Gallery: Behind the scenes on the BBC’s War & Peace with Steven Hall, Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Tuppence Middleton. Blowing up extras, filming Outlander
- Credit: BBC/Mitch Jenkins/Kaia Zak
As a creative person Suffolk-based film director and lighting cameraman Steven Hall is never entirely happy with his work. He says that you always come away from a job with the feeling that small details could always be improved but admits that his recent work on the BBC’s Sunday night epic War and Peace has filled with a rare sense of pride.
“I came out of a recent cast and crew screening at BAFTA thinking that I don’t think I will ever be able to top that. It is an incredible piece of work from everyone and I am really pleased with the way that the finished programme looks. Although, it was shot on a television budget, albeit a big television budget, it does look like a movie that is delivered in instalments.”
For Steven, the job is something of a milestone. Having been a camera operator and a second unit director of photography (DoP) he now rejoices in the title 2nd Unit Director. War and Peace is the first time that the BBC has credited the role.
His first doubling up came in 2014 with the critically acclaimed TV series Outlander as 2nd unit director and DoP he was responsible for shooting many of the action scenes and the dramatic Scottish vistas which are so much a part of the show.
War and Peace followed hot on the heels. Steven, who worked with Ridley Scott on Gladiator helping to shoot the big forest battle at the start of the film and much of the trench warfare footage in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, gained the job having worked with director Tom Harper on the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.
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“I went for the interview and I think it helped that I had worked with Tom before, because he knew he could trust me, and the fact that I had shot some large-scale action scenes and managed some battle sequences before showed that I could handle some big 2nd unit battle scenes. I had battle knowledge but nothing could have prepared me for the scale of the scenes I was faced with in War and Peace.”
Steven spent a couple of weeks shooting in Russia, principally St Petersburg, before spending the best part of five months shooting action scenes in Lithuania with a military advisor and 300 extras all knitted out in authentic looking uniforms.
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“We started shooting in January when the temperatures were something like minus 20 and ended up in June just shy of 30 degrees – quite a contrast in working environment.”
Although War and Peace was shot on a big budget for television, it was a small budget by Hollywood blockbuster standards. “Audiences don’t care about TV budgets or movie budgets they just want to be swept away by what they are seeing. Unconsciously they will be comparing and judging War and Peace on BBC television against the big American series like Outlander and Game of Thrones and the latest Hollywood epics.
“What I felt I could do is, using the tricks I picked up working on those more expensive Hollywood productions, make the lower budget BBC production look more expensive than it was. I had 300 extras at my disposal, which is a lot, but in some sequences I had to make it look as if there was 3000 men on the battlefield.
“I wanted to fill the frame. By shooting in certain ways, by using forced perspective, and with help from the editor, I could trick the audience into thinking that there were more people there than there were. It was all about putting the money up on the screen.
“We tried to do as much in camera as we could. When producers started questioning the cost of things I would say spending a £100 extra on location to get a shot for real will save you £1000 in post-production costs at a Soho visual effects house. Thankfully we managed to do most of the shots in camera for real, although there were some CG (computer generated) effects they were mostly used to get rid of evidence of the 21st century.”
He said in addition to the 300 ordinary extras he had 50-60 trained stunt extras who could be ‘blown-up’ or fall off horses. “We would dig holes put a small charge at the bottom and fill it with a soft peat and cork mixture detonate it and the extras would then fly over and get covered with this soft earth. It looks remarkably convincing on screen and yet very safe and you can set these things off very close to the actors.”
One of the great successes of the shoot was Steven’s pioneering work with drones. Lightweight digital cameras were slung underneath large remote-controlled aircraft which were able to take the place of dollies (tracks) and cranes and allow the camera to get into the heart of the action.
“Because we had expert stunt riders I was able to fly these drones along at head height as the cavalry charged into battle. It was these types of shot which gave the series that epic feel.”
He said that years ago aerial shots would have needed an expensive helicopter shoot with all the extensive and expensive health and safety permissions. The same shots can now be safely achieved with a drone for under £1000. I am using drones a lot now even for high level shots on sound stages. For a ball scene I sent one up 50 feet and got some lovely footage of the dancers without having to get a crane in which would have got in the way.
“In other shots I would use a drone three feet off the ground. Drones are improving all the time but they are very, very user friendly and very manoeuvrable and can get very impressive looking shots quickly and relatively simply. I like the fact that you can use them as moving camera platform and they can be used for dialogue scenes as well as stunt sequences.”
He said that the benefits of using a second unit means that production times on films and TV dramas can be kept under control. As the name suggests there are two units working at once. The main unit with the named director will predominantly be working with the lead actors on the main dialogue scenes with the second unit shooting action scenes, at the same time, with extras and picking up shots that the main unit didn’t have time to complete.
“In the duel scene, for example, most of that was shot in February but we had to go back to do some pick-ups and complete the scene in April and while there was real snow in February we had to match the scene with fake snow in April. I defy anyone to spot the join.”
Steven spent months in Lithuania shooting mainly battle scenes and atmospheric seasonal landscape shots but did work a lot with star Lily James on one of her love scenes.
“She was great to work with. I would spend the day shooting a highly choreographed love scene and then wander back to my hotel and pass all these posters with Lily at Cinderella and realise in addition to shooting War and Peace she was in the middle of a promotional tour for Cinderella. She had all this going on and yet she was absolutely delightful to work with and incredibly patient while cameras were set up at all sorts of unusual angles.”
He said that with the rise of high profile series like Game of Thrones, Outlander and Black Sails these were the series that everyone was trying to match both in terms of ratings and production quality. “You will never achieve a feature film scale on a television budget but in War and Peace I certainly believe that we have captured a flavour. And in terms of ambition, I think it has to be applauded.”
Steven Hall: A career in movies.
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 providing a lot of second unit footage for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, he worked on all three of the Star Wars prequels as well as The Mummy and was the main camera operator for the Jude Law/ Gwyneth Paltrow forties-style thriller Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
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.
But for Steven, 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 the experience of working with Spielberg was challenging but also inspiring. “His attention to detail is incredible. He was shooting the main action during the day and looking at our (2nd unit) dailies at lunch-time, giving us notes about the sort of visuals he was looking for or wanting us to go back and re-shoot material but giving us clear instructions about what he was after.
“He was supportive and enthusiastic but also very clear about what he needed.”
For Steven, Suffolk is an ideal base from which to work. He lives just outside Eye in north Suffolk and it provides a quiet, country existence in sharp contrast to the bustling airport-taxi-hotel-location-taxi-hotel-airport life that he’s used to when working.
“As budgets get tighter, the days get longer, the days off fewer, there’s constant pressure to get the footage, so you may be in some of the most beautiful parts of the world but you rarely get to see any of it.”
He moved to Suffolk in the late-1980s while working for the BBC. “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.”
He said that last year was incredibly busy. After finishing War and Peace he immediately left for six weeks in Botswana shooting A United Kingdom, a film with Rosamund Pike, before returning home to do pick-ups for Bridget Jones’s Baby. “I came back to an empty diary but then the phone-rang and I had three weeks work. That’s the nature of the film business. You sit there with no work on the horizon, the phone goes and your world changes. That’s the down and upside of the business.”