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It’s a Joy: crafting the vibrancy and heartache of It’s a Sin

Posted on Sep 6, 2021 by Alex Fice

DOP David Katznelson on crafting the vibrancy and heartache of the 1980s gay community for It’s A Sin

Words Chelsea Fearnley / Images Channel 4 & Olly Pillon

Russell T Davies’ highly acclaimed drama, It’s a Sin, is something of a companion piece to his groundbreaking classic Queer as Folk – a gorgeous fantasy, designed to counteract the historic prejudice surrounding gay urban life. What it did not do was look at the darkness out of which such freedoms emerged, and which shadowed the lives of its party people. In short, it did not deal with the effects of Aids on the gay community.

It’s a Sin does. Without losing any of Davies’ gusto, joy or subtlety, the show follows the lives of three young gay men – Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin – who move to London and evolve into each other’s logical family, alongside Ritchie’s university best friend, Jill. But the group arrive in 1981, just as the first reports of a new disease are making their way across the Atlantic. As the series navigates through the decade, never shying away from the gut-wrenching horrors of the Aids crisis, it has plenty of room for joy, too. A balance that is not only crucial in providing a spoonful of sugar to make the historical medicine go down, but to demonstrate that not all was lost when this disease descended.

Through a lens

“It was one of those scripts I couldn’t put down,” says DOP David Katznelson, as he reminisces about his time on the production. “I was a teenager during the eighties – and although I remember the Aids crisis well, revisiting it through the eyes of people who lost so many friends was a heartbreaking twist on my experience. Still, It’s a Sin is not about death, but about life – and although it’s a tear-jerker, there’s a note of positivity that shines through Davies’ writing.”

That positivity was also Davies’ direction for the visuals. The series shuns typical depictions of gloomy Thatcherite London, with colour and verve that is a pertinent reflection of the screenwriter’s own experiences from that time.

It's a Sin Production

Katznelson recalls Davies talking about the era with joy: “He spoke of The Pink Palace [the raucous new houseshare of Ritchie and his friends] and the fun he had at parties. But more than that, he said the era was about being free – life was finally being lived by the LGBTQ+ community.”

Embodying this memory, Katznelson’s movement of the camera was unmotivated – and he would often shoot handheld to capture the vibrancy of the young characters, with quick push-ins and whip pans to enhance the energy. But this wasn’t the tune throughout, because two very distinct worlds inhabit this warm, yet harrowing series. When we first meet the messy-haired and grinning Ritchie, the main character, he is at home with his old-fashioned parents on the Isle of Wight – and although he waves goodbye to them to begin studying in London, they feature throughout. “When we observe his parents, the camera is motivated. It’s always static – either on a remote head or dolly,” says Katznelson.

The DOP also went with two types of lens to distinguish between the different elements of the story. He used Cooke S6/i anamorphic lenses for the more conventional scenes of Ritchie’s parents – and a Canon K35 spherical lens for his life in London. Katznelson explains: “Anamorphic lenses have slightly more imperfections, and because of the depth-of-field, you’re prohibited from getting close to the actors. Spherical lenses allow you to be much closer to the action – and were perfect for capturing the sparkle of the characters’ lives.”

However, there were times when their worlds collided, and it always prompted a discussion about how the camera should move – and which lens to use, based on where the crew wanted the focus of the scene to lie.

“For example, it was important that the scenes with Ritchie, his friends, and his parents at the hospital were from his perspective – he was still full of life and unapologetic about his illness. But, when his parents drag him back to the Isle of Wight and have more control over how the disease should be managed, it’s from their perspective.”

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All natural

Katznelson shot on the Sony Venice – a camera chosen specifically for its Dual Base ISO. He asserts, “The 2500 ISO setting means you can shoot in very low light, which was key for me, since we worked from September to February with a lot of day scenes. This essentially granted me 1520 minutes of extra shooting time per day.”

The Venice also has the ability to be split in two, giving filmmakers more agility. This is called Rialto mode, and it’s fashioned using a cable that fits between the sensor part of the camera and the recording part. “It makes it very small. I was able to get it into tight spaces to create some interesting angles with it. We had two cameras: one in its normal configuration, and one in Rialto mode,” says Katznelson.

The usual trials and tribulations of working on a winter shoot were made more problematic by the number of different locations and sets involved – a total of 175 backdrops had to be dressed and lit. This contributed immensely to the lengthy lead time.

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

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