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How Cinematographer Dick Pope Shot ‘Mr. Turner’: Straight Up Digitally

How Cinematographer Dick Pope Shot 'Mr. Turner': Straight Up Digitally

There are few movies this awards season as breathtakingly beautiful as Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” the biopic that takes us into the visionary mind of eccentric 19th century British painter J.M.W.  Turner (brilliantly played by Timothy Spall). It certainly represents the best work of the director’s longtime cinematographer Dick Pope, who’s chasing his first Oscar.

What’s unique is how they evoke the magnificent landscapes and seascapes that Turner witnessed and how he studied light like a physicist, selected and mixed his paints like a chemist, and then painted accordingly with remarkable insight and precision.

“We talked about it as a dream for many years,” Pope recalls. “We shared ideas about making it Sometimes we’d be in a dark and dingy place and he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get Turner in the end.'”
They watched Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” for the tableau filmmaking. “So many shots of every in the frame bouncing off each other, which is just the way Mike and I love to work.We’re always looking for those one-shot scenes.”

The biggest question was going film or digital. Pope wanted to shoot on film, but they weren’t budgeted for it. At one stage, they even considered shooting the exteriors on film and the interiors digitally for the contrast.

“What happened was, I went off, under pressure to make it work on digital, and shot an extensive test of landscapes and seascapes and faces against both, using vintage lenses. I also tested lantern and candlelit interiors, and quite frankly, when I saw the results, I was sold that we could do this film digitally.”
Pope, who went to Tate Britain to study Turner’s color palette, came to the conclusion that he could make it painterly and true to Turner’s work by evoking the colors of the day and what he used. “So both in the lighting and colorization I used a little yellow in the highlights and blue green teal in the shadow areas and it worked. The sky, the land, the sea — along of course, with all the location based interiors and the views from every window – they’re all real. Only the ‘Fighting Temeraire’ itself was a VFX and totally necessary as the ship of course no longer exists, but the plates for it were those we photographed when we shot the scene.”
The most challenging and fulfilling moment turned out to be the greatest happy accident of Pope’s career. “We went out one evening with a glorious sunset, down in Cornwall. We filmed Turner sitting on the cliffs beneath us, painting. The actor Timothy Spall was tethered with a stake and we were on a tower looking straight down at him. After we completed that, the light was just looking better and better and so we shot him walking across the sun on top of the cliffs and panned him across to a chapel on top of a hill.

“And he walks up and all these wild horses enter the frame and then follow him. It’s probably one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had looking through the lens of a camera because they came from nowhere, perfectly on cue. We were blessed. And then after that, we rushed to photograph him against the setting sun, which later became the last shot of the film. So in that one evening we managed to get three or four beautiful shots of the same sunset.”

The opening of Turner sketching during another glorious sunset was the very last shot that they did. “It wasn’t great the previous night but we knew where the sun was going to set and that was a really remote area and there it was. It just happened at the right moment. The whole film was a series of wonderful moments.”
As for Turner’s fascination with ships and the sea, Pope believes it stems from a dark childhood incident. “In the film there’s a scene when he talks to an old guy about whalers. He went to school in Margate as a young boy and he talks about losing two friends. And so I should imagine that from a very early age he was obviously exposed to the sea. He was a working-class Cockney, and it must’ve been some kind of liberation for him to be exposed to those seascapes and landscapes. It must’ve been glorious: the opposite of the way he was brought up.
“You could say he was both an Impressionist and an abstract painter — he was a visionary. And I love that about the film, how it taps into his forward way of thinking, taking on board science and astronomy and physics — and light. And the photography aspect of our film, what was coming. 
“Mr. Turner” certainly captures that glory and how he achieved some sort of artistic transcendence as a painter, whose work has inspired Pope and his colleagues for generations.

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