Conversation

with cinematographer

about LITTLE BIRDS  TV Series

ED RUTHERFORD

Ed Rutherford worked together for the first time with director Stacie Passon in the drama television series called Little Birds. This project is inspired by Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published collection of erotic short stories. The drama is set in Tangier in 1955, in the well-known international zone, and it merges stories of love and desire together with private drama and political intrigue, set against a uniquely distinctive background of hedonism and struggle.

Ed is a vibrantly passionate cinematographer who knows how to turn a project into a beautiful process of discovery and experimentation for himself and everyone around him. He is not there just to record an image, but to devote himself to the story. He needs to sincerely understand it, to ask existential questions and to find a deep meaning through a life adventure experienced through a collaborative team. If every project is a journey, Ed is definitively the ultimate traveller.

Mario Oliva: Could you introduce yourself? How did you start in this business? Did you do the long career to become a DP through the camera or electrical department?

Ed Rutherford: I am a cinematographer based in United Kingdom, in London. My journey through cinematography began in the camera department over twenty-five years ago, around 1991. I started making some super 8mm surf films and I got introduced to a cinematographer during summer vacation. This cinematographer had a contract to make ninety very short, five to ten seconds, commercials for a TV channel in the Southwest of England and he needed someone to help him out. So I said I would love to be involved.

 

We had his ARRI SR2 and I worked as his assistant, not only camera assistant but everything. It was just him and me. We spent two and a half months doing these commercials. He taught me everything about the camera, the rushes… I started thinking that there was probably a job there, and I was looking for jobs at the end of the university.

The following year I got a job as a camera trainee on a feature film. I was lucky to work in a great team. I started as clapper loader, but I had always an eye in developing myself as cinematographer. I was very fortunate to be in a team where I had a mentor, a cinematographer called Richard Greatrex, who has been a reference to me. He encouraged me to get involved and to make more short films and to continue my creative aspirations while I was working as a clapper loader.

So I worked in the department for around ten years or so. Clapper loader, focus puller for like two to three busy years, and then, when I thought I had enough on my reel I decided I would go lighting. While I was working as a focus puller I was developing my reel. I had that on the side but there comes a point in time when you have to say not to focus pulling any more, that you are a cinematographer. I got a very good agent and I started working in commercials first and foremost, and then in films.

Lamborghini commercial

TV Series official trailer

How was the transition from being a focus puller to become a full time cinematographer?

The transition took a number of years. Because I had been working for so long as a clapper loader and focus puller, I had very good contacts in the London commercial world. When I announced that I would like an opportunity to develop myself as a cinematographer properly, a number of commercial companies supported me and put me with new directors, and a couple of times with older directors, doing things like test commercials and charity commercials. It was an opportunity and over two years I developed my commercial showreel.

After these two years I got the chance to shoot a big brand commercial for a television channel, and I think we did like ten big brand pieces over the course of six months. Those jobs were done in south Africa and with that push I was able to get a better agent. And all of a sudden I was kind of relevant in the commercial market. So I would say the transition took over two years doing charity commercials, music videos, short films to gain full employment as a cinematographer.

 

How were you getting most of the jobs you were doing at that time?

At the time, most of the jobs were coming from my contacts. Because I was new, I was fresh, I did not have a reputation but I did have experience and I did have contacts. Some contacts were not able to give me work, but I was lucky that maybe one or two directors I worked for while I was still clapper loader or focus puller supported me, and they recommended me and gave me some jobs to keep me going on.

That was for the commercial side. But I always wanted to be a filmmaker and I was pushing to meet directors to work in films, and I was also working as a photographer. I worked during three years doing a number of projects for an artist called Isaac Julien. I was taking the photographs for Isaac´s projects shooting large format 5x4, 10x8 and 6x6. I shot the artist photographs on three projects over three years. That body of work went to big museums. It went to the Guggenheim, to the Tate museum and to the MoMA in New York.

