Today we had a little chat with our British friend Nick Morris. He has been the DP of various big commercials among others for Nike, Oatly, Tommy Hilfiger, and BAFTA-nominated shorts.
Before we dive right into the details of his latest piece of work – a masterfully crafted series for the Allianz Campaign starring Christoph Waltz – let’s have a glance at it first!
Hey Nick! For those who don’t know you: What’s your background? How did you enter the industry?
So I had a slightly unorthodox entry into the industry. In high school, I was obsessed with more traditional art forms, like painting and drawing. Ironically now, I used to make wisecracks that photography was cheating because you didn’t have to make it from scratch.
I’d wanted to go to art school to study painting but ended up doing a very academic degree instead. When I was at university, the workload was really intense, and I had no time for painting. Eventually, I found an old Russian rangefinder in a flea market in Estonia on a trip and when my first roll came back from the lab, I instantly found a new obsession.
I built a bit of a portfolio just by taking photos with friends and spending a lot of time experimenting in the dark room. After having a small exhibition with friends, I was asked to take unit photos on a short film set. On that set, I was introduced to the role of a cinematographer watching my now good friend Dave Pimm work, and the degree of technique and control, and knowledge he had even on a student film blew my mind.
“When you do it yourself and really mess something up – I guarantee you never make the same mistake twice!”
After that, I was inspired to make some shorts of my own, and my friend Sorcha and I naively set up a production company and made a host of pretty average short films. But I think there’s no better way to learn than by getting things wrong, and relatively soon we made a few good ones. Simultaneously we started shooting and producing music videos and at about the same time we had music videos nominated for awards and shorts up at big festivals and eventually, one (“Wren Boys” Dir. Harry Lighton) made it to the BAFTAs. Around that time I got spotted by my agent and since then I’ve just carried on learning by getting things progressively less wrong.
I did spend about a year when I first moved to London doing as much camera assisting as I could. I think it is totally necessary to get some experience like that if only to understand the rest of the machine of a film set. I had some very generous DOPs teach me bits and pieces, but really I found it difficult to learn just by observing. When you do it yourself and really mess something up – I guarantee you never make the same mistake twice!
True that! Speaking of never making mistakes twice: What’s your general approach as a cinematographer when you tackle a new project? How do you prep?
I like to try and approach all projects from a similar place, which I suppose is what I’m looking for when I’m reading a narrative script- what is the heart of the idea? I think nailing everything down to one or two ideas or words or emotions can give you the framework to build everything else upon.
“Whenever you’re getting wrapped up and a bit lost, you can always come back to the North Star.”
The hardest thing in any project is finding out what your film is, and what it isn’t. There are so many options at any one moment, 95% of the job is deciding what not to do. Tom Speers (the director on this project) and I have worked together a bunch at this point, and he likes to call that guiding principle ‘the north star’. Whenever you’re getting wrapped up and a bit lost, you can always come back to the North Star. For this project Tom wanted something really timeless and classic, in Prep he joked to me “What’s the least ‘current’ or ‘trendy’ thing we can do at any moment – that’s what we should be doing”. It was a joke, but it really stuck.
Generally, all that translated into creating something very, very slow, and very understated. No whips, no zooms, no wipes, no transitions, no wide lenses, no edit tricks, no big performances.
On pretty much every frame I’d get out the lens I was used to, and then immediately ask for the next longest and take a big step back. I’m more used to habitually using wider lenses and moving the camera less to still feel a dynamic move, but on this, we ended up shooting the main wide on a 50mm and laying about 30 feet of track for it to push into a close-up.
A crazy schedule with optimized time
More broadly, we shot over 2 days with Christoph Waltz and had 6 films to squeeze into a crazy schedule. He works to pretty tight hours so we shot a lot of the close-ups etc with a body double. To maximize our time with him we built all of the sets in the same soundstage in Prague – it was a very tight squeeze. The space meant we had to be quite inventive with the lighting, and especially smart with windows and backdrops, as there just was no space for big translights etc. @Bon Walsh (the production designer) is a genius though, and came up with all sorts of clever ideas like a beautiful enclosed atrium, and high-level letterbox style windows, that gave the impression of a particular kind of interestingly designed home for Christoph, but also gave us motivation for lighting, without having to deal with big exposed windows.
