Plus a Q&A with DIT Jo Barker
By Ron Prince
“Compared to some of the other films we have made together, Belfast was a modest, entirely personal, get-back-to-work project, that we thought very few people would see. So the very positive reaction to it around the world is a wonderful surprise,” remarks British DP Haris Zambarloukos BSC GSC regarding his latest collaboration with director Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Written, financed, shot in lustrous B&W, posted and released under various states of lockdown, Belfast is Branagh’s semi-autobiographic, coming-of-age film about childhood and working class family life during The Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.
The movie premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto, and snapped-up seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Zambarloukos’ cinematography. The DP also picked up a nomination in the 2022 ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement In A Feature Film.
Belfast is told from the perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy who is based on Branagh himself. Buddy is part of a tight-knit family, which includes his dad (Jamie Dornan), his mum (Caitriona Balfe), and his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Buddy has an idyllic childhood — enjoying trips to the movies, playing outside, and spending time with his family — but things begin to change when the Troubles between his Protestant and Catholic neighbours explode.
“When Ken first told me about the film, I suggested we shoot it in B&W. He laughed and said ‘I knew you would say that’,” says Zambaloukos about his seventh production with Branagh. Their collaborations started with Sleuth (2007), and have included Thor (2011), Cinderella (2015), Murder On The Orient Express (2017) and Death On The Nile (2022).
“Although the final film is chiefly in B&W, monochrome was not a new thing to us at all,” explains the DP. “We had done partial B&W elements before in Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile, and we evolved and developed them for this story. So we planned some short colourful moments in Belfast that we felt would support the wonder and enchantment of life seen through a child’s gaze.”
These include the opening moments when the camera jibs up over a wall in present-day Belfast to magically reveal monochromatic terraced streets from the 1960s, as well as Raquel Welch in a furry bikini in One Million Years BC, and the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, seen in colour when Buddy and his family are at the cinema in the B&W world.
Features such as The Bicycle Thief (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica, DP Carlo Monuori), Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, DP Blasco Giurato), Respiro (2002, dir. Emanuele Crialese, DP Fabio Zamarion) and Tsotsi (2005, dir. Gavin Hood, DP Lance Gewer) were touchstones in the evocation of childhood memories. Zambarloukos says the Polish film Ida (2013, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, DPs Ryszard Lenczewski PSC & Łukasz Żal PSC), plus stills work by Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths – such as Boys Destroying A Grand Piano (1961) – helped set the naturalistic aesthetic look and the portraiture.
Production took place during an eight-week period between August and October 2020, at a disused school in Sunningdale, followed by terrace-street sets that were constructed and oriented to take maximum advantage of the natural daylight, at Farnborough Airport, Surrey, before the production visited the city of Belfast.
“We had a very simple approach to the lighting – to use natural, available light as much as possible”
“We had a very simple approach to the lighting, which was to use natural, available light as much as possible, supplemented by practicals and bounced light,” explains Zambarloukos. “We sometimes had matchbox-sized LEDs, that our gaffer Dan Lowe has in his toolbox, to augment eye lights, but we tried too keep things minimal.”
The production was framed in 1.85:1, and captured using ARRI Alexa Mini LF fitted with System 65 and Sphero lenses, as part of a package provided by Panavision in London.
“This was an intimate film, and the combination of aspect ratio, camera and shooting at T4 to T5.6, gave a medium format look that was somewhere between Leica street photography and Hasselblad portraiture,” he says.
Although he action was filmed in colour, the on-set workflow was conducted in B&W, using a LUT developed by colourist Rob Pizzey at Goldcrest. Digital Orchard’s DIT Jo Barker worked alongside Zambarloukos during production (see sidebar), performing primary and secondary grading on the rushes near-set, ready for Zambarloukos to review during lunch. “I adopted the same practice as I would on a celluloid film shoot,” he remarks.
Written during lockdown, Belfast was one of the first to start filming when restrictions were eased in the summer of 2020, but the safety of the cast and crew was still a top priority.
“Belfast was shot with the foresight that production would have to take place under tight Covid measures,” says Zambarloukos. “Ken was adamant that no one became unwell and the whole shoot was planned with social distancing in mind. We all wore face-masks, and everyone was tested on a daily basis.
“Even though we shot in the relative safety of an empty school building, and later on the sets at Farnborough, we kept windows open to ensure good ventilation. We got through the entire shoot without any delays or cases. I think it was an amazing undertaking and really helped to show other productions that the industry could get safely back to work after months of lockdown.”
Keeping safety uppermost in mind, Zambarloukos operated on what was largely a single camera shoot. Andrei Austin came in on Steadicam and B-camera for the film’s riot scenes, with DP Yinka Edward shooting insert work as part of the second unit.
Zambarloukos remarks that most of the film was quite deliberately “still and composed in terms of camera movement, but when it moved it really moved.
“It was a terrific shoot – it felt like we were doing something truthful and sincere”
“For example, we wanted to frame the riot scene at the beginning of the film from Buddy’s point-of view, rather than it being a typical action sequence. So we planned a shot on 360º tracks – set-up by my regular key grip Malcolm Hughes – where the camera could pivot around Buddy. During the choreographed take, the camera circles through two full revolutions, starting with calm and empty streets but ending-up with an angry mob piling-in and a Molotov cocktail being thrown. I think this really helped to anchor the storytelling around Buddy, and to say something about the innocence of youth.”
Zambarloukos adds, “It was a terrific shoot, and it felt like we were doing something truthful and sincere. There’s a certain courage in films that portray joyful participation in the sorrows of life, and that always makes for an emotional connection and cathartic experience in cinema.”
BELFAST WORKFLOW WITH DIT JO BARKER
“For the first half of the shoot I was based near-set at the school, and for the second half I was based in a mobile unit at Farnborough Airport. Both spaces were shared with dailies operator Szymon Wyrzykowski from Digital Orchard, who was running the lab, so we could communicate the whole time.
We would receive cards from the camera team on a regular basis, and the data was then ingested by Szymon into our QNAP system. I could then access the images and create a project which I graded roll-by-roll. Szymon would colour trace in Resolve from my project, meaning that we could both work at the same time and speed-up our process.
An iPad with stills from each set-up would be shown to Haris and Ken, and I’d then go back and make adjustments if needed. Haris would also come by during his lunch break to go over what we had done so far, at which point Szymon would create the deliverables.
There are influences of the Polish film Ida in this project, which happens to be one of my favourite films too. I gathered a range of stills from the film and frequently referenced them whilst grading.
Everything was processed with Haris’s LUT-of-choice created by Rob at Goldcrest, and adjustments were made from there to fit this project. Haris was also very keen for the dailies to look as close to the finished product as possible. This meant rather than just the usual CDLs, I also did a lot of secondary grading.
As most of the images I have seen from 1960’s Northern Ireland are B&W news footage, seeing this film in B&W felt very familiar. We played with some parts being in colour, such as the modern-day and cinema-going elements, and created dailies in both B&W and colour for these sections to help experimentation in the edit.
Everything on-set was filmed and viewed in colour so it was only once it reached us that it became B&W. I remember taking an iPad over to set and showing Ken the transformation of a shot with Jude as Buddy, and how stunned he looked at the finished product.”
Jo Barker studied cinematography at the Czech film school FAMU, before moving into post-production, scanning film for features and then creating dailies for major films and TV series. Here she learnt grading skills from top colourists and soon began grading herself. Missing working on-set she then found her place as a DIT combining her lab, colour and camera knowledge.