Robbie Ryan is a seasoned cinematographer, but that doesn’t mean he knows everything. Continuing to learn and play with new tech and techniques is what gets Ryan excited, especially when working with a now frequent collaborator, Yorgos Lanthimos.

Ryan, known for his evocative imagery captured through wide-angled lensing and fluid camerawork, approached Poor Things, a Frankenstein-esque film that plays on the discovery of the sexuality of a young Victorian woman named Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), with joy and delight that oozes from each frame. While Ryan thrives in cinematic realism, his work in the absurd is something that sends a chill of excitement up your spine.

Poor Things DP Robbie Ryan spoke with No Film School about his collaboration with Lanthimos, the challenges of working with so many lights, the beauty of Kodak Ektachrome and VistaVision cameras, and why he’s got a lot of faith in young cinematographers.

POOR THINGS | Extended Look Trailer | Searchlight

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Hi, Robbie. How's it going?

Ryan: Good, thanks. I like No Film School. I used to always tune into your website. I always thought it was on top of things. There's always good information in there. I like it a lot.

NFS: That’s awesome to hear! Well, I'm excited to talk to you about Poor Things. What got you excited to join this ambitious film and collaborate with Yorgos again?

Ryan: When you get a shout from Yorgos, you know if it's happening, it's going to be exciting. It's never a dull moment. So I was very excited to do it and I nearly ended up not doing it because I had another film that was going around the same time that I was like, "Ah …" Luckily, the stars aligned and it worked out that that film didn't happen until just this year, ironically. I was free to do it.

I would've really, really been sad if I'd not had the opportunity to do Yorgos' film. There are many words you could use for him, but he's just a really interesting filmmaker and the opportunity to get onto a film with him is always amazing.

NFS: The visual storytelling of this film is undeniable. I don't think I've ever seen a film like it in recent memory.

Ryan: I know it's got a unique look to it, all right.

NFS: I think one of those factors is the lens choices you have. From the fish eyes to the zoom to the wide lenses that you use, I'm just curious about how you are shortlisting this film and deciding what lens to use and how to create that cohesive story.

Ryan: Yorgos never really shot lists, it's not his thing. The only time we did anything like that would've been when there were some of the sequences, like [Bella] jumping off the bridge or the reanimation sequence where we felt like other departments needed to know what might be the shots that we wanted to do.

I remember getting a storyboard artist in for that, and that was funny to watch in itself because Yorgos got really obsessed with trying to get the storyboard guy to get it exactly as he imagined it, and the storyboard guy wouldn't necessarily get one bit right and it distracted more than help in a way. In a way, if Yorgos had just drawn a small little drawing that would've suited what all the other departments needed. But [he did it] because production was saying, "Well, this would be really good for all the other departments." We got somebody in and Yorgos just had to craft the storyboard guy to get what he wanted. That was maybe a wasteful time.

But he doesn't shot list. He is very much a director who will walk on a film set and see it for what it is and then figure out how he's going to shoot it there and then. And that's why I enjoy that kind of process as well where you kind of make it up a little bit on the day, not make it up, but you see what's in front of you to make it work.

I find that kind of reactionary way of approaching shooting a film the best way, and I'm a big fan of that. So he likes to do it that way as well, so I think that's why we work well together

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things''Poor Things' Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

NFS: With this free and open collaboration process on set, how do you prep for this kind of shoot?

Ryan: This film had an awful lot of prep in the production design aspect. It was about building the world so that it was free for us to then play around in. That took an awful lot of time and planning because each set was very elaborate. We also got involved with this computer program called Blender and Unreal Engine, and there's a 3D kind of makeup of the set in the computer and you could look around it from every aspect and size and you could adapt it, change it. That was a really helpful kind of tool for getting to where you could then go give it a green light to be made into a set. We'd walked around it so many times virtually that when we walked on it for real, it was like, "This is just the Unreal Engine set."

That was a trip I have to say and I think it was a hugely important tool in the preparation and the guys involved with doing that were brilliant. Every day you'd come in and [Jonas Bethge and Antonio Niculae] built it a bit more and it was ever-changing and it was real fun to do that sort of side of it.

Once those big environments and sets were built, then you'd just walk in and you'd kind of be able to film in it, obviously, after we'd lit it. But it meant that the world was created and then we just were free to play around within that space.

NFS: When you're lighting these ginormous set spaces, that can be quite difficult. What was your main goal when you were thinking about lighting the space?

Ryan: On The Favourite, we didn't use any lights at all, that was the whole kind of aesthetic. Then, on this one, Yorgos had lights on set, so it meant that we kind of approached it with the same aesthetic, but we just had to create the skies so that a city like the Paris set would have a big sky, which would light up the courtyard, but then it would also light up inside the brothel and the interiors of that. That was the rule book: we built it as if we were really in an exterior world and it was a real location.

