Happy Boxing Day, Sunday Dec 26, 2021. A Very British Scandal premieres today on BBC One in the UK.
Si Bell’s previous appearance in FDTimes was February 2020 in which he talked about his work on Peaky Blinders. Here he is, above, on A Very British Scandal.
Photos and Framegrabs courtesy of Blueprint Pictures, The BBC and Si Bell.
Jon Fauer: Please tell us about A Very British Scandal.
Si Bell: A Very British Scandal stars Claire Foy and Paul Bettany. It’s about the Duchess and Duke of Argyll in the 1960s. Quite dramatic, it was about their very messy divorce and it was one of the first times a woman was really shamed by the mass media because she was a celebrity.
There are three episodes for Amazon Prime and BBC, premiering on Boxing Day in the UK. It’s sort of a sequel. There was A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant, about a completely different story with a very different style.
Let’s jump into technical things.
We used ARRI ALEXA Mini with Canon K35 primes. We tested a lot of lenses. We tried large format, anamorphic, different cameras. I had shot Peaky Blinders on the MONSTRO 8K. We were talking about a very fluid style requiring a very light handheld camera, with lenses that flared and had a soft feel. We loved the K35 lenses and what they brought. Because we weren’t locked into having to shoot full 4K, we could use the Mini, and the K35 covered the Mini’s Super35 image area.
There was no 4K requirement?
We recorded in 3.2K HDR with a 2.22:1 aspect ratio which was fine for Amazon and the BBC.
Anne Sewitsky, the director, and I liked the vintage Canon K35 primes for their look, size and close focus ability. There’s a lot of dynamic camera movement, handheld, and very, very close shots where we’re really in the faces of the characters.
It was funny, because when we first started shooting, Claire Foy asked me, “Why are you so close?” When she did The Crown, they were much further back on longer lenses. We knew this series was going to be compared to The Crown — it’s a similar period, it’s Claire Foy, it’s royal, it’s the UK, and it has similar locations. We wanted something unique and different. We had to try to create a look that was different.
Describe the Look.
It was more vibrant, more colorful, handheld, close, flarey, and soft.
How did you decide on a 2.22:1 aspect ratio?
Well, it’s a weird one. I think it came out of nowhere. Anne initially wanted to shoot 2.35:1 or similar. And the producers at Amazon suggested 2.22:1. “We’ve done that before,” they said. It was one of those funny conversations where we said, “Oh, right. We can do that? Okay, cool.”
Where did you get the vintage Canon K35 primes?
We got them from Canning 24, the rental company that supplied us on Peaky Blinders and other shows. They’ve been really good and have supported me from the start.
Were these rehoused K35s?
Yes, rehoused with PL mounts by TLS, True Lens Services. The set consists of 18mm T2.8 (slower, smaller, closer focus), 18mm T1.5, 24mm T1.6, 35mm T1.4, 50mm T1.3, 55mm T1.3, 85mm T1.3.
There’s a lot of camera movement in A Very British Scandal. What did you use?
We were handheld and we also used the Ronin 2 with DJI Master Wheels. Our grips carried the Ronin around and I was operating the wheels. We had a dolly with a jib arm as well, so we also put the Ronin 2 on the jib arm.
Did you shoot on location or in studios?
It was pretty much all location. We didn’t have any sets built, but we had some locations that were heavily dressed. We were in London in the middle of a complete lockdown. Clubs and the poshest hotels in London were available because basically they were just empty. Luckily, with our COVID protocols, we were allowed a decent amount of extras in the party scenes for certain days. Everyone was tested.
When did you shoot?
It was basically from March, April, May, June 2021.
Shall we talk about lighting?
We had big lighting setups with big sources through the windows, with lots of lifts and cranes. It was tough but good work. We used a lot of Arrimax 18Ks (Open-face, lens-less, 22.8″ diameter parabolic facetted reflector and focusing from 15° to 50° beam angle.) We also had ARRI M90 (9K, also lens-less) and K5600 Lighting Alpha fixtures. We’d start big and then soften them and work from there. There were also a lot of practicals.
And lots of smoke? Was there ever a British movie without smoke?
Lots of smoke, yes. The thing is, it was the 1960s and everyone’s smoking indoors. We were trying to make it naturalistic. We tried to avoid big, unnatural beams of light coming from windows. Coming from the school of Dogma films, I think Anne hated anything that looked slightly unnatural. For example, she might say, “Oh, Si, the window’s too bright. It doesn’t look real.” It was lovely working with Anne.
She turned this from what could have looked like a standard British TV drama into something really special. That came from her ideas, what she wanted, and everything that she brought to the script.
Si Bell’s Lighting Notes for “A Very British Scandal”