Nigel Willoughby on shooting season three of the hit period drama with ALEXA

Produced by Carnival Films for ITV in the UK, DOWNTON ABBEY is a firm favorite with television audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in the titular country mansion of an aristocratic English family, the show is largely filmed on location at Highclere Castle in Hampshire and revolves around the lives not only of Downton’s upper-class occupants, but also of the servants who coexist with them. Season one was set in the years leading up to the First World War, season two traversed that war and the upcoming season three, shot by cinematographer Nigel Willoughby, continues into the glamorous 1920s. Like the previous season, this latest was shot with ARRI ALEXA cameras supplied by ARRI Media.

ARRI Media: Season one had a fairly warm look, which was replaced by a cooler look for the war years in season two. What was your approach this time around?

Nigel Willoughby: Well, I shot the season two Christmas special at 3200 K and it was meant to be quite cool looking, although I think that got graded out a little. At the beginning of this new series it’s still winter, so I started it off with the same coolness and then gradually upped the color temperature as we went along. It’s one of the things I really like about the ALEXA: the ability to change color temperature on set and see what you’re getting immediately – it’s a fabulous little tool and useful on this job because there just isn’t the time to apply LUTs.

AM: Has the lighting approach to the various spaces at Highclere become fairly standardized after three seasons?

NW: The approach has slightly changed from season two. I don’t have a balloon in the main hall anymore, I use a big 18K soft – all the lighting is much softer now. We have an 18K coming through the big window and everything else inside is literally lit as per the scene, off the floor. We do still have a balloon in the dining room for the night scenes because experience dictates that that’s the best way to go. I’ve shot one or two scenes in the library with available light, thanks again to the wonders of the ALEXA. I did that purely because on most scenes we’re up against the clock and I figured I’d try it out to see what happened, and of course the camera coped very well.

It’s one of the things I really like about the ALEXA: the ability to change color temperature on set and see what you’re getting immediately.

AM: So you relied purely on available light for an interior location scene?

NW: There were literally no fixtures on set – just daylight. It was a fairly overcast day so the light wasn’t going to change; I felt confident that I wouldn’t have to control it during the couple of hours it was going to take to shoot the scene, so we had a few bits of poly on set for bounce and that was it. I might not have risked that before, without the ALEXA, but I did and it worked.

AM: Overall, were you content that ALEXA was the right camera system for the job?

NW: To be honest there is no other camera that comes close to the ALEXA and I just hope it’s setting a benchmark for all future generations. There are many things I like about it, but in particular the menu system is so versatile – very easy to understand and quick to apply. It’s film friendly; I’m kind of a film guy who’s come over to high def and the ALEXA has made that transition quite inspiring, I have to say.

AM: On film shoots you’ve often used a large number of different film stocks. Did you try different EI ratings with ALEXA, as DP Gavin Struthers did for season two, or did you stick to EI 800 and filter accordingly?

NW: I’m afraid I’m one of those naughty people like Gavin who still treats it like film. I know the argument for shooting at 800, but I hate putting NDs and IRNDs on the front of lenses because they often come out with different color temperatures. I just prefer to treat it as if it was film and I know that I’m within the parameters, so like Gavin I change it. I quite often shoot exteriors at 160, night exteriors at about 500 and interiors at up to 1000. Some colorists don’t like it, but I know what results I can get and it works very well like that for me.

AM: You’re recording ProRes 444 to the on-board SxS PRO cards; what is your dailies workflow?

NW: Rec 709 is applied to the rushes, which provides a consistency that I can double check and reference when I’m grading. My rushes are put on a hard drive so I’ve got them on hand at all times; I carry the whole show around with me and my DIT has been grading various rushes for me on a daily basis, just to see what we are getting and where we can go with it.

AM: Do you take a different approach to camerawork for the contrasting worlds of upstairs and downstairs?

NW: We’ve resorted to handheld downstairs throughout and a more-or-less static or slow tracking approach upstairs, which is similar to what was done on the first series. That said, due to the nature of the storylines we are introducing some handheld upstairs as well, although I can’t give too much away! We’ve also continued to use the Steadicam upstairs a lot and we’ve even been doing quite a bit downstairs this year.

AM: Were you operating a camera yourself?

NW: On this one, no I haven’t. I’ve reluctantly had to give it up, again because of the timescales, the nature of the shooting and the fact that I’m doing the whole series so I don’t have a break. I’ve found myself preferring to be at the monitor so that I can spend more time fine tuning the lighting with Phil Brookes, the gaffer, but I have two very good operators on board. We often have two cameras running at once, which is another reason for me to be at the monitor.