Cinematographer Si Bell and Director Anthony Byrne move crime drama series to a more cinematic look and feel
For four seasons, Thomas Shelby, his family and his gang — Peaky Blinders — have been captivating audiences around the world with this crime drama set in 1920s Birmingham, England in the aftermath of World War I. But the fifth season would mean a total change in how the series was to be shot, moving from Cooke S4/i spherical lenses (used since season three) to anamorphic with Cooke Optics' Anamorphic/i prime lenses as well as 4K for this season’s Netflix full-season distribution in the US, which became available on 4 October 2019 (UK distribution on BBC One began in early September with one episode per week).
One of the challenges for cinematographer Si Bell and director Anthony Byrne — both big fans of the series — was maintaining continuity with the four seasons that came before them, regardless of the new production changes.
“Anthony and I had wanted to do this series for a number of years, having watched all of it and always talking about it,” explained Bell. “When we got the gig, we both watched the entire series again and paid special attention to the things we loved, things we thought could be different and things we thought could be better. But we obviously had to keep continuity.”
“Going anamorphic for the new season made absolute sense,” said Bell. “There’s a time jump between the fourth and fifth seasons, with a new storyline for the Shelby family, so a new look made sense…and it made the series more cinematic than it had ever looked.”
The first consideration was the move to 4K and camera selection. The previous seasons were shot on an ARRI ALEXA, but through many camera tests the team decided that the RED MONSTRO 8K sensor had the best look for the project, with the flexibility, sensitivity and physical size of the camera they needed. The next consideration was the anamorphic lenses — and this would be Bell’s first anamorphic project.
Following extensive testing, the anamorphic lens of choice became the Cooke Anamorphic/i primes. “We wanted a great anamorphic cinematic look with the ability to shoot fast, but the lenses also had to be very reliable through varied environmental conditons and have good accuracy for the focus pullers. That may seem like a lot to ask, but the Anamorphic/i just stood out from the rest.
For production, Bell’s kit consisted of the Anamorphic/i 25, 32, 40, 50, 65 MACRO, 75, 100 and 135mm. “The 40mm was a real workhorse for handheld and establishing shots, with the 65 MACRO being the go-to lens for getting really close to the actors and to pull focus from the background,” said Bell.
One specific scene where the Cooke Anamorphic/i 40mm prime lens stood out was a five-minute sequence in Episode Five after a character has been shot. “There’s a handheld shot for the entire five minutes with the scene going around to different characters,” explains Bell. “We had multiple lights rigged on boom arms that hit specific areas so we could move 360 degrees around the set without seeing any lights. The 40mm worked perfectly for this shot giving it cinematic scale and a beautiful Anamorphic quality.
Production of the fifth season of Peaky Blinders didn’t get off to an auspicious start. With the first week of shooting near Manchester, in a hilly area of northern England, the first day delivered rain, wind and freezing temperatures. “That’s what we had for the first shot of the season,” said Bell. “And then it got worse with torrential rain while shooting in the moors and countryside area, but camera and lenses stood up to the challenge.”
“I was really excited to give Peaky an anamorphic feel, and the Cooke standard Anamorphic/i lenses with their subtle bokeh and no big anamorphic flares gave it that look…a cleaner look, and not an extreme ‘in your face’ anamorphic look,” said Bell. “We needed and got a softer, more naturalistic look that didn’t make a statement that we were changing the show. We had the perfect balance with the Cooke Look® — that carried over since the third season — which really enhanced the cinematic scale of the series and brought it to a new level.”
And for Bell, when it came to shooting anamorphic for the first time? “For me, using Cooke Anamorphic/i lenses wasn’t that different to using Cooke spherical lenses – I could still do whatever I needed to do with lighting or even shooting wide open – Anamorphic/i’s coped with everything. Doing close focus took a little bit more time, but we didn’t really think about it, we were able to use the 65mm MACRO and we just needed to be aware of the camera getting too close.
Bell also has some advice for cinematographers who find themselves in the same position he was in: shooting their first anamorphic project. “Creatively this season was great and we’re proud of what we did on Peaky and people like it. If you’re looking at your first anamorphic project like I was, it’s simple: go out and get a set of Cooke Anamorphic/i’s and start shooting,” he concluded.