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Behind The Lens: Samuel Grant

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UK-born Samuel Grant has gone from camera assistant on high profile British TV shows including Peaky Blinders, Shameless, Happy Valley and Sherlock, to the integral roles of cinematographer and director of photography for various independent movies and short films in the USA. Grant tells Headliner how film scores and cinematography are inextricably linked, how to hone the craft, and the most rewarding part of his job.

What was your first job in the industry?

My first job was as a runner on UK’s Emmerdale for ITV.

What was your first big break?

I guess for me my first big break was working on Shameless. This was my first drama, shot on tape! It was my first ‘proper’ camera trainee job.

What was it like to work on Peaky Blinders?

Peaky Blinders – without a doubt – was the best television show I have worked on. I was very fortunate to work on three of the series so far (seasons two, three and four). Every element of that show was so well executed, and I learnt a huge amount about the technical aspects of my role as a 2nd AC (assistant camera) as well as really observing the talents of many cinematographers like Laurie Rose, Si Dennis, Peter Robertson and Cathal Watters.

Each DOP brought their own elements of style, however the underlying tone would still be consistent to the 'Peaky' look. It was interesting to see the different choices of glass as well as the introduction of colour as the series and story progressed. I feel very proud to have seen the show’s success grow. It’s very impressive work to still be able to increase viewing figures each series. Hugely inspiring!

It goes without saying the casts’ performances are truly outstanding – they are all great people and a pleasure to work with. It can be slightly daunting working on a show that you are a fan of as you don’t want to spoil the viewing experience. However, working on Peaky Blinders – from reading the initial scripts, to filming on set, to finally watching on screen – the show would never disappoint!

How did you hone your craft working on Peaky Blinders?

Each series was a different director of photography (DOP), so myself and focus puller, Dan Gadd were the only members of the camera team to work on three of the series. Through experience of the pace of the show, we are familiar with its schedule, including tough hours and locations, so we ensured we rocked a simple lightweight camera build and transitioned from setups fast and efficiently.

What was it like to transition from camera assistant to roles as cinematographer and DOP?

I am a firm believer that the journey is more important than the final destination. I have been in the television and film industry for 10 years, however I still believe I learn everyday on set. Once I became confident as an assistant, I really took it upon myself on each job to start to think to myself: ‘How would I do it as a DOP?’ This wasn’t just in a physical aspect as in when standing on set, but more from script to screen. I would read the script for every job, then ask myself questions like, ‘What glass choice would best fit this narrative? How should it be lit?’ It's interesting to see what decisions are made during lighting tests, prep and the shoot itself.

And it’s interesting to see what the DOP went with. To put a date on the start of the transition, I would have to say it was after I lit my first short film, AIYSHA. It was a tough shoot which I learnt a huge amount from. However, this was the first time I felt confident and proud to call myself a cinematographer. Since then I have consciously approached projects with a different attitude – always favouring narrative over style. The transition has been nothing but positive for me. I feel I have used my technical knowledge and experience to help craft my own personal style.

What has been your proudest project to date?

I would have to say my proudest job to date was working on the film 12 Mighty Orphans. This was a film about a true American high school football team made up completely of orphans in the 1930s. Having just moved to the city of Fort Worth Texas from the UK, I felt honoured to be approached to work on the true story of the city. Plus it was an incredible cast, including Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen and Luke Wilson. I always dreamed of working on a film set in America, and this one landed at my feet. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time!

What is a typical day like in the role of cinematographer or director of photography?

As a DOP you find yourself working extremely closely with the director, collaborating to ensure you depict the narrative in the best way possible. On a shooting day, this would consist of breaking down the day into scenes, then breaking down each scene into shots – warranting which scenes will require more time should there be tricky performances, which require more directorial notes and takes – or the usual more time-consuming aspects of physically lighting scenes. Of course this is location-dependent.

The most standard way of approaching the scenes is a line run (the director’s time where he discusses emotion and performance within the scene), followed by a block (choreograph the movement within the scene) – this will be discussed with both the director and DOP to make sure positions can be set to light. Then it’s the director’s rehearsal (a full rehearsal just for the director and DOP), then finally a crew rehearsal where key heads of departments can join and see how the scene unfolds. This part is where the DOP discusses (with both lighting and camera) the positioning of key lights and camera.

Why has your role as cinematographer or DOP been essential to the productions you have been part of?

