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Welcome to The End Of The F***ing World

Posted on Dec 17, 2019

Our favourite teen criminals are finally back – or, at least, one of them definitely is. We speak to DOP Benedict Spence about how he shot Series 2 of The End of the F***ing World 


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The first series of The End of the F***ing World ended with Alyssa and James capping off their increasingly high-risk crime spree by running away from a firearms unit, ending up on a beach. Once there, James urges Alyssa to tell the police he kidnapped her, and that she committed all of the offences against her own will. He then hits her with a rifle – immobilising her long enough for the police to catch her – and makes a run for it towards the ocean.

Everything that follows suggests James has been killed by the police, and fans have spent the last two years theorising whether or not it was really the end. Well, now we know, and James is of course alive, but is by no means kicking. He is crippled, orphaned and estranged from Alyssa, who is engaged to someone else. In their separate worlds, they each receive a bullet with their name engraved into the metal. The bullets are sent by newcomer Bonnie, who was in love with Clive, the professor by day, serial killer by night who was murdered by James to protect Alyssa.

The opening episode of the second series is dedicated to Bonnie’s pitch-black backstory. She was raised under the cruel discipline of her mother who forces her to memorise the world’s capital cities and eat lipstick. She then rebels by rejecting the education she was supposed to have and becomes a librarian at a college, where she meets and becomes lovesick for the enigmatic professor Clive.

This episode, especially the scenes where Bonnie meets with Clive at his murder house, was “mind-boggling” for Benedict Spence – the DOP carrying the cinematography baton on from the first series’ DOP Justin Brown – to shoot. The scenes are set in the past, in parallel to when Alyssa and James entered his house in Series 1. He explains: “They’re meant to look as if they could have been plucked from the first series.”

What the f**k am I looking at?

Spence was tasked with the heavy responsibility of continuing the look that garnered the show’s recognition. It is both gloomy and glamorous, but always good-looking and exquisite in its attention to detail. It’s a strong cinematic look, which he describes as “not being a difficult thing to emulate” for the very reason that it is so strong, but he still felt anxious about making sure he got it just right for the second series.

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He says: “Lucy Forbes, who was the first block director alongside myself, and I spent hours watching and rewatching the first series; studying what they did and looking to see what rules they created. And similarly, we watched a number of films, the key one being Fargo, which was used as a reference for the first series.”

Wes Anderson’s precise, symmetrical style was also a big motivator for Spence, who framed every single shot of the series centrally. He explains: “Symmetry can reveal an unspoken emotion between characters, so it’s quite a fun thing to play around with when you’ve got two leads. The first time you see Alyssa and James stood next to each other, for example, that’s an exciting moment.” He continues: “There’s also something quite pleasurable about keeping your eyes in the centre of the frame and letting the cut do the work for you.”

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Spence also references the graphic novel from which the show evolved and, although the novel ended where the first series did, with James lying on a beach in a pool of his own blood, he lifted visuals from it where he could.

“Actually, my favourite shot of the second series was lifted from the comic and it’s this shot of James lying down on the back seat of his car, hugging an urn containing his dad’s ashes. It’s an amazingly sweet moment that’s well acted by Alex Lawther, who plays James, because we are absolutely destroying this kid who wanted to be – well, he thought he was a psychopath in the first series. Now his legs don’t work properly, and his dad is dead.”

James and Alyssa allow a woman bent on murdering them - the wild-eyed Bonnie - on to their wistful road trip James and Alyssa allow a woman bent on murdering them – the wild-eyed Bonnie – on to their wistful road trip

Where the f**k is it set?

If you have watched The End of the F***ing World, you will know that it inhabits a stylised world that is not really fixed in any time or place. There are no road signs placing it anywhere and restaurants, bars and shops aren’t branded. It feels a little American, a little British, a bit seventies, a bit nineties. “It’s kind of everything and nothing, which I think is brilliant because it allows your imagination to kick in a bit,” says Spence.

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“The first series is set in the sunny southeast of England, somewhere.” But, because of the progression of the storyline, which sees Alyssa and her mother – a little more trimmed and pruned – living in a cafe in the woods with her aunt, the set has moved to a “sort of damp, forested Pennsylvania”. He elaborates: “It was actually shot in Wales and in the wintertime, which was a strange transition from the first series in terms of keeping the lighting consistent, because it was wet and cold, and not sunny and beautiful. And I remember shooting a scene in episode 3, where Alyssa and James crash out of the car impound, and it just bloody rained and rained, which, when you’re trying to do a stunt and have dusty, warm Americana vibes, became almost impossible.”

