Powerful dance sequences help tell the story in Audrey: More Than an Icon


Feature documentary Audrey: More Than an Icon explores the life of Hollywood star, fashion icon and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn through a mixture of interviews, archive footage and narrative scenes. Cinematographer Simona Susnea shares the creative and technical production processes behind the powerful dance sequences inspired by Hepburn’s love of ballet that support the narrative and focus on pivotal moments in the star’s life.

“I have always loved Audrey Hepburn,” says Susnea. “I remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a film student. Shooting this film was an incredible journey and when I met director Helena Coan I was excited by the idea of using dance to tell Audrey’s story and have a narrative approach to the dance. I thought it was a challenge and also an amazing opportunity for me as a cinematographer. I loved the idea of creating a story with movement – I haven’t really seen that before in a documentary.”

The research process for the dance sequences revolved around exploring Coan’s script, understanding the choreography that would support it and generating original ideas for how it would be filmed. Discussions began by considering the mood of each scene and how the low-key lighting and colour could create a feeling of loneliness, absence and lack of connection with Hepburn’s father.

Embracing the contrast between the black and white archive, footage from Hepburn’s films and the visually rich dance scenes was a priority. “We liked that variety,” says Susnea. “We didn’t want something that felt linear. We talked about aspect ratio and considered moving away from 16:9, but we were concerned it would be too jarring to cut from widescreen to 16:9 and 4:3. Otherwise, we were keen to make the dance visually distinct.”

References and inspiration included ‘60s Russian film War and Peace, in particular a scene in which the camera movement is expressive and had a very interesting approach. “The film used foreground elements and fabrics to create transitions and wipe from shot to shot, which I showed Helena,” explains Susnea. “I also looked at very different visual approaches to filming dance, like in the Belgian film Girl and the Café Müller dance choreographed by Pina Bausch, but it was mostly photographic references that we used in our conversations.”

Production designer Alexandra Toomey, Coan and Susnea then explored the mood, colour palette and visual elements that would enhance the narrative. Toomey suggested using fabrics to divide a room in which dance sequences featuring later in the documentary would be filmed, to divide up the space and create separation and depth.

Alessandra Ferri, Francesca Hayward, Keira Moore (Credit Phil Griffin)

“As we would be working 360-degrees in that space, seeing an empty room could become boring, but the fabrics would help us achieve a feeling of intimacy with the dancer. Alex also had the great idea of using flowers to elevate a feeling of transition into afterlife,” says Susnea.

A close collaboration with other members of the production team, including producer Annabel Wigoder, who Susnea refers to as a “magician,” and 1st AD Robyn Henderson, were also crucial to the success of filming the dance sequences the way the director and the cinematographer envisioned it. “Most of our HODs were female. I think as women we had a strong connection with Audrey and her story and it empowered and inspired us to make the film,” she says.

Director Helena Coan (left) and cinematographer Simon Susnea (right)

“I also had a great collaboration with gaffer, Bill Rae Smith and our very talented Omega AR operator, Will Lyte, who worked tirelessly to achieve the shots Helena and I wanted.”

A personal production

Cinematographer Susnea was impressed by Coan’s desire to make the film personal and to reveal the depth of Hepburn’s personality. The director wanted to make the film because she believes Hepburn is a “hero.”

“She is remembered, rightly so, for her beauty and her fashion, but there is another side to Audrey that is relatively unexplored. Audrey suffered great tragedy and trauma in her life, but she was always able to transform this into something better, and more beautiful,” says Coan.

The choice to use dance to narrate Hepburn’s life was important to director and cinematographer alike. “I love movement and having a such a strong narrative built into the choreography was a real challenge and a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me as a cinematographer,” says Susnea.

A detailed pre-production process saw Coan and Susnea explore the writer/director’s script, which looks at different stages of Hepburn’s life. They discussed it in detail while attending three weeks of rehearsals with multi-award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor CBE and dancers Francesca Hayward, Keira Moore and Alessandra Ferri to get a sense of the choreography.

“Dance magnifies Audrey’s emotional landscape and brings a heightened sense of drama and theatre to the film, as well as a rich visual language which has not yet been used in documentary. It is a creative tool which elevates the storytelling, and a homage to Audrey’s true passions, which we feel she would have understood and appreciated,” says Coan.

