Ben Davis’ extraordinary list of credits includes Marvel blockbusters through to lower budget gems. This year alone he shot multi-million dollar shows Captain Marvel and Dumbo, back to back. He talks to Adrian Pennington about the art of the Director of Photography (DoP), his influences and the future of cinematography
“In the future, film production may be more about capturing information than the art of filmmaking,” believes Ben Davis, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after cinematographers. “I think there will still be a need for a cinematographer but it could be that their creative input is reduced.”
The future of cinematography and the advance of virtual production techniques is something to which the London-born DoP has given a lot of thought. Davis is at the heart of the biggest visual effects intensive blockbusters being made today, yet for every Marvel franchise picture he works on he manages to craft a lower budget gem.
Davis’s extraordinary range includes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Kick-Ass, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and Avengers: Age of Ultron. This year he shot multi-million dollar shows Captain Marvel and Dumbo, back to back.
Swapping between smaller and bigger budget movies is a question he gets asked a lot. “Creatively, I don’t find it difficult. I don’t have a fixed style. Each film speaks for itself and has a way that I feel it needs to be shot.”
The bigger the picture though, the more crew and units the DoP has to corral. “That’s why a large part of the job is done during pre-production. Sometimes, sadly, you start to lose sight of the creative and it becomes about the logistics.”
Pre-viz is a means for the director and DoP to prepare and iterate a complex VFX scene, much in the manner of storyboards, but it’s also a tool to ensure the production stays within budget. While acknowledging the merits of the process, Davis admits it can lead to loss of creative control.
“A lot of people with a lot of computers are conjuring up shots, which is fine, if the pre-viz is used like a storyboard,” he says. “It’s great for exploring shots but you need scope for altering a shot or disregarding it entirely if it doesn’t work on set. What sometimes happens is the creative decisions are made without input of the director or DoP in pre-viz and then these decisions are hardwired into the production. To me, that’s the tail wagging the dog.”
Davis isn’t one for spending time in pre-production meetings, preferring to get a handle on the look and feel of a new movie on location. For Three Billboards, for example, he spent several days in the picturesque North Carolina town of Sylva (doubling for Ebbing, Missouri) getting to know the geography of its roads, buildings and scenery, noting the light at different times of day.
“I like to write everything down,” he says. “By writing notes or sketching storyboards it acts to cement the ideas in my brain in a way that doesn’t happen when I work electronically.”
The 57 year-old reveres the late cinematographer Gordon Willis who defined the shadowy undertones of epochal 1970s American cinema with Coppola’s Godfather [parts I and II], Klute, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View as well as Woody Allen’s best work Annie Hall and Manhattan.
“If you want to examine the art of camera placement and where to place the viewer in a scene I think Willis was the master. I always look to him as where to put the camera. That’s what I love about his work.”
If this is classic cinematography, in the sense that the director of photography has significant creative choice over camera position and lighting, then virtual cinematography of the type which is increasingly formulated in a computer to tell superhero stories might be considered synthetic.
“When shooting digital, I like to keep things simple, like a film negative production,” says Davis. “I never ever want to get stuck in a tent, doing grading on-set. To my mind it is better just to shoot the on-set lighting as it is, with everyone looking at one image that cannot be altered, and pick-up from your original starting point when you do the final DI grade.”
“It is entirely possible that filming in future may not even need a set. It will just be about capturing information to be transformed later into something else.”
He considers all digital cameras to be pretty much as good as each other, opting to select a sensor as one would a film stock. This influences his look design for the Marvel movies.
“With Guardians we wanted to depict a fantastical, literally, out of this universe story on large detailed physical sets but with Captain Marvel, I almost wanted to achieve the opposite.”
Set in the mid-1990s, and largely shot on location in California and Louisiana, Captain Marvel is the first in the 21-strong Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a female lead superhero (played by Brie Larson). As with Doctor Strange, Davis selected large format Alexa 65 and vintage Panavision glass with Blackmagic Pocket Cameras for action sequences.
“Of all the Marvel features I’ve shot this is the most naturalistic,” he says. “There’s a lot of handheld and location work and we’ve tried to emulate the look in the earthbound scenes of cinema from the 1990s. I enjoy these stories the most when you have an extraordinary person in an ordinary world and that’s essentially the story we’re telling.”
The film, which releases next March, is also notable for featuring a digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson.
“There is no doubt that filmmaking is evolving and it is entirely possible that filming in future may not even need a set,” says Davis. “It will just be about capturing information to be transformed later into something else. Creative decisions will still be made but they’ll be made in a different place, after the event, and by different people.
“To me that’s sad. I like to make those creative decisions on set or in pre-production where the cinematographer is central to the workflow. But the future we are heading towards is one in which the capture of information becomes the most important stage of the process.”
He doesn’t want to sound overly pessimistic about the future of filmmaking being by machine.
