The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die’s DP on Visually Adapting TV Show to Feature Film Format

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Luke Bryant, the cinematographer on Netflix’s newest installment of The Last Kingdom franchise recently spoke to us about his work on the film. The film takes place 8 years after the events of season 5 of the show and follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his comrades’ adventure across a fractured kingdom in the hopes of finally uniting England after the passing of King Edward.

Luke switched to an anamorphic style of shooting while keeping hand-held shots to adapt the look of the TV show to a feature film format and give it a more cinematic look audiences know from their favorite classic films. The hand-held shots, along with the rawness of the color, also allowed him to create visuals that immerse the audience in the reality of that time and make them feel like they are part of the story regardless of whether it’s an intimate shot between the main characters or the final battle, which included over 300 extras and 4 cameras. 

PH: Hi there Luke! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the production world?

Luke Bryant: Well, I've always been obsessed with movies. I remember clearly seeing Blade Runner and 2001 for the first time as a child and sensing that there was a guiding intelligence behind their looks - that films didn’t simply happen by chance. I grew up in a creative environment surrounded by music, art, and photography. Film seemed like the perfect combination of all the arts. I studied filmmaking at the New York Film Academy in New York, and then when I moved back to London, I started as a DoP on low-budget projects. Lighting was always my passion, so it made sense to me to start as a DoP on smaller projects rather than trying to work my way up through the camera team. Previous to this, I’d done a degree in English language and literature, which gives me an angle into narrative and character that you might not necessarily have had if you’d only studied film. I still use that text-based analytical mindset when researching new projects. And then, after that, it's been 20 years of hard slog to get to the point where I am now! 

PH: Can you share some of your first few projects, as well as where you draw your inspiration?

Luke Bryant: Of my earlier projects, THE one I’m most proud of is Dead In A Week, starring Aneurin Barnard and Tom Wilkinson. It never quite found the audience that I’d hoped it would, but I’m proud of my work on it - we had a huge amount of prep relative to principal photography, and I felt like I knew the film inside out by the time we were shooting it. Roger Deakins’ work with the Coen brothers was a big inspiration for us.

Other than that, a lot of my earlier career involved shooting short films, which, if you’ve got the right combination of budget and talent, can be an incredible platform for learning. I shot a short called The Hope Rooms, directed by Sam Yates and starring Andrew Scott and Ciaran Hinds, and it was the first time that I’d felt on a gut, instinctual level that what you remove from the frame in terms of light, was as important as what you add to the frame. Sounds fairly banal when you verbalize it, but subtraction is as important a process as addition in terms of light. So it became about how I sculpt and craft the shadows rather than the light itself. Obviously the first port of call for any kind of visual inspiration on a new project is the script itself - it should always be a springboard for the research that you build around the film’s narrative.
Specifically, I’m a huge fan of the painting of Caravaggio, Gentileschi, and Vermeer, and the photography of Don McCullin, Chris Killip, and Fan Ho. With all of these artists, what hits you strongest is the way they model the light and the quality of the light in their work. Although McCullin is most famous for his war photography, his work in the north of England and London has the most beauty for me. I’m also constantly reading fiction: I had a teacher at film school who said that the act of reading fiction was the genesis of the filmmaker’s eye because you have to create the world yourself, and he was right!

PH: How did you become involved with The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die?

Luke Bryant: My agent put me up for Seven Kings Must Die; I’d worked with producer Mat Chaplin on a project a few years before, and although the project was tonally very different from Seven Kings, there must have been something in my approach that Mat liked. He got me in for a chat with Ed Bazalgette, and we immediately hit it off. Ed responded to the world of references I built for the interview. When I prepare for anything (even if it’s TV), I rarely use TV references, and my mind works solely in terms of film references, where the world you build and the stakes involved are a little more heightened. So in terms of films, we looked at Ran, Macbeth, and The King, and I also drew inspiration from some Westerns, notably Pale Rider and True Grit. Pale Rider has some of the darkest daylight interiors you’ll ever see, and that sense of being motivated from very practical sources (windows, lamps, candles, etc.) was what we were aiming for.

PH: Can you talk about why you chose to shoot with an anamorphic style while keeping hand-held shots to adapt the look of the TV show to a feature film format and give it a more cinematic look?

Luke Bryant: A huge part of our conversations before we started shooting was how we compress the drama, scale, and intimacy of a 10-episode season into a two-hour feature film whilst simultaneously making the canvas even more epic and remaining true to the visual DNA of the show. We tested a variety of formats: the original format the show was shot on, anamorphic, large format spherical, and large format anamorphic. I initially leaned towards going Alexa LF with spherical lenses to maintain continuity with the previous seasons. However, after seeing the tests, I was completely blown away by the large format anamorphic.

