Stijn van der Veken about Our Girl 2

 

Could you present yourself and your work in a few words ?

SvdV : I did my studies at the IAD in Louvain-La-Neuve and graduated in 1989. I started working mainly for Belgian production companies initially as a AC. After several years I moved more into documentary shooting, travelled quiet a bit and landed back in Belgium where shooting drama became my principal occupation. The last several years I moved entirely to an international market mainly in the UK.

What is the series about ?

SvdV : It’s a five episodes BBC One series called Our Girl 2. Actually the first one had nothing to do with this one. The crew is different, the cast is different, and the plot is quite different. The only two things they have in common : it’s both BBC series and they have the same writer, Tony Grounds.

Our Girl 2 is the story of a medic in a British squat that goes in Kenya for a humanitarian mission. Very soon she realises that it’s more than a humanitarian mission, and that they are cut into a real war zone conflict against Al-Shabaab terrorists.

The first three episodes where shot in South Africa and the last two in Manchester, where the main character Georgie is supposed to come from.

How did you come to work on the project? Did you already knew the director ?

SvdV : I partially shot a series called Shetland with the producer of Our Girl season 2. He offered the series to Jan Matthys, a friend of mine which whom I have been shooting for almost twenty years to be the leading director on this show. We shot the first three episodes together, the last two I shot with Luke Snellin, an English director.

For how long did you shoot ?

SvdV : From February to July.

For five episodes it’s rather long, don’t you think ?

SvdV : Yes, it’s quite different from what we are used to. But the shoot in South Africa was rather complicated. There were a lot of action scenes going on. We had like 14 shooting days per episode. Plus the prep which lasted four weeks for me, plus two weeks in Manchester, plus twelve days of grading in August.

Why South Africa ?

SvdV : We shot South Africa for Kenya, crews are excellent, service production and rental companies are very reliable and very good.

How was is to shoot there ?

SvdV : Amazing. Even though we did shoot in some more complicated spots such as the townships. Locations are versatile, beautiful, light is lovely and the climate is very stable.

Can you tell me about your technical and/or artistic approach of the project ?

SvdV : We shot on Alexa Mini. We had two cameras during the entire shoot. I operated A camera and George Loxton (a local operator) took the B camera. A set of Leica Summilux lenses was shared on both cameras and an Optimo 24-290 for the long lens stuff. Most of the action scenes were shot handheld, the rest on a Fisher 11 dolly and a few crane shots with a Libra head.

How did you handle the second camera ?

SvdV : B camera was as important as the A camera on this show and so not to be used for the typical inserts and leftover shots. I really needed it to have a reasonable amount of shots to support all the action scenes so he was there every day and did a brilliant job!

I suppose you didn’t use a lot of lighting in South Africa because you shot a lot of exteriors ?

SvdV : Well it depends. We had proper sets build like the refugee camp and all the compound buildings belonging to it such as the care center that we lighted. I love to have the light coming from one single direction and then shape it, guide it or take it away with lots of negative fill, reflectors and bouncers. The set ends up not having light fixtures on the floor which gives actors a great freedom so they can perform on their best.

Same for the exteriors, we didn’t use additional light but shaped it with big 20’ x 20’ black frames setup on a Manitou. No silk or diffusion of any kind not to kill the harsh sunlight atmosphere that we wanted. Smoke (Atmos) was used on most of the exterior sets and was brilliantly controlled by our SFX team to enhance the feeling of heat and dust. 

On top of that I had my most loved “BR lights” shipped from Belgium.

How are they special ?

SvdV : They are fantastic because they replace all the Kinoflo type of source. They are very directional, very soft, similar to the Skypanel, but better in my opinion. Wireless DMX controls level and colour. We use them from small rooms to big night exteriors on a cherry picker. It was one of the first thing I said to my South African gaffer Toby : “I can’t work without them” and at the end he even bought a set for himself. The BR lights are developed by my Belgian gaffer Bert Reyskens out of Kinflo frustration (Laughter).

And for the grip equipment ?

SvdV : Let’s say 40% was handheld, the rest on dolly.

You didn’t use a Steadycam or a Stab One ?

SvdV : No. We only used a Movi for three shots in Manchester to shoot a jogging scene but that’s all.

What can you tell me about the members of your crew. I suppose you didn’t know them ?

SvdV : No. I had to choose my entire crew remotely which is a very difficult but rather fascinating task that I have to do almost every time because most of the time I work abroad. First you make phone calls to a few of your colleagues that already worked there, then you try to get some intel from the rental companies. And you see if there is any of the names who pop up several times so you can narrow it down to three or four people. But at the end you have to trust your feeling.

What we do is artistic, technical but it’s so much a people’s business. I think it’s one of the most important things to manage, especially when you are talking about a shoot with 200 people.

So what are your criteria to choose a member of your crew ?

SvdV : For this shoot Media Film Service (the Capetown based rental company) helped me out very much by suggesting a team of light, grip and camera guys. I had interviews with some of them, actually I don’t like these interviews as they can become way to formal so it ends always as a social chat where you learn to know the person on a more personal level.

It’s funny because I found that to be normal in Belgium.

SvdV : Yes, maybe it’s because I am Belgian. (Laughter). But more seriously, I think it’s common sense. To know if the person is qualified, you only have to look at his resume, and to trust your producer. But at the end you’re going to share a significant amount of time with this person, moreso than with your wife and kids, so you have to know that you will get along during those months and hopefully even become good friends.

What is the case on this shoot ?

SvdV : Very much. The production has announced a new series in South Africa. If I shoot it again, I will contact my previous team for sure.

How did the work with the actors go ?

SvdV : Very well. Michelle Keegan was very nice, she knew every one’s name on set. She was always in a good mood… And she did a fantastic job.

How about your collaboration with the other departments : make-up, costume design, art direction, etc. ?

SvdV : The production designer, bloc 2 director, make-up artist and costume designer were British, the other director and myself we were from Belgium, but the rest of the team was South African. I loved to work with the local guys, they are all very experienced having done productions as Homeland, Mad Max Fury road, etc…

SFX was important on the show, most of the time we had 3 to 6 SFX people on set among them always 3 of in charge of exterior smoke (Atmos), a full time armourer, two militaries advisers from the British army, etc… Five ton’s of military costumes were shipped from the UK to South Africa. All the weapons were real, blank of course but real. The extras that were supposed to be Somalian, were really from Somalia. So the scale of the production was proper, SA crew sometimes being close to 200 people.

How did you handle the post production of the film?

SvdV : Grading was done at Molinare London with my usual colorist Andrew Daniel, VFX was done in Bristol UK.

Do you use LUT on the set ?

SvdV : Mostly I use the same LUT which has been developed by my Belgian colorist Peter Bernaers and provides a more gentle look than REC 709 as well in color saturation, contrast as high lights. It will always be used throughout the entire workflow, from viewing on set till basic LUT for the grade. I have used it for many years now. It proves to be stable and reliable. Most of the time executive producers are in London and they screen rushes and edits on a low res online platform such as Encodi. It’s important to be sure they look at exactly the same type of image as we do on set.

How is the result of the project for you ?

SvdV : The audience seemed to like it since the viewing figures went above 6 million and BBC was very happy as well. Myself, I enjoyed everything, the shoot, the locations and especially the lovely and brilliant SA and UK crew I got the privilege to work with!

SA Crew :

B Camera operator : George Loxton

Focus puller : Angus De La Harpe & Kent Satram

Key Grip : Stephen Knipe

Gaffer : Toby Smuts

Colorist : Andrew Daniel

UK Crew:

B Camera operator: Richard Bevan

Focus puller: Dan Gadd

Key Grip: Chris Hughes

Gaffer: Trevor Chaisty

Material : 

Equipment: Alexa Mini, Leica Summilux

Rental company : Media Film Service Cape-town

Post-production : Molinare London

VFX : AXISVFX Bristol