Spending a few weeks in southern Italy is a popular idea. For cinematographer Angus Hudson, BSC, an opportunity to soak up the Puglian sun would come in the form of The Life Ahead (in Italian, La vita davanti a sé), a film directed by Edoardo Ponti and starring Sophia Loren in her first role since 2010.
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The film embraces its picturesque surroundings while remaining firmly grounded in present-day Europe, depicting the relationship between a young, recent immigrant (Ibrahima Gueye) and Loren’s initially-unwilling foster carer. Gently skewering any excessively romantic interpretation of modern Italy, Ponti’s production provided an enthusiastically-seized opportunity for photography recalling the travel guides of the mid-twentieth century.
Hudson’s beginnings, as he describes them, were more prosaic: “a summer job as a runner, in 1981 at a commercials company called Studio Lambert. It was run by a guy called Roger Lambert who made the second ever TV commercial. They had their own studios, editing rooms, their own cameras and in house sparks, prop men - they were hiring focus pullers and occasionally a DP. I became the in-house loader. It was a lot of tabletop stuff but it was an amazing environment in which to learn. At the end of the summer I asked if I could stay.”
After a few years at Lambert, and still not yet twenty, Hudson went freelance as a loader “just as music videos were starting to happen. They were moving from 16mm to 35mm, and they didn't know many 35mm loaders... I remember doing Duran Duran’s The Wild Boys video, and multi-camera concerts for AC/DC. I think the first music video I was on was Karma Chameleon.” Through the 1980s, Hudson moved up to pull focus, but initially avoided doing too many feature films. “I had a young family and I wanted to be present. In ‘97 I worked on the film The Jackal, and I think I used up all my Steadicam focus-pulling lives so I promoted myself to director of photography, started doing commercials and promos, and here I am.”
In 2010, Hudson shot Away We Stay, a short by Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son. “It was a nice little project,” Hudson continues. “Edoardo is absolutely charming, knows his stuff and hugely well connected, as you might imagine. He’d seen the first film I did, Cashback, and he asked me to shoot his short. We got on enormously well and stayed in touch.” Later, when Ponti came to direct The Life Ahead, “he called me up five weeks before production started and said ‘are you free, will you join me.’ Without hesitation, I said sure, I'd love to.”
Hudson immediately sought Italian contacts, starting with digital workflow supervisor Francesco Giardiello. “He’d met John Mathieson, BSC, on a pilot in Rome with Ridley Scott,” Hudson says, “so I also had John putting me in touch with all the top Italian crew. I was absolutely blessed with probably the best crew you could possibly ever have in Italy. Ironically, many of the crew rarely work on Italian productions. For [gaffer] Francesco Zaccaria, it was his first Italian film in fifteen years. He was Storaro’s gaffer for a while… I brought in Daniele Massaccesi, who was Ridley Scott’s camera operator; he brought in his focus puller, loader and video assist from Pinocchio, which had just finished. Francesco [Giardiello] has his own digital lab in Rome.”
The Life Ahead was photographed over seven weeks between June and August 2019 on the Sony Venice, a choice Hudson made early. “I knew I wanted to shoot large format, but I was still looking at shooting anamorphic. This is a Sophia Loren film; I wanted it to be classical but also to have a contemporary vibe. I spoke to Panavision in London and said I didn't want anything too sexy. I didn't feel this was the kind of film that needed Xtal Xpress. I absolutely love them, but I knew we'd have bright windows and I didn't want as much fogging and veiling glare as they would create. I don't like getting into a grade and trying to bring back contrast when it isn't there.”
Alternatives, though, proved hard to find during the busy summer of 2019. “I was talking to Charlie Todman at Panavision in London and he said ‘we don't have any lenses for you… you can have some Primo spherical if you like.’” Panalight’s Massimo Proietti suggested the Todd-AO anamorphics which had been used to shoot Ben Hur, but Hudson found them “too interesting. For the right project these would be fabulous. I also looked at Canon K35s, which were lovely but a bit too glarey.”
The solution was Cinescope Leica lenses. Hudson describes Cinescope as “a company which commissioned TLS to rehouse a lot of old Leica R lenses. Those old Leica Rs have some lovely softness about them. They’re obviously large format, and they control contrast fairly well without too much veiling glare.” These lenses, based on Leica’s classic Summilux, Summicron and Elmarit series, are chiefly rated T2.9, although Hudson suspects that “some of them are half a stop out. But one of the joys of shooting at 2500 ISO on the Venice was that it wasn’t too much of a problem. I grew up when we used to try and get a four on the lens. That was the norm, and I don't like T1.5 especially in large format. There are times when having an extremely shallow depth of field is really lovely, but when you're doing people talking I'm still of the generation that likes the tip of the nose and the ears in focus.”
Hudson prepared the production over four weeks, scouting locations almost immediately after arriving in Italy and finding a keen collaborator in production designer Maurizio Sabatini. As Hudson puts it, “In Italy, cinematographers are still held in quite high regard. Storaro has had a lot to do with that and you're treated with a fair amount of respect. It was very much to his taste, but Maurizio would check colours with me.” At the same time, Hudson worked with Giardiello in Rome to develop a LUT, with an eye to the blue skies and creamy stone construction of Puglia. “You're in midsummer, you have these blue, blue skies that fill the shadows with blues. So the LUT we developed had these creamy highlights but where it senses a bit of blue, the blues would come out and it would enhance them a bit.”
