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  • Writer's pictureCinelab Film & Digital

Case Study: Small Axe

'Small Axe' is an anthology series which comprises of five original films by Academy Award, Bafta and Golden Globe-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen.

Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, each film tells a different story involving London's West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will, despite rampant racism and discrimination. Even though this collection of films is set some decades ago, the stories are as vital and timely today as they were for the West Indian community in London at the time. Small Axe is a celebration of Black joy, beauty, love, friendship, family, music and even food. Each one, in its own unique way, conveys hard-won successes, bringing hope and optimism for 2020. Small Axe (now available on Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer) presented a challenge, since it's a set of five original films, each using a separate cast and telling a different story through different time periods, Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner was asked by McQueen to shoot each film in an uniquely appropriate format with its own individual lighting characteristics.

Episode 1 ‘Mangrove’ is the first in the series, feature length and shot on 35mm, Episode 2 is ‘Lover’s Rock’ (digital), Episode 3 ‘Red, White and Blue’ (shot on 35mm), Episode 4 ‘Alex Wheatle’ (digital) and Episode 5 ‘Education’ (shot on 16mm) is the fifth and final in the series.

Paul Dean, Head of Scanning & Grading at Cinelab Film & Digital: “We always endeavour to create the final look envisioned for the film at the dailies/rushes stage.  This ensures that everyone involved in the post production process is tuned into the desired looks from the very outset of the shoot. Initially, the Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and I spoke regarding the various possible looks for the different episodes and how to create them as a strong retro look was desired, luckily, being of a certain vintage myself I was entirely familiar with the film stocks and photochemical techniques that we wanted to emulate, so plenty of food for thought! We then followed this up with a grading session to apply the looks to the test footage that Shabier had shot. Out of gallery The Director Steve McQueen had composed a compilation of images that would form the starting point in creating the various looks for each episode. This was a process of continuous refinement, achieved by the alchemy of combining photochemical manipulation, such as forced processing and various grading techniques. We refined the looks until we were happy with our starting points. After the processing, scanning and grading was completed, I would send Shabier a selection of still images that he could easily and quickly view on location.  If an alternative look was required for a particular scene Shabier would manipulate the still to achieve the look he wanted to try and send me back that image which I would then apply to the scene. This continuous feedback loop was invaluable in dialling in the mood for particular scenes. As always, the key to achieving the desired results is communication, so with Shabier’s truly infectious enthusiasm and energy it was an absolute joy to play a small part in this exceptional powerful project.”

Small Axe – Episode 1: Mangrove (Feature Length) Mangrove tells this true story of The Mangrove Nine, who clashed with London police in 1970. The trial that followed was the first judicial acknowledgment of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Shabier Kirchner “We chose to use 2-perf 35mm film. "We wanted it to feel specific to the era," he explains, adding that the format gave the story a Kodachrome, textured feeling "not quite as heavy as 16mm but something that maintained the patina of the era." Credits Co-Writers: Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen Director: Steve McQueen Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner Starring: Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby and Shaun Parkes

Small Axe | Mangrove Trailer


Small Axe – Episode 2: Lovers Rock (60mins) Lovers Rock tells a fictional story of young love at a Blues party in 1980. Shot on a Digital format. Credits Co-Writers: Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen Director: Steve McQueen Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner Starring: Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok

Small Axe | Lovers Rock Trailer


Small Axe – Episode 3: Red, White & Blue (60mins) Red, White and Blue spotlights the true story of Leroy Logan, who at a young age saw his father assaulted by two policemen, motivating him to join the Metropolitan Police and change their racist attitudes from within. Shot on 35mm in 3-perf Director of Photography Shabier Kirchner “Steve’s shot all his movies on film, and also all of his artwork on film, so that was a natural part of the conversation. We wanted the story to have the texture of 35 and the texture of the world and the time and the place, but not be quite as grainy, and also not be in a wide screen aspect ratio,” Kirchner explains. “We wanted to keep something that was a lot more portrait and more personal to Leroy’s experience.” Credits Co-Writers: Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen Director: Steve McQueen Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner Starring: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Joy Richardson 

Small Axe | Red, White & Blue Trailer


Small Axe – Episode 4: Alex Wheatle (60mins) Alex Wheatle follows the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), from a young boy through his early adult years. Having spent his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home with no love or family, he finally finds not only a sense of community for the first time in Brixton. When he is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he confronts his past and sees a path to healing. Shot on a Digital format.

Credits Co-Writers: Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen Director: Steve McQueen Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner Starring: Sheyl Cole, Robbie Gee, Jonathan Jules

Small Axe | Alex Wheatle Trailer


Small Axe – Episode 5: Education (60mins) Education focuses on a 12-year-old, Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who appears “normal” enough to our eyes, but is singled out by the administration as inferior to his classmates. When Kingsley acts up, the teacher sends him to the headmaster, who recommends to Kingsley’s parents that they send him to a “special” school, one better equipped to deal with his unique needs. Shot on Super 16mm Director of Photography Shabier Kirchner “This story is very personal to Steve on multiple levels,” reveals Kirchner. “To inform the look, we talked about 16mm-originated BBC Play for Today dramas from the early 1970s, directed by people such as Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. We decided to film Education on 16mm because of its more prominent grain structure, and we shot it all handheld to make it feel immediate, raw, real and personal.”

Credits Co-Writers: Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen Director: Steve McQueen Director of Photography: Shabier Kirchner Starring: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrance 

Small Axe | Education Trailer


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