The Uncommon Gear the Cinematographer Used to Capture an Unconventional Period Piece

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC, had never worked together before shooting The Favourite, now headed toward the Oscars with 10 nominations and a bucket of BAFTAs to its credit. But they quickly found common ground. Both like to shoot on film, which they believe best captures natural light, and both believe beauty and brutality can inhabit a single frame.

To fluidly catch the madcap movement at the heart of this atypical costume drama, Ryan used a combination of dollies and a body rig and a selection of Panavision lenses from the 1980s. He has shot all of Andrea Arnold’s films (including Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights and American Honey) and has worked with Stephen Frears (Philomena) and Sally Potter (Ginger and Rosa).

We asked him how he came to work with Lanthimos for the first time, the film’s unusual preparation, and what he liked most about his particular kit.

StudioDaily: Why do you think you got the job?

Robbie Ryan: Yorgos had worked with his other DP for quite a few films and I think he wanted to try a new way of approaching what he does. I met him for a couple of coffees a couple of years before we made The Favourite and I think we found we have very similar tastes: we both like 35mm, we [both] use natural light and he saw something in the way I composed images that he liked. I was very pleased he gave me a shout and asked me to do it.

What did he do to integrate you into his famously tight creative circle?

He’s just a very warm guy and once he’s decided that you’re part of his team he makes it so easy. Early on I was trying to find the right balance between not being too naive about his methods and telling him straight out how I’d approach a specific scene. But I realized pretty quickly that he was a guy who had a very confident way about how he wanted to visualize the film, and it was really a matter of me getting on board and understanding that particular approach. I got there in the end. But I will say that he’s also very enigmatic, and you don’t always know how his mind his working. He’ll say what he doesn’t like, so that was very helpful, but he showed me what he liked with still images. On set, he has a still camera with him all the time so he’s always taking photos, and he would show me what he shot. As we filmed, I came to understand his very particular style. It was a great experience. I absolutely loved working on it.

Were you part of the rehearsals he likes to do with the actors before principal photography begins?

Yeah, he asked me to come along to those and that was really funny. I’d never seen it done like that before. His choreographer, Constanza [Macras, the Argentine founder of a German theater dance troupe], had the actors doing all this dancing and physical games while they rehearsed. For example, they had to start reading their lines while balancing on one leg until somebody tried to push them over. They all had such fun doing that and it also told all of us right away that the main priority of the film was to bring that sense of fun into the filmmaking.

Robbie Ryan filmed the uniquely arch dance scene, here featuring Rachel Weisz and Joe Alwyn, on a dolly.
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film


How did you rig some of the more extreme expressions of those dancing games that made it into the film: the wild dance-off, the aggressive romp in the woods, and a poisoned Rachel Weisz on horseback?

On the dance floor, we were moving around on the dolly, which made it all very fluid. When Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn are running around in the forest, we had a stabilized gimbal rig that I wore with a modified Steadicam suit. It’s called a Double Helix rig and was developed by this guy called Riz [Rizwan Wadan of Mr. Helix]. It’s a stabilized head rig that was the only one that could take the weight of a 35mm camera. It was a little bit finicky, but some of the shots we got with it are really good. We used it for all the stuff at the start in the carriage, too. You don’t even notice it because it creates a very steady move, whereas the carriage interior is jumping all over the place! There was an awful lot of work put into those scenes that people probably won’t notice. And I didn’t break my back doing it.

You shot on film and used some older lenses, including that marvelous fisheye. What do you like about using them?

Being a film guy, I like using Panavision lenses. They’re my favorite and just a beautiful marriage with 35mm. So yeah, the PVintage spherical primes we used on this film weren’t super-vintage but were mostly from the 1980s. I don’t know when the [6mm] fisheye was built, actually. It was residing on a shelf because it was always just a little bit too wide for modern camera packages. Yorgos was very keen to try wider lenses and we found that one on the shelf and showed it to him and he fell in love with it. It became quite a favorite lens on the shoot.

How did he decide when and where to use it?

We were using a wide, close-focus Primo 10mm lens a lot because he had used a 10mm to make The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We didn’t bring out the fisheye straight away, if I remember it, but as we progressed, Yorgos said, “Let’s try the fisheye out on this scene.” Once he started incorporating it, every scene had a bit of the fisheye. He started really loving what it did to the idea of what he wanted. It’s not as distorted as a true fisheye and it does so much at once: it kind of creates a bubble. It’s an absurd lens — it’s claustrophobic. You’ve got everything that suits the story, and I’m really glad people picked up on that when they saw it.

Lanthimos fell hard for the 6mm fisheye lens Ryan found on a shelf at Panavision.
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Both you and Lanthimos love using as much natural light as possible. Did the heritage locations limit you at all?

The best thing about the houses [Hatfield House, Hampton Court Palace and Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries], light-wise, was we had a really good spring. We shot from March through May, which in England can be notoriously gray and wet and changeable. But the sun was shining every day so we had this really good ambient light, and we really didn’t need to use anything else during the daytime. We always planned to do all the night-time stuff with candlelight and fire. They were very simple approaches, tailored to the film’s time period and the locations, that luckily paid off. We were running a little bit against very real potential dangers, but the weather didn’t kill us with rain or persistent darkness. But he’s very resourceful, Yorgos, and he always comes up with an alternate plan on the spot if something wasn’t working out. Only once did we get into a situation where it was so dark for a daytime scene that we had to get out the emergency soft light. He wasn’t totally happy with that, so typically if we got into that situation, Yorgos would rather push the film stock [Kodak VISION3 200T 5213 for the day scenes and VISION3 500T 5219 for the night scenes] one or two stops. I don’t think we ever did three stops. He was more keen to do that than ever to bring in a light because he felt the artifice was Kryptonite. It would destroy the whole thing! And it’s true. I struggle bringing in lights now on my current projects. Everytime I use them it looks like I put them in. I was filming in New York recently and found the light to be so beautiful that I didn’t need to bring any in. It’s about finding the light that’s there, essentially, and the lighting in the heritage houses that we were in for this film was very beautiful and the tapestries on the wall soaked up all the light. That, along with the costumes and the porcelain skin of the actresses, was a great combination.

Were you surprised by how well it was received and by all the nominations?

I’m over the moon and obviously delighted. It was such a ball to work with Yorgos and finishing it without really knowing what the hell we made, then seeing it for the first time after the edit and saying, “Oh my god, that’s really great.” That’s rare to have such a lucky break. The great thing with the nominations is that, because it’s getting so many across every department from cast to crew, it shows how tuned-in Yorgos is to all of those different parts of the filmmaking process. I think he really does come across as somebody who has his hand on everything. It’s rare that you get to work with a director that’s that good at working with all the different departments, whether it be the music or the performances or the editing or the photography — he’s just all over it. I’m delighted the film is being recognized for that. It would be lovely if he got an award, but he’s getting tipped to the post by Alfonso Cuarón and lots of others! When you think about it, these kinds of comparisons are a really strange thing to do; it doesn’t really make sense but I get it. And what I do love is that all of the recognition the film gets means that everybody respects Yorgos as a very unique filmmaker, and they understand that not many make films like him.

You seem to be pretty fluid when it comes to genres: after The Favourite, you shot a documentary, a short and an upcoming project with Noah Baumbach.

Friends call me up and ask me to do things and I find it really hard to say no! My main thing about working is I like to work with friends, and all those people have been really interesting filmmakers on top of it. I’ve been so lucky up until this point to be able to do that.