We shot our tests on one of the original sets of the Great Hall, and it looked beautiful on a 2.39:1 ratio, not to mention how sculptured the close-ups felt, so we decided to go with Alexa Mini LF and Cooke Large Format anamorphic. From a technical point of view, an anamorphic lens has two nodal points, i.e., where light converges when going through the lens, whereas spherical has only one, and I think it’s partly this that gives anamorphic such a three-dimensional quality. Also, anamorphic lenses tend to be more prone to flare, and I felt that quality leaned nicely into the texture and grain of the world we were trying to build and the sense of time and place we were trying to create. One of the beauties of anamorphic is that you can be on a fairly wide lens to take in a landscape, but still have a shallow depth of field, allowing a face to really be isolated in terms of focus. It helped us make Uhtred’s journey a more subjective visual experience.

Obviously, I had to make my case to Carnival (the production company) for shooting large format anamorphic as it represented a significant change to what had been done before, but once they saw the tests, they were fully on board, and I have to say they were very supportive the whole way through the process.

PH: Talk me through the value of hand-held shots, along with the rawness of the color. How did that create visuals that immersed the audience?

Luke Bryant: One of the key strengths of The Last Kingdom TV show was the camera operating, and I was very keen to replicate it as closely as possible for the Seven Kings film. A huge portion of the show has been shot handheld, giving it an immediacy and a contemporaneity that might otherwise be missing, as if we’re almost watching a documentary set in the early Middle Ages. So it was important to maintain that. Once again, I was indebted to all the great DoPs who had shot the show previously, as they’d all established such a strong visual identity. Furthermore, that handheld energy can serve very different purposes: it’s incredibly kinetic in battle scenes but also intimate in drama scenes.

I was very lucky to work on this with regular series grader/colorist Jateen Patel. When creating our look and show LUT we again went to the source and had a desaturated, hazy look with everything cooled down quite a bit. We tend to think of that time period as a little ice age, so we wanted that sense that as soon as you step away from a heat source, it’s bitingly cold. So when it came to the actual grade I decided to change things a little: we added more contrast and set the blacks and shadows down a bit, so everything felt a little inkier in the penumbral areas. And we added film grain just to have that sense of texture in the air.

PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered? 

Luke Bryant: With so much of the film taking place in day exteriors, controlling the weather became one of the biggest challenges. Ideally, I wanted it to be cloudy and drizzly as much as possible, but we ended up with quite a lot of sun, so our unflappable gaffer Zsolt Buti (who gaffed most of the TV series) was constantly trying to soften or kill the sun. It was especially tricky when we were shooting the climactic battle, where within a few hours we had snow, rain, sleet, and blazing sunshine. So trying to hide textiles and frames when shooting with four cameras and a drone and with the wind occasionally picking up was a real test. Nevertheless, we managed to smooth out some of the rough edges in the grade, so the changes in light and weather aren't too jarring. 

One of the most overwhelming things was the scale of all the sets they’d built - I was driven straight from the airport to the main backlot and given a whirlwind tour when I first arrived. It was tricky having to piece everything together so quickly: this is Winchester, this is Aegelsberg, this is Bebbanburg etc., but luckily I found a great collaborator in our production designer Dominic Hyman who knew those sets in incredible detail and was able to get me up to speed very quickly.

PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the project?

Luke Bryant: For me it always starts with the text. But a film only looks as good as a director will allow, so it’s important that you get on board with the director’s intentions and visuals as soon as possible. If you’re arguing with a director on set about aesthetics, something has gone wrong with your prep! Although there is always a technical/logistical component to filmmaking, it’s imperative to strip some of that away so you can concentrate on giving free rein to your creative impulses. 

Part of that is learning the visual syntax of the director: a cinematographer should not speak a single language; they should learn a new language each time they start a project. You’re balancing the director’s visual needs against your own sensibilities and the aesthetic constraints of the genre you’re working in. For example, I’ll modulate the lighting ratios across faces if I work in different genres (from chiaroscuro in drama to something flatter for comedy.) For The Last Kingdom, Ed and I initially talked about the overarching strategy for the film and how we wanted a harder feel to the image for the battle scenes. I decided to use Tiffen black satins throughout the film and remove them for the battle scenes, giving the fights a sharper, snappier feel. We coupled this with a 144-degree shutter so you can get a sense of the blood and mud flying through the air.

PH: In your opinion, what characteristics/skill set do you need to be a successful DP? 

Luke Bryant: Vision, will, emotional intelligence, and the ability to retain zen calmness in the maelstrom! It’s also important to sublimate the technical to the creative. 

PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects?

Luke Bryant: I’m currently shooting season 2 of Extraordinary for Disney, and later on this year, I’ve got The Full Monty TV sequel (Disney) and feature Love at First Sight (Netflix) releasing. So it seems I’m having a year of rom-coms and comedy after a couple of years of drama and period features.

Image courtesy of Netflix Media Center

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