Putting it in simple words, The Island is the oasis of Greek television. When i first saw the series, i saw a carefully designed feature with high production value. And by saying high production value i mean all those elements that really counts. Well executed camera moves & composition, beautiful photography & framing, good lighting, moving score, smart cast with great performances, strong script, the whole nine yards. In terms of visuals it's safe to say that The Island it's pretty much close to 90% of the film look.
What brings The Island so close to the film look is the combination of many things like the camera sensor, the progressive scan, the frame rate, the shallow depth of field, the camera movements, the color palette, the overall post workflow. One of the elements that characterize the series is the very shallow DOF and the extensive use of the aesthetic quality of the blur. The shallow DOF focuses exactly on what's really important: the face, the eyes, the emotion. And this is exactly where Victoria Hislop's story is all about: Emotions. I decided to pick up the phone and call Vangelis to discuss the technical parts of the production. In the following lines you will go behind the scenes of the series with The Island's DP explaining how he shot it.
• When you and Thodoris began discussing the project? How was your collaboration?
At Spring of 2009. I first came in contact with director Thodoris Papadoulakis knowing him by his two short length films I‘ve already seen and his first attempt on a TV series. A very interesting book, a director carrying a fresh view, a story that takes place at my homeland, was enough for me to pick up the phone. It didn’t take too much of time for us to understand that we have a mutual communication code not only upon aesthetic matters but also to the procedure of making a TV series and how this should be done having the less possible "casualties". So we proceeded to the next step.
• What was your preparation?
Eastern Crete became our office. Everything was there months before principal shooting started. Each day was full of activities: scouting locations, making research of the era (1939-1957) for this certain part of Crete and of course for the island of Spinalonga, watching DVD’s, making camera and lens tests. Three months later all these information blended together formed a first “blurred” image. The fact that we were present at the future’s shooting locations through out all preparation was of catalytic importance observing sun’s orbit every single hour or watching day by day facades rising up here and there. Director, set and costume designers, make up artists we were all present collecting information trying to be historically accurate. During these three months the first thoughts about the visual approach appeared because of this short journey. I believe that beyond techniques, equipment and the means that you will finally have at your disposal the preparation stage is a very important step for a project’s future. You know beforehand that is the last stage that you can have a theoretical view on a practical issue.
• The Island was shot on location. What kind of lighting did you bring to the locations?
Flexibility. That was me and my gaffer’s thought. To be able to confront any challenge quickly and effectively. Most of the interiors were former peasant homes or barneys built around 1890, leaving no space even for the actors to move naturally, having also a claustrophobic mood. They were looking more than cells in a monastery. Imagine a crew the same time at the same "no place". That lead, me and Kostas Marlas (gaffer) to design a lot of various small sized incandescent fixtures easy to hide them, usually imitating light coming from sources like oil lamps-lanterns or other practicals (No electric power that period). Having the luck to collaborate for almost four years with my gaffer we are always looking for designing our own lighting equipment depending on the needs of each project. We had already fixed two “NINE LITES”, an old type powerful heavy duty fixture for use on day exteriors at harsh-sunny days as a fill light or having an effect through the windows for interior scenes. We also constructed three "Sky pans" of different shape and size for overhead lighting in interiors (wherever possible), suitable for table eating or crowded scenes indoors and outdoors at night. These structures had the option to change type of lamps depending on the quality and the color temperature we were seeking. That was the "homemade" part, in combination with commercial equipment such as HMI’S 4-2, 5-1, 2 kW Kino Flo’s – Dedo lights - Lite panels and above all , means to control direct sunlight (butterflies-black cloths etc). I also used different kinds of reflectors and mirrors useful tools when shooting "day for night" scenes on locations with no electric power at all and difficult access to them. I have to admit that even though we knew about the weather conditions (especially the wind) and despite we had taken the appropriate measures it happened several times to find ourselves surprised by mother’s nature power.
• What was your lighting approach on day exteriors?
The initial idea with the director was simple. We are in sunny Crete, there is a great amount of daytime scenes needed to be dark and sombre, so we have to adapt each day’s shooting programme depending on weather reports, speculations coming from locals and our instinct. Great help came from assistant director setting the right order of shooting programme or even change it, if possible. We had hard times trying to "squeeze" a five or six hours shooting into three hours (where direct sunlight was absent) in order to "catch" that sombre mood in long scenes with actors, lots of extras, animals, boats coming or leaving, as we felt minute by minute that we are losing the existing light. Sometimes we stopped shooting, leaving the rest of the scene for the next day (same hours) or even for the next month since combination of having thirty or more actors at the same time at the edge of Crete was a headache for the production. It happened almost every third day to chase the remaining light. It is fascinating when you discover that what you considered "enemy" can easily be transformed to an ally. Sun, clouds, rain, wind, every phenomenon had it’s own part and it was welcomed in our canvas.
• The series has a very powerful dark visual texture, a beautiful soft image and an almost flat color range. Why did you decide to go with that look?
