Si Bell, a lifetime enjoying every sort of cinematography
Who is Si Bell and how did he enter the world of cinematography?
I am a Cinematographer from the UK. I got interested in filmmaking in art college and ended up studying Media Production BA where I made short films and discovered my love of Cinematography. After graduating, I then started to work as a camera trainee in the UK film and TV industry while still shooting very low budget short films. Eventually, I started getting paid to be a Cinematographer and took the leap to only do that.
I worked with a DOP called Sam McCurdy who was a big inspiration to me. I also learnt lots from gaffers. Doing shorts myself, I tried to bring professional gaffers onto my small short films and learn from them.
Where did you study cinematography?
I did a Media Production BA (Hons) at Northumbria University in the UK. They had a great course with some brilliant lecturers and we shot on 16mm which was great.
Considering the world of short films and the super productions you are now involved in, what are the technological differences you have seen between the two worlds?
It’s funny how similar doing a big budget TV show is to shooting a short film. As a DOP it is very similar. It’s about working with actors and telling the story in the most creative way possible with the director. I think the budgets are getting really good in TV and the ambition is high. Because of that, you are always pushing things. Even though you have more money, you aim higher.
The schedules are still hard on TV projects and you are shooting fast like you do when shooting short films. Normally you get a great experienced crew shooting the larger TV projects so that’s great. I’m lucky as I have my own crew I normally work with. This is great as we have a short hand and things are easy. I’ve worked with my grip and focus puller for over twelve years from tiny short films to Peaky Blinders. We have done so much together.
What has been your favourite set up (camera and lenses) since you started, whether you’ve worked with it or not?
I don’t have a favourite; I like to change depending on the project. I like to choose based on the needs of the project, so I don’t stick to a certain configuration.
Speaking of Peaky Blinders, when you joined the project, what stage was production at? Were you able to give your point of view on the visual aspect in pre-production or did you adapt to a look that was already set?
Yes, I joined early in pre-production on series five. We were given free rein from the producers, they trusted us but I think we knew we were doing Peaky. We watched the other four series and that was the base. We developed the look and shot with anamorphic lenses.
Also, we had to change the camera because of Netflix, as they wouldn’t let us shoot on the Alexa Mini as they did on series four. But apart from that, I wanted to do the “Peaky Style” and do it well. I didn’t want to reinvent it as I thought that would be wrong.
Does Si Bell have a personal style? Did you have to adapt to the appearance characteristics in Peaky Blinders?
I don’t know. I think I do have certain things and things I like.
However, I feel you need to create the right look for the film or show you’re doing. I think our job is to create a look that fits the mood and feel of the script and to work with the director’s vision for the show. The things I did in Peaky were more theatrical and I wouldn’t do them in The Serpent, as it relies more on realism and it wouldn’t be right.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in filming this season?
The biggest challenge was the large amount of locations and lighting plans we had. It’s very tough on Peaky, because you prepare the six episodes and plan them as if it were a big six-hour movie. It’s a lot of preparation and a lot of planning.
What equipment have you used to shoot it and why?
We shot on Red Monstro and Cooke anamorphic lenses. We choose the Red Monstro as we needed a true 4K camera due to Netflix’s policy. We tested many cameras and found that the Monstro’s sensor is amazing in low light and offers a look that we loved. We choose Cooke anamorphics as we wanted an anamorphic look without the bend and distortion you get with some other lenses of this kind.
Each scene of the series is full of a dense atmosphere that recreates the Birmingham of the 1920’s, how has this scenographic and visual effects aspect influenced your work?
I think I must have been unconsciously influenced. But, like I said, I think what’s right for one job is wrong for another. When we shot Peaky we really got into that style watching all the other series and going through period research.
The director and I had previously shot a show called Ripper Street for the BBC and Amazon Prime which was set in the 1900s London. The show is different to Peaky but has lots of similar elements of design. I think this set us up well for Peaky in terms of how to prepare and shoot a period piece of this scale. I think, because of our experience on this show, it made the jump to Peaky much easier, although Peaky is a slightly bigger show in scale.
Regarding another of your recent work, The Serpent for Netflix, have you found differences in style between the two projects?