“I am very open to new technology and to the opportunities for storytelling that brings. I see my children watching content in a completely different way to my generation enjoying stories that are being told in a visual language which has shifted over the decades. Filmmakers have to supply the material that changes with that but when I look at the next ten to fifteen years with the advent of AR and VR even this will have radically changed.”
Growing up in the early 1970s, Davis pursued photography as a hobby and printed black and white stills with his father in an attic darkroom.
“I left school and told the career officer I wanted to work in photography and he kind of laughed and said ‘but want do you want to do as a job?’”
There was no master plan. “I wanted a job so I could get a motorbike and not have to get the bus which was my initial motivation.”
His father, Mike Davis, was a camera operator and cinematographer but living in the U.S. It was through a visit to the set of a production his father was working on that tipped Ben Davis into pursuing cinematography.
“While Dumbo is entirely CG, it was very important to Tim [Burton] that it didn’t stand out as a visual effect. The whole creative attempt was to find a visual language in which Dumbo would sit … between the real and the expressionistic.”
He began as a camera trainee at the NFTS which included time assisting DoP Peter Hannan shoot Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance (1984); “A fantastic first experience because they used to choreograph scenes with two cameras as if waltzing together.”
Roeg and Hannan were not the last great British directors and cinematographers who provided a foundation for Davis’ career.
“I’m not sure whether I wanted to be cinematographer but I did want to be working and be involved in filmmaking. Once I started to shoot short films for people, to earn money, I discovered that I might actually be alright at it.”
After returning from assisting his father shoot the official film of the FIFA World Cup in Mexico in 1986, he gained his union card and went to work at Samuelsons Camera House (now part of Panavision). He worked as clapper loader, focus puller, and camera op on feature films and commercials and at various points with Roger Deakins (as clapper loader on the production of Mountains of the Moon and Air America) and Billy Williams (on Ken Russell’s DH Lawrence adaptation The Rainbow).
Davis also worked on Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988) for DoP Dick Bush. “He had a mean temper particularly after lunch,” recalls Davis of Russell. “I was rather fond of him. There were some big characters in those days, a lot of shouting and bad behaviour on set, but I never found it intimidating. You’ve got to have a tough skin for your career. You need to be emotionally sensitive to really tap into what the director is creating, at the same time not be emotionally sensitive on the set or around the industry. It’s a difficult trick to master.”
His first major feature film as a cinematographer was British rom-com Miranda (2002) but it was Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut Layer Cake which was Davis’ breakthrough. He’s since worked with Vaughn on Stardust and Kick-Ass, with Stephen Frears (Tamara Drewe), Rowan Joffe (Before I Go To Sleep) and Three Billboards’ Martin McDonagh on Seven Psychopaths.
“I want to make the best film that I can and that means trying to get rid of any ego I may have. I want to be inspired by good director. I want to be pushed to do what I haven’t done before.”
Emulating Dumbo’s cell animation
That’s certainly the case with Tim Burton, for whom Davis has shot Disney’s live action remake of Dumbo.
“It’s one of the greatest pleasures of my career to work with Tim. He has a singular vision bordering on genius. During Dumbo there were times when he would suggest things that you could never second guess.”
Burton’s incarnation of Disney’s 1941 animation stars Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell and Eva Green but features a photoreal lead. Making a flying baby elephant believable was the number one issue for Davis and other lead creatives including Burton regulars - production designer Rick Heinrichs and editor Chris Lebenzon.
“While Dumbo is entirely CG, it was very important to Tim that it didn’t stand out as a visual effect,” says Davis. “The whole creative attempt was to find a visual language in which Dumbo would sit and it’s a fine line between the real and the expressionistic. There was no particular film or artist we could reference for what we were looking for. If we tipped too much over one side or another it wouldn’t work.
“When I look back at my notes from where we started to where we got to then the journey, for me, was one of the most fascinating things about the film. From the casting to the way the actors played the characters, to the set design or the way the sky looked, every creative decision was made to find the right balance. The person guiding this was Tim.”
There is a definitive nod toward the cell animation of the original. “Tim was keen to use primary colours and to have a look which emulated frames comprised of layers of cells from background to foreground. We looked at Edward Hopper’s paintings for inspiration since they have a simplicity built of blocks of colour. I would photograph a scene thinking for example about where the sun would be and what type of sun it would be, I’d give it to Tim and he’d gently push in one direction or another to achieve what he wanted.”
“He’s full of ideas and it’s all come from somewhere within his mind. That’s a rare commodity in a world where most people are content to copy.”
Davis still takes a great interest in stills photography, noting the work of greats like Bill Brandt, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank and William Eggleston alongside contemporary fashion photographer Steve Shaw and Magnum’s Martin Parr.
“Imagery is constantly changing, reshaping in cinema, photography and all visual art. I think you need to be aware of this, to reference, for inspiration, to keep things fresh. If you ever get to the point where you think you know what you need to know, then you’re in trouble.