Christopher Ross says his greatest challenge shooting the first two episodes of FX’s Shogun was recreating the Japan of the 1600s – a world that no longer remains.

“The biggest challenge for all the various heads of departments is that essentially the universe doesn’t exist. It’s shooting a medieval costume drama set in Japan —  it doesn’t have a huge number of frames of reference,” says Ross, who was the cinematographer on the episodes alongside director Jonathan van Tulleken.

“You have little snippets of frames of reference from various other key genre films,” Ross notes. “But there is no concrete place that you can visit to take any sort of inspiration. So in a way it’s sort of like a cyclical process.”

That means many collaborators — including production designer Helen Jarvis and costume designer Carlos Rosario — going back and forth to bring the sets and characters to life. 

“It feeds from those guys into the director, into me, out the other side, around and around and around, and, and as time wears on, and the crew of hundreds puts in their creative input, slowly but surely, all of the hands are on the clay trying to create this sculpture,” Ross explains.

Cinematographer Christopher Ross

Ross first worked with van Tulleken 15 years ago on the hit British series Misfits, and they have since worked together on Top Boy and Trust. Van Tulleken introduced Ross to Shogun showrunners Justin Marks and Rachel Kondo and the rest of the team — “and then I interviewed to be his partner in crime,” Ross explained.

He did extensive lens and camera tests to get the look of the show exactly right, and several days of tests on the characters in costume.

“We were able to present the universe to the execs and to the studio to say, ‘Here is Shogun, this is what we think — what do you reckon? Should we take a punt?’” 

They did. The FX series has been one of the most acclaimed and successful new programs of 2024, and is a strong Emmy contender in many categories, including best cinematography.

Shogun, based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell, follows Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) as he tries to fend off his enemies on the Council of Regents. Then a mysterious English “Anjin,” or pilot (Cosmo Jarvis) arrives and changes the dynamics. It became a 1980 TV miniseries, shot in Japan, and starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. While it was told from the English point of view, the new Shogun is told primarily from the perspective of the Japanese.

The Location of the New Shogun

FX’s Shogun series found its Japan across the Pacific Ocean, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a lush, rising film capital that has also hosted productions including Deadpool and War for the Planet of the Apes. But the two lands share a prehistoric connection: they were once closely connected as part of the supercontinent Pangea, before it broke apart into the world we know today. 

“So the Pacific Northwest climate and topography is not entirely dissimilar” from that of Japan, Ross notes.

“Helen Jarvis picked a bunch of great locations to then construct Osaka Palace and the Osaka Harbor and the various higher and lower villages,” he says.

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Ross’ work involved shooting everything from the dark interiors of the palace to deep forests to cliffs and within a wooden ship being battered in a storm. Given that the story unfolds in a world before electricity, Ross had to be constantly aware of the sun, stars and moon. He used very modern technology to reproduce a period more than 400 years ago.

His iPad apps include Notablity, which he uses to “break down every script and do my lighting plans on and communicate with my team;” Artemis — “every scene has a page and a drawing associated with it with with a frame grabs from location images”; and Helios — for “sun path detailing.”

His interest in the mathematical aspects of a shot are less surprising when you learn of his educational background. Though he grew up fascinated by film — and early touchstone was the book Scorsese on Scorsesehe earned his university degree in physics — with “geometrical optics as a little aside.”

He and van Tulleken also created a “mood film” from lots of source material to capture the atmosphere.

“For Shogun we created a three-minute video of clips from Kurosawa and Apocalypse Now and The Revenant and a whole heap of a whole heap of great references to a piece of music written by Atticus and Leopold Ross from The Defiant Ones,” he recalls. 

Hiroyuki Sanada in Shogun. FX.

This enabled everyone to collaborate on shots that included Steadicam, cranes, and occasional drones and cablecam.

But Ross also spent a fair amount of time in the dirt. 

“I operate camera a lot myself and I find that I am laying on the ground or crawling  around on my hands and knees in some random forest,” he says.

Shogun DP Christopher Ross, From Physics to Film

So how did a physics major end up making films? He spent some of his time at university indulging his lifelong passion for movies.

“I met a bunch of other filmmakers that I loved that were wanting to also be writer- directors. And I basically became their cinema buddy. I ended up shooting with lots of them, just on video. … Super VHS, that kind of thing. And I guess I got the bug. And then it’s a really awful addiction, that you’re compelled to keep making images.

“Shooting videos and short films became shooting music videos on celluloid back in the late ‘90s, early noughties, and I found myself working in television and at a rental company in London, and was begging and borrowing cameras every few days, every few weekends, making little short films.”

While working at the rental company, he spent hours learning about each piece of equipment.  

“Every cinematographer has some crazy twisted journey to their creative journey, and mine was sitting behind a bench contemplating the inner workings of an Arri SR3 and various types of lens. I must have serviced and repaired a thousand lenses.”

He also shot his first feature, director Paul Andrew Williams’ 2006 London to Brighton. That led to many more opportunities, including Misfits, which introduced him to van Tellekum and Shogun.

Shogun is now streaming on FX on Hulu.

Main image: Anna Sawai in Shogun. FX.

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