Creative Analysis: Part 10 - Cinematographer John Brawley On The Great

Cinematographer John Brawley finds himself happily amidst of an unprecedented renaissance of high-end television. The Great is a production that presents a lavish (if fictionalised) spectacle of eighteenth-century Russia, with Brawley photographing five episodes, with the remainder shot by Maja Zamojda and Anette Haellmigk. Ranging from the Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy to castles and estates all over England, the production also built extensive sets at Three Mills Studios in east London.

Fanning operated many of her own point-of-view shots. Brawley at right. Photo credit: Elle Fanning/Instagram.

Fanning operated many of her own point-of-view shots. Brawley at right. Photo credit: Elle Fanning/Instagram.

Brawley begins, though, with a simpler memory. “The first film I ever shot was running around a kids’ playground. We had a single roll of 16mm. I went on the slide and the swings. We screened the reversal and I loved how the audience reacted to this roller-coaster ride… nobody knows or cares what you went through to get that shot. They just react.” Finding the feature film world in his native Australia limited, Brawley made an early move to television, and “found TV is way more interesting; I enjoy the longform medium so much more. We’re now using the language of film in TV and the streamers have helped. If you have Vanity Fair, a feature is a glossy article you read in a sitting. TV is more like a novel.”

Showrunner McNamara reviews study models of the production's lavish sets.

Showrunner McNamara reviews study models of the production's lavish sets.

Showrunner (and writer) Tony McNamara came to The Great fresh from success on The Favourite, although The Great has its genesis in McNamara’s play of the same name which premiered at the Sydney Theater Company in 2008, predating The Favourite. McNamara himself has echoed Brawley’s views on the scope afforded by television, being quoted on deadline.com as saying “I was always struggling the fact it was such a massive story for a film. I wanted to tell it as a story that goes for years and years.”

“Tony’s goal was never to create something that was historically accurate,” Brawley says. “We had British and American actors shooting in Italy. There's nothing Russian about it, in terms of the events. We did take a lot of liberties, we really weren't going after the period drama crowd. They can go watch the Helen Mirren version of the story. When I asked Tony what he felt the show was about, he said that the story for him was about a woman who wakes up one day and realises she's in a terrible marriage, and she lives in an apartment block full of nosy people who know her business.”

Despite the soaring ceiling, this is a set on stage at Three Mills.

Despite the soaring ceiling, this is a set on stage at Three Mills.

Now based in the UK, Brawley was involved from July 2019, wrapping his last days on the production in February 2020. Work included reshoots of parts of the pilot, though Brawley emphasises that this is “pretty usual. A lot of pilots will reshoot certain scenes and change things.” With the series scheduled to shoot all of its Italian material consecutively, there is no simple relationship between shooting days and episodes, although Brawley estimates the number at somewhere between 22 and 24 days per block of two episodes, with a similar period spent in prep.

The grand staircase at Caserta's palace.

The grand staircase at Caserta's palace.

The Great unapologetically targets scale and grandeur, and as a result, Brawley recalls, “the sets were built to the fire lanes. There was only eight feet between the set wall and the wall of the stage. There's just not enough room to get a light back far enough to fill a twenty-foot window. I had the riggers design a lighting grid that was changeable and adjustable so I could take the lights up and down and use the space.” To make the space go even further, he specified “lights like a Dino or maxi-brute, where you’ve got nine or twelve 1K bulbs. It’s quite a big physical size but they’re not very deep lights, and there’s a huge amount of output.”

Creative concerns complicated things further; with an eye to efficiency, Brawley tested LED lighting but “ended up relying a lot on good old-fashioned tungsten. I often had them dimmed a bit too so they were warmer. And I used a lot of LEDs in close... if it was a night scene I'd use candles. The best gag I found was using Astera tubes. I had a bunch of them, and I had them animated with custom animated flickering patterns.” The now-common tube shape, though, created an issue that simply wouldn’t do for a period piece: “It didn't work on people's faces. I'd see a stripe in their eyes. I used the [Rosco] DMGs a lot as a base key for closeups.”

Here, Brawley recalls his recent work on medical drama The Resident, where he had become familiar with Rosco DMG’s lights. “The reason I like them is that they've got a huge amount of output. They're really a great quality of light and with the modifiers you can get, the DOPchoice bags and stuff, you can dial in a lot of control with them. For what they are they're quite small... I usually get my gaffers to put a battery on the back of them so they don't have to run power. On the resident I used the Mini Mix, I used the SL1, and the Maxi Mix which no one ever uses – but I made my gaffer get a Maxi.”

In many cases, though, Brawley preferred to reinforce candlelight with candlelight. “The grade was to be delivered as Dolby Vision, that's a Hulu requirement. I needed to photograph candles in shot... they're quite bright individually but they don't put much light out.” Reinforcement would be “candles by the side of the camera. I think the order was near 100,000 candles. Some were doubles and triples. If I could hide it and not show it in someone's eyes, I'd use the Asteras through a frame, with a flicker output range between ten and twenty per cent… I'd use a DMG above camera to fill it out a bit, but I tried to do it as much as possible with the candles that were in shot.”

