A book-loving angel, a hip rocker demon, a young witch, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are all trying to find the 11-year-old Antichrist and his hellhound before the world as we know it ends. Throw in a book of 400-year-old prophecies, deep dives through history, some witchfinders and chatty Satanic nuns, a Kraken, an enterprising landlady and the petty bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell, Inc., and you get the deliciously rich and satiric universe that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett first created on paper — famously collaborating with one another over a fax machine — in their 1990 book Good Omens. With an adapted screenplay by Gaiman, who is also the showrunner (Pratchett died in 2015), the new Amazon limited series based on the book stars Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Jon Hamm and was shot on location and on set in London, Buckinghamshire and South Africa.
Director Douglas Mackinnon and his cinematographer Gavin Finney were, like Gaiman and Pratchett, another match made in heaven. The pair went to film school together and later worked together on two films. Finney also had several other bonafides for this project in his pocket, having already shot three adaptations of Pratchett’s novels for television. For Good Omens he used the Arri Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini, Leica Summilux primes and Arri Alura zooms (15.5–45mm and 45–250mm) and output UHD 4K files.
We talked to Finney about the lighting, lenses, filters and techniques he used to delineate the show’s many moving parts and how he resurrected and modified his beloved Arriflex D-21, the precursor to the Alexa, to shoot a key set piece the old-fashioned way.
StudioDaily: Had you read the book and were you already a fan?
Gavin Finney: I didn’t read it when it first came out but eventually came to it about 10 years later. People kept mentioning Pratchett, and later, Gaiman, and telling me I really had to read these guys. Around the mid-2000s I became involved in the first of three adaptations of Terry Pratchett books. I was also aware of Gaiman’s Stardust and later Coraline adaptations. That’s when I picked up the book. I loved it instantly. So when I heard about the Good Omens adaptation I thought, “What a fantastic project, if they get it right. Then I heard that Douglas was directing it, which was a perfect choice. We’d been to film school at roughly the same time and had worked together before on two films. He and I had been trying to work on a number of projects ever since but our schedules never aligned. So naturally, I put my hat in the ring and ended up getting the job. The writing and the storyline is right up my street, and hearing that Neil Gaiman was writing the screenplay and showrunning meant this project would be looked after and taken seriously. Another big plus for me was that Douglas was going to direct all six episodes. Everyone prefers that and it’s really important to the creative process. For me, it’s much more satisfying to do all of a project with one director than to have to swap directors in and out from episode to episode. The actors also prefer working with one person all the way through when given the chance.
The show, like the book before it, brilliantly satirizes so many sacred cows. But at its heart, the series is all about one long and beautiful friendship.
That’s was the key to the whole thing, really. It’s a 6,000-year buddy movie. Sheen and Tennant absolutely nailed it with their performances. Sure, it’s also about the end of the world, and good and evil, and the choices we make, and free will. There’s a lot crammed in there with the multiple storylines and characters, so the dividends only increase on repeat views. But that friendship is the spine of this story on screen. Ultimately everyone was on the same page from the start: deliver a great show that was both true to the book but was also more than the book. The 28-minute cold open in episode 3 that moves through no less than 12 time periods, the expanded role of Gabriel, played by Jon Hamm, and pulling out and centering in on the Aziraphale and Crowley friendship are Gaiman’s wonderful additions to the expanded cinema version of the story. Agnes Nutter is, of course, pure Pratchett, but ultimately it was up to Neil and Douglas to stay true to the book while creating something new, which I think they did.
Were you involved in the pre-production planning process?
The prep process was actually very short and I came into it quite late. The time between me being offered the job and flying to South Africa to begin scouting locations was about 12 hours. I was literally packing my back on the evening I got the job. There were a lot of discussions in airport lounges with Douglas and Michael Ralph, the production designer, and also on location. That was my immersion to get up to speed.
How did you work with Mackinnon but also with Gaiman on set?
I worked directly with Douglas in terms of delivering his vision but Douglas and Neil had a very good working relationship and Neil was there all the time on set. He was also there in post all the way through the grade, which is very unusual. Neil’s input was always available at any time, but he’s such a clever guy, he understood on set that you let heads of departments do their thing. He would just nudge Douglas if he thought something had to go in a particular way. Certainly he had ideas about the look from the book during certain sequences during the grade. For example, in episode 6, where the sky goes red and everything has a kind of crimson hue to it, that was Neil’s influence during post. Some things he’d wanted inevitably had to be cut for pacing and time, since being presented with six hours of continuous drama is very different than being able to read a book at your own pace.
It’s still a rather large cast of characters and locales that made it into the show. How did you use lighting and lens effects to differentiate between the various opposing and ultimately converging sets of characters, starting with the two leads?
