The American Society of Cinematographers

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Faulty Tower: Director of photography Laurie Rose and director Ben Wheatley elevate the surreal High-Rise.

High-Rise photos by Aidan Monaghan and Sebastian Solberg, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Appropriately for an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, director Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise raises many questions — both about the characters it presents and the environment in which it’s set. The film stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, Jeremy Irons as Anthony Royal and Sienna Miller as Charlotte Melville, three inhabitants of a newly constructed luxury tower where events quickly take a dark and sinister turn.

The production marked the fifth feature collaboration between Wheatley and director of photography Laurie Rose, and since wrapping High-Rise, they have completed a sixth, Free Fire. Prior to partnering with Wheatley for 2009’s Down Terrace, Rose recalls, “I was a broadcast cameraman doing a broad range of things, from documentaries and current affairs to reality, working for any of the main U.K. broadcasters — BBC, Channel 4. I’d always secretly harbored a dream of doing narrative [feature] work, but the opportunity had never presented itself.”

His introduction to Wheatley came when the director “was shooting some online, viral comedy shorts for the BBC,” Rose continues. “We became friends and stayed in touch.” When Wheatley subsequently approached Rose about Down Terrace, the cinematographer says, “he had a feature script, but he wanted to do it in a week!”

Rose remembers being on holiday when Wheatley reached out regarding High-Rise: “Ben told me they had a script for it. I hadn’t read the book, so I quickly bought it on Kindle.” The architectural scale of Ballard’s world raised questions about achievability, though. “People have said it’s an unfilmable book,” says Rose. “There are lots of things that would be quite expensive to do. The genius of [Amy Jump’s] script was that it made a lot of things more practical. It was the most beautifully adapted screenplay.”

The production ultimately shot just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. “We looked at various places around the country to find a suitable high-rise,” Rose notes. “It turns out there isn’t anything that’s of [the desired] period that’s in any way practical to shoot in, or in a condition that looks new.” What’s more, the plot of High-Rise demanded particular events — such as a character dropping a bottle from above onto a lower apartment’s balcony — that would ordinarily be impossible, since “balconies on high-rises aren’t built like that,” says Rose. “They’re built for privacy.”

To facilitate the narrative’s needs, production designer Mark Tildesley undertook a significant set build, which to Rose was “a completely different world,” the cinematographer says. “Our budgets had been so meager. The biggest film we’d done prior to High-Rise was Sightseers, which was [made for] a little over a million pounds.”

One audience-teasing question posed by the design is whether the story represents a historical period or a retro future. “Were we making a film that was actually set in the Seventies, or were we trying to pastiche something together that looked like the Seventies?” asks Rose. “I was kicking that around and struggling with how it should look. In prep, we talked a lot about 1975. Ben has a very big love for that period, and I’ve got that from him.” The question is ultimately left unanswered, although Rose feels that “Ballard writes sci-fi. It’s always forward-looking, futuristic — but of its time.”

In keeping with the ’70s aesthetic, Rose adds, “We did end up using zooms. I used Cooke classics, and we used those more than I thought we were going to.” With the Cooke Varotal 18-100mm (T3) and Cine Varotal 25-250mm (T3.9), the filmmakers were cautious to avoid stylistic tropes that might be seen as dated rather than historical. “Having watched lots of period films, we realized how much zooming was employed, but we tried to keep it from being cheesy,” Rose explains. “Ben enjoyed that. The only thing I sometimes struggled with was the speed of the zooms.”

When more speed was needed, Rose used Mark II and III Zeiss Super Speeds. “I’ve used Master Primes on commercials, and I did a film on Cooke S4s,” he says. “They’re beautiful, but they’re all too lovely and modern.” Other older lenses were rejected because of usability concerns. Rose explains, “I tested Kowas and Super Baltars. [They create] beautiful out-of-focus highlights, but I struggled with their reliability. If [the lens’ performance is] different from one focus pull to the next, it’s going to drive everyone mad — principally my focus puller Kim Vinegrad.”

Shooting with the Alexa XT Plus camera, the production captured ArriRaw files to Codex XR Capture Drives; the camera package was supplied by Arri Media (now Arri Rental) in London. While 35mm might have furthered the filmmakers’ period approach, it was not to be. “I would shoot 35mm at the drop of a hat,” Rose offers. “I think the opportunity is becoming less and less.”

The widescreen frame, however, was an easy choice. “There is a different sensibility on TV, but the [2.39:1] masked aspect

is a no-brainer [for a feature],” the cinematographer opines. The filmmakers didn’t feel anamorphic lenses were an option due to cost and practicality, but Rose remains an enthusiast. “I shot a pilot for a comedy show last year on anamorphic,” he says. “Just using anamorphic glass was a dream. The way it dealt with light was incredible. It was a joy to use.”

Given the set build, Rose says he was able to closely control “what light fittings were used and where we wanted them. We had our pick of these beautiful period practical lights.” In order to create both day and night looks, the cinematographer employed “a lot of HMI [units]. We carried a lot of the [Arri] M series. We were always using 1.8Ks; the output on those is just fantastic. We used a lot of 2.5Ks and 4Ks coming through big unbleached muslins and nets to fill-in windows.”

Rose exposed the Alexa at its native 800 ISO. Given the camera’s sensitivity, he often used the less powerful parts of his lighting package, which was supplied by Cine Electric Ltd. near Dublin. “For instance, I used [a Kino Flo] Image 80 on a crane on the balcony studio set,” he notes. For a nighttime look, he adds, “I was using Steel Green on daylight tubes, eventually knocking [the fixture] down to just two tubes.”

Although the film relies on CGI for exteriors of its titular building, practical effects were not overlooked. For example, skyline cycloramas were positioned beyond the balcony and outside windows for the interiors. Additionally, Rose explains, the set build provided “two long corridors and one short one. They were built in a ‘U’ shape around our one apartment that we dressed [to serve as] four different apartments.”

The apartment set depicted the residences of Laing, Melville and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans). For a party scene where Laing and Wilder are involved in a fight, Rose explains that they mirrored the set in-camera. “What you often have [in an apartment complex] are complete mirrors of apartments, so it’ll be exactly the same [layout] but flipped. That’s what we did.” To create the effect without actually building another set, the filmmakers used mirror-imaged labeling on props and reversed hairstyles on the cast, then completed the trick by flopping the image in post.


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