In conversation with director Hugo Blick and cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer
For our final industry masterclass of 2022, Screen and Film School Brighton were incredibly excited to welcome director Hugo Blick and cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer, who provided students from all our campuses with an enlightening discussion about the production of current hit BBC and Amazon western drama The English, starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer.
As a writer and director, Golden Globe award-winner Hugo Blick is known for Marion and Geoff, staring Rob Brydon, noir thriller Shadow Line, BBC drama series The Honourable Woman, and political thriller Black Earth Rising staring Michaela Coel.
Arnau’s twenty-year cinematography career includes a host of shorts and music videos for artists such as Tame Impala, Katy Perry and Rosalia. His TV and film work includes Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan TV series, Official Competition staring Penelope Cruz and now, The English.
Their recent collaboration, distributed by both the BBC and Amazon, has been described as ’One of the most visually sumptuous dramas you will see this year’.
With the makers of a current hit show live on Zoom, and nearly one hundred students from different courses joining online across all Screen and Film School campuses, our industry team soon opened the floor to questions from our attendees.
Subjects ranged from the technical and logistical considerations of large-scale episodic productions to art department detailing, score composition, ethical storytelling and more. We hand-picked some of the most interesting questions and answers to provide a flavour of this brilliant final masterclass of the semester.
What did you want to do from the get-go to put your spin on the genre? – Gabriel
Hugo – “The landscape. That’s the real point of a western. If you don’t engage in the landscape and realise that the landscape is a central purpose of why we’re there, then perhaps don’t make a western.
I love landscapes. I like being in the middle of nowhere. I remember I was making ‘The Honorable Woman’, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. And on day one, I had not a clue where to put the camera, because there are no corners in a desert. And there’s a lot of people sitting behind you waiting for you to make a decision in high heat, sun and dust.
But, in day two, I just got it! And when I started to understand the desert, that’s when I knew I wanted to make a western.”
What cameras and codecs were the series shot in and how did that affect the colouring process in post? – William
Arnau “It was shot with Sony Venice cameras with prime anamorphic Panavision lenses. And for the colour process we used ACES as a colour pipeline. Then with the grading, the whole idea was to do a homage to Technicolour colours. The difficult thing was trying to find the right shade of blue for the sky and the right shade of orangey tone for the skin. Once we got those set, the grading was straightforward. We also used Livegrain to give the whole thing this filmic texture.”
He continued “For our colourist Aiden O’Farrell, it was a long and arduous process. He had a lot of temperatures which he had to engage with. There were no easy ‘room scenes’ where he could just switch off. But I think he loved it. Every single frame has been paid attention to, unusually.”
What was the process of directing such a strong female character that had undergone such a huge amount of trauma and how do you get this to translate on screen? – Emily
Hugo – “You just construct characters that have enough stretch in their personas to feel like real people. And that what they do is somehow unexpected. That is really interesting to a performance and the narrative. They don’t just hit the road and run. They start to evolve and shift and change. That’s the interest to pursue.”
What makes The English a series as opposed to a film? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages in making it a series? Matthias
“With the opportunities that television offers these days, particularly with long form drama, the ambition and scale exceeds a lot of cinematic endeavour. Long form drama provides fertile ground for writers to give a novelistic quality to the writing. Most people are migrating to long form television today, because they can make dramas that have scale and depth in terms of storytelling.”
I enjoyed the series’ approach to action and set pieces, creating tension and excitement through composition and on-screen movement. Was this decision based on the genre/story, or is it a more personal stylistic choice of yours? – Sol
Hugo – “During the action sequences, when gunfights actually kick off, they’re over in about 8 seconds. So, what really intrigued me was the long build-up to towards a shoot-out. That slow, methodical drive towards those moments is what helped give us our structure. And the use of a third (camera) angle can give a scene a whole new energy”
He continued, “Also, the score is sort of like the author’s voice in a story like this. It’s like an articulation of the whole machine. Without that articulation, the scene would stiffen up. So, within that structure, what our composer Federico did throughout the whole project within those action sequences, I thought was so impressive. Because that’s the line, the thread and the tension that we build our tale across.”
