“My background is in television, not in drama. I’ve worked on lots of shorts, commercials and music videos and with cameramen who have been mentors of mine; all of whom have wanted to attain the holy grail of working on a drama and shooting their own film. That’s were I come from and that’s what I still do. It pays the mortgage and I don’t dismiss it because everything that I’ve done has fed into each other. I didn’t go to film school, but I did go to art school, which I left feeling fairly disillusioned with art.
I moved to Brighton and got a job as a runner for a production company called Antelope, which had been created to provide the arts output for the Meridian regional television channel. They were making half-hour-long television arts documentaries every week, which they did for a number of years. I worked as a runner on these but I didn’t like making the tea or answering the phone, so I gave myself the title of ‘technical runner’ and made sure that I looked after the computers and cameras. I had no formal training as a cameraman, so I started to work on the sound. It was the very early days of director operating, so they needed somebody to look after the sound.
This led me to doing the sound on the main show, despite still being on a runner’s wage. I asked for more money and they suggested that I go freelance, which I did. I then spent four years as a broadcast sound recordist working with some great cameramen all around the world. I’d always loved film and photography and been very visual, but I guess that the sound came from my dad, who was an audiophile; that, and the fact that I had once been a DJ. I have always been obsessed with music and technology. But the role of a sound recordist in television is fairly unforgiving; it’s definitely not the easiest job in the world and I became disillusioned with it.
Filmmaking was becoming a lot more democratic and I was starting to do a lot more broadcast camera work, as well as the sound, on the same show; which was starting to become very confusing for people, so I decided to stop doing the sound work. Having spent a lot of time on sets and having shot a lot of documentary work and interviews, the main thing that I have learnt is the importance of how to work quickly with a small team and with very small budgets. This was particularly relevant when I worked on both Down Terrace and Kill List; my first two feature films.
Down Terrace was the first film, which I shot with the director Ben Wheatley. We shot it in a TV way: very quickly, within a time limit and with no crew or money. I had worked on some comedy pilots, which Ben had been involved in, and we both lived in Brighton. One day a mutual friend of ours was unable to shoot something for Ben, so he put us in touch with each other and we went off and shot a couple of comedy virals together, which are still on the BBC website (The Amazing Wizards’ Tricks and Cock Rocket). For years I had wanted to shoot drama, so I put a note on my Facebook page asking, “Has anybody got a script? If you have I’d like to shoot it. I can get crew.”
Ben responded almost immediately and said that he had a script. I thought, “Lovely. It will be a nice short we can do over a couple of days in our spare time.” It wasn’t, it was a feature, which he wanted to shoot in a week because he didn’t have any money and he didn’t want to take up too much of anybody’s time. In the end we shot it over eight days, with a small cast and a small crew, including three different sound recordists, because we couldn’t get anyone to do all of the days. No art department, no hair stylists, two assistants; but only one at a time.
All the costumes came from Asda. When we started to film we were going to use small DV cameras, as the location which Ben had chosen and written the script around was tiny. I’d intended to get the best glass I could and to wear a depth of field adapter working with primes. The problem with that is that you end up with a camera that is massive.
At the time there were no HDSLRs; which we would have shot on if they had existed. But the RED had just come out, and although it was not a small camera, the amount of quality you get for the price, and the fact that Ben was able to edit it on his laptop, made it the perfect choice to shoot with. The production budget for the whole film was £6,000. It was a 90-minute feature that then went on to do very well. When we came to shoot Kill List, we went from the RED ONE to the RED ONE (Mysterium-X), which was a lot faster.
We stayed with the RED because Ben had become so comfortable with the work process that it had become an intrinsic part of how we worked. The fact that Ben could start cutting on his laptop on set as we were shooting was so seductive that there was no reason to work with any other type of camera. It was just so affordable and easy for us. Down Terrace didn’t get an enormous distribution, and it took a long time to get any [distribution].
When it did sell it was in a small way and it was sold outright. As a result, no money came out of it; although it covered its costs. When it came to shooting Kill List, however, Down Terrace was our calling card for Ben. People now knew what he was doing with his directing and writing. Kill List was premiered and immediately went into a distribution bidding war between two American distributors. The Kill List shoot budget was between £5000,00 and £600,000K, which was a significant leap from our £6,000 budget for Down Terrace. The funding this time came from Film4, the UK Film Council and Screen Yorkshire; which meant that we were able to increase the crew size to 25 and the shoot schedule to 18 days. It’s a very violent film but, in my mind, in very tiny spurts; it’s not a sustained violent film. Although it’s been branded a horror, I don’t see it that way. I see it more as a terror film. It’s a stressful film that picks you up and carries you along with the mayhem, then dumps you down right at the end. I like that.
The aesthetic we created gives it a cold detachment, which comes from mine and Ben’s documentary approach. We wanted it to feel real, sad and cold. The way we shot it was observational, so that we were part of what was going on. The violence is very shocking and that is how it should be. I think that technology is the core to what is currently happening in filmmaking, because it is making it available to everyone. If you’ve got a good idea, good writing and good people to work with, you can achieve great work. My work goes from the creative and commercial extremes of shooting The X Factor to shooting Kill List.
In television we are shooting with all types of cameras, even though broadcasters are still lagging slightly behind with technology; principally, I think, because they are terrified of getting it wrong. They used to lead technology and set the standards. But today there are so many formats available, no one seems to be leading any more; but lots of people are experimenting. To work with HDSLRs you need to know what you are doing as a filmmaker, yet still be a photographer at heart, because they are not easy to operate. I think that’s a good thing; not because I don’t want filmmaking to be democratic, but because I’m not sure that ease of use always means great work is produced.
The film world, with its fairly Victorian attitude, completely dismissed digital. They were terrified of it; wouldn’t touch it. That’s obviously changed a lot now. I admit to having railed against the Canon EOS 5D MkII, because it is not the easiest thing to use from a camera operator’s point of view. It is difficult to shoulder and the screen is difficult to use, but what it produces cannot be dismissed. I’ve used it a lot alongside the RED, and although technically it probably doesn’t hold up, the 5D stuff is beautiful. I only ever assisted on film, loading and focusing. Not going to film school I haven’t had the opportunity to DP on film, but with a broadcast background, digital/video is second nature to me, so the progression to digital cinema was incredibly natural.
The technology was already comfortable and that allowed me to put it aside to concentrate on the story. The story isn’t based on the technology. However, the process of making the film is obviously enabled by it [the technology]. Longer takes, low-light handling, RAW grade-ability, relatively small cameras and a small crew size allow us to create these films. My handheld rig on Down Terrace, Kill List and, more recently, Sightseers, is absolutely stripped down to the basics. I wear an Easyrig, pull my own focus and work with short primes and a video sender. No trailing cables, no focus assists and barely any of the ‘cable spaghetti’ often seen poured over cinema cameras.
Yet I’m shooting 4K RAW with great lenses and filtration within a 2.35:1 aspect frame (post-matte). It works for me and it feels like cinema. I would shoot on film now if I had the opportunity; I’d love to. But with digital cinema cameras getting better and better, it’s not in anyone’s realm any more. Budgets in my world have always been tight and they’re not getting bigger. I love the RED camera. It’s seen me through some very difficult set-ups, and looked after me. I would still shoot with it any day of the week. But I’m also keen to work with an ARRI ALEXA (I’d like to shoot off-board RAW with it), and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Canon EOS C300; not because I think it’s going to change the world, but if they can make the guts of a 5D into a really useable motion picture camera, I’m all in for that! I would love to continue shooting in features and I’m very lucky to have people send me interesting projects now since Down Terrace and Kill List. I’m talking to a number of people about future features and shorts and I’ve also just shot a test with Ben for a feature that he’s planning: a $10-15 million creature movie that he describes as a cross between the TV series Hill Street Blues and the computer game Doom. We shot that on a RED, and we had a motion capture team on location with us, which was very exciting.
There is a path now that you can follow through independent filmmaking. The projects just expand and that’s what we have been doing on a number of them. We are always trying to find people who are into what we are doing and that are good at what they do. Ben is building a team on exactly this basis, but he is in no rush to do that. None of us are master filmmakers yet, and so we have to just keep practising. The music videos, commercials and TV programmes I work on are all part of that practising. I love doing that. It’s all about storytelling.
In cinema the storytelling is more focused than in television. You can look at a single image for longer, which makes it feel more like and closer to photography. In television, the storytelling has to be closer up, with lots of shots which are faster cut to keep your interest; which takes it away from photography. Something I have done that the film director Jim Jarmusch does, is to set the frame to create an architectural composition in which to let the action happen. We set it up, light it beautifully and let the actors speak and act within the environment we have created; which is a very photographic way of working, which I am all for. It’s about stripping it down to the photographic element, and that to me is cinema.
© Grant Scott 2012