Creative Analysis: Part 1 - The Nest From The DOP

Glasgow in December is a place and a time with a particular look, and The Nest is a production which enthusiastically embraces that aesthetic. Broadcast in the UK beginning in March 2020, it was produced for the BBC by Studio Lambert as five one-hour episodes featuring a couple, played by Martin Compston and Sophie Rundle, trying to start a family via a surrogate, played by Mirren Mack in her first leading role. The final two episodes were photographed by director of photography Tim Palmer, BSC, whose credit history begins in the late 90s and includes a choice selection of British television, including Life on Mars, Silent Witness, Hustle, Being Human, Line of Duty, Critical and Doctor Who, and many more.

Palmer’s involvement directly followed the wrap of production of the ITV drama McDonald and Dodds. “I was sent the script in August, went in for a meeting and got the job. I went from one day on McDonald and Dodds to the next prepping The Nest so the timing was one of those serendipitous situations.” Prep lasted two weeks before a 28-day production schedule for the two episodes.

Figure 1: Mirren Mack as Kaya in episode 5 of The Nest, photographed by Tim Palmer, BSC.

Figure 1: Mirren Mack as Kaya in episode 5 of The Nest, photographed by Tim Palmer, BSC.

With consistency in mind, Palmer spoke first to Matt Gray, BSC, who had photographed the three previous episodes. “I've known Matt for a long time, so we touched base for a little bit while I was there, but there was no requirement to follow any house style that had been established.” Director Simen Alsvik was, Palmer says, keen to shoot dusk. One interior, featured heavily in the fourth episode, was chosen “because we knew it would have a very good aspect that would record well at dusk, being high up and looking out over the river and motorways, with the street lighting and moving headlamps.” Scheduling a lot of early-evening shooting, though, required careful planning.

Figure 2: Shirley Henderson as Siobhan on location overlooking the Clyde in Glasgow.

Figure 2: Shirley Henderson as Siobhan on location overlooking the Clyde in Glasgow.

“To time it right we had to be extremely precise,” Palmer continues. “I spent about two hours in that location in prep, watching and waiting for the sun to go down and taking photographs and making notes as to when the perfect time would be to shoot the wide shots.” A scene involving Shirley Henderson, playing the mother of the surrogate, required light that simply wouldn’t exist for long enough for a single camera to capture it. “There was a camera position looking out over the Clyde… I knew we wouldn't have time to do both shots so I got a second camera for that scene. We knew what the lighting was – we were going to set up some neon effect lighting. Inside the room was just the practical lighting and the dusk light outside.”

Figure 3: The exterior of the room.

Figure 3: The exterior of the room.

The euphemism “magic hour” is just that, since it generally lasts for considerably less than even an hour, and Palmer credits first assistant director Morris Milne for his masterful organisation. “He accommodated us wonderfully on that day. In fact, we got there so early we were completely set up at least an hour away from being able to turn over. The producer was on set, the director, ‘is there anything we can shoot?’ No, you have to wait!”

Figure 4: On the deck of the house, taking advantage of the natural light.

Figure 4: On the deck of the house, taking advantage of the natural light.

Despite the rigours of waiting for natural light, embracing it also saved time, particularly in one extensively glazed house that’s impossible to miss and might seem hard to light, given such an expanse of glass. Palmer, though, admits to a bit of good fortune: “we were gifted with the perfect light for every scene... It was overcast when we needed it to be overcast, gloriously sunny when we needed it to be gloriously sunny. I had no problems whatsoever. There had been a lot of lights outside, an 18K on a cherrypicker, lamps on towers outside, which had been used on the previous block where they were shooting summer scenes. For our winter scenes, I wanted complete freedom to be able to do 360-degree shots without having large pieces of machinery that would need to be moved.”

Figure 5: Sophie Rundle as Emily and Martin Compston as Dan, on the deck.

Figure 5: Sophie Rundle as Emily and Martin Compston as Dan, on the deck.

“We improvised a lot,” Palmer recalls, citing one interior that became an exterior. “They were standing by the handrail looking out over the loch. If we'd shot that scene inside it'd have taken two, two and a half hours to do. By taking it outside we shot that whole scene in about twenty-five minutes.” The dialogue-free sequence which finishes the series is another example of a production waiting for the light, which Palmer describes as “just a girl looking wistful and in wonderment on a roof. It didn't have to match in with anything, we didn't have to cut into any matching closeups. We started shooting that just after the sun went down so there was a beautiful golden-indigo sky. We just kept filming and filming, doing it again and again so in the edit the editor had lots of choices... the two shots they used were probably filmed about twenty minutes apart from one another.”

Figure 6: Mack, as Kaya, gazes over the city (this image cut with the closeup at the head of the article).

Figure 6: Mack, as Kaya, gazes over the city (this image cut with the closeup at the head of the article).

For interiors, Palmer concentrated on “keeping the colours cooler and paler and a bit more cyan in that hospital room, to make it a less comfortable environment. In that hospital there was always a much cooler ambience to the existing lighting, there was always a soft blue fill to everything, and I could just introduce some warmer highlights to pick out some details. On [Mack’s] skin, even though she was never lit in an unflattering way, it was a cooler light that lent itself to the audience feeling she was struggling mentally and emotionally.”

Figure 7: The hospital interior, with cool blue ambience provided by overhead LED panels.

Figure 7: The hospital interior, with cool blue ambience provided by overhead LED panels.

To achieve this, Palmer began with some surprisingly simple equipment. “The best boy went out and bought some domestic flat panel lights from a lighting supplier. They fit into those ceiling panels that you'd get in any type of institutional environment… the colour rendering was not great on them but they were daylight balanced-ish, so I started off with a one-eighth minus green on them to take the green kick out of it. I had a half colour temperature blue on the panels, and squares of ND cut as well so we could put ND3 or ND6 on them so we could knock down the back wall. Blue light tends to look better when underexposed. I often had ND6 on them to get them in range.” Outside the location’s windows, Palmer used more conventional instruments. “Outside the windows we had towers. On one I had a 6K HMI, on the other I had a Skypanel S360. I’d generally keep those a bit warmer - the 6K had a half colour temperature orange, and I had the Skypanel set to 4300K.”

The Nest was shot on the Alexa Mini LF with Canon K35 lenses, and Palmer estimates that “Probably seventy-five per cent of it was handheld. I hadn't done large format before,” he says, before correcting himself: “Well, I've shot on the Canon 5D which is the same format! I was working on the 5D in 2009 and 2010, when I did The Road to Coronation Street. If I was blindfolded I wouldn't have known the difference between the LF and the Alexa Mini in handling. I'm sure from the focus puller's point of view there was, but from an operator’s point of view it was the same camera which was brilliant because it's like stepping into a favourite pair of old slippers.”

Figure 8: Compston, as Dan, inside the house at dusk.

Figure 8: Compston, as Dan, inside the house at dusk.

With lens choices constrained by the large sensor, Palmer was happy to continue with predecessor Gray’s choice. “There's the DNAs and the Signature Primes, and a few more coming on stream. I've used the K35s before. They have a good look to them, and they cover the LF very well. That's what Matt went for and I was more than happy to continue. There's a limited range - the 18, 24, 35, 55 and an 85. We had quite a few more lenses in the set, there was a 14, a 28, a 100, and they were not K35s. They were rehoused Canon FD stills lenses and matched the K35s fine.”

Figure 9: The extensively-glazed house during another carefully-planned dusk scene.

Figure 9: The extensively-glazed house during another carefully-planned dusk scene.

The looming issue of large format shooting is, of course, focus, and Palmer describes a cautious approach. “I don't like those closeups where the eyes are in focus, but the end of the noise is soft, where you don't have enough focus to carry from one eye to the bridge of the nose in a three-quarter profile. Sometimes we were tied into the ambient light, twilight, sunset, and there was no other choice but to shoot wide open. I would always check if the focus puller, Martin Payne, was OK if we did this. Is there anything I can do to help in terms of what the actors do? I'd prefer not to shoot beautiful lyrical soft-focus imagery if the shot's not in focus.”

The production was shot using a LUT established by Gray. Generally, Palmer says, “In general I would choose to shoot with Arri’s Rec. 709 LUT, but I checked it and it was close enough for me not to be concerned.” Finishing took place at Arteus in Glasgow, and although Palmer was busy on Line of Duty, he kept in touch with the process. “The director sent me a few frame grabs... it looked exactly how I'd shot it, so that's all I can ask for!” His abiding memory of the production, though, was all that planning around shooting at the right time of day. “You have to know what you can get away with and what you can't, and what you can’t get away with improvising. You have to anchor the shots you have to do at that particular time in that particular light, and there's no other way. Good planning, a little bit of winging it, trusting your instincts… and it worked.”

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