'Pilgrimage': DP Tom Comerford on the Challenges of Shooting an Adventure Film 99% Handheld
Tom Comerford and director Brendan Muldowney spent six months scouting for 'Pilgrimage,' and shot it with almost all natural light.
Pilgrimage, the new film from Irish director Brendan Muldowney, is a dark, soulful, and at times shockingly violent story. Set in the 13th century, it introduces a young monk ("The Novice," played by Tom Holland) traveling across a barren landscape with a valuable but also dangerous relic—and traveling into himself as well, as he witnesses the darkest sides of human nature in the behavior of his fellow pilgrims.
This journey acquires gravity in no small part due to the brilliant work of cinematographer Tom Comerford. His work gives the truly timeless grays and dark greens and pale whites of the Irish countryside a tremendous majesty. The visual experience of the film is as interesting and curious as the Gaelic which the monks speak to each other.
Comerford’s recent films include Love Eternal (also with Muldowney), Michael Inside, and The Drummer and the Keeper. Prior to the film's theatrical release, No Film School asked Comerford about the evolution of his techniques—and about how he used the camera to both tell this story and heighten its intensity.
"In our first meetings to discuss Pilgrimage, Brendan was absolutely sure it had to be a handheld film."
No Film School: This story seems to me to be both a coming-of-age story and an adventure tale. How did your work as the cinematographer take both of these types of stories into account?
Comerford: Well, I would say my approach to the story is always guided by the director. When I read the script for the first time, I try not to get attached to any particular style the script might suggest. Usually the first few conversations with the director clue you in on how to develop your approach.
Pilgrimage is the third feature I’ve shot with Brendan [Muldowney]. It’s a total departure from the way the camera is used in his previous film Love Eternal. That film was very deliberately paced, almost no handheld movement, all slow dolly moves and lingering shots.
In our first meetings to discuss Pilgrimage, Brendan was absolutely sure it had to be a handheld film, for a number of reasons. He wanted to be there with the actors, moving with them, as if the audience was one of the group of monks. He didn't want any modern methods of camera movement. No tracks, Steadicam, or stabilization. It had to feel more organic. Also, on a purely practical level, we had thirty days with the actors, moving from bog to mountain to beach. We had so many difficult locations to work in that moving heavy equipment would have slowed us down and made the shoot impossible. We had to move light and fast, and handheld was our best chance of doing that. I would say 99% of the film is handheld, although we did compromise on a few drone shots to open up the scale of the landscape.
In terms of a connection to The Novice’s story, we are often with him, walking behind and in front, observing the story unfold with him. He’s the character that gets the most POV shots in the film, and we watch the plot unfold through his eyes.
I was lucky to work with the great colorist Gary Curran to reflect the journey the novice goes on through color. The palette of the film adapts as his view on the world changes. In the safe haven of the monastery, it's saturated with warm skin tones, yellow beaches, and green fields. As the film progresses, and he experiences the violent world outside, the color drains until the final battle on the beach is almost monochromatic.
"I was always trying to keep some darkness in the frame, in our choice of locations and where we positioned our action."
NFS: The light in the film is primarily overcast, dark, cloudy. Was that an effect of the location, or was there work done to achieve that effect?
Comerford: As a filmmaker in Ireland, you know the weather will change several times throughout the day. Not having the time in the schedule to wait for sun or clouds, we knew we would be shooting no matter what. We tried to schedule our day around the sun’s position as much as possible. Shooting into the sun allowed us to match overcast and sunny shots to some degree, but I won't say perfectly.
I was always trying to keep some darkness in the frame, in our choice of locations and where we positioned our action. The look is consciously dark; that’s something I pushed with Gary, he really did a great job in bringing the footage together.
There is one scene in which the weather was the complete opposite of what the script called for, the scene where lightning strikes the relic. We had two weeks of unbroken incredible sunny weather, totally uncharacteristic for the West of Ireland at that time of year, so we were shooting this stormy scene with blue skies and blazing sunshine. The crew was passing around sunscreen, not something you normally need in early April in Ireland!
Mikros, the Belgium-based VFX company, did an excellent job providing sky replacement for most of the shots in that scene and the lightning strike. They also created the gathering storm clouds that are seen overhead in the opening scene where a man is stoned to death. That was shot in a volcano on an island off the coast of Greece, where there is beautifully blue sky all day long!
Other than that, what you see is what you get. Dare I say Ireland can give you an incredible cloudy sky, which we pushed a little in the grade, but that's essentially the way it was when we shot it.
