After catching All of Us Strangers at a recent screening at the Austin Film Festival, it was a nice reminder of how haunting, yet enchanting, cinema can be. It’s a film that certainly stays with you for several hours and days (and hopefully weeks) after.
And, while that’s obviously a testament to some great performances from a cast including Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell and Claire Foy, it’s also in no small part due to the beautiful, tragic and ethereal cinematography and direction at the heart of the film.
To talk about this cinematography and how a DP can do their best to bring out such powerful performances, we spoke with cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay about how he and director Andrew Haigh were able to tell this touching, ghostly story.
Editor’s note: the following conversation has been edited for clarity.
No Film School: So to start, we did want to ask about what camera and film stocks did you use for the film?
Jamie Ramsay: We shot on the Acam St and LT 35mm cameras, and we opted for Master Primes as our lens choice. We also used UE Zooms. Our film stock choice was Kodak, and we used 50 D for sort of exterior daylight. Then for sort of our turn of day and interior day, we used two 50. Then 500 for interior night. This was largely a locations based shoot … so our darker interior scenes and our night scenes, our film stock choice was motivated largely by the practicality of the time of day and the environment that we were shooting in.
NFS: All of Us Strangers explores a lot of big themes, but it really shines in its small moments exploring the heartfelt nature of relationships. What was your approach for shooting these intimate scenes?
Ramsay: So for me, when you read a script and you start to have your discussions with your director, that’s when you develop the feeling of the film, how you think the film should feel. It was very clear that there needed to be a very thin boundary between the character and what the character was going through. As a cinematographer, I do love to operate. The reason why I love to operate is because I feel like in the act of operating, you translate the intrinsic energy of a scene. You feed off the movement of the character’s emotions, you feed off the evolution of what the blocking becomes, you feed off what the actors do with one another. It was very important for me to be able to operate on this movie and for me to be able to, with the backing of my director and the trust of the actors, allow me into their bubble and allow me into their space.
A big part of that is really just by presenting an energy and presenting a presence as an operator and as a cinematographer on set and in their lives as somebody who they can trust, somebody who doesn’t come with any form of judgment, that hopefully has a presence, that does not disturb, or it doesn’t distract, and ultimately be a position of warmth and support when in their very, very personal space. That’s very important to me. That always has been important to me because I feel like that three meters around the performance is a hallowed space, if you will.
It’s a theater of performance that we’re all lucky to be around if you can be. This was defined very specifically during the time of COVID-19 where everybody was given a kind of a time to be around cast. You’d have your Red Zone and your Orange Zone and whatever. You realized in that moment that there were specific people that had to be close to cast and close to performance. It’s a hallowed space for me, and I’ve always taken it very seriously. I think that a big part of conveying the intimacy and the nuance of this movie was about being comfortable in that space and creating a warm, comfortable space for them. Then, once that was defined and done, the translation is just the reaction to what they were putting forward and the understanding of the scene and of what was needed from the scene, which was largely due to conversations with the brilliant Andrew Haigh, then just relying on our instincts as filmmakers and going forward with that.
NFS: The lighting of the film at times felt like a character itself, what was your approach for lighting and using these lighting motivations within the plot?
Ramsay: It’s interesting because there’s obviously very two very defined worlds that we’re dealing with, right? There’s the world that’s very much a reality for Andrew Scott, which is his time alone in his apartment. Then, there’s the world that starts to reveal itself when he starts to communicate and go through this process of cathartic reminiscence and dealing with the trauma whilst talking to the ghost of his parents. Ultimately, his experience with Paul Mezcal, which is obviously later revealed to be the same language as parents in a sense. So we’re dealing with two very distinct worlds here.
But what was very important to us was that we didn’t want to draw an overtly specific line between the two from a visual perspective. So anything that we wanted to do needed to be quite subtle. So my approach to lighting in the apartment and in his kind of more real aspect of his life was to go very naturalistic and to treat it as much as we could and light it as much as we could, how it would be lit in real life.
When we start to go kind of into the secondary world, which is at his parents’ home and then in his old neighborhood, and then also the diner and the club scene, we wanted to slide into something that was slightly more surreal. The use of highlights, the use of flare, the use of color, the filtration of lenses, the shifting of film stocks, the use of some live San Francisco haze and things like that.
Choosing the time of day allowed that sort of surreal afternoon glow to be a common factor, these all things that are based in reality, but had a surreal sort of element to them. We wanted to draw that line, but very, very faintly in the ground. The other thing that was a major choice for us was how to create the world of his apartment, because obviously practically you’ve got 25, 30 minutes of the movie that takes place in the apartment. Andrew was very, very keen and specific that the apartment needed to be based on a real apartment, and we found a real apartment to base it on.
Then, came the discussion of whether or not to build the apartment in the studio and then how we would represent the outside world of his apartment. Would it be green screen, would it be rear projection? Would it be a multitude of things? What we sort of opted for in the end was to go with the LED backdrop, which turned, that could be potentially another discussion for us. That was a whole other journey for me. But what was great about it was that we were able to, I can choose the time of day that we would shoot the backdrop from the real location, and we would have those installed for us on stage, to bring up, depending on the mood of the scene and depending on the mood of the moment.
