Ross Emery ACS. A DOP Raised by cameras.
With more than 20 years of experience in Cinema and TV, Ross Emery has the privilege to pick up the projects that motivates him. His latest job is “Raised by Wolves”, a sci-fi series set in a faraway planet and produced by Ridley Scott. We had the opportunity to chat with Ross about this production and his long career, as well as we make an overview of the film industry.
You’ve been linked to cinematography (sorry to point this out) for a very long time. What has changed since you started? What have been the main changes in the profession and in the technology used in it?
It doesn’t feel like a long time but yes, I’ve been there for a lot of changes major and minor. The main one is moving from shooting on film to digital, but that is a simple transition. I believe that cinematography has actually changed markedly in the way it is involved in the process. It used to be a highly technical process with technical aptitude being a prerequisite for progression to DP.
Without a meaningful amount of knowledge of the chemical processes, you could not really do the job a high level. Now digital cameras are much more forgiving and the technical knowledge needed is pretty simple to learn. It does not mean that DPs who shot film were better in fact the technical aspects could really limit creativity by imposing technical boundaries that were not supposed to be crossed. Some DPs would never contemplate underexposing film for example or exposing outside the guidelines of the manufacturer. Digital has allowed cinematography to cross over into a much more creative involvement, more intertwined with story and character and taking risks to give the audience a much more unique experience more suited to the movies intentions.
The other main difference is now with hi quality on set monitors where everyone can see the image often with the look applied, you need to make sure all the creative minds are on the same page and your political skills to deal with any disagreements about the look can be negotiated and ideally dealt with in pre production.This is an important one that really needs to be part of the cinematographers skill set now. I still believe that the cinematographer should take the lead in creating the look of the film, bringing all the collaborative ideas with the director, production designer VFX lead and actors into a single application the image that with serve the film best.
Has your motivation evolved since you first features? What drives you?
I used to be consumed with the look at the expense of other parts of the film. I am now much more holistic in how I approach a project. I still am amused when we have awards where “beautiful” pictures are rewarded, I find that pretty annoying now. When people tell me I’ve shot something “beautiful” or “Gorgeous” I try to correct them and ask them to use the term appropriate instead.
You should always be looking to shoot images that are appropriate, if the story demands harsh, ugly images, that’s what you must shoot, otherwise you are damaging the experience to the audience. It’s a long journey for cinematographers to reach that point, to shoot a bad shot to serve the film in the best way. My greatest fear now is to be awarded some trophy for a film that I knew was not good work, there are so many award ceremonies and festivals now that hand out copius amounts of awards a lot of the time to projects that are simply popular, fashonable or the film just made a lot at the box office. I would rather have a film honoured for being a good film and no one noticed that the cinematography just did its job and made it better.
How important technology in your shootings? Does it limit you? Does it broaden your horizons?
Technology is a broad term and I apply it differently to some. I find myself lucky to be working at a time that I can shoot with such a huge range of technology from the latest hi resolution cameras with lenses that are so well made that the image can look technically perfect, or I can choose older less perfect lenses to apply an imperfect look and a camera system that processes images in such a way that it gives a certain textures in this way technology can broaden your choices if you include all definitions of technology. I will always try to make sure that the technology does not impeded the flow of the processes, it can be great to see everything under perfect conditions but if it costs you a few setups per day on the schedule it is harming the process.
What would you say have been the most relevant technological updates that you have adopted during this time?
If I had to pick one it would be the Digital Intermediate process. Some would automatically say shooting digital but what we can do in the DI now is just brilliant and here is the reason. In the past you would make decisions based on the script and talks with the director, but sometimes a film gets found in the edit, or an actor gives such a powerful performance that it can change the emotional balance of the film, it happens quite a lot. With the DI tools I can adjust to suit the new directions, not be stuck with what was a decision made on the shoot day, or when you see the cut of a film with music for the first time and you change some ideas about the emotion you want out of the images. With a DI it’s alway s great to know you can do this, I would always try to be a s accurate as I can with the shooting of the film initially but knowing you can enhance and elevate visually later is a powerful tool.
We know that it is your job to adapt to each project, its budget and the director’s visions, but are there some recurring traits that marks you as cinematographer? What’s your signature?
I would hope there is nothing too obvious but we all have those little signature that find their way into the work. I think it’s changed. I used to do shallow depth a lot but it became really popular so I kind of didn’t want to do it anymore. I liked it because you could really control what the audience looked at. Now I try to use different things, I like using front light at the moment and then controlling the fall off, itis fun, everyone defaults to backlight because that’s what they get taught in film school or online tutorials so I’m always looking to subvert the current trends, it keeps you thinking. As for a recurring one it’s probably the shallow depth but very occasionally now, I nearly always carry the Panavision 50mm T1 Superspeed lens in the kit and I can’t help pulling it out for the shot that needs it usually a close up where the character is internalising a performance.
Looking back on your career, we’re sure that sharing shoots with other cinematographers has made you grow as an artist. What experiences have influenced you the most? What techniques or styles from other DPs have you made your own?
The more different techniques and style you can observe in process the more you can recall them in similar circumstances on your own projects. Someone like the late great William Fraker had a really old Hollywood style that was very much eliminate all the variables and risk and let the actors and director have freedom on the set. He never got cornered and was always thinking ahead to see problems and would have organised himself cover with more lighting units and a style that could quickly adapt to whatever the director wanted while still supplying really good cinematography. Darius Wolski was more “Indy” taking risks and pushing the technology to achieve amazing results that were unique. It was a pleasure to have worked with both of them and seeing the different approaches. Here’s a secret, I would have been quite happy to be a 2nd unit DP for ever, it’s such a great job on a production, you get all the cool stuff to shoot ,the problems to work out, most of the time your the guy who saves the productions ass by getting additional shots or enhancement shots, most trailers are 2nd unit shots. The other great thing is you get to work with other DPs on a really great level, watching guys like Darius Wolski, Bill Pope, Tom Seigel, Bill Fraker from the position of 2nd Unit DP is such a great experience. The time I spent alongside those DPs is so valuable to the growth as a DP. I don’t know how someone can emerge from a film school as a fully formed DP without time as an AC or Operator or 2nd Unit DP. A lot of what these DPs taught me along with techniques was politics and crew management which I don’t think can be taught, you have to see it in process.
