David Katznelson. British cinematography from “Downtown Abbey” to “It’s a sin”.

David Katznelson

David Katznelson, of Danish origin, but settled in the United Kingdom, has become one of the most renowned directors of photography in British audiovisual fiction production. Since 2000, when he graduated from the National Film and Television School, he has shot a significant number of audiovisual productions for which he has won several awards including EMMY, BAFTA and RTS Award.

His work has touched all genres. From the documentary “The Village at the End of the World”, where he told through the camera the lives of probably the most isolated citizens of the world; to one of the most remembered episodes of the acclaimed series “Game of Thrones”: “The Climb”. We cannot forget his participation in the first season of “Downtown Abbey”, his work as cinematographer recognized with a BAFTA award in “Shoot the Messenger” or his latest production: “It’s a sin”, for which today we interview him between our pages.

 

We want to reference your work with two of your productions: “Downtown Abbey” and “It’s a Sin”. They are different from each other, just regarding to the environment and production. The differences are huge, which are they and how did you adapted these productions?
The biggest difference between these two productions is the period and the location. That makes a big difference to cinematography. For me “Downton Abbey” was a very different show. Because of two reasons: I was less experienced and, equally important, because, at least at the beginning of the series, it was set on the pre-electricity era.

It’s a very different kind of lighting challenge; all about oil lamps and pretending that you’re in the world of the old days. Also, the technology back on 2010 was slightly different. I think it was the first drama I shot on a proper digital camera, which was Arriflex D-20. For that reason, it was also a big change in terms of technology back then.

For “It’s a Sin” it’s something different. I like to be able to switch between styles. The journey as a cinematographer is always to find something new. I like exploring and seeing things anew. If I just did one period drama after another, set in exactly the same era, I’d get bored. I like to do different periods: contemporary, old days, new days, fantasy. It’s nice to be able to change the style a little bit.

In that respect, they are very different productions and very different challenges, but enjoyable on their own terms.

 

We want to stop first on “It’s a Sin”. Could you describe the main equipment used for this production and why did you choose it?
“It’s a Sin” has two different styles if you could say so. They became clear when we were reading the scripts. We had this very young, vibrant gay community with parties, a lot of movement and a lot of fun. Then there was a more conservative, if we may call so, parent’s generation and officials that were more set in their ways. For me, it felt like I could split up the story into two in that sense.

For the young and vibrancy, we chose spherical lenses, the Canon K35 rehoused lenses. Those lenses were just much smaller, so they were better suited for some handheld sequences we did. Also the close focus allowed us to be closer to the characters and experience the world with them. They were not crisp and sharp, like today’s model lenses. They could give a little bit of a period feel I suppose, as we were trying to recreate the London’s ‘80s.

We contrasted that with Cooke anamorphic lenses for the settled landscape of the parents and officials. In here, we kept our distance a little bit more and we were always on a Dolly or a Steadicam to do those slow moves, instead of hand-held.

Of course, there were moments where those two worlds met each other and we always ended up having this debate, “Whose story point is it? Whose world or whose moment is this?” It had two separate sides, but they met in the middle sometimes as well.

We shot with the Sony Venice cameras, which I had used very briefly before on a documentary feature doc about the Thai cave divers that got stuck in 2018. I was introduced to the Sony camera for that project and I really liked it so we went the same way to get a good image. I thought that I would shoot on the 500 ISO setting and then occasionally go to 2,500 ISO, but we ended up shooting the 95% with the same 2,500 ISO. I really liked the flexibility of the camera.

The A camera was a conventional setup camera, which we could change it to handheld. We could also put it on a Steadicam. Then the B camera was rigged in this Rialto mode, where you take the front element of the camera and separate it from the back element. Then, you have a cable between the two. That allowed us to have a camera, which would be more flexible if we were to get in a car or in a corner for handheld. I like operating it because it’s small and you can move it and take it anywhere.

 

 

 

Which was the main challenge you faced off during the “It’s a Sin” production?
It was shot on a stage and had a set for some of the show when we used the Rosco SoftDrop backdrops. If you want light for day, you light it from the front, and for night you light it from the back. It was the first time I used them. For me, that was a new thing which I really enjoyed and I thought it worked really well.

Another challenge was one scene towards the end, which is in the flashback section in the last three minutes of episode 5. The five main characters are in this landmark place called Primose Hill in London. The secret is that we didn’t actually shoot there because the whole show was shot in Manchester. We had to make Manchester looks like London.