Spence approached lighting by imagining he was using a film camera loaded with 250D daylight film. “It’s an honest approach,” he says. “For example, when we shot at dusk, we didn’t white-balance anything out. We let it go blue and leaned into the colours the camera produced. One of my favourite scenes was shot at blue hour and it’s the scene where James drives up to the cafe Alyssa is working in, to let her know about the bullet he received. He hasn’t seen her since the beach and he still loves her, but when he gets there, he sees her kissing someone else. It’s another hit to poor James. But it’s
a beautiful scene in terms of colour palette – a mixture of blue and red – which is coming from the neon lights that are draped around the cafe.”

He continues: “I had a lot of chats with Lucy and our production designer about wrapping the cafe, which had been built specifically for the show, in red neon. Red being a classic warning colour. And unfortunately, because I only shot the first four episodes, I didn’t get to use it for the big shoot-out scene towards the end of the series. I had a vision the lights would go off and it would just be a red wash inside the cafe, which didn’t quite happen, but I think that Ben Todd, who was the second block DOP, still got to have a bit of fun with it.”

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Spence wanted to keep the lighting on-set to a minimum to reflect the show’s minimalism and relied on practicals, as much as real daylight. He also used Litegear Litemat 8, Arri Skypanels, Arri M-Series Daylight lamps and Lanternlock china lanterns, channelling simple warm and cool tones, rather than complex colours.

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4**K

The show is a Channel 4 and Netflix co-production, so clearly there was some motivation behind Spence’s camera choice. It had to be 4K, but it didn’t have to be Red, which was the camera the first series had been shot on.

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He says: “I think that Justin Brown, who was the first series’ DOP, wanted to shoot it on the Arri Alexa, but wasn’t allowed to because it’s not true 4K – or, whatever you want to call it, it’s not Netflix approved. So, when I was asked to do the series, I straightaway said that I wanted to use the Alexa LF. Luckily, Clerkenwell Films was keen to do that, because it recognises that the Alexa is a superior camera system and the LF is approved by Netflix.” He continues: “I have shot on Red a number of times, but I always push for Alexa, because it protects highlights, has a lovely filmic look – which Red has less so – and is much faster on-set. I find that the Alexa, of any kind, allows a speed of working that makes the difference between getting that extra shot at the end of the day and not.” Spence paired the camera with Zeiss Supreme Primes, which he says was a “no brainer,” owing to the lenses’ sharp, but creamy and filmic look.

DOP Benedict Spence and director Lucy Forbes posing on location in the wintery Welsh hills DOP Benedict Spence and director Lucy Forbes posing on location in the wintery Welsh hills

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Spence only had one day to do his camera lens tests, but this was ample time, since he was already well acquainted with the Alexa sensor. “One thing I did want to test, though, was the sensitivity at which we could run the camera, because the LF has twice as many pixels as the normal Alexa. Its noise floor is lower, so in theory you can run it at higher sensitivities, and, after some testing, we realised that we could run the camera at 1600 ISO, which is actually double what Arri says the LF can do. It produced a nice level of grain, but also gave us an extra stop of headroom in the highlights, which was really handy
for a show that’s meant to look as if it was shot on film.”

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Toby Tomkins of Cheat was tasked with putting the finishing touches on the show. He had graded Series 1 and wanted to keep the second series looking equally lovely and filmic, which was quite the challenge with its new Dolby Vision delivery. He says: “We didn’t want to go too HDR-y, because we were worried it wouldn’t stay true to Series 1. But we found a nice middle ground in using HDR to increase the texture on the top end, while staying true to the filmy soft-shoulder roll-off of the SDR grade in Series 1. And even though it’s subtle, it’s really sort of liberating for me as a colourist, to be able to have shape in the midtones and also shape in the highlights, because normally you have to compromise one or the other to have a natural image.”

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Tomkins recreated the film emulation look-up table that was used on Series 1 to work in HDR, and this also provided reference for Spence on-set. To do this, he studied Blu-ray stills of films shot and printed on film and replicated the look with grading tools. He says: “About 90% of this look is done with grading tools, and it’s only the last 10% where I used a film emulation transform. If I toggled the film emulation transform on and off, there were slight changes in the density of the green and blues and a little bit more colour separation on the warm and cool axis. But even if I turned that off, it still felt filmic. That’s because of the curve that I drew, and the green, red and blue keys that I put in the skin tone.”

The Arri Alexa LF gave the series its filmic aesthetic The Arri Alexa LF gave the series its filmic aesthetic

When it came to skin tones, Tomkins pushed gold into the neutral colours, where faces looked a little pale, to give them a sort of rich, leathery feel. He explains: “Again, it stems from emulating film. The white balance of film stocks traditionally go from a cooler colour in the shadows, through to a warmer colour in the highlights, with less colour separation. When you’ve got pale faces in the white sky, skin tone tends to get washed out, but on film, they are more separate.”

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Spence says that having Tomkins on board, someone who has a history on the show, was “integral” to preserving the unique tone of the first series. And it’s quite clear, after watching the second series, that it is, just flawlessly, recognisably, The End of the F***ing World.

The End of the F***ing World is now available to catch up on All 4.

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