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Ben Smithard: 'It’s important that you give the DoP the choice of the camera to shoot with'

Ben Smithard speaks to ScreenTech about Belle - the first major British film to be shot in true-4K - and discusses the past, present and future of cinematography.

The career of British DoP Ben Smithard has spanned commercials, TV and feature films. He began work in the age of film, shooting commercials and TV, and in recent years feature films.

His latest project Belle, directed by Amma Asante, is an elegant period piece, something that almost begs to be shot on film stock. Smithard chose to shoot the film on Sony’s F65, a camera which gave the image the “filmic” look Smithard loves.

Ben Smithard talked to ScreenTech about Belle, the Sony F65 and the past present and future of cinematography.

ScreenTech: How did you come to choose the Sony F65 to shoot Belle? You started by shooting on film. How has the transition to digital filmmaking been for you?

Ben Smithard: I started out as a commercials cameraman, then shot a lot of television and in the last five years I’ve shot feature films. When I started out, we only ever shot film. The only question that ever came up on any job was, “are we going to shoot 35 or 16?” It was easy. Everybody was happy with it. We all shot film. We shot it like it was going out of fashion – which eventually it did. We never expected it to go. No one ever saw it coming: it came around and hit us on the head.

But I embraced digital technology when it got to a point that I thought it was good enough and that point came when I shot Cranford, which was a pretty big TV series. Like a lot of big TV productions, it was designed to be shot in 16mm [and] it was budgeted for that. I said “I don’t want to shoot Judy Dench on 16mm, I want 35mm,” but we couldn’t afford 35mm, so we shot on the Genesis, which really is designed for feature films.

It’s a great system. I think that was the first time the Genesis was ever used on a big TV series in this country. Panavision were very helpful. My first three feature films were all shot on film. Belle is the first feature film I’ve shot digitally.

ST: How did you come to choose the Sony F65 to shoot Belle?

BS: I was lucky enough to know Movietech very well – they’re the rental company at Pinewood – and they had some F65s and I decided to test them. They looked great to me. My personal experience of it is that it’s the best digital camera out there, by a long way. It’s the first one that actually really looks like film to me. That makes a big difference and I’m not a particularly technical person. I’m technical by proxy, because you have no choice, but I’m not an engineer. I also find Sony cameras very reliable.

ST: Were there elements in Belle that the Sony F65 was particularly suited to?

BS: It’s a period film, set in the late 18th century, so it lends itself to film. Shooting film gives you that extra boost to make it look ‘old’. Not that there’s any reference of imagery shot in the late 18th century, but it’s a perceived kind of trickery to create a ‘period’ look. The Sony F65 was the first digital camera that kind of helped that along. I think people these days are less and less interested in trying to make something look like film, but I’ll still be of that generation that wants to make it look like film.

ST: Are DoP’s having to become a more technically minded with digital cameras and being constantly exposed to new technology?

BS: When you’re shooting film, the image is in your head and to a certain extent, that’s where it’s best kept. Digital brings in a whole load of other questions from people on the production. But film never really had that, because it was a simple process, although it involves a lot of clever people along the line to make it happen. Digital moves so quickly, it is in your interest to understand it. It forces you to be technical.

ST: It’s been said that each new digital camera is the equivalent of a new film stock.

BS: That’s not far from the truth. On film it didn’t matter too much which film camera you shot on, because ultimately they do the same thing, but with digital there are many different types of cameras and I think it’s important that you give the DoP the choice of the camera to shoot with, because certain cameras suit certain cameramen.

ST: Do you find DoP’s have a lot of freedom in choosing cameras or is there an attempt to push a certain kind of camera?

BS: People do push the system on you. Producers become happy with a particular system and say “we like that, we’re using that,” but it may not really suit the DoP. Also with a new camera, there may be a certain exclusivity to it, which makes it more appealing. Whereas, there’s no exclusivity to, say, the Alexa, because everybody’s using it. You only have to go back about ten years and generally all feature films were shot on 35mm and television was shot in 16mm, commercials were shot in either, and low-end television was shot on various tape formats.

So when you shot a feature film, there was something quite exclusive and quite magical about shooting in 35mm. But if everything now looks the same, where is that kind of exclusivity or extra quality? I have had to fight for certain cameras on certain projects. I feel like one of the things I’m being paid for is choosing the right format for that film, that suits the look, and suits the budget. I spend an awful lot of time thinking about how I’m going to do it and I think I get it right. That’s what I’m good at.

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