I think there was a big difference in the styles of these two jobs. I ended up shooting the second half of The Serpent so there were already a lot of things established in the first four episodes. However, the final four also had a style all their own, as the story shifts gears and Herman and Charles’ timelines move closer together.
The first four episodes have two completely different shooting styles, with Charles’ story shot in anamorphic, using a lot of 1970s-style zooms and shooting in a very observational way. Otherwise, Herman was Spherical Zeiss Super Speeds and much more traditional and composed. For our episodes, with the timelines coming together, we try to merge the visual style and also be closer to Herman and emotional subjectivity. Even when we were with Charles, we were more subjective than in the first four episodes. We wanted to create a “Cat and Mouse” feel with the viewer feeling each of the characters’ worlds and emotions equally as Herman approaches Charles and Charles desperately tries to escape. We felt it was the right fit for the script and hope that the transition from the other style will help the story and not distract.
In which of the two styles were you able to develop your own style more?
For me it was more about developing a style that worked for the story, not developing a style of my own, if that makes sense. I think it’s the script and the vision of the directors you’re trying to work with and basically your goal is to help tell the story in the most engaging way you can.
There were some scenes that I really enjoyed shooting and setting up and that I think we did a good job on. One of them was the scene in episode five, when Nadine goes to check on the torch light she sees in apartment 504. We wanted to light the interior with the ambient light bouncing off the pool and with a torch. It sounds easy, but it turned out to be very complicated. However, I have to say that I am very happy with the results.
What was the camera and lenses set for The Serpent?
The set was formed of Sony Venice and, as I already anticipated, a mix of Kowa Anamorphics and Zeiss Super Speeds.
Regarding both productions, what are the main technological aspects in which you find differences?
We shoot both productions for HDR delivery, but both were shot using different cameras. The shooting format was the big difference. Shooting on the Red Monstro on Peaky and the Sony Venice on The Serpent.
What is the main difference you find between working for a TV project, a film and a short film today?
Now, TV shooting is very similar to film shooting, as TV budgets are getting bigger and bigger and more time is available. The standards expected in terms of cinematography and production value are so high that the lines are blurred between television and film. Short films are always low-budget, so it is difficult to shoot them and expect to achieve the desired production values.
However, depending on the type of television, there may be several cinematographers and directors, so look continuity must be taken into account. I’ve just done a mini-series called A Very British Scandal for Amazon Prime and BBC. It was great because the director and I did all the episodes, so we took it like a movie and worked together on all of them. I really like this kind of TV drama.
How has the COVID interfered on production teams and shooting?
I think the productions have adapted very well to COVID’s restrictions. It’s more difficult and there are more restrictions on stuff like extras, etc.
One thing that has been a brilliant new feature is remote grading. With programs like Clearview you can do it remotely, which is great and can be used even if you are shooting and can’t do the grading in person. I’ve corrected almost all of The Serpent footage this way and it’s been great.
The COVID situation has improved and platforms are constantly offering content, do you think it is easier or more accessible to be a DOP nowadays?
I’m not sure, there’s more work, but there are also a lot of people who want to be a cinematographer, so there’s still a lot of competition. With digital technology, I think more people have the opportunity to do their own work and become cinematographers. I think now it’s hard to stand out from the crowd as a DOP, so it’s probably hard to break through. I don’t know if it’s easier.
How have you adapted your workflows to improvements such as HDR?
HDR is a big thing and an amazing technology. We usually do the HDR version first and then do an SDR trim. Answering your question, you have to be very careful with highlights. With SDR, if a window is cropped it doesn’t look so bad, but in HDR you can’t do that. When you design the sets you have to put something outside the windows, like painted backgrounds, for example. Also, if you are on location, you have to balance the room so you don’t clip the exterior, otherwise it can look really distracting when you get into the grade. Also, practicals can be so bright they draw your eye, so again you have to be really on it with your exposure.
What will be the next technological revolution in the industry?
I think LED technology is improving all the time. So many amazing LED lights are coming out all the time. They are green and massively flexible in terms of change colour temp. I think this is going to keep getting better and better. They make lighting so much quicker and help achieve the look you need much faster than the past. That’s what I’m most excited about.
Another thing I really like at the moment is the use of gimbals like the Ronin 2. I think they give us the opportunity to make creative camera moves that we could never have achieved in the past and this technology is also getting better and better.