'The King's Speech' secures 12 Oscar nominations

'The King's Speech' secures 12 Oscar nominations

The King's Speech is a British feature film that tells the story of King George VI's unexpected accession to the British throne in 1936 and his fight to overcome a stammer with the help of eccentric Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. Following a successful debut at the Telluride Film Festival, the film has been charming audiences and critics all over the world, as well as garnering a haul of awards and nominations that includes 12 Oscar nods. Cinematographer Danny Cohen, BSC, who has been nominated for a BAFTA, an ASC Award and an Oscar for his work on the film, along with his long-time gaffer Paul McGeachan, spoke with ARRI News about the project.

The Kings Speech trailer

Danny Cohen, BSC used ARRICAM cameras and Master Prime lenses to shoot the hugely successful historical drama 'The King's Speech'.

Camera equipment for The King's Speech was supplied by Take 2 Films in the UK, while lighting equipment was provided by ARRI Lighting Rental.


ARRI News: First of all, congratulations to Danny on your Oscar, ASC and BAFTA nominations.


Danny Cohen: Thank you – it's all a bit amazing, but I'm really pleased.


AN: You two have worked together for some time?


Paul McGeachan: I've been working with Danny for about six years now and done most of his projects in that time. This was his third job with [director] Tom Hooper; they'd previously done John Adams and Longford together, and I'd been on Longford.


AN: Modern audiences are really responding to this period film, partly because of the way it looks; how did you set about developing a visual approach?


DC: With this scale of British film you don't have a huge amount of prep; I think we might have had three weeks or so, but it's mainly about finding locations and things like that. You have conversations about what you're going to do in terms of a visual style and look at references; we got very into the photographs of Bill Brandt. Having worked with Tom a few times I know that for all the groundwork and prep you do, things really come together once you actually start the film.


You might have some ideas in your head, but when you start the process it inevitably all changes. Longford was set in a prison and we decided to make everything in the prison very static and everything outside was going to be handheld, but when we actually started we turned it around and did the stuff inside handheld. So you can begin with an idea, but you need to be flexible and respond to the nature of the location, the light, the costumes and everything else on the day.

The fantastic thing about the Master Primes, from my perspective, is the range of lenses.

AN; You had a classic, high-end 35 mm combination with the ARRICAM cameras and Master Prime lenses; did the equipment perform as expected? 


DC: It did. We had two ARRICAM Lites and the Master Primes. For me, that kind of kit does exactly what it says on the tin; I think digital is catching up and biting at the heels of film, but film offers far more control in camera, with very simple techniques. For example we wanted a lot of it to have quite a cold look, so we just shot tungsten film without color correction and instantly got what we were after.


We shot on the Fuji [Eterna] Vivid 500T film stock, which gives you a little bit more contrast and you can shape the actors; our one-light rushes looked fantastic because what was on the neg was so close to what we wanted. We didn't have to do a lot in the DI grade, which for me goes to show how much you can get out of film.

AN: You seemed to be taking advantage of the wider lenses in the Master Prime range.

DC: The fantastic thing about the Master Primes, from my perspective, is the range of lenses. If you're lucky enough to get a full set then what you have is phenomenal lens choice, and on the wide end just one size up or down – like from an 18 mm to a 21 mm – makes a significant difference to what the camera sees.

Historical films tend to use longer lenses and throw the backgrounds out of focus, but we found that by using wider lenses closer to the actors we got nice big close-ups, except with a much wider angle of view behind them, so you're not losing the background or the context. That worked because all the sets and the locations were amazing, so the more you can see them, the greater the authenticity.

AN: Were you often utilizing the speed of the Master Primes?

DC:  Absolutely. I've been working with the same focus puller for quite a while, Peter Byrne, who obviously hates me deeply when we shoot at T1.3! What T1.3 means to me as a DoP is that I can use less light, but it does make the focus puller's job much harder because every shot is a challenge. With such shallow depth of field the images look fantastic, but unless you can rely on your focus puller to nail every shot, you're on a hiding to nothing. 

AN: Was your lighting kit as traditional as your camera package?

PM: Yes, pretty much the same. The thing was that we shot the film in winter, so we would lose the light at four o'clock; there were a lot of day interiors and we had to find ways to have constant light and a normal shooting day. There was one very large location at Portland Place with a big skylight and we had to build a tent above it so we could block out the sun and create constant daylight. We had white sheets on the underside of the tent and bounced ARRI X lights off them to give us a nice ambient light; then we used ARRI Pars actually coming down through the skylight. The tent was perhaps 40' square and 12' high, on a roof in central London – it couldn't be too high because it would have blown away. For that reason we needed sources on the ground and I knew the ARRI X lights would give us the coverage we needed.

AN: There are a few scenes with large expanses of soft white light in the background; was that a deliberate element of your approach?

PM: It was. One of the places we did that was at Lancaster House, where the king gives his final speech and makes the long walk past all the BBC people to his recording booth. Lancaster House was being refurbished at the time; there was scaffolding against the building with a safety backing on it, so we couldn't look out of the windows. We put 300 m of off-white Egyptian cotton over all the windows and backlit the cotton to give us constant daylight, which again was very useful in December when the days are so short.

For a scene set at Wembley Stadium that we shot at Elland Road, Leeds United's football ground, it was the same again: we lost the light at four o'clock, so on the track side I put up three scissor lifts with six ARRIMAX lights coming through 12 x 12 frames to give us a big, soft source that would let us shoot for the whole day and into the night without interruption.

DC: Whenever we could, we lit through windows, because it felt right for the film and there's something nice about light coming from logical places. It also freed the floor up because we didn't use a lot of lights in the room we were shooting, which gave the actors a bit more freedom. Often historical films use a lot of soft light, but we tried to use hard light when we could because it upped the ante in terms of what Colin's character was going through.

AN: How did you achieve that kind of hard light in situations where you had big, soft sources providing a constant ambient light?

DC: Hard-soft light is the holy grail of cinematography and I'm still looking for it really! Portland Place could only have worked if we had complete control over the day and the night, and we did achieve a combination of hard and soft light coming through the skylight that could be adjusted according to the scene. The lights bouncing into the white sheets gave us soft daylight and then the row of 6Ks coming directly through the skylight created that combination of hard and soft. We could also use tungsten to craft a night-time look. 

AN: There are some unusual compositions in the film; what was the thinking behind those?

DC: We thought it would be interesting to play with people's perceptions of what a period film should look like. There are certain styles and compositions that are understood to work for certain genres, but like everything, if you're prepared to stick your neck out then there are different roads to go down. One of the things that figures in the equation is that it's going to be a modern audience watching this historical drama; modern audiences are used to modern filmmaking so are up for anything really. Short-siding people in the frame and giving them a lot of headroom - why not? - if it is going to increase the story's impact. Of course you can overdo it, but used in sync with the story it can have a very powerful effect.