Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC, discusses his work on "I, Daniel Blake", directed by Ken Loach

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Robbie Ryan made a dazzling appearance in 2009 with the magnificent Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold, and following a successful career shooting UK short films.
In 2011, he was won the Bronze Frog at Camerimage for Wuthering Heights, also directed by Andrea Arnold ; they again have a film at Cannes this year. He has also shot three films for Ken Loach recently, and just finished the shoot of Yeh Din Ka Kissa (dir. Noah Baumbach) in New York – so definitely a DoP to watch…
Ken Loach et Robbie Ryan, derrière lui à côté de la caméra, sur le tournage de "Moi, Daniel Blake", à Newcastle
Photo Joss Barratt / Sixteen Films

Robbie Ryan : The director I’m working with right now, I don’t want to call him a modern-day Woody Allen, but he sort of writes that kind of family dynamic sort of film and it’s been a different type of film for me, to what I normally do. But the main thing, it’s been like 9-week shoot ? I’ve never done a 9-week shoot before so it takes its time. And I’m near the end. It’s been a good challenge, I’ve learned new things, it’s great, I’m filming in New York so, great town.

You have two movies in Cannes ? Ken Loach & Andrea Arnold ?

RR : Correct. I’ve got two films in Cannes this year, two very different films, so I’m very excited. I finish this job on Wednesday and I go to Cannes on Thursday.
Ken’s film’s on Friday and Andrea’s film is on Sunday, so that’s going to be quite a weekend for me !

So, the Ken Loach movie ? Beautiful work.. That’s the third movie you’ve done with KL ?

RR : Yes, that’s right. I’ve done Jimmie’s Hall, The Angel’s Share and this one, I Daniel Blake. Moi, Daniel Blake in French. (Laughs) I like “Moi”…

KL seems to know exactly what he wants from the shot. So I would like to understand how you work with him and what are your tools ?

RR : Working with Ken is exactly what you say, he’s a director who knows really, really what he wants. I think being a DP you have to be attuned to whatever a director wants, whether they really want you to create a visual look and do whatever you bring to it, or on the Ken level, you kind of adapt to whatever Ken wants to do, and try and see what he’s thinking. He’s been doing it for so long now that he kind of has a set kind of approach, to making a film, so as a DoP you sort of slot into that style.

And it’s more about learning how Ken has perfected that style over those years, because he really has, he kind of tries to fine-tune it on every film, and the three films I’ve done with him, I’ve done with him, I’ve noticed that, I don’t want to say he’s got more austere, he just tries to not be fussy, he’s a very economical director.
He really doesn’t want any fuss but wants the story to be told as simply as he can.
I think he does achieve that by the way he approaches it.

So the first film I did with him I was on a very fast learning curve as to how to do that and I would be doing what a lot of DPs maybe do, which is kind of offer, well why don’t we try this ? Or, what do you think if we do this ?
But I quickly learned Ken would go No no no don’t do that, I wouldn’t do that.
So I was like, Ok, I should really just sit and observe what Ken enjoys to do, and by the end of the film, I kind of had an idea and then Jimmie’s Hall, Ken I think trusted me to do a bit more knowing that I knew what he would want and not want. More not want, actually.

There’s one or two things in this film that are a bit different. But I think Ken really has a set approach to his visual language, and again it’s quite different to what I would do, but I really enjoy it. Working with Ken is more a learning curve how every film is different but also how economically you can do a film, from every level.
That’s because, there’s an honesty in that, and I love honesty in cinema, and Ken’s big on getting an honest film made, I think it’s almost like a finely… I don’t know what analogy to use. But he’s perfected it over the years, and he’s made quite a few now that have followed that style.
Actually, I remember him telling me, I like his film, Poor Cow, he doesn’t like that film at all, because he said he just didn’t know what he was doing, no-one would call Ken a control freak, because he’s not, he’s just, he knows how he wants the film to be told. And it’s a very distinct style, actually.

Does he do a lot of takes ?

RR : Ken, it’s never too much, he’ll do a few, I’m a bit blinded by the film I’m on at the minute, where I’m doing an awful lot of takes, like 50 takes, and I’ve never done that before, so I can’t actually remember Ken’s at this stage.
I think he does a few, but he doesn’t go crazy. He knows what he’s got what he wants and he moves on.