We shot our backdrops over a period of 48 hours in East London during summer, and we lucked out. We got every sort of weather pattern you could ever imagine. We shot on the [Sony] Venic 8K, and we shot these digital backdrops over that period. It was a decision partly based on the idea of this kind of collision of technology between 35mm real film and digital. That was an important thing for us to do as well. Also, the idea that even in his apartment, there’s something slightly off about the presence of reality.
NFS: The film is book-ended by two beautiful (and important) shots. Could you talk about setting up each of them?
Ramsay: This might also open up another chapter of discussion for you as well, but I’ll talk about the first, the opening shot. I wanted to do was to create a sort of a bit of a visual trick with the opening shot, which how I had designed it originally was to reflect the beautiful sunset that we had shot to reflect it in his bedroom window and for him to come out of the darkness. Then, I would time, because we got a flare of a building in that shop that was beautiful, we got a flare of a building, a really, really beautiful magenta orange flare, which happened in real life. I wanted to motivate that flare being a motivating light source that sort of illuminated Andrew point in the window. We shot this in studio and we got the camera up on a rum outside his window, and we timed the light, and I had a 20K up on a demo with the color time gels on that would represent the flare.
We did it for real. We brought out of the dark of the room and we dimmed up the 20K and illuminated him for real. I was so, so happy with this moment. And then I remember the next morning I got the daily reports back from the lab and all over the lab report was more moire, and I was like absolutely mortified because we had tested the 35mm film against the LED backdrop because obviously moire has always been a big issue of digital versus LED, and we had got no moire. We had thought, we’ve really figured out the hack to this volume backdrop, how not to get moires. You just shoot on an analog base.
Anyway, it turns out that there was a combination between the glass on the window and the digital scanner at the lab that was somehow introducing the moire to the footage.
We were mortified because we had done it for real, and we just absolutely loved what we had seen anyway. We decided to reshoot it and change our focal plane to have a deeper stop and to try and avoid work out our distances to the LED backdrop to see if we could avoid the moire because the moire was introduced once you kind of pulled through the reflection onto Andrew’s face. That was when the LED backdrop would be sharp on the glass, and that’s when the moire came.
We tried all sorts of things to try and work that out, and we thought we’d done it, we’d shot it again and realized that the moire was still there. So we ultimately had to do it as plates and just use the plates to kind of tidy up where the moire had entered and all of that.That was a big learning curve for us.
Then, the idea of the flare, that glow and that flare was always this kind of presence of the ghost. It was important to Andrew to somehow represent this presence of a ghost. It’s almost like, if you remember the movie The Sixth Sense, there was always that little glow in the picture when they go back to the Little Glow, that kind of represented the presence of this is his [Cole (Hale Joel Osment)] ability. So the idea of the flare and the idea of the aberration, the luminous aberration was just this idea of this ghost and this ability to see it. Then, the end shot sort of leaving him alone in a sort of womb like state in this pool of darkness was definitely a metaphor for going back to source and relinquishing your grasp on this sort of presence and this life now. And just letting go and just going back to the cosmos from the stardust from what we’re made of.
NFS: All of Us Strangers is based on a novel called Strangers by Taichi Yamada. Did you read the source material first, or what was your approach going in?
Ramsay: I’ll admit to you now that I definitely steer clear from the novel. When I’m doing a film, I steer clear from the book. The reason why I do that is because I find written literature so prescriptive from an imagination perspective. So prescriptive when you read a book, a book will shape your imagination and your mind so specifically. Whereas a script allows so much space and so much scope for my independent imagination.
I didn’t read the book. I purposely avoided reading that, and I really just based the building of the world off of my instincts, the script and my discussions with the director. That’s kind of my rule in general when it comes to sort of adapted screenplays. In doing so, hopefully you represent something that’s slightly fresher than what could have been done.
NFS: Finally, just wanted to ask if you could share any advice for other aspiring cinematographers or filmmakers into how they can develop their skills for shooting and capturing such beautiful and intimate stories?
Ramsay: Look, I’ll take it one step back, and I would say I think the single most valuable piece of advice to a filmmaker is to always, always, always beyond anything else, be honest. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your subject matter. You must never, ever try and represent something that you’re not and something that you don’t believe in. Try not to copy. Just believe in yourself and just be honest.
You have to be honest because if you’re not honest, ultimately, you will be exposed. If you are honest, no matter how many mistakes you make along the way, those mistakes will be real. Then, there will cease to be mistakes. They’ll just become part of the language of your honest depiction of what you’re doing. Be honest and that feeds into dealing with a love-making scene or an argument or a tragedy. We’ve all felt these things in our lives to some degree, whether it’s a lesser or a greater degree, we felt all of these things. So just lean into it, lean into your experiences, lean into what you’ve experienced before, and just be honest. You have to be honest.
All of Us Strangers is playing in theaters December 22.