We'd have practical lights inside, but then everything outside was sort of as if there was a sky out there. That usually meant incorporating a heck of a lot of lights. I kind of knew that was going to be a big deal, but I didn't know quite how much politically and logistically that was going to be a big deal.

As a director of photography, I had to do quite a bit of political bartering to get, "OK, this set's going to need this much lights." They're going, "Really? Do you need that many lights?" Because I'd never done it before, I didn't know whether I was using too many lights or too few lights, and I learned a heck of a lot doing that process. But the aesthetic was, "This is a real location. What would it be like if there was a real sky outside?" so we created the sky.

Jerrod Carmichael on the set of 'Poor Things'Behind-the-scenes of 'Poor Things' Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

NFS: What did you learn from making this brand new sky that you would give as advice to anybody else who's making an indoor sky?

Ryan: I think to be prepared to have quite a bit of light put up into rigging you never thought you would have 600 lights on a rigging set, but you do and you probably need more. We were shooting on some film stocks that were quite slow, so that was a good reason for me to get more lights because I said to the production, "Well, we need more lights because the stock we're using is very slow, so it needs more light." It was true, it did.

Every job has its own particular sort of challenges and that was certainly from my aspect … The camera side of things was sort of something I knew more about from The Favourite, but the lighting was a new one as far as trying to achieve it. I definitely didn't get it right all the time, but sometimes it worked all right.

NFS: I know you use quite a few different film stocks on this from black and white to the Kodak Ektachrome —

Ryan: Well, there's not many film stocks left in the world, that's the sad thing. When you hear of a new stock that's come out, it's always exciting to try it. Kodak reissued Ektachrome as a 16mm stock about six years ago. I don't know why they did it, they reissued a stock that could only be processed in one lab in Europe. It's sort of never really that well-used because it's kind of expensive to sort of send it off to Germany to get it processed.

Luckily we were filming in Hungary, which is closer to Germany, so we were able to get a routine where we could send it to get it processed properly. Kodak had cut a bigger format, like a 35mm version of their 16mm Ektachrome for another job called Euphoria. We were able to use some of their stock and we were able to do something that hadn't actually been done before, which is to shoot and process it for 35mm Ektachrome. That was exciting.

Then, we even got one step further by shooting it on a VistaVision camera, which is an old camera from the fifties, which shoots a bigger negative. We were able to do something that's sort of never been done before. I don't know why it hasn't been done that much before, but I think that part of the secret of Yorgos' filmmaking is that he tries out new things and pushes them to new levels.

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things''Poor Things' Credit: Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

NFS: That's got to be so fun at the cinematographer to just play.

Ryan: Oh, it's great. Most of my life these days is going, "Is it going to be digital?" And they go, "Yeah." I'd like to do it on film. Yorgos never shoots on digital, so you know it's going to be on film. Now, he's got a whole sort of level of producers who are trusting him to do whatever he wants with the film. He's not going to shoot IMAX too soon, but I hope he doesn't anyway.

I think the fact that he loves shooting on film is really so great. As a cinematographer doing digital, I find it really, really difficult because I don't think I know what to do with it. Whereas with film, I'm a bit more versed in it. I know it's always going to make me look better. It just always does. It's that straight out of box thing with film that is always so sweet and nice.

NFS: It's a skill set that I feel like a lot of younger cinematographers are kind of losing by not being able to work with it.

Ryan: I think it's unfair on them in a way because they don't get a chance to do it. I do think there are a lot of new cinematographers that are younger who are obsessed with film, and they're all like, "I'm shooting it on this" They've bought their own [film] cameras. I've got a lot of faith that the younger cinematographers if they're keen will go that way. But it's an expensive route.

I reckon when it comes to the end of the year and they're all saying the best films of the year, I would imagine the five or six films that are regarded as best will all have been shot on film. So I'm going to go and put a bet on that and hopefully that will help resurge them.

NFS: I'll hold you to that.

Ryan: I think that bar was at the Oppenheimer film was created. IMAX has made a profit this year for the first time ever because many people went to see that. It's possible to keep this sort of analog thing alive, and for a long time everybody's going, "Digital's so much better, man."

Now, there's a bit of a realization that digital can only go so far and there still hasn't reached a level where it's better than film. So long may that continue.

Willem Dafoe in 'Poor Things''Poor Things' Credit: Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures

NFS: I heard that the choice to shoot in black and white wasn't made until about two weeks before principal photography started. What was it that made you decide to shoot that first act in black and white?

Ryan: It wasn't my choice. That's all Yorgos. He was like, "Yeah, maybe we'll do the first 30 minutes in black and white." I was like, "Oh yeah, cool. Let's do it." That's a classic case of people asking the cinematographer when really the director's the cinematographer and I always refer to Yorgos. So these interviews are great for me because I can always go, "Well, what Yorgos really wants it." So it's not like I was choosing it.

