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‘Mr. Turner,’ ‘Legend’ DP Dick Pope on Set Discipline, Digital, Collaboration

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland – Cinematographer Dick Pope doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When he’s on the set, he demands that his crew avoid distractions and stay focused on the task at hand. “I hate small talk, reading newspapers, anything that will put the actors off doing their best.”

And when Pope is judging the films of others, even the work of new filmmakers, he will vote harshly if they haven’t done their homework. And judging films is exactly what Pope is doing this week, as jury president of the Cinematographers’ Debuts Competition at the Camerimage film festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. The fest began on Nov. 14 and will end Nov. 19.

“They may be debut DPs but I’m not very forgiving of substandardly photographed films,” he says. “That’s true of any cinematographer. Whether it’s their first film or their 50th, they should be prepared enough so that the photography is worth watching.”

Pope is credited as cinematographer on over 50 films, documentaries, and TV series dating back to the 1970s. Many of his films have been for director Mike Leigh, the latest being “Mr. Turner,” which was nominated for four Oscars in 2015. Pope himself was nommed for two Oscars, “Mr. Turner” and “The Illusionist,” and won a BSC award for the former.

Pope’s most recent feature is “Legend,” directed by Brian Helgeland, in which Tom Hardy plays identical twin gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray, whose organized-crime spree terrorizes London in the 60s.

His mantra to all DPs: collaboration. “Cinematography is not stills photography,” he says. “You have to work with a director and crew. Cinematography has to tell a story, not just be a collection of beautiful images.”

Paradoxically, for all his lauded work over the years, Pope considers himself “a bit of a technophobe.”

Asked if he closely follows the latest technical changes such as high dynamic range, high frame rates, and 3D, he says, “I know I should but it bores the living daylights out of me. [Fortunately] I’m surrounded by people who know what they’re doing. I look beyond the camera at what I’m photographing. I’m interested in the image and the emotion, and filming to serve the story.”

In that sense, Pope is further behind the technical curve than Leigh, who insisted on shooting “Mr. Turner” digitally, even though the DP would have preferred to use film to capture the work of a painter considered revolutionary at the time.

“Mike loves digital,” says Pope. “He’s very forward looking. He even said that a progressive thinker like J.M.W. Turner, if he were alive today, would have wanted to shoot the biopic digitally. So Mike bludgeoned me into going digital. We used the Arri Alexa camera and, of course, it all worked out very well.”

But for the most part, Pope embraces digital heartily and like most DPs, shoots that way now. But even more than for image capture, he appreciates digital’s role in transforming the quality of the projected image.

“Projection is almost always digital now,” says the DP, “and thank God for that. Film projection was the bane of every cinematographer’s life, as when, on premiere night, when the theater would go dark, there was a bloody great scratch down the middle of the picture. I think a lot of the pro-film arguments are based on nostalgia, not results.”

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