'Could you make it the same, weirder or different?' an interview with cinematographer Denis Crossan

Best known for the cinematographer in the hit 1997 horror I Know What You Did Last Summer, the fantasy TV series Outlander and for being the director of photography for Doctor Who, Denis Crossan talks to Mandy News about how he got into the industry and his experience working on the Doctor Who franchise. 

19th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Denis Crossan IMDB

Denis, please introduce yourself and tell us how you started with cameras and how that led you to the film industry?
I started off at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. It was supposed to be a three-year course at that time. There was no real qualification but it was a great place to go because it was a studio with all the facilities. You got the chance to make films, watch a lot of movies, and learn all about what you wanted to do.

I was there in the mid-80s when a lot of music videos were happening. I did a few when I was still on the course, and carried that on when I finished, followed by some second-unit, commercials and features.

It was a really good way to learn – I learnt how to shoot fast

Was there perhaps more budget for music videos then than there is now?
Yeah. I think that budgets were a lot more then – everything’s got squeezed since. It’s like everything, there’s no money for lots of stuff especially mid to low budget feature films. Everyone wants things faster and for less money.

At that time it was great because the budgets could be reasonably large and you got to play with a lot of toys to make it exciting and visually interesting.

So what drew you to the camera before college?
I used to watch a lot of old movies on TV and go to the cinema and watch pretty much anything from art house to action. I then became more and more interested in the structure and particularly the visual look, certain cinematographers and what they were doing and it gradually grew like that.

I was actually at the Glasgow School of Art at the time. There was a guy there who’d been to film school so I got in touch with him. He gave me some advice on how to apply so I made a couple of little movies and eventually got in.

So if we fast-forward to now, how did you get involved with the Dr Who franchise?
I guess it came about because I worked with the director Jamie Childs on another series, Next of Kin, which was about a family and a terrorist attack that was going to happen in London. We got on well and I liked his approach to how he sets things up, so towards the end of Next of Kin he mentioned that he was going to do this reboot of Dr Who and would I be interested. To be honest I’d never really watched Dr Who. I went off to do a film in New York and then I got a call from the producers saying it was on, and offering me the job.

It was big departure from the previous series as they wanted to film it in on anamorphic lenses. The idea was to make it more cinematic. I thought “why not?” They have a new female doctor and it sounded like something that could be good. Working with Jamie, I knew he would do something interesting so I said yes.

So what was the process? What was the discussion about how it would be shot and how long did you have to shoot the episode?
When people say they want to do something bigger and better there are still restrictions on the budget. I expected, when I started pre production that something would have changed like, “oh, we’re not going to shoot anamorphic now, we’re just going to do something different.”

I went to Cardiff and everyone was really friendly. I met with the writer and producers, who said, “we’re really happy to have you on board. We want to do something that will compete with Netflix and Amazon. We want you to make it as bold and interesting as possible.”

They had this idea that they wanted to take it somewhere else and I didn’t quite know what that would entail but at least they gave me free rein. Nobody was going to knock any ideas down as there was no restriction on anything which, from my point of view, was great.

We shot the opening episode and episode 9 over 35 days.

What did you shoot on and what extra pieces of kit did you use?
The kit is the same whatever you shoot. I don’t try and light scenes differently in cinema or TV. I just try to make it look the best in terms of the story and what’s happening. I used Alexas as the main cameras on it, which is pretty standard and I shot with Cooke anamorphic lenses.

We had some Steadicams, some crane shots, some other bits and pieces. We used pretty much everything and anything that applied to the story to get that across. On the opening episode, there was a lot of location-based work with a lot of night shooting, which was quite unusual for Dr Who. I think there was only one interior house studio set in the whole thing.

We shot in Sheffield. We shot everything for real. There wasn’t any green screen or backings.

The actors had to do a lot of their own stunts. Jodie Whittaker did a lot of amazing wire stuff Jumping from real cranes at night in all sorts of weather. It was quite punishing in a lot of ways. Jamie and I wanted to keep it rooted in reality: real sets, real physical danger etc. Then you have all the crazy out-of-world stuff that happens within that.

You’ve also worked in film and American TV, most recently with Badlands… Do you put your stamp on your work as you take it from format to format?
No, I don’t intentionally. I guess there are always things you rely on but the worst thing you can do is try to make everything look the same. For certain projects, I’ll try different things to stop them looking like something I’ve done before. I try to pick things where I can change my style of lighting or try something different, but to be honest each project imposes its own parameters. Different directors, production designers, sets, locations, crews, countries. They all add to the mix.

There’s always things I fall back on – I still have preferences for certain forms of lighting. I still like bouncing stuff off polystyrene and flagging of the spill light, but ill use anything that works, LEDS Fluorescents, candles, glow sticks…. but my preference is a really good tungsten Fresnel light, because you can do absolutely everything with it. You can use it as direct hard light, you can soften it, you can bounce it, you can diffuse it… you can do practically everything with that.

What other essential things are in your toolbox, apart from the polystyrene and the tungsten light?
It depends on the project and what’s involved. If you read the script and it says, “sunlight streams in through a window”, that’s already given you a pointer to what to do. Then its logistics, you’ve got to make it look sunny but do it in a way that you feel works for the script or the style.

There are also times when you have scenes where there’s no light source. Forests at night or cellars. They’re always the most interesting ones because you have to see enough of what’s happening on screen and still make it look dark and naturalistic.

What advice do you have for the young cinematographers who want to get ahead in the film industry?
I think the best advice is – and everyone will have their best version of it – Is keep going. There are so many ways to get involved these days. You can pick up a camera or a phone and make really good images.

Look at things in nature, how light changes in landscapes, people and objects. Question it. Why is it happening? How is it happening? How could you replicate it? Could you make it the same, weirder or different?

It’s about looking at things, seeing what you want to do, choosing what you want to light and what you don’t. The things that you leave dark are equally as important as the things you light. Framing is a really important part of it. It’s what you choose to have in the frame and where you place the camera that’s really important to the image.

Do your own bits and pieces and explore all the avenues – then you’ll make inroads. You’ll need a bit of luck but that’s how it works – keep going.