Sharp Shooting: Assassin’s Creed’s Director and DP Reveal the Fundamentals of Effective Cinematography

If your list of top moviemaking concerns places items such as “performance” and “on-set rapport” above “camera choice” and “format,” you might feel out of your depth when it comes to the actual shooting of your film.

Yet you’d be in good company.

“I’m not a really technical cinematographer,” says Adam Arkapaw. “I’m more of an explorative cinematographer.” He’s shot features like Animal Kingdom, McFarland, USA and this summer’s The Light Between Oceans, but Arkapaw’s oeuvre is arguably anchored in his work with director Justin Kurzel: The Snowtown Murders (2011), Macbeth (2015) and their newest, biggest movie, Assassin’s Creed. Based on the mega-popular Ubisoft videogame series, the film sees Michael Fassbender inhabiting the memories of a Spanish Inquisition-era ancestor and kicking a lot of 15th century butt. Sure, it’s action-packed and flashy, but, as Kurzel and Arkapaw tell it, the same principles that ruled their previous indie efforts applied to their approach here. So we asked the director-DP duo to unpack their longtime relationship, and explain how even the least technically inclined can put their best picture forward.

Justin Kurzel on the set of Assassin’s Creed, which shot in Spain and Malta, amongst other locations. Photograph by Kerry Brown

1. Find a Cinematographer You Genuinely Like—and Who Complements You

Justin Kurzel (JK): It’s about creating your tribe when you start making films, selecting and forming relationships with people on your level to make films together and into the future. It will just feel fresher, because you’ll all be virgins doing it together and you’ll all be just as scared. It’s a pretty exhausting and brutal process, making a film, and you’ve got to do it with people you really love and want to take with you. My biggest piece of advice: Nurture those relationships. You’ll get a sense of loyalty and the product will be much more coherent between the takes.

Adam and I like being around each other—that’s the most important thing to look for. You spend so much time with that person. I went to film school with him. I did my first commercial with him. We started making films around the same time. We didn’t really have a power structure. If you were a first-time filmmaker working with an experienced DP, it would be different. I’ve heard stories where situations haven’t worked out—where that DP is basically giving you a lesson on how to make a film.

Adam Arkapaw (AA): You respond to some people more than others. Meet with them and find out what common ground you’ve got. Do you respond in similar ways to issues? That’s hard to read in the beginning, but hopefully you’ve got a good read on people if you’re getting into the moviemaking business. Some directors like working in a confrontational way where they argue about everything—that’s how they find out what’s the right thing to do, and some DPs like to work like that as well. Other people are going to be more relaxed.

JK: I’ve always loved this about Adam—I’m airy and can even be deliberately naïve, but Adam’s always incredibly practical. He’s just always more level about what’s possible. Because he thinks, “What are our restrictions,” he always comes up with the most creative solution, as opposed to me. I want everything and think everything is achievable when actually it’s not.

We used talk in a much more intimate way on set. Now, we don’t talk about much. When we have ideas, because we are so trusting with each other, we’ll just try them straight away. There’s never a long debate; we’re not very precious about things. Adam and I have such a symbiotic relationship that we probably don’t share that relationship with a larger group of people the way we should. I think at times it becomes frustrating to others working around us—working out the code. It’s easier to do that on a smaller film but, on a larger film, it becomes harder.

2. Steal Ideas From Your Favorite Movies

AA: The great thing about cinematography is you can learn it from watching movies. See what other people have done, and explore the tools that are at your mercy. Whatever your list of favorite films is, you can easily find out how they were shot with IMDb—what format and what lenses. It’s pretty amazing at giving the information on the technical specs. That’s where you should start to figure out what’s the right thing for your movie.

I always like to write out a list of the cinematographer’s tools, like contrast, depth of field, color, movement and compositions, then explore each option and look at extremes of how people have really pushed the envelope. How could you use that to enhance your narrative? And ask around. There are cinematographers with more experience who could guide you.

