Granted this is not a catchy title and as it suggests might not be everybody’s cup of tea but for slightly fixated people like myself it’s an endless source of joy and fun. In fact there is something about the tools that we use to make films that causes constant argument and infatuation. I was on speaker phone to my business partner the other day and we were getting very excited about different benefits of tripod makes when eventually his wife spoke up and asked us to question whether we actually had a life? I think she might have a point?!  However, when it comes to lenses, well that’s a whole different kettle of fish – surely anyone can see that?

So, for Lighthouse, what lenses and why? To start this story we really have to go back to way before Lighthouse as the choices ultimately came from a period of testing and experimenting that started with the last feature I shot with Chris Crow, Viking Saga – The Darkest Day. With this film we used a lot of 1970’s Canon FD stills lenses and placed glass objects in front to distort and diffract the light. We also used a lensbaby for one scene. We loved the layering that this gave as it became more of a texture than an effect, anything that looked like an effect was immediately binned but what we were left with we loved. After Darkest Day we shot a couple of pop promos and then a tease for Lighthouse, both of which built on these lens choices, pushing them more into the world of visual texture. Chris sent me quite a few references with distortions and foreground details that he liked and I started thinking about how they could work for Lighthouse. For the tease and the pop promos we had become a bit fixated with lens whacking (shooting with the lens removed from the camera body so that you allow light to leak through from the camera mount). Here’s the one of the pop promos to give you an idea – you will also see use of the lensbaby on it as we were exploring how far you could go before it becomes a definite effect.

The problem we discovered with the lens whacking was that you could not focus on anything far away as you could not get the lens close enough to the camera body without losing the flare as the lens clashed with the camera body. To solve this I bought an old 35mm Tokina lens with a Nikon mount and took it apart so that only the central lens housing remained. This meant that you could move the lens right in towards the sensor without clashing with the body and hence could focus at any distance. I’ve put in a picture of it below, the crew affectionately labelled it, ‘the skinny one’.

Chris also showed me a vimeo film where someone had reversed the front element of a lens which blurs the outside edge of the picture. I blatantly ripped  off this idea (sorry I can’t name check you as I can’t remember the link now) and made my own reverse element lens which the crew imaginatively named ‘the reverse element lens’ (who says we are not a kooky bunch!) I will put some frame grabs of the reverse element lens and the lensbaby below but framegrabs do not really work for the lens whacking as it is the collective effect of the moving image which gives the look. I should mention that we decided to only use the lensbaby in the most unobtrusive mode – ie with the lens straight in it’s mount and a deepish stop. Before we see the examples I would like to say a special thanks to my team who not only put up with all this nonsense, but embraced it and even suggested how we could take it further, they were an amazing crew to have on board and I’m thankful to them all for their commitment, skill and wonderful approach to the continual pressure of the Lighthouse shoot. They were;  Camera team, Keefa Chan – focus puller, Steve Owen – 2nd assistant, Jonny Mason – Camera Trainee, Jordan Wallace – Camera and DiT Trainee, Grip was Sean Harding and the Gaffer was Vern Raye with Spark Edmund McKay. I salute you all. Here are some example of the modified lenses.

These modified lenses worked well with our main set of lenses which were a set of rehoused Nikon prime stills lenses dating to the 1980’s. These lenses are less sharp than the Masterprimes or Ultraprimes that I would use for a more action based film and they flared beautifully. That said there were times that we wanted to create some additional artificial flare but both myself and Chris always favour creating this in camera if we can. To achieve this I asked my local glass cutter to cut 10 x  4″ x 4″ squares of good quality glass. I then asked my camera team to tape them around the edges and crack them in as many different ways that they could. It was Sean who really took this on board and attacked them with style. We then put these one by one in the matt box and looked at the effect they gave.

Whenever a direct light source hit them they flared rather beautifully but we ended up using the less broken ones as the end result could be too heavy. This is definitely something  I’ll do again when the right film presents. Here are a couple of framegrabs that show the effect.

And finally a first rough grade test that show you what the Nikon lenses look like;


Time has just disappeared. It seems that we are having breakfast one moment and then the first is calling a wrap on the day with everything in-between being just a blur. It was, without a doubt, a punishing schedule and we were just making the day by minutes each time. There was no allowance for pick up days so it was essential that we didn’t fall behind. Making this film has really reminded me of the fundamental differences between long form and short form work. With short form, commercials etc, we basically try to make each shot count as an entity in its own. They obviously still have to add together all the pieces to make a whole but the  consistency is second to the impact of each shot. When you have 30 seconds to sell a product there is no space for a shot that does not powerfully reinforce that aim. With features it’s much more of a slowburner and so shots, and indeed scenes, can exist to subtly reinforce character traits without necessarily moving the story as a whole forwards. With Lighthouse we had a very clear visual structure which moved with the character arcs and we shot as close to chronologically as was practical. This helped in keeping the consistency of the visuals going but equally was frustrating in the sense that for the first part of the shooting I always had a nagging feeling that we were holding back on the energy of the photography. The photography starts  in a documentary feel, then develops into a very structured solid framing style before moving into the final phase of visual chaos where the basic rules of focus, lines and framing were well and truly thrown in the bin. I constantly had to remind myself of an interview I had read with either Conrad Hall ASC or Gordan Willis ASC, I forget which, where they said that the mark of successful photography in a feature was consistency. Making a beautiful image is not such a difficult thing, making an image that remains true to the story and is consistent to the needs of the story is much more difficult. My feeling with Lighthouse is that we succeeded in this but only the edit will tell!

Without doubt we had an amazing team, I don’t think there was a single HoD who didn’t commit 110% to the film and who didn’t produce really exceptional work (excluding me, of course, as I am certainly not the best judge of that!). Chris Crow, who wrote, directed and was one of the producers was a dream to work with again. He has such a clear vision of how the film should be but still allows his collaborators the freedom to explore. Production Designer, Tim Dickel, really gave us a set that we couldn’t wait to put on the screen. Costume ( Sian Jenkins) and Make up (Cat Williams) both designed beautifully and my gaffer Vern rigged the most amazing green and lights all on rope.

For those of you who my wife would categorise as a ‘photography nerd’ I’ll talk now about some of the challenges and some of the ways we explored the visual style. During prep we boldly decided that the set should be claustrophobic, whilst this did work, it also made life very difficult! If I stood on tip toes my head touched the beams so lighting from above was completely out of the question, even moving lights on stands in the set was difficult as we couldn’t lift them more than 20cm before they clashed with the beams.

On top of this the film is set in a storm so it felt wrong to put light coming in from the windows. What we mainly ended up doing was raking light across the walls for the daylight scenes and adding a little fill and smoke to spread the light around a bit. For nightime we used the candles and stove as sources adding flicker from a home made ficker box that worked tremendously. These sources were generally placed at floor level to hide them. I looked at ways of focusing the candle light which we hoped to use as the film became darker. The best method came from a tool I discovered whilst shooting a documentary. The documentary was based on Artisans and one of the contributors was a shoemaker who told me that shoemakers traditionally used a ball filled with water which acted as an organic way of focusing the light from a candle. I had a ball blown and tried it out, there’s a picture above to show you the results. Sadly as the schedule was so demanding on set this was one of the tools that never made it although I’m storing it away for use on something else one day. As the film progresses the widows get boarded up which restricted the practical light even more. To still get some justified light in I asked the art department to break some of the panels that made up the exterior of the set and we pushed in some light through all the cracks that were made. This created a very different look for the last few scenes.  It took a while to find a good lighting scheme but by the last day we had it pretty much nailed!