The Legendary Roger Pratt

In April I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with Roger Pratt BSC. He’s worked as director of photography on two Harry Potter films, 12 Monkeys, TroyChocolatThe Fisher KingBatman and Brazil to name a few. His feature films have won both Oscars, BAFTAs and he’s worked with some of the most influential directors of our time including Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. While on the set of Jadoo Farhana Bhula and I managed to grab him from his busy schedule to ask him a few questions about his astonishing career and what it’s been like working on the upcoming feature film Jadoo.

What made you want to be a part of making the feature film Jadoo?

It was mainly because of Amit the director, who I met in the Groucho Club in London. We got talking and he explained the idea of Jadoo. He’s a very clever and nice man and I decided I would help him out by being the lighting camera man and here I am. I’m still glad that I’m here.

What is it like working with director Amit Gupta?

It’s very creative… directors come in all different kinds of manifestations. Some who know absolutely nothing about lighting and camera, some who know a lot. Amit is sort of in the middle ground. He himself understands what he likes – which is a good thing – but probably what he needs is help “getting it”… and I’m that person and I’m very glad to do it for him.

What is the role of a cinematographer?

Well, essentially that is a moveable feast. But basically I’m the head of the camera department, which is roughly three or four people. There’s a person on my team who looks through the camera and works out the moves; and then there’s someone who keeps all the images in focus  - which sounds crazy but when you have a moving target it’s someone who’s very important – and someone who looks after the equipment and the ordering of the film. Then we have a loader who makes sure the film is managed, ordered and put into the camera.

The person who is also important to us also is the one who moves and constructs the movement of the camera; whether it’s placed in one spot on a tripod or it’s a moving shot – where a sort of railway system is installed, that we call tracks, to get from A to B to assist in the telling of the story.

What’s the most important aspects of a cinematographer?

It’s telling the story, it’s making sure that the intention of the writer is fully realized with what you do with the camera and the lights. Those two things.

How do you go about lighting a scene?

My primary objective to begin with is to light faces because I feel that’s the most important job of a cinematographer unless it’s a wildlife documentary about elephants. With a drama the way you light the faces is key to it all. For that reason it’s good to be able to influence and talk to the designer so that in the end the places that are backgrounds – whether it’s a house or like we are now, a theatre – allow you to illustrate the story.

Food is big part of this film. How do you go about making it look so delicious?

That was very lucky for me because I use to do hundreds of food commercials, so I was able to draw on that experience and when needed make the food look stunning.

What look were you trying to achieve for the Holi Festival?

We were shooting outside so I have very little control of the actual illumination of the scene, that was a given and if you remember it was a bit dull with moments of sunshine. So one of my concerns for exterior shooting is to make sure a scene that was shot over two or three days look like it was 5 minutes of continuous look. The look has to be kept similar.

That’s quite hard in Britain and that’s why they invented Hollywood! Because the sun was always shining and the early studios were all outside, and a lot of the studios in Hollywood when they first started revolved with the sun so everyone was always back-lit.

How have you found working with the actors on Jadoo?

Absolutely brilliant, they’re very receptive to everything and they’re very good actors. I think in a director of photography’s career it’s the big stars that are the most difficult. Not in that they’re difficult in themselves perhaps – though sometimes they are! – but they require flawless cinematography. Especially girls and woman who want to look glamorous. They would be difficult to relate to if they you weren’t making them look their best. So, I use a lot of soft light – with the tracing frames – to light faces with soft diffused light. Obviously anything that’s hard, like an open light bulb, gives harsh shadows.

You’ve had a long career as a director of photography. What is it about films and the making process that you like so much?

The process itself engages the intellect, and then the emotions are engaged because of the people you meet. And then interesting actors, the directors that you have to have a very close relationship with…

What’s been the most challenging setting that you’ve worked in as a director of photography?

China. We did Karate Kid with Jaden Smith and the Smiths. Being away from home, we were contracted to do three months but it ended up being five… Because we were in China there were no unions. I don’t follow that construct that unions are completely a good idea but when you work abroad and there are no unions things go completely haywire. You find yourself working too many hours without much of a break. Unions do have their place in controlling the hours that you work.

What advice to you have for young people looking for a career as a director of photography?

I would encourage them to start at the bottom of the tree. That gets you familiar with the procedures of a team. However much you think you know about lighting – which you may very well do – you won’t know about the procedures and the hierarchy. And you’ll probably be able to learn from the cameraman or DOP more than you knew before. So I would recommend going up through the ranks. I know not everyone does that and they’ve made very good cameramen but I think it gives you a human appreciation for the rest of the crew.

How do you think you can get someone to trust you to take the next step up the tree?

You have to go backwards in the sense of the project. For example you might have been loading on a major motion pictures but you probably won’t be asked to focus pull on a major motion picture. You might be able to focus pull on a documentary and then with your contacts progress as a focus puller into motion pictures. It is difficult and some people have opted not to go up. I know some focus pullers and loaders that are so good no one wants to give them a promotion, which is a shame but it does happen.

How did it happen for you?

Well I probably wasn’t very good at focus pulling more than anything so I had to go up! (laughs)

What has been your favourite project that you’ve worked on to date?

One of the Monty Pythons, I think. Terry Gilliam is one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met. Although he’s not a normal person in some ways! To work with him is an education in what’s possible and what the possibilities are to create something really beautiful and interesting.

Roger leaves with a thumbs-up and a grin on his face before heading back to set to finish the afternoon’s filming. Roger Pratt is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and is so humble. It was a pleasure to see him at work and doing what he loves. I hope one day to work with him again.

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One Comment on “The Legendary Roger Pratt

  1. Wonderful interview! Love the pictures to illustrate too. You seem to really love your work.
    Thanks for sharing this. You Matter! Smiles, Nancy

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