Cinematographer John Brawley spoke to Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki about how he was able to visually interpret Tony McNamara’s world of The Great. And why, for Brawley, the process is just as important as the final result.
The Great isn’t your typical period drama. For every ‘Huzzah!’ — deliciously delivered by Nicholas Hoult— there are about a dozen ways The Great toys with your expectations of what a period drama should be, and what The Great is actually going to deliver.
It starts with Tony McNamara’s script, a cutting satire adapted from McNamara’s previous work. Hoult and Elle Fanning‘s performances are pitch-perfect, effortlessly adapting to even the most subtle of tonal shifts. The Great’s costumes, hair and makeup, and sets —were also crafted with the goal of creating a modern and unconventional window into the life of Catherine The Great.
It was then up to cinematographer John Brawley to tie all of these visual elements together.
“The great thing about the series is the way that it travels between satire and genuine pathos. I love the style of [McNamara’s] writing, it is very unique and specific,” Brawley said. “I think it’s really easy to underestimate how difficult it is to do that tone really well, it was something that was a great challenge to be a part of, to have the chance to bring these great scripts to life.”
Read John Brawley’s complete interview with Awards Daily below:
Awards Daily: I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of the behind-the-scenes talent who worked on The Great. And one thing that I’m very curious about, that we’ve talked about a great deal, is this idea of honoring the 18th century period but also fitting into this satirical world that Tony McNamara has created. I wanted to touch on that with you as well.
John Brawley: I feel like Tony always wants the tone to feel contemporary, and that way the story is very accessible and very relevant. The trick for us was not to, from a visual standpoint, fall for the obvious, usual tropes of a lot of period drama shows that are out there. We wanted to be very upfront with the idea that this was something different, that while we were set in a particular era, this was a unique take on that era— that this was a satirical show and not hide that.
We really tried to avoid some of the clichés of those kinds of traditional period shows. You know, there’s a huge audience for those shows, but we were trying to do something that was quite different. We weren’t afraid, and in fact, we really leaned into trying to make it feel more contemporary, more relevant, and more accessible to an audience that might not even watch a traditional period drama.
AD: What specific techniques did you use to give The Great a more contemporary visual style?
JB: Yeah. From a visual point of view, we tended to avoid some of the visual clichés of those big, grand, sweeping crane shots and big vistas. We used some handheld cameras, and we deliberately tried not to have a lot of smoke. You know, when you see all of these period shows, they tend to be filmed with a lot of smoke. We just tried to pull away from those visual cliché of period films and make it feel a little bit more contemporary.
The way that we shot, staged, and blocked the scenes; it felt very modernized. And in terms of the way that scenes were covered, we used handheld a lot more, we weren’t as concerned with these big, sweeping vistas that are very much a part of the traditional visual vernacular of those more studied shows.
AD: I wanted to ask you about the visual representation of Peter and Catherine. We see in the costumes and set designs— that Catherine is represented by a lot of lighter colors, a sense of youth. And with Peter, everything’s a little bit darker, a little bit more sinister. Did that idea play into your camera work?
JB: Certainly there was an overall intention to represent Catherine as a shining light in this period of darkness, this kind of beacon of hope that she ends up becoming. I think her journey is represented by the way that we show her moving through those spaces.
We also tried to keep her very much in the center of the frame. Her close-ups are always just a little bit closer than everyone else’s. We always tried to treat her differently so that you understood that she was the center of the frame, that even though she was kind of crowded into dark spaces, that she was always this beacon of light and hope.
She was very much in the middle of the frame; compositionally, we always said that she would always be central. Whereas, most of the other coverage was not shot in the same way. — it’s just a little subtle nod to help you understand that this is very much was about her journey and what she represents.
AD: You’ve done a lot of TV work in your career, but with The Great, in particular, you know that people are going to binge-watch the show, and a lot of people are going to be watching, obviously on TVs, but also on their tablets or phones. How does the medium involved, and audience consumption, play into your decision-making process?