We used different looks and but also different camera filters for different periods and characters. On set, we graded the dailies using DaVinci Resolve and our DIT, Rich Simpson [of Hijack Post], transcoded them to go into the edit suite. The looks were designed and applied for each period of time seen in the show, whether 2011 or 2018 or the 1940s or the Victorian era and before. That way, in the edit, it had kind of a first-pass grade almost. That was continued during the online where we built looks for each section, so every section of the show had a signature. In terms of what we did in camera, Douglas wanted Aziraphale and Crowley to always be shot in a kind of heroic stance and lifted above everyone else around them, so we shot them from lower angles. They are immortal beings, after all, so that was the approach right from the start. Even as they walk through the world, they need to look like they are above it, that they are moving through it but really are not of it. Costume, hair and makeup made them fit into their human surroundings, though they are slightly odd and different. But nobody ever notices, just like nobody ever notices that Adam is the Antichrist because he has a force field around him that protects him. I also always front-lit Aziraphale’s face but back-lit his hair, so he’s always got a bit of a halo. Crowley’s a rock star god, really, so his lighting is always really contrasty and shadowy and his face is cast in shadow a bit more than Aziraphale’s. But I also had specific filter packs used for scenes in which only Aziraphale and Crowley are on screen, and those used for the kids, otherwise known as “Them,” and also for everyone else. Every camera was also constantly moving, whether on the ground or flying. We had a lot of Technocrane throughout the show and two Steadicam rigs at all times, and very often we’re coming into scenes from above because you have this God narrator and it’s celestial, and we’re looking down at earth. There are a lot of top shots. Even when we flash back to Agnes Nutter, we’re looking right down over the top of them. We carried that looking-down-and-flying feel throughout the six episodes.
Did you use drones?
Yup, we used anything that moved the camera. Every day, we had enough kit to go from dolly and track to Technochrane to Steadicam and back, and we did, pretty much every day. But it was always driven by the energy of the story and it was never gratuitous, as sometimes cranes can be. But in this sense it was the style. There would never be any static establishing shot; it would already be on the move, then we’d come in halfway through a move, and we’re above something, because narratively we are above something.
I understand you used an Arriflex D-21 for one scene. But it’s not any old D-21. Can you explain?
It’s the only one like it in the world and it was rebuilt for the show, specifically for a flashback scene in which Aziraphale is dancing the gavotte in a gentlemen’s club. Neil and Douglas wanted an old-filmy look. The traditional way to do that would have been to shoot it with the Alexa, then bang it out with a film scratch or grain plug-in in post. But we felt that doing it that way never looks quite right because the source footage is rock-solid. It always just looks a bit fake to me, honestly. But by adding a hand crank and LensBaby, which vignettes a lot, to the D-21 I could do it in camera. I kept it very loose, too, so as you’re cranking the camera with one hand and holding and focusing the lens, which is really meant for SLR stills cameras, it’s actually joggling. That joggle that wobbles the lens makes the image look like film weave. In old film cameras, the film wasn’t locked properly and it would move around in the gate. If you look at old Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd films, you can see the film moving.
The D-21 was originally built for me at my request in 2008 or 2009, I think, for a particular show I wanted to do. I was the first person in Europe to use its predecessor, the D-20, when it came out, and both are the precursors to the Alexa. So I had that kind of relationship with Arri in London, and they very kindly rebuilt it so we could try to achieve in camera what Neil and Douglas wanted. I think they stripped out the remaining four D-21s they had on the shelf. The D-20 and D-21 both had optical viewfinders, like a film camera, and unlike an Alexa or other modern digital cinema cameras, which have an electronic monitor. You’re looking through the lens via a mirror shutter that rotates. And because of this, Bill Lovell at Arri at the time, and Andrew Prior, who came in after him, remembered that they had a hand-crank adapter wheel for a film camera called a 435. If you crank it slowly, everyone speeds up, and if you crank it fast, everyone slows down. But the hand crank had another benefit for our purposes: the exposure flutters, and goes lighter and darker as you crank. You can see all of those lovely details in that scene, and they are organic and in-camera and very difficult to do in post. I think it’s another good example of the kind of backup that Neil and Douglas and Amazon gave the show. Essentially, they said, go as mad as you like. If you’ve got an idea, do it. So to build a camera, the only one of its kind, ship it halfway round the world to Cape Town, South Africa, for a single scene, just doesn’t happen very often. We laughed during every single take of that scene because what Michael Sheen was doing with the dance was so glorious.
What was the filming schedule like between the various locations?
We had to fly to South Africa first because there were a lot of builds that had to happen there, including the Garden of Eden, while we were filming in the UK. We had to get ahead so that when we returned to South Africa in January 2018, everything was already up and running. We started filming in West London Studios around the village of Hambleden, which really is an absolutely beautiful place. I know that area very well and go walking there quite often. I had actually been there a year prior to that and thought, “What a quintessentially perfect English village. I really should film here.” It was so great to go back and shoot there.
The look of those scenes in the village are highly saturated, warm and pretty idyllic, almost unreal. Even though he’s the Antichrist, I guess Adam is living in his own Garden of Eden on earth.