In the script it said, “This is a very sunny day and everybody’s happy”. We were on some little hill in Manchester and it was drizzly rain and foggy, middle of December, up North of England, a really horrible day. The biggest challenge there was to make it a little bit sunnier. We had this huge crane with 200 kilowatts of lamps, just shining down to try to give a little bit of a summer feel. It was the first time I’d used such big lights and it was a fun technical challenge.

 

How challenging it was to recreate the atmosphere of the 80s in London? And how did you do it?
It was not easy. I was a teenager in the ’80s and it seems like they were yesterday and they are not so far away. When you actually see what those years looked like, looking at reference photos and films, you realize that it was a long time ago. It was definitely not easy to do it in Manchester because some of the architecture is slightly different to London. I think our location manager and our production designer Luana Hanson did a great job creating London in Manchester.

Even filming in London for the ’80s would have been tricky because of cars, satellite dishes, shop fronts and everything is different. I suspect we would have had challenges in London as well. It has become a really hard city to film in. It’s expensive because they don’t want filming there.

I remember some of the scenes with Roscoe, one of the characters interpreted by Omari Douglas. He has this affair with a politician and he lives in a flat overlooking the Thames in London. You go to some skyscraper in Manchester and the view is nothing like London. It’s amazing what with CGI and careful shooting, you can make. You can put in the Big Ben or something to give the feel that you’re in London. I believe that with few means you can manipulate things, which I suppose is what cinema is about on many occasions.

 

With more than two decades of experience, which work of your career was the most challenging? Why?
The biggest challenge was shooting the “Game of Thrones” episode “The Climb”, in which Jon Snow and the wildlings climb the ice wall. When I first joined up with the production, I thought the biggest challenge was in my episode because the other DPs were doing two episodes for that season. I only had one episode to do and a lot of preparation before I tried to get it right.

I can’t remember how high The Wall was meant to be, but it was about 300 meters tall or so and, of course, it doesn’t exist. To begin with, I thought, “OK, we should go to Iceland and film it,” or somewhere where we have a part of the natural world to deal with.

As “Game of Thrones” had filmed in Iceland before, it would have been a natural place to go, but very quickly became clear that it was not going to work because it was going to be too dangerous, too cold and we still wouldn’t find an ice wall which would be that high.

We put that idea aside and with the art department we started to work out how to do it. There is a great VFX guy called Joe Bauer, who was working that year on “Game of Thrones”. We started to design in Previz what the sequence would look like. Then, the art department started to build samples of the ice wall. Ice is a very complex thing to work with because it’s water, it’s transparent, it reflects the lights in a certain way, and it has structure and texture. Is very hard to build that.

We started out with small sections of wall built out of Polystyrene, salt and things that would reflect or have some granular texture. After that, we shot camera tests on and change the construction one time after another. We kept going back and forward with it for months actually. Once we were happy with that, we tested how it would look like with ice axes going into the ice and whether it was safe.

We ended up with an ice wall of 10 meters high and 10 meters wide and green screen everywhere around it. We started to build all in Previz, finding out which kind of crane we would need to use and build the tower for crane.

There was a section of the wall that we had to drop down. That was a special effects element within the design. We rehearsed all of these things; we created for a week or two and then shot some tests again. Then eventually shot the sequence in three or four days.

A lot of work just for a minute’s screen time. Luckily, “Game of Thrones” was very good at giving you a challenge, but also giving you the opportunity to solve it in a right way. It was such a pleasure and it was a challenge for us.

 

 

How do you feel working with a big production like that? Do you feel the pressure?
There is a lot of pressure for sure, and of course, the bigger the production, the more pressure there is in many ways. For me, it’s really about getting the right circumstances in place to solve the task and to prepare as much as possible so that when the time comes to do the job, you know it’s going to work.

The worst pressure comes when you are not sure whether things are going to work. That really makes me very nervous. That pressure can come on small productions and big productions, because you want to deliver something which is good, which is quality, and very often I think that the pressure is in having enough time to do it.

If you use “The Climb” as an example, there’s a lot of pressure, but once I’ve done all the testing, I had been there and I’ve out that everything was working before shooting, then the pressure is still there, but, somehow, you can manage it.

