Here at Mission Digital we love to celebrate talent. Over the coming months, we’re looking to sit down with the emerging talent of the UK film industry and hear their stories. How did they get a foot in the door? What did it take to get up and running?
Today we’re speaking with Ed Wild, a cinematographer responsible for a number of projects such as London Has Fallen and Collide.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Ed. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started in the industry?
My first role in the industry was as a workshop assistant at Prime – a camera rental facility. I spent a few years learning the ropes there before I started working on documentaries. It was actually a very interesting time to make the move because the genre was changing massively.
I did a stint on Blue Planet, working as an assistant to Peter Parks. He was fairly prolific at the time, and I enjoyed working with him. I wasn’t as fussed about the wildlife side of the genre as I needed to be in order to become a successful nature cameraman, but I did find another area that interested me greatly – physical effects. We’d light stuff in tanks and then shoot it in macro, attempting to try and make it look like it was out at sea. I became quite fascinated by the process, and how you could create the illusion by experimenting with the gels and lights and stuff.
I had always wanted to create more of a look and style, so from those early tests it was a natural progression from there into music videos.
So, a natural progression into the shortform stuff?
That’s right, though it wasn’t a straightforward move. Back in the days of film, you couldn’t get a job unless you had a proper reel, because people were so scared that you couldn’t expose the camera properly. As a result, I’d shoot anything where the processing was paid for, just to build my reel up.
I was also shooting stills at the same time too, marketing stuff, and the combination of the two helped me land a job with MTV called Stylisimo. It was a fashion editorial show, and working on that allowed me great opportunity to experiment and explore different styles and looks within cinematography.
I want to ask you a question – you said that with film there was this fear of exposing incorrectly, but in addition to that, back then the only way of projecting your work was in the cinema or on TV. What do you think now about things like YouTube and Vimeo where everyone has an audience? Do you think that’s changed filmmaking as a process?
I haven’t really thought about it, but yes, you’re right. When I was working with film in the early days, there were fewer outlets to show people your work on. Lots of projects never saw the light of day, especially short films. There were only a limited number of festivals and it was really hard to get your film in.
It was a challenge to get your name out there because the opportunities weren’t available?
I think so, but it must be hard in a different way nowadays – there are so many people trying to make it that getting your break is just as hard. It’s finding that first step up, isn’t it? And then all the steps after that are the same really – “how do I get to the next place I want to be? What do I do to get that?”
I was lucky. I fell into a position where I was working with this director on Stylissimo and he signed to a company called Sledge. Phil Griffin was the director of the company, and I’d worked for him previously as a Focus Puller. He offered me a little job with a junior director, and that went well. Then he got a couple more and I did those too – all music videos. It was the same kind of thing – take some film and try and make something. It was quite photographic/editorial type stuff.
After that, Phil just kept being busy and I kept doing his stuff, and by the end of the year I had a decent reel and lots of the music videos I’d done had gone to number 1. It was at that point I moved into promos full time, though I do have a bit of a regret that I didn’t have time to play about for longer. I very quickly moved onto shooting expensive music videos with a very certain look, and maybe I wasn’t pushed hard enough at that early stages.
After the music videos came the longer shoots – infomercials – the sort where you’d have a 16mm camera in a bag and $10,000 dollars at your disposal, and you and a director would go off and try and find a story in Bolivia or somewhere like that – that was really fun. We did one film in Brazil with a man who grew up and lived in the favelas, he saved £10 a month to come to the UK and learn how to be a garage DJ. He learnt and then came back and become one of the biggest DJs in Brazil. It was a very on the fly film, very loose, no storyboards, the story had to be found.
It sounds like a very loose, creative experience?
Yes, I loved the freedom. Once you start working on the bigger films, people are spending a lot of money and they want to know what’s happening to that money! Back in the days of shooting the infomercials those worries weren’t such a drain on my spark of creativity.
It’s really important to hang on to that spark, that innovation, because even on the bigger films that’s when the best things happen. Like, when someone says “look, I know we were going to do it like this but I think we should do it like this instead”. You’ve got to be able to change rhythm when you need to. After all, you’re shooting a film, not a spreadsheet.
At what stage did you have an agent come in and help you make the transition into commercial work?
I actually started doing commercials before I had an agent. I had quite a glossy reel and luckily people liked that style and wanted that look. My first big campaign was the BBC rebrand, and it was a very similar style to what I had been using for the music videos. After that project, I convinced ICM to take me on for commercials. 16 months later, I got my first feature.
We’d love to hear that story… we understand it’s a good one!
I got a call from the agency one day, explaining that a feature called Severance had lost its DP, that there were two weeks to go until shooting started and that the production team were looking at my reel. I thought “that’s nice, but nothing will happen.”
That conversation was followed up with a script, then an interview, and then a job offer… I’d never shot a film before and my first day would be the tech recce!
I caught a flight to the Isle of Man, and was hoping to go through the script with Chris Smith (director) on the first day, but once I arrived there for the tech recce I was taken to look at the coach that would be used for the crash scene. I was asked to explain how I would plan out the shot and figure out how to cover the stunt, and I didn’t know what to think! I had to hit the ground running from the first day! I was lucky though, I had a lot of support and a great crew.
It was a supportive crew that got you through it then?
Matt Fox (now a DP in his own right) was my Focus Puller. He was recommended to me by someone I trusted and luckily he was excellent – put the entire camera department at ease. It was hairy at times! The schedule seemed mad and there was so much to do. I got swamped by the technicalities at some points because they were shooting digital and I’d only ever shot film up until that point.
Sounds like a make or break situation!
