Robbie Ryan has been working as a cinematographer for around three decades, but that doesn’t mean he knows everything. When talking about his work on Poor Things, his second collaboration with director Yorgos Lanthimos after the acclaimed The Favourite, he gets excited when talking about all the things he learned. “For me, it was a huge learning curve because I hadn’t really ever filmed on that scale in a studio before,” Ryan recounts. “The fact of the matter was, we were at a studio where there were no lights at all. You have to bring in the lights.” And bring in lights, they did. “We were building cities in studios, we had Paris, we had Lisbon… the ship and Alexandria, all of these were in the studio… I think we used all the lights that were available in Budapest at the time.”
Though he’s been doing this work for years, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer was candid about his own nerves working on his latest project. “I was a bit of a nervous wreck on some of those shots because obviously you’ve got Emma Stone doing amazing work and you don’t want to go, ‘Sorry, can we do one more?’ The joke on set was like, when I went wrong, it would be like, ‘One more for Robbie.’” Poor Things looks so different from other films, and when listening to Ryan excitedly detail the process, it becomes obvious why. Read on to discover the “happy mistake” that came from shooting on a camera with low battery power, the most difficult set to shoot on, and the connection between Lanthimos’s wild Frankenstein riff and the buzzy TV series Euphoria.
Dan Bayer: I’m very excited to speak to you about this movie because it has such a bold look to it, with really bright contrasting colors and lots of different textures used throughout the film. Was the look of every scene planned out in advance in terms of the lenses, the film stock, and what you’re going to make it look like? Or did you go more by feel?
Robbie Ryan: It’s a little bit of both, really. This film had 12 weeks preparation for a 12-week shoot, so we had time to kind of do a lot of testing, and we kind of went from having 40 or 50 lenses that we were playing around with down to five lenses. So that was our lens package. And then we tested black and white, and we tested Ektachrome stock, and we tested, for want of a better term, normal stock on 35mm.
And so, once we [had] sort of done all those and we got it refined down to what we wanted, we then pretty much – apart from the fact that Yorgos obviously decided that he wanted the first section of the film to be black and white, then after we went into color – we would judiciously decide, “Well, this won’t work in Ektachrome or will we film this in 500?” Every scene we did, we kind of used all of the lenses because we only had five or six lenses that we chose. So it was kind of very simple, that routine, really. So all of those things would be there and it would be like, yeah, there would be a decision made about the first bit in black and white, but then when it went to color, we had ideas that we’d use the Ektachrome in exterior spaces and then the interiors would be 500 ASA, but then we’d mix all that up, really.
DB: That’s fascinating. One of the things that really stood out about reading about this movie was that Yorgos wanted to shoot it on Ektachrome and he wanted to make a 35mm film stock of this, which had to be made especially for this film. So could you explain for our readers who may not know, what Ektachrome is and why it was so important to shoot on that for this film?
RR: Well, I think his taste in imagery is very contrasting. He loves a contrasty sort of stock, and he doesn’t shoot on digital anymore, so it’s always on film. Maybe it’s sometimes 16mm, but generally, it’s probably like 35mm. And he had heard that this TV show, Euphoria – Marcel Rév, who’s the DP of that, had asked Kodak, because Kodak basically brought out the stock, which is Ektachrome, and they only brought it out in 16mm stock. So obviously they have it on a big roll. And Marcel asked them, could they cut it to 35mm because he was doing Euphoria, and they said yes. He shot on that and there were a couple of rolls left of that. So we were able to test on it, and the results we got back were really fantastic. Yorgos was like, “Yeah, I’ve definitely got to try and do this.” But what we did a bit differently to what Marcel did is we processed it in the E6 process, and that’s the way it should be processed as far as the official way it should be processed. Whereas Marcel processed it as a cross-process because there is only one lab in Europe, for sure, which can process it the way it should be done.
And for your readers, basically what Ektachrome is: Do you remember when you used to have slides that you’d put into a projector and they’re loaded into the big tray? All those slides were literally the size of a 35mm film, but they were positive. Instead of a negative, you had a positive. So that’s what the processing of this particular stock would come out like. So literally look at the roll and you could see all these positive images and it’s so beautiful, really. And because of the nature of that, when you scan it’s a bit more colorful, a bit more contrasty. And we loved it. And the fact that we were able to shoot it and process it for the E6 process, I think may be a first. And then if that’s not a first, we also shot it on VistaVision, which is definitely a first. So we shot Ektachrome stock on VistaVision. So all of that reanimation scene was basically shot on VistaVision with Ektachrome stock. So for the inner nerd in me, I was going crazy for that stuff.
RR: And it’s beautiful looking. I don’t know why VistaVision died away as a format. It’s the only time I really think you kind of use 35mm to its full advantage because it’s effectively shooting it like you would an SLR camera. You get twice your size of negative space. So it’s beautiful, and our aspect ratio in the film was 1.66. So the aspect ratio of Vista Vision is also 1.66. So we had exactly the frame we wanted, but it was obviously that bit more lush in a way, I guess. It’s hard to spot in the final film, to be honest, but I know the shots and I’m very proud of that.
DB: I love that you specifically pointed out that you shot the transformation scene with that stock, because it does stand out, maybe not when you’re watching the film, but the look of it is so different from other films. It feels much closer to older films.
RR: Yeah. Well, the reason we shot that scene for that as well was because Yorgos, when he’s filming, he really likes to get sound very much. He doesn’t do ADR, he really doesn’t like to do ADR in post. So the problem with the VistaVision camera, it’s like a tractor. It’s really noisy because it’s not a sync camera. So we started to use it for a sequence where there wasn’t really any sync sound, which was that reanimation scene. Otherwise we might’ve used it a bit more, but it was also a very rickety old camera. They haven’t really upgraded those ones in recent times. So our camera looked like a Frankenstein camera, the VistaVision.
And one of my favorite shots is the shot from above. When Emma finally wakes up out of her electric shock therapy and her eyes kind of do this weird, they open up really oddly quickly. And the reason that was, was because the camera was a bit old and a bit broken as such, [so] it started slowing down. The batteries were running out. And when a film slows down, it effectively speeds up when you watch it back, if you know what I mean, because it’s like going slower through the gate. So that means the final image or sequence becomes quicker. And that’s what happened with that particular shot. So she sort of had this moment where as the camera slowed down, she kind of went faster. And I love that shot because of that happy mistake, really.
DB: I love hearing about happy accidents like that.
RR: Me too. I don’t like the ones where the accidents aren’t happy. They’re dangerous.
DB: [laughs] Yes.
RR: Well, because Ektachrome stock… basically, the rule of thumb is that it’s a very volatile stock if you don’t expose it properly and if it’s underexposed, it’s almost irretrievable. That was the kind of like, “ooh,” sort of thing. And I was like, “Oh, my God,” there is a scene in the wide shot of that reanimation that’s pretty dark because it was underexposed. And I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to get in so much trouble with this.” And Yorgos was very gracious. He says, “We’re okay, I think.” And then the scanner that we had was a good scanner, so it was able to see a little bit more in the dark than we thought. So I survived. But that was not such a happy accident.
DB: I can imagine!
RR: That was just an accident. That was a car crash.
DB: Well, these things happen, and you come out the other side.
DB: I read that Yorgos wanted to film all the scenes that were shot in studio, just like you were shooting on location. No lights, no flags, no equipment other than the camera on set.
RR: For sure, yeah. But the fact of the matter was, we were at a studio where there were no lights at all. You have to bring in the lights.
DB: So I imagine that was a lot of prep work that had to go into that, I imagine. And do a lot of work with the production design team too, probably, in order to light everything to get it ready. What was that process like?
RR: For me, it was a huge learning curve because I hadn’t really ever filmed on that scale in a studio before. And the scale was that we were building cities in studios, we had Paris, we had Lisbon, and we had, what was it? The ship and Alexandria, all of these were in the studio. So the fact of the matter is you’ve just got to plan it all out and get the logistics. And then I felt like – it’s funny, when you’re a DP, you don’t really get involved with production so much as far as “Here’s my camera list.” They go, “Okay, thanks for that. We’ll go away. We’ll try and make it work for the money.”
But when you’re a production designer, you have to figure out every line of your budget and they go, “Here’s your budget, you got to work to that.” So when it came to the lighting of this, I was a bit, I all of a sudden realized how much budget there was. They’re like, “You really need that many lights?” I go, “I think so.” And they’re like, “Really?” Because then you could see they were really sort of stretching how far they could get. The fact that some sets, I think we used all the lights that were available in Budapest at the time. So they had to get more in. That scale of logistics.
DB: ALL the lights in Budapest? Wow.
RR: And somewhere like the set for Lisbon, we had to bring in the lights because the floor in Lisbon was very hilly and all that. It was difficult to rig lights up, so they had to put the lights in eight weeks before we shot. So this was sitting there just waiting to be shot, but costing a lot of money. And that, to me, was a really interesting learning curve. And I think we would’ve had to do it that way no matter what, whether I had loads of experience or not. But the fact that I didn’t have any experience, I kind of took a lot of that on. I’m like, “I’m so sorry we have to have all these lights.” But I don’t think they were used wastefully. They were used judiciously.
DB: Well, I like that. You’re expanding your repertoire of things that you can do now. That’s pretty cool.
RR: Yeah. We all basically, people like myself, Holly to an extent, James, and certainly Shona, the production designers, we’d never been on this level of film before. So we were able to make mistakes and sort of support each other as best we could within this new world that we were working in. And it was really nice. It felt like being on a college campus, actually, because we were pretty much the only people in the studio. And every lunchtime we’d catch up with each other and go, “How’s your world?” It was a really nice collective thing. And because we were all away from home, we all hung out a lot. And I think that’s very important to the making of the film.
DB: Absolutely. And I imagine with all the special film you guys were using, all the different lenses that you’re using, you had to work very closely with the production design team to make sure everything looked the way that everybody wanted it to look on camera.
RR: Absolutely. Well, the production design team got a shock when Yorgos said, “I want to shoot the first 30 minutes on black and white.” They’re like, “But we’ve built this set for color.”
DB: Oh, no.
RR: Until she comes back and it’s color when she comes back. So Yorgos sort of was able to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll still see it in color. I want the first bit of the film to be in black and white.” But their color palette and general design was always very much… we were always talking about it. And Yorgos would always be obviously getting references. And because it was such a big thing, we’d go in on a daily basis and there’d be a little bit more done. So you could see the evolution of all these worlds and they were able to go, “I don’t think that’s working. Let’s do something different.” And that was very much the beauty of a slower process.
But what happened, really, was once we started filming, obviously there [were] other sets getting built, so we didn’t have so much time to… The London set, I always remember being like, we were able to really settle into that set because we watched it grow from nothing. And then by the time we got to shoot it was ready to go. But then, because we were so concentrated on filming, we didn’t get to see the other sets being built. So we’d go, “Oh, shit, this one’s… oh! The ship’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?” It was great. It was like Christmas day every time you’d just go in, there’d be a whole new world to walk into. I remember going into Paris and going, “Wow, this is amazing.” The particular designers were fantastic on this film and I can’t rate them enough, to be honest.
DB: Yeah, they’re incredible. I spoke with them as well, and they mentioned that on the scenes where they’re on the deck of the ship, the backgrounds were actually giant LED screens.
RR: Absolutely. Yeah.
DB: What was it like shooting with those as a backdrop as opposed to a green screen or a matte painting?
RR:For sure. Well, the reason we went that road was because by the nature of a green screen, you kind of just go, “Well, I’ll imagine what it’s like, but I’ll never see it.” So I think what Yorgos really wanted to do was to be able to, for the actors and us, to see the world that was on the screen. So it was great. We were able to get the VFX house to create all these great skies for us, and the sea [was] rolling by and we were able to visualize it right there. And it did look amazing. It was a 70-meter-long projection wall and it was 20 meters high. So it was very big, and it worked a treat, but at the same time, for me… we filmed a lot of that on the Ektachrome stock, so that’s a really slow stock.
And what you need to do is have an awful lot of light to do that, and LEDs sound great and all that, but if you’ve got a lot of other lights, then all of that contaminates the screen, even though you might try and shade it off. The logistics of trying to keep the light off the screen was my biggest nightmare because it was something I was realizing as I was filming, going, “Oh my God, oh, this spill is making it look really sort of less.” And it made me have to change my ways a bit. It was a challenge, but I think it was the right way to go.
