Sun. Aug 9th, 2020

Interview: Cinematographer Eben Bolter BSC, on creating the cinematic look of HBO’s ‘Avenue 5’

For Cinematographer Eben Bolter BSC, his passion for visual storytelling started with Jurassic Park. After nearly a decade of shooting shorts and documentaries, the UK/US dual national cinematographer broke into features and television series’ like Netflix’s iBoy, BBC’s The Woman in White and Amazon Prime Video’s White Dragon.

He took those cinematic roots with him as he ventured into space with HBO’s Avenue 5 from Armando Iannucci (Oscar nominee for In the Loop, Emmy winner for HBO’s Veep) to create an expansive universe on a space cruise ship that veers wildly off course. With the challenge of shooting a full on comedy for the first time, Bolter approached it as he would any of his thrillers or dramas, giving the show a larger than life feel and taking the comedy seriously.

I spoke with him about the challenges of making that jump and how he did it on Avenue 5.

You made HBO’s Avenue 5 sci-fi comedy series look cinematic. How was the process of shooting this multi-camera series for you? Were there any particular challenges you and your team faced?

Thank you, as making it look cinematic was very much our main visual goal. The tricky thing was how to pull off cinematic visuals in a sci-fi environment, whilst facilitating a ‘performance first’ philosophy that gave the actors maximum coverage and flexibility, often with four cameras running at once. It was this practical and technical challenge that both excited and terrified me, so something as simple as it being described as ‘cinematic’, really means a lot. 

Armando Iannucci directed the series. Can you describe the collaborative process between you both? How did you both initially wish to approach the visuals?

Armando is of course known for comedy, but visually from the very beginning his references were serious, big budget science fiction. The question was how could we aspire to this level of quality whilst also working in a multi-camera comedy environment. We also decided very early on that we didn’t want to do the cold, desaturated look that so many space set films use, so we decided to do the opposite and embrace warmth and a rich and varied colour palette.

Do you approach shooting comedies and dramas (or sci-fi/fantasy) differently? Where does tone, especially with someone like Iannucci, come into play when making cinematography choices?

I come from a largely single-camera, drama and thriller background so this was a big change and challenge for me. As mentioned, we wanted cinematic visuals and also a rich and warm colour palette, so I knew I would have to integrate most of my lighting into the design of the sets themselves to give maximum flexibility to the cast and not see lighting stands in shot. I thankfully had a very long prep of six months to work with the design team and ensure the design of the ship incorporated what I would need from a lighting perspective, and as such we ended up with over 5KM of LED lighting strip built into the sets.

What tools did you use to shoot Avenue 5? How many cameras? What influenced your camera choice? What influenced your lens choice? Lighting?

I wanted the camera philosophy to match that of the lighting, in that it should be as un-obstructive and reliable as possible, so the actors were ideally almost unaware of our presence. As such we went with the ARRI Alexa Minis for their small size and absolute reliability. Lenses wise, I decided to use the Leica Summicron-C prime lenses, again for their small size and reliability, but also the cinematic way they render colour and out of focus areas of the image. For the scenes set on earth we wanted a contrasting style so we used Angenieux compact zoom lenses and a handheld operating style. Lighting wise, we also had three distinct zones; up in space we have the front of the ship where the passengers inhabit, here it was about creating an ultra-luxury warm feel. Then there was the back of the ship where the crew carried out their work, so we went with a much more industrial sodium vapour and fluorescent lighting scheme, often referencing Ridley Scott’s Alien. Then, as mentioned, there was earth where our lenses and operating style grounded the visuals, and lighting wise I emphasised the weather with lots of hot sunlight through windows and atmosphere in the rooms. 

What or who were your main inspirations to go into filmmaking and ultimately cinematography? What’s next for you?

The lightning-bolt moment for me was watching Jurassic Park in the cinema, so I’ve always held Spielberg’s ability to convey story through visuals close to my heart. More recently I’ve been heavily influenced by South Korean genre cinema and the films of Denis Villeneuve. I love how Denis has continued to make visually bold work with various cinematographers. And next for me, I have a couple of weeks left to shoot on a Netflix film I was shooting for director Adam Randall, and we’re slowly starting prep on Avenue 5 season 2. There’s also a western that I’d love to do, as that’s one of my favourite genres and one of the only I have yet to do.

The entire first season of Avenue 5 is available to stream on all HBO platforms.

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