An independent filmmaker in the UK called Joanna Hogg saw that work and it meant something to her. And through contacts she got to know that I was a cinematographer but I was taking photographs, so she thought that was curious. She asked to meet me because she was going to make a feature film a few months later. Her regular cinematographer that has done her previous projects was unable to make it. She was looking for someone new and I got the job. That was my really springboard into long form filmmaking with that first film called Archipelago. It was a great opportunity for me because it helped me to cross over from commercial filmmaking into long form film drama.

When this first film came out it went very well in film festivals. I started been inquired for interviews for jobs for commercials and for films, because of this first film I have done. That was in 2009. Now, like ten years later, through experience and time invested, works come through my agent and people start to identify certain style in the work you are doing. In my commercial work I mostly shoot fashion and food predominantly, so I am known across those genres and my lighting style for both of those is probably known.

Archipielago official trailer

Getting into Little Birds. How did you get involved in this project? Was it your first time working with Stacie Passon, the director?

Stacie approached my agent. I was shooting a commercial in December 2018 and I was asked to do an interview. I did a Skype interview while Stacie Passon was in New York working in another project. Stacie had a relationship with a couple of British cinematographers and the project was in the UK, but she was looking at a number of new people from different countries, from America, Europe and the UK. I was one of those new faces.

So I had no previous relationship with Stacie or with Warp Films, the production company. It was very much a job which came from an interview through my agent. When I read the script, I immediately saw something in the beginning which was very exciting, a type of visual language that I had always wanted to photograph, but I had not been able to do in long form. It was something that was kind of relevant to me in the way I approach photography and storytelling generally. It was a very expressionistic, quite abstract form of storytelling. Something you could feel that would be incredibly visual. So, at an interview stage, I prepared my work for the interview based on my hopes that the project would be extremely vibrant, very colourful and very dynamic as with the characters in the story.

 

I guess she appreciated that you proposed that visual starting point. From there, how did you develop your creative relationship with her?

Interestingly, she referenced one of the earliest film that I ever shot. It is really encouraging when directors have a curiosity to talk to you because they may have seen something that you shot long time ago. Something that is not really a tonal reference for the job that they are looking at. I think a large part of the interview process is, at that stage, about the way you can communicate to collaborators, if you are able to develop a short hand way of communicating.

People wonder if you are someone who will feel threatened or a person who will join the collaborative experience. Someone who can really enjoy being immersed in the challenges that both of you will be experiencing. And as a cinematographer, someone to be able to support that director through the many highs and lows that happens on a weekly basis throughout the film.

I probably had three interviews with Stacie before she committed to work with me. And then, before pre-production started, Stacie was heavily focused in communicating with heads of department, specially the production designer and myself. So, at that stage, I was not contracted on the job but I was having probably daily communication with Stacie about the aesthetics, about the tonal palette and about the production design. The biggest thing to create in preparation for Little Birds was the world. What is this world that these characters inhabit? Literally is in 1957 in Tangier, but emotionally, where is it and how do we visualise that: What is this really about? And from a cinematographic point of view: How will we achieve this with the execution of the visual language?

Ed Rutherford and part of the crew in one of the main locations of Little Birds

Could you explain what was the visual proposal that you both built for the project?

The aesthetic was very much assumed in the subjective point of view of the two female protagonists. The story essentially starts in restriction and subjugation and it ends in emancipation and empowerment for this two women. And what connects them is the feelings, the journey of the sisterhood and their experiences that they recognize in each other, but that they do not necessarily experience together.

The camera was very much a holy dynamic and lyrical tool for embedding the aesthetic within the subjective point of view of these characters. The camera had to be lyrical and it had to be roaming. For that we contrasted two things. We contrasted a very formal, very composed squared graphic style. We called it proscenium. It is like if you are in a theatre looking at the stage. Films like Roma are a good example of this. So we took this formal and composed camera for the world outside, the world of Tangiers.

We contrasted this with a lyrical and roaming camera. Terrence Malick roaming camera, Robbie Ryan roaming camera. Creatively, a metaphorically loose camera that we could do anything. We wanted to feel that there were kind of layers of onion around these characters and we had to sort of getting inside. The camera had to flow like water around sticks in the riverbed. So the rules were strict but they contrasted two styles. A formal style, and a very lyrical style, a very expressionistic style.

