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Establishing the visual language of Apple's The Buccaneers


Cinematographer Oliver Curtis tells Jenny Priestley how he went about shooting and lighting Apple TVs adaptation of Edith Whartons novel, and how he drew inspiration from modern day shows Sex and the City and Friends

By Jenny Priestley

Published: November 9, 2023

Cinematographer Oliver Curtis tells Jenny Priestley how he went about shooting and lighting Apple TV's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, and how he drew inspiration from modern day shows Sex and the City and Friends

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the traditional period drama involves dashing men, simpering women, and lots of candlelight.

But in recent years there's been a move towards contemporizing the intrigue of 18th-century romance for modern audiences, see Netflix's Bridgerton.

Taking a leaf out of Lady Whistledown's book is Apple TV Plus' adaptation of Edith Wharton's unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, which follows five American young ladies who travel to England in search of husbands.

The series has been created by Katherine Jakeways, with directors Susanna White, Richard Senior and Charlotte Regan taking a block of episodes each.

For the show's first two episodes, White brought in cinematographer Oliver Curtis to establish the look. Because the story journeys from New York to London, we also had to design and configure how that journey would take place visually, Curtis tells TVBEurope. So it was about changing and developing lighting, colour, costume and movement to express what the characters were going through in their journey from one country to another.

Oliver Curtis on set with director Susanna White The series begins in New York, with what Curtis describes as a heightened sense of colour, saturation and movement. The 1870s was a period in America where electric light was coming in. The New World was burgeoning and these families had new wealth, he explains. So there was a great deal of optimism and energy. We tried to capture that spirit with all of our tools.

As they come to the UK, the story is that these wealthy women are coming over to meet gentlemen with titles who are nearly all slightly down on their luck, he continues. The England that they find is not dreary, but more drained of colour, and a little bit more staid and stiff and with deeper shadows literally and metaphorically.

From a cinematography point of view, it's a great opportunity to have a development of that kind in quite a short space of time, because most of that journey takes place in episodes one and two. So it was my task to set up the world that we find ourselves in, to establish some of the rules of the grammar, of the lensing, and of the lighting to get the audience into that space.

Curtis is keen to emphasise that while the first two episodes establish the look of the show, he wanted the directors and cinematographers who followed to be able to take the show in another direction if they wanted to, in order to mirror the changes in the characters' lives. It would be counterproductive if things stylistically didn't change, he says. We weren't prescriptive about how they would take the look forward, but we did maintain the cameras and lenses so there was that level of continuity in terms of the visual language of the piece.

Curtis chose to shoot on ARRI's ALEXA LF Large Format cameras coupled with the company's DNA lenses. They're vintage lenses that have a wonderful quality and beautiful fall off towards the edges, he explains.

Initially, I had an idea of shooting New York with anamorphic lenses and then going spherical for the UK. But I think Apple felt that was possibly going a little bit too far stylistically, Curtis adds. So I thought, okay, if I don't go anamorphic, how can I have this subtle adjustment in the look and the depth of field? So we went with Canon K35 lenses in New York and then came to the ARRI DNAs in the UK. I worked with Simon Surtees at ARRI Rental in London to detune a number of the lenses so that if we chose to, we could work at a wider aperture and get some interesting characteristics with fall-off and distortion from that wonderful glass.

The choice of lenses also enabled Curtis to get up close and personal with the actors to pick up moments of heightened emotion. I'm not one for shooting wide open, he says. I guess it's my film background. I think particularly when you're shooting faces in close-up, you've got to hold enough depth of field to allow the performer's expressive qualities to come through. Plus the ARRI sensor is really beautiful for skin tone, so it felt very much the right combination for this show.

Curtis shot his episodes with two cameras for the majority of the time, and he pays tribute to the operators. Alex Brambilla and Sebastian Barraclough on A camera and Laura Dinnett on B camera all did terrific work. Only one shot is going to be on screen at any one time, and I don't know which moment the editor is going to use, so I was very keen to get the maximum I could out of both cameras and to capture spontaneity, performance, reaction, particularly in scenes of ensemble performance, which we have many.

The opening episode in New York includes a society wedding, so you've got shots of five or six people reacting to the same thing and, just having that one lens is fine, but there may be moments within that you can get and you don't want to have to just reset to capture that moment. The B camera is extremely useful in picking up those little moments and keeping the pace up and keeping the spontaneity of what the actors are doing.

While working as the cinematographer, Curtis was also his own lighting director. Almost every period drama features an array of candles due to the fact
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