Creative Analysis: Part 17 - DOP Simon Rowling On Legacy Of Lies

Some films languish in preproduction hell for years. For cinematographer Simon Rowling, though, only a matter of days elapsed between first discussing Legacy of Lies and flying out to begin location scouting. The production, which stars Scott Adkins as a CIA agent in pursuit of Russian kidnappers, was written and directed by Adrian Bol and photographed mainly in Ukraine.

A career involving the visual side of film might always have seemed likely for Rowling, who started off with “a degree in modelmaking. When I graduated, I went into props and special effects. Eventually I was doing pyrotechnics as a technician on reasonably-sized films and TV shows. I think the biggest thing I worked on was Snow White and the Huntsman. I started up a little production company on the side, so between SFX jobs I was starting to do self-taught producing. Eventually we couldn't afford to hire anyone so we started filming ourselves! After a couple of years I realised the producing was a bit stressful and I preferred to be behind the camera.”

Rowling describes Legacy of Lies as “An espionage thriller. I liked the script, that's why I got on board, in April last year. Literally a week or two later I flew out to Ukraine. They had a deadline because of financing; they got Scott Adkins on board and the DP couldn't do the new dates so they needed a new DP. I was down to the last two people, did the interview over Skype and flew out! I spent ten days out there, back home for a week, then another ten days, a few days off and then we started shooting on the first of May.”

Despite the whirlwind introduction, Rowling was able to leverage technology to get up to speed quickly. With Alexa already in mind, “I have an Alexa Classic so I took that out on the recces with me. I did one LUT on my previous film and I thought for this I'd do a few more just in case of various situations.” Rowling shot a few seconds of reference material at each location, and later worked with colorist John Rogers to build looks for the production. “Adrian liked one of the films I'd done,” Rowling continues. “A Chinese one that went to the Chinese Netflix. He really liked the colours in that,” This lead to “two looks, one for the UK and one for Ukraine. Ukraine had a bit more green in the blacks and the UK had more blue in the blacks.”

Simultaneously, Rowling was selecting his equipment. Legacy of Lies was shot on Alexa Mini with Cooke’s anamorphics, although Rowling had considered alternatives. “I was trying to get some Hawk V-Lites sent over. Due to Arri not having any insurance in Ukraine, I wasn't able to get theirs sent over. There was only one company in Ukraine that had the V-Lites and they weren't the company we were renting everything from, so it was between Master Anamorphics and the Cookes. I'd shot the Cookes previously and they were always on the cards; they gave us that anamorphic look but it wasn't too strong and they didn't go too crazy. We used them wide open quite a lot.”

Although around half the narrative occurs in the UK, Rowling estimates that “we shot ninety-five per cent of the film in Ukraine… all the interiors were pretty much in Ukraine with some exterior stuff in the UK.” With the script calling particularly for some decrepit and decaying environments, Rowling and production designer Paul Burns were delighted to uncover a rich set of options in Kiev. “One of them was an old bottle-making yard. We chose one location and then the safety inspector said it was unsafe because the roof was non-existent. Then a week later the roof collapsed and we couldn't shoot anyway! So we chose something else in the same vicinity, in the same yard and the new one was just as nice. That was where he shoots with his daughter.”

Rowling lit the firing range scene with his most powerful lights. “We had two M90s, which we carried around most of the shoot. We had a lot of rain on some days but for the scene with Scott’s character and his daughter shooting it was quite funny – I’d planned to have the two M90s coming through the window, then to do something similar when we go back there a second time later in the film, when they're on the run from MI6 and the CIA. When we were shooting that scene, which was the same day, the sun was going through those windows like my lights would! It was harder to control but we got away with it. We then lit it in a similar way but obviously with a different quality of light for the later scene.”

The lighting package came from Patriot Rental in Kiev and included the two Arri M90 PARs and three SkyPanels, to which Rowling added his own LED mats. “I brought my own over - the Falconeyes, a four-by-two and two two-by-twos, as they didn't have any led mats at the time, even though a lot of people did have them in the UK and the USA. Most of the time we used the SkyPanels with octodomes or through eight-by-eight frames.” With director Bol’s colour preferences in mind, Rowling “took references, and if we couldn't select the gels on the SkyPanels I ordered the gels. I tend to order the gels for fixtures where we can't dial the colour in, like the HMIs. I think the SkyPanel doesn't do a mustard gel, a colour I really like.” Rowling completed his look with “a lot of haze or smoke in the scene. With anamorphics, I don't tend to put diffusion in there. It's so shallow depth anyway. I didn't want too much diffusion because I wanted to see the texture of the locations, it's supposed to be a gritty sort of spy film so I didn't want to start diffusing it. Most anamorphics will bloom in the highlights anyway, and the Cookes don’t do that, which gives me more control.”

