Life Behind The Lens: An Interview With James Clarke
If you’ve read any of my articles before you’ll know two things; Firstly, I’m fascinated with anything to do with film, television, or media in general. And secondly, I’m especially interested by artists in any field, be it in front of or behind the camera, that either work on smaller independent projects or have roles in bigger productions that you don’t necessarily get to see or hear about. This could be a composer, a costume designer, or a cinematographer. You get the idea.
James Clarke is an incredible talent who falls into the latter category. You may not know his name as much as the people he aims his lens at, but you most certainly know his work. And that’s been my goal all along with these articles – To focus on (no pun intended) and bring to the foreground for once the immense talent that you may not know so well, and give them the spotlight for once.
I’ve been a very big admirer of James’ work for a long time, and after reaching out to his representative (who was lovely, thank you Madeleine) I was thrilled that he agreed to answer some questions for me. James has been a stalwart and a staple in the world of cinematography for British television and features for many years now. One of the hardest working people in the business, and gifted with a truly astonishing eye for composition of a shot. What you take for granted on your TV screens is the culmination of him spending years honing his craft to give you, the viewer, the most beautiful and exciting images possible.
You don’t need to be a TV nerd like me to know you’ve seen his work. Even the most casual of goggleboxers will have been a viewer of something James has shot. Some of the biggest shows on television are all presented to you through his lens. Credits including MASTERCHEF (as well as the Junior, Pros and Celebrity editions), THE APPRENTICE (for which he was nominated for a BAFTA in 2005 for Technical Craft), THE TRIP (Directed by acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS with legends of stage and screen husband and wife team, Timothy West and Prunella Scales. See? Bet you’ve watched at least one of those. And you know what they all have in common? They look gorgeous.
James is, obviously, an incredibly busy man, so it took a while for him to find a gap in his insane schedule to answer my questions. But when he was finally free to do so, his answers were a joy to read, and wonderfully insightful. Not only that, but he was charming, generous with his time, more than helpful, but… The main thing that came across to me from his responses to my queries was this; He absolutely LOVES what he does. So here is my interview with Director Of Photography/Cinematographer James Clarke…
IAN: James, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m a very big admirer of your work, and I think people may be unaware of just how much of your work they will know, so I really wanted to give you the spotlight in this piece.
Obviously you’ve worked your way up through the technical and camera departments, to camera operator, and now cinematographer. How did you first become interested in this side of the business?
JAMES CLARKE: I was 13 years old and at my schools careers convention, about to take my options for GCSE’s. I was walking around, wondering what I should be looking for, and found a stand that was promoting the BBC. The display had some photos of a cameraman at work and it attracted my attention. I asked the chap at the stand what I would need to do to become a cameraman and he told me I needed Maths and Physics GCSE, not to be colour blind, and to have a “keen interest in photography”.
Well, I was already good at Maths and Physics, didn’t think I was colour blind, but didn’t have a camera. I’m not sure if this was the best careers advice ever and would probably not offer the same advice to anyone who asked me the same question now, apart from maybe the last point. To have a keen interest in photography.
I took myself off and next time I went home I took my savings and bought my first SLR (Single-Lens Reflex). It was a Zenit Russian made and cost me about £40, I think. It wasn’t a great camera and the results were poor, but it taught me the basic principles of photography and it was the beginning of a soon to be “keen interest in photography”.
My photography followed me through my education and I began to show an interest in photo journalism and the Magnum Agency. I’ve always been interested in observational documentary, and am a very nosey person. I like to observe from the outside and a camera allowed me to do that.
IAN: Were there any artists or pieces of work growing up that inspired you, and more actively seek out this aspect of production?
JAMES CLARKE: I would say my peers, teachers, employers and work colleagues all gave me the inspiration and competitive drive for me to reach where I am today.
IAN: What was the process like moving from camera operator to DOP/Cinematographer? Was it always a goal, or just a natural progression after working with so many crews?
JAMES CLARKE: Moving from operator to cinematographer was not necessarily a big difference for me as skill set was concerned, as for most of my professional life within the television industry I had been responsible for big lighting set ups and multi-camera operations. The main difference was the perceived elevation and the pressure that I put on myself, thinking that I would be out of my depth. The reality was that I found I was surrounded by like-minded people who were there to help and assist me, and made the whole working experience a more considered and controlled environment.
