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Nominated for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut at the 2021 BAFTA Film Awards, Ben Sharrock’s Limbo is a wry, funny, and poignant cross-cultural satire that subtly sews together the hardship and hope of the refugee experience. Set on a fictional remote Scottish island, it follows a group of new arrivals as they await the results of their asylum claims.
We had the opportunity to speak with Director of Photography Nick Cooke and find out how he developed this cinematic style for this award-nominated feature:
Hi Nick, please could you tell us a little bit about how you got started in the industry? What inspired you to become a cinematographer?
Well, I've always loved observing the world around me, and holding a camera has allowed me to this more often. I love how you can capture a moment and then represent that on screen in so many different ways. So it was that choice of representation and observation that inspired me. Then at 16, I decided to pack my bags, move up to London and work for anyone that would have me! I actually started in the Art Dept first and then Locations before becoming a Camera Trainee/Assistant - Take 2 was one of the first rental houses I visited.
Limbo has received amazing reviews and several award nominations. How did you come to be involved in the project?
Crazy, really, I'm so happy for the film; it's taken on an almost human characteristic in my mind's eye; Limbo is very close to my heart for many reasons - some good, some bad. I feel as if it's a child walking free in the world without supervision. Ben and I had worked together a few years ago on his first feature Pikadero, so we built on that relationship.
How did you find working with Ben Sharrock? Please tell us more about the collaborative process between the two of you.
Love working with Ben, he describes a very exact idea of what he wants - but then also surprises you by mixing it up from time to time. It would be easy to sit back and assume everything is a flat perspective, wide shot, but it's more complicated than that. So ultimately, we talk about almost everything, the frame, the blocking, the edit, in some shape or form - and we obsess over it! We literally sit and playthings in our heads during pre-production until neither of us has any more thoughts or questions about it. Sounds painful? But this is where the fun comes in; we often start from that balanced perspective and then let the scene inspire the delivery of information and find odd ways of showing that to an audience. We don’t storyboard, but we can see the film in our heads. So far, it's been worth every minute of that time spent. Ben then goes and does the same work again in the edit - which always amazes me.
Describe the film’s visual style. What did you set out to achieve when creating this? Were there any films you turned to for inspiration?
Ben wanted to feel that everything had been picked up and deliberately placed in the scene. It is sort of visually representative of what the characters are experiencing. They have been picked up from these war-torn areas and placed on this island. We wanted the composition to create that same feeling. We looked at a lot of locations that could generate that feeling. For example, the phone box by the side of the road feels like somebody just picked it up and placed it in this very odd location. There is a streetlight that makes you wonder, “why did someone put a light there?” We did that throughout the film. I think that by framing the shots so that the horizon is always in the centre, and some object, like a streetlight, is in the middle, it heightens the feeling that these things have just been picked up and placed there arbitrarily.
We looked at a lot of photographs too. We looked at the work of the German Fred Herzog, who took lots of photographs in Canada. We considered Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, who took photos across Europe. We also referenced French photographer, Raymond Depardon, who took some amazing images in Glasgow. We looked at the polaroids of Wim Wenders’s and Robby Müller, especially ones taken in America with vast horizons. We didn't realise it at the time, but so many of our influences were people creating images in places that were not their homelands - much like our story.
Which camera and lenses did you choose to create the desired look, and what was the reasoning behind your decision? Are there certain brands you usually to stick to, or did you test multiple combinations?
We did test quite a few combinations; we tried anamorphic and spherical and even considered combining these to create different feelings throughout the film. In the end, we choose the Alexa SXT for anything with the cast - plus, I like the viewfinder and the feel of it to operate. Alongside this, we had a backup body of the Mini - the Mini was used for many early morning/late evening hikes across fields for specific landscapes. We only took the wide end of the Ultra Primes to our island - which started at 12mm and ended at 32mm. 28mm was our "long" lens. Having worked with Ben before, we decided there was no need for anything longer!
What challenges did you face while shooting Limbo, and how did you overcome them?
We could have shot the film on the mainland, but by going out to this island, the landscape really dictated a lot of the look of the film. In Scotland, the weather changes so quickly that in one take, you could be framing the mist rolling in, and then by take two, the winds blow up, and there's not a single cloud in the sky. In one way, the landscape was our friend, because it gave us so much variety. But the constantly changing weather also made each day a challenge. The rain deflector was pretty much always on the camera! And we put everything on it to stop it misting up - but even then, the constant changes in temperature, rain, mist, fog always effected us.
Photos by Colin Tennant and Saskia Coulson
How was your experience working with Procam Take 2?
I’ve always been welcome - ever since being a trainee, they've answered questions and gave the time no matter how simple or complex the project. They're open-minded in a way some rental houses haven't been. They even want to hear about the story - and how I am planning to tell it. And then offer ways of achieving it! So it's always been a pleasure.
What’s next for you?
Can't say too much, but there is a Turkish language film called Anatolian Leopard, directed by Emre Kayiş, in post at the minute. And have also just finished the final three episodes of This Is Going To Hurt, based on the book by Adam Kay.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring cinematographers, what would it be?
Even though I've just answered these questions about cinematography, I still consider myself an aspiring cinematographer. Also, on another note - yesterday, my partner in life, Linda, said that the only real currency in this world worth anything is time.
Limbo will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland by MUBI on 30th July. Check out the trailer below: