To hear Robbie Ryan tell it, he was “a glorified camera operator” on “The Favourite.” Shot entirely in natural light, director Yorgos Lanthimos was against his cinematographer cluttering the set with flags, bounce or diffusion in an effort to shape the light. He also picked the lenses, knowing he would rely almost entirely on the extremely wide 10mm lens he experimented with while shooting “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
“At the end of the job, I said to Yorgos, ‘You should be shooting your own films, ’cause your an amazingly astute cinematographer in your own mind and I’m just kind of a glorified operator on this,’” said Ryan. “And I still kind of stick to that adage, but he’s going, ‘No, no. I like the way we worked.’”
Ryan was in many ways a natural partner for Lanthimos on “The Favourite.” From his collaborations with director Andrea Arnold, Ryan had established himself as master of crafting expressive and evocative images working with natural light. And although known for his use handheld, Ryan’s camera moves have always had a verve that Lanthimos needed for a film he conceived in terms of movement.
“I always thought that there was gonna be a very particular physicality to it, and I didn’t know what that meant,” said Lanthimos. “I knew that one other element would have been the physicality of all these characters, and how they move around in a space and how their physicality brings them a more contemporary feel along with language and other elements that we used.”
The director relied on his unorthodox three-week rehearsals with the principal cast to discover what that “texture of the movement” was going to be. He also knew Ryan, who joined the rehearsal a number of times, would help him translate and execute it.
Beyond Ryan’s distinct skill set, Lanthimos’ decision to work with the cinematographer for the first time had more to do with his easygoing temperament. He wanted to make sure he didn’t get locked into any limitations, resistance, or an orthodoxy when it came to shooting his first period film.
“I’m quite particular about how I want to film things. I need people that are gonna be up for anything, and because I knew that I wanted to push things further for this film to what I’ve been gradually doing the last few films and last few years,” said Lanthimos. “I knew that I needed someone that would have nothing holding him back in trying anything, and Robbie felt like that from the beginning. He’s up for anything, and he basically gets excited the bigger the challenge, the more he gets excited about it.”
One example of pushing things further was deviating from the already extremely wide 10mm lens to use a fish-eye 6mm lens that creates very noticeable distortion. It brings a garishness to a period film that would make other cinematographers balk.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“There’s an absurdist thing about that lens that its kind of almost comical, but it’s fantastical as well – it’s not totally out of place in the film, which you never would imagine,” said Ryan. “He’s just a very confident director who wanted to use that as the voice for the film and you had to take a chance with it and prove that it’s a good move. And we weren’t shooting on other lenses. We weren’t maybe doing the safe version of that. It was, a lot of the time, the kind of balls-out version of that. I thought that was very brave and I was going, ‘Oh my god, okay.’”
One of the advantages of shooting on wide lenses was it made Ryan’s biggest challenge — nailing the film’s distinct camera movement — easier. Lanthimos disdains what Ryan described as “that soft sort of seasickness feel” of a steadicam, but the vigorous speed and stop-on-a-dime nature of “The Favourite” required a fairly stable frame.
“I think the sort of solidness of it is really important, where you land and then you move,” said Ryan. “If we’re shooting everything on a 25 or 50mm, you’d be bouncing all over the place, it wouldn’t look great. The 10mm is very forgiving in the camera movement.”
Lathimos was hoping to use something like body camera rig used in the 1983 German film “Angst,” where the camera moved in conjunction with actors’ hips. That proved impossible with the period costume in “The Favourite” combined with the weight of a 35mm camera. Ryan, who operated the camera, preferred to lean on a dolly, but strapped himself into a double helix rig for scenes shot in the bouncy carriage rides, the large corridors, and interactions between Abigail (Emma Stone) and Masham (Joe Alwyn).
“It’s a Gimbal rig that could take the way of a 35mm camera, but it also needed to be supported, so you have to wear a vest and these kind of exoskeleton spring arms that make you look really ridiculous,” said Ryan. “I really liked the idea of it, but it was particularly slow to get working because it was quite a lot of electronics. You just have to calibrate it all the time and it would always go off center. It was really frustrating, and if we could we ended up doing it on the dolly because it was simpler.”
Lanthimos loved the wide-angle view for how much of the castle location could be seen in frame.
“One of the things that I was interested was the architecture of this world and how people moved from one room to the other and how these big rooms felt,” said Lanthimos. “We played around with that, and we enhanced that feel of one person in a huge room or two or three people in a huge room that play games and have intimate relations that affect a bigger picture.”
The challenge for Ryan was mastering the timing of that movement through those wide-angle perspectives. Whip pans now felt like panoramas. Actors needed to be much closer to wide-angle camera or they would be too small in frame, which made the movement feel more dynamic and often faster, more violent.
“Getting the timing down wasn’t natural at first, it took practice” said Ryan. “I’m probably more known for doing handheld, so it was kind of challenge for me to do this sort of lot of very precise camera moves from panning to dolly moves. It was complicated; each scene had a different sort of sense of what way it would be speed-wise.”
WIth certain types of action – like in the scene when Lord Hardley (Nicholas Hoult) throws a hissy fit, kicking the table over and getting in the face of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) – Ryan learned the 10mm required the film to feel faster and more stylized.
“Because I’m so close to both of them, at the end it’s really like it just had to be fuckin’ violent, to get in there,” said Ryan. “Because otherwise you wouldn’t get there quick enough.”
The lighting in “The Favourite” looks amazing, but is something Ryan won’t take credit for, beyond suggesting it be shot in 35mm film. The one time he used bounce to shape the lighting, he said, Lanthimos got grumpy and he understood not to do it again. Meanwhile, the wide lenses made filtration impossible.
He credits the location’s large windows that produced soft directional light, luck with sunny weather, and the way the Kodak Film stocks rounds the highlights in blown-out windows. According to Ryan, an attractive and well-costumed cast did his job for him.
This isn’t the first time Ryan has shot a gorgeous, naturally lit film; as he proved with “American Honey,” he can do it digitally as well. It’s naive to assume any trained cinematographer with a 35mm camera in those castle rooms – a location used in countless UK productions, due to its proximity to London – would produce a film this handsome, this cinematic. Like a great photographer, how a cinematographer reacts to and captures found light can make all the difference.
I once asked Ryan’s long-time collaborator Andrea Arnold how often she and Ryan planned their shooting schedule based on the position of the sun. Arnold, who shoots chronologically, explained that planning around the time of day is often a virtual impossibility. Ryan, she said, is simply intuitive and a genius with natural light.
“Rarely do we wait for the light,” said Ryan. “But Robbie, whatever beautiful light there is, he’ll find it. He loves his backlight with sun behind people. It’s beautiful.”