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Capturing Hepburn: The Cinematography of AUDREY: MORE THAN AN ICON

Audrey: More Than An Icon
Director of Photography Simona Susnea on her approach to capturing the new Audrey Hepburn doc's ballet sequences.

Words by Simona Susnea

Audrey’s story and how she turned her trauma into love and forgiveness, I really related to that... It is important for me to be part of projects that shape the world into something better and I loved that Helena Coan, our director, was focused on revealing the depth of Audrey’s persona and presenting Audrey to the world in a way we had never seen before. Audrey was an incredible role model…and maybe the sort of person we all need right now. Of course, the choice of using dance to narrate Audrey’s life was hugely important to me. I love movement and dance and I was very excited by the approach of making this a creative feature documentary.

The film took about eight months to shoot and Helena and I travelled together, so we managed to create a real connection with one another, which I think was essential for this. When we were in prep for the dance sequences, our enthusiasm was key to making them look and feel original, and focused on elevating the emotion of Audrey’s story.

Audrey: More Than An Icon

The whole collaboration was based on Helena’s script and the rehearsals that we attended at the Royal Opera House in London over a three-week period. The celebrated choreographer, Wayne McGregor, CBE, invited us to see the process of building the choreography with the performers Keira Moore, Alessandra Ferri, Francesca Hayward. I enjoyed working with Wayne because he is not only an amazing choreographer, but he is very collaborative and very in tune with the story. I loved how he translated Helena’s script into dance. He brought his own interpretation with new ideas that transformed the original script. As Director of Photographer, the process is very much the same, but I use my lighting and the camera to make the visual translation. I was keen to be part of rehearsals as much as possible, so my discussions with Wayne were mostly in prep. I filmed rough sketches of how the camera could move and based on this we did a thorough shot list for each section in the script. It was a lot of hard work, but it did pay off because we had a tight schedule to film those scenes, and Helena and I like to be very well prepared.

When we were shooting, some of the discussions between Helena, Wayne and I were in regards to frame size we wanted for a particular moment in the choreography, to fully capture its beauty and shape. When we filmed with Keira (who plays Audrey at a young age), Wayne would sometimes adjust Keira’s movements, so there was more fluidity between the camera and her dance, but otherwise the process was flowing naturally and everyone gave their best.


Alexandra Toomey, our production designer, joined in much later. During our locations scout, we talked about the atmosphere, what colour palette would be best suited for each scene and location, and how to visually elevate the dance. I loved Alex’s ideas, especially her intention to use fabrics and flowers to give the space more depth and visual appeal. For one key scene, Alex installed large fabrics to divide the golden room where we filmed the end of the movie, so we could create depth and a sense of mystery. We filmed most of our locations 360 and Alex did a great job dressing and creating that scarce environment.

Because most of our department heads were female, we had a strong connection with Audrey and her story, and it empowered us to make this film. As far as key collaborators go, I have major respect for our production team, especially Annabel Wigoder, who supported our ideas from day one, and my friend and 1st AD, Robyn Henderson.

Audrey: More Than An Icon

The dance was a visual journey, and we built on those ideas everyday with so much energy and enthusiasm. We started off discussing the script, deciding on a colour palette for each space, and experimented with different degrees of low-key lighting to emphasise Audrey’s loneliness as a child and her father’s absence. She felt empty and abandoned and we wanted to reveal that in a visual way. Darkness and shadow, high contrast images were one key approach, which Helena was very keen on.

The key light for the theatre was a single spotlight that followed Francesca, which we gelled with Lavender, to get a nice blend of blue and purple tones as the main mood. I thought it revealed her vulnerability and strength. I’m very happy with the result and had a great collaboration with gaffer Bill Rae Smith, who was very involved and made sure we’re always on ready with our set ups. We were very efficient, given the scale and time we had.

The stately home was divided into several looks, one with a very cold and dark atmosphere where Audrey’s father is rejecting her, one room where we went for warmer natural lighting to enhance the idea of a home, and eventually the more saturated golden section where the warmth symbolised Audrey’s acceptance and love. My approach was to keep the lighting very simple and heighten its effect with colour. The idea was to silhouette her and use darkness and cold tones as a metaphor for the trauma she experienced and the golden light as a symbol of her transcendence and love. They also refer to Audrey’s fashion style as a silhouette and I wanted that look to represent her in a mysterious aura.


We knew this could only be shot using a Steadicam. We wanted that flow and Steadicam gave the dance scenes that dream like quality which takes the audience on a journey. The camera was on an OMEGA AR rig, which allowed us to follow the dancers and heighten the emotion of their movement. We were shooting developing shots, from one to several minutes. The camera changed pace often during a take, the rhythm was dictated by the pace of the choreography, the music and it had a particular journey for each moment Helena wrote and Wayne designed.

I shot the entire film on vintage Cooke S2 Pachro lenses, which I love. We filmed many interviews before the dance, so for me it was important the lenses have a softness and that they do not give me a modern look. Audrey was at her peak in the '60s and we wanted some of that to be reflected in our look, even if it was subtle. I looked at these interviews like they were portraits, and the Cooke S2 Pachro were giving me that beautiful soft quality, with a lot of imperfections I could control.


Vic Parker at Raised by Wolves in London colour graded the film. I worked with Vic before and I liked his attention to detail and trusted he could understand my lighting. Helena and I were in the grade for about two weeks, while she was also working on other aspects of post production (sound mix, music). We paid special attention to the level of contrast, how dark our images were, and pushing it to a level where both of us felt it was right for the story. We really liked that! We did not manipulate the colours too much and wanted to preserve an organic feel to it. We also worked carefully on skin tones and on how we transition from interviews, to the black and white archive and to the dance. I approached lighting the interviews like I would light the space and faces in a fiction/scripted film, so connecting the dance to interviews wasn’t too hard, but fun to play with.

It was great seeing the film come together and also hearing the score Alex Somers wrote. When all the colours were beautifully balanced and we were finally seeing the finished film I felt so pleased with what we all had accomplished. It truly is a very special film and I hope the audience enjoys it as much as we did working on it.


Audrey: More Than An Icon is on UK DVD/Digital from November 30th.