Cinematographer Oliver Curtis' last period shoot was in 1998—the BBC's Vanity Fair miniseries, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA. So it seemed only right that he return to this world and bring all his knowledge of how to shoot intricate costumes, difficult locations, and more in the new show from Apple TV+, The Buccaneers.
This is the second collaboration between Curtis and director Susanna White, after previously working together on Danny Boyle's series Trust.
The show, based on an unfinished Edith Wharton novel, follows nouveau riche New York families and their young daughters, boisterous young women ready to seek marriage partners. They travel overseas to London, attracting all manner of characters (and lovers) with their money and ebullient personalities.
We spoke with Curtis via Zoom about the challenges of lighting this show and all the considerations a period project of this scale needs.
The Buccaneers — Official Trailer | Apple TV+www.youtube.com
Showing a culture clash through lighting and lenses
The period setting and collaborating with White were big draws for Curtis on this project. But he also appreciated the chance to shoot two difficult cultures in unique Scottish locales.
"Because shooting period, if you are working out of London, there's a lot of National Trust houses and castles and what have you that are filmed quite a lot," he said. "So to be relocated up to [the] north of the border and the borders themselves, which is just within England from Scotland, we were going to be able to use some places that were not photographed very often and quite fresh landscapes and interiors that were new to people."
He also appreciated the chance to shoot New York and British characters and show the differences between their lives through visuals.
"It's a clash of cultures," he said. "It's a sort of perennial tale of two cultures sort of colliding and people's contrasting needs and desires. So it's a universal tale. You've got these young American women coming from moneyed families to meet potential suitors and husbands with titles and estates to bequeath. So it's a wonderful clash of cultures, which from a cinematography point of view is really fruitful territory."
But this difference was not only in characters and their behavior but also the differing levels of technology.
Curtis pointed out, "You've got New York going through a time of revolution with electric light coming in and the wealthier classes, whereas the U.K. was still dealing with candles and oil lamps and gaslights. And so there was a lot of contrast on lots of levels between the two cultures and the two countries."
As the young characters begin innocently and together in New York, they're lit with warm gold in rich environments. This changes as their circumstances do.
"We wanted to set up that contrast by having the early New York scenes have a real warmth and character and luminosity," Curtis said. "So although most of the show in the U.K. was shot on the ALEXA LF camera throughout, in the U.K. we use the DNA lenses that ARRI have. But then in New York, I used Canon K35s so that they would allow more of the light and the color. And the light will bounce around inside those lenses more than it will the DNA. So it had a different quality."
Oliver Curtis on location of The Buccaneers Photo provided
Starting the Series With a Oner
From the opening moments of the show, the expansiveness of this world and its characters are established via a long, meandering one-shot throughout an opulent New York home.
Not only did the take need to incorporate different spaces with the cooperation of dozens of actors and supporting artists, but Curtis also had to consider what tools to use with his Steadicam operator, Alex Brambilla.
"Because we start close and wide on the flowers and as we sweep in, you get more compression as it gets busier with people inside. So we probably went onto a slightly longer focal length there. And then when we got up to the landing after Kristine meets Christina [Hendricks] there, I think we widened out a little bit more so that when we do the hidden edit transition, we were on a slightly wider focal length, which would allow us to get separation there."
They avoided any reflective surfaces with the coordination of the camera ops and cast. Eagle-eyed viewers might catch the one hidden cut in the sequence.
"There has to be a hidden cut because the first half of it is on location and the second half is on a build," Curtis said. "So where we go into the rooms, we built that because we couldn't find a building that gave us those two spaces. Plus we needed green screen beyond the windows for the street, which was just outside Glasgow City Chambers doubling for Madison Avenue."
The BuccaneersCredit: Apple TV+
How Curtis Created More Light in Glasgow City Chambers
How do you shoot just a few days in a historical location with hundreds of extras?
Better yet, how do you do it in a location that won't let you update the electrical and add more lights?
For Curtis, the most challenging space to work in was inside the Glasgow City Chambers for the debutante ball sequence, in which hundreds of young women are presented on a white marble staircase. But the scene was difficult for several reasons.
"Firstly, there was a giant skylight on the top, very few windows on the lower levels, and all the chandeliers had electric lights, and we weren't allowed to touch them because it's a listed building," Curtis said. "So very few places where I could hide any lighting."
But thankfully, he came up with a genius hack to get more light into the space.
"What I asked the production designer to do, Amy Maguire, was to build what I call window plugs," he said. "Basically on the lower landings where there's a doorway to a room, we'd take the door off and create a window as if there was an exterior wall elevation there. And then I had my electrical team build soft boxes within those doorways.
"So as you go down the staircase, you'll find lots of characters walking past and standing around these windows. Well, actually they're not windows at all. They were doorways. Because we couldn't rig anything inside that building, all the light, it had to be coming in through the windows or you had some chandeliers there or candelabras. So it took a little bit of working out, but that managed to bring you sort of light and dark as you were going down from one floor to another."