JB: I think one of the greatest strengths of television is that you can be a lot more detailed and sophisticated with how you tell stories visually — especially with a show like this where you know from the beginning that people are going to watch episodes back-to-back. You don’t have to be as obvious and literal with things. I think that goes across the board in terms of tone, but visually as well.
I think audiences are very sophisticated now, and they are used to the language of cinema, even when it’s on a tablet or even when it’s on an iPhone. We’re still using, I think, the same visual conventions of cinema, but it’s evolving and I think it’s actually really exciting. In fact, I actually think, watching it on tablets or iPhones is sometimes better in terms of displays because sometimes people have 10-year-old televisions and they haven’t touched the settings— and yet, people are updating their tablets every two years. [Laughs]. I mean, I just bought an iPad with very high brightness and fantastic color reproduction. I was watching one of my episodes just to see how it looked, and I think it looked fantastic. I think it’s a really interesting evolution, and I think the more access to television, the better.
AD: I’d love for you to walk me through a specific sequence in The Great that you found challenging or a moment that you feel defined your work on the show.
JB: I think for me, one of the most exciting moments is actually the finale episode. There’s a montage at the end where you see Velementov (Douglas Hodge) standing up with the guards and you see Catherine trying to work out what to do. That whole sequence was great to design and work with director Geeta Patel to find a way to make that feel epic and feel momentous. It was really enjoyable to come up with that, and the opening of that episode as well where Catherine has just realized that she’s pregnant and you have this kind of altered sense of reality where people are talking to her and she’s not really listening or paying attention to what people are saying.
I think representing Catherine’s internal monologue where she has to kind of come to this understanding that she has to put her big boy pants on and step up to this challenge —it was a fun episode to bring that all together. And obviously, from a story point-of-view, it was all coming to a head as well —it just gives you this extra momentum to really have fun with those moments. Episode 10 is really heartbreaking and also laugh-out-loud funny —that’s a pretty unique combination to have in the same episode.
AD: Were there ways that you tried to visually represent those tonal shifts within the script?
JB: Yeah, I think with the way that the camera movement was blocked in that final episode, there’s a lot of visual accenting going on just by the really simple visual language of pushing in on someone’s face. The idea was to project people’s internal monologue. You’ve got all of these important characters that are facing their own moment of truth; with Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), with all of these characters that are having to come to this moment of realization. It was a great exercise to try and mark those visually — little push-in shots, little accents —that wasn’t something that we had done as much of previously, but it felt like it really suited what we needed to do and what we needed to say to the audience.
AD: You know, as I was doing my research in preparation for speaking with you, I came across your blog. I found it so interesting, the way that in detail, you explain what equipment you use and take everyone through the construction of your work.
AD: I thought that was utterly fascinating.
JB: Thank you! I like to be really open about process because I think a process is as important as the end result in a way.
I think as cinematographers we have a great responsibility to be aware of, not only, of course, beautiful lighting and making some great frames compositionally, but we’re also creating a space that actors have to perform in.
The way that we approach process; the way that we set up the shots, the way that we block the scene, the way that we bring the actors into that space. — I’m always very aware that all of that feeds into the energy an actor has to work with on set.
I actually have spoken to my assistants about how they operate the slate because if you do it the wrong way, you’re going to put the actor off just before they go into a take. So to me, the process of how we approach things is just as important as the end result.
And I think by being open about it and discussing it, you bring other stakeholders into that. And I try and bring them, actors and producers, all into it so that they all feel involved. I want them to feel some ownership of that. I love pre-production. I love setting up some tests. I love shooting those tests, and then sitting down and watching them, and having a screening. I find it hard to do that on every show, but I think it’s a really important part of the process too because it feels like we’re all on the same page. You also learn so much about the tone of the story you’re trying to tell, and the storytelling component of it — it’s not just this technical process, it’s got to be in service of the story. And I think that’s part of the way that you learn about that.
Season one of The Great is available now on Hulu. ICYMI: The Awards Daily team has done several interviews with the cast and crew of The Great including Elle Fanning, writer Tony McNamara, costume designer Emma Fryer, and production designer Francesca Di Mottola.