From my personal experience on two of the films I worked on, the directors have been excellent performance-based directors with great skills in passing on notes – bringing out incredible variations on takes. Fortunately for me they have been very respectful of my position as a cinematographer and given me a huge amount of creative freedom when it comes to the visual aspects of the film.

I love this responsibility, however it can be difficult at times as you must respect the director’s vision. It’s easy to fall into what you consider is right visually – however sometimes it does not best deliver the feeling. As a cinematographer, you have to be able to collaborate as well as to adapt should anything change; you have to be prepared to switch it all up quickly to get that performance – that’s what is essential. Story over style.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a cinematographer or DOP?

Nothing is better than having your eye to the camera and truly being mesmerised by the performance. Suddenly you forget all of your concerns of exposure, composition, and you are just watching the performance. You hear ‘cut!’ – and you know it was the take. The director heads onto set and you can see it on their face too. It’s such a great feeling that you are all on the same page together, as well as knowing that for a moment, you were in the story too.

Tell us about your two most recent projects, AIYSHA and Mine.

AIYSHA is a story about young Muslim girl battling with herself and those she loves. I was approached for this project by the director David Crowley, who gained my contact through a previous producer (Alastair Ramsden) who I had just worked with in L.A. I had mentioned my love for narrative and film, which led him to suggest me for a script he had recently read. After meeting and discussing the project with David, I knew I wanted to be involved.

Mine is a story of jealousy and deceit in the city at night. I actually wrote the script to this short myself as a visual essay. I wanted to depict one word: Jealousy. I find it in an interesting word that is frequently incorrectly interchanged for ‘envious’. So I wanted to set a challenge to myself to see if I could tell this story with no words and just shots. With the support of director, Sophia Carr Gom, we collaborated to tell a visually exciting story of three characters.

How did you approach both projects stylistically?

For each project I like to build a treatment. This would consist of colour palettes, locations, looks and film references. I like to break down the script, figure out the time period it is set in and then find references. It’s great to establish this early on, as then you can build around that with all heads of department: the director, design, costume, make up, lighting, etc – just to really give strength to the narrative whilst ensuring consistency throughout. Next, I discuss with the director about the emotion and feeling they are trying to portray.

This in turn determines the approach of the camera movement, such as whether it will be conventional or handheld, etc. Mine was an interesting one, as we wanted to give a cool city night feel, yet with elements of warmth spilling out on the streets. This was to add a colour contrast as well as suggesting the idea of two different worlds. For this we used the colours teal and orange.

The score was very important for Mine; how did this affect your approach to the cinematography and how are these (score and cinematography) inextricably linked?

The score was a huge element of the film; it set the emotion, timing and overall feeling. With Mine having a jazz feel throughout, we had Ned Derrington (a drummer) record a first draft before we filmed on the night. This helped choreograph the blocking of the scenes, really helping us to construct the pace of our shots. Our two main characters both had a different style of camera movement to match the beat structure: our homeless character being predominantly hand-held, sparse snares and drum beats, whilst our glamorous lady was shot with conventional controlled camera moves with a meticulous beat structure.

Who would you love to work with in future?

My dream project would be to shoot a film similar to American Honey directed by Andrea Arnold, shot by Robbie Ryan – something organic. I can’t wait to work on a project like that. I want something very intuitive and reactive – operating to real performances. I’m sure it’s very difficult and stressful at times, however I’m certain the reward when you watch on screen makes it all beneficial.

What tips would you give someone wanting to make it as a cinematographer or DOP?

My tip would be to start by gaining set experience. ScreenSkills provides excellent training in the UK. Some trainees go on to some of the largest feature films straight out of this programme. Ensure you witness how each member of the camera team works. Respect the process! Ask questions. However, in your free time, get shooting!!

How does it feel to have critics review your work?

It’s hard starting out as a DOP as I believe I am my own worst critic! I always feel there is room for improvement. However, we did have a very pleasant review from Ben Elton of our short, Mine recently – which was incredible and exactly what we hoped for with our story! It’s so nice when people buy into the story you have told. It makes it all worthwhile.

RELATED: Creating the score for Peaky Blinders season 5. Anna Calvi reveals how she got in the mindset of unbalanced and murderous main character, Tommy Shelby, and why being an outsider makes her a typical ‘Peaky’ artist. Read more.