Tony Miller BSC. From the fantasy world of “Carnival Row” to the naturalistic touch of “Fleabag”.
Tony Miller BSC has been closely linked to photography direction for more than three decades now. Throughout his long career, he has been an exceptional witness of the unprecedented progress seen on the TV scene; he has undertaken projects of all kinds and assumed constant challenges all along.
Two of his latest works, although very dissimilar, do reveal his ability in building truly special atmospheres through his particular perspective: Fleabag, a fiction series promoted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, winner of several Golden Globe and Emmy awards; and Carnival Row, a tantalizing proposal within the high-budget fantastic genre.
We talked with Tony to get him tell us about his experience in both projects, as well as the technical challenges he successfully overcame.
What’s so great about Cinematography that made you stay in the industry during decades?
To be able to create beautiful images that underscore emotion and are relevant, is a privileged position. You get to do this with a giant ‘train set’ and lots of people to help you achieve your ambition. What is not to like?
I am always challenged by cinematography. I often find it very difficult. Rarely do I think I have done it well – mostly I think in retrospect I could do it better. So, you are constantly evolving, constantly pushing yourself. This is a life journey skill – certainly difficult, but hugely rewarding.
You’ve state that the story is often what drives your style and what gets you involved in a project. Was there a time when the technical challenges and possibilities of a story were what motivated you to get involved in a movie, series or short film?
Yes, of course – if I am usually motivated by the story and how to underscore the emotions of that story, I am also challenged by taking on a film technically. Our art is a direct combination of the technical and the storytelling. With “Fleabag” what motivated me was Phoebe Waller-Bridges and her brilliant script. With “Carnival Row”, it was the technical challenge, VFX and logistics of a vast canvas.
So, I am motivated by many things – but I will often take a low budget project instead of a large budget project. People and the script are key.
We loved a phrase that can be found at your website. You said cinematography has to be “Emotionally relevant and subtly underscoring”. Could you elaborate on that vision for our readers?
I grew up in Holland being dragged around countless art galleries by my parents. Cinematography, like painting, has to be emotionally relevant. It has to underscore and bring out the story and emotions of the film. Yet you want to do that without the cinematography being obvious or drawing attention. Like Edward Hopper (the painter), one tries to create a story that reveals the thoughts and emotions of the characters. You do it with the tools of cinematography. So, reading the story beats in the script is for me absolutely key.
We’ve seen a dramatic evolution of cinematography on television shows. In your opinion, why has this happened? What are the reasons for this transformation?
In some way, I think it was always there – certainly in the UK where TV has been highly regarded as an art form for years. But suddenly, TV’s became much bigger and the quality of HD and HDR made it more realistic for a cinematic look to be seen on the TV at home.
Many of us, now watch their cinema at home on large TV screens. In our house in Tuscany we have a cinema – and I watch most of the year’s films over Christmas there or on holiday. Our habits have changed.
I frequently work on TV shows that have bigger budgets than movies. These days the choice is often – of doing a low budget film, that may never get properly seen; versus a big Amazon mini-series, for instance, with a budget that is many times that of a low budget film. It will be seen by many millions. So, the landscape has changed. To work on TV with budgets of $8-10 million per hour is common now. That has a profound impact on what you can do cinematically.
What have been the main technological revolutions for your work? We heard that you’re amazed by the possibilities of LED lightning. Is there any other solution you have recently discovered and plan to implement in future shoots?
Well I am just about to shoot a movie – anamorphic on film! Believe it or not, I am going back to the old ways! I love the speed that LED lighting gives me and the versatility – suddenly I need far less lighting fixtures as the LED ones are so versatile. But I still often use large Tungsten sources – Dino’s, mini brutes and 20K’s, as I love the quality of light you get.
Part of the technology revolution is balancing what you do on set and what you can do in post. It starts with the cameras: as they become so much more sensitive, I use less light. As someone who shoots period films, is a great deal. That means I can use real candlelight much more effectively. Often, I will combine this with halating the source, for instance, in post-production. Previously, I would do all this in camera.
Again, our craft is part creative and technical – we mix both and need to stay on top of these artistic technical tools. Staying ‘current’ as a pilot might, means regular immersion in the new technology – testing it and implementing it into one’s creative work. We never had to do this so often in the film days – but I really like the evolution of new technology. I like having to change and evolve. How one tells the story is key and these new tools are absolutely part of our craft.
