Spotlight on DP Nick Dance

Cinematographer Nick Dance first worked with the ARRI ALEXA on SIRENS, a comedy drama series about an ambulance crew, produced for Channel 4 in the UK. The production shot through a cold and wet English winter in the northern city of Leeds, with cameras supplied by Take 2 Films in London. Following this, Nick shot episodes of THE BODY FARM for the BBC, a crime series that was shot with ALEXAs again provided by Take 2 Films. Most recently, Nick worked on DEATH IN PARADISE, a BBC drama that was filmed in oppressively hot and humid conditions on the island group of Guadeloupe, with ALEXA cameras sent from Paris by Transpalux.

Twilight seems to last forever with ALEXA.

ARRI News: What weather conditions did you face in Leeds on SIRENS?


Nick Dance: When we started in January it was very cold and we did have some snow, with temperatures getting down to minus two or three. I had done tests up there, earlier in January, and we projected them at Pinewood with Vince Narduzzo, the grader. The producers wanted as filmic a look as possible and we were all very impressed with what could be achieved with the picture, especially in terms of the camera's performance at night, which just knocked everybody out. Once we started shooting we did encounter variable weather, although it wasn't until the second block of filming that we finally got some sunlight, which presented an opportunity to test the contrast. That strong winter light can be a challenge but the ALEXA coped very well.


AN: Were there moments when you might previously have been concerned shooting in those conditions with a digital camera?


ND: There always used to be concerns about digital cameras that recorded to tape because the tape could stick to the heads when you come into the warm from the cold, or when it was very hot and humid, so that's a huge advantage of solid state recording. I wouldn't be concerned about taking ALEXA to places that might have been a worry in the past. I've had no issues with the camera at extremes of either hot or cold. In fact, ALEXA did far better than the crew in both the very cold and very hot conditions I've used it in.


AN: Were there situations on SIRENS where ALEXA's sensitivity proved useful?

ND: There were quite a few night scenes and it was certainly useful that, using just the existing street lighting, you could get T2.8 at EI 800 with the ALEXA, and it looked fantastic. We didn't have a massive budget for lighting whole streets and they wanted to go a bit more vérité on the night stuff, so that worked well. We actually shot on a Friday night out in Leeds and were able to just put the actors in the melee of the real night life. We had a little bit of supplementary light for faces, but generally it was possible to work with the available light, moving with the character through crowds and things like that. It was very liberating for the camerawork.

AN: Did that involve a lot of handheld shooting?

ND: Yes that's right. Another great thing about the ALEXA is that it's the only PL-mounted digital camera that's sufficiently ergonomic to handhold; it is genuinely just like shooting with a 16 mm camera. We were shooting 4444 ProRes onto the SxS PRO cards, and just dropped to 422 when we needed to up the frame rate. Quite frankly I think 422 is perfectly good for TV work and we could have gone with that for the whole thing. In fact I shot directly to the SxS cards on all three of these jobs. I might be doing a film in the New Year, so at that point I'll look into working with ARRIRAW.

AN: What was the visual approach on THE BODY FARM?

ND: It varied really. There were three DPs on the job: Alan Almond, BSC, set the series up with two episodes at the start, Tony Coldwell did the middle two, and I did the last two. When I went in for a chat with the producer there wasn't really a style set, which was quite nice for me and the director because it meant we could take the scripts and interpret them individually. One of my episodes was quite vérité in its style, but the other was more traditional in the way we shot it. There were no hard and fast rules, although the producers didn't want to go too dark because it's a prime time show.

One of our main actors fainted and the crew were almost on their knees, but the ALEXA just kept going.

AN: These police procedural shows often have a lot of night scenes, was that the case on this one?


ND: There were at the start I think, but by the time I got on it was June/July and the nights were quite short (especially with ALEXA's sensitivity!) so in the end we didn't actually do many nights. I do remember a night shoot at a station that we'd recced during the day but didn't have time to go back and recce it again at night. It had looked like all the station lights were going to be great and the street lighting was modern, but when we got there on the night of the shoot all of those lights were off and the station was closed -- no one had really thought about that!


However, twilight seems to last forever with ALEXA, certainly in the UK, so we were able to go ahead with almost no lights and it looked great. In fact, it probably would have looked over-lit if we'd had all those station lights on. I went up to about EI 1200 and it still looked completely clean to me in the grade, even on a 15-foot screen. With any other system we'd have given up because we wouldn't have been able to shoot it.

AN: On DEATH IN PARADISE you were shooting on location in the Caribbean, is that right?

ND: We were in Guadeloupe and there was no filming infrastructure so all of the camera and lighting equipment came over from Paris, which meant it wasn't very easy to get replacements of anything. It did feel quite isolated out there, but we never had any issues with the humidity or the heat affecting the ALEXA, even though it got incredibly hot on the beaches during the day. One of our main actors fainted and the crew were almost on their knees, but the ALEXA just kept going. We were shooting with two cameras most days and had a third as a backup, but we didn't need it at all.

AN: The strong sunlight must have meant a lot of contrast; was ALEXA holding exposure at both ends?

ND: Yes, highlight details held even with white costumes on beaches in direct sunlight, which was fantastic. We also wanted to see out of windows and doors when shooting interiors (otherwise there's no point in shooting on location), which would traditionally be a real challenge because of the contrast, but with ALEXA it was possible with much less lighting kit than you might think. We also did a reasonable amount of night stuff, in bars, and again you could keep things quite moody and naturalistic, so the camera was impressive at both ends of the spectrum.