Hall of fame for ace cameraman

Suffolk film cameraman Steven Hall has helped bring the vision of some of the world's greatest names to our cinema and television screens. Suffolk film cameraman Steven Hall has helped bring the vision of some of the world's greatest names to our cinema and television screens.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk film cameraman Steven Hall has helped bring the vision of some of the world's greatest names to our cinema and television screens. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him on a rare day off at his Suffolk home.

He's helped Russell Crowe unleash hell in The Gladiator, Brendan Fraser run from The Mummy, helped Obi Wan Kenobi battle The Phantom Menace and defeat The Attack of the Clones, he's been swamped by 101 Dalmatians and is now stepping back in time in Ashes to Ashes and helping Emilia Fox find her voice in Silent Witness.

Suffolk-based film cameraman Steven Hall is a man with an eye for a dazzling image. He's accustomed to making scenes look good and the unbelievable believable. Over the last 20 years he has gained a reputation for being one of the country's leading specialists in visual effects photography.

Recently he's helped Jackie Chan negotiate his way through a fight scene on top of the Eiffel Tower in Rush Hour 3 while the star was mostly running around a set in Los Angeles. He's also been travelling in time with David Tennant in Dr Who helping to realise Shakespeare's London, walking scarecrows and the planet of the Ood.

Now he is hoping to make the leap from cameraman to director with a couple of ideas which he hopes will bring television drama back to East Anglia.

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“Lovejoy and the Inspector Dalgleish series were incredibly popular - nationally and locally - and it proves that you don't always have to set dramas in London for them to be ratings winners. Also we have some wonderful locations here, areas which look good on screen and haven't been over-exposed with audiences.”

He has an idea for one series Constable's Country - which he describes as a police series with a difference and a one-off short film called The Shepherd which is a RAF drama set in the 1950s. Steven is currently working on a script which, he says, has a ghostly element to it and features a redundant aerodrome manned by a mysterious squadron leader.

“The RAF had a huge influence on East Anglia during the 1950s and the story has so much going for it. It's a real family drama which if told right will appeal to all different strands of the family. It will. Hopefully be, one of those programmes, like Dr Who, which brings the family together to see something on television.”

He said that he imagined someone like Geoffrey Palmer playing the mysterious squadron leader left stranded on the fog-shrouded aerodrome.

In between working up these series, Steven keeps himself busy shooting new series for TV. “Drama on television has had something of a rebirth in recent years - which is fortunate for me because film work of late has been fairly thin on the ground. Apart from shooting Rush Hour 3 I haven't done any feature film work for a couple of years now.” He said that as the credit crunch began to bite last year, feature film work dried up.

Steven has a wealth of experience working as a camera operator on an array of top movies. He did special effects shots and second unit work on Ridley Scott's Oscar winning Gladiator as well as The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Disney's 102 Dalmatians, Vin Diesel's James Bond-style action thriller XXX and two of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

On Attack of the Clones Steven was also the camera operator on the main unit shooting the UK studio footage with Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. Steven was also the main camera operator for the Jude Law/ Gwyneth Paltrow forties-style thriller Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

“It really was a ground-breaking movie. We managed to shoot virtually the whole film on a green-screen sound stage with only minimal sets and then constructed a film noir world in the computer for the actors to occupy.”

He said that for such a special effects-heavy movie, Sky Captain was a wonderful experience to shoot and the three leads Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie were quick to make friends with the crew.

“Everyone seemed out to enjoy themselves and it shows in the finished film. This was a recreation of an old-fashioned adventure movie and the cast treated it as such. Jude Law, in particular loved the idea of being a fighter pilot and Gwyneth Paltrow was happy because she had recently met Chris Martin, the lead singer with Coldplay, and the pair could always be found off-set with guitars serenading one another during the lunch-breaks.”

But for Steven, British-based Angelina Jolie was the most grounded of the lot, hanging out with the crew between takes, laughing and “just being one of the lads.” He said that her pitch-perfect English accent had improved still further since she had taken up residence in Buckinghamshire.

“It was a very happy movie to work on. I know that doesn't always make great copy but as technicians it needed to be because we had to work out exactly what we were shooting everyday and couldn't afford to be distracted by star tantrums.”

He said that he was selected to work on Sky Captain after he had made his mark shooting similar actor-led visual effect scenes on the first two Star Wars prequels and on Gladiator.

“I was responsible for shooting much of the background plate shots in Malta, I did some of the camera work in the climatic fight scenes in the Coliseum and did much of the camerawork in the spectacular opening battle in German forests - which was in reality was a National Trust forest in Surrey which was ear-marked for replanting, so: “They got us to do the deforestation part of the operation for them.”

One of the scenes he is most proud of is when Joaquin Phoenix arrives back in Rome. The visual effects department combined still and moving images he shot with computer graphics to create an opulent view of bustling Rome welcoming home its new emperor.

He also spent three months shooting second unit footage and fight scenes on Troy with Brad Pitt. Although Mexico was doubling for Greece, he was able to take his wife and children with him, so they could see him at work.

