Chris Ross is an award-winning UK based director of photography who has worked on television drama, commercials and features. He is perhaps best known for his work on Tom Cooper’s Cats, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday and Oliver Parker’s Black Sea. In 2022, he became president of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC).
As part of our Deconstruction Series, Chris recently took the time to talk to us about his use of the Sony VENICE camera in the Netflix special The Swimmers, a moving story about two young sisters who undertake a long and dangerous journey from their home in war torn Syria all the way to Brazil and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The nature of many of the locations used in the film meant that Chris had to make use of very practical lighting setups.
A key scene in the film takes place in a large indoor swimming pool. The pool building had two rows of large industrial flood lights while the main walls of the building had huge windows. Chris turned all the floodlights off so that the ugly light from these would not spoil the shots.
Then with very little control over the light coming through the huge windows, instead of trying to add even more light, he made extensive use of negative fill to remove light. Large black or grey boards were used to darken parts of the shots for a more contrasty look.
For a night-time scene in a hotel room, Chris kept the lighting very simple. A streetlight effect was created with a basic light fixture on a stand outside the bedroom window, this provided a bright highlight seen in the background through the window.
Chris tells of how the key light, which is in fact the only other light in the scene, was a simple bare bulb in a practical fixture placed on a small table under the window. Depending on the shot, this light was moved forwards or backwards on the table. For wide shots it was placed at the back by the wall and for the tighter shots closer to the edge nearer the camera.
To keep things simple, every shot was filmed on a similar axis so that the light was always behind the actors to provide shape and contrast to their faces. The camera never shot from the same side as the light source where their faces would have appeared much flatter.
For the scene on Lesbos, halfway through the scene Chris needed to change the feel of the shots as the sisters momentarily stopped being struggling Syrians and instead behaved like wealthy European tourists. So, halfway through the scene the camera is switched from handheld to Steadicam mounted. The smoothness of the Steadicam shots helping to portray a sense of wealth and luxury compared to the more wobbly handheld footage.