Was there any ethical research behind the background/race of the characters? – Samuel
Hugo – “If you ever engage as writers or filmmakers in any form of indigenous storytelling, you just must engage with those who have the knowledge. Because artistic empathy is part of the imaginative process; it has to be. It means you need to be specific and you need to engage in that specificity and not be afraid of doing so. Frankly, it was the best part of making this project to do that and I’m so pleased that we did.”
Hugo elaborated on this process of how he ensured the storytelling of the English was as authentic as possible.
“I was out in Montana for over a year, and I’ve a lot of native friends. I’ve got a sense of some of the huge disadvantages that are attached to native life. So, I already had an empathy to explore that within story. Once I had the purpose in narrative to do so, it was the Smithsonian that gave me most of my insight. I wrote the script with that third party input.
But a critical part of the process was when I sent the script to a woman named Crystal Echo Hawk, who is the CEO of a native social pressure group in the US, who is herself of Pawnee heritage. I just went to the top, and I thought if she doesn’t want me to do it, then I won’t. Luckily, she found within the script a presence of specificity. Her team were very engaged, scripts changed because of their engagement. Then she introduced me to the Cheyenne and Pawnee advisors. And we went through the story on a granular level.”
How did you find directing different calibre actors (both incredibly known actors, and lesser-known actors)? – Luke
Hugo “Well, it’s an understandable question. But it’s one you’d need to divest yourself of immediately once you step into the business. Because it’s nothing to do with who they are or where they come from. It doesn’t matter what status – whether you’re Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt or Chaske Spencer – they’re terrified when they’re on set with a whole bunch of strangers. And then there’s this one-eyed monster that’s staring at them at their most vulnerable.
The delicacy of character capture is something that can only happen if each individual in front of that camera feels they have the complete confidence in the director. And the growing confidence of the crew. Once that’s established, that journey becomes an utter delight. If, in any way, the director plays recognition of status within that journey, then everything gets out of whack. You have to treat everybody the same. Everyone is equal on set as soon as they are in front of that camera.”
As it looks like quite a VFX light production, what does the job of the VFX artist look like when it comes to the edit i.e. is it mostly ‘invisible’ VFX that they end up doing? – Jack
Hugo laughed “Light on the VFX?! There was a VFX supervisor who was on set every day. And his job was to view every frame and know where the VFX would go. Every single shot pretty much had VFX in it. Everything needed to be scrubbed up, wind turbines removed in post, etc. But the brilliance of their job is to seem as though they don’t have one. Sky replacement was a big part of that journey and sky maintenance needed to remain dramatic and impactful.”
How was it having BBC and Amazon as producers, were there ever times where they were at odds about creative decisions you made or were they happy to leave you to it? Alex
Hugo – “There was a lot of logistical dissonance that needed to be harmonised. And there’s an awful lot of diplomacy that goes on behind the scenes. But creatively, it comes down to a vision. I can’t emphasise this to young filmmakers enough. You have to make sure that everyone understands what it is you’re making.
If you get everybody to understand that it’s not that, it’s this, then they will walk with you lock step from the start of the journey to the end. And if you share that creative endeavour, everyone will then feel integral to the project. It doesn’t matter if it’s the BBC, Amazon or Netflix.
Then in the edit, you ‘open your books up’ to everybody. Because if their idea isn’t good, with your strength of opinion, you will be able to push back on it. And if their idea is good, you can bring in it and incorporate it.”
He continued “It’s not a stupid industry, it’s full of very smart people and they have lots to contribute. So, in allowing them to do so, your project gets better and they feel more confident in your contribution to it.”
Screen and Film School Brighton are incredibly thankful to Hugo and Arnau for taking the time to answer our student’s questions and we look forward to seeing what other exciting projects they move on to next.
A big thanks also to our Industry Engagement officer, Fiona Adams, who was instrumental in securing such a fantastic masterclass session for our students.
Are you interested in being a part of the new legacy at Screen and Film School Brighton?
Sign up to one of our Open Days:
Find out more information on our courses by clicking below: