Joe Anderson Helps Resurrect Top Boy with Cooke S7/i Prime Lenses

When the original two mini-series of Top Boy ended on the UK’s Channel 4 in 2013, few people thought the critically-acclaimed drama about two London street gangs would ever come back.

Enter the Canadian rapper Drake (Aubrey “Drake” Graham), who discovered the series on YouTube and was so enamored that he purchased the rights in 2017. Now Netflix will premiere the third season this year with 10 episodes shot using Cooke S7/i prime lenses.

The series creator and writer Ronan Bennett returned to write the show, and is also an executive producer alongside Drake, whose passion for the human element of the show drove its resurrection. Six years have passed, and the third series picks up as original characters reunite and try to reclaim their ‘Top Boy’ status.

Cinematographer Joe Anderson immediately fell in love with the series. “It’s almost Shakespearean in how the story is written and unfolds,” he says. “Originally, the four episodes of each season were directed by a single director for each season. For this 10-episode series, the show was broken into four blocks with four directors. I love being able to create worlds — it’s the best part of the job — and this was a genre I had never worked in before, so I jumped at the chance.” Production ran for six months in London, starting in July 2018.

But the challenge was how to update a show for a 2019 Netflix audience, while maintaining story continuity. From Anderson’s perspective, he had to deal with a show originally shot on Alexa using anamorphic lenses on a 16x9 sensor to create a 2:35 master. The requirement for a Netflix show is that it is shot in 4K.

“ARRI had just announced its new large format ALEXA LF larger sensor for 4K,” explained Anderson. “But the Cooke lenses I use for Super35 were not going to work — they can’t fill the sensor. And I also like a constant aperture.”

Two things made the Cooke S7/i lenses the perfect choice for Anderson for Top Boy.

“First, the lenses are so fast at T2. Second, it had a look I was familiar with from using the Cooke S4s on The Old Man&The Gun. That ‘Cooke Look®’ carries between lens families. I knew that look so well, and it was appropriate for this story.”

In fact, since Top Boy would be shooting with multiple units, he convinced camera and lens supplier ARRI Rental UK to purchase an additional set of Cooke S7/i lenses. The set contained 25, 32, 40, 75, 100 and 135mm focal lengths.

Shooting UK/European style, Anderson operated the camera himself, finding the 75mm to be the lens of choice to tell the story. “This was an interesting shoot using a new format,” said Anderson. “It’s almost the same difference as shooting 16mm versus 35mm. The S7/i 75mm was my workhorse. It’s a bit more of a normal lens in that it’s the same as the eye’s field of view and I wanted that immersive look for the series. I did lots of handheld and worked hard to make it feel like the camera was a character in the show, so the viewer is in the streets of London. The 75mm was often the best to do that.”

When shooting some scenes in Jamaica, the Cooke S7/i lenses really stood out for Anderson. “We had lots of scenes in the mountains, and the Cooke lenses really photographed nicely, especially with characters in the foliage. The way Cooke lenses are designed means they’re not overly clinical, giving you more dimensionality in the image. That has a bigger impact in a larger format production.”

But back in London, most Americans like Anderson would think of the weather being foggy, overcast and flat. That was not the case. “In the summer of 2018, London was exceptionally hot and sunny, and we were not prepared for that. We had to change our lighting package to include brighter lights to compete with the sun. We shot in lots of flats and high-rise buildings, where lighting from outside is very challenging. That’s where my New York background came in handy — as I shoot the same way back home, using a lot with HMIs when we could, on lifts or really high up, supplemented with a few lights inside.”

One of the benefits of doing a Netflix production is that the final master is finished in HDR. “I had a lot of latitude to play with. I had to capture a variety of dark skin tones, while still getting detail outside in the bright sunlight. It was a challenge to see how much I could push it for skin tones and the rest of the information in the scene.”

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