A couple of months ago I was contacted by BBC Drama. They had recently started shooting the second series of The Paradise, a period drama set in the North East of England.
The Art Dept had just got hold of the script to find that episode 7 involved a wet plate photographer. They were now looking to hire a period specific studio camera and associated equipment. They also asked if I could act as photographic consultant for the episode as it was all a little last minute.
I’d never worked on a television set so of course I was happy to help. Although I had to keep it all a secret till it had been aired! Thats pretty difficult.
I was needed for six days over two sessions, they put me up in a hotel that was nearest to the filming location, Lambton Estate.
Here’s my Watson whole plate studio camera and stand on the set, along with some of the art departments prop reflectors etc.
Screen grabs are from the BBC iplayer. Available here.
This opening scene is, hopefully, the only time I made a bit of a fool of myself. They empty the set of crew, and just have the Director and cast, I was asked to stay to make sure the actors interacted with the camera correctly. I sat myself down in the window seat at which point Ben Daniels, who plays Tom Weston, looked directly at me and said “So this collodion apparatus, is it an improvement on the Daguerreotype?”, to which I replied, “Thats a very good question….” The Director promptly shouted “Shut up!” I only then realise they were running through the script. Daniels gave me a cheeky wink and they had to start again. Oops.
One early contribution I made, was originally the script called for Mrs Weston to be seated in the centre for the portrait. I suggested that it would be more accurate if Mr Weston was seated with his wife and child standing. This also worked much better with the story line and script.
The big reveal, above and below, are digital mock ups. Although I hadn’t been contracted to shoot wet plate I did take some spare chemistry and kit just in case the opportunity arose. I was asked if it would be possible to shoot the scripted portraits. I only had my trial “Poe Boy” collodion recipe with me but we gave it a go. At first I was given these tungsten work lights, not much use for wet plate, then the lighting guys set up an Arri head which was really bright if not a little too harsh. Exposures were still 20 seconds. The supporting cast did really well considering the bright light and length of exposures. They got to keep their plates at the end of the episodes shooting. The majority of final images seen in the episode are made up of digital reproductions
When I moved on to shoot the main cast I’d been upgraded to some huge Arri lights, they were massive but so bright they had to be a good 15+ feet from the subject. Exposures were still a good 10 seconds at f4. I still have these plates if any of the cast would like them. Just drop me an email and I’ll get them to you.
Keith, the Art Director, doing his best to be a ghost for an attempted spirit plate.
A Steadycam, it really should be renamed heavycam! For me whats amazing is that when I watch the episode I can now appreciate whats going on just off screen, the hidden lights and cables, the attention to detail with lighting/sound and the huge number of crew that it takes to make this all happen.
The image above shows a faked plate, this was acetate and acrylic, the art dept had made several different stages of a plate giving the illusion of development/fixing. These scenes were cut, a shame considering how much work the art department put into it.
The mobile darkroom, “darkbox”, that took the carpenters a few days to make. It had fold out sides as the script included scenes where some of the cast were under the black out cloth looking at the plates being developed and therefore they had to be able to get a tv camera in there somehow!
Its a small wet plate world, some of Betsy Reeds paperwork from Lacock Abbey, she had recently been artist in residence there, visiting from the USA.
The set itself was fantastic, the first day I had an aching face from smiling so much. Its amazing what they can make from timber an mdf.
Stop looking now you think it’ll spoil the illusion…..
When I had chance, I shot a few street scenes. These are 5×7 tintypes and clear glass ambrotypes.
Taken with the “Poe Boy Collodion” recipe I had recently mixed and wasn’t too impressed with, for some reason it didn’t like developer (of any recipe) flowing over it.
I did wonder how it would all look once it had been edited. Granted, Christian Cartwright would have been a very fast wet plate photographer, although it was assumed he’d have an “off camera” assistant doing all the prep and dev, with Cartwright being handed the plate holder to shoot, as was often the case. Also theres a pseudo shutter sound after each screen photograph. As this camera has no shutter, just a lens cap, I’m sure my wet plate colleagues around the world will delight in pointing out. “Artistic License” and “Smoke and Mirrors” seem to be terms that crop up quite often on set but I’m happy to say it looks like it worked out really well. I might be a little biased but I think its the best episode yet!
Thanks to everyone in the Art Dept for making me feel so welcome when I arrived, and also to all the crew and cast, I had a very informative and enjoyable time.
Thanks also to Richard Cynon Jones for passing my details on to the BBC.