Filmmakers have long been drawn to the potential of films set largely in one, or several, confined spaces. Think of James Stewart cooped up in his apartment with a broken leg in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or poor Ryan Reynolds buried alive in the aptly named Buried. Even filmmakers who aren’t so conceptually ambitious as to set an entire film in a small space will inevitably find themselves having to shoot at least one or two scenes in confined quarters.
There are creative rewards to shooting films in small spaces (especially for thrillers and horror films) but also notable logistical challenges. Where do you find the room to put the camera? How do you choreograph the actors to move in a limited space? How do you avoid running out of possible angles to use? Navigating those questions isn’t the easiest task, but one artist who has proven himself adapt at doing so is cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. He excelled at it with Locke, a film starring Tom Hardy set entirely in a car, and now Zambarloukos has shot the new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which is set largely in (and around) a train.
We spoke with Zambarloukos about shooting both projects to learn some lessons other filmmakers and videographers will want to follow for exploring the cinematic potential of shooting in claustrophobic spaces.
Understand the Space You’re Working With
Asked for what advice he’d give filmmakers working in confined spaces for the first time, Zambarloukos shares something to consider early on: Understand what you’re working with. “Spend time in that space and get a feel for what it’s like to experience the space,” he says. To do that, Zambarloukos goes so far as to inhabit spaces similar to those he shoots. “I literally drove to set on Locke and took a train to the studio on Orient. It meant that my work commute was a chance to think and observe,” he says.
That kind of “homework” can help filmmakers better understand how spaces are occupied by people, and that can then be channeled into the shoot. “Think of what image you have of a person in a space and juxtapose that with what it feels like to actually be in that space,” he says. To best accomplish that, “it has to come from inside you,” he says. In other words, rethink the famous writers’ adage “write what you know” for cinematographers: shoot what you know.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos
For self-contained films like Locke and Murder on the Orient Express, Zambarloukos notes one quality is especially needed: precision. “Confined spaces just make things more precise,” he says. Some of that is conceptual precision, notably trying to adhere to how real people occupy small spaces. “People are more aware of each other’s space when confined, and you have to remain true to that,” he says. “Also, there is a different physical expression when someone is left alone in a small space and, in particular, when they are not being watched. Cinematography should make the audience aware of these situations.”
But precision is also required logistically when shooting, especially when it comes to choreographing the actors and crew. “You need a lot of discipline around who has the room and for how much time. Actors need to rehearse, camera and lighting need their time and space. We can’t do it all simultaneously,” Zambarloukos says. Go into shooting knowing that precision may have to infiltrate multiple parts of the process.
Olivia Colman and Judi Dench in Murder on the Orient Express
Use Logistical Creativity for More Options
Shooting in confined spaces requires knowing how to eke out as many camera angles and shots as possible. That can call for some imagination and ingenuity. For example, Locke often uses reflections in the car windshield to create an additional visual element. Those reflections weren’t left to accident.
“It was a decision to control the reflections in the windshield separately from how we would compose a shot,” Zambarloukos explains. He and his crew achieved that by putting a two-way mirror between the camera lens and the car, so they could get the nighttime reflections they wanted to appear on the windshield. “We could compose our shots as portraits and get a very specific windshield reflection that felt like you are seeing what Ivan Locke is seeing,” the cinematographer says.
Even the car and its amenities were chosen to better enable the shoot. “I chose an SUV because it offered more space to work in, and asked for a sun roof to allow for more motorway and cityscape light to come in,” he says. Remeber to apply some conceptual and logistical ingenuity, and you can give yourself more visual options.
Tom Hardy in Locke. Image courtesy of A24
Keep the Visuals Simple
Orienting an audience in a scene is a fundamental component of making a movie. It’s why establishing shots exist. For films set in small spaces, orientation is especially important, but it can also be a challenge – one that Zambarloukos faced on Murder on the Orient Express.
“My challenge was how to simplify the visuals to best allow the viewers to clearly understand where they are in the space and what the emotion is, and to enable a realistic experience of the surroundings,” he says. A lot of how he accomplished that was through working with production designer Jim Clay. Given how ostentatious the train carriages are and the vibrant colors at work, Zambarloukos chose to keep film’s color palette simple in order to overstuff individual shots.
But there’s another way to simplify the visuals as well. “The other side is just reducing the actors’ movement, making things a little more still, focusing on the essence. That, in turn, simplifies the composition and the camera movement,” he says. It may seem — or even look — easier than it sounds, but that’s the point: “The methods were complicated, but the shots and sequences had to seem effortless, as if in a single breath.”
Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express
Align Cinematography and Production Design
Location always matters in filmmaking, but when you’re limited to a few small spaces, be sure to work with a production designer to get the most out of them. In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, Zambarloukos worked closely with Clay toward a shared goal: “It’s about understanding the essence of the scene and then creating a space to achieve that in a cinematic way,” Zambarloukos explains.
“We listened to each other and tried to see how to enhance each other’s ideas, or how to realize them.” That collaboration and equal exchange of ideas is important, because while a production designer does have to do what’s right for the story and director, they also need to be able to create something that a DOP can work with. Without proper communication and collaboration, that won’t happen.
Use the Right Shot at the Right Time
Films set in confined spaces can often be restricted to a limited number of shot options. For a filmmaker, it’s not just important to know what those are, but also when best to use them. For instance, in the clip below from Murder on the Orient Express, Detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Brannagh) announces a murder. Note how sometimes the shot incorporates the booth frames and glass, in order to mirror the panic and claustrophobia of the passengers. It’s an effect Zambarloukos planned early on. “I asked Jim to make the glass partitions with beveled glass, because I knew they would create opportunities for refraction and for more impressionist or abstract images,” he says.
But just because he knew he wanted to use it didn’t mean he necessarily knew when. Picking the right moment for that effect was important, and he and Branagh (also the film’s director) kept saving it for the right moment, until it came. “When we blocked that particular scene, it was just obvious that this was the time to use it. The term ‘happy accident’ has been used often by filmmakers, but I would call this more of a planned accident.”
Think of the Audience Experience
There may be logistical elements involved in ensuring that cinematography in confined spaces works, but for Zambarloukos, there’s one goal under which all others fall: thinking of the audience. “It’s about creating an objective experience. In other words, how can you make the audience feel what the character feels or sees?” he says. Questions like, “Do we want to be outside looking in?”; “Do we want to feel trapped and claustrophobic?”; and “Should we use a POV?” are ones to ask to determine what an audience should experience through the camera.
“Within confined spaces, a shoot needs a little more imagination,” he adds, “It’s about attention to detail. An adjustment in inches makes quite a difference in confined spaces.” Knowing how each of those inches will change an audience’s experience is crucial and, in addition to all the steps above, will help ensure the best results.
Top image: Michelle Pfeiffer in Murder on the Orient Express. All Orient Express images courtesy of 20th Century Fox. Photo credit: Nicola Dove.