“The whole thing was great fun and it was great to see Janie and the children but it was all very last minute.

“At one time they were talking of doing some effects shots in the UK. Then it was all off and a couple of weeks later I got a phone

call and was told to be on a plane to Mexico with just two days notice.

“Originally it was just going to be for a month but I ended up there for three months.”

He said that last minute is something the film industry does very well. Even with Rush Hour 3, it was all maybe/maybe not right up until the last moment.

“Most of the film was shot in LA, I did ten days location shoot in Paris with a stunt team doing a scene in which the two heroes Jackie Chan and Chris Rock leap off the Eiffel Tower using the French flag as a parachute. The problem was that the close-ups were shot on green screen in Los Angeles, so I had to shoot all the backgrounds blind, do the long shots with the stunt doubles and then the main unit in Hollywood had to drop in the close ups on green screen.”

Green screen is the modern version of colour separation overlay, the method where actors are shot on one stage against a plain coloured background (now green but it used to be blue) and then superimposed in post-production onto a clean background shot on location.

Although he is keen to expand his cv with more straight-forward drama work, he says that he realises that the film industry likes to pigeon-hole people and work with people they trust in areas they are known to have expertise in. Therefore Steven in the film world is known primarily for his special effects/ second unit work.

Second unit work is, as its name suggests, a secondary unit working away from the director charged with staging action sequences and scene-setting atmosphere shots. Steven was director of photography on the Ewan McGregor/ Tilda Swinton movie Young Adam which was set in the 1950s on a canal boat travelling across Britain.

It was a period thriller which gave Steven the opportunity to expand his portfolio and show producers and directors that he can shoot straight drama as well as the more technically challenging visual effects footage.

“It uses different skills, which is why we all tend to get pigeon-holed. It's just having the chance to demonstrate that you can do something different, something other than for you are known for.”

He believes that having to do more television work over the last year has allowed him to show his flexibility on-screen and build up his cv. In the last 18 months he has shot two series of Ashes to Ashes, several episodes of Dr Who, Apparitions with Martin Shaw, the Spooks - Code Nine spin-off, Einstein and Eddington and is now working on Silent Witness with Emilia Fox.

“The television drama is really booming at the moment. The BBC in particular has really re-discovered television drama and the production values are terrific and are now not that much different from movies.

“Certainly when I was shooting Dr Who, the effects were as good as anything we do on feature films. One of my favourite shoots was the Shakespeare episode where we went in a shot for several nights at The Globe Theatre. The only problem was that they were staging their own productions during the day, so we went in and shot at night and then had to clear everything away at the end of each night.

“It was an exhausting schedule because when you usually do a night shoot you go home as dawn breaks but on Dr Who we stayed on to get a couple of early morning set-ups - a couple of daylight shots. They were long days but the results were terrific.”

He said that the shoot for Family of Blood - “the one with the walking scarecrows” was equally rewarding. “It was set in an Edwardian boarding school and was just so atmospheric.”

He said that work tended to arrive by contacts and personal recommendation. “Directors and DoPs (directors of photography) want people they know and people they can rely on - people who can get the job done. So if you work well with someone on one shoot it's not surprising to get a call to work with the same people on something else.”

He said that the joys of jetting off round the world to shoot films is starting to pall slightly which is one of the reasons that he would love to start making television dramas based in East Anglia.

“It's such a lovely part of the world and has such potential on-screen that it would be criminal not to get East Anglia before the great British public again. Last year I shot Apparitions for the BBC in Liverpool and we got terrific support from the local screen agency up there and I am sure that if ScreenEast got behind TV and film dramas in this part of the world we could be equally successful.”

Steven said that he had always wanted to work in the film industry, although he started his career as a stills photographer in advertising. “But when I saw an ad for a trainee cameraman with the BBC I knew that's what I wanted to do.”

It was while he was working with the BBC that he first came to Suffolk. “I was the cameraman on that first series of Lovejoy and I just fell in love with the area. When I got married I wanted to get out of London and I bought a place in the north of the county. It's a wonderful place to bring up children and yet close enough to get to London for work.”

Steven is confident about the future of the British film industry, even though by its nature everything comes in fits and starts. “The credit crunch is affecting everyone - the film and television industry is no different. As soon as I wrapped Silent Witness I was going to spend eight weeks shooting the ITV production of EM Forster's A Passage to India but that has been put on the backburner because of the economic downturn. We were virtually prepped and ready to go; now I am going to have to find another job very quickly, just to keep the money rolling in.”

He is also excited by the development of digital cameras which he says has made filming much more flexible. “You can achieve any lighting effect you can think of and as the lenses have improved they are amazingly tolerant of low lighting levels. Also they now have a greater visual range than a traditional film camera but without the hassle of changing over film magazines.”

This week Steven is back on set trying to photograph grisly cadavers while at the same time trying to show the series' glamorous pathologist in a much more flattering light. Life is tough.