You’ve already worked on a bunch of incredible short films and masterfully crafted commercials for major brands like Nike, Oatly, Tommy Hilfiger and Adidas. This time you had a very busy A-List actor like Christoph Waltz in front of your lens. How did it affect your process?
We had a pre-light day before and I went through with the stand-in and lit everything to about 80%, and then while Christoph was in hair and make-up I’d finish up while we pinned down our precise frames. One of the things that really actually felt like it helped the lighting in the end was ironically the pace we were working at and the pressure there was not to tweak endlessly with an A-lister on set. It pushed me to light spaces, not faces, and think well in advance about what might play nicely in the eyes when I was designing the scheme, and even as early as when Bon was positioning windows in early plans of the sets
Any Plan-B’s in case Murphys Law hits?
The strict schedule and high-profile cast definitely made us incredibly well-prepped, we’d effectively shot the whole film on the pre-light day, so it was mainly just about sticking to the plan on the shoot day. Christoph offers a huge amount as an actor though, and injects this amazing energy into every frame. He really values every part of the process and was a big contributor to the exactitude of each and every beat.
The all-over look is very cinematic and not the typical high-key glossy commercial look. Is that simply your style or did you do it on purpose to emphasize the Hollywood actor aspect?
The look was something Tom and I discussed a lot before. Generally, I like to set everything I shoot in as cinematic a world as possible, and all my work is consistently inspired by cinema and a film print palette. A big part of that is in the grade, and our colorist Thomas Mangham really nailed the brief on our film print references.
Another big part of it is motivated lighting, mixed color temperatures inspired by nature and the environment, and really trying not to overwork faces when it can be avoided. I’m still constantly trying to find ways to do less, but with digital cameras and monitors everywhere it’s hard not to obsess and over-craft things.
At the end of the day though, really a face like Christoph’s does an incredible amount of work too. I’d often finish lighting with our stand-in, and be relatively underwhelmed and reaching for something magic to try and make it sing. Then Christoph would step into the frame and just bring this instant magic, his face immediately situates everything in cinema.
I’m obsessed with lighting and its power to tell a story without exposition! I noticed most of your shots are lit with mixed light. How was your approach to lighting the different scenes? Any special choices?
Generally, I like to approach everything from a place of lighting motivation, and I like to avoid filling the set with a thousand flags and frames and stands. Often that approach can also give you some interesting places for color motivation and inspiration. The set was full of loads of beautiful warm wood, and using big 20ks or molebeams coming through the windows, you could instantly feel this interesting mixture of neutral sunlight and warm bounce from the floors and tables.
“ …what part of the globe I think I’m in. Is it noon?”
I like to think about the sun position too and how high or low I’m making it, what time of day I’m imagining, and what part of the globe I think I’m in. Is it noon? If so the sunlight is often harsh and hard and white, and the ambient from the sky isn’t significantly cooler. If it’s later afternoon or morning like in our scene, there was more scope for a lower, warmer sun, mixed with a bluer tone of skylight. Plus, imagining that the morning sun was in the southeast (in the northern hemisphere) other windows in the set would feel relatively bluer, particularly those facing ‘imaginary’ north and especially ‘imaginary’ northwest. These little details help me set color temperatures so that even a relatively neutral daylight scene like this might have various light sources ranging from about 2500k-9000k, from that warm wood bounce through to the bluest part of the sky.
Fascinating! I love the way you describe your approach to how to reach a story-specific natural light in all its nuances. Did you encounter any specific lighting challenges in prep or on set?
I’d say the biggest technical challenge was about space for lighting on the stage. I’m a stickler for sunlight feeling authentic, and for me, 90% of that is about straight shadows. In layman’s terms, if you imagine the sun is a gazillion miles away, the light rays that reach us are very parallel, so all of the shadows in a room are perfectly pointing in the same direction. On the other hand, in a set like this on a cramped stage, the lamps can only be about 3m from the windows, which creates very very spread shadows, all pointing in different directions from the source. I try to combat this by using a lot of mirrors, which effectively double that distance from the source and make the shadows straighter, and a lot of mole beams, which are naturally very parallel spot-light style lamps. It took a lot of head-scratching, but I was really pleased in the end with how authentic our array of lights ended up feeling.