Realistically distressed environments, replete with natural texture, added a lot. “The production designer was over the moon about the whole thing,” Rowling enthuses. The film’s opening scene, a chase and shootout around parked buses, was shot in a disused Kiev bus depot. Unusually, Rowling recalls, “on the first day we shot the first shot of the film! The bus depot was amazing, and we spent an afternoon doing lots of drawings. I had to coordinate where the buses would go. I was basically shouting directions where buses had to be put in this depot to create this maze where the actors would be running around. You can't move them on the day, there's no time!”

Making the best of such a huge space, filled with such huge objects, required Rowling to start on quite literally a high note. “That day was all Technocrane. We had two cameras; one was on the ground, one was on the crane. Running on top of buses, you couldn't do it any other way. Maybe we could have used a cablecam or something but Technocrane was the easiest way to do it without moving the base of the jib.”

Fully exploiting the space required a shot travelling through two buses, made possible only because the vehicles involved were to be scrapped anyway. “The camera wouldn't fit, so on the day they angle-ground off the window of this bus! We pull through two bus windows that we put next to each other, so we follow Scott and reveal the bad guy.” Grip equipment in Kiev was supplied by local company OperTec, who also supplied a tracking vehicle to cover car action, which Rowling describes as “a diesel quad bike with a remote head on the back so we could track the mini driving around.”

The crew used SmallHD displays loaded with the LUTs created in prep, because, as Rowling says, “we didn't have a live grade. I know some big productions will have a live colour grader on set. Then you can get away with one LUT, but if you're in bright sunlight and you have a very contrasty LUT, well... that's why I went out on the shoot prepared and ready for the option of various lighting scenarios.” One of those scenarios involved a bridge exterior that was, Rowling says, “one of the hardest scenes to light because there was no power on the bridge!”

The final few days’ work might traditionally have been performed by a second unit, though Rowling returned to shoot the material personally. Waiting until the edit was nearing completion, though, had benefits. “It was great because I knew what we needed to get. Rather than just getting random shots of buildings, we knew where the camera needed to go and which way. We were only in the UK for a split day then a night shoot, mainly in the Piccadilly and Leicester Square area. We didn't get a huge amount in England.” Principal photography would eventually be complete in 26 days. “It was incredibly tight. Some of the scenes were so big some films would spend a week – say, on our intro scene. We did it in two days. I don't like working at a slow pace, to be honest. Sometimes its just too much to do but I get annoyed if I'm waiting around for more than half an hour.”

Colorist John Rogers finished the grade in around twelve days. He reports “it was comprised, as most feature films are, of roughly 1600 shots. I grade on DaVinci resolve 16 on an Eizo CG318, with external scopes these days. The Nobe OmniScope is absolutely fantastic; it’s fairly new to the scene but absolutely brilliant and the development cycle is great.” With Bol committed to a commercial shoot in the Netherlands, Rogers worked remotely, using Frame.io to share notes. “Adrian can leave a comment at a specific timecode, even annotations on the frame to explain an idea. It’ll translate over to my Resolve system and come up on my timeline in real time. With the editor and producer in Ukraine and myself here, it really felt like a pre-covid remote workflow.” The look, Rogers says, was well-established before the grade began. “Simon had a moodboard and a library of reference images to look at. The look in part is based off a 2383 print film emulation. Simon sat with me on all days of the grade apart from VFX. Being an action movie, the film had over a hundred VFX shots.”

“As far as Adrian and I were concerned, we wanted to knock it out of the park,” Rowling concludes. “Whatever I do, I go in a hundred and ten per cent. The Ukraine crew were really hard working, the gaffer, the grip were really good. And the UK guys - Steve Askey who did VFX and [camera and Steadicam operator] Rupert Peddle who came out with me did a really good job.” The pandemic has naturally made the future uncertain, though at the time of writing, during a lull in infection rates, Rowling had been busy. “I didn't think I'd have done three shorts in the last month, but I got called up two days before shooting last week's short because someone pulled out – and I just got booked on another feature!”

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