As it turns out the weather, and its impact upon the location, became the biggest influence on our visual approach. In typical movie making fashion when we wanted sun we got overcast weather and when we needed cloud we got blazing sun. Thankfully we had measures in place that allowed us to work with the weather we were given and make it work for our story and visual style. Key to this was the placement of the trench within the location. I was fortunate to have been involved at a very early stage in prep so I was able to have the set built so that for the majority of our work we would always be shooting into the Sun. This became absolutely crucial when we found ourselves in blazing sunshine for the first 3 days of the shoot. When the sun was out we used primarily natural light, occasionally using a 575 HMI cinepar bounced into Poly to fill in some eyes, and if i needed to replicate the look of sun in overcast conditions I brought in 2 x 12K HMI Cinepars as back light for the far background with 2 x 6K Cinepars as backlight for the foreground, occasionally using a Light amber gel to match the warmth of the low angle sun. In back light I usually kept the skin tones about a stop under key and in cloud I'd expose the skin tones at key.
For the overcast conditions I'd use a 12K cinepar bounced off of an 8x or 12x Ultrabounce as a 3/4 soft back light with a matching bounce from another 12K par as a 3/4 soft fill diagonally opposite the back light. I avoided a traditional "key" light for most of this project preferring instead to use natural light, working with a larger fill source to add a glint to the eyes of the cast. This source would usually give me enough spread to cover at least 4 to 5 cast members in a medium-wide shot spread across the width of the trench (approx 10-12 feet). In the morning, if the clouds hadn't quite lifted enough, I'd occasionally use a second 12K cinepar bounced into the deep background of the trench to lift the levels a little bit.
For the few scenes we had off the trench I once again relied primarily on natural light, again using a location allowing us to shoot into the sun for most of the day, which I would augment with a book light using a 4K or 6K cinepar bounced off an 8 x ultrabounce and through another 8 x with full grid cloth.
Our original visual style was inspired by an older style of coverage, using sustained master shots filled with cast, and background extras and a minimal amount of coverage. We had hoped to have each master shot on the dolly to allow us to develop from a mid to a medium or vice versa but the difficulty of tracking in the trench location forced us to adapt to a slightly different style. While we managed to incorporate a handful of simple dolly moves down in the trench, we eventually settled on a simpler approach, keeping the camera on sticks and using careful compositions, to sustain our coverage. For scenes above the Trench, in No mans land, the terrain was either completely sodden or totally frozen, forcing us to use an excavator to carve a path for our dolly track. Needless to say we planned those few moves carefully. Given the difficulties we encountered I'm quite proud of the fact that we never once resorted to handheld or Steadicam.
Most of the shoot was shot on wider lenses, the 35mm being our favourite, and at a stop usually around T5.6/8. The script starts in early morning light and gradually shifts through the day ending at night, so shooting on Fuji Eterna 500T with a 1 stop pull I was using a combination of Blue Grey filters for early morning, transitioning to 85 filters for the day, then towards 81EF filters for the evening and finally using a chocolate filter instead of an 85 for 1 scene off the trench set towards the end of the day. I had planned to rear net the lenses with Dior stockings but decided against that once I saw how much sunlight we would be up against in the advanced weather forecast. No diffusion was used. The 1 stop pull was to soften the colours and contrast and the plan is to use a light application of ENR in the DI to restore our blacks and desaturate colours a little further.
We always knew that filming inside the Trench itself, and to a lesser degree on No Mans Land, was going to be logistically difficult because of the terrain, the mud and the rain we were planning on introducing. What none of us anticipated fully was just how difficult and gruelling it would be to work in those conditions day after day. Even the most basic of tasks, like changing a mag or a lens, took twice as long simply because of the hostile environment. As a key part of our visual approach both the Director and I wanted to incorporate extreme weather conditions to show just how difficult it was for these men, out there for several years. Part of that meant working with movie rain, and because we used movie rain on the first day, ALL day, that meant from that point on we were working in 2 feet of water sitting on top of 2 feet of sodden liquid mud:-) Add a crew of 80 people stomping through that all day and you quickly find that your set has literally become a liquefied mess of mud, and in our particular case a very clay like mud that would literally stick to everything it splashed on.
I consider it a testament to the quality of the gear we were using that despite all these obstacles and all the mud, dirt and snow flying through the air the kit continued to perform flawlessly. I cannot imagine bringing any HD camera package into that environment and having it perform as well as our 35mm Package did, so for that I owe a big thank you to Panavision and Panalux.
Needless to say that in conditions like this, as a cinematographer, you are entirely dependent upon the experience of the camera, grip and electrical crew and thankfully the team I had with me performed minor miracles under lots of pressure always with a smile on their faces.
One of the pleasures of this particular project was working with one of the finest FX crews in the world, led by Steve Warner, who on our larger days was running a crew of approx 50 Fx technicians. Allowing me the option to rain/snow/frost/smoke several acres of land at anytime so in this case I used more smoke to control the light then grip gear, a luxury usually reserved only for larger budget features.
I've included some stills from the set to show the kind of conditions we were working in, I hope to have more lighting specific photos in a week or so and as soon as I have some material to post from the rushes I'll add them here.
Photos by Aideen McCarthy and Ed Moore.