Ollie Downey is a cinematographer who has worked on a variety of projects over the years, spanning many genres. His most recent project is Amazon Prime’s Hanna, based on the 2011 film by Joe Wright that starred Saoirse Ronan. Downey worked on five episodes of the show’s second season, which premiered July 3 and has already been renewed for a third season. Hanna follows the title character, a girl raised by her father to be a warrior from birth. But as she finds out more about her world and faces her past, dark truths are revealed and Hanna must run from forces seeking to control her. Downey discusses his work on the series as well as his inspirations and body of work.
Nerds and Beyond: Thanks for agreeing to chat today! Starting off with Hanna, what was it that drew you to the project creatively?
Ollie Downey: Sometimes coming into a second season isn’t as appealing to a DP, simply because the look’s already been set up and established. But I loved the film, and I’d seen the first series, and I really liked what [cinematographer] Dana Gonzales had done with the first couple of episodes in the first season. I thought it was really beautifully lit, and sensitive and cinematic. So that lit a fire in my imagination, in my head. And it felt like there was plenty of room still to explore in this world he’d set up. And the scripts were pushing it forward and making this world bigger and broader for season two, with more countries, and new locations, new characters. So, that was all appealing, as well as the people involved. The series producer is Laura Hastings-Smith, and she’s an amazing producer with a brilliant eye for visuals. She did Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, and she did the film Hunger with Steve McQueen — really, really visual, beautiful films. So her being involved was a big thing.
And then the two directors, Eva Husson and David Farr, were both interesting. David, obviously, because he wrote the original film. He was the creator of the series, he’s an executive producer, and the writer. So he was an interesting one to work with. And Eva, hadn’t done much drama, if any, I don’t think, but she came from a French independent cinema background, which again, just felt a bit out of the ordinary and interesting.
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Repost from @unitedagents_btl using @RepostRegramApp – And the camera is rolling! The shoot for series 2 of @hannaonprime kicked off yesterday, with opening block cinematography by @olliedowneydop ……. #workingtitlefilms #amazonstudios #nbcuniversal #HannaTV #Hanna #behindthescenes #cinematography
Nerds and Beyond: And I would think it’s different for you coming in, having to balance several different directors, because you worked with Eva and David directly on your episodes, but then there was a third director [Ugla Hauksdóttir] for the middle episodes that you weren’t involved in. What was it like to build a relationship with three different directors on the season?
Ollie Downey: It was good. As you say, there were three really strong directors, because Ugla, who did the middle blocks, is brilliant. She’s a brilliant director. And I think they’re all very different, though. Eva was led by the emotion on set. She’s got a very sensitive eye and ear for scenes, and she’s led by that. David Farr, equally brilliant, but [when] he comes at it, he’s incredibly organized, and he knows exactly what he wants many weeks in advance. We shortlisted all the scenes in his block, with a couple of weeks to spare. So two really different processes, totally opposite ends of the spectrum, but both really good, and really interesting, and fun to work with. It kept it interesting having that difference, really, and a different way of working.
And I think the continuity, I guess, across the three different blocks was, we had a brilliant production designer called Carly Reddin, who ensured great visual continuity working with all three directors. And we set up a “look up table” [LUT] that all three blocked shot with, which was our look and build, so that helped as well.
Nerds and Beyond: One of the things that you alluded to a little bit was how you had a lot of different locations to juggle this season. How did those locations inspire your own work? And then, what were the challenges, and the rewards, of shooting in such different places episode to episode?
Ollie Downey: Well, I guess the travel was one of the most challenging things, but it was also probably the most enjoyable thing. You do feel very privileged to be spending a week or 10 days shooting in Paris, and then Wales, Dunkirk, London. And then David’s episodes, the last two episodes, were all set in Barcelona which is an amazing city. So it was busy, but it was really rewarding, and we just had a great time. It was a great bunch of people in front of, and behind, the camera. But it was wildly different. One week we were in a drizzly forest in North Wales … [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve ever been to North Wales, but it can really rain, and it can be pretty miserable and gray. And then the following week, we were in a fifth floor apartment in Paris, and it was the hottest day ever recorded there. It was like 42 degrees centigrade [107 degrees Fahrenheit]. We’re all sweating, and obviously the lift was broken [laughs], so we’re all carrying stuff up and down stairs. So it was good. The time flies by very quickly, because you’re moving on very quickly. You don’t have time to look back at what you’ve done, or really a chance to repeat yourself, which is great. More challenging, but great.