The lighting was based in historical melodrama, so after working through many references we shorten the reference palette to films like Lola, by Fassbinder. This was a very good reference for the emotional, colourful, vibrant worlds, where the lighting is not motivated in a literal sense but in an emotional sense. Hitchcock´s To catch a thief is a very good reference of the Hollywood glamour and beauty, the vibrancy of these worlds, so we were looking for an almost Technicolor palette.

The lighting colour palette was emotionally guided. Colours were related to characters within the composition to reflect where the characters are at a certain time in that story. So it was a very experimental aesthetic and it felt like it was developed in a very organic way. The more we were immersed in these characters chronologically the heavier the stylistic footprint would be.

We started episode one with a very formal camera shooting on anamorphic lenses but we did zoom the image to get our frame. The intention was to give a feeling of claustrophobia. We were just using the centre of the anamorphic frame. The aspect ratio maintained itself at 2:1 across the whole episode. It started with this anamorphic formal frame, and then when we meet our characters in Tangiers, when our eyes are opened to the wonder possibilities ahead of them, things started to loosen it up. After that, the camera was more often on a jib arm. The reason why we were using a jib over a dolly instead of composed dolly shots was that we wanted to use the extra freedom you get on a jib. Then, for really intimate parts of the scene we would go on the shoulder and we would go with the characters in a very subjective way. We were led by the characters on the story, it was a reactive and expressionistic camera.

We sort of really combine lighting and composition together in a real organic flow. We liked the feeling that the universe was watching and affecting these characters and guiding them along. It was a transcendental aesthetic. We gave a sense of spirituality to it, some sort of magic.

Lola, one of the main references for the film

You were saying that the beginning was more static and carefully composed, but the style starts to evolve when you get into the character’s universe. How did you manage to express that change through the tools you had? I remember you often used glass prisms in front of the lens for example.

The idea is that we used anamorphic lenses in a formal camera before our characters were able to have any form of liberation. The lighting is always colourful and vibrant but it was less aggressively shown.

It is a very sensory script, there is sexual content and is quite libertine and hedonistic. We wanted to reflect that by amplifying the photography, the colour and what the camera was doing but not in a distracting way in which the camera is too conscious.

We changed to large format spherical lenses and I used diopters and prisms, a number of crystals that I just personally collect. I used the crystals generally handheld so I can hold the camera in one hand and with the second hand I can play with the crystals and I can maybe wipe them across the camera. Specially at a certain time when I felt there was a stylistic note that I wanted to stress visually across maybe a line of dialogue. So the crystals were always moving, there were never really affixed to the lens. If they are affixed to the lens probably it would not work for me in the same way. It kind of break the spell. The best use for the crystals is when they just come in and come out, very subtly.

 

What I always try to do is to kick colour lights into the crystal, so one of our characters is generally, let’s say, amber. That may be her colour at a certain time. In the crystal I would always have some amber light off an axis that would reflect in that crystal so there may be a feeling of magical colour that would come into the frame of the colour of the character. And another character may be cyan, a cyan light on a different crystal. So I had a different crystal for every character, and I tried to use the same crystal for each character so I had four or five crystals, each one had a slightly different effect and for each one I put a different colour. It is a very colourful show; I am very proud of the result. I have to keep looking back at my notes to know why I did things at a certain time, because it was quite intense.

In the first picture we see a frame where a glass prism is affecting the image. The second picture is a BTS picture of the same scene. 

It strikes me that all the details and rules you are explaining might have made difficult to maintain the aesthetic as a two camera show. How were you managing to operate one camera and making the second camera operator to keep the same vibe or style? And how were you designing the choreography of the scenes to get the most of these two cameras?

The two cameras worked very well. We needed a second camera operator understanding the aesthetic. That was the most important thing for Stacie and with Teo López on the B camera I was able to communicate the rules, the operating rules. I was very strict on how between the two cameras we maintained the same framing, the same head room. Because the framing was always different, we never put anything in the centre. We were maybe doing a Dutch angle to the side, we had quite expressionistic framing. So the framing for the B camera had to be as crazy as the framing on the A camera. That was the thing we had to maintain. It could not just be about getting a shot. It had to really have the same feeling that the A camera was creating. It could also be static, even when doing a lock off well composed, the composition had to be strange. That was our key word, I would always say “let´s find a frame and when you are really happy with the frame, let´s fuck it up, make it different, but maintain that same idea”. You could find the shot, the shot you would do in another film, but for our story we needed to really experiment with that frame and go deeper into it, more psychologic, more emotional.

