does place play in film?
Place is often very important to narrative, but how much of it you reveal and how important it is, varies from story to story, and from moment to moment within that story.
The question is, from a narrative point of view, do we need to know anything about the place? And how do we reveal it?
Say a character has to escape from a building. If he goes through this door, it will lead him to a corridor. If he goes through this other door, it will lead him to the guard room, where the bad guys are. Then you start working on the different techniques of showing that. At the end, because it's a selective medium, I decide: do I want to know that the obvious escape route is outside the door, or do I want that to be a surprise to the audience? Do I want them to go, "Oh my God, is he opening the right door?"
How does the process of finding the locations work, and choosing the actual places where you’ll shoot?
There’s a saying in my line of work: “50% of good photography is a great location!”
Often it begins before I start on a project, which can be as much as two or three months out from production. The production designer is one of the first people hired and he's been working with the director and with his location scouts to find the locations and to design any sets that are going to be built.
Once they've shortlisted the locations, when I join the production, we get in the van and we drive around. Say we're looking for a restaurant, we'll see three restaurants. There’s a practical consideration: will it work?
I had this with my current project. We needed a scene in a restaurant and they'd chosen a restaurant in Philadelphia - a beautiful room, an octagonal room with a high domed ceiling, big arched windows and a great view. The only problem was, it was on the 17th floor, and it was going to take us two days to shoot the scene we needed, during which I needed essentially to freeze time into a 20-minute window out of two cycles of dawn, day and dusk. The way I normally do that is with lighting. And so my first reaction was, "How the heck am I going to get the lights up there?”
Did you solve it?
Yeah. With my technical crew, we figured out a way of actually hanging some lights outside one of the main windows.
Once the cinematographer comes on, it gets real.
Are there any really memorable locations that have stayed with you?
I was taken to a location once on a commercial that was one of the most extraordinary places I've ever been to in my life, in the highlands of Venezuela. It was about 7,000 feet up. We follow the guide through the forest and we come to the creek and the guy says, “Can you all swim?” He dives into this pool, and we follow him.
We pull ourselves up this rope until we're inside what can only be described as a cave with a very narrow slot of light at the top. Somewhere in there is a waterfall. I know it’s a waterfall because I can hear it, but I can't see it. I'm thinking, "This is one of the most amazing places I've ever been... but it’s completely impossible to film. Even if we could get the equipment up here…”
Luckily, there was another more conventional waterfall downstream where we shot. But that place was amazing; just completely impractical from a filming point of view. It’s one of the most extreme places I've ever come across.
You've mentioned lighting a lot. What effect do you think it has on the audience and the story?
It's really crucial. I've always believed in the power of light, and in the intensity of light having an emotional element.
In The Piano we used colour to help to define the different places in the film. The beach was a place of silvers and greys and purple - very muted tones, almost monochromatic. The forest looked as if it was underwater, as it is linked to the end of the story, where the main character ends up underwater, and we wanted a submarine world. The world where Sam Neill's character lived was sort of burnt, all browns and red. We used filters on the camera, filters on the lights, and physical manipulation of the colour of the image to create these different moods. It's very much using light as a metaphor for emotion.
What other aspects create mood and place?
Sound in general is incredibly important. We record sound in almost every situation, even when it's not very good quality, and then it is also often created later by sound editors and Foley artists.
When you turn the sound down on a movie, somehow 50% of the power is lost. Usually, when we're doing the final colour grading, we’re usually working with the colourist in a room, just the two of us. We're purely dealing with the image but I really try to make sure I've heard the film at least once through.
In this digital age, how do you create a sense of place within a CGI environment or virtually created environment?
That has become an incredibly well developed science, or craft, whatever you want to call it. The production designer and his concept artists will often produce just a single concept painting. Any world or element that we want it to exist in the movie is then usually built as a 3D wireframe, rendered and finished to quite a high degree.
We build what we call a proxy set: the elements that are required to cast shadows or people have to interact with, like step, stairs, archways. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, for instance, we have this one scene where they walk past a waterfall, and so we created a lighting effect made of some shimmering scenographic material with lights on it. You can then essentially insert into this live action photography into the virtual world.
Does it make creating or inventing places harder, because your imagination can basically run riot?
It does! But sooner or later it will have to get locked in and approved, so the set can be built to those specifications.
You need to be able to trust your planning and use your imagination. On Alice, I really wanted Time’s castle, which was dark and forbidding, to be essentially upside down, so that the sea of time underneath it flows around all these galleries and walkways. Things like that is where my concept gets into the model.
But when you build a physical set, essentially the same process goes on. Sometimes the production designer is basically looking at the script and saying, "Well, it needs a grand salon, it needs a library." Those things are easy, but it also requires a journey. It needs a certain amount of mystery and exploration.
What do you think placemakers can learn from a cinematographer’s point of view?
Myself, I can’t necessarily see a direct connection, but I think you could look at the way a story unfolds narratively and apply that into the design process. There are already great examples of it, like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where it's incredibly well conceived design storytelling. Even a park or even a shopping mall could have those qualities.
As a cinematographer, what we do more than anything else is use lighting to create the image. I also think if you were designing an urban space that you wanted to have a certain mood, you could definitely do worse than look at some films and see the quality of light and quality of the space within those films, and match the intention of the space to those.
From lighting, drama and memorable places, we ask Stuart to tell us about a place that holds a story for him - Karekare Beach in Auckland, New Zealand, one of the country’s most wild and windswept black sand surf beaches on the west coast of the North Island.
Why have you chosen Karekare?
I tend to come back to places that I have a strong emotional connection to, and the West Coast features strongly in my own life because it was the location for The Piano. But the main thing is that it's just so powerful. The sky just seems bigger and bluer, and the clouds wilder and the wind, everything - it's like an overpowering exposure to the natural world.
Are there other stories here?
There are historical stories that people would tell you about it. There was a Maori pa [a type of fortified village] where a terrible massacre took place.
So there are also those back stories, but you have to be told those. The place doesn't necessarily reveal them, but what it does reveal is the power of the nature and the awe of being a very small human being in a very big world.