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In the Deep End: Vigil’s Production Secrets Uncovered

Posted on Oct 8, 2021 by Alex Fice

DOP Matt Gray talks uncovering the secrets beneath the surface in the BBC’s submarine thriller, Vigil

Words Chelsea Fearnley / Images BBC Pictures

Vigil opens with a sweeping vista of the ocean, just off Scotland’s Barra Head. This conveys both the beauty and inherent terror of its vast unknown. Out there, you’re on your own, as Suranne Jones’ DCI Amy Silva quickly discovers when she’s parachuted onto HMS Vigil – a military submarine which is a crew member down, following a death on board. The detective has been tasked with exposing what really transpired deep underwater, but given it’s a six-episode thriller, there’s far more to this case than initially meets the eye. We’d expect nothing less from World Productions, which also gave us Line of Duty and Bodyguard: two shows specialising in high-stakes drama. 

Rhythm, by design 

The series is penned and created by the twice Bafta-nominated screenwriter Tom Edge (Judy, The Crown), with James Strong directing and Matt Gray in charge of principal photography. Strong and Gray forged a close relationship after working together on Broadchurch in 2013 – a connection which would have, no doubt, prepared them for the creative challenges faced in bringing to life the claustrophobic, high-pressure HMS Vigil. They also had to navigate several shoot delays and remote reviews and approvals,  as production and post-production ran throughout the pandemic. 

Onboard HMS Vigil

“From conception, Vigil was a very bold and ambitious project. In the first twenty minutes, we see our hero Amy in a helicopter being winched down onto the submarine – our setting for the series,” explains Gray. “For the whole show, we tried to challenge ourselves to do as much in camera as possible – then add this to post. Bringing on three post-production companies (Blazing Griffin, Goodbye Kansas and Savalas) as partners early in the process was crucial. For Amy’s journey to the sub, we shot ship-to-ship plates of the helicopter, then added the extra elements of her on the winch and the conning tower, which were all seamlessly blended together.”

The real Trident submarines are shrouded in secrecy, so the design had to be constructed from a mix of former submariners’ memories and scouring the internet for any similar vessels.

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We wanted the camera to be constantly moving and flowing through the environment – never letting it get too static

The interior did use some VFX, but it was mostly a production design crafted by the talented Tom Sayer, who worked and reworked the set to ensure the cinematography could be as dynamic as the gripping story needed.

“We did some testing in the submarine set with our Steadicam and B camera operator Martin Newstead, but some adjustments had to be made so that the Steadicam was able to take full advantage. We wanted the camera to be constantly moving and flowing through the environment – never letting it get too static, not to distract from the pace of the story,” says Gray. “We [Gray, gaffer Paul Jarvis and best boy Paul Bates] also worked with Tom to integrate a full range of Astera LED tubes into the set – and that all went back through a DMX, to be managed via tablet. This gave me complete control over every source on the sub – I could envision quite complex lighting changes.”

Lighting choices were driven by a submarine’s unique and mythical ability to descend below the surface for long periods of time. Since Trident subs are nuclear powered, they theoretically have limited endurance – though, in practice, last 90 days at sea, based on food stores and crew stamina. This was also the case for HMS Vigil and DCI Silva’s journey on-board. 

“We wanted to play with opposing colour tones throughout the series, because there’s also the investigation that takes place back on land. For that, we leaned into tones that were representative of the real world and relied on natural lighting,” comments Gray. “In the sub, the tones are very acidic and man-made.”

Detectives try to solve a crime on terra firma

Pick ‘n’ mix

The decision to split the narrative between the sea and terra firma was a smart move. Had Vigil only unfolded within the submarine, the sense of claustrophobia could have become overwhelming or lost its edge. Photographically, this is done exceptionally well, with Gray switching up his lenses to minimise the anxiety of a drama predominantly set underwater.

“I initially thought I would use spherical lenses in the submarine and anamorphic on land, but separating them like that was too obvious. To me, it made more sense to mix them up based on different intensity cues in the story, whether on land or in the submarine,” says Gray. “I had a set of Tokina spherical lenses, which I used for a good chunk, as it allowed us to compress things and not make it feel too wide. These lenses also have a slight period feel because they only have one coat on the front. They are much more interpretive than anamorphics, which we used to open the space up a bit.”

A set of Arri Master Anamorphics illustrated the expanse of life on land, but also the magnitude of the sub. Gray explains, “These nuclear boats are enormous; they’re one and a half football pitches long and 12 double-decker buses deep. We wanted to be able to show the reality of that.” He adds: “Along with the Master Anamorphics, we employed the Kowa 75mm for our main storyline.”

The lenses were paired with an Arri Alexa LF, because of the 4K HDR requirement from the BBC. More than that, the camera’s sensor was able to hit Gray’s visual requirement for shallow focus and a fall-off around the frame.

To continue reading this article, head over to our October issue of Definition magazine.

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