I felt I had to constantly communicate that, so that we always remembered it. Otherwise it would stand out that B framing is different from the A camera. It is difficult because the B camera may be in a much longer lens, but it still had to be the same aesthetic. When something is quite stylized, you can really see when is not. It was not an easy job for Teo to maintain every single day the level of experimentation. It is easy to offer up some coverage or some shots, but we had quite strong rules, we never did over the shoulder, things like that. We had rules that we really kept and part of my responsibility is to make sure that the rules are not forgotten. We had to follow the rules that we committed to.

 

I guess it has to be hard not only to keep in mind all these rules, but also to make the second camera operator to be always on board in this process of experimentation and discovery. Were you shooting some scenes on film as well?

We shot some scenes on super 16mm. The idea was to create some kind of meta-fiction, a kind of inversion of the reality. Essentially, one of our characters makes a film within the film. So we shoot on film to try to take ourselves into the film and back again. I would have love to shoot the whole show on film. It was so beautiful, the texture, the colour, the grain. It worked really well for what we needed to do. I was lucky that the production company was very supportive with that and we also shoot some super 8mm as well. It was fantastic, super 8mm is one of my favourite formats for the textures and colours that it achieves. The super 8mm films of Guy Bourdin have always been an inspiration to me.

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"We shoot on film to try to take ourselves into the film and back again"

How was your relationship with the art director and the costume designer? Were you having open conversations along the show?

It was an extremely collaborative team. I had worked before with the production designer and with the costume designer a number of times, we have a very good relationship. It is really exciting when all the team comes together, and Stacie is a wonderful director in being trusting and collaborative. She is a director who gets the best out of a creative team around her. She really wants to see what you can offer; she likes everybody to be offering as a collective. She wants the cinematography to work with the costume, to work with the make-up. Being at an early stage in prep, the relationship and the work that we all did together was absolutely essential, in this project was like a flow, a constant positive flow of communication and development of the aesthetics.

 

Is there any technical requirement, any piece of equipment you like to use in any project you get involved? Like your glass prisms collection, a specific set of filters or lenses. I know that as a narrative cinematographer you probably try to avoid having a specific style as you could have as a commercial cinematographer. But, do you have any fetish?

Aesthetically I have always loved Panavision Primo glasses and Panavision anamorphic lenses, the different lens sets. I find handmade glasses very beautiful, you can work with the lenses, going through a number of them to put together a beautiful set. I try generally to maintain an aesthetic with the optics, I use it with different stories and different genres. I tend to stick with a certain glass.

Filters wise I go through phases. I have been through many phases of using some diffusion and then I have been through a period of time when I was using no diffusion at all. I have used a bit of low contrast filters too for beauty work. But at the moment I am not really using diffusion. I do like to shoot things in camera. I never like to add diffusion in post.

I think I always shoot with diopters. Aesthetically, for portrait style shots I like the combination of a certain focal length with a certain diopter. I feel that it creates an internal connection to the character. And I try to combine these things with the lighting style. I think a creative expression is realized through the balance and the combination of lighting and composition. So there is a number of tools to do that. I have different crystals for different things, and then some special lenses. I have some particular vintage lenses that I like to use on particular stories.

So probably the glass is the most important thing, the lenses and the filters. Recently I have found myself using less filters and being more particular about the glass.

 

Do you use often those vintage lenses you say you have?

Yes, but they are very particular. They may be just one or two prime lenses. I really like the rehousing of vintage lenses, now I enjoy shooting with the Canon K35, the rehoused ones. I think that they have a lovely look. I like lenses that has some soul.