Working with the actors ?

RR : He’s got a very good casting lady, Kahleen Crawford, they collaborate a lot, and they do an awful lot of intensive casting, usually casting of street actors, he’s always finding new faces and he loves the discovery of new talent, so they’re not really actors as such, that Ken gets drawn to, but like the main guy in Daniel Blake’s never acted much, he’s a comedian. So it’s a challenge really and Ken relishes trying to find that honesty in a person like he can get a person that he thinks closest to the person that the film’s about, so that’s kind of half the battle, really. And once you’ve cast that, if you can cast that well, then Ken sort of lets them be who they are.
And they don’t get the script until the day before, or maybe the day of, so you know the script is very much hidden from them, there’s no rehearsal, they just talk about the character, and he tells them, this is who you are, this is what’s going to happen, but they don’t know day-to-day what is going to happen next.

Tools for this movie ?

RR : It’s a Ken Loach film, so we shot on 35mm on the Arriflex Studio which is kind of the workhorse for Ken , he has his own personal one, he’s signed it himself. We used Master Primes, all the gear comes from a Belgian company called Eye Lite I think, there’s a Belgian connection with Ken’s films, and it’s mainly very simple, he only uses a few lenses, and a 35mm camera and we shoot a lot of stock. (Laughs)
No dolly, No track, Just a tripod. Although this film was different. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but this was like a groundbreaking new challenge for Ken, he actually did a Steadicam shot for the first time ever.
We have these Monday meetings, where we all sit down and we chat about the week ahead, and they’re very important. One of the meetings Ken was telling me, D’you know what I’d like the camera to do in this one ? I was like, Ok what would you like to do ? And he was going, Well we could try… I knew he wouldn’t really want to do a dolly and track. Because you know he tries to keep anything that’s too filmic out of the equation. If Ken could have it he’d have no camera to make the film, because he just, any kind of, any evidence of the camera or film equipment makes the honesty of the situation diminished. So I guarantee if Ken could make a film without a camera he would.

But anyway, on this occasion he said, I want to try some movements. I said, do you want to do a tracking vehicle or maybe a dolly and track ? He said, No no no, what is it, those people, I see those people who walk around with a camera, it’s like a kind of vest. I’m like, You don’t want to do a Steadicam shot Ken ? He goes, Yeah, that’s it, Steadicam.
So the producers included, like Rebecca, the main producer, we were all a bit stunned. (Laughs) And we did a Steadicam shot.
So that was the first time, you know, Ken’s open to new ideas that I didn’t think he would ever do. So, that was nice to see. But mainly it’s very austere. It’s usually a tripod, 35mm camera, and Master Primes.

And the lighting ? There’s always a very equal colour temperature.

RR : It’s one of the things I’ve learned with Ken, the lighting. Because he’s very tuned in to how to get the lighting he wants, so if you study his films, you’ll find a lot of times people are always sat beside windows. Because he loves, he loves the natural daylight and he doesn’t want to have lights, as much as he can. And then when we were doing location scouts Ken would say no to a location because in the daytime, the backlight, the sun wouldn’t be backlit. He wouldn’t go to a location that may have front light, sunlight, because he knows he’d hate that. So he’s very tuned in to where the lighting is coming from. He loves backlight. Not to a level of silliness, just he knows that’s very complementary on skin and faces and harsh sunlight isn’t necessarily. Not that there’s much sunlight in this film, but I rate Ken because he would say no to a location even if it was going to be cloudy. On the fact that the sun isn’t in the right place. Even if the location looked amazing he would say no to it. So I feel confident as a cinematographer that he appreciates the light.

He doesn’t like much artificial lighting. So he never lets much lighting on set.
Like what I learned on, and that’s what I meant when I said, the first film I did with Ken I had a high learning curve because I did put a light on set on day and he’d get very nervous that there was a lighting stand and a light, near an actor, so what I learned fairly quickly was you shouldn’t have a light stand.Whereas if you have a light in the ceiling it’s ok. So we did a lot of lighting in the ceiling and there was never a stand on the set, if there was a window we would maybe be able to put a light outside.
So it’s very much helping along what is already in the location. That’s Ken’s attitude. And he does thoroughly scout locations to suit what he wants.

Preparation ?

RR : We do a technical scout. Ken does a lot of location scouting. He goes and finds them with his location manager. And then when I get involved in the prep, we have a very short prep for me, I kind of do a 2-day technical recce and maybe a couple of other days, other prep. But it’s fantastic, because doing a Ken film is so quick. I do maximum of maybe a week, two weeks prep, and then the filming is only like 4 weeks, 5 weeks. So it’s very economic and he really, he does it differently to a lot of other people who would love more time, he doesn’t need much time. Again, over time he’s perfected how to do that. And I really appreciate that.
For example the Daniel Blake film was difficult because we had a job centre and we did a technical scout of that and we knew that we were shooting in winter time, so the daylight would go for outside, so we had to light a lot of that, and we had to use the practical lighting. Which is difficult because it’s so… Job centres are not a very sort of beautiful place to photograph. Obviously my attitude to anything is that there’s beauty in everything so I don’t ever think This is an awful location, and it doesn’t light well. I always find that everything has its beauty. So the job centre was… (Laughs) It was a tough beauty but we found a way I guess.

A lot of institutional places, especially in Britain, North Britain, are all hugely bright fluorescently lit places, and that was kind of, we just went with whatever was the norm there. We replaced some tubes to give the colour difference the right way, because a lot of them would be green. Unfortunately that particular building had light fixtures, fluorescent fixtures, that weren’t made any more, so we had to search we had to get the lights from Poland, I think…
To get these tubes because they were the only place that had them any more. Very unusual fluorescents. And the ones they got sent out were the wrong colour. So on the day of our shoot, we only got them from Poland the day before, and they fitted them on the day of the shoot, and they were the wrong colour. So I had a terrible day, trying to figure out how to gel up those ones to match with those ones… You know yourself it’s just…

I really actually like fluorescent a lot, I love green light, it’s one of my favourites, but when you’re trying to make it all neutralised, it becomes odd to your eye because everything goes pink, and it’s just, I hate it.
I’d have preferred it all, let it just go the colour it is. But that’s not what your eye attunes to. So film sees it much more colourfully green and people don’t like that. So that was a big challenge, because those bulbs came along and they were actually the wrong bulbs, so we had to quickly change it. I felt a bit of pressure because, that to me is something we should have prepared for, even though the bulbs only arrived that day, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, but we should have got them in earlier. So that sort of thing is more the delicate balance when you’re working with Ken is that you don’t want him to be waiting at all. You don’t want that kind of thing to happen, from the preparation point of view. Because it has a knock-on effect. And that makes you look bad. (Laughs)

Scan ?

RR : Up until Jimmie’s Hall, he edited on Steenbeck. So this is the first film he edited digitally. On an Avid. So that was a new journey for him. But he’s always tried to do film prints. Like The Angel’s Share we had a film print, Jimmie’s Hall, because he had shot it and edited it on film, we had a beautiful rush print, an edited rush print, that they graded from for Jimmie’s Hall. So that was a really lovely thing. But this time because he edited on Avid, we tried to do some you know rushes dailies on film, and we watched them on the Arri LocPro, it’s a mobile projector which is fantastic, it’s a 35mm sort of projector you can bring into your workplace and look at your dailies. And I really enjoyed that. But Ken didn’t like the rushes on that…
I didn’t get involved in the final grade, because I was working on this film already in New York, so I talked to Ken on the phone and he worked with a company called Molinare, they did all the work.
I think they scanned it as well.

Not with him for the grading ?

RR : The grader who did Jimmie’s Hall, a guy called Gareth [Gareth Spensley], he was there, I was on Jimmie’s Hall, me and Ken both knew what he was like and we got to like him on that. So we were in safe hands because he’d done Jimmie’s Hall so I knew that he would be tuned in to what Ken did. Ken was there for the scan and the final grade, I wasn’t. Unfortunately. I wish I did.
Also for American Honey I wasn’t involved with the grade, which was very frustrating, because, you know, all you can do is you try and get in touch with the guys and ask them to send you some images…The thing with Ken’s films though is they’re pretty honest, so hopefully you don’t have to do too much to the final image, it’s just a matter of balancing it. And I think that’s what we did with that so it wasn’t a very in-depth kind of a grade needed.

Talk with Caroline Champetier, AFC
Thanks to Why Not Productions and Lucy Allwood