“If you imagine the sun is a gazillion miles away, the light rays that reach us are very parallel…”
It turned out absolutely marvelous! To wrap this up: For our Tech-Nerds out there, what was your camera, lens and filter choice to get the style you were looking for and why?
We shot on an Arri Alexa mini LF, with TLS Canon K35s, and I might have used a very light Tiffen glimmer glass on the wider lenses to take the edge off some of the resolution.
Generally, I’m not too picky on cameras, providing they‘re pretty sensitive, capture a wide gamut of colors, have a high dynamic range, and are quick to use on set. I tend to bounce between Arri Alexa’s and Sony Venice cameras depending on my needs for sensitivity or internal NDs or form factors. I like to subscribe to the great Steve Yedlin’s opinion that all capture mediums can be made to look like any desired output if you do your color science right. I’d have loved to have shot this on 35mm, but I’m always working to find post processes to more neatly emulate that look with the perks of digital capture.
Similarly, with lenses, I try to avoid focusing too much on the nuances of the optics. Sometimes I’d like crisp, flat lenses with underrated flares, and other times it’s nice to have a little more character in the glass. I’m always trying to remind myself that it’s what’s in front of the lenses that really make the difference. I tend to bounce pretty rhythmically between k35s, Panavision vintage offerings, and modern glass-like signature primes, Tokina vista primes, or Master primes depending on the project.
Thank you so much for sharing all those valuable insights with the community! I cannot wait to see what you are up to next!
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Credits and IG profiles
Directed by Tom Speers @tomspeerss
DoP: Nick Morris @nickmorris
Executive Producers: Fergus Brown @fergusb1, Patrick Milling-Smith @patrickmillingsmith, Brian Carmody
Produced by @eeefry @smugglersite
Production Manager: Luca Chapman @_lucachapman
Production Design: Bon Walsh @bon.walsh
Grade by Tom Mangham @thomasmangham @blackkitestudios
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy @wkamsterdam
Managing Director: Blake Harrop
Executive Creative Director: Eric Quennoy, Mark Bernath
Creative Director: Elena Knox @elenation22, Joe Burrin @joeburrin, Alvaro Sotomayor @alvarosotomayor
Art Director: Christian Baur @thechrisbox
Copywriter: Ryan Snyder @classicsnyder, Christina Rankel @christinasonia
Head of Production: Jaime Tan
Broadcast Producer: Annelien Orbie @neilenna
Service Company: Unit+Sofa @unitsofa
Executive Producers: Fady Salame, Martin Sobotka, Veronika Haikova
Line Producer: Andrea Chadimova
Production Manager: Martina Petrikova
Production Coordinator: Karolina Olsanová
Stage Manager: Adam Hrdina
1st AD: Frankie Rezek
2nd AD: Lucie Dolezalova
Art Director: Tomás Homolka
Wardrobe Stvlist: Oscar Charpentier Makeup Artist: Gabina Polakova
Edit House: Trim @trimediting
Editor: Elise Butt
Audio Post: King Lear @kinglearlondon
Sound Designer/Mixer: Jack Sedgwick, Dugal
Music: Birdbrain @birdbrain.studio
Composer: Brice Davoli
Producer: Niall Rogers, Thomas Dwarswaard
Post: Black Kite Studios @blackkite
VFX Supervisor/Flame: Bruno Fukumothi
2D: Venu Prasath
3D: James Brown
Colorist: Tom Mangham, Richard Fearon
Producer: Tom Manton
Executive Producer: Amy Richardson
Strategy, Marketing, Distribution Officer: Serge Raffard
Head of Global Brand Communication: Christian Deuringer
Head of Allianz Studio: Florian Scheiblbrandner Head of Global Brand Marketing: Jenny Huang
Project Manager: Thomas Jos
Senior Consultant: Brittany Jones
Global Digital Marketing Expert: Lukasz Papuda Creative Project Manager: Jacqueline Liebscher