Killer visuals: Michael Fassbender as Aguilar, an assassin amidst the Spanish Inquisition, in Assassin’s Creed. Photograph by Kerry Brown

3. Visit Locations Beforehand to Shoot Tests

AA: Take a camera to the locations where you’re shooting and just shoot footage and just experiment. It makes it a lot easier to make bold decisions about color when you’ve seen the location and you’ve gathered some images, and you’ve put it into a color suite. You can do that with still images—you don’t have to actually have all the gear that you’re going to use on the shoot.

JK: We’re very inspired by the environment. With The Snowtown Murders, that particular part of Australia in winter had a very gothic look and feel. We were looking at a lot of paintings, like Parmigianino and Bacon—the light in these paintings. A lot of Snowtown is set in these small, bunkered houses; they contrast with the landscape, which opens up and swallows those insular and claustrophobic spaces. With Macbeth, a lot of it was about Scotland. As an Australian with an affinity for the landscape, I went to Scotland to observe the light and color, as well as take a lot of photos and grade the color. I usually collect an enormous amount of imagery. Through osmosis, the look starts to define itself as we begin shooting.

AA: Test exposures, and then take it back to a color suite and test different grades. Try lots of different processes. With your colorist, start with an open, honest dialogue about what you expect and are looking for. Always bring them in during pre-production. The worst thing is when a cinematographer’s on set and shooting something and the director hates it, so have your colorist on at the beginning. It’s a collaborative art form. If I was going to do only what I wanted to do on a film, all my films would look the same. Within the boundaries of what my collaborators like, I have to find something that I like as well. That’s the challenge and the fun part.

4. Storyboard, Then Forget About It

AA: The good thing about preparing a storyboard or a shotlist is that when you get there on the day, you know that you’ve thought through the scene and the point of the scene, and you’ve made decisions already to enhance the narrative. You’re not going to get home that night and thinking, “Oh, I should have done this or that…” You’ve actually taken the time in preproduction, when you have more space and can explore the options without the stress of being on set.

JK: Sometimes a film is really storyboarded; sometimes I get bored with the storyboards. I’m much more intrigued with what’s happening in front of me today. I always feel nervous that I’m not storyboarding more, but every time I do storyboards, I never look at them. What Adam and I are seeing in front of us with the actors and environment is so much more interesting and alive than a bunch of drawings. We do them and we look at them but they don’t become a bible. We never go back to them, thinking, “We didn’t get that shot.” Once you start filming, you’re caught up in that. You don’t have to refer to them again if you know what you’re trying to cover.

AA: You have to be spontaneous enough to accept the conditions that you find on set. You might have wanted to shoot in a certain direction during prep, then you turn up and the light actually looks amazing in another direction. Maybe you planned to shoot with the sun backlighting your image, and you turn up and it’s overcast, and there’s some incredible storm clouds in the opposite direction. Weather can change the tone of the scene, and you never could have come up with that no matter how long you sat in a preproduction room dreaming things up.

5. Don’t Fixate on Budget—It Matters Less Than You Might Think

AA: I think people are pretty forgiving when they watch a movie shot on a low budget. It’s just important to get the flavor of it right and have a point of view that’s strong. Film is a sort of compromise. An artist might make one painting over a year. You have to do between eight and 50 compositions with lighting in a day, so you’re always making compromises.

These days, digital cameras available to a lower budget are the same ones used on a big budget. And depending on availability of the lens, you can get the same lenses. With Assassin’s Creed, I was actually surprised that the dynamic on a bigger-budget film remains the same. No one wants to spend more money than they have to. You’re still begging, borrowing, stealing, asking for the essentials.

