Explosive Material

Philipp Blaubach / Gunpowder

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Explosive Material

Philipp Blaubach / Gunpowder

The image of Guy Fawkes in the cellars under the Palace of Westminster, surrounded by barrels of explosives, is among the best known in English history. There is much more to the story than the failed attempt to blow up Parliament, however, which cinematographer Philipp Blaubach and director J Blakeson set out to show in the BBC drama Gunpowder.

A pet project for its star and co-executive producer Kit Harington, who plays the leader of the conspiracy to kill King James I, Robert Catesby, Gunpowder has cinematic sensibilities and influences. Both Blaubach and Blakeson have predominantly film backgrounds and first worked together on the director's debut feature, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed (2009). The director of photography says he and Blakeson saw the potential in Ronan Bennett's Gunpowder script for the visuals to create a great deal of the atmosphere.

This is strikingly realised in the opening scene of episode one, in which a secret Catholic mass attended by Catesby is raided by Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley), right-hand man of Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss). "J got excited about directing that scene," Blaubach says. "It's rare in TV drama to have one sequence that is 15 to 20 minutes long, but it was an opportunity to ratchet-up the tension with different shots and looks."

A set was built at studios in Bradford to avoid rules and restrictions imposed when using heritage buildings. "It also meant we could be very specific in building the priest holes and use a large number of candles for the lighting," Blaubach says. The shoot was on two ARRI Alexa Minis to keep within the tight schedule, with a third camera body available to "leapfrog" on to a MōVI rig.

"We tested various cameras but, because we were dealing with very low light levels and colour temperatures, we decided on the Alexa Mini with Master Prime lenses," Blaubach comments. "There weren't too many specs to meet - it wasn't 4K, the BBC asked for HD."

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The search scene takes place in early morning but was shot dusk for dawn. Many other sequences in Gunpowder are in candle-lit rooms and dim alleyways. These looks, Blaubach explains, were influenced both by painters – the Dutch masters and Caravaggio – and film noir: "Shaun Dooley looks like Orson Welles and we had him coming out of the darkness in his hat and cape. It was a dark period of time and we wanted to show that but in quite a painterly way."

A lighting package was put together with gaffer Tim Wiley, including what Blaubach describes as a mixture of things. "We looked at limiting it to Tungsten, which gives the best representation of firelight," he says. "Some special flicker boxes were designed, but we also found we could use LEDs with colour correction and diffusion filters. That made it feel right and worked because they are very lightweight."

Whilst the conspirators live in mud and gloom, the world of the King (Derek Riddell) is bright and bejewelled, in-part inspired by the films of Peter Greenaway. Four look-up tables with different densities and curves were created by colourist Thomas Urbye at The Look.

"They were good LUTs, although we ended-up only using the medium curve," says Blaubach. "And we didn't often change the colour temperature on the camera, which was shooting in Pro Res and has that baked-in."

"J (Blakeson) got excited about directing that (opening) scene. It's rare in TV drama to have one sequence that is 15 to 20 minutes long, but it was an opportunity to ratchet-up the tension with different shots and looks."

- Philipp Blaubach

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There is movement to the story, as Catesby and his men lurk and run, pursued by Cecil and Wade. Blaubach used cranes and brought in a Steadicam AR (Autolevel Revolution) to maintain a solid horizon, as well as the MōVI rig, although otherwise there was little handheld work.

The key sequence in which Catesby walks up to Parliament and begins to formulate his plan was shot using dolly tracks inlaid into the ground.

"Kit held on to a boom stick so he could walk the ten paces through pools of light to the end of the dolly," Blaubach comments. "The grips had already laid the track and we had only three and a half minutes to do the shot at the end of a busy day. But we got it in the last minute."

Gunpowder became instantly notorious for its violence and gore, notably in a ten-minute execution scene involving hanging, drawing and quartering and a naked woman being crushed under a metal door. Blaubach observes that through a combination of camera angles and clever editing by Mark Eckersley it's not gratuitous but, working with the sound effects, he agrees viewers may have thought they saw more than they did.

"It was a time of extremism and to be historically accurate it was necessary to show the barbarity," he concludes. Horrible histories indeed.