And we did use painted backdrops for other sets and we shot a lot of miniatures. So all of the things, like the boat was a miniature, Alfie’s house was a miniature, Alexandria was a miniature, and I think the London Bridge was a miniature. So Yorgos was really keen on trying to use all these old film techniques, but then enhanced them with modern technology in whatever way that could kind of make it even more special. And I really rate him for kind of being brave and wanting to do that instead of being a director who goes, “I don’t know how you do that. I don’t care.” He was very invested in, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” He’s a very hands-on director.
DB: That’s fantastic. And this is your second time working with him after The Favourite. These are movies that have similarities, but they look very different from each other. Was the process working with him this time, having worked with him before on a very different movie? Was it the same as working on The Favourite? Was it different now that that working relationship evolved?
RR: Well, I definitely knew a bit more of what way Yorgos works on a set this time. But apart from that, pretty much, we did shoot it similarly to The Favourite. It was the kind of same process. He only shoots with one camera most of the time. There were a couple of scenes where there’s two cameras, but generally he likes to shoot on an old sort of way of doing things, which is a dolly and a track and a camera with an operator – i.e., me. So a lot of films you see these days have loads of cameras and they’re all on techno cranes and stuff like that, whereas this film is very pared down. And I really think it shows its sort of craft because of that, because it’s simple stuff done well. And the thing we did a lot more than we did in The Favourite on this one was we used a lot of zooms, so the camera’s constantly zooming.
That was a bit of a challenge for me as well as an operator, because oh, it must be really difficult shooting on these wide-angle lenses, I’m like, no, that’s easy. Shooting on a zoom is hard because you’ve got to get – you usually start on a closeup or end on a closeup and you’re coming out to a wide shot. You’ve got to get the timing of that zoom and then make sure the tilt is right and the pan is right. And I was a bit of a nervous wreck on some of those shots because obviously you’ve got Emma Stone doing amazing work and you don’t want to go, “Sorry, can we do one more?” And there used to be, the joke on set was like, when I went wrong, it would be like, “One more for Robbie.” He’s like, “One more for Robbie.” You’re like, “Sorry.” But that’s the set he has. He loves a fun set. He doesn’t like a set that’s got any kind of anxiety. It’s all about trying to enthuse and have fun on set.
DB: Oh, I love hearing that about the feeling on set. With all these different locations, all these different sets that you’re shooting on, what was the most difficult scene to shoot?
RR: I kind of refer to the Lisbon location as just being that most difficult set. Everything felt difficult in Lisbon, well, especially the exteriors, just because it was, as I said… the whole lighting of that was a big deal, and it’s meant to be sunny there all the time. And I realized trying to match the sun in a studio was quite a difficult thing to do, especially when you’re in a slow film stock. So I felt we were kind of up against it a bit with that location. And I always just have a little shiver when I think of Lisbon.
DB: And if you had to pick one, what was your favorite single shot in the film? The one that makes you go, “That was a big accomplishment?”
RR: I think it’s that one, which is the happy mistake. I like to reference that one where she wakes up, and I like some of the zooms. I really like the shot when she comes into the doorway and she sees [that] Baxter’s on his last moments in life and the camera tracks and zooms right into her eye. And that sort of repeats a shot at the start of the film where you reveal Baxter for the first time, and it goes into his face and he smiles. So I really love when Yorgos does those sorts of repeat shots. And I didn’t even know it until we watched the final edit and went, “Oh, that’s the same shot.” So his ideas are always super fresh, and sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing them at the time. So I would say those shots were interesting as well. And yeah, there’s so much good stuff in the film, really. It’s a joy to watch.
DB: It really is. I cannot wait to see it again; I can’t wait to take friends. It’s so unique!
Robbie: I think you should definitely make sure what’s happening with all those craft people doing the interviews. Nobody’s interviewing Blackfish, who’s the editor, so please mention the editor because he is a legend in the business, and I don’t think he ever gets enough credit for what he does.
DB: Well, given what you’ve talked about with the collaboration on set, I think that’s a really appropriate way to end it. Thank you so much for joining me, Robbie.
RR: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks! Nice talking to you.
Poor Things is in theaters December 8 from Searchlight Pictures.
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.