And I think the final two episodes were the most enjoyable. We spent two months in Barcelona, which is great. And Barcelona is David Farr’s favorite city, so he wanted to do it justice. He’d written the script with locations in mind, and they were all his favorite spots all over the city, which is great, obviously, when you’re writing. When you go to film it, and have to get to all those locations in a set number of days, it’s more challenging. But it was brilliant, we shot in some amazing places that we wouldn’t otherwise had access to, like bullfighting rings, and little seafood restaurants down on the coast, and nightclubs on the beach, and the beautiful university library there.
And we were lucky to work with some fantastic local crews. I should probably give a shout out to José Luis Rodríguez, who was the local Spanish gaffer, who was amazing. And all the Spanish crew were brilliant, and they really supported us. And we still had some of the English crew come out, and we became one big family, really. And it was just a lovely experience.
Nerds and Beyond: I’m sure it was. And especially now with the world on lockdown, it’s a trip that you might not get to make again soon, so that’s pretty amazing.
Ollie Downey: Exactly. Yeah. I’ve got the blues at the moment. I really miss it. I’d love to be back out there. It’s tough at the moment. I mean, listen, as long as your family is safe, there’s nothing to complain about really. But that said, it would be nice to be working again. It’s been a while now.
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Repost from @panavisionofficial using @RepostRegramApp – Swipe through breathtaking stills from blocks one and three of #HannaTV by cinematographer @OllieDowneyDOP. Shot across Europe in London, Dunkirk, Paris, and Barcelona with #PVintage optics and #CSeries anamorphics for flashbacks. Serviced by #Panavision Manchester Operator: John Hembrough A-Cam Focus Puller: Jason Walker (@jason.e.walker.5) B-Cam Focus Puller: Alex Parish (@alex.parish) A-Cam Loader: Andrew Binns (@binsy89) B-Cam Loader: Alex Hollowbread (@al.hollowbread) DIT: James Hogarth @realhogarthdigital Grip: Phil Walker (@phil.w_grip) and Myles Soldenhof (@myles_soldenhoff) Gaffer: Andy Bailey @andygaffer Barcelona Grip: Javi Gonzalez Leonardo Spanish Gaffer: Jose Luis Rodriguez @jose_luis_rofer #cinematography #hanna #amazonprime #cinematographer #amazonstudios #esmecreedmiles #miriellesenos #amazonprimevideo #hannatv @panavisionofficial
Nerds and Beyond: So also thinking about the visual look of the show, it’s an interesting show to watch because there’s so much action in it, but it’s also shot in a dreamy way, or almost like a romance. It’s shot very differently from most action films and shows, especially in the first season. What techniques did you use to get that feeling, despite the harshness of everything going on? And were there any big visual influences that you looked to for inspiration when you were designing the second season of the show?
Ollie Downey: It’s a really good question. It’s a really good question, because that’s what makes it unique, I think. Because there are other shows about teenage assassins out there, [laughs] I’m sure there must’ve been. I think what Dana did, he just elevated it at the beginning of episode one. In season one, there’s a real sensitivity to it, and he and Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the first block of the first season, they did a great job of really playing on the sensitivity of the storytelling. And the fact that whilst it’s got these action sequences, and it is part action thriller, at its core, season one is a fairytale. It’s the little girl coming out of the woods, being pursued by the wicked witch. And the sensitivity in the way they shot that was, I think, the key to making it unique. They didn’t shoot it like an action thriller, as you were saying.
And I think we were very aware of that in season two. Season two is very much a coming of age story. It’s set in this high school setting, and it’s these teenage girls going through these universal challenges of your teenage years, and it felt that’s what was important. And actually, to sell the viewer, to hook the viewer in, you need the viewer to care about what the girls are going through, so you have to show their vulnerability. And we shot it like a coming of age story, and the action is incidental, I guess. Because it’s not about the action really. It’s about the relationships, and it’s about them going through this incredibly vulnerable period in their lives, in this incredibly dark environment.
