Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, the film of Tolstoy`s epic novel, was originally planned as a location picture shooting in Russia but budgetary constraints and the director Joe Wright`s desire to avoid a formulaic costume drama forced a re-think. The production relocated to Shepperton Studios in the UK where it was staged on a huge set designed as a decaying Russian theatre.
The theatre and adjoining sets were beautifully designed to function as a multi-purpose space where the complex dramas of Russian Society and the personal lives of the film`s protagonists were played out.
At various times the set became an opera house, a racecourse, an ice-rink, a ballroom and a restaurant to name just a few of its lavish functions. Joe conceived a number of real-time set changes transporting the audience from one scene to another via a dazzling array of choreographed camera moves. For Joe, this was a way of suggesting a mannered society and its mores. Two examples of this are the scenes where Anna leaves her dressing room crossing the stage and into the auditorium where another set folds in around her to become her husband, Karenin`s office and yet another scene where Levin leaves Count Oblonsky`s office to go to `L`Angleterre` restaurant via the streets of St.Petersburg complete with set and costume change in-camera. The former was executed on a techno-crane and the latter a steadicam.

    The camera movement was a key aspect of the film`s look and provided my most challenging collaboration yet with Joe Wright (director) and Seamus Mcgarvey ASC,BSC. We have all worked together on a number of projects now and tend to work quite quickly in a shorthand way. Its more like jamming than planning, as we often joke. I really enjoy the way Joe conceives his shots, despite being fiendishly complex they are always easy to block and execute because they have a cinematic logic. Looking down the viewfinder at Seamus`s lighting is also one of the great pleasures of my job. 
Of course, it doesn`t always go smoothly as Joe`s approach to capturing performance in long complex takes demands that performer and technician be in perfect sync but the rewards are always worth it giving everyone a feeling of being involved in a very special piece of cinema.

    To achieve the flow and blend of the artists` performance with the set`s architecture we employed cranes, dollies and steadicam (and not a hand held camera in sight!). I often dolly mounted the steadicam with gyros to create extra stability. This allowed me to travel long distances across the wooden stage floor without being restricted by tracks and dance floors whilst keeping the sinuous qualities of the steadicam to compliment the dance-like movements of the actors.
Joe was quite keen not to have a `steadicam` look but to hold a solid, `heavy` horizon that blended seamlessly with the dolly and crane moves, mainly executed on geared and remote heads. The architecture of the set with its pillars and proscenium arch was always there to show up any flaws in technique and steadicam level.

    One of our more challenging shots was during the pivotal dance sequence when Kitty first sees Anna and Vronsky dancing together in an overtly intimate manner.

    The idea was to develop a tension with a series of whip pans to and fro across the dance floor going off the looks of our protagonists as the music and dancing slowly pick up tempo ending by whipping across the disapproving looks of the onlooking crowd. Joe wanted the whips to be in camera rather than joined by sleight of hand in the editing, although some eventually were. This posed the problem of panning around to find the artists on their own trajectory independent of the camera. The dancing couples were often on completely opposite sides of the dancefloor which involved a 180 degree pan. I decided that looking down the eyepiece and walking around a dolly would be too disorientating for me to operate.
In conference with Gary (Hutchings), our trusty key grip, we decided to go on a wireless remote libra head mounted on a tripod and rolling spider. I operated from the balcony of the theatre which allowed me to see the geography of the artists and the camera whilst Gary could dance his partner, the tripod and libra head, around the ballroom staying out of shot during the whips. My `third` eye was provided by Seamus who sat alongside me studying the performance of the artists trying to predict when they were going to throw their looks. He would nudge me and shout `aand pan` at the key moment. Amazingly, after a few rocky moments, the rhythm of the music and the dancers started to determine the moment for the camera move and we all started working in sync.  This is what I meant previously by `jamming`. 
As far as focus was concerned, I suggest you ask the Magic Circle to explain how Leigh Gold, one of our brilliant 1st AC`s, kept everything sharp because I am completely lost for a plausible answer!

    Another tricky shot that lead to a comical moment in its staging was a long steadicam shot following Anna and Vronsky onto the dancefloor and developing into a 360 move around Anna as she is held aloft by Vronsky during the dance. Joe`s idea was to spin around Anna and as the camera tilts up lost in her close up, all of the other dancers, once out of shot, disappear from set so that as Anna is lowered to the floor the ballroom is left empty with Anna and Vronsky alone. Seamus timed a lighting change to help isolate the couple in the middle of the floor to intensify the moment. This obviously involved the dancers diving off stage the moment they are cued. The result was akin to a fire drill gone terribly wrong. The dancers, all professionally trained, having previously performed with grace and elegance were reduced to a scramble as they climbed and stumbled over each other in a very undignified manner to evacuate the set before the camera tilted back down again to reveal the calm and stillness of Anna and Vronsky`s embrace. Despite the comical method the result was quite stunning and an example of how old fashioned in-camera magic can still work!

    The Anna Karenina camera team were :
Peter Robertson SOC, ACO A camera/steadicam operator
Iain Struthers A Camera 1st AC
Leigh Gold B Camera 1st AC
Jennie Paddon  A camera 1st AC
Brian Dungan A camera 2nd AC
Ryan King B camera 2nd AC
Gary Hutchings Key grip
Dean Morris grip