With one of the most diverse resumes of cinematographers working in the industry today, Nick Cooke can accurately be called a master visual creator.
The multi-award winning cinematographer Nick is known for the Edinburgh Film Festival Best British Feature ‘Pikadero’, Berlinale Winning ‘Butterfly Kisses’ and more recently Amazon’s UK/Indian co-production ‘The Hungry‘. Alongside feature films, Nick is also known for a string of successful short films including the Academy Award Winning animation ‘Miss Todd’ and hugely successful short film ‘Mass of Men’.
Dividing his time between commercial clients and fictional work Nick has shot extensively abroad including India, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Dubai, and Singapore. Starting his career as a camera assistant for the BBC; he was later awarded a Kodak Scholarship, which enabled him to study and specialise in cinematography at the National Film and Television School (NFTS). Nick was recently a part of debut features of Dominic Dromgoole’s ‘Making Noise Quietly’ and Bill Buckhurst’s ‘Pond Life’.
My relationship with India is that of great respect and wonder. It’s incredible how you see something new every day in India.
Catch Nick Cook speaking to us about getting started in the industry and his experiences as a cinematographer.
Q: How was your experience of working in ‘The Hungry‘?
A: ‘The Hungry‘ was quite a strange beast in the sense that it was a combination of talents from both India and UK, so I was very lucky to work alongside talented actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Tisca Chopra and Neeraj Kabi. Ever since the shoot of ‘The Hungry‘ got over I have developed interests in doing more projects that are based in India. I’d very much like it, but the story has to be right first.
Q: What do you think makes good cinema?
A: To me, cinema is all about a story’s relationship to time. Obviously, the difference between TV and Film has changed – it doesn’t quite mean what it used to be. The success of TV drama’s all over the world is a proof to this. Also, the size of the TV and access to the films on them means it’s not necessarily about size anymore either. However, what still stands is a story’s relationship to time and it’s commitment to time. Both overall as a format i.e 90minutes plus, but more importantly how this affects its performance and camera work.
Take the film ‘A Ghost Story’ from last year, a character eats a pie for 10minutes in that film, and it’s very powerful! The 90/100/120/160min mark etc. allows you to spend your time with moments like this. You don’t have to cap the film at any given length – each film is allowed to dictate it’s own individual pace. This is the advantage of cinema.
Bornila is an all-seeing eye that watches over the entire production and she has a brilliantly questioning mind that looks at all things from all angles… Naseeruddin has a commanding presence and you feel it when he walks on the set and his instinct is very good, guess that is what he is famous for.
In TV you have to wrap up your story in 45mins or 1hr so spending time watching someone eat a pie for 10minutes probably wouldn’t be advisable. Especially as you have to wrap up your narrative so soon. This means TV has a restriction of space – so often rather than sitting and observing a character TV will fill the space with dialogue to keep things moving. Which in turn affects the camera work – it too has to keep things “moving”.
The freedom of time that cinema has is to not only to follow characters but place them in a wider context and use the physical space to extenuate what they’re feeling.
Obviously, the areas are always being blurred, there are films that are very ‘TV’ and there are dramas that are very ‘Cinematic’. I’ve noticed Netflix shows don’t have uniform times anymore, so maybe this will change too.
Q: With movies advancing to digital from film, is there a different method and philosophy for exposure when shooting with digital as compared to film?
A: Not really – once you start lighting a set, you do so with your eyes. The only real difference between film and digital is that once lit you might be happy with the levels. With film, you’d probably shoot but with digital, you might look at the monitor and think, “oh actually we could underexpose a little more here and get away with it”. Digital takes away some element of doubt from your images so you can push things little further in camera perhaps.
Q: What would your dream project comprise of? Is there any country in particular that you would like to film in?
A: I am interested in people from all over the world. It was a real pleasure shooting in India and I’d love to come back. We didn’t do a lot of shooting on the streets for ‘The Hungry‘ and perhaps I’d love to do more of that! They’re so full of life. In terms of story, there is nothing I wouldn’t consider doing, but I am particularly interested in the people that history tends to ignore. Not sure what it’s like in India but our history in the UK is that of the elite. We’ve made three films about Winston Churchill in about three years. Yet there are hundreds of hard-fought lives that are not spoken about. Isn’t it more interesting to find these stories?
I regret not spending enough time on the sets before the shoot of ‘The Hungry‘. We all eventually got to know it well by the end of the shoot but I would have preferred knowing it before it began.
Q: You’ve worked with Bornila, Tanaji and Naseeruddin. How is your relationship with them?