In addition, we’re now living the UHD age, especially in TV series as broadcasters + platforms want to take advantage of these technologies to provide an extra value to their platform. What is it like to work in 4K (or bigger res) and HDR? Must HDR be a creative tool to use when the project needs it, or should it be integrated into every TV production?
I think HDR is rapidly becoming the norm. That means that we shoot, post produce and colour correct for it. I have just done 3 Netflix shows in a row and all are for HDR. I think we will see in the next few years that this becomes the new standard.
Today we’ll focus on Fleabag + Carnival Row. Are there any other challenging or interesting TV projects from a DoP perspective that you’re particularly proud of and want to tell us about?
There are many – from my early documentary projects (that so inform how I work in fiction), to key political projects such as “Small Island” a mini-series about race in the 1950’s and 60’s in the UK with a fantastic cast. Projects that have some form of political relevance or inform our lives, are always the ones that I relate to best.
Delving into the low-budget Fleabag… What was the camera + lenses package for this production? We heard that handheld cameras were deployed to shoot. How did this transform your workflows? What are the pros and the cons of this type of camera?
Fleabag had a reasonable Amazon budget – so it was not as low budget as many think. We shot with an Alexa mini in anamorphic, with Cooke Anamorphic lenses. Workflow was a traditional one. I shot it almost completely handheld – I became like a player in the drama and to be able to react instinctively to Fleabag/Phoebe as she broke the fourth wall meant that handheld was the only way to go.
It is a project that I could only have shot as DP/operator, as the camera was so implicated in the drama. It was exhausting, but very rewarding. At the same time, we wanted it to seem effortlessly cinematic, for Fleabag to be beautiful and radiant when she breaks the fourth wall. I found it a very challenging and demanding project to shoot – much more so (suprisingly) than something like “Carnival Row”.
Fleabag has a definite naturalistic touch, but it does not renounce its cinematic feel. How did you achieve this technologically? In addition, about breaking the fourth wall, did you remarked that in some way from the Cinematography side?
There is a sense that when Fleabag breaks the fourth wall, she implicates the audience and makes us also responsible or reflect on our own bad behaviour. I think we all have a bit of Fleabag in us. So that was at the forefront of my mind. But we wanted it to be a cinematic experience.
I had never shot any comedy and was hired as the guy who shoots period drama. So, I tried to combine a naturalism with a cinematic look. That affected the way it was lit, the way it was operated and especially how we revealed the emotion of the story.
Carnival Row is a massive project whose cinematography, we think, you designed together with Chris Seger. Again, what were your main camera + lenses options and why did you decide to implement those solutions?
Carnival Row is the other end of the spectrum – it was huge and had great ambition. Alexa Mini and Master primes were my choice here and we had multiple camera packages as often we would have the main unit, a second unit, a green screen unit and even a stunt unit working at the same time. I had about 8 weeks of prep and many sets to pre-light – but also much to integrate with the VFX team who were superb, the stunt team – likewise a great bunch and setting up a look for the series.
There are a wide variety of situations during the series that demonstrated your creativity and technical skills. Could you revamp a particular scene that was especially challenging?
There are many. We had a number of wirecam shots day and night on the Carnival Row street set. It was about 800 metres long and we set up 4 cranes to hold the wire cam and then would swoop down in between the overhead vernacular railway, just missing stunt men, down to ground level where the grips would lift off the Stableye remote head by hand and walk through the street. We had a stunt team of about 30 and often 3-400 extras. At night I had Wendy lights on cranes positioned up and down the street, balloons and massive night rigs to let us traverse the street in long single shots. Then we would add rain effects etc…. So, it was ambitious – aided by the fantastic Czech crew – this was of course huge team work.
In addition, we would love to address the FX of the production. You used these gigantic sets but you also benefit from great green screens and lots of post-production. How do you work in these circumstances? What’s your involvement with the post-production team?
Working on such a large-scale production one has to rely and work very closely with the VFX team and in this case the superb VFX supervisor Betsy Patterson. We would discuss what we intended to do early on, story board it and often previsualise it. As there was so much wire work and people flying, we had to frequently combine location elements with later greenscreen studio work. It was a huge challenge and matching the lighting and movement was key.
Finally, what will your next project be? Will you keep betting on TV shows?
I am about to start a movie – “Mr Malcolm’s List”, a period drama to be shot in Ireland on film shot anamorphic. For Bleaker Street and Sony Picture Classics. After that I might be doing an Amazon project for TV. I also try and continue to shoot a documentary once a year. I try not to get pigeonholed.