Based on Coan’s clear vision for each scene, Susnea filmed the dance rehearsals, capturing the choreography in rough sketches that would emulate the camera movement they intended to use for each moment in the script. After filming the choreography, they created a paper shot list developing further how they wanted the camera to move, at what pace, angle and shot size was best suited for each scripted moment.

“This acted as a guide and gave us a clear understanding of what we wanted to achieve with each section because the schedule was so tight, we couldn’t afford to figure that out on set,” adds Susnea.

Simona Susnea shooting dance scene in Brighton theatre (Credit: Jakub Rogala)

Connection between choreography and camera

The strong connection between the camera and choreography enhanced the production and its storytelling power. The team discussed which frame size would best suit a particular moment in the choreography and when filming Keira Moore, who plays Hepburn at a young age, choreographer McGregor would sometimes adjust Moore’s dance, creating more fluidity between the camera and her movement.

Lighting was used as a narrative tool throughout, its effect heightened by colour. In one scene in which we see Hepburn as a child, blue low key coloured light is used to convey rejection from her father. “Darkness becomes a metaphor in a sense because she transitioned from great challenges and trauma into someone quite beautiful. She chose life and love and lighting was key in showing that transition in her life and throughout our scenes,” says Susnea.

“During Audrey’s childhood when she didn’t receive much love from her father, we use blue tones in the lighting. In the main theatre scene, which we filmed at the Royal Theatre in Brighton, when Audrey is dancing alone, I used the same approach with low key, high contrast lighting, where her face was only revealed at times, when she’s facing the light. Otherwise, she’s just a figure and I liked that symbolism.

“Many people refer to her as being like a silhouette – the structure of her body, the simplicity of her style – so I wanted to translate that on screen with the ballet scene on the theatre stage, and preserve a sense of mystery to her character. The colour choice here, came from creating a moody atmosphere that was in contrast to the warmth of the floor stage lights and the hard, powerful spot on her.

“I went for lavender tones in the key light because I thought it revealed her vulnerability and strength. Initially I looked at a lighter pink tone but didn’t think it was the right choice to represent her character. “I wanted the lighting to be simple and make her stand out, but also add a striking element to the scene and I think the contrast in the lighting helped me achieve that,” says Susnea.

A trio of ARRI Sky Panels S60 were rigged from the top of the stage looking down to create a soft level ambient for the dancing area. Gaffer Bill Rae Smith also rigged an LED PAR source at the far end of the theatre stage, as a blue backlight, controlled through an iPad, so the colour and level could be easily changed.

“Creative conversations with Bill early in the process allowed him to understand what we were trying to achieve with the lighting, which was essential as the schedule was so tight and we had three days to film the sequences which really needed four or five. We like to plan ahead, adds” Susnea.

For certain scenes, filmed over two days in a stately home in northwest London, the production team wanted to narrate Audrey’s life from a young age, into stardom and adulthood and eventually symbolise Audrey’s transition into the afterlife and being at peace with her choices. These scenes were divided into several looks.

“For one look we created a very cold and dark atmosphere where Audrey’s father is rejecting her. In another room we opted for warmer natural lighting to enhance the idea of a home when Audrey is young, and then in a few more saturated golden scenes, the warmth symbolises Audrey’s kindness, acceptance and love, which we created using a combination of chocolate and straw gels on our main light sources.”

During the filming of these sequences, Susnea experimented with iris pulls when transitioning from wide shots to close-ups. “There were slightly darker areas in the room, so I wanted their faces to be seen and often opened to T stop to 2 – from 2.8 or 4 – when the camera was closer. For one shot with dancer Alessandra, we softened the main light sources to naturally darken the room and mark the end of a scene.”

All the scenes were lit through the windows to offer the camera and dancers freedom to move, and also to achieve a level of depth and authenticity in the lighting. For the stately home, the main light sources were two 18K HMIs that helped us push in sunlight into all these rooms or create heavily diffused, low key lighting when the HMIs were bounced into large frames.  Some windows, which were less prominent, were lit with small HMIs to achieve a level of consistency across the space.

Lighting the dance scenes (Credit: Simona Susnea)
Director Helena Coan on set of dance scenes (Credit: Simona Susnea)

Floating with the dance

Shooting on the ARRI Alexa Mini was a creative and practical choice. Having filmed previous productions using the camera, Susnea was already familiar with the image quality and texture it produced.

