DP Gavin Finney BSC on shooting Good Omens
By Oliver Webb
Angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) form an unlikely duo as they embark on their life on Earth. Created by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and adapted for the screen by Gaiman, Good Omens was beautifully shot by Gavin Finney BSC.
Where did you train as a cinematographer?
Gavin Finney: I attended Manchester Polytechnic film school on a three year practical degree course which gave me hands-on experience of a number of disciplines including cinematography. I was also interested in editing and sound, but it was whilst shooting a commercial for a competition (which we later won) that I decided to be a cinematographer. Although I then worked for a while as a clapper loader, the pull to be a cinematographer was strong, so I applied for the cinematography course at The NFTS. Another three years and a large overdraft had me back in the real world and looking for work. Fortunately, I got an agent pretty quickly and started to pay off the bank loan.
Who are your DP heroes/inspirations?
Gavin Finney: There are so many, but I’ve always appreciated the way in which Roger Deakins’ work serves the story, as a result all his films look different and he never gets stuck in a stylistic rut, unlike some well known DoPs. I also admire the rich imagery of Darious Khondji; his boldness of colour and inky blacks.
How did you first get involved with Good Omens?
Gavin Finney: I’d worked with the director, Douglas Mackinnon, on previous projects and he kindly asked me to join the team on season 1. I’d already shot three Terry Pratchett adaptations, so perhaps they felt that I ‘got’ the genre. Apart from the great script, cast and crew, a big plus was being asked to shoot the whole season, which meant I could control the look across all six episodes and is always far more satisfying.
What were your initial conversations with creator Neil Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon about the look of the series?
Gavin Finney: One often starts by looking at other shows for references, which can be useful, but there aren’t many references for a story about an angel and a demon forming a friendly alliance and averting the apocalypse in a magical romantic comedy. It really grew out of itself, the images were inspired by the tone of the book and a lot by the imagination of production designer Michael Ralph. There are a lot of sets, locations and time periods, and we wanted each one to have an identity, but also be part of the whole. Doing that without things getting too confusing (there are eight time periods in the first 30 mins of S1 ep3) was part of the challenge.
Season 2 grew from all that and we refined and pushed the look somewhat, both in present day soho and the three minisode time jumps.
Did you look at any creative references?
Gavin Finney: We referenced an artist called Harold Copping for the biblical scenes and also Cecil B. DeMille. Neil & Douglas always wanted the 1940s scenes to be almost a pastiche of film noir, and the Edinburgh body snatchers scenes were an homage to the mist-filled horror films of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
Which camera and lenses did you select, any why?
Gavin Finney: Arri Alexa LF and Zeiss Supreme primes, along with Cooke Anamorphics for the minisodes. I always test a lot of different equipment before each show to discover what combination will work best. The LF format gave us wide vistas and shallower depth of field which would be helpful on the soho set, and the Zeiss Supremes gave us a not too aggressive but still modern look, with controlled colours and a gentle focus roll off. They’re not as ‘brittle’ looking as some modern designs. The Cooke anamorphics gave us a solid start for building a different look for the period segments. Both seasons were filmed in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
The show constantly jumps through different time periods. What was the most difficult period to capture aesthetically?
Gavin Finney: Probably the biblical book of Job in Ep2 because we had a number of large, open and exposed sets including exteriors, with a lot of green screen and not much ‘reality’ to reference. But a combination of Michael Ralph’s designs, VFX extensions and Colourist Gareth Spensley’s grade enhancement really helped create what Douglas and I were after. The other periods - early 19th C Edinburgh and 1940’s London also have their own individual looks, but we used more real locations and 360º sets in those minisodes, so there was more to anchor them in.
Could you discuss the opening fog scene in episode 4? How was this shot?
Gavin Finney: With a lot of fog! It was filmed up on a private hill-racing track in the bleak Scottish midwinter with bitter winds and sleet. We added the fog, a lot of it, piped through long tubes (called ‘Lay-Flats’) that were laid all over the set. I then positioned backlights where I could, both in the air and low on the ground, so that I could backlight the fog whichever way we looked. The opening wide shot of the car was shot in reverse so that the fog and mist race away from the camera. The car interiors were shot on a stage using 360º plates filmed on location by a company called ‘Driving Plates’.
What was the most challenging shot to complete?
Gavin Finney: Everyday had a challenge - in a good way, but some did require a lot of planning. I guess the wide developing shot in EP 1 where the camera starts high and wide looking down the soho street, and then swoops down towards the oncoming Bentley and then goes underneath the car, rotates around the back wheel, rises over the curb and pavement as Crowley gets out, and then follows him into the cafe to sit at a table with Aziraphale. That was satisfying to pull off exactly as the director intended.
What was your approach to lighting?
Gavin Finney: Heightened reality within a very unreal environment. I wanted the soho exteriors and interiors to look real (they were all filmed on a set) but also to feel a bit magical too, as it’s the home of the angel Aziraphle so it’s almost always sunny and heightened. Except when Crowley summons rain, thunder and lightning. Or when the demons of hell invade and it takes on our colour hue for Hell.
We had over 1,650 separate dimmer channels on the main set and could ‘animate’ the lighting of the sky to simulate clouds, lightning, dawn, dusk, night, all at the touch of a button. We also had most of the 18Kw HMIs (simulating sunlight) on motorised heads so that we could quickly aim them for each scene but also animate them in-shot when there is a lighting effect. For instance, when Crowley summons a storm, we see the street change quickly from sunny and calm to overcast, to thunderous and then the wind picks up and the rain starts along with sheet lightning spreading out from a point across all the streets.
I had fun designing colours for the Hell set. The great thing about modern LED fixtures is that you can mix your own colours rather than rely on a particular gel, so we made up some nasty chlorine gas and sickly green hues as Neil was adamant that Hell was never lit with the traditional fiery red colour, but more of a dank, rank shithole where absolutely nothing works - hence the flickering light fixtures.
How long was the duration of the shoot?
Gavin Finney: 86 days. We wrapped on time with no re-shoots. That may sound a lot, but it’s the equivalent of shooting a major VFX heavy feature film in 28 days.
Do you have a favourite shot/sequence from the series?
Gavin Finney: Many! The three ‘mini-sodes’ were great fun to design the looks for, and I’m pleased with all the different looks we achieved in the bookshop.