Your job in ‘Raised by Wolves’ is your first experience on “TV” (or at least TV series) as Cinematographer. How has it been? Did you enjoy it? Was it very different from your work in movies?
The day to day was not that different. The schedule was a little more challenging but on this project we had a great creative team so it never felt like we were compromising anywhere and the creative was always elevated to primary consideration all the time. We did make conscious decisions to avoid what would be called traditional coverage, just covering lots of close ups with multiple cameras just to make the day. It never felt like what was called TV shooting but the subject matter contributed to that. It’s a very visual project and we always tried to keep pushing that.
If cinematography in television series had not evolved so much in recent decades, do you think you would still have been interested in being part of “Raised by Wolves”?
Truthfully, probably not. I had heard stories from people who worked on episodic TV shows and some of the stories about 16 hour days and 4 camera set ups to cover what was needed, shooting 10 pages of dialogue a day. TV and streaming platforms like Netflix, HBO Max and the rest, are really competitive now and they want high production value and interesting visuals so this is really driving a great deal of high class storytelling in that world now. The stories have to be compelling and the execution of VFX, cinematography, production design, have to keep up. It’s great to see.
Although you did not shoot with Ridley Scott, who was in charge of the first two episodes (and executive production), you expressly asked to be present on the shooting of the first few episodes to learn more about how cinematography was being defined. Did these weeks make you change or evolve your work in your five episodes?
I knew this was going to have a really interesting and surreal look. This world that Ridley was building, and after having worked with him on the Alien Covenant movie, I knew that the key to the style is seeing how he builds the look on set. There is always great references and storyboards but nothing is better than watching it happen and see the decisions being made. Also like a good 2nd Unit DP I know the knowledge you gain from talking to the Gaffer, Camera Operator, script supervisor, set dressers is so valuable in making sure you are hitting all the right notes.
We’re facing a science fiction production that is not so sci-fi focused as it seems. When you delve in the footage, you get this almost ethnographic feel in some shots. What do you think?
This was very interesting. There are some very big themes being dealt with in the show and setting the show in an almost stone age setting and seeing the clash of hi tech with stone age practices was very cool. The family was like a tribe and I think seeing their development like you would a Nat Geo documentary was a great way to go. It becomes very refreshing not to be seeing the sci fi tropes that’s are so easy to fall into in most sci fi shows.
And by the way, what was the camera + lenses that was chosen for the project?
We shot Alexa SXTs and Alexa Minis wth Panavison lenses, mostly Primo with some older Super Speed and Ultra speed lenses. We didn’t shoot 4K or Large format as it was deemed not needed and HBO Max were fine with the resolution. We shoot Arri Raw for maximum latitude.
We really liked the color treatment. How did you approach this field?
We wanted to give the planet a harsh look, dust, wind heat, then a freezing cold night with snow and mist. Desaturation was the main control for day looks and not to shy away from front lit scenes .The night was more difficult, the conceit is that the nights on Keppler 22 the planet are illuminated by two large moons so night on Keppler is never really dark, it’s blue but it’s like the brightest full moon night on Earth ever. We shot day for night for all night scenes on Keppler which was usually the overfilling of shadows and controlling the sun direction where possible. The standard Day for Night set up was 4 x 18K HMI through 20×12 half grid cloth frames close to the camera, very difficult for the actors sometimes.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face in this production?
Maintaining a very high level of appropriate cinematography to keep up with the complex and intriguing storylines. Every new script had new challenges and you have to really keep driving the look to keep up. We could never just fall back to standard coverage or framing and lighting, it had to keep pushing the boundaries and find new interesting ways to serve the story.
We’ve spoken over the past few months with several cinematographers and they all point out that led lightning has been a gamechanger for the profession. Do you feel that way too?
Pretty much, it’s great not to have hot sweaty sets anymore and quicker setups with lighter units. I still have to catch myself sometimes because a sky panel can’t do what a 2K Fresnel can do, and sometimes you just need a 2K fresnel. What I do like is the light fabric like Lite Mat units, very quick and you can attach it to the wall of the set and you have a lit setup that does not need cables and C Stands that can clutter up a set.
Due to Covid-19, the TV + Cinema industry relies more than ever on remote workflows. How has it affected your work? Do you think the industry is ready to adopt these workflows permanently? Would this, in your opinion, be positive?
I think some of the protocols we have seen come in last year are great. Zoom production meetings rock! So much quicker better information flow, love them. Don’t want to go back to the room full of people for 5 hour production meetings. Remote grading sessions have been around for a while now and they are really good. It’s nice being in the room but remote grading I can see doing more of.
Finally, what’s next for you? Would you return to feature films? Will you stay in the TV industry for a while?
My two projects since Raised by Wolves have both been features and I was going to go back for season 2 of Raised By Wolves, but it looks like Covid World will stop that from happening. I have no problem doing more TV, like always I pick my jobs where possible on people and material, then you normally have a good experience. If you do a job for the money, you get the money and not much else. That’s a balancing act, we all have bills to pay but sometimes the job that is more interesting with the good people will make you more money in the long run.