The only thing I did as a choice on the film was he was looking for that wide angle lens with the black vignette, the really heavy vignette on it and it was my suggestion that he get a 16mm lens, the 16 mil format, and put it on a 35mm format. And because the lens can't fully cover the negative, it would create that vignette. So that was something he hadn't thought of and I thought it off, so I feel like I helped in some way.

NFS: When the decision to shoot in black and white was made, what did your prep process look like for making sure all the colors still looked good and rich in black and white?

Ryan: You would like black and white a bit more contrasty so most of it happens in Dr. Baxter's house as well, so there's a lot of natural light. That was one of the few sets that actually had real sky outside that was an exterior set. We were able to kind of pump in more lights to create a bit more contrast in that and that's what black and white really likes getting done it is a really stronger source of light.

The colors would've been what they were and texturally they were there, it's just that what's great about it is that she comes back to all that environment in the color world as well. You see it a second time in a new light or in a new color, which I think makes it even better knowing that.

Black and white always looks good, even if you have a very drab color palette, it will still look texturally good in black and white. There was never any fear of that. We just upped the lighting as far as the contrast type of lighting.

NFS: I heard that zoom lenses can be a bit tricky, but what do you think the key is to successfully work with a zoom lens?

Ryan: I don't think they're tricky. I just think you need to get it right a bit more because you'd start on a close-up and then you're zooming out, so you got to get the button that you're zooming with. There's just a little bit more knowledge of how that works to get it right. If you get it wrong, then you have to retake it and that would just add a little bit of pressure that I wasn't expecting.

I really enjoyed it and I got good at zooms by the end of it.

Zooms are really brilliant in the film. Some of my favorite shots are zoom shots. For a while, I was asking a lot of interviewers, "What is in this film that wasn't in The Favorite?" And nobody guesses zooms. It's good to hear that people are talking about zooms now, they've obviously been listening.

Emma Stone in 'Poor Things''Poor Things' Credit: Searchlight Pictures

NFS: Do you have a favorite setup in this film and what made you so excited to shoot it while you were on set?

Ryan: We were filming on these old VistaVision cameras, so it's almost like brand new [thing], a whole, "What's this going to look like?" Because it was a noisy camera, we could only use it in one sort of sequence, which was the reanimation sequence. So I have a big fondness for that sequence because it was like brand new territory seeing what we are going to get. I think in the film it's great.

As far as you've been in a black-and-white world for so long, and the next thing it goes into this crazy reanimation colorful scene with loads of bombastic sounds, and the story gets really pretty wild at that stage. I'm really fond of that part of the film. I love all of it, but that bit I feel really is edited amazing as well. The editing in the film is brilliant, so I always try and big up Yorgos' editor whose name is Blackfish, I think he's an unsung hero in the film.

NFS: One of the lighting sequences that really stands out to me is in Paris when all the women are in the lineup at the brothel. You have that underlight that's going up on them. It's not the most appealing light in the world.

Ryan: That was always in the design was in this sort of idea that there'd be a little floor. I think actually there's a lot of painting references that [production designers] Shona [production designers] Shona [Heath] and James [Price] and Yorgos were looking at, and a lot of them had this sort of the lighting and the paintings was like that. That was the beginning of the idea.

I guess you could say it's got a little bit of a Kubrick thing going on where he uses that a bit in Clockwork Orange and a bit in 2001 [A Space Odyssey]. But I don't think that was necessarily the driving influence. There were a few paintings where there were a lot of blue velvet interiors that had that kind of set design about it and they liked it and it just created a life of its own.

It was good for me because it meant I had another light source. That's where the light from outside wasn't doing that much to light them inside. I was like, "Oh shit, I need to have more light." I was very happy that there was the underfloor lighting for me.

Emma Stone and Jerrod Carmichael in 'Poor Things''Poor Things' Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

NFS: Do you have any advice for cinematographers that you think they should all know?

Ryan: It's got to go back to celluloid and just try your best to get on a film camera and shoot some … If they're new cinematographers and they've not worked on celluloid, just get a 16mm Bolex, or any camera and try it out and learn about it like that, because it's sort of the ground rules of any good filmmaking visual process is learning from the original, I feel.

I don't think new cinematographers will probably even worry about that, they'll come up with amazing stuff themselves. It's just that it's something that I remember when I was starting out, I shot a lot of 16mm. I never shot 35mm, and I felt that I wasn't a good cinematographer until I'd shot on 35mm. Then, I realized that it was exactly the same as 16mm, really, just a better-looking 16mm. So I would still say if you haven't done it, give it a go. No harm.

Poor Things is playing only in theaters starting Dec. 8, 2023.