That’s exactly right. It’s meant to be unrealistically perfect because Adam Young is there. Newt Pulsifer, the young witchfinder, realizes when he’s reading the newspaper cuttings that the weather there has been perfect for 11 years: It’s always sunny in August, the autumns are crisp, it snows at Christmas, etc. That’s the anomaly. The colors were hyped up to be a bit Edenish and supernaturally perfect because that’s where Adam’s growing up; he makes it perfect. But in order for that to work, you have to start with the perfect little village with the perfect little houses and then you pump that up with design and the way we shot it. For example, it had to always be sunny, which it rarely is. That was challenging.
Was the forest real, too?
Mostly, although all those wild tree roots were mainly constructed by Michael Ralph. But it was harder to shoot in there because the real weather wasn’t nearly as perfect, and we were putting a lot of light in the woods to create those idyllic beams of sunlight streaming through the leaves and branches and make it always glorious. But that golden and lush and sunny look slowly starts to change episode by episode as Adam comes into his powers, and it gets darker and colder and heavier and more stormy. And in episode 6 the look is quite red because of the ring of fire around London, and it changes back again at the very end when Aziraphale and Crowley get back together. The trick is making all those looks not a mess when you have that many characters and that many time periods. There is a considered homogenous look across the show but there are a lot of different looks within that, so that when you go back to a place you’ve already been you know where you are. Neil very much wanted that scene in episode 3 with the Nazis in the 1940s to feel like a spy thriller from that era. So it was shot very deliberately with that low-angle wide thing with beams of light, candlelight and given that film noir treatment.
Tell me more about how you lit and shot Heaven and Hell.
Well, for starters, they are part of the same building. No not really, but the idea is that Hell is in the cold basement with crappy old fluorescent lights, leaky pipes and all the garbage and Heaven has the atrium-height double-high ceilings and penthouse views across the best architecture in the world. We found an amazing location for Heaven and frosted all the windows, which took a week. Then we lit it very high key and gave it a look in post. We lit them from the outside using 77 Arri SkyPanels linked to a dimmer, so we could control the light over the course of the day. Using wide angle lenses, like the Zeiss Rectilinear 8mm, made the space look even bigger. Hell was actually filmed in a slaughterhouse in South Africa, so it was already pretty hellish. But we took the walls down and put in all the crappy lighting and made it all not work very well.
How would you describe the balance between in-camera effects and visual effects in the show?
There’s a lot of in-camera work combined with a lot of visual effect work, and the trick is making it all seamless. Milk VFX, who did the effects, were on set every day, pretty much. Every day they brought in two balls, one reflective and the other gray, that show them the direction and quality of light. Then they brought in their [X-Rite] Macbeth ColorChecker to see what the color temperatures are. They also write down the lens, the focus, the distance, the aperture, the camera height, the inclination, and all that gets fed back into their computers to design the shots. We had a lot of pre-vis and Michael Ralph did a lot of set drawings, so we knew what direction they were going in and the information they needed. The Soho street, for example, was built on an airbase, but only to the first corner and only to ground level, so there were lots of CGI set extensions. I think Milk did around 650 effects shots, but there were nearly 1200 in the whole show.
The effects are wonderful, even if some of the things they are creating are rather unsophisticated and a little corny. What was the thinking there?
That’s deliberate. All the things that manifest, like the Kraken and the aliens and their flimsy-looking ship, are all coming out of the mind of an 11-year-old boy. There are a couple of shots of his bedroom and two or three times we deliberately pan across the shelves where all of his toys are. And if you look, every single thing that appears in the film is on those shelves. And they appear because Adam can make them appear. So that spaceship? It was designed by the director’s daughter, and it was made with a popsicle stick and some cardboard. A fully rendered Star Trek spaceship doesn’t land, because that’s not what Adam had in his head; it’s the spaceship he had made at school and stares at when he goes to sleep, and it also moves in a particular way. That’s the very British, Gaiman-Pratchett element to this — that it’s all a bit crappy and comes from the undeveloped mind of a boy living in Buckinghamshire. There are actually a number of other brilliant effects that no one has noticed because they didn’t realize they were effects.
Well, a lot of cinematographers I know asked me exactly where in Soho we shot those scenes. They wondered how we’d gotten the street shut down! But very few people will be able to spot where the join between the set and the extension is. There’s also extensive cleanup throughout. We had to take out a lot of modern villages and telephone poles in the background in the South African-shot scenes. Also, the wings are CG. There’s a lot of beautiful work in there. But to your earlier question, the mix between camera and visual effects is not like anything else I’ve ever done. It became pretty clear when we started to talk about the look that we couldn’t reference anything else. We always say that, but this really isn’t like anything else. Neil’s notes about doing Noah’s Ark out in the desert sum it up very nicely: it had to look as though we had enough money to shoot everything but had, in the end, simply decided not to.
For more on Good Omens, listen to StudioDaily’s Podcasts from the Front Lines episode featuring director Douglas Mackinnon.
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