Pip (Jeremy Irvine) in Great Expectations © Copyright: Johan Persson
Cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC has recently finished filming one of Charles Dickens’ finest novels, Great Expectations. The film is set to open in UK cinemas at the end of November. Great Expectations tells the tale of Pip, a poor orphaned boy who comes into a fortune from a presumed benefactor but the money corrupts him spiritually and otherwise. In the end he loses all but returns to what he knows is true. The stellar cast includes the cream of British talent comprising Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane amongst others. It was directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) from a script by David Nicholls (One Day).
Great Expectations was shot in London and around the Isle of Sheppey off the north coast of Kent in the Thames estuary some 46 miles to the east of London, not far from where the novel was set. The cameras used were an ARRI ST and an LT equipped with Crystal Express anamorphic lenses supplied by Panavision and Panalux lights. The principal film stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219.
When asked why he shot this classic movie on film rather than video, John Mathieson replied, “Because I wanted integrity and depth in my colors as well as the range of contrast that film provides. Shooting digital would simply not have provided the ‘poetry’ required to do justice to this wonderful well-known tale.” He explains that he wanted to create broadly three looks, all of which would be artfully drab but each with their own individual flavour. These three looks encompassed the Marshes and forge scenes, Miss Havisham’s interiors and London streets and interiors.
“Within these looks,” Mathieson expands “you have grey oyster wintery skies and satin reflections in the tidal salt flats interrupted by lone dark ragged Dickensian figures and lots of horizon; the stale moulding sunless boarded-up interiors of Satis House and the towering, noisy, heaving, smelly smoking sewer streets of London, with lots of vertical and no sky.”
“I wanted to mirror the story arc of the novel,” continues Mathieson. “ So you have the beauty and solemnity of the marshes where Pip was happiest. But then he goes to London, which, for all its fantastic things which catch your eye, is still a grey, drab place. Similarly Estella goes from the marshes to London society so you still have this palette of solemn greyness and the dank horrible feel of the city. But then they escape their trappings- he loses his fortune and she loses her husband- and they find themselves about to embark on a great romantic journey so I was looking for an explosion of color, hope and brightness at the end so that the film had an arc, a journey of darkness into light, but that alas didn’t happen,” he admits.
“Film was the right choice of shooting medium,” he explains “ as it allowed me to control the language of color and tone, shadow, light and exposure in a way that digital simply would not have. This needed to be a film of delicate colors not polarized hues. Kodak film stocks provided just the gentle touch required. Our version of Great Expectations couldn’t compete with the classic David Lean epic, what could? But I do feel we have brought it more up-to-date with a solid and visually-stunning version,” he concluded.