“Before shooting the dance sequences we were travelling so much between LA, New York and Europe filming the interviews that we needed the kit to be compact without compromising on quality,” she says.

“This was especially true for the dance scenes because we used a Steadicam AR rig and our Omega AR operator, Will Lyte, needed the camera to be light and small so he could move easily and quickly. We wanted the Steadicam to float with the dance.

It was clear from the beginning that the sequences would be shot using Steadicam to achieve fluidity of movement and a dreamlike quality. “The camera was on an Omega AR rig the whole time, which allowed us to follow the dancers and heighten the emotion of their movement.

“We were shooting long developing shots, from one to several minutes and the camera changed pace often during a take, with the rhythm dictated by the pace of the choreography, the music and Helena’s script. I like the spontaneity and fluidity of the camera and the rig allowed us to place the camera quite low and immediately transition to different heights and angles seamlessly.

Susnea shot the film’s interviews on vintage Cooke S2 Pachro lenses. “We filmed many interviews before the dance sequences, so it was important the lenses had a softness and didn’t create a modern look. Audrey was at her peak in the ‘60s and we wanted some of that to be reflected in our look, even if it was subtle,” she says.

“I looked at these interviews like they were portraits and the Cooke S2s gave me that beautiful soft quality, with a lot of imperfections I could control, because the camera was static and we were lighting carefully.”

For the dance sequences, Susnea used Canon K35s. “We had a beautiful, rehoused set. I wanted a bit more control over the image and less aberration and distortion at the edge of the frame, since the dancers were moving freely. The Canon K35s gave me a bit more sharpness and beautiful skin tones.”

The DP worked with former collaborator colourist Vic Parker from Raised by Wolves to achieve the desired look in the grade. “I enjoy being part of the colour grade because it’s when everything comes together,” she says. “I love Vic’s attitude and attention to detail – how careful he is with the material. When we got to the DI it was important to get the best out of the material but also understand that level of contrast we wanted.

“Helena and I wanted quite a dark look and we did several passes to see how far we could push it. It took a while to achieve to the right level of contrast whilst still treating the skin tones with care. We needed to make sure the ballerinas looked great and that we also achieved a strong cinematic look. It was also crucial to work through the details and be very careful how we transitioned from interviews to black and white archive footage. We didn’t manipulate the images too much, we wanted it to feel organic and I think we achieved that.”

Credit Phil Griffin
Benjy Kirkman Focus Puller on set shooting interviews in Rome (Credit Simona Susnea)
Simona Susnea shooting in Tuscany (Credit Ben Kirkman Photo)
Helena Coan on set with Givenchy in Paris (Credit Simona Susnea)

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DP Derango weathers -35° on Fatman with help from Teradek & SmallHD


Fatman, from the writing/directing Nelms Brothers team and their long-time cinematographer Johnny Derango is not your typical heartwarming Christmas movie. This action-packed tale tells the story of a precocious 12-year-old who, after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking, hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to take revenge on Santa Claus (Mel Gibson).

The script for this dark action comedy called for a series of fast-moving exterior scenes at the North Pole. The perfect location was the wilds of Eastern Canada, where extreme temperatures down to -35°F/-37.22°C in the dead of winter are the norm. Key to making the pages safely was the cold-weather savvy local camera crew and their choice of equipment.

For DP Johnny Derango one important tool was Teradek’s wireless system, a staple on all four features he’s helmed for the Nelms Brothers. “It just works,” he says. “I get images on my monitors that run smoothly the entire time.”

“We used a Teradek Bolt Pro 3000 transmitter and receiver system for wireless video between the ARRI Alexa LF and Alexa Mini LF to my DIT cart,” recounts Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) Andrew Richardson. “From there we used a video router to distribute the video signal to Pomfort Livegrade via the Teradek COLR (LUT box) on the DIT cart and to the monitors.

“In addition to the Teradek units on the DIT cart, we had two SmallHD monitors which allowed additional exposure checks using the Spectrum mode in the Exposure Assist (False Colour) tool.” A long-time SmallHD user, Derango counts on SmallHD’s false colour meter for exposure wherever he goes. “I love Sony OLEDs but I always take a pair of 702s or 703s with me for false colour,” he says. “That’s the combination I am comfortable with and the results are great.”

