Tom Townend on shooting an alien invasion of a South London housing estate

ATTACK THE BLOCK, directed by Joe Cornish (THE ADAM AND JOE SHOW) and starring Nick Frost (PAUL, SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and Jodie Whittaker (VENUS, St TRINIANS) is an alien invasion tale with a twist – instead of the usual LA or New York setting, these aliens touch down in a council estate in South London. Bad move.

Shot by DP Tom Townend, camera equipment was supplied by ARRI Media, while the lighting package came from ARRI Lighting Rental.

When Townend met first-time director Joe Cornish to discuss ATTACK THE BLOCK, they found a common affection for a certain genre of 1980s American movies that would influence the look of the shoot and lead to some creative challenges.

“Joe and I discussed the way films like THE TERMINATOR and THE WARRIORS looked, particularly in street scenes at night, and why British films of that era look completely different,” says Townend.

There was a big discussion right at the start of the process about whether or not to shoot anamorphic. “Almost every film Joe mentioned as a visual reference was shot either anamorphic or spherical 1:85:1, which were the two main options in the 1980s era. Plus, I had shot a commercial in anamorphic in a night setting that had caught Joe’s attention and was the reason he’d approached me in the first place,” Townend explains.

“However, I argued against it for this project. To shoot anamorphic would have required a much bigger budget; we’d have needed more lighting, more soft focus shots; we’d have been playing with half the depth of field. For me, it wasn’t an acceptable risk for the budget, and with the results we achieved I stand by that.”

Townend opted for two ARRICAM Lites for the main camera package, plus an ARRIFLEX 235. “Early on it was decided we’d run ‘A’ and ‘B’ cameras, so ARRICAM Lites made sense,” he says. “It’s a fairly fast-paced film and they are lightweight, so Julian Morson [the ‘A’ camera operator] and I could easily lift them onto our shoulders to move about – although Joe wanted to avoid ‘shaky cam syndrome’ which has become something of a trope, and it’s a bit lazy as you can get away with more because the geography is not clear. Some of the praise we had from early screenings is that you can see what’s going on even during fast-paced action sequences.”

The film was closely storyboarded for clarity and budgetary purposes, with the intention of getting most of the boarded shots with the ‘A’ camera, while using the ‘B’ camera (operated by Townend) only when appropriate to get supplemental material. However it soon became clear that, with a tight shooting schedule, having two cameras available to shoot from different angles was necessary to get all the shots required in the time available, and would also add more interest to the storytelling.

The ARRIFLEX 235 was used on exterior locations mainly for action sequences. Townend explains, “It seemed like a natural choice, as someone often had to run around or shoot from vehicle to vehicle. We stripped right down to basics and often operated off a monitor for these scenes.”

There was also a section in the script that Cornish had simply marked, ‘This sequence in slow motion.’

“This was the dramatic climax of the film and it was an area where we really didn’t want to scrimp,” says Townend. “All credit to the line producer James Biddle who understood that it would look so much better if we spent some money on a proper second unit.” The second unit filmed the sequence mainly using an ARRIFLEX 435 shooting 100 fps. “We had five setups and seven shots,” continues the DP. “All were meticulously planned out because they involved pyrotechnics, live creature effects and some greenscreen effects to be comped in – it was very complex and time consuming.”

A set of Cooke S4 lenses was Townend’s choice for the shoot. “I’ve been a fan of Cookes since I first started out; I love the look they give,” he says. “I’m also very familiar with them so didn’t have to think about them, they just did what they were supposed to do.”

Townend mainly used focal lengths ranging from 25-75 mm, with 16 mm and 18 mm used for one or two studio shots and a short zoom for a couple of night shoots. One small snag was that Cornish wanted plenty of lens flare…“And of course the main selling point of Cookes is that you can shoot into light without any flare! But I believe if you want something, you should make it happen rather than just let it happen,” says Townend.

The lighting of those 1980s American films presented a further challenge, especially with a limited budget and space restrictions. “The street lighting in 1980s America was mercury vapour, which gives off a cold blue-green light, in comparison to the UK with its orange glow of sodium vapour light,” explains Townend. “Much of our film is set on a South London council estate at night, and I rashly promised Joe that I would give him the blue-green light – but as it turned out it was impossible to completely avoid the orange, so we had to embrace it.”

The production wasn’t able to use cherry pickers on the estate due to cost and space, so Townend and the gaffer, Julian White, installed 18K lights on ARRI MaxMover stirrups on some rooftops of the blocks of flats. “The fact that we could remotely control and angle them was a lifesaver, as it meant we could shoot in several directions,” says Townend. “Otherwise there was very little in the way of traditional lighting fixtures. We had a selection of ARRI lamps – both sodium and mercury – but there was no point using gels. If you want a street light, why not use the street light that’s there? We wanted a gritty, real look so we decided to make it authentic in a heightened way, and bring out the oranges and blues that were there.”

Creating the sinister alien creatures themselves led to some interesting experiments, as Cornish was determined that they should be achieved mainly on the screen rather than with CGI. “He had this great idea that we would make them jet black and non-reflective, so that all you can see is the outline,” says Townend. “How we were going to do that was up for grabs at that point! Several different ideas were tested, including a material that could be keyed, but it was a struggle because they needed to be shot under different lighting conditions and colors. In the end we kept the light off them as best we could – in a few instances we heavily backlit them, particularly if they were against a black background. This influenced a lot of shooting and lighting decisions as they had to look good.” The creatures were refined in post to paint off reflections and achieve the matte look that Cornish wanted.

The DI grade was completed at Technicolor by Asa Shoul. “He did a great job and we didn’t tamper with it too much after his first pass,” says Townend. “The look of the film was always going to be dictated by the way it was lit; we didn’t alter the contrast or color much, it was just a case of balancing everything out. It was only my second experience of grading a film and putting a version out to film, and it was a very smooth, pleasant experience – much like the shoot as a whole.”

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