"Always show interest and ask lots of questions" an interview with cinematographer Vanessa Whyte

Best known for her work on X-Men: First Class, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Prometheus and The Queen, Vanessa Whyte shares her experiences working on her latest project and award winning film  Murdered for Being Different with us here at Mandy News. 

19th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Murdered for Being Different IMDB

Vanessa, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the industry?
Hi, my name is Vanessa Whyte. I’ve wanted to be a director of photography since I was a teenager. I didn’t start making films until I was at university and then – after working as a runner, a production assistant, accounts assistant, any old job that I could do in Film and TV – I ended up applying to the National Film and Television School and going back to do a masters in cinematography.

It’s been about nine years since I left, so I’ve just been slogging away since then.

What was your intro after the National Film and Television School and how did that work for you?
You sort of get plonked out into the real world and depending on your previous experience, you try and find your way. I had worked in production at a company that did lots of live music coverage, gigs, festivals and things, so I sort of went back to that and did camera operating as part of a camera team. It was a great way to earn money and have a great time.

Moving into more cinematography roles rather than TV Camera operating I worked my way up from short films, music videos with friends, corporate videos, and slowly built my client base and collaborators. I actually spent a year doing behind the scenes documentaries. I did X-Men First Class and Prometheus so I was on set every single day for the whole of principal photography for both of those films. That was an amazing experience because I got to see the huge Hollywood studio machine in motion.

I also got an all access pass to every department, which from a film student’s point of view, was absolutely incredible. I learned loads about animatronics, pre-vis, visual effects, storyboarding, creatures and costume- all sorts of departments that I would never see, and don’t ever see, now that I’m a DP. It was very interesting from a broader perspective. Obviously, when you’re shooting, you’re just on set shooting all day. It wasn’t a cinematographer’s job, but it was a fun experience where I learned a lot.

After Prometheus I knew I wanted to concentrate on my DP work. So I slowly built up my work. There’s nothing extremely glamorous, it was just stage-by-stage building up projects and budgets.

How is it that you came to hear about Murdered for Being Different and how did you get involved with the project?
I made a short film with a director called Caroline Bartleet, called Operator, which stars Kate Dickie and it won the BAFTA for best short film in 2016. Through that experience, I met Paul Andrew Williams who is married to Operator ’s director. Paul and I did a commercial together in 2016 for women’s aid and then he brought me onto Broadchurch. He was directing season three, and I did second unit. It wasn’t just him, there were also the other two directors. After Broadchurch we did Murdered for Being Different. That’s how I got to know him.

With Murdered for Being Different, what was the approach of dealing with a subject matter like this and a true story? What was the approach and process of shooting?
Well, I think that we were all very aware that it was real life, real people. Robert was involved in the project and the writing. Sophie’s mum was heavily involved and I think we all felt a great responsibility to tell it in a sensitive way. Especially since we filmed in the town where it happened, so there was a lot of pressure to keep it true and not sensationalise or glamourise it.

Paul’s big thing as a director is he always wants it to feel like real life, so we decided to do two different looks for the two timelines in the story. There’s the timeline of Gorman, which happens after the attack and its about whether or not he’s going to go and testify. We wanted that to feel very subdued, saturated, hand-held and natural.

With the Rob and Sophie love story, Paul just wanted everyone to fall in love with them. He felt like you have to fall in love with this couple if you’re going to feel the tragedy of what happens to Sophie, or to both of them. He wanted them to look like a Cure video, that was his reference, he wanted it to be beautiful and exciting and gorgeous and alternative and just really fun, and make their love feel as true and fun as possible.

We decided we’d have a much darker contrasting pallet, warmer- there’s lots of reds and blacks in the design, the costume and in the lighting. We did it on anamorphic lenses and everything is on track, dolly and tripod. Whereas the Gorman story is handheld, very much sort of instinctive, following them around and trying to stay with them and him as he makes this decision of whether or not he will go the police. That was our approach.

What was the pre-production and shoot time that you had for it, and what were the main challenges that you faced shooting a film about this for television, for the BBC?
We had a really supportive producer and production team, so there weren’t any challenges in terms of it being a TV show. The main challenge was the budget. It comes from the documentary fund of the BBC, so it’s a completely separate budget style to a normal BBC drama.

We had 13 days to shoot the whole thing and we had many locations every day. There were lots of unit moves and a very small crew. The challenge was trying to find a way to realise it within the budget that we had. The anamorphics- they’re very expensive lenses and we wanted to do it on an AMIRA and we couldn’t afford a mini, so we ended up shooting with the Alexa XT, which is twice the size of the mini.

That was a choice that I made because it was either shoot with the mini and don’t use anamorphics, or go for the heavier camera and shoot with the lenses that we wanted. I carried was far more kilos on my shoulder each day to make the sacrifice for the lenses. That was my choice and I’d rather have done that than not got the look that we wanted.

We had Abigail Lawrie and Nico Mirallegro who are seasoned actors, but we also had a huge cast of young teenagers who have never been in anything, so there’s a big challenge there of making them feel comfortable, making them feel okay. We had a huge fight scene which is extremely violent and distressing, so we have stunt work.

Recently it won a TV BAFTA, so congratulations to everyone on that. What is it you think that caught the imagination of the public? The story is a very tragic one, and as you say, it does tell a really amazing love story as well, but what is it you think that sort of connected and helped get you the award?

Gosh, I really have no idea. You’ll probably have to ask the judges! I think it’s a very affecting, moving emotional drama. My friends and family who watched it either turn it off because it’s too upsetting, or they call me in tears afterwards saying it was beautiful and they’re incredibly upset.

Moving on from Murdered for Being Different, what are you working on at the moment? What is coming up for you in the future?
I just finished a nice series of short films for BBC 4, which are curated by the Royal Court. It is a season of female stories in honour of 100 years of the vote for women.

That’ll be coming out in the middle of June and then I’m doing a new comedy for BBC 3, called Enterprise, which I’m prepping at the moment and we start shooting in a week. I’m very excited about that- it’s nice to be doing comedy after serious films.

What advice do you have for young professionals wanting to get involved in the camera department, or just generally in film?
My advice is work really hard. Don’t be late, ever. I think being polite, keen and enthusiastic, goes a long way. You build these relationships and you might end up working with someone ten years on that you worked with when you were at the bottom of the ladder. Or, someone who used to be your assistant is now going to be your boss, so, I think, don’t lose sight of the human connection and always maintain good relationships as much as possible.

Always show interest and ask lots of questions. Let people know what you want to do. I used to go on sets and be really shy and quiet. I wanted to ask lots of questions, but I’d be too embarrassed. No one even knew I wanted to be a DP. Unless you put it out there, people won’t be able to help you, so ask for what you need. Tell people what you’d like to do, don’t be afraid to ask for work experience or to shadow somebody or have a coffee. People are usually very nice and generous with their time, so I would just say put it into the universe and hopefully it will come back to you!

In terms of the camera department, if you want to be a DP, start shooting and do it as much as possible and gets people to watch. The amazing thing about technology is you can get a cheap camera or your iPhone or whatever, make a little film for no money, put it on Vimeo or YouTube, and send it to people, which beats making DVDs from your terrible mini DV film and then trying to post it to someone who you’ve never met and get them to watch it. That is the most amazing resource that people have and it is the ability to make something and get people to see it. Shoot as much as possible.