The Movie Waffler Painting with Light – the Cinematography of CARMILLA by Michael Wood | The Movie Waffler

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Painting with Light – the Cinematography of CARMILLA by Michael Wood

carmilla michael wood
Cinematographer Michael Wood on his working approach to the acclaimed vampire tale.


Words by Michael Wood

carmilla movie

I got the call to meet director Emily Harris from producer Emily Precious. We had previously met on Ron Howard’s Beatles Documentary Eight Days a Week. I read the script and was definitely interested but it was only after I met Emily Harris that I was convinced I wanted to shoot it. I loved her passion and visual intent. She was an artist.

Emily and I began the usual dialogue which happens between a Director and their Cinematographer, but there was already something unique about our collaboration. We were working with a very limited budget and a tight schedule of just 22 days. So very early on Emily suggested we create our own manifesto to abide by (and obviously, passionately justify when we broke it!). For me, being able to do so was also a tribute to the work of celebrated Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and the Dogme95 manifesto. I have done four films (shooting second unit) with Anthony, and he remains a dear friend and collaborator and influenced the way I work with the camera. Emily and I both had things we hated to put straight on the manifesto:

carmilla movie

1. Unmotivated lateral tracks – the camera moves when the action takes it, or remains static.

My favourite scene to highlight how and when we move the camera is the prolonged breakfast scene with Miss Fontaine (played by Jessica Raine). I love the fact it goes on just that bit too long… for me that scene is pure cinema, and as The Movie Waffler notes in its review, Jessica plays it to perfection. Scenes like that enabled me to invoke Heaven’s Gate. I loved that film and how director Michael Cimino would stay with a scene to draw you in, and as a viewer you will either be seduced by it or repelled. Emily was adamant we were to make a ‘Marmite’ film…you will either love it or hate it. But the passion from those that adore it, is so worth it!


carmilla michael wood

2. No unmotivated hair or rim lights.

Emily and I generally dislike these, but for this film we wanted to make our actors (literally) disappear into the background. There would be no separation between their dark hair and the dark walls. The feeling was that the house in the valley was claustrophobic and intense, but even within those walls, Lara (played by Hannah Rae) and Miss Fontaine were somehow melded to the world they came from, their past and their present.

They were intrinsically entwined and it would take ‘an outsider’ to break those shackles. In my initial interview for the job I was very clear on having read the script, that the house was obviously integral. For two reasons I could only shoot this film if I was allowed to paint the walls. Firstly (and artistically) to get the right tone for each individual room, but predominantly and on a purely practical level. The budget was very small, so for me to be able to ‘light’ and control the walls the way this film needed to be shot, the light control was predominantly to be wall density. I suggested they interview the incredibly talented Production Designer Alexandra Walker (we’d worked together previously on Polly Steele’s Let Me Go, starring Juliet Stevenson). Thankfully Alex came onboard the project and I discussed the walls. The only room we couldn’t paint was Lara’s timber room, but it was suitably dark and aesthetic to begin with, so it wasn’t an issue. We talked in terms of the grey scale:

carmilla movie

3. No room walls to be less than 50% on the Grey Scale.

I left the colours and tones for Alex and Emily to select in relation to the characters. To test the colours and tones I’d pick a neutral exposure ‘sweet spot’ on the wall, approx. 2-3’ from the window and watch (and enjoy!) how quickly it would fade off into darkness. So knowing I wouldn’t be worried about cutting extraneous light on the walls, the lighting could begin. By default I am a naturalistic Cinematographer, and so for me the daylight interiors were always to be lit through the windows (light control sorted by the dark painted walls), and Emily and I both wanted to motivate (or solely light) with candlelight for the night interiors. Which leads me back to the manifesto:


carmilla michael wood

4. No more than 2x theatrical film lights to be used on any scene.

This was budget driven, but I genuinely love placing self-imposed creative restrictions to force myself to think differently and create art from that restriction. Be it only shooting with a static camera, a single lens, or in this case, no more than two film lights. Eddie Adcock (my incredible young Gaffer) and I were able to achieve this, and relished the challenge it sometimes created! Again, all night interiors were lit solely by candle light, either in camera practicals or offscreen. I copied an idea my favourite Cinematographer of all time (Harris Savides) used on The Yards. Basically a group of half a dozen candles on a 1 foot square board with 180º silver reflector behind. As these were ‘practical’ I could use more than two, so I had four of these (we christened them 'Harris Lights’ in honour of the great man himself). Thankfully Emily and I were simpatico artistic souls. We liked the same things and we would both suggest concepts for each scene while maintaining our aesthetic. One of these was to let so many scenes play out in a single shot. I love this, but Emily came onto the film adamant about us shooting this way whenever we could and whenever a scene could sustain it. For example, from our initial discussion of the first dinner scene, Emily was adamant on it playing out in a single shot and from where the camera placement would be. I love that strength of passion and commitment.

carmilla movie

I shot on an ARRI Alexa Mini and used Kowa Cineprominar spherical lenses. I tested five sets of ‘old glass’ and these were the only ones that created that incredible perfectly round flare with the candle in the centre of the lens, and Emily and I fell in love with that characteristic and their (many) flaws…but from imperfection comes beauty. I guess the only thing I had to ‘convince’ Emily of was using hand-held. We concurred on the static prosaic camera but for some scenes I know I needed hand held and it is so integral to my modus operandi that I could mesh it (relatively) seamlessly with our more considered approach. I graded the film with Maria Chamberlain (definitely an artist) at Goldcrest in London.

Carmilla is a film I will always be proud of and for that reason it will always be close to my heart.


Carmilla is currently available in the US through Film Movement's Virtual Cinema. A UK/ROI release date has yet to be confirmed.