Sort of! Though I was lucky because everyone was supportive and there was no pretence really – they knew who I was and actually, I learnt quite quickly that I did know what to do. Obviously in the years since then I’ve learnt a lot more about what the role encompasses – you’re not just there to light, it’s about being a sounding board to the director throughout the process. My favourite part of the job now is working through the script in the early stages and enjoying the actors bring that to life through their performance. We were really lucky on Severance, we had an amazing cast.
After the shoot had wrapped, I went home absolutely shell shocked. My wife is amazingly supportive and understanding, but even she was a bit shocked at the state of me. She said I “had become feral”. I have this memory of us sitting in a fairly expensive restaurant on holiday, all “would sir like this, would you like to try the wine etc”, and I was just wolfing down food as it was placed in front of me – still in the mentality of getting through the food, getting through the prep and just getting everything done, boom boom boom, job done, bed. I had become an eating, sleeping, shooting machine.
I’ve never known a film like it. Pre-production is so important, it allows you to set the pace and rhythm for the film, figure out what’s important. With Severance I was writing the lighting list before I’d even seen the set!
The stress of shooting longform projects is not in the everyday stresses, but it’s the constant need to plan ahead, thinking about all the different stages. On the bigger projects you’re up until late at night checking second unit rushes that have just been flown in from another country, you’ve got splinter units and VFX units and people are trying to show you plates from big CGI sequences – there’s a lot going on – films change all the time but you still have to get it done.
After Severance you worked on a string of features including London Has Fallen. How did that compare?
Funnily enough, I only got booked for that one three weeks before the cameras turned over too! Director Babak Najafi wanted to work with a DP who had lived in London, someone who knew all the landmarks and their significance. Before I started working with cameras I was a courier, so I know my way around the city pretty well.
You were a courier?
Yeah, a bike courier. I was trying to become a serious rower at the time. I’d done the Commonwealth Games and wanted to carry on, so I would row in the morning, then cycle all day and row again in the afternoon. To be honest, my performance went down. I was knackered and got lost all the time. I couldn’t understand people on the radio.
Did you tell them that in the interview for London Has Fallen?
Ha! No. I think we’d done a pretty good job of capturing London on Welcome to the Punch, and that helped.
How different do you think your career would have been if you had turned down Severance?
A long time ago, when I was trying to get into the industry I read a book that said “do the first job you get”, and I did. I think that’s quite a good way to go because you’re only going to learn when you’re shooting – that’s the tricky thing with this job. I go to galleries, I got to the theatre, I go to the cinema and I read lots, but being on the ground is where you learn. You have to get on the deck and do it.
There never really was a reason why I would have turned down Severance, actually. Chris (director) was great, Jason (producer) was really nice and in general everyone was lovely, so for me it was probably ideal. If I had been given a projects with weeks and weeks of prep it probably would have swamped me. The thing that was great about Severance was that there wasn’t enough time to look up and see the peak of Everest – I just hit the floor running and thought “there must be an end to this at some point!” For a first film I was lucky – things were moving too fast for people to question too much, we just had to run with it. But yeah, I would never have said no to that film – it was a fun script as well.
After Severance, I joined a company called Between The Eyes. It was run by Matt Whitecross, Johnny Hopkins and Eran Creevy, all of whom I gelled with and enjoyed working with enormously. For a stretch I did music videos and commercials with them and I really enjoyed it, and then we did Shifty – that had a budget of £100k. It’s one of my fondest film experiences though, mostly because everyone had to pitch in to make it happen and as a result, the freedom was amazing. I did learn the economy of necessity though. We were shooting on the fifth floor and every time I wanted something I had to go down and get it, so we “made do” an awful lot. I was so happy on that film though. I loved it so much I’d just go in early and and clear up from the day before.
We were helped by a blinding cast though. You can’t work that fast without an amazing cast, and we were so lucky. We shot the whole film in 18 days. It was so stripped down and simple. I’m really proud of that film, still. When you make a film like it, you have to believe completely in everyone around you. I felt like that with everyone on Shifty and that’s why it was a joy to work on – it was truly collaborative.
I had this conversation with this guy once, and he said “once I have this lens, I can go out and shoot”. I have a Leica and a 35mm lens, and I don’t need anything else, and I think that’s the thing with digital – you don’t need anything else. All the other bits are polishing, but it’s about fundamentals. I go on every recce with a 27mm on my camera and if I can’t make that location work with that lens, I know I can’t work in that location. I think you can shoot an entire scene with that lens. You don’t need the bits. When I was younger I wanted all the bits but as I’ve got older I’ve realised it’s more important to get what’s right for the job. I’ve become less obsessed with the technology and now I find it easier to explain what I need and why I need it. It’s about measuring the worth of the technology – is what you get going to make the trailer? Is it going to help sell the film?
What would be the ideal next thing for Ed Wild?
I have been quite fortunate as I wanted to find something a bit more analogue – storytelling with characters, less physicality. I’d like something I can feel and touch a bit more. I want to do something where I know everyone’s name on the crew. I take pride in doing that and on London Has Fallen it was so big I couldn’t. Since doing this interview I have had the fortune to work with Jodie Foster on Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and on a film titled ‘He’s Out There’. Doing something smaller has been amazing.
You lose the spontaneity as jobs get bigger. I used to do much more documentary-style stuff and it was stripped down and simple, you just have to get on with it. You look at Barry Ackroyd and Roger Deakins who all came from a documentary background – it’s all about putting the camera in the right place and then working it out from there.
As things get bigger, the way you can move and be spontaneous and innovate gets lost. Half the battle is finding the projects that still allow you to do that.
Ed is represented by Independent Talent (www.independenttalent.com)
This is a new feature on the Mission Digital Blog. If you’re a cinematographer or know of one who we should talk to for an article, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.