Storyboard panel of the forest ambush.Credit: Tom Comerford
NFS: There are several notable fight scenes in the film. How did you approach filming those?
Comerford: Brendan put a lot of time into planning the forest ambush. It was the most complicated scene in the film, in terms of the number of extras and the complexity of the action. We did a little storyboarding for the VFX stuff that was required and drew up a plan for where the characters would start and finish during the scene.
The fights were extremely well choreographed by Paul Burke. John Bernthal did all of his own stunts. His fight with Richard Armitage at the climax is really just these two guys going at each other full force. When something is so well planned and executed, it makes shooting it so much easier! We really had very little to try and hide. I did a little test with Paul and his stunt team in pre-production and decided to try and stay as close as was safely possible to the action, holding the camera low and moving with the characters. The forest ambush and the climactic beach fight were shot with two cameras, so the most difficult thing was staying out of each other’s shots!
NFS: There are a lot of straight-on shots of characters’ faces in the film. How do they help to tell the story?
Comerford: Brendan put a really great cast together for this film and his number one priority was getting strong performances and letting the landscape unfold behind these faces. The sheer number of cast members in every scene was one of the main challenges in a film with high ambition but limited time.
With John Bernthal’s character, he never speaks but he has so much is going on in his eyes, you have to be in there to see it happening. Similarly, with Tom’s character, everything is new to him. His face is our window on this world.
There are so many great faces in this film: Richard Armitage, Stanley Weber, John Lynch, Ruaidhri Conroy, Hugh O’ Conor. Ultimately they are what the audience will see most; the landscapes of Ireland have to be secondary to the faces.
"The RED Epic is light and I like the texture you get from the sensor when it’s a little underexposed."
NFS: In some parts of the film you make liberal use of the handheld camera. How does this figure into the visual storytelling?
Comerford: As I said, Brendan was convinced from the start that the film would only work as a handheld project and of course he was absolutely right. There’s no way we could have pulled off the number of locations, number of cast members to be covered in every scene, and the complicated action that was required without being able to move fast and light.
I knew I’d be carrying a camera for 30 days, on rough ground and in the water. I wanted a kit that wouldn't leave too much of a dent in my shoulder! I considered using the Easyrig to take some of the weight, but I felt it took away too much of the camera’s natural movement for this project.
The ALEXA Mini wasn’t an option for us at the time, in early 2015, so we went with the RED Dragon. I’d used the Epic on the last couple of jobs: it’s light and I like the texture you get from the sensor when it’s a little underexposed. The lenses were vintage Canon K35s, which are lightweight and fast. This was helpful for the few night scenes we had. Most of the film was shot between f2 and f2.8. That can be tricky for focus, particularly on a handheld film, where marks are always changing, but it was no problem for our focus puller, Andrew O’Reilly.
When you have the camera on your shoulder for long periods of time, you need a good crew to look after you, especially when your eyes are on the monitor and not the environment around you. John Foster, our grip, guided me around the various terrains of the film. Be it in boats, walking backwards through bogs, or fighting waves, he always had an eye on my safety and was there to take the camera when the director called “cut.” I couldn’t have done it without him.
Location scouting for 'Pilgrimage' at Kilmannán Cave OpeningCredit: Tom Comerford
NFS: From a cinematographer’s point of view, how is filming a movie set hundreds of years ago different from filming a movie set in the present day?
Comerford: You spend a lot of time scouting for locations where nothing modern is visible in the background! With a limited budget for VFX, you don't always want to have to fix it in post.
In the present day, light can come from countless sources. Hundreds of years ago it was a bit more basic: sun, moon, or fire.
Pilgrimage features very little artificial light. Most of the story takes place during the day. We travelled light with some poly and a bit of neg for the most part. The only day scene to feature artificial light is the scene where the monks are singing in the church and Stanley’s character, “The Cistercian” approaches in the background, through the church door. This was shot during our two weeks of sun, so I had some HMIs inside to try and bring the level of the interior up to match the bright exterior.
The few night scenes we had, I tried to use fire to light them, placing fire bars off camera. We couldn't afford them for the night scenes that were shot in Ireland, but the one full night shoot we had in Belgium is primarily lit by fire and torches, with some HMIs outlining the deep background. Brendan is not a fan of the blue moonlight look, so we tried to subtly create shapes in the background without making it looking too obviously lit.
One huge benefit for Pilgrimage was the availability of great locations in Ireland, where very little has changed since the time the film is set. We spent a lot of time scouting on this job (starting six months before the shoot was scheduled to begin). I think it really paid off in the finished film, though there were so many more great places that were frustratingly just outside our zone of travel.