The warm exterior highlights are brought through to boldly sunlit interiors. “I said ‘let's make it really bright and sunny,” Hudson recalls. “One of the key creative decisions with Zac the gaffer was whether we’d use tungsten on this for our daylight scenes. I'd never done that on a long form project, and I really wanted to do it. Zac said he hadn’t done that for years!” To create bold sunbeams, Hudson used Maxi-Brutes and Dinos, as well as sealed-beam lights, “ACLs, the DC ones which burn a bit cooler than normal Dinos. The spot bulbs are nicknamed firestarters as they’re so hot – actors don’t like them. You could punch that through a window from a distance and it looks exactly like warm sunlight. You wouldn't question it.” HMIs were relegated to filling day exteriors, although Hudson prefers a straightforward approach: “I treat exteriors quite simply – I don't really light exteriors, I mostly use bounce, and we had very little night work which made life more pleasant.”
Lighting locations is one thing; lighting people is quite another, especially when one of those people is one of the most celebrated faces of classic cinema. The Life Ahead represents, as Hudson puts it, something of a departure for Sophia Loren. “It was the first time she’d portrayed herself in quite this way,” he says. “She was eighty-four when we were shooting. I remember talking to her and saying ‘I want to be absolutely respectful of your character and you, and light you as you deserve to be lit… I won't always do the most traditional beauty lighting. Everyone was on board with having it be quite honest, but like anybody who's spent a lifetime in front of the camera they want to look their best.”
Hudson shot tests both with Loren and Ibrahima Gueye, who had not previously acted but found a willing mentor in Loren. “Ibra had only arrived in Italy from Senegal four years before and Sophia took him under her wing and he was just such a joy to work with. He couldn't hit a mark to save his life but such a joy. Funny and positive and the darkest skin you could possibly imagine. But all you had to do is show his skin a little bit of blue and it would become luminous. We'd cool lights down sometime just to help our LUT bring out the best. He was so rewarding to light.”
Optimizing Image Performance
Hudson shot at 2500 ISO, rating the Venice a stop slower for improved noise performance shadow detail, recording in the high-quality OCN XT format. The production was graded by Paolo Verrucci at ReelOne in Rome, taking a strong cue from Hudson’s on-set grades and insistence on accurate color handling throughout. “I've taken a great interest in [grading] on every single film,” he confirms. “I want my rushes to look good – if your rushes look good you can survive most things.” Here, he mentions a previous production on which things didn’t go so well: “on [a previous production] we had a dailies colorist who had an amazing eye. The rushes looked amazing, but in the DI grade which was delivering on film, we couldn't make it look the same. We still made it very beautiful, but the director had fallen in love with his rushes. My aim on everything I do now is to get as healthy an image as possible and get a LUT as close to my final look as possible.”
Color on The Life Ahead was controlled through careful collaboration between Hudson, workflow supervisor Giardiello, and digital imaging technician Fabio Ferrantini. The production was delivered in 4K HDR, something that Hudson had grown to like after some initial caution. “I remember the early days of HDR,” he states, “and I thought it was vile. It was crude, it was crass, it looked like video games, then I talked to Rob Hardy quite a lot when he was doing Devs, and I graded another film in New York in November when HDR was flung on us two days before the grade. Although it made the grade quite challenging, I started to see that even if you don't take advantage of all the brightness available, I liked what it can do to shadows and mid-tones and how it can bring things out.”
Remote 4K Grading
Under pandemic restrictions, Hudson supervised the grade of The Life Ahead from home. “By chance Francesco Giardiello was working with Netflix and looked after the post side of things too, which was an amazing privilege to have.” A 55-inch 4K HDR Flanders Scientific display was connected to a decoding system using six 4G SIM cards which provided the bandwidth to stream 4K HDR video. “I had my iPhone on a magic arm pointing at the monitor, using FaceTime to talk to Paolo the colourist in Rome. I could walk up to the screen and say ‘make this area darker’! At times it was hugely frustrating because the SIM cards would run out of data. We'd get through another hundred gig and the whole system would freeze. It worked really well when it worked!”
With The Life Ahead complete, Hudson moved on to other projects: “the TV show Ridley Road, for the BBC, shooting in Manchester. It’s a four-by-one-hour about rise of fascism in the 60s, the National Socialist Movement, the militant Jewish anti-fascist 62 Group and a young Jewish woman who finds herself infiltrating this fascist organisation. I've never done TV before and it’s interesting to see the difference in the much longer storytelling process. It’ll be out probably in the middle of next year.”
Memories of Italy are fond, with working practices sometimes in stark contrast to the long days with prep and wrap periods normal on UK productions. “Where we were shooting we could walk to location most days. When you say your call time is eight, you turn up at eight, and they call it tail lights at six, which means you are driving away at six and of course the lunches are great.” Perhaps the overriding impression, though, is of production which was able to attract, as Hudson puts it, “Italian royalty. People were attracted because it was Sophia and it was shooting in Puglia. It was a lovely story and none of these guys ever get to shoot in Italy. It kind of shows – if you're going to make a low budget film, use experienced people.”
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