So obviously, we looked at Dana’s work, which I think is brilliant. He’s a great DP, and all his work on Fargo as well is just unbelievably brilliant. So we looked at his work. We looked at Mark Romanek’s film, Never Let Me Go. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.
Nerds and Beyond: Oh yes, that’s a beautiful film.
Ollie Downey: Never Let Me Go is so beautifully shot, so beautifully shot, but it’s so dark what’s going on. These teenagers, they’re falling in love for the first time, and they’re going through this time of great change, again, but they’re being used to harvest their organs. So as stories go, it couldn’t get much darker, but it’s shot so beautifully. So I think that was one for me.
And then, what else? We looked at David Fincher’s blocking actually. Eva was a big fan of David Fincher’s blocking in Mindhunter, and House of Cards, that kind of stuff. And I think a little bit of his lighting style, sort of House of Cards at the beginning and Mindhunter, it rarely is a West Coast America feel for the lighting. It feels a bit more Northern European, overcast skies seeping through, and that slightly underexposed feel. So that definitely came into it.
With David Farr actually, this is less of an overall thing, this was just when we were in Barcelona, David was quite keen on Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film from the ’70s. It was the sense of alienation and the almost Western stylings of these shootouts and confrontations.
Nerds and Beyond: The second you said Never Let Me Go, I thought, “Yes, absolutely. That makes complete sense.” Because that’s another movie where this sci-fi stuff is going on, and it’s there in the background, but the heart of the story is the characters.
Ollie Downey: Yes, absolutely. And it’s about this coming of age story again, I guess, isn’t it really? But it transpires through this incredibly dark world.
Nerds and Beyond: So turning more towards the start of your career, when did you know that you wanted to work in film, and how did you first get started in the industry?
Ollie Downey: So I thought I wanted to study fine art. I always painted through my teens. And then when it came to applying for universities, I thought I was going to go to study fine art. And I just had a moment, for some reason, I had a change of heart at the last minute, and realized I didn’t like the solitary nature of painting and just being on your own and working on it. I’ve always loved being around people, so just at the last minute, it didn’t feel like the right fit.
So I did a film and TV course. I’d always loved films, I should say that. I remember watching North by Northwest when I was five or six years old with my granddad, and just being mesmerized by this amazing imagery, Mount Rushmore, and the crop duster flying low through the fields and all that stuff, and just being spellbound by it. So I think it was always in the back of my mind. And then I realized there was a crossover with painting, and art, and framing, and photography, so I did this course.
And then when I came out [of school], I got a job as a runner on a low budget feature, and just gravitated towards what the camera was doing, and actually more the lighting than the camera. And I think all those elements came together, and I started looking for work and working as a camera trainee. And spent, I don’t know, 10-15 years working my way up through the camera department to a second AC [second assistant camera] and a focus puller. And I was shooting all the time, always lighting little terrible videos on weekends for free whilst I was working as an assistant. And it just came to a point eventually where I was busier DPing than I was assisting. And that’s when I just finished the assisting and then made that decision.
Nerds and Beyond: And you’ve worked in every single genre, because you’ve done music videos, you’ve done period dramas like Harlots, and you’ve also done sci-fi shows. What do you enjoy about the challenge of doing all sorts of different genres? It must be a very different approach for you as a cinematographer, depending on what job you’re working on.
Ollie Downey: You’re absolutely right. I think what keeps it interesting is not repeating yourself, changing up every project, and working across genres, and not getting pigeonholed into one thing, because I think you’d go mad. I think possibly the most enjoyable part of the process is prep, when you sit down and you try and throw away everything you know, to some degree. I’m a big believer [that] it should all come from the script. When you get into prep on that first day, and producers say, “What lenses and camera do you want?” I tend to say, “No, I need a bit of time. It’s got to be right for this project, not right for the last project.”
So I think finding your look in prep is a really enjoyable challenge. Starting with visual references, whether it’s paintings, stills photography, other films or TV shows, and then you slowly develop your look through those references and finding out what you and the director relate to. And then from there, you work out how you’re going to light it, with what type of lights, with what type of diffusion, with what type of bounce, with what type of camera, with what type of lenses. And it should all come from what’s in the script. It’s good to try and go in with an open mind.
Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. So another question I had – looking back over the different projects you’ve been involved in, has there been a project that you feel that you learned the most from, and why? And is there a project that you’re the most proud of, and why?
Ollie Downey: That I was proud of. Wow. I’ll think about that. Just thinking about the most recent stuff, Hanna, I think one thing I’m most proud of is that last ep [episode]. I think the last ep is great. I think it was challenging, because you’ve got shootouts, and it’s quite high octane, but then about two-thirds of the way through, you get this lovely sensitive, sort of melancholy creeps in, where we’re dealing with the resolution of Clara’s story. And I think it’s really quite moving. And I think that last 15 minutes is not what you expect. And yeah, I think probably that episode I’m most proud of in the series. I think it just all came together. And it was challenging, because shootouts, and people being thrown off buildings, and stuff takes time, so you’re up against it, but I think it all came together. And I think that last 15 minutes is really nice; it had melancholy to it.
The project I’ve learned the most on, I did an episode of Electric Dreams [“The Commuter,” 2017] a few years ago, and it was written by a writer called Jack Thorne [His Dark Materials, The Aeronauts, The Eddy], who’s a brilliant, brilliant writer.
Nerds and Beyond: Oh yes, love his writing.
Ollie Downey: Yes! And I was lucky enough to be in the read-through with the cast at the very beginning. I’d read the script, and I felt incredibly moved by it. It’s about a father/son relationship. And it’s about this man not giving up on his son, even though he’s given the opportunity to rewrite history and move forward happily. He would rather take his son with him, with all his mental health issues, even though he knows in the future, people are going to get hurt, and things are going to end very badly. He’s very definite that that is his story, and that is what will be. And just a really emotive, brilliant bit of storytelling. And we’d just had our first child, who was a little boy, so I think I was probably sleep deprived [laughs], and in love with this little bundle anyway. So I was probably right for the storyline, but I thought it was incredibly beautiful.
And then we were in the read-through, and Jack introduced it, and he told the story behind it, which I wouldn’t repeat because it’s personal to him, but it was incredibly moving, and incredibly emotive. And it really made me realize what a powerful thing heartfelt storytelling is. And I remember I think half the room had tears in their eyes when he introduced it, and his feelings behind it. And it was a beautiful piece of writing anyway.
I think I learned quite a lot about storytelling just in that hour. So on that project, I think I’d probably say that. Not necessarily the project overall, but just the process, and being in the room with him. And hearing him talk about storytelling, and introduce this production, was amazing.
Nerds and Beyond: It sounds like that would have a big influence on you, to hear something like that, and then think about the stories you’re telling after.
Ollie Downey: Yes, I think so. I don’t know what it does, but I think it makes you aware of maybe what you’re doing. I think it’s easy to get disconnected as a DP; you get a script, and you think how you’re going to shoot it, and blah blah blah. But it comes back to that thing before, everything has to come from the script, and you have to honor the script, and do your best by the script. Because most scripts are heartfelt, and they mean something to the writer, and possibly lots of other people. So you have a duty of care to it.
Nerds and Beyond: My last question that I have for you, we sort of talked about earlier how there’s no straight path to get into the role that you’re in now. There’s many different ways to get there, but do you have any advice for somebody who wanted to pursue a career like yours eventually?
Ollie Downey: Don’t think it’s going to happen quickly. Make sure it is the career that you want to do, and be in it for the long run. And then it’s just about dedication. And it is tough, because once you get to a certain level, you can be a bit pickier about jobs, but there were many years when you can’t, and it has an effect on family life, and you miss friends’ weddings and all that stuff.
So I think, make sure it’s what you want to do, and just persevere. And be confident, even if you don’t feel it inside. And push, you have to push. I was quite shy when I started out. I think I am quite shy now, to be honest. But no one’s going to do it for you. You do have to push yourself to the front. Don’t be rude, be respectful, but don’t be afraid to get in touch with people whose work you admire, and just open your heart to them. Say “I love what you do. I want to do it. And if you’ve ever got any trainee roles, if you’ve ever got any openings, I’d love to have the opportunity.”
Our thanks to Ollie Downey for speaking with us! If you are interested in following more of his work, his Instagram provides a great behind-the-scenes look into what goes into creating films and TV series. You can also see examples of his other work on his official website and Vimeo. Seasons one and two of Hanna are available now on Amazon Prime – watch the trailer for the second season below!