'You’ve got to be committed' Murder in Successville cinematographer Roy Estabrook on shooting comedy
Murder in Successville is a BAFTA award-winning BBC comedy series following DI Sleet (Tom Davis) as he attempts to solve crimes committed by the rich and famous in the fictional, star-studded town of Successville, accompanied by a new, real celebrity guest each week. The show's cinematographer Roy Estabrook captured the improvised comedy throughout the show's three series run, as well as contributing his talent to the latest series of two-time NTA award-winning comedy Benidorm for ITV. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out, his process on Murder in Successville and what aspiring cinematographers can do to get noticed.
Roy, introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved with the film industry and specifically the camera department?
I was lucky, really. I had a friend who was a cameraman and he was just setting up a small crew in partnership and they were looking for someone to train up to be his camera assistant. This was in the days of 16mm for documentaries on television. He showed me how to use the camera and the processes and I learned on the job. I was a little green behind the ears but had a passion and a love for film. I started loading but then worked my way up, like you do, to focus-pulling and operating second camera. That’s how I got started.
From where did you get your love of film? What drew you to ask your friend for professional work in the film industry?
Me and my friend used to spend a lot of time talking about movies and television. I was a fan of movies - it’s everybody hobby, really - but I never thought my love for them would lead me anywhere. When my friend needed someone to train up, he immediately thought of me and asked why I didn’t make a move into the film industry. Well, I thought “you don’t get an offer like that very often!” All in all, it was a very happy and lucky accident.
How did you come to work on Murder in Successville?
The production team had done a little taster tape, which I wasn’t involved in, just to see if there was a germ of an idea there. Somewhere along the line they got some money for a pilot and that’s when the director, James de Frond, was called in. I had done a lot of work with James, over the years in comedy shows, and he phoned me up about it. He told me he had a project and he’d like me to be involved and that’s how I got onto the show.
I had a lot of pre-production meetings with him and he told me what the idea was and how we would achieve it best. You could call it a sort of gameshow but James was very keen for it to not look like a gameshow and to create a very distinctive world, where it was a little bit more dramatically lit rather than a high-key look to it.
James is a very visual person and when we were discussing films we liked, and references, he mentioned he wanted a film noir-esque feel to it but with colours. We spent a lot of time talking about it before we even got near looking at scripts together.
When you did start looking at scripts, how long was the process and what was involved in the process of shooting an episode?
We shoot that show in two days. Let’s say you have eight scenes to shoot within two days - you have to be prepared for that. Everything, where possible, I try to pre-light but we do have a small budget. So you’re finishing lighting things very, very close to the wire before the guest walks into the scene. The big thing with this show is that it’s supposed to be very immersive for the guest who tries to solve the crime. So if they’re going to walk into our ‘crack den’ or ‘brothel’ then it has to have that feel. I want them to walk in and have to adjust their eyes to the darkness, etc. We want their best reactions to the comings and goings and the clues so the lighting has to give it a real mood.
What is it like dealing with so many different guest stars? Does having such a transient cast affect the way you approach and shoot the show?
We do have little run-throughs but it’s so fast you don’t have time to think sometimes. I realised from the get-go we would need three cameras on this show so that we could get coverage of DI Sleet (Tom Davis), a permanent camera on the guest and a third camera to pick up all the joining shots and wides.
We don’t really know what’s going to happen on the show. The guest star walks into a room and we don’t know how they’re going to respond to it so we’ve got to be on our toes as cameramen. The only way to pull that off is to make sure the director can see all the feeds and have contact with us. We’re all on radios as a result. He can then tell when a character is going to enter or leave a scene. The whole thing is pretty live. Three cameramen with three handheld cameras and the first take, from when the guest first walks into the room, can be 25 minutes. So I rely a lot on a fantastic crew, they’re absolutely brilliant.
How big is your camera crew and what are you shooting on?
We shoot on Arri cameras. The last series was on the Mini but the first two series were on the AMIRA. I’m a big Arri fan and that stems back to my film days on the Arriflex 16mm cameras. Again, to achieve this production, we have full crews. All the cameras obviously have dedicated focus-pullers, dedicated loaders, trainees, etc. From one scene to the next, we’ve got to move fast. I have a fantastic gaffer and his crew are superb and they’re piggybacking a lot, rigging lights from one scene to another in preparation for shooting.
Is the whole series shot in two days?
Each guest is shot in two days. If there are six episodes then it’s 12 days of shooting in total. Of course, there are turnaround days and prep days. The shooting period is around four weeks long.
With a lot of American crews on TV shows, they are working on a turnaround where they are filming later episodes for a series as it’s airing. Do you work in a similar way? If not, how does it work for you?
I’ve worked on those shows! No, we have a shooting period and then Calum Ross (editor) begins to assemble stuff while we’re shooting. There is an editing period afterwards and a delivery date is set. I’m not 100% sure of how long he gets per programme to edit them but I know they do a lot in the few days they have. We generate an awful lot of material as we have three cameras. The final show is 29 or 30 mins for BBC Three but the first long cut is over two hours! Slowly but surely they hone the funnies out of it and get the best humour and whittle it down. That’s down to the brilliance of the director and the editor.
I must say congratulations on winning a BAFTA for the Best Comedy Entertainment Programme! What makes the show so successful in your opinion?
I just think it’s a really funny show and that’s why it’s done so well. Tom Davis is a very clever man and a great, big comedian. He follows the script where he can but his ability to be able to see something funny that a guest would say and run with it, it’s very clever. I like to think that due to the dramatic feel of the show, it makes it slightly unusual. If you were watching an episode, and you didn’t know it was a comedy, you could turn the sound down and you might think it was a pretty good drama!
What’s next for you, Roy? What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’ve had a few enquiries, had a few meetings, got some nice things coming up but nothing right now. Just getting ready for the next assault on whatever it is.
Good luck with all of that! Lastly, what advice would you give for someone wanting to get involved in the camera department, to become a DOP or cinematographer and work on successful shows just like the ones you do?
Gosh, that’s a big question! The thing about being a cameramen or DOP is it’s the best job on the unit! You can be so creative with how you approach things but ultimately, you’ve got to watch lots of movies and be very determined as it’s hard. I know a lot of assistants who have to go out into the freelance world and it’s tough so you’ve got to be committed to it. It’s not as easy to get started these days either with the television and film industry being as hard and competitive as it is now but the rewards are there. It’s a great way to earn a living.