When cinematographer Ben Smithard met with producers about shooting a Downton Abbey film, continuing the popular TV series that ended in 2015, they had one major request. “Make it as cinematic as I humanly could,” he recalls. With that, Smithard set out to find a way to ensure Downton fans were happy while still pursuing his own creative vision for the film project. We spoke with the cinematographer about he accomplished that, along with what ways he found to translate a small screen story to the big screen.
Smithard’s process to prepare to shoot a cinematic Downton Abbey involved refamiliarizing himself with every moment of the show, knowing the characters inside and out, then trying to put them out of mind so he could find his own visual cinematic way to tell the stories of Downton’s inhabitants. “The thing is that you have to make it your own,” he explains. “I had to shoot it the way I wanted to shoot it, because that was the right thing to do in my mind,” he says.
Part of shooting his way included drawing on cinematic references, not just Downton Abbey and shows like it. Smithard turned to period films like Remains of the Day, Howard’s End and Barry Lyndon, but above all else Gosford Park. Which isn’t too far removed from the show, given Downton Abbey writer and creator Julian Fellowes won an Academy Award for the Robert Altman film. “I had Gosford Park in the back of my mind probably more so than the television series,” Smithard says.
Honoring (and Deviating From) the Show
All that said, the television show, and its fans, were never far from Smithard’s mind because he knew the stakes involved in making a television series into a feature film. “Not many people do it because it’s fraught with danger,” he says. Audiences could choose never to show up at the movie theater to see Downton on the big screen or, worse, they could watch it and not recognize the show and characters they love. Smithard wasn’t too stressed about that prospect, however. “I didn’t worry so much about the audience not recognizing it because at the end of the day, a lot of the filming takes place in the house, so they’d recognize the library or the hall or the kitchen or the dining room,” Smithard says. “As long as I’m not shooting in a way that would appall them or just confuse them or they could go, ‘Oh, why did you do that?’” he says.
That’s not to say he didn’t sometimes pursue the occasional deviations, like a scene where butler Thomas Barrow goes to a gay bar. “I really like the look of that scene because it allowed me to just take the look away from the Downton look, and really delve into the look of the late 20s,” he explains. Still, by and large he sought to preserve the look of Downton Abbey, notably through the impeccable details throughout the world, which could now also be relished further on the big screen. “Everything about the television series is all about detail. So, you just have to be really, really conscious of being very precise with everything you do,” Smithard says.
It’s All in the Details
One way Smithard was able to keep a (literal) eye on those details was through his hands-on approach to shooting. “I operate a camera on every feature that I do. I’m right in the middle of the scene, all the time,” he says. “I shoot every single image.”
He does that because it allows him control over, and a connection to, the material that keeps him close to the actors, as well as the director. That enables him, in turn, to catch every detail of a set, but especially a performance. So much so that it sometimes even deterred him from certain stylistic choices. For example, there were times he wanted to shoot darker than usual but saw why he shouldn’t because of his proximity to the exceptional actors. “You’ll have to beware that there are little mannerisms in their performances that are quite comic. You don’t want to miss those,” he recalls.
It reiterated a guiding philosophy. “You don’t need to try and reinvent the wheel every time you go out. You just have to really pay attention to the detail,” he says. “We’re trying to tell stories. So, every now and again, you might try and make it a little bit more stylized, but I try not to detract from the story.” With his approach, he can instead become immersed in it, and so can audiences.
Smithard’s immersion also was a natural way to make Downton Abbey cinematic beyond rendering the small screen onto the big screen, and instead just go big. Sometimes that could be done with sequences shot with drones that would rise and hover outside the show’s iconic building. Sometimes it was making use of long lenses to make the image brim with its numerous characters.
There were also several big set pieces meant to make use of a cinematic canvas. Take a lavish ball sequence, featuring an orchestra, and impeccably dressed and choreographed dancing partners. “We had crane steady cams. We had cameras on dollies moving around all over the place,” he says.
There was also the massive cavalry process marching through town featuring hundreds of cavalrymen and spectators. All of it was shot with real people to add to the cinematic scope and feeling of the moment. “This is still filmmaking where most of it is done in camera,” he says. “It’s very similar to a lot of features that I shoot, in that there’s a certain purist element to it.” That purity wasn’t just limited to those moments, but ultimately to Ben Smithard’s approach to the film, which possesses the pure spirit of the show.
Top Image: Jim Carter in ‘Downton Abbey.’ All photos courtesy of Focus Features.