(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 015 May/June 2023)
By Ron Prince
“This award shows that small British TV dramas can still be mighty,” said Oscar and BAFTA-winning actress Kate Winslet CBE, as she accepted the statuette for Leading Actress at the 2023 BAFTA Television Awards for her performance in I Am… Ruth. It was the second award of the night after the production also picked-up the gong for Best Single TV Drama.
I Am… Ruth is the latest episode in the critically-acclaimed, female-led, drama anthology series, created originally in 2019 by award-winning writer/director Dominic Savage for the UK’s Channel 4 Television. Designed to offer authentic and thought-provoking stories for our times, with intimate and cinematic looks, the series explores contemporary female experiences, examining themes such as trust, relationships and mental health.
Each episode in the three-part series was developed and directed by Savage in collaboration with a leading actress for whom the story has personal resonance, but with only the most rudimentary stage direction and all dialogue being improvised. In order to bring a documentarian feel to the drama, every episode was shot hand-held, giving audiences the impression of eavesdropping on the characters.
I Am…Ruth follows a mother, Ruth, who observes her teenage daughter Freya being consumed by the pressures of social media, retreating into herself to the point of becoming almost unreachable by her increasingly-concerned parent. Playing opposite Winslet was her real-life daughter, Mia Threapleton, performing as Freya, with Joe Anders as Ruth’s son/Freya’s brother, Billy, and real-life Dr Suzy Charlton the GP.
“Dominic put his complete faith in me to follow the drama without hesitation or fear”
The cinematographic challenge on the 90-minute episode fell to DP Rachel Clark, whose steady rise through the ranks from trainee to cinematographer has included focus-pulling on American Honey (2016, dir. Andrea Arnold, DP Robbie Ryan ISC BSC), working as second unit DP on Rocks (2019, dir. Sarah Gavron, DP Hélène Louvart AFC) and operating B-camera on Men (dir. 2022, dir. Alex Garland, DP Rob Hardy BSC ASC), amongst many other experiences.
As a DP in her own right, Clark previously shot I Am… Maria (2021, dir. Dominic Savage), starring Lesley Manville, Pirates (2021, dir. Reggie Yates), plus the forthcoming Edge Of Summer (2023, dir. Lucy Cohen). Clark was nominated for a BAFTA Television Craft Award for her work on I Am… Ruth, and is a member of Illuminatrix and Women Behind The Camera.
Production on I Am.. Ruth took place over 15-shooing days during May 2022 at locations around Godalming, Surrey, where adjacent houses on a quiet middle-class street were sequestered for the duration of the shoot – one in which the main action would take place, the other for the crew and production team. Filming also involved Clark taking a dip in the sea with Winslet on the south coast, as Ruth takes stress-relieving swims.
Savage prefers his shooting locations to be as authentic and as natural as possible, with the minimum number of crew present on-set, minimal camera gear and no ostensible lighting equipment anywhere. It is also his custom to allow the actors complete freedom of movement, capturing the drama in long improvised takes as scenes evolve. It is a filmmaking process that would call on Clark’s cinematographic wits and emotional sensibilities.
“I was delighted to be asked back to shoot another episode in the I Am… series, as they are powerful, painful stories about women that need to be told, and I could not resist the opportunity to work with Dominic again,” says Clark.
“Even though I was aware of the way in which he likes to work, it was still a step into the unknown. The story was unscripted and the actors were free to react and move in any way they chose. It would be my job to respond to them in the moment, with the camera running for an unlimited amount of time.
“I had conversations prior to the shoot, about the story, the characters and their emotional journeys, but these were more about responsive camerawork than anything technical. Dominic put his complete faith in me to follow the drama without hesitation or fear.
“For him, it’s important that the world we create on-set feels real, and is not like a film set. So everything was stripped-back. Most of the usual support and tools we’re used to calling-on as the cinematographer were hidden away or just not there. I operated the camera handheld, and shot without a grip, full lighting team or any form of monitoring. Although it was the smallest team and smallest kit-list I’ve ever had, it was also the most liberated I’ve ever been.”