Anette Haellmigk had shot the pilot on the Alexa SXT with Cooke S5 lenses, but Brawley “was interested in maybe looking at large format. One of the tests was Alexa 65 versus Panavision DXL2 versus Sony Venice… so I tried Cooke S7s, the Primo 70s and Arri have the DNAs.” Brawley shared his test results with “a bunch of people - the showrunner, the producers. I intercut the shots. We look at them in HDR because it was an HDR grade, on a domestic TV, on a grading monitor. We say what we like about each one and half the time I forget which one is which. We talk about what we like and don't like. We ended up deciding through these tests that we liked Alexa 65.”

Three angles on a pivotal scene...

Three angles on a pivotal scene...

In the end, though, Brawley would return to the SXT with Cooke S5 lenses. While Hulu would ordinarily have demanded 4K acquisition, the distributor was mollified by the decision to record uncompressed ArriRaw at the SXT’s 3.4K image width. Despite self-describing as a “big fan” of Zeiss super speeds, “they can have a rawness to them and it wasn’t quite what we wanted for this show.” Much of the production would eventually be shot on the 65mm Cooke S5. Having intended to shoot with wider lenses, Brawley leaned toward the longer focal length simply because much of The Great was shot with three cameras, and a wider lens might have put one of them in another’s shot. Also, he says, “part of our manifesto was that Catherine would always be in the middle of the frame and we wouldn’t match sizes, her shot would always be a bit closer than everyone else... I don't know that we always did that but certainly on earlier episodes it was an intention.”

...and the setup which created them.

...and the setup which created them.

Given the intention to finish in Dolby Vision, Brawley admits some concerns over exposure. “We had a lot of debate about HDR, about how to grade and expose. There's a lot of competing ideas and theories and I was a bit terrified because I hadn't done it before. There's no easy way to monitor HDR in the field. I can hear all the DITs putting their hands up and saying you can do it, but they don't have HDR monitors they have the scopes. I never want to look at an engineering way of exposing.” Similarly, Brawley eschews a meter other than for scouting and measuring ratios. “I go for a top down exposure – what am I happy to clip and what am I not happy to clip? I realised the candle flames I didn't want to clip. Wherever I had to be for those candle flames not to clip, that was the exposure. On a day interior there'd still be two stops of ND to get to a 1.3 at 800 ISO. Hopefully most of the times the candles look orange, and sometimes it did look noisy. I might have to drag stuff up more than I would usually, but it was never offensive.”

A significant contribution to The Great was also made by Blackmagic’s Ursa Mini G2 camera, which Brawley estimates might have shot up to 30% of each episode. “I have an improvised camera operating technique with that camera because of its size and operability. I call it visual seasoning or punctuation and jazz.” Here, Brawley brings up a staple of shot design theory – the idea that, as he says, “every shot can be described in three ways – objective, subjective or point-of-view.” The lightweight, handy Ursa Mini allowed for what Brawley calls “a fourth kind, a hyper-subjective shot. I'd say OK, give me the football – my American assistant called it that – and I'd do a couple of takes in a row.”

Brawley describes a highly mobile technique which yields details that might later become inserts or cutaways. “At the end the actors know all their lines, they've done all their closeups and I'd just go shoot punctuation and seasoning. I'll move around a lot. If you have a two-hander dialogue scene, there's two shot, wide shot, maybe a detail... you can feel their process of thinking. It’s very transparent. With the right editing approach you can season a scene with some of these little beats. I feel like in two takes I can get a hundred inserts that would have taken quite a lot of effort to set up.”

The diminutive Ursa and Brawley’s technique brought a closer relationship with the cast. “Talking to the actors is that they're aware of what you're doing... the camera is right in their face. I'll push in, it's a dramatic moment, they'll play to it. You become part of the performance space. Sometimes we'll be not doing it because of time and the actors will say oh, you aren't going to do a football!”

Certain locations were duplicated as sets; this is a recreation of a hallway at Hatfield House.

Certain locations were duplicated as sets; this is a recreation of a hallway at Hatfield House.

The sophistication of monitoring and on-set grading has grown hugely since the dawn of digital cinematography, but it’s something Brawley prefers to keep simple. “My personal workflow is to treat it like film. I don't like to grade anything on set. You're not going to have a good monitoring environment, you're not in the right frame of mind and you're not seeing it as part of an edit. I just tend to generate a LUT out of the test footage. I might have a day LUT and a night LUT, and that's what it is. Of course, if a show had some extreme look I would probably feel differently, but all the shows I've done so far haven't needed so much on set.”

Staples at work in Resolve at Encore.

Staples at work in Resolve at Encore.

The Great was graded by Paul Staples at Encore Post and was released en masse on Hulu’s over-the-top delivery platform on May 15, 2020. At the time of writing, John Brawley was in New Orleans, having been exactly one day into his next production when it was shut down by precautions against coronavirus. “We’re pencilled in the end of August,” he says. “I think there's a lot of shows that'll have pencilled dates and nobody knows if they'll stick.”

He is, nonetheless, keen to get back to a clearly beloved field. “When I was a little kid I got a camera from my mum. I was mad about taking lots of photos and I never got bored of it. It satisfies in me a lot of interests. I’m a bit of a nerd and a bit of a geek and I love the power of images to tell stories. That's what photography and cinematography is. You’re using this somewhat arcane knowledge of photochemical processes, optical processes in service of a creative outcome. It uses a technical and scientific base to elicit emotion in humans and I think that's pretty cool.”

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