Cinematographer Si Bell was thrilled to learn he and director Anthony Byrne had been tapped to shoot the fifth season of BBC’s “Peaky Blinders,” but surprised to find out how free a hand executive producers Caryn Mandabach and Jamie Glazebrook were giving them to determine the scheme of their six-episode run.
“I expected to meet the execs and talk about the set look and all the rules and how they liked things done, but it wasn’t like that at all,” Bell says.
The series stars Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, head of the Shelby organized crime family in 1920s Birmingham, England. Loosely based on a real-life urban youth gang that was active in the nation from the 1890s into the early 20th century, the series jumps forward several years each season from the previous one to deliver a fresh narrative. For U.S. viewers, Season 5 drops Oct. 4 on Netflix. It begins with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Shelbys at the top of their game, having broken into the biggest con job of them all: politics.
Each season also has used a different director-cinematographer team, thus Bell and Byrne had creative options for fashioning their own take on the series.
This season starts “five years after the last, so it’s a new story,” says Bell. “And in it, Tommy’s in a completely different place.”
Because of their collaborations on BBC’s “Ripper Street,” ITV’s “Butterfly” and the feature film “In Darkness,” Bell relished the idea of working with Byrne to find a new approach to the show while staying true to its overall drab, soot-covered aesthetic.
“We wanted to be respectful of the ‘Peaky’ look, but we wanted a slight twist,” he says.
The biggest change Bell made was to use a 4K camera. U.S. distributor Netflix “was more involved in this series, and though we’d wanted to shoot anamorphic, they wanted us to shoot 4K,” he says. “It would give a slightly different look from the previous season — more cinematic, emotional.”
Shooting with anamorphic lenses in 4K meant that the Alexa — the camera used in previous seasons — would not be an option. Bell set out to find a camera-and-lens package that would allow for the larger-scale, more cinematic look he was aiming for, and decided to use the RED Monstro camera with Cooke anamorphic lenses.
“We tested a lot of vintage lenses — older Kowas, Panavision C-series — but the Cooke anamorphics fit for us,” he says. “We used the 65mm macro lens, because Anthony does a lot of developing shots and we needed a lens that could give us the ability to move the camera from macro focus to infinity and more creative options in general.”