 

How does the arrival of platforms like HBO influenced in your work?
I think there has been a huge change in the last five or ten years. I used to do British TV dramas, where you work with BBC, ITV or Channel 4 occasionally. They always had a certain amount of money with their budgets and it was always too small budget for what they wanted to achieve. All of a sudden, we had these huge players like HBO or Amazon that they are just as ambitious as big future films and they’re competing with each other to become the best and to provide the best and next hits.

For that, they need to give you quality. That has been a big game changer. The difference between cinema films and TV is very small now. We have many incredible television productions, which I think are often more inspiring than 90% of the feature films you can see in the cinema.

I used to look up to the DPs who were doing the big films and I would go, “Oh my God, I would love to do that”. I think less so now because now you watch “The Queen’s Gambit” or “Game of Thrones” and you go, “Well, actually they look just as good if not better”. I think it really changed. It’s great, of course, for a cinematographer that TV has become so much more valued and that you get a chance to make it more visual.

 

For a photographer with a good background, what’s the difference to go to the cinema, or to sit in your living room and watch solo on TV?
I definitely prefer to see things in cinema. I think you just can’t compete with it. I like seeing things at home as well. It’s great to sit there and watch one episode and the next and so on. It’s a hugely enjoyable thing to do and it’s very flexible.

Equally, I really like going to the cinema and turn off my phone knowing that I’m just going to watch this and this is all I’m going to do now. I think the world without distractions is very hard to find now. It’s so rare to find anywhere where you are not constantly distracted by other things. I think cinema is one of those things. It’s a bit like going for a walk in nature where you haven’t got mobile reception. You go in and you’re committed to something for two hours. I don’t think you can beat that, really.

 

We were talking about platforms, and we often required larger formats, like 4K or 8K. How do you feel about working with those formats and with these characteristics?
Platforms are dictating 4K or 8K due to delivery requirements. I can see that the quality is better, but I do not know that I care too much. It is more about what the delivery actually is.
Of course, we want whatever we shoot to be future-proof to some extent, but my first experience was that I really wanted to shoot on the ALEXA cameras. I wasn’t allowed to, because I had to deliver 4K at the time. The first thing I had to do with 4K was an American series called “11.22.63”.

The ARRI camera could only deliver 2K, so I was forced to shoot on a RED camera and I wasn’t really very comfortable. Once you get going with a project and you shoot, it doesn’t really matter what you’re shooting on. You just get used to it, and you get on with it.

On the other hand, it’s great that the image quality is getting better and better. As cinematographers, we could try and do different things. You can push your develop in a different way to change the look. I think now many people are trying to do different things to put their fingerprints on whatever they shoot. I think it’s a balance between the two, really. It’s amazing when I watch some nature program and you see a frog or a monkey or whatever you see in 8K. The details are just unbelievable.

 

 

 

We’ve talked to many CTOs and DPs about HDR as a revolution, but we’ve been told that cinematographers have yet to learn how to use it properly. What do you think about this? How was your experience with HDR?
I think it’s true. I have to admit I haven’t got much experience with HDR, to be honest. We did deliver HDR on “It’s a Sin” and we were meant to grade in HDR but because of the pandemic, I ended up sitting at home with an iPad grading while the colorist was in Soho waiting on the big monitors.

When I had a look at the HDR motion of the series was when I saw these incredibly bright lights that were completely burnt out on the camera as far as I could tell. When I had seen it, they were burnt out, but then in HDR, you could actually bring back some texture and really play with the density of the image in that sense. It looked like it had potential, but I don’t have enough experience to really comment more on it.

 

What is going to be the next technological revolution or advance in the industry?
I really like the fact that we can become a little bit more environmental by using LED lights. There has been a great technological advance with lights have becoming smaller, more compact and using less energy. We still need that for bigger lights and I think that will be a huge technological advance. When LED lights replace big HMIs, instead of being 12 kilowatts of power, they will use a 10% of the power and give more output. I’m looking forward to that.

In terms of cameras, you can get them smaller, but once you build up we have the production camera that it’s still the same size as it’s been for the last 30 years with more things on. However, I think that is changing too. I can go for a walk in a park at night with my iPhone and I can actually expose and take a picture when it’s completely dark. It results that my phone sees more than my eyes see. In that sense, the sensors and the sensibility of the camera has completely changed in the last few years. The fact that we have a Sony camera with 2,500 ISO, capturing things that I can barely see with my eyes, it’s incredible. I think that those are big advances.

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