'Work Hard and listen' Mission: Impossible – Fallout DP Rob Hardy on shooting action movies and more
Rob Hardy is the BAFTA-winning DP behind Mission: Impossible – Fallout starring Tom Cruise, as well as a string of modern classics including Alex Garland's Annihilation and Ex Machina. Here he tells Mandy News about his process on Mission: Impossible 6 and Annihilation, how he started out and what aspiring cinematographers can do to succeed.
Please introduce yourself to us and tell us how you got involved in the Film industry.
I'm Rob Hardy and I've been working professionally as a cinematographer in films for almost 20 years now. I first started after attending film schools in both Newport, Wales, and Sheffield where I specialised in cinematography. I started out shooting music videos in Sheffield's thriving music scene in the mid-90s as well as taking an active role in making video art for a small number of experimental theatre companies. I dabbled in a little (not so great) performance myself.
After a short time, I moved to London and started working as a DP in commercials. Shortly after this, I secured my first real feature length gig as a cinematographer on a film called Boy A, starring Andrew Garfield for which I received a BAFTA for my work. I soon worked with Andrew Garfield again on the first film in the Red Riding Trilogy – Red Riding 1974, a dark hallucinogenic crime drama adapted from the novel of the same name by David Peace.
These two films helped me begin to establish a particular style and way of working that I have been expanding and developing ever since...It sort of snowballed from that point onwards.
How did you come to work with Alex Garland on Ex Machina and Annihilation?
I was shooting a film in New York when I received the script for Ex Machina, and it blew me away. As soon as I’d finished reading I was straight on the phone to my agent telling them that, without question, this would be my next film. Having read and visualised the entire film in one sitting, I simply had to shoot it. Shortly after, I spoke with Alex, and he’d seen Red Riding 1974 and liked its unique view point. We connected instantly, speaking the same visual language.
Alex is a great collaborator and takes a no bulls*** approach which gets to the heart of it all very quickly, which I like. This helps create a foundation almost instantly, enabling the storytelling approach to take shape with ease. There’s a confidence there, and a willingness to discard that which is not useful – a strong instinct for what works in a story and what is superfluous. Believe it or not, it’s rare to find in a director.
How did you approach working on Annihilation from its inception, what did you shoot on? What lenses did you use, etc?
With Annihilation we took a working from the ground up approach. Unlike Ex Machina, the visual element to the story had no reference point. So our preparatory work involved creating a world from scratch. Alex compiled a visual document which gave us a feel for the three acts of the story, and was used it as a spring board into what was then a big unknown. It differs very much from the book. Our only real reference in terms of filmmaking was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but even then, our approach was very much its own thing.
I began my research by taking photographs of plant life and sculpture with the same critical eye. I was looking for a sense of unease in the natural formations of plants and fauna, as well as making images of inanimate objects that would bring a sense of unspecified horror to the objects. We wanted to make a film that was at once cerebral but was also essentially a horror film. I’m a huge horror film fan so, for me, this was a dream come true.
My technical approach was to use the camera and lens technology as a way to describe Lena’s (Natalie Portman) physical and emotional journey. I did this by changing the camera and lens systems throughout the shooting of the film thereby creating subtle shifts in the visual feel of it all. We wanted it all to have a very organic feel so we generated our own trippy effects, for the most part in-camera, using colour projectors, and various light sources pointed into very old lenses. We then took those elements, blew up small parts of them and over laid them onto parts of our scenes in the film - effectively creating a "shimmer library" as we called it.
What is the difference, if any, in shooting a film like Testament of Youth, a true story, and a full-on action film like Mission Impossible 6?
Mission Impossible: Fallout and Testament of Youth share a similar approach in so much as they were both extremely practical films. The Mission modus operandi is to make the film as practically as possible, with all of the action filmed as it happens. For a big studio movie this is very unusual nowadays with the inherent reliability on green screen and visual effects. But working with Tom Cruise that approach is much more about doing it in-camera. Truer to a much more elegant and classic style of film making. It made the process exciting and epic – a real challenge for me but also familiar territory as I very much like to rely on doing things for real, and operating the A camera, which I always do, puts me at the heart of it.
I like working with actors, and especially like working in close proximity, giving the audience an authentic experience as much as possible. It was a similar approach with Alicia Vikander, who I have shot three films with. It helps to be upfront with the camera and actor – you can really capture the truth, and with both Tom and Alicia, truth is everything. Naturally, the scale of Mission Impossible really meant we could utilise the epic locations and the various toys we had to tell the story.
What are you currently working on and what plans do you have for the future?
I’m currently in prep on an eight-part show for FX written and directed by Alex Garland. It’s called Devs and takes place in San Fransisco. It’s a weird, trippy sci-fi thriller set in the tech community. I cant say much about it other than the scripts are incredible.
What advice do you have for people wanting to become a part of the camera department, and become a successful DP like yourself?
Be honest, be nice, work hard and listen. I can’t guarantee I’ve done all of those things over the years but I’ve learnt that those things really count.
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