(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 017 September/October 2023)
By Natasha Block Hicks
Scrapper (2023), the winner of a 2023 Sundance Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema – Dramatic, is the debut feature for both its Bafta-nominated writer/director Charlotte Regan, and two-time Camerimage Golden Frog-nominated cinematographer Molly Manning Walker.
It follows 12-year-old Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell) as she navigates a solo existence on the Limes Farm Estate in Chigwell, Essex, following the death of her single-parent mum. Georgie, along with her best friend Ali (Alin Uzun) use their resourcefulness and charm to sidestep the attentions of authority figures, tout themselves as wheeler-dealers and find amusing ways to while away the hours. Their groove is rattled when Georgie’s absentee father Jason (Harris Dickinson, 2022 Bafta – EE Rising Star Award nominee) turns-up expecting to parent her.
“It’s a child’s perspective on grief, and an examination of the roles of family and community in raising kids,” observes Manning Walker, speaking to me on a brief pause in the worldwide tour of her own writer/director debut feature How To Have Sex (2023, DP Nicolas Canniccioni), which won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. She and Regan, who had previously crossed paths in music videos and commercials, passed a year of Sundays walking Regan’s dog around the park to get to know each other before Manning Walker interviewed officially for the role of cinematographer on Scrapper.
Anyone anticipating the usual ‘estate grime’ filmic cocktail – desaturated palette, close-quarters handheld camera, with a hard knocks script – is going to be reminded that class-based grittiness in film is a formula we have become conditioned to expect. Scrapper, by contrast, is popping with bright colours, imbued with playfulness and humour, and is gentle enough in its dialogue and themes to be rated by the BBFC as suitable for an audience contemporary to the adolescents it depicts.
When building the mood and look of Scrapper, Regan and Manning Walker referenced films such as The Florida Project (2017, dir. Sean Baker, DP Alexis Zabe ASC AMC), a film that – despite a backdrop of deprivation – has childish wonder at its heart.
“We wanted to make Scrapper from a kid’s perspective,” relates Manning Walker, “to show how they view the world. So, we chopped adults’ heads off, had the camera at their eye level and let them dictate what they wanted us to see.”
Aside from a little Steadicam, the camera was largely locked-off, with the characters moving around – and sometimes in-and-out of – the frame. Manning Walker had to resist her filmmaker’s natural urge to adjust the camera.
“This was a pretty magical first project for me”
“I’m usually drawn to an emotional handheld approach,” she reveals, “so it was a real rebellion against what I knew, which was fun to explore. Now, I’m really intrigued by static frames where people walk in and out of them. It’s not my instinct still, but I think there’ll definitely be a future point in my life where I’ll enjoy that kind of filmmaking.”
Aside from three studio days focussing on one of the fantasy sequences, the film was mainly shot on location at Limes Farm.
“It’s tricky shooting in really small spaces,” says Manning Walker of the ground floor flat chosen as Georgie’s home. “Our approach was to try and keep as much lighting outside of the flat as possible, because we wanted to give the kids free-rein to move around.”
Astera wireless LEDs were Manning Walker’s main choice for powered sources of illumination, but she also made regular use of Light Bridge Cine Reflectors, with large units positioned externally to bounce light into the rooms and smaller reflectors rigged inside to control it. The lighting kit was supplied by Pilot Lighting through gaffer Bill Rae Smith. The bright August sunshine tracing an arc over the flat’s garden added an extra challenge.
“I specifically requested not to have a south-facing garden, because the light changes all day, but through circumstance that’s exactly what we ended-up with,” says Manning Walker with a laugh. “But, it was fine in the end, I just had to work harder to control the sunlight.”
Manning Walker turned to the ARRI Alexa Mini – supplied by One Stop Films – as a “reliable workhorse” camera that was also diminutive enough to squeeze into small corners.
“It’s got a good dynamic range and I always know what I’m doing with it,” she relays. By contrast the choice of lens was untrodden territory for the DP.
“We wanted to break away from the typical estate film by shooting in Anamorphic, to make it feel heightened,” she reveals “that was a new adventure for me.”
The after-effects of Covid on kit availability, combined with budgeting, lead Regan and Manning Walker to Meru Anamorphics – also supplied by One Stop Films – which proved to be a positive experience.
“It was going outside of what I knew, but they had this filmic softness to them that I really loved,” she illustrates.
Certain sequences in Scrapper mix-up the mood and pace set by the static frame/Anamorphic combination, such as snippets of documentary-style soundbites – shot in 4:3 format with spherical Ultra Prime lenses – and the film’s opening credits, which roll over a lively sequence of crash telephoto zooms picking out kids ranging all over the estate.
“The 4:3 was meant to feel like the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the kids’ brains,” reveals Manning Walker, “and when we used zooms, it was to highlight them quickly scanning and trying to find the information in the situation.”
Of the title sequence Manning Walker comments, “We designed that technique during the testing process and I really love it now, it’s become part of my library. I always imagined my first feature would be handheld, but hopefully my style will be forever changing for each project.”
According to the Limes Farm Community Group, the large estate is a “reliable and sociable community”, and a level of curiosity was sparked by the presence of the filmmakers who were there for five weeks. Regan even enlisted some of the locals to be extras in the film.
“They were really intrigued by what we were doing and excited that, rather than a bleak story, we were telling a sweet whole-community story,” she says, “which just shows how that angle has been neglected in the past.”
Working with adolescent lead actors meant that shooting time with Campbell and Azun was limited to six hours per day. The crew would spend the remainder of the time hunting-out cut-aways around the estate, and working with Dickinson.
“It was pretty intense when we had the kids, but we tried hard not to pass any of that stress on to them,” says Manning Walker. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that was super-playful. Haris is a total gem of an actor and he made it so easy for us to work with Lola and Alin. Plus Charlotte and I always say we are big children ourselves, which helped.”
Getting to know Lola Campbell was a personal highlight for Manning Walker. “She’s a crazy kid, full of life and energy and was always coming out with these bonkers one-liners. Working with her was so special.”
“I’m really intrigued by static frames where people walk in and out of them”
For Manning Walker, the magic really happens when Campbell’s high energy drops away as she depicts Georgie’s private poignant moments remembering her mum, through a ritual of rearranging sofa cushions and alone with a mobile phone video in an alley.
“I really love those scenes,” she says. “They are so simple, but they’re really effective.”
The colour grade was handled by Simone Grattarola at Time-Based Arts with both Manning Walker and Regan sitting-in for the duration.
“We’ve both done commercials with Simone before,” shares Manning Walker. “Simone is at the top of his game, and a lovely human being, which always makes a difference when you’re spending ten days with someone.”
Reflecting on her experience as a whole Manning Walker says, “This was a pretty magical first project for me. Charlotte’s a fearless leader who inspired us all to try and do our best work. She created this atmosphere where it was very open, where everyone was welcomed and felt part of the team, which made for a really collaborative environment. When the crew want to be there and are excited by the script, you can feel that passion and drive on-screen.”
There was much to be taken away for her own projects.
“I don’t think I could have made How To Have Sex without having shot Scrapper first,” Manning Walker considers. “The experience of tracking a story through a long shoot and the stamina involved with that; I learned so much from Charlotte in terms of her process and her energy.”