Clark says she would have loved to have captured the action using large format cameras, but had to keep to pre-ordained guidelines, which meant framing in 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, shooting in ProRes 2K using an ARRI Alexa Mini fitted with Zeiss Super Speed lenses, as part of a package supplied by camera rental house VMI in London.
“Because of the tight spaces – such as small bedrooms and even smaller bathrooms – I shot most of the production, probably 90-percent, using just a 35mm lens, with a target stop around of T2.8,” says Clark. “The 35mm worked really well to contain two characters in the small spaces, but we switched to a 50mm whenever we wanted something more intimate. Previous shows in the series were shot predominantly on a 50mm, as it is a beautiful lens for portraiture, but we always knew it would be too tight for this project given that we were focusing on two characters.
“I netted the lens from behind using black stockings to add a slight diffusion to the image, and controlled the exposure myself, using the iris and a variable ND filter, whilst operating. As Dominic likes the crew to be very small and unobtrusive, my 1st AC, Vlassis Skoulis, did an admirable job of pulling-focus remotely whilst hiding in various cupboards and bathrooms downstairs.”
Knowing she would have to shoot handheld for 15 days, following the actors anywhere in takes lasting anywhere between 30 to 60-minutes, Clark stripped the camera package down as much as possible to reduce the weight, removing the matte box, top handle, anything that was surplus to requirements. In the end the camera weighed around 9-10kgs.
“As I needed to move the camera with freedom around the confines of the house, there was no way I could have used an Easy-rig, nor would I have wanted to. I always operate handheld on the shoulder, and really enjoy the physical connection to the camera,” she explains.
“I truly went on a journey with Kate and Mia. While they responded to each other, I responded to them, their emotions, their movements and physical interactions. The camera became a third character and it was truly an immersive experience like no other, despite the takes being long and physically-demanding.”
With strict instructions to keep the look as natural as possible, Clark says that curtains, fabrics, wall colours, practical lamps and windows all became the lighting sources and the colour palette. However, realising she would need to shape the light and have adequate illumination for exposure and depth-of-field, especially in Mia’s darkened bedroom and for night scenes, she enlisted the help of her gaffer, Helio Ribero, to carefully secrete a variety of small LEDs. This included fitting Astera NYX bulbs into practical lampstands and ceiling pendants, concealing Aladdin Eye-Lites and Falcon Eyes’ PockeLite F7s into uplighters and sconces, and hiding Astera Helio tubes behind book cases, all without the director’s knowledge. Clark was, however, allowed the luxury of having blackout frames on windows when shooting night scenes at 10am in the morning.
“I found it a very intense experience and cried frequently into the eyepiece”
“The position of the camera in relation to the actors and a source of light or darkness became my way to paint and weave into the narrative, emotionally and visually,” she says, “It was a gift to work with Kate in this scenario, because she knew how important it was for me to have light to work with. She always knew how to find that light for me by placing herself beside a window or a slither of light coming through a curtain.”
Along with being physically-demanding, Clark says shooting I Am… Ruth proved a highly-emotional experience too.
“There are a few times when we see Freya distressed. In those scenes I could see Mia was digging deep into herself, deep into frightening feelings. Because of the connection you have with the performance when you operate, you can easily become entwined with the emotion. Responding through my lens to what was happening in the room, I found it very intense and often sobbed into the eyepiece while shooting. There were a lot of emotions, and I made sure to decompress each night in preparation for the next day.
As taxing as I Am… Ruth proved to be, Clark believes the experience has helped to make her a more seasoned cinematographer.
“Whilst there is very little control for the cinematographer in a process like this, at the same time you have ultimate control. I decided when, where and how the camera would move, what it saw and what it revealed. You have to be brave and really trust your gut instinct, there’s so much liberation and freedom in that process, and it gives you a lot of confidence and courage.
“The cinematography in I Am… Ruth is woven into the work. It is raw and emotional much like the film itself. I feel like I gained an extra set of tools when things become difficult. I know that some DPs can be fearful about the unknown, but I kind of thrive on that.”