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“There’s just one director on the set”

An exclusive interview with London-based freelance DoP, Timothy Hallam Wood, off the sets of his first Pakistani film, Zarrar

“There’s just one director on the set”
Timothy Hallam Wood.

James Bond’s Skyfall. That was the ‘brief’ that Timothy Hallam Wood, a London-based freelance Director of Photography (DoP) and Movi Rig operator, was given by Shaan Shahid and Adnan Butt who were setting out to make their most ambitious action thriller yet, Zarrar.

It was “a very high bar,” confesses Wood, in an exclusive chat with The News on Sunday, at the close of the film’s second shooting spell in Lahore recently. “Of course, films like Skyfall have crazy budgets,” he is quick to add, “but there isn’t a shot they used in that film which I can’t replicate with the kit I’ve got.”

Evidently, this confidence is owing to his educational background and training in a variety of mediums — both film and digital. Wood’s most prized possessions are also the latest, cutting-edge gadgets like Movi Rig and DJI Inspire Pro.

As the crew of Zarrar gears up for its next big shoot in Turkey, Wood talks about how he brought his own kit from the UK, the issues he faced while working with local technicians, and his earlier work which is chiefly TV commercials and shorts.

The News On Sunday: This is your first time DoP-ing on a Pakistani film. Our films follow a certain template — songs and dances, melodrama etc. How comfortable were you shooting it all?

Timothy Hallam Wood: To be honest, when [producer] Adnan and [director] Shaan approached me they weren’t looking for that kind of format. There’s that element too, but they primarily had the idea of shooting James Bond 007. Specifically, they wanted me to look at, for my research, Skyfall. So, I studied carefully the work of Roger Deakins who is an incredible cinematographer.

TNS: Was it a tough call?

THW: No, not at all. I did a lot of research on how Deakins shoots. Normally, he shoots with Alexa. When it comes to lighting, he chooses a general profile for the camera, and does the colouring and the look of the film with the lighting. Shaan was very insistent on me doing the same. So, I purchased colour gels from London. Basically, I’ve kept the lighting very ‘moody’ throughout the film. And, there are a few rules to that.

Having said that, they had given me a very high bar, and I wanted to be able to say that this film tries to reach that level. Of course, films like Skyfall have crazy budgets, but there wasn’t a shot they used in that film that I can’t replicate with the kit I brought here.

I have travelled a lot for work, especially in this part of the world, so I wasn’t overly apprehensive. My primary concern was finding the crew that would be competent enough with the technology I was bringing with me.

TNS: How has your experience on Zarrar been so far?

THW: It’s been really good. Shaan is actually very receptive. I pressed him quite hard to use a lot of new technology. He was a bit reluctant, initially, but he’s really embraced it. In fact, he’s loving the freedom that we get with the package. The shots we’ve been able to do, I think, are pretty new to the film world here.

This is my second time in Lahore. It’s a lovely city, and the people are really friendly and nice. Everyone’s like that so far.

TNS: Were there any apprehensions when you were signing on?

THW: Of course. My family was concerned. But I have travelled a lot for work, especially in this part of the world, so I wasn’t overly apprehensive. My primary concern was finding the crew that would be competent enough with the technology I was bringing with me.

TNS: Has language been a problem?

THW: Yes, yes! For me, the hardest part was communicating with the lighting guys. I was given a translator at the start but it was completely useless because you can’t translate technical terms. You’d need a bilingual gaffer, an impossibility to find. But with the help of Google pictures we worked around it.

For instance, when we first arrived [in Lahore], I was trying to explain to the crew simple things like to connect two scaffolding poles we use a Jubilee clip in the UK, and they wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. They did know what it was; I just had to find the pictures.

TNS: Which format are you shooting Zarrar on?

THW: We’re shooting digital. I am actually trained by a very old DoP in the UK, Mr Christopher Huges, who was initially shooting on 35mm. So, I already understood the format. The camera setup over here I hadn’t used on a feature film before, but I had used it on many TVCs and shorts. So, I was very comfortable.

TNS: Your film showreel (available online) betrays a strong penchant for indie-slasher. Do we get to see such elements in Zarrar?

THW: Well, Zarrar is a dark film; there’s a lot of crime that the hero is fighting. So, there are similarities with what I have done previously. I can see why they chose me for the film. (Laughs).

TNS: You can operate a variety of camera equipment. Did you learn it all on the job or you went to a film school also?

THW: I did a degree in Digital Film Production but I would say that primarily what I have learnt in the film industry is from Mr Huges, on the job, assisting him.

I own a Movi Rig; it’s a kind of a replacement of Steadicam. You’ve to use it with smaller cameras. But there are a lot of smaller digital cameras that are coming up that are excellent.

The main camera in the film world at the moment is ARRI Alexa. That’s what all the big Hollywood directors are shooting on. Interestingly, they released its miniature version just two weeks before we started shooting Zarrar. We are probably the first feature film to be shooting on ARRI Alexa Mini. Besides, we’ve used the largest version of the Movi M15 gimble, which I am experienced operating. I also know how to operate drones. So, any tracking, steadicam, or aerial shots we’ve been able to do very easily and quickly.

It’s a very high-energy, fast-paced film, and it needed the movement that you can’t get traditionally because it takes hours to set up the tracks.

TNS: Did you have to bring your own kit to Pakistan?

THW: Yes, I did.

TNS: What is the difference between a ‘Cinematographer’ and ‘Director of Photography’? Triple Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is quoted as saying, “There should be only one director on the set.” Your take?

THW: My take on this is not complex. I am here to try and get the director’s vision into the camera. That’s my job. So, yes, there’s just one director on the set.

TNS: Is there any cinematographer in the world whose work inspires you?

THW: Ironically, the cinematographer who they initially gave me as an example — Roger Deakins — is very inspiring. But he’s done better films than the Bond series, to be honest.

TNS: You mentioned somewhere that Gattaca, Twelve Monkeys, and Kill Bill are some of the movies you wish you had made. Those are very different genres, compared to Zarrar. Comment.

THW: Yes and no. I’d still say that the overall feel cinematically might be in the same direction. These are all dark films. From a cinematographer’s point of view, I don’t think you’d employ me to do a comedy.

TNS: Many cinematographers have gone on to direct their own films. Do you see yourself going in that direction?

THW: I don’t. My feeling is that you should be a master of one, not a jack of all trades. I want to do beautiful cinematography. That’s it.

TNS: Are you trying to say that iconic film directors like Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, who were earlier cinematographers, didn’t do well for themselves?

THW: I’d only say there are better cinematographers around. (Smiles).

TNS: What’s the best part about your job?

THW: New challenges and finding new ways to resolve those, and not being scared to try new stuff.

TNS: Finally, what can you tell us about the British cinema industry as it is today?

THW: I have had some chances to work there. But honestly, British cinema is struggling. There are a lot of American films being made in the UK, so the money doesn’t really stay in the country. For example, the biggest grossing film which made ten times more than all our films is from the Harry Potter franchise. But it was still produced by America. Of course, our sharing the language with America makes it hard for us. I don’t think it’s too different a situation over here, with you sharing language with India. It’s a similar struggle.

This is an extended version of the interview that was published in The News on Sunday on April 23, 2017 .

Usman Ghafoor

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