They also used SmallHD 703 monitors on the Alexa rigs. “The SmallHD monitors even kept working with snow landing on them,” says Derango. “Despite the conditions, the wireless video range between the Teradek transmitters and receivers was quite impressive,” explains Richardson, “In some locations we were receiving video signal from upwards of 200 meters away, in -20°C/-4°F weather.”

Camera was not the only department that benefited from Teradek’s equipment. On the back of the busy DIT cart was a WiFi access point and a compact rig of two Teradek Serv Pros that were supplied by the set dresser, Alex Kim. This solution transmits HD video over WiFi to iOS/Android devices. Richardson distributed video signals to each of the Serv Pros allowing Kim to watch the video feeds through the Teradek VUER app on his iPad Pro.

The team had a bit of a challenge at the film’s climax. “We did not have a wireless video transmitter for C-Camera so we had to hardwire with BNC cable,” 1st AC Chris Chung points out. “The camera was at max extension on a Genie lift and we had a lot of video issues from running hundreds of feet of BNC cable. When you get used to a reliable solid signal with Teradek you take for granted the convenience it affords.”

Luck was on their side. They managed to beat the pandemic by a day, wrapping 7-weeks of principal production on March 14, 2020. “We were outside of the COVID bubble,” says Derango. “Everything was still open in Canada when I returned home to LA.” The film is currently in theatres and will be available on VOD late November.

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Limelite Lighting Limited advocates MDG for television and film production


Placed in Goudhurst, Kent, within easy reach of television studios in London and Maidstone, television and film lighting hire company Limelite has been an advocate of MDG fog and haze generators since it was founded in 2007. Directors Ed Railton and Matthew Mountier, both with longstanding freelance careers in theatre touring and television lighting respectively, purchased 10 MDG Atmosphere haze generators at the outset and are still using the same machines 13 years later.

“We both had extensive experience of MDG through our freelance careers and knew them to be the best,” says Railton. “We liked the level of control, the fineness of the haze and the smooth, even dispersion the Atmosphere gives – it’s so fine you can’t see the haze until light is passed through it.”

Limelite Lighting’s initial engagements were with theatres and small television studios, but the bulk of its work today is in television, with the majority in outside broadcast, and many subhires to larger TV and film rental companies.

“Over the years we have seen a change from DOPs’ traditional requests for cracked oil hazers to the cleaner option of MDG Atmosphere haze generators which have become the lighting directors’ hazer of choice,” says Railton. “The Atmospheres leave very little residue on lenses, gobos and accessories.” This has proved an important factor for cameramen, and for maintenance technicians who spend less time cleaning moving lights and cameras post-show.

“MDG has all the flexibility, control and reliability we need as a rental house,” continues Railton. “Every job is different: studios work within limits and are 100% controllable, but outside broadcast is more complex, wholly reliant on the weather, and changes by the minute. A DOP can call on you at any point with just a ten minute window in the weather. But we can take advantage of the Atmosphere’s 100% duty cycle and use the DMX controller to respond instantly to whatever is needed.”

All Limelite’s Atmospheres generators are housed in bespoke flight cases with spare gas and fluid bottles as complete, transportable units for quick deployment wherever required. The company offers a choice of DMX and manual control generators to suit client needs. Recent productions employing MDG Atmosphere include MTV’s Just Tattoo of Us and Simon Amstell’s latest DVD Benjamin. 

“From a hire company’s perspective, our MDG Atmospheres have proved a good long-term investment,” concludes Railton. “The generators are never out of action so we need something reliable and strong, and easy and quick to maintain. Ours have been solid as a rock, the parts are readily available and they are very economical on fluid. Clients know what they are getting and like what they get.”

Limelite Lighting continued to film during lockdown No 1 with The Ranganation and Mo Gillingan’s All Star Happy Hour, while lockdown No 2 saw them busy with a new series of SAS Who Dares Wins, The Great British Sewing Bee and preparations for some of the pantomimes that are still lined up over Christmas.

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DNEG highlights collaboration between science and the silver screen with new black hole imagery


Visual effects and animation company DNEG has published a new video demonstrating how the Oscar-winning visuals created for Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar correspond to the first image of an actual black hole, observed last year in the M87 galaxy using The Event Horizon Telescope.

During their work on Interstellar DNEG’s team, led by Chief Scientist Oliver James and VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin, collaborated with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne to create a simulation of a black hole that not only supported the film’s aesthetic and storytelling, but which was rooted in Thorne’s calculations.