JK: We wanted to do Snowtown on 16mm because we could film on film—the cost difference wasn’t crazy—and the grainy texture was what we were going for. We couldn’t afford to shoot Macbeth on film; the conditions didn’t allow for it. Also, we wanted to be able to do long takes and keep the scene going, getting runs and runs of stuff. We also thought that working on digital would be interesting with a period piece. With Assassin’s, we worked with the Arri Alexa and had so many visual effects we were doing that it seemed that would be the most sensible way to shoot it. I was always a film snob and I definitely changed my mind as I started to work with Adam on the Alexa. We got to really enjoy the depths of the results we were getting.

Kurzel reprised many of the same personnel from Macbeth in Assassin’s Creed—including Marion Cotillard. Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Doing a film like Assassin’s Creed, you do feel overwhelmed by how much you’re spread across actors, stunts, production design, costumes. We had to think on the run quite a bit. It’s the first time we’ve done action sequences on this scale. We had a very limited second unit, so we had to do a lot of these scenes ourselves. Adam came to Assassin’s Creed with a solid artillery of machines and mechanisms that he wanted to use. One thing that was important to us was how to get a sense of movement and flight mixed with a sense of flow—how to jump from one spot of a building to another for real. Adam was very interested in how to make the cameras move quickly. We used drones, but we also had fantastic cables set up where we could get some great runs of the camera following particular action sequences.

6. Help Your Actors Work With the Camera, Not Against It

JK: With nonprofessional actors, I’ve felt like I had to hide the camera, but it’s impossible. You’re never going to be invisible. What happens instead is that the environment becomes familiar after a while. It doesn’t feel like a threat anymore; everything feels like a part of the room, and actors forget after a while. For Snowtown, as we got further into the film, the cameras got closer and closer in.

Adam has a very quiet, dignified respect for actors. He’s like a cat. You just don’t feel him. He becomes one of the performers; he moves and shifts to the rhythm of the scene. You can really tell Adam’s reading of a performance. There are some DPs that aren’t even looking, but I can tell by the way he’s moving the camera that he’s completely in tune with the performer. Some DPs feel like actors are just props. A good DP changes performers and loves being around them.

AA: Make them feel at ease on set. It’s good to try to have a personal relationship with them. Make a point to make sure they know the crew. At the end of every night after shooting Snowtown we’d all hang out and have a beer together. That was an intense film so we’d do a debrief. That was a part of getting to know and trusting each other—developing a relationship where it’s easier to put yourself in a vulnerable position.

You might be in a situation where bringing a camera up in someone’s face is getting in the way of them doing a good job. In that case, rethink your approach. That said, most professional actors are professional can deal with whatever your aesthetic is—whether it’s wider lenses in their faces, or something more voyeuristic.

Justin Kurzel on the set of Assassin’s Creed, which shot in Spain and Malta, amongst other locations. Photograph by Kerry Brown

7. Prioritize Performance First, Beauty Second

AA: I had some experience on the Lord of the Rings trilogy with DP Andrew Lesnie and this lesson he taught me stayed with me: It doesn’t matter how pretty your film is, because unless the performances are strong, nobody’s going to see it. You can make everyone wait ’til sunset to shoot the scene and give the director one or two takes, and it’ll look beautiful, but if the performances are terrible because they only got one take, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. I like to ask our lead actor if they’d like to do their coverage first or second. Sometimes Michael Fassbender would like to get his coverage done first, sometimes he’d rather wait ’til we’ve shot the other coverage. Your film pivots on the lead roles, so I like to offer them a way to work where they have a chance to give their best performance.

JK: Directing actors is the thing that I love most. How do you make actors feel as though they can move and be anywhere, say anything? That’s our big challenge. I like things that are messy and instinctive. Adam does, too, but he wants to make sure there’s a visual language to hold in that spontaneity. Snowtown captured a very real world and performances through a very cinematic point of view. It’s important to make a film feel fresh, not contrived toward setups—but, at the same time, to not lose an assuredness in your visual language. MM

Assassin’s Creed opens in theaters December 21, 2016, courtesy of 20th Century Fox.