A: Bornila and Tanaji were wonderful to work with, they’re both the coolest people on the planet. Tanaji is always level headed and treats everyone with the same courtesy regardless of whether he’s the spot boy or associate producer. Bornila is an all-seeing eye that watches over the entire production and she has a brilliantly questioning mind that looks at all things from all angles. It is really very impressive and I’m sure there are some great stories to be delivered from her in the following years. Naseeruddin has a commanding presence and you feel it when he walks on the set and his instinct is very good, guess that is what he is famous for.
Our day off during the production of ‘The Hungry‘ happened to be Christmas Day, I had a bottle of Single Malt Scots Whisky, Ardbeg, which I had brought from the UK. He honed in on the bottle straight away, he knows a good thing when he sees it, which pretty much sums up how he approaches a scene.
Q: How much planning went into the making of ‘The Hungry’?
A: There were about three weeks of prep in India, and it was none stop work on set, even when we weren’t filming. However Bornila, Tanaji and Kurban had been talking/planning it for years.
I’m not a huge fan of dark images. I personally find them quite dull.
Q: You have worked across the globe. How about your relationship with India?
A: My relationship with India is that of great respect and wonder. It’s incredible how you see something new every day in India. The people have always been kind and welcoming. The food is magnificent, and when it comes to filming too, anything is possible and people strive to create cinema. My partner Linda and I took a short trip after we completed our filming – we saw the Ajanta Caves, India has a wonderful history.
Q: In terms of cinematographers, who do you like?
A: I love the works of Sven Nykvist, he has captured the greatest performances throughout cinema history – and has also worked with Bergman and Tarkovsky to name only two great directors. There is a simplicity to his approach I’d love to work like that. It is a long way to go. I also love the work of Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa who shot two of my favourite John Huston films – ‘Night of the Iguana’ and ‘Under the Volcano’ both brilliant Hollywood movies. Of course, there are many contemporary people that always excite when their new work comes out; Christopher Doyle for example. Last year, 2017, Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), Andrew Droz Palermo (Ghost Story), Philippe Le Sourd (The Beguiled) and Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Molly’s Game) really stood out to me.
Generally, most of my works are drama led, but having said that, thrillers and horrors are two genres that have come into play too.
Q: What advice do you give young cinematographers?
A: Learn to enjoy the fact that a film is the director’s vision and enjoy the space and freedom that allows you – it is a far greater experience working in collaboration and following the film to a destination you may not know or expect, rather than fighting against it.
Q: Now that people watch films on TV, computers and even their phones. Do you ever consider the audiences and the medium while shooting?
A: You just need to think about where they should be looking, and not worry too much about the device. As long as the eye is led to the right space, that is all that matters. A phone is generally held closer to a human to compensate for its size.
Q: What genres of movies have you filmed? Which one are you more inclined to?
A: Generally, most of my works are drama led, but having said that, thrillers and horrors are two genres that have come into play too. However, at the end of the day, everything generally boils down to the characters.
Q: With Gamma Log, is it safe to shoot in underexposure?
A: Depends on what you are shooting. One of my cinematographers at film school, Stuart Harris, would always say that even when you underexposed, there should always be a point of exposure somewhere in the frame as a general rule. Sometimes you could be very underexposed but could still have a practical light at the back of the frame to balance things out. It comes back to leading the eye – sometimes you might do this by lighting something or not lighting anything at all. Even if you are underexposed you should be leading the eye. I’m not a huge fan of dark images. I personally find them quite dull.
Q: What according to you is a perfect dynamic range?
A: Not sure how to answer that question. It varies from camera to camera, where the dynamic range becomes counter-intuitive and you “gain” control over everything but with this gain you lose some creativity too.
Q: What resolution or format do you shoot in?
A: For ‘The Hungry’ it was 2K – but the last few shoots have been in 4k because of stream requirements. Personally, I like working in 2.35:1 aspect ratio but the recent ones have been in 1.85:1.
Q: Every country has its own mood and setting. How do you adjust accordingly and deliver good cinematic work?
A: This is true not only in the case of countries but locations as well. For me, it is very important to spend time on location as much as possible for any film. It is important to learn where light enters and exits and that makes the whole space very interesting. The more you understand a space and its layers, the more prepared you become for a shoot. I regret not spending enough time on the sets before the shoot of ‘The Hungry‘. We all eventually got to know it well by the end of the shoot but I would have preferred knowing it before it began. If I could camp out on location I would!
WATCH the trailer of ‘The Hungry’:
READ Director’s Profile: