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Capturing The Colorful World Of Dom Hemingway: An Interview With Giles Nuttgens

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

“Dom Hemingway” presented a unique challenge to director of photography Giles Nuttgens. The DP was aiming to pull bright, saturated colors out of UK locales during its October/November shooting schedule – months notorious for bad weather and drab conditions. To further complicate matters, Nuttgens discovered he had to make a shift from film to digital ten days prior to shooting.

“I was familiar with what to expect in the color space of film, but uncertain of what to expect with digital,” said Nuttgens. “We were suddenly dealing with a color palette that was sometimes stronger, sometimes less. For instance a color such as turquoise reproduces less correctly because of the play between green and blue.”

Color was Nuttgens initial connection to the script. Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is a crass, vulgar and extremely eloquent criminal reclaiming his freedom after over a decade of incarceration. Nuttgens found the visual style would serve the story best by highlighting this individual in crisis mode. While the story takes place in gritty, gangland regions of London, director Richard Shepard wanted the film’s locations to have as much of an exaggerated personality as its title character. Shepard proposed they increased contrast and make colors richer, a concept that gave Nuttgens free reign on limitless expression. Working with production designer Laurence Dorman, a color palette evoking the strong tones of the seventies – burnt orange, lime green, bright pinks and turquoise – was introduced into every frame either through set dressing, painted backgrounds or lighting. Nuttgens utilized twin key lights, one coloured and one white, set around 90 degress apart. This meant the intensity of the colours changed with the actor’s movement and the relative angle of the camer to them. This ensured a balance and natural presence, despite bold, unusual color choices.

“In the pub Dom first goes back to, they had some lights with a yellow-orange glow. I took that element and washed the color through the scene,” said Nuttgens. “The prison was drab, but we took the green color of the wall and pushed it just beyond the point of believability. Dom is trying to find his life, to get his color back. We were very careful of color in both lighting and on the set – when you enhance the tones one step further, the film feels colorful and engaging.”

Working with an Arri Alexa, Nuttgens used Zeiss Master Prime lenses. He often relies on these lenses for their clean finish and felt they wouldn’t add any additional warmth to the image. Despite best efforts, Nuttgens didn’t have a great deal of time to test the camera prior to shoot and the very specific seventies inspired color palette fluctuated. The orange, for example, appeared much redder than desired. Nuttgens found a great deal of time had to be spend in post reworking skin tones and manipulating the color tone specificity.

“Remember, as a DP I spent twenty years in film, and stock reacts so differently. With digital, you are dealing with a different coulour space, variations on the on-set monitor, then further translations through the algorithms decoding the colour space in the DI. In post we got it back to where we wanted it, it just was more post heavy than we wanted it,” said Nuttgens. “Right now it really is a filmmaker’s choice. Cameras and their quality are improving so rapidly. We are all going digital.”

While the project provided plenty of unexpected challenges, Nuttgens was extremely satisfied with the outcome and thrilled to have had the experience of working on “Dom Hemingway.” His initial involvement arose from the opportunity to work with producer Jeremy Thomas and to become part of the Recorded Picture Company legacy – a highly regarded production house in the UK. Nuttgens was equally excited to work with actors Richard E. Grant, who displayed extreme professionalism and was always on set, and Jude Law, who brought incredible energy to the set and presented a performance Nuttgens feels exceeds his previous work. Nuttgens was also thrilled with his first collaboration with Shepard. He felt Shepard challenged him and pushed him “farther than I expected, and that I expected for myself.”

In every project he takes on, Nuttgens looks for great producers, and directors and content creators to collaborate with, and is as happy to work on a blockbuster as an experimental independent. He’s worked with directors ranging from George Lucas on elements of the “Star Wars” franchise to Deepa Mehta on the trilogy “Water”, “Earth” and “Fire” and “Midnight’s Children.” He recently spent a day with Wes Anderson doing London pick-ups for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and is currently shooting a black and white comedy in anamorphic on location in New Orleans.

“I always try to do something different with each project,” said Nuttgens. “I don’t like to be locked in, or become repetitious. All directors see differently, and I hope to come across people that have something interesting to say. Of course, I’d love to work with Steven Spielberg, who wouldn’t?”