At the time the film was being made, scientists were yet to capture an image of a black hole – areas of the universe where gravity is so powerful that not even light waves can escape.

The custom software designed by DNEG’s research and development team created a new way of visualising the gravitational lensing of a black hole. It allowed DNEG’s artists to explore this warped space and create the iconic images seen in the movie.

The work contributed to Interstellar winning the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 2015 and led to the publication of two scientific papers by the DNEG team. However, it wasn’t until 2019, when an image of a black hole was finally captured, that the scientific accuracy of the visuals was recognised.

Oliver James, DNEG Chief Scientist, said: “I was astounded by the M87 images from the Event Horizon Telescope team, but there was a slight difference in the shape of their image and the one we created for Interstellar. The EHT image is roughly circular, while our images have a distinctive line crossing the black disc. I wanted to demonstrate how this difference is linked to the observer’s viewpoint.

We use science as a source of inspiration when creating movies. If these movies help connect audiences with science, then we’re doing something right, so we’re delighted to share this video.”

This comparison of DNEG’s imagery with the image captured was first shared at a talk given by Oliver James at the Starmus Festival in 2019. Kip Thorne has also spoken on the accuracy of the depiction to audiences. In his talk ‘The Warped Side of the Universe’ at Cardiff University in 2019, Thorne described how the final result of the collaboration with DNEG was an almost perfect representation of a black hole.

DNEG’s work with Kip Thorne hasn’t stopped there. The VFX house recently consulted with the physicist on the manipulation of the flow of time for another Christopher Nolan film, the critically acclaimed thriller Tenet, released to cinemas earlier this year.

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Dimension and 80six launch new XR studio at Future of Film Summit


Working in collaboration with technology partner 80six, Dimension announces a revolutionary new XR studio for creating innovative, extended reality events, dramas, broadcasts and live performances.

For the introduction to this year’s Future of Film Summit, founder and host Alex Stolz delivers his opening keynote address on a virtual stage, captured at the Dimension/80six studio.

Through a combination of LED screen technology, video game engines, camera-tracking and disguise servers, XR stages are delivering new creative opportunities for sports broadcasting, live music performances, virtual events and drama. From beaming in of humans for holographic interviews to AR visualisations, XR stage functionality is rapidly evolving.

While creatives, producers and artists are increasingly looking to virtual technologies to deliver experiences that have not been possible during this year’s lockdown conditions, XR stages have been developing in recent years as an innovative solution to engaging new audiences with futuristic new functionality.

Capturing content in an XR studio means a performer or host can see and interact with the content around them in a natural way, with realistic light provided by the LED screens. The scene, designed and built in Unreal Engine or in Notch, can be virtually extended into a 360 degree world. All aspects of scene and lighting are controlled by the push of a button.

Earlier this year, Dimension and 80six collaborated to deliver the longest ever XR live broadcast for the first virtual Notting Hill Carnival. Dimension has also worked closely with Eurosport this year to deliver a brand new studio that brings fans even closer to the action: the Eurosport Cube, which has been heralded one of the most important developments in sports broadcasting in recent years.

Jack James, director at 80six said: “Dimension have an awesome heritage in creating high-quality, immersive virtual worlds, and their real-time team have been pushing the possibilities within virtual production for a while. It’s great to partner on the XR studio to deliver new creative possibilities together.”

Simon Windsor, co-founder and joint managing director, Dimension: “It’s an exciting time for storytellers as XR and emerging virtual production techniques fuel a new era for content creation. At a time we’re seeing growing demand, our partnership with 80six unleashes exciting innovations for virtual entertainment production and we’re delighted to be working more closely with their brilliant team.

“As the film industry plans its recovery, the Future of Film Summit is the dream launch partner for the studio, which provides opportunities for ever-more compelling, immersive storytelling and a creative solution for productions to happen in the current challenging times.”

80six have chosen to integrate hardware from trusted industry partners such as ROE, Brompton, disguise and Mo-Sys.

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Why a Histogram Is Useful and How to Use It for Your Photos

Why a Histogram Is Useful and How to Use It for Your Photos

The histogram can be one of the most useful tools at a photographer’s disposal for dialing in the correct exposure and taking greater control of your edits. If you are unfamiliar with how a histogram works, check out this fantastic video tutorial that will show you both what a histogram is and how to use it to create better edits of your images.

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