“If I’m honest with you, I was terrified when I first signed onto it,” admits Shabier Kirchner, the cinematographer for the five-part anthology series “Small Axe.” “I think making one film is already an incredibly difficult feat. Making five of them, in half a year as well, was something that was incredibly terrifying to me.” But the finished product was released in the fall of 2020 and generated almost universally positive reviews as well as film and TV awards recognition. Watch our exclusive video interview with Kirchner above.
“Small Axe” tells five separate stories of the West Indian immigrant experience in the UK during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. So Kirchner felt an even greater responsibility since he himself is from Antigua. “The subject matter was going to be about my people,” he explains. “I’m here and holding the flag now, so the pressure of not messing that up was really strong.” But Steve McQueen, who directed and co-wrote all five episodes, “was just so great at empowering you, just believing that the truth will be told in our approach to doing it.”
But McQueen and Kirchner “didn’t go into it trying to homogenize the visual look of each film.” Instead, “it was very much one by one … We approached it like you would any film.” That meant adapting their styles and techniques to the needs of each particular film, and sometimes those needs were quite different. For instance, “Mangrove” was a true story about protest and a legal battle precipitated by a campaign of police harassment: “Our production design team had an amazing collage of photographs from that era, the ’60s and ’70s … and it was very evident right away that we wanted it to be a 35mm patina to really capture all of the detail of the design and of the skin and faces of that era.”
Then “‘Lovers Rock’ was the exact opposite of that.” It was set during a single house party in 1980, so “we wanted it to feel cleaner, more vibrant, and we knew it was going to be a lot of long takes … and felt that digital was the medium that was going to get us there.” Kirchner’s wide-ranging visual approaches have already earned him Best Cinematography awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and he’s up for a BAFTA TV Award. The Emmys could be next.
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