I couldn’t figure out any other visual approach since the book itself and the script drived me there. Hislop’s excellent ability to create instantly pictures, flooding a reader’s imagination is remarkable. Darkness, shadows, details almost visible may have the same impact - sometimes even more – than lighted parts of a frame. The "cave look" atmosphere most interiors of the sick, injured, poor community of Spinalonga island lit only by an oil lamp surrounded by a green-blue aura came out almost by itself without any special effort from me or production designer. It was yelling: I am here... Natural light coming through a small window was enough to create a source as a basis to work upon it. I was in front of a totally dark space having the chance to decide what and in which degree I want to be visible, as if I was working with an extra low speed film. Then comes the moment that you have to be alert and quite watching the rehearsal of the actors without interfering, a sacred moment to my opinion. It is also the moment that you may change everything you had in mind before, leaving behind thoughts you have done about the visual approach of the scene. It is challenging - no matter if that changes your plans – to follow a new born idea. During the preproduction, when scouting locations, B&W pictures emerged automatically in my mind created by two of my favorite still photographers: Josef Koudelka (especially his portfolio "Gypsies") and Sebastiao Salgado. Both of them worked a lot on B&W, exploiting natural or existing light in combination with powerful composition through all the depth of the frame. That’s why it’s seems to me reasonable that director, production designer Antonis Chalkias and costume designer Xanthi Kontou we all concluded to a desaturated chromatic palette giving just a discreet information of color. That means that even a passing by spectator at shooting time, would have an almost B&W live image in front of him. I had my share “playing” with the remote control unit (RCU). The final result completed at the post production simply by reducing wherever needed, some quantity of color.
• What was your camera of choice and lens range?
The camera provided was Sony EX-3 with it’s standard zoom lens. Although I had in mind to move to a more "professional" direction I made a few camera tests starting with the add of Letus 35 Pro and a range of photographic Nikon lenses. Through discussions with director I understood his documentary orientation and his will of having a camera moving free in the set. As I’ve already said I used to work with the RC unit which allows me to get close enough to the final chromatic result I wish but also provides me the facility to control iris precisely. When we finally decided to use Carl Zeiss Prime lenses 18-25-35-50-85mm and Letus 35 Pro prism I decided not to remove the Fujinon lens that goes along with EX3. Absurd? Yes. I had the option to remove original lens putting instead a relay adaptor loosing at the same time iris control. Changing iris during a complicated shot was an everyday phenomenon. Though I had significant loss of transmitting light passing through all these crystal "obstacles" (about 2 f/stops) we were satisfied with the image quality – especially the lack the depth of field - all of us except my camera operator... The 16:9 format - shooting at 720/25p - has been already decided having as a basic criterion matters of composition. Scenes having a lot of extras or children acting were always covered by a second camera. A 21mm macro photographic lens proved very useful for extreme close shots giving at the same time a wide angle perspective. A series of Nikon long focal length lenses from 105mm to 200mm were available when needed. The shape, the size and the weight of the camera, occurred with the addition of Letus and prime lenses made difficult the handheld use for camera operator. Supporting rigs from Zacuto, shoulder pads, counterweights and grips improved balance of the "front-weight" machine gun to camera man’s shoulder.
• There is a big amount of stabilized camera movements as well as dolly shots and less handheld shots. Why did you decide to go with that continuous smooth storytelling approach?
Camera movement for Thodoris and me is essential as long as it serves a certain task. You can move the camera slightly left or right, up or down correcting your angle in relation to the position of the actors. You can move camera dynamically towards a face emphasizing emotion or you can move slowly in a discreet manner during a long shot. The sea surrounding the “island” motivated us to have a lot of discreet movements of camera even with lenses such as 85mm. Camera’s weight changed dramatically as we have already marked, so help came from Sachtler S18 Fluid head and Panther Classic S with jib arm. Apart from steadycam shots, handheld camera used either to serve a scene’s dynamic or because of lack of space.
• You shot it with very shallow depth of field emphasizing into faces & emotions. What motivated that choice and how did you achieve this amount of bokeh?
Working with low intensity lights is something that I prefer for many reasons, especially when collaborating with first appearing actors. I like to push electronic cameras to their limits -iris wide open- although I don’t have any reasonable explanation of why i’m doing it. Maybe I should go back to my early days in TV when electronic engineers were coming on set asking me politely to "give" more light because "signal is too low". It is inevitable, working this way to get so shallow depth of field having not only an aesthetic result but also causing multiple nervous breakdowns to camera operator (I’ll explain later why I’m not mentioning to camera operator’s assistant). The whole TV series is based upon tiny expressions in actor’s faces creating the necessity to "drive" spectator’s eyes right to the point. Light and optical basic principles were enough to achieve that.
• How was the actors responded to that? It must have been really hard for them to always hit their marks and stay in focus.
Thodoris wanted actors to move free at the given space without any technical restrictions, believing that even professional actors have in mind to hit their marks more than acting. He was not far from the truth. I have seen it also in the past, that’s why I rarely give marks to actors for catching up a light. Imagine that we had almost 100 actors, plus kids, having different scale of technically acting experience. That’s why we let them free. Of course, experienced actors repeated same movements and kept the same positions take by take. But what happens when the cast of a scene is mixed with pro’s and amateurs? No marks, iris wide open, camera on tracks and different positions at each take. At this point I have to mention my camera operator Dimitris Theodoridis with whom I collaborate four successive years. It was him who could keep things in focus looking through the view finder. Any other solution, including camera assistant, failed due to TV restrictions of time...
• What is your opinion on HDSLR cinematography? Are you seeing yourself using HDSLRs as A or B cams instead of video cameras in future projects?
I’ve no experience till now. As a former camera operator in film and video I can say that I’m stucked a little bit to the aesthetic part of the term “camera” and how it looks like. Year by year I’m getting familiar to new products, smaller, lightweight, easy to use. So why not with a HDSLR? These are the rules of the game. No matter how you do it, the point is to be able to express yourself and if the result moves visually the audience that means you have "hit the mark".
Directed by: Thodoris Papadoulakis
Cinematography by: Vangelis Katritzidakis
Screenplay by: Mirella Papaeconomou
Written by: Victoria Hislop
Score by: Minos Matsas
Visit: The Island
All BTS stills, audio & footage property of the broadcaster copyrighted material of Mega tv, Indigo View, TVE SA & EMI.