Lorenzo Levrini on shooting zombies in barren British action flick Redcon-1
Redcon-1 is a new British film in which eight Special Forces soldiers are sent on a probable suicide mission into the zombie-infested remains of the UK. With the film fresh from its Raindance premiere and playing in VUE cinemas this week, I am very pleased to be able to throw some questions in the direction of Director of Photography, Lorenzo Levrini, to learn more about shooting this crazy, ambitious and if I may say, sumptuous looking action horror.
First off can you tell us a bit more about the narrative of Redcon-1?
Redcon-1 essentially merges the action, martial arts and zombie genres. After an infection breaks out in South East England, eight Special Forces soldiers are sent into infected London to track down and bring back the scientist responsible for the outbreak, who is the only means to a cure.
How did you get involved in the project?
I was recommended to production manager Alessio Bergamo and the next day had a three-hour interview with Chee. He liked my ideas for the look of the film and my willingness to get this hugely ambitious project shot with very humble means and still give it an epic look. The day after that I was in the martial arts gym for rehearsal and two days later I was travelling up to Scotland to shoot. It was all a bit of a whirlwind!
I’ve watched the trailer a few times now, and it looks brilliant – how did you manage to get the shots of all the empty cities – I believe you shot in 12 different cities?
The first thing to be said about Redcon-1 is that it was made on the passion and hard work of countless individuals. Our goal was to give it a high budget look, but the budget was incredibly modest and everybody, from the zombie enthusiasts all around the UK who gave themselves to the project, to the military vehicle owners who donated their time, to the cast and crew and all the way up to Chee, who was the most tireless and selfless worker I have ever seen, worked insanely hard for very little or no money.
The logistics around selling the scope of the film on such a tight budget were truly mind boggling. We went through different techniques and iterations. We did a few road closures in Glasgow and littered the roads with garbage. We shot in business parks in Preston at the weekend so there would be no one there. The art department had scrap cars delivered to almost every street location on very little money by striking deals with scrap yards. We cheated shots, used smoke machines and fire bars to hide areas we couldn’t control. We had a lot of skeleton crew days and pickup days just going around and picking off shots of empty areas.
Going into such an ambitious project, how do you decide on the look of the film and how do you go about planning such impressive action and scenes of destruction?
The look of the film was very planned out and subject of extensive discussion every single day from the first day of prep to the last day of the grade. Chee had shot some early footage a year prior, spherical and with modern zoom lenses. I told him I wanted to go the other way and shoot anamorphic with vintage prime lenses. As well as being a stylistic decision, I think with this kind of film, anamorphic plays into audiences’ subconscious associations with classic cinema to make them feel like they are watching something more classic, timeless and blockbuster. Anamorphic also helps blur the background where you can’t get the right amount of extras or vehicles or dressing. I knew it would be a lot more forgiving in that sense.
Chee wanted to create a British indie with a Hollywood blockbuster look and every decision came from this idea. I created a green, constrasty and slightly desaturated look for the RED cameras in prep and this appeared as a LUT on the monitors on set and became baked into the offline through the avid AML. Having this on set and in the offline allowed us to focus our creativity. In the grade we ended up working quite closely to this look and the finished film does not look significantly different.
In terms of coverage and shot choices, Chee had the whole film storyboarded by a top tier artist before I was hired. He also had a full paper edit of the whole film. The challenge was how to deliver this vision with very tight limitations on budget, schedule and extras numbers. We very rarely followed these documents verbatim. Deciding how to cover each scene in a way that would fulfil the vision while staying within our budget and schedule constraints was a huge challenge and I think 1st AD Lukas Kudapcenka was issuing new schedules almost daily.
Apart from our creative choices, the lighting and camera style was invariably affected by our budget. There wasn’t a single steadicam or gimbal day. Most of the film is handheld, with a little dolly work. We had no big lights and worked primarily with kinos and a few HMIs out of a sprinter van. A huge part of my job was figuring out how to translate these limitations into creative tools to hone the look of the film.
I have a preference for wide lenses up close rather than long lenses from further away, and I worked very hard to maintain this aesthetic. I forbid the B and C operators from shooting long without foreground. Either they were shooting details from close in, or if they wanted to shoot the cast, they had to find some foreground to do it through. I learnt a lot from working with Chee on perspective. I usually use single point perspectives and think a lot of about camera position and perspective consistency, but Chee taught me a lot about the juxtaposition of different perspectives to give scale. In terms of our coverage we worked more like a Hollywood film than a British indie. Everything was covered extensively and it was a big job to give all the coverage the stylistic stamp we had decided upon, and not let it drift into ‘hosing down’ a scene.
I have to also credit the art department, make up and costume departments for their impressive work. A lot of the look of the film comes from what they were able to put in front of our cameras.
I may be wrong, but I assume there are some VFX shots in Redcon-1, as a DoP how do envisage what the scene will look like if you need to add effects in post?
Apart from the obvious blood and muzzle flash effects, we actually set out to make a film with no visual effects, but realised after the main leg of the shoot that we needed some VFX elements to give scale. I brought in my old friend and crowd specialist Jon Pugh, who had just done crowd replication on The Crown, to work on a few key shots. We had a pickup leg in April 2017 and did a handful of shots taking half a day each, with a few hundred extras, to create the appearance of thousands of extras. Diogo Fernandes worked on a few destruction effects on some of our GVs and drone shots, and Felician Lepadatu and his team worked incredibly hard on hundreds of shots to create some impressive muzzle flash and blood effects. All the VFX is compositing and there is no CG/3D work in the film.
Is this the biggest project you’ve worked on?
In terms of number of days, logistics and complexity this was definitely the biggest project I’ve worked on. We had three cameras, two units, and on certain days, a large number of cast and crew.
You’ve got a very impressive back catalogue of short films, apart from the running time, what are the main differences between your short work and Redcon-1?
Although there are similarities to my other work, I think it’s fair to say this goes further and is the most extreme piece of fiction I’ve ever shot and the closest to a high budget blockbuster feel.
In terms of the realities of the work, a feature of this scope is much tougher to create a consistent look for than a short film, especially with three cameras, a lot of coverage, and the lack of control associated with low budgets and tough schedules.
I’ve realised that not everyone will know what a DoP does, so for those who aren’t familiar with the role, can you tell us a little bit about it and how it fits into the film making process?
The DP’s job is to translate the director’s vision into photographic execution. There’s a lot of people working directly on the look of the film, such as the production designer, costume designer and make up artist, but the DP is responsible for the camera, lens and lighting approach to the film. We read the script, sit down with the director and figure out what they want the film to look like. We translate that into a specific photographic vision and then execute that.
Finally, can you tell us about your future projects?
I’ve just finished working on an airline commercial in the Middle East which I think will come out really well. I have a few exciting feature projects in the pipeline which I can’t wait to get stuck into!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work as a DoP?
Obviously you need technical mastery and photographic craft, but I’d say the main thing you need is culture and taste. I was born in Rome and that background is hugely influential to how I light and shoot. You have to have a point of view on things. My advice to any aspiring DP is to work on their style and taste. Experiment and find out what you like, what you don’t like and why.
Photo credit: Zak Chowdhury
You can follow Lorenzo on Instagram: @LorenzoLevrini
Redcon-1 is playing in the UK this week and beyond. Check out a list of all dates and book tickets at www.redcon1film.co.uk.