Welcome to World Builders, our new ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with Ollie Downey about the cinematography of Hanna season two.
Stepping into the second season of a television show is a tricky proposition. As the new guy, you were not there when the style, tone, and general aesthetic formed during the previous season. The gang did their job already. You’re here to fall in line and work within the established parameters. Those that bash against the mold break themselves, not the mold.
What came before in Hanna was what attracted Ollie Downey to the series. He was a fan, and he wanted in. His vision aligned with what Sarah Adina Smith and cinematographer Dana Gonzales concocted in the first two episodes, and their look built off the original Joe Wright film. Fairy tale super-spy action. Saying “yes” to all those words is easy.
“Dana is a great DP,” says Downey. “His work in the first episode is lovely. It’s really beautiful. It’s quite sophisticated and sensitive and cinematic for TV drama. That was a really attractive thing to try and follow.”
Downey operates as the cinematographer on the first and last block of Hanna‘s second season with an assist from Stephen Murphy on the middle three episodes. The strategy allows for extensive preparation for the back half, including a furious sprint of globe-hopping. Television moves at the speed of a blitz; you have to build time where there is none.
“It’s about the imagery in the early days of production,” says Downey. “You have limited time at the very beginning of prep with directors, and you can be playing catch up because they’ve already been on for a month or two, as has the production designer and the location manager.”
Inspiration must come quickly. Again, you repeat the words in your mind, “fairy tale super-spy action.” Downey fully absorbed the first season into his being and went from there.
“I tend to get a load of images that are relevant to different story arcs and different countries or locations,” explains Downey. “I put them in a Dropbox file and divide them up. I just keep firing them at the director and start to strike out the ones you don’t like and discuss what you do like about the ones that remain in that folder.”
Falling into the form built by Gonzales removes one burden. The look is there, and it’s distinct. Once Downey determined the borders he could work within, he could let his philosophy of the image fill in the gaps.
“It makes it easier to imbue some of that in what you’re doing,” he continues. “You take the stuff you really like, the beautiful sensitivity — the softness, the slightly fairyness — the sensitivity to Hanna’s plight, and bring it into this bigger world that you’re developing with all these new recruits that are going out into the world to do what Hanna was trained for.”
In season two, some of the fairy tale elements fade away. The coming-of-age story becomes the focus. In the narrative, Downey pulls the visual language.
“It has a mother-daughter relationship at its core,” he says. “It still needed that vulnerability to it, and the cinematography had to sort of be sympathetic to the emotional state of the recruits — these orphaned young women who are going through adolescence in this very extreme environment.”
The second season opens with Hanna (Esme Creed-Miles) deep within the Romanian forest alongside her comrade Clara (Yasmin Monet Prince). Escape from the Utrax assassin syndicate is within their grasp, however, when they bust into a remote cabin and discover a photograph depicting a nameless mother and daughter. A desire within Hanna to understand her biological beginnings ignites.
“Because the location’s strange,” says Downey, “it naturally takes on a slightly different life of its own. It’s not quite so dark and Eastern European. It’s in this quite reasonably bright, austere country mansion in Northern England. So, that in itself takes on some stylings as did the work of the production designer, Carly [Reddin].”
Through an unexpected turn of events, the second block of episodes started shooting before the first block finished. The result being that Downey’s last batch of shows was slightly delayed in pre-production, giving him a few extra days to prepare. More time is more time. Downey didn’t question; he took advantage.
“When you’re doing the second block,” he says, “you’re guided by watching all the rushes from the first block. You have the same costumes and the same locations. It gives you a visual continuity.”
To maintain this continuity, Downey and colorist Asa Shoul designed a LUT (Look Up Table) based on what came before. The LUT allows the cinematographer in post-production to transform their source image into the image they want it to be by calibrating and correcting the color. Armed with the LUT, Downey could go into the second block of episodes, which also required a massive change of scenery, with confidence.
“We shot the first ten weeks in London, Wales, Paris, and Dunkirk,” he says. “Then we jumped over to Barcelona for a couple of months in the end. It’s logistically challenging, but you trust in your crew. I work with a great camera operator, John Hembrough, and a great grip in Phil Whittaker. They take care of their side of things.”
While Downey never falls into the mode of automatic, going into shooting with a finely honed LUT and a crew of die-hard and capable enthusiasts nurtures a state of contentment on set. The preparation is the armor against surprise, including impossible to predict weather patterns.
“One day we’re in a forest in Wales,” continues Downey, “and it’s raining, and then the sun’s out, and then it’s raining again. A week later, we were in Paris in a fifth-floor apartment with a broken lift on the hottest day ever recorded. Forty-three degrees Celsius [that’s 109 degrees Fahrenheit for Yanks].”
All film sets are a matter of bobbing and weaving. Downey and co. improvise and adapt. The shot is always achievable.
“It was a wild ride, but it’s brilliant,” he says. “Just so enjoyable. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Hanna season two is now streaming on Amazon Prime. You can also follow the adventures of Ollie Downey via his Instagram account.