Film director Clive Booth, cinematographer Chris Clarke and Sir Don McCullin’s manager, Mark George, tell the behind-the-scenes story of how they made the documentary film, McCullin in Kolkata.
Don McCullin has been filmed discussing his photography many times during his long career, but rarely has he been shown shooting in the field. So when plans were mooted for making a documentary showing him in action, with the world’s most renowned photojournalist keen on the concept, they knew they had a rare opportunity that would make the photographic world sit up and take note. The questions was, where did Don want to turn his lens…
“We initially planned to film Don in Lebanon, but ISIS moved into the area and it was too dangerous,” says Mark. “We considered filming him photographing Roman buildings in Turkey, but his name has been made shooting people, so we really needed to show him doing that.
“Then Don said, ‘If you want people, we should go to Kolkata. It’s the most unbelievable city in the world.’ When Don tells you that, you know you’re on safe ground.”
While Mark, also the film’s producer, made all the necessary preparations for the shoot to take place, Clive brought award-winning director of photography Chris Clarke on board. They would also be joined by Don’s assistant, Roger Richards, and sound recordist Sean Smith.
Prior to heading for Kolkata, Don was recorded in a studio in Soho, London. This would be used for the voiceover, and allowed the team to plan the film’s narrative.
Finally, in Spring 2017, after months of meetings and preparation, the team travelled to Kolkata in West Bengal, India. Don had visited the city before and had put forward ideas for locations, but it was agreed there wouldn’t be a pre-arranged storyboard for the shoot.
“We were going to an environment that was rich in imagery for Don, and us too,” says Clive. “He had chosen several places to shoot over a three- or four-day period, and it was really about putting him in that situation and enabling him to do his thing without us being intrusive. This was the key to making it work. Then we would cut the film from what we shot.”
We wanted to replicate Don’s approach to photojournalism.
While Don photographed Kolkata with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Chris and Clive – who was acting as a second cameraman, as well as directing – used Canon C300 Mark IIs to film Don. They opted to use EF zoom lenses, predominantly the 16-35mm f/2.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8, and shot everything using natural light – almost always with the cameras hand-held.
“We wanted to replicate Don’s approach to photojournalism. He has two cameras and two lenses and that's it – off he goes,” says Chris. “We wanted to keep that kind of ethos. In practical terms we had to be quick on our toes, because of the fast pace of where we were shooting. These environments were either really cramped, or places that were quite open but crowded with thousands of people.”
Filming was done in intense periods of work during the early morning, then Don and the crew would have a break around the middle of the day. This was partly because of the fierce heat and humidity, and partly due to the harsh sunlight at that time. However, it was apparent to Clive that his shooting methods were bearing fruit.
“I could see straight away that our approach was working,” he says. “On the first day, we did a shoot at the market in the morning, then in the afternoon we were thrown into a chaotic environment where Don was photographing in the middle of all this traffic. Health and safety went out of the window. At the end of it, Chris and I agreed it was the most exciting day's shooting we’d ever had in our careers.”
He was like a caged animal in the car, champing at the bit to get started.
The whole crew were shocked by the extraordinary energy and endurance of the then 82-year-old Don. “The years just disappeared and his reactions were phenomenally quick,” says Clive. “He was like a caged animal in the car, champing at the bit to get started. Something would catch his eye and he would say, ‘Stop, stop, stop! We’ve got to get this,’ and he’d be off. Don is always looking, the radar’s on the whole time.”
Chris agrees. “When he sees an image appear in front of him, he has to stop conversation in mid-sentence to shoot it. He’s so passionate about what he’s doing. He’s not just out there trying to find a great composition – that’s really the by-product of his fascination with people. Watching him work was incredible.”
The shoot lived up to the crew and Don’s expectations, but it wasn’t until they returned that the political undercurrents that threatened the shoot were revealed to the team. On trying to hire lighting equipment, Mark discovered it would be very expensive and required employing 18 local people on the shoot. “They said, ‘If you don’t employ us, we’ll find out where you’re shooting, beat you up and take all your cameras and equipment. Don’t think the police will help – we own the police.’” Realising he was dealing with organised criminals – a kind of Indian mafia – Mark moved to minimise the risk. “I struck a deal with them in the end and said I’d employ five of them. They didn’t turn up, except on the last day, when all 18 appeared. They all had broken noses and cauliflower ears – you wouldn’t have wanted to mess with them!”
We’ll find out where you’re shooting, beat you up and take all your cameras and equipment.
The team returned from Kolkata with more than 15 hours of footage. The process of editing the film took around three weeks and was done by Clive and his editor, Tristram Edwards. They became the first people in the world to use a new ‘hosted collaboration service’, Adobe Team Projects. Working via Adobe Creative Cloud, Clive, in his Derbyshire home, was able to see Tristram’s screen in London. Tristram would upload the cuts and they could both view and work on them simultaneously.
The resulting 19-minute film is an insightful and revealing portrait of a master of photography in action, in an environment that really pushed him to the limit. This is less about the resulting images, and more about witnessing how Don has successfully captured some of the world's most celebrated images. “The film’s unique element is that it shows how he does his stuff and you can see his tradecraft,” says Chris. “It’s not just about how he takes pictures technically, but how he conducts himself with people in difficult situations – things that are so interesting to watch him do.”
For Clive, it’s been an all-consuming project and he’s delighted with the outcome. “There’s no single aspect of the film I'm not immensely proud of,” he says. “That includes the subject matter, the cinematography, the music and the editing. It’s really about showing Don in a way that most people won’t have seen him before and I’m grateful to Canon for giving us the room to do it as we wanted. For me, hand on heart, it’s the best piece of work I’ve ever done.”