Four Perfect Shots with CALM WITH HORSES Director of Photography, Piers McGrail

With titles such as Ordinary Love, Kelly + Victor, Girl/Haji, Little Women (2017) and Calm With Horses under his belt, Piers McGrail is fast building a diverse and beautiful body of work. Ahead of the films release on April 27, we asked him to select four perfect shots from Calm With Horses, and take us on a journey into the world he built inside them.

Calm With Horses is the first feature film from director Nick Rowland, starring Niamh Algar (Ursula), Barry Keoghan (Dympna) and Cosmo Jarvis (Arm).

Calm With Horses is a beautifully shot film, rich with colour — equally contrasted with darkness. Overall, it has a very specific feel to it. How did you reach a decision on the style? Where there any reference points to develop this?

McGrail: Nick and I spoke generally about the films that we liked, and what approach would lend itself to the script. Calm With Horses is ostensibly a crime story, but there is so much more happening — and perhaps in the end it is more of a family drama set against the backdrop of this slightly heightened criminal world. I saw some elements of stylisation in the script — the dialogue was quite poetic at times, and there was a simplicity to the environment and some of the background characters that was unusual. So we wanted to bring some of that into the film. It was about getting the balance between something authentic but also lyrical, so we looked at films that pulled that off. I think one of the key references that we both loved was The Place Beyond the Pines. There’s an authenticity to that film but it’s not doggedly realist, and they manage to create some really cinematic imagery without it feeling forced. So that was certainly in our minds as we were filming, but really a film just becomes what it wants to be after a week or two into the shoot. At some point it just finds itself, and that just seems to be the natural process every time. Presumably the references you discuss, the locations, the cast all come together and you are no longer conscious of the overall style. I think if we were too dogmatic about a particular approach then we would have missed out on some of the more unexpected moments, and this production had many unexpected moments.

Shot One: The Train Carriage.

Why did you pick this shot?

McGrail: I picked this shot because it shows the effectiveness of a great location. The Locations Manager and Nick found this amazing old train graveyard just outside of the town we were filming in. I think the scene was originally written for a more generic space, but clearly there was great production value to be gained by using the inside of an abandoned train. It was a bit of a gamble to shoot here as it involved a location move that gave us very little shooting time, and in fact we did run out of light — you’ll see that it gets very grainy at times because we really had to push it in the grade [expertly finessed by our amazing colourist, Matthew Troughton]. Nevertheless, it was entirely worth it.

What does it convey?

McGrail: For so many reasons the right location is so crucial in my eyes — you get the backdrop production value, but you also get a space that the actors can really inhabit. I think that really lends itself to natural blocking, and perhaps also can help the performances. Arm and Dympna seem perfectly at home here. I think in this one frame — certainly this one scene — you get a sense of the dynamic between them and the world that they are living in.

Shot Two — The Nightclub.

Why did you pick this shot?

McGrail: This is a shot from a nightclub scene and it’s a pivotal moment, where Arm makes a decision that will impact the rest of the story. I think this really encapsulates the style that myself and Nick were aiming for throughout the film. We wanted to be naturalistic but not realist, so where possible we would inject the film with some stylisation. In this case we had the nightclub environment, which allowed us to choose a really reduced and bold colour palette. I love working with strong colours. At the same time, the coverage and the blocking are very simple throughout, and we generally used handheld in place of more complicated camera movement.

What does it convey?

McGrail: It shows the value of an incredible face — some actors photograph effortlessly, and Cosmo really looked great on camera. It was the culmination of a really arduous and intense day. I think this shot was pretty close to the end of the day, and I remember it felt a bit rushed. However, the energy and the pressure surrounding it seemed to have lent it a really nice quality.

Shot Three — Cosmo, up close.

Why did you pick this shot?

McGrail: Again, I think this shows the strength of a good face. My favourite shots often tend to be the more simple ones, and I really like a static camera that just watches a great performance in a mid shot, or a close up like this. This was both a really interesting location and a really difficult location to service. Again, a real gamble in terms of the schedule but ultimately, of course, it was worth it. This shot doesn’t show off the location but I think it is quietly quite powerful. Because of the location we could barely get any lights outside the window — in fact, the closest we could get was about 20ft away, at a really sharp angle. So we ended up just silhouetting everyone in the wider shot, and for this close up I just used some poly to bounce the light back into Cosmo’s face.

What does it convey?

McGrail: The awkward angle of the light forced it into being quite a contrasting, back light — just enough light to read his thoughts, but not too much that it loses drama. Another decision that I was unsure of on the day, but I’m so glad with how it worked out in the end. I’ve shot quite a lot of films and I love how I still feel like I don’t know anything really. There would be so many set ways to approach this shot but what what we stumbled upon worked perfectly.

Shot Four — The Car Chase.

Why did you pick this shot?

McGrail: I picked this one as it is the culmination of a really ambitious car chase sequence which, incredibly, we pulled off in a single day. The chase scene is only a couple of minutes of screen time, but it loomed over the entire shoot due to the complexity of the action and the narrow window of time that our budget allowed. With Nick’s background as a rally driver, it was also important for him to make it authentic. I like this shot, and scene, because it shows the remarkable capability of the crew. Nick and I spent a lot of time carefully prepping the action leading up to the shoot, but we still entered into this day with a really ambitious shot list. We had two cars and two camera units, a terrific stunt team and some really fast grips to help us get through it. We had one left hand drive version of car with a fake steering wheel so that we could get shots of Cosmo driving [framing out the stunt driver beside him]. I think we shot about six or seven car rigs across multiple vehicles, plus a bunch of other insert shots and wides.

What does it convey?

McGrail: We used very little trickery, and while we did run the camera at a slightly slower frame rate to speed things up, a lot of the energy comes from the fact that we were genuinely driving very quickly on small country roads. Personally, I think that in recent years you often see chase scenes that are over produced and less exciting as a result. In contrast, we used hard mounts and no stabilisation, and I think even if we had a bigger budget we would have still used the same approach. Nick and I had to travel in a follow vehicle driven by another stunt driver, in order to monitor the shots and I think we were smiling all day. It was a really successful and enjoyable end to the shoot.

Having discussed your four ‘perfect shots’, what do you think denotes this? Do you have any criteria?

McGrail: I think a perfect shot is a perfect moment in a film — it has very little to do with the camera work, although that plays some part. But it’s those great moments that give you the shivers, and it’s often just a mid shot or a reaction, and it is entirely indebted to the other shots that surround it. It’s great that it’s hard to define, because it should take us by surprise. It certainly surprises me, and I think none of us really know what will be truly effective until it happens.

CALM WITH HORSES is out NOW across DIGITAL platforms.

Words by Madeleine Finlay-Hudson

UK & IE Distribution arm of Altitude Film Entertainment. Coming soon: @rocksthefilm, @DavidALifeFilm, Calm With Horses & more!