The Buccaneers Credit: Apple TV+
He also found one more creative way to get a soft, diffused light throughout the space.
"My electrical team had some helium balloons to create a consistent soft light from above. As we worked our way down the staircase, they would tow those down, pull them in on the strings, bring them lower and lower," Curtis said. "So we built the soft fill light as we went further, further down. So it worked out quite well. It was a challenge because it was site-specific. I hadn't had to encounter all of those different elements before. Plus we had very little prep time. It's a working council building, so we couldn't leave anything pre-rigged. We had to get in very quickly and get out very quickly."
Again, this was a three-day operation in total requiring precise planning and production.
"The other issue there was that one of the best camera positions was actually right in the middle of the atrium, in the center of the staircase," he added. "And unfortunately, because of loading and access, we couldn't bring in any kind of technocrane or telescopic arm. So my grips had to measure exactly the distances from the walls through the columns and the pillars to the center of that atrium so we could get the camera into the center and give us the maximum flexibility. And so it was quite a military precision kind of exercise to film in that building and to film those sequences."
The fake window trick, Curtis said, was one he'd never tried before.
"It just occurred to me that if we didn't do it, I'd be stuffed," he said.
The scene in question is quite tense with multiple cuts between hundreds of actors, so the coverage was significant.
"We ran three cameras in there," he said. "Steadicam with Alex Brambilla, my B camera op, Laura Dinnett, who did a brilliant job throughout the series, not just on my blocks, but on other blocks. And we had another camera operator that day."
'The Buccaneers'Credit: Apple TV+
How Costume Material Comes Into Cinematography
Cinematographers have so many things to consider in their work, including how costuming will read on camera and play with the light, as well as how those things support the storytelling. So what happens on a period show when everyone is dressed in reflective, colorful silk?
"I know that Apple was very keen to make this show a very colorful one," Curtis said. "And so we photographed it with that in mind. But also when we got into our color timing, we made sure that we brought that saturation and luminosity out and made sure that that was kept alive.
"But it's also interesting when you carry those surfaces and those characteristics into the dark gloomy interiors of London and the upper-class life there at the time. It allowed you to bring light into those spaces. You've got these very exuberant young women invading this sort of dark, gloomy space. So purely on a visual level, it was a wonderful collision and an opportunity to transform spaces from dark to light, and from desaturated to saturated."
Working with these materials made Curtis' job more interesting, he said.
"I remember when we were shooting tests, I thought, wow, there's so much light coming back off these costumes," he said. "Also, because in that period, you think about corsets and bustles—basically the clothing is designed to sit up and to ruche and to fold and all of these surfaces reflect the light. Whereas you think about modern clothing, it's very linear, it's very vertical.
"And so I really tried to explore that a little bit by lighting a lot with bounce sources so that the clothing would reflect the bounce source," he added. "Not always going in with hard light, but I didn't have hard and fast rules about that. It was something I certainly explored as we went along."
Oliver Curtis on location of 'The Buccaneers'Photo provided
Curtis' Best Advice for Cinematographers
How do you do your best work? His advice, in a nutshell, is to challenge yourself.
"Don't limit yourself to one genre or one form of filmmaking," he said. "I think you learn so many things from different genres and different styles of filmmaking.
"In this Instagram world, there tends to be a very homogenized look of heavy top light and gloomy eyes and oversaturated colors. And I think that if you do a little bit of documentary or if you do some stills work, or if you work on whether it's long-form or short-form, I think it's to be open to all kinds of challenges. Work with available light, not just have a lot of lighting packages. I think it's just about being open."
He said that this openness and a willingness to experiment is where creativity has a chance to shine.
"I think if you go into a show or a shoot where you think everything is defined and certain, you probably won't do your best work. But if you put yourself in a position where you're slightly at the deep end and your feet don't quite touch the floor, you're going to do something different and interesting at that point. So it's always to test yourself."
Oliver Curtis on location of 'The Buccaneer' Photo provided
There is, of course, an opportunity for failure when you do this. But for Curtis, that's exciting.
"So I'm always throwing myself in the deep end," he said, "and you have to accept that if you do that, you might fail, and it can hurt to not know. But you learn very quickly."
Curtis also advised that, on period projects, you shouldn't let yourself get distracted by the setting.
"When people think of a period drama, they think about opulence, they think about big interiors and the ornate quality of the architecture and all the costumes," he said. "But actually, in this show, I was as interested in portraiture as anything else. The faces were so expressive and the moments between people so intimate, that to shoot on the large sensor with the DNA lenses was the perfect way to be able to preserve the essence of portraiture whilst not depriving you of the world around them.
"The large sensor allows you to be on focal lengths that are good for portraiture, but you don't suddenly lose the environment that they're in. And that's something that I think is important to think about when you watch the show, is that it's not just about the big set piece, even though we did do that as well, because obviously there's an expectation and a visual pleasure in that. But I think that if you're not telling the tale here [in the face], you're not going to tell the tale there [in the wide].
"I was invested in how the equipment, the technology, the format, would serve portraiture as much as it would landscape."