Sometimes, for other stories, they want very graphic lenses which have no chromatic aberration. You need a lens that does not fall off and maintain the focus across the whole frame. If you are doing narrative stories with lots of two shots and group shots, having a lens which is sharp across the whole frame can work really well. Often, vintage lenses are very sharp in the centre but the focus and the contrast fall off dramatically on the sides. And I find this can be a bit unsettling if you are shooting different two shots, can be quite unflattering for certain characters. I think these choices on how extreme you go with the lenses is led by the photographic style that you develop in prep. So I quite like to know the dynamics of the camera or the staging ideas that we probably going to do before I make a final lens choice. My lens choice is always a glass that has a real feeling, a way of communicating a feeling into the story rather than just recording an image.

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"Recently I have found myself using less filters and being more particular about the glass."

Getting into the human side, you are used to work both in a national and international environment. Is there any condition you try to impose depending on what type of project you are working on, like bringing with you your usual gaffer or camera operator? As I understand, you had not worked before this project with anyone from your camera or lighting team. How do you set up these new relationships with positions as relevant as the gaffer, for example? I remember you liked to keep a close eye to what the other camera operator was doing. Do you like to keep track of everything they do or you prefer to give them information and autonomy?  

When I am working abroad, I love working with almost a full team from that country where the job is based. This comes from my experiences on commercials. I used to work anywhere in the world in commercials where I could be the only English speaking person with the director. And I really enjoy working with a crew who may know each other and have their own relationships with each other. I prefer that than maybe bringing extra crew from the UK. And I have really wonderful friends and colleagues in the UK, but I won´t be pushing them to come away with me if the job is abroad.

I have been lucky enough to meet great gaffers and camera department members across the world, I can get recommendations for someone in a certain country. And then, all of a sudden, a new relationship starts. For me it is a really exciting way to work, to get experiences. Part of the wonderful things about cinematography, about making films and working in different parts of the world is that you are getting a life experience, you are learning more about yourself. You are meeting new people and that is all reflected in your art, in the way you want to express yourself. So, the more people you meet and have a good relationship with, the more opportunities to grow within yourself I think you have.

 

That is a great philosophy. You have a very diverse portfolio, from narrative to commercials and music videos. Do you have any preference for a specific kind of project? What would be your ideal project in a near future?

I think a film where you have artistic control. A film where you heavily invest in realizing that creative vision. I think that films that are heavily determined by a studio have a very creative technical side, but I think that is a different type of challenge. I think independent filmmaking with a crew of collaborators that you trust and feed of each other energy is a really rewarding place to be. A place where you can be experimental. The sets and the way you work should be like the theatre of your dreams, you should be approaching every day in a sense of wonder, expectation and excitement. And I think these things are realized on a film.

I love working on episodic drama and there is more of that work at the moment. That has particular challenges I love. But I think there is something deeply personal about an independent film where you are really invested in the emotional storytelling, where you can bring something of your own artistic leaning into the world. Something that you can look back on it years to come and feel like: “Okay, that was a piece of filmmaking that really meant something to me as regarding questions I am asking about life, the universe, what we are doing… all these things.” So I like deeply psychological stories, stories that focus on vulnerabilities and fallibilities of human nature. I like films that find beauty in the appalling, and films that find light in the darkness.

 

Do you want to say anything else about the project?

The project Little Birds was a wonderful experience. It gave me the opportunity to approach a very collaborative filmmaking way of working. It felt that we were making a film rather than just episodic television and that was because of the crew, because the investment of energy from the people surrounding the project, from the whole crew.

 

Everywhere we went there was a certain energy and it just reminded me of being free as a filmmaker. I felt free and I felt we had the support of the channel and the producers. I felt we could push the aesthetic. It was not an aesthetic where we were hoping to reach a point. I felt that we started at a very experimental level and then we were just encouraged to go further. That has certain challenges but it just felt incredibly liberating so It was a wonderful project to maybe reflect on the earlier passions you had as a filmmaker and be able to remind yourself and remember why is that you got involved in filmmaking to start with. Sometimes you go from a job to a job and you are fighting to find the passion sometimes. But when you find your way again, when you reconnect with your artistic leanings and what excites you in life and what you love to photograph, is the most wonderful experience. It was a really special time to be working.

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"Everywhere we went there was a certain energy and it just reminded me of being free as a filmmaker."