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Interview: Far From the Madding Crowd cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen

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Award-winning Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen talks about how she came up with the 'look' she wanted for Far From the Madding Crowd, working with Thomas Vinterberg and the importance of shooting on celluloid. 

Just Thomas Hardy’s name seems to conjure up ideas of rolling hills and beautiful landscapes and fields – it’s a name that comes pre-loaded with visual power. When you first came on board how did initially come up with how you wanted this film to look? What were your first points of discussion with director Thomas Vinterberg?

Both our first reactions were like ‘Oh my goodness, how on earth are we going to live up to those descriptions in the novel?’ We were nervous about how we were going to live up to it. One of his first words to me was ‘We must get this sweeping romance of Dorset’, as if it’s a character in the film. There was a lot of discussion as to how we get the character and the description in Hardy. When you read the novel, he has page after page describing one view and when we film it, it’s going to be on the screen for three of four seconds. How do we capture the detail that he does on the page?

We realised that each view and each wide shot of Dorset had to not just have the view, but something we are watching, such as the sheep, so it had to be a very specific view. There’s a lot of preparation as to what view goes where in the film and for what reason. Those landscape shots are not just ‘grabs’ as you travel around Dorset, they are all set-up. A lot of pre-planning and a lot of precision. A lot of thoughts and prep we went through when we started talking about the movie.

Did you look elsewhere for inspiration, such as look at other period drama adaptations or movies or photography?

Yes, I do a lot of visual references, but never a specific painter or film. We looked quite widely, and watched a few films, including the original Far From the Madding Crowd. We wanted to be a modern period piece, we don’t want to force modern energy into it. We wanted to stay true to the pace of Thomas Hardy and the pace of that world. We also looked at Gone with the Wind and Fanny and Alexander. I was inspired by different painters – a Danish painter, Peder Krøyer, works a lot with light so I looked at his work.

On top of that, general research on the internet of still photography. I also have my own little library I collect of photographs; I cut them out and put them in books. I do a wide amount of visual preparation. I made a document for this film of 350 pages of work that, together, gives me a feel of where we are going with the film.

Going back to the process of image capture, the 1967 adaptation was shot on Eastman 35mm, the 1998 version was I believe shot on 16mm and now here in 2015, I believe, according to IMDB this was the first digital Thomas Hardy adaptation, shot on the Arri Alexa, is that correct?

No, we shot on 35mm! Is it saying we shot digitally? Oh, I’m so sorry, I’ll have to get that corrected right away! No, we ended up shooting on 35mm which was so important for us.

That explains a lot! I was sitting there thinking ‘How on earth did they get this to look so filmic?’ So that does explain it! What was reasoning behind that choice?

Thomas and I were sure this film had to feel truthful. It had to be a truthful adaptation of the novel. Not documentary, but it had to feel real. That’s what Thomas Vinterberg as a director is very good at. He’s good at his realism. We wanted that to be part of the film. We knew it needed to look soft and we didn’t want to have a lot of post-production work. We wanted to have that softness and the grain. So this thing where you shoot digital and then add a lot of layers of grain – it felt wrong when our aim was to be truthful. We didn’t want to manipulate the images. We thought, we want it to look like film, then if we shoot on digital we have to do a lot of work adding a lot of layers of grain to make it look like we shot on film. Why don’t we just shoot on film? And so, we wrote a long letter to the producers explaining why. Another reason is the way of working. It gives you such discipline when you work on film. You can’t just roll the camera. It’s a very old fashioned way of filmmaking and we found that old fashioned way really helped.

Did you encounter any opposition from the producers or the studio when you told them you wanted to shoot on film?

Yes, we did. Indeed. It did take quite a lot of persuading and redoing budgets. I think in the end they all agree that we would have had to work much longer to achieve the look that we were after. The whole idea was that Thomas and I wanted to create the look in-camera. We were shooting with the right filters and the lighting had to be very precise so that you don’t shoot things straight and then create them in post production, we wanted to shoot it with the right colours in mind.

That’s interesting as I was looking at an interview with cinematographer Geoff Boyle recently and he spoke about how some filmmakers like to capture can image in a rather clean and neutral way then change the look of it and colours etc in the DI, whereas others like to burn in their stamp, if you know what I mean, when they light the images on set and get a very distinct look at the moment of capture. Do you fit into that latter camp, then?

Yes, that was a very important part of this film and how Thomas and I decided to make it. Exactly that – we wanted to make the decisions beforehand. We wanted to create this magic, not rely on ideas later on. This is a pre-made film, and that takes courage for a director. You burn it into your negative. The colour-journey of the film and the four seasons over the two years in the film and the colours in it – there’s a lot of work done. Producers get very worried when you’re burning something into your negative because what if it’s wrong or you have to change it? So, it is a very old fashioned way of working, but we were inspired by that.

There are a lot of people, from cinematographers to shopworkers trying to sell TVs, talking about 4K and trying to get the highest ‘K’ figure. Was the Digital Intermediate mastered in 2K or 4K, and do you place much importance by that?

The master was done in 2K. That’s perfect for us. I’m not like ‘It would have been a better film if we’d done it in 4K’. Not at all. It’s not where my interests are as a DP. Maybe there is a project where suddenly it is important, where that extra detail is important for the story. I always serve the story and not the technical challenges or possibilities. I sometimes get very confused as there are too many possibilities. That’s why you have to make a lot of decisions beforehand, because you can do anything these days. The fact that we were ending on 2K was not a worry for me at all. I haven’t heard anyone who have see the film say ‘It would be much better if it was in 4K!’ I don’t know if people can see!

It’s interesting that the 1967 adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd had Nicholas Roeg as the cinematography who famously went on to become a director, and I know you yourself have expressed wishes to learn about different aspects of filmmaking and directed. Could you see yourself going into directing/writing? Could you see yourself continuing with that?

At the moment I don’t, but I’m not like ‘oh, that will never happen at all’. I have to say, right now, my dreams are within a cinematography role. There is so much to explore and it really like being the link between the written word and the director’s vision. The directors come and say they have great ideas about where the extras are standing and the say ‘Can you create some magic?’ and that creates tremendous challenges; I love that work. I feel I am not done with that. Honestly, my love at the moment is totally with the cinematography job. I want to explore that even further. I have directed and done some short films, but I am a story-minded DP. I have a lot of comments for the directors on the script and the scenes; how can we help tell the story? If a script came up I might consider it, but it’s not something I’m thinking of doing in the upcoming years.

Is there one director out there that you would particularly love to work with because of their body of work?

No. Well, Ingmar Bergman but I suppose that’s impossible! He would be the one. I’m born a little bit too late. It annoys me. Other than that, I have a lot of favourite directors; there are a lot of great directors out there. But it’s the combination of the script and the director that interests me. Like, this script directed by Thomas Vinterberg; that’s what interested me. Being the link between the words and his vision, for a DP, is a dream and those are the projects I look out for. I am very selective with what films I do. I have to have that excitement to do a film.

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015) is in cinemas from 1st May. Watch the trailer below: 



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