I have to thank Michael Winterbottom (Director: Jude, Welcome To Sarajevo, The Killer Inside Me, The Trip) for giving me the opportunity to cross over into dramas and features. He has been a great inspiration to me. He allowed me to take responsibility and made me look at things a different way. He has a knack of standing back, and then standing back a bit further. He knows what he wants and it’s always a joy to work with someone who knows what they want.
IAN: You have a real gift for versatility in your work, without ever compromising your quality. Do you enjoy the variations in the work you do, going from “reality television” (only in inverted commas as I’m not keen on that phrase) to dramas and then documentary-style programmes?
JAMES CLARKE: I love the diversity of work that I have had the opportunity to do, and essentially what I enjoy the most and think what I am best at is Ob Doc style. I enjoy throwing myself into an environment and not over thinking it. If you have an interesting subject to follow then the rest falls into place. The most common comment I get from people who I work with is that I listen. Listening to what is going on around you visually as well as verbally is key, and having a natural interest in the subject is essential.
IAN: To elaborate, THE APPRENTICE must be a very tricky balance to strike, as it needs to be a mixture of fly-on-the-wall moments, dramatic tension for the viewers, but all with a glossy cinematic feel. Does working on that show ever give you a headache?
JAMES CLARKE: I’ve worked on THE APPRENTICE from the very beginning and have been part of it for the last 11 years. Shooting it has become second nature, and over the years the team has managed to craft a beautiful show. At first we had to sit down and work out the best way of covering the content, and year by year we have worked out what works and what doesn’t.
I wouldn’t say it gives me a headache, it’s just a long slog. 7 weeks of shooting, 6 days a week filming 12-16 hours a day. There are a lot of logistics to put into place, but with enough pre-planning and recces it all falls into place. It’s a big team and I have a great team of cameramen who have also been part of the show for many years.
IAN: What’s a typical production day like on THE APPRENTICE, if such a thing exists? There must be so many camera units to coordinate with!
JAMES CLARKE: A typical APPRENTICE day starts around 5am. If it’s Day One of a task I will head to the briefing location and set up with one other crew to light and work the camera plan. I would have already recced this location so usually know what it is we need to achieve. We set up a portable gallery for the director ready to receive the other two crews who have ben filming the candidates at the house. They will join us, as well as the candidates, Lord Sugar and his advisors. We then shoot the briefing and when completed go straight into the task.
All crews grab their camera, put it on the shoulder and then cover the task for the rest of the day. There are many layers of content that we need to shoot including arrival shots, car shots, briefing, task and interviews. All this happens quickly and there is not much time to hang around, so I need a team that can work quick and can think on their feet. Some of the longer days there is a crew changeover, which means 2-4 new crews arriving to take on the rest of the task. This usually happens if there is not an 11 hour break between the end of day and the beginning of the next.
Boardroom Day is the day that we all take a deep breath. It’s a chance for all the crews to catch up and talk about what had just happened on the task, and then set to shoot the boardroom. We shoot this with 10 cameras and 13 camera positions. Once this is set it’s time for the most important part of the day… Lunch! The food at the studio is excellent and for all of the team it’s a much-needed break.
IAN: How freely can the APPRENTICE camera crews roam and sprint around London, or wherever a task takes them, without interference from the general public? Are the locations approached in advance, or if not have there been incidents with people getting involved just to “get on the telly”? Or is it possible that Londoners are just so used to seeing camera crews these days they simply don’t care?
JAMES CLARKE: When we first started THE APPRENTICE, 11 years ago, there was quite a lot of freedom. The task would begin and we would follow wherever the Candidates decided to go. We would film whatever they did with whoever they approached. We would shoot first and then ask questions later. This meant having to get release forms from the public after having shot the actuality. It was a great way to shoot, and made shooting it real fun.
Unfortunately the rules have changed a lot in the last 11 years, and we can’t have the same sort of freedom. You can’t just run around and film wherever you want these days, so the Candidates will have a set of rules regarding which areas they are allowed to go to. This ties in with permissions from the various councils around London. Depending on the task, some locations may have been pre-cleared.
So, for instance, if they want to go and sell a product in a market to the general public they will be given a list of 10 locations they can do this from. Also, if they are roaming the streets looking for places to, say, sell a product the Candidates will say that they want to go to this list of places and then production will contact those places and ask permission to have access to film from the proprietor. As you can imagine a lot of the general public will guess that we are shooting THE APPRENTICE, but we never disclose this to them and just ask them to deal with any interaction with the Candidates as if they were in any other business discussion.
Occasionally people act up to “get on the telly” but we either stop filming or the scene will just not be part of the show. There have been occasions where production has cancelled a sale from a team because the deal done with a member of the public was just not realistic.
IAN: Obviously you can’t give away any trade secrets, but when it comes to the firing in the Boardroom, have you and your crew ever been shocked by Lord Sugar’s decision, or the reactions by the Candidate after being fired? Do you ever secretly have favourites to either win or be fired? (ever make any bets with the crew?)
JAMES CLARKE: We are never truly sure of what decision Lord Sugar is going to make in the Boardroom, and often I don’t think he is. He will be briefed before the filming of The Boardroom by production, and he will talk to his advisors who are following the task. He will then conduct The Boardroom as if it was his own, and will make his decision based on how he reads the situation put in front of him.
IAN: Is Lord Sugar a good boss? I’m joking, of course, as he’s clearly an exceptional person and businessman, but how hands-on does he get with the production, edits and shot selection?
JAMES CLARKE: Lord Sugar has a real presence across the whole production. He is in constant contact with production during pre-production, and is involved in helping sign off on all the tasks. When it comes to the Boardroom it is very much his space. He has a production briefing before the boardroom starts with members of the senior production. When we start filming the boardroom he is in control of the whole meeting.
He has no talk back and conducts the meeting as if it was his own boardroom. Rarely the boardroom will stop, and maybe this would happen if he was getting contradicting information from the candidates to the information that he has been briefed with, so he may break to get clarification from the production team who are all over the content from the previous few days on task.
I’m not sure I would like him to be my boss, but that’s why I’m self-employed.
IAN: Going back to logistical nightmares, THE TRIP looks like an absolute blast to work on, with Steve and Rob, but given the semi-improvisational style how hard is it to prepare set ups and coverage if you’re never quite sure what you might get day-to-day?
JAMES CLARKE: THE TRIP probably has been my career dream job so far. It was a great team and we shot the journey as it happened, so we all felt that we were on the same Trip as Rob and Steve. There obviously is a script they work from, but a lot of ad lib happens during the scenes. Michael (Winterbottom) does not like to block through scenes and rarely rehearses with the actors or crew.
At first a lot of the crew, who mainly shoot features and drama, find it quite stressful and unsettles them, but for me it’s the way I usually work so it does not seem to be such a big deal. There is a real freedom to the way it is shot, although Michael is very clear about what he wants and how he wants it. Very soon most of the crew understand the way Michael works. He rarely shoots longer than 8 hours, but we wouldn’t have a lunch break so we would eat on the run.
After the shoot, when catching up with the crew, they would say they were on their next job and finding it hard to adjust to the slower pace of usual drama. I thrive on working at speed, and enjoy working hard and pushing myself to get the results that we were after. I’ve learnt not to over-complicate set ups, and light for the sake of lighting. With the cameras the way they are now, shooting the way I like has become a lot easier.
IAN: I really want to ask you about GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS. It’s a wonderful programme; insightful, funny and heartwarming. And the cinematography is beyond beautiful. How did you come across this project?
JAMES CLARKE: GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS is another project very close to my heart. I got a cal from the director Mike Taylor who I had just worked with for the first time on a previous job. He told me about the show and I thought it would be a nice environment for a weeks shoot.
At first I had no clue how the show would turn out but I had a very strong feeling, especially having just worked with Michael, that I wanted where possible to step back a bit and let things breathe. The original production was commissioned for More4 and there were many views coming from production and commissioners about what the show should be about. It became very clear very soon that Tim and Pru are a special couple with a very special relationship, and that their journey was what was most important.
IAN: A show like this, which some may label a “travel documentary” but is so much more than that, must rely on showing off these wonderful vistas that Tim and Pru travel through, especially in this new world of HD television. Is there a difference shooting documentary set ups with HD as opposed to SD? And are there any moments, when dealing with narrow canals when you’ve thought “How am I going to shoot this?”
JAMES CLARKE: It seemed the perfect environment to film in. The boat travels at 4mph which allows us to hop on and off and get ahead to shoot ups and bys. I work with a great shooting camera assistant who also heads up ahead of the boat and gets extra shots. It became apparent to me that being off the boat is as important as being on it, and to see the environment is key.
The combination of the journey, landscape, history of that canal, architecture, people and place en route, and Tim and Pru not only in a loving marriage but also with her condition makes for a beautiful show.
Series One was a great success for More4, and broke all existing records for the slot it was on by over doubling them. So when asked to come back for Series Two and Three, now for Channel 4, I could not refuse. When the job comes in it’s almost like I’m going on holiday with some great friends, which I happen to be shooting on the way.
Shooting HD is only a benefit for filming the often beautiful scenery we find ourselves in. I also think the show has a peaceful pace to it, as many of the shots have a gentle tracking movement due to being on a boat.
IAN: Tim and Pru must be an absolute joy to work with. You, the producers and director really capture the spirit of a loving couple enjoying these adventures together. How is a typical day shooting with them and the crew?
JAMES CLARKE: We have 5 days with Tim and Pru and do the whole journey with them. They stay on the boat and we leave each evening to a hotel and return the next day. We have 2 days at the end of the shoot to go back and shoot GV’s (“General View“, wide or broad shots), extra boat shots and the aerials.
Often at the end of a day Tim and Pru would insist on us joining them for a glass of wine, and we would often stay and have supper with them in a canal side pub. It isn’t really like work. They are both so well read and have a wealth of knowledge of the arts. Sitting with Tim, listening to one of his many anecdotes is very entertaining.
I think the reason the show feels the way it does is because it is a small crew who have all become good friends that trust each other and enjoy each others company, so it meant we are included into Tim and Pru’s life as it is.
IAN: Do you have any aspirations to direct?
JAMES CLARKE: Part of me thinks I will direct one day, but I think I will find it hard not to be behind the camera.
IAN: To finish up, all I can say is thank you for being so generous with your time to speak with me. As I said, I’m a very big admirer of your work and will always keep a keen eye on any of your future projects. Speaking of which, what’s up next for you?
JAMES CLARKE: I’ve just started a set of 6 documentaries about Stately Homes that are occupied by the owners. It has a similar feel to GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS. I worked with Michael on the feature doc “The Emporer’s New Clothes” with Russel Brand. Just finished series Three of GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS, and THE APPRENTICE Series Eleven is currently on our screens.
IAN: Assuming you ever get any free time, what do you like to watch when you want to unwind? And due to your profession is it possible to watch television or dramas objectively without studying the photography and set ups?
JAMES CLARKE: During my free time I do like to watch TV and film, and really what I like to watch is the sort of shows that I like to work on. So observational documentary and factual/comedy drama.
By the very nature of being a DOP you are always going to notice what stands out and what just doesn’t work. But if you can immerse yourself in a show that you forget about the mechanicals of the making of, then you know the production has done a great job.
A huge thank you to Mister James Clarke. As I mentioned, he is insanely busy, and rightfully so given his talent. But, and this is crucial, and something you can clearly see from what you’ve just read, once he had time in his schedule he was unbelievable generous and kind to not only answer my questions but to do so in such an involved way. (Writer’s Note: Once he had replied to my initial set of questions, he very kindly asked if I needed any more information and, if so, just let him know. I did, and he responded in kind).
Series 11 of THE APPRENTICE is currently airing on BBC 1 every Wednesday at 9pm.
GREAT CANAL JOURNEYS Series 3 on Channel 4 launched on 25th October. Episode One can be found on the catch-up service All4, and new episodes air Sunday evenings on Channel 4 at 8pm.