Today we have a great interview with Ali Asad, Director of Photography. For those Doctor Who – Series 9 fans amongst us – Ali worked on the two opening episodes The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. Recall that beautiful panning war scene on Skaro before the Doctor found the young Davros and you will see why we are impressed and wanted to chat with him.
His other work include A Lonely Place to Die, Ten Minutes Older: The Cello, The Best of R.E.M, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
This interview is the second of two parts. Part one can be found on David-Tennant-News where he discussed work on Mad to be Normal – Mad to Be Normal, David Tennant’s new biopic about the life and times of R.D.Laing,
QUESTION: Few people know exactly what a Director of Photography / Cinematographer is. How would you describe your role?
ANSWER: 1 – Read, read and read and know the script.
2 – Understand the director’s vision for the piece and establish a style that will serve the narrative and is visually arresting. This is done with lighting, camera angles and movement.
3 – Liaise with the production and costume designer about colour schemes set design etc..
4 – Select the camera, lenses and filters.
5 – Brief the crew thoroughly about the plan.
QUESTION: I was fortunate to see the Magician’s Apprentice at a press event with Steven Moffatt last year. The Magician’s Apprentice is arguable one of the most visually beautiful. The opening sequence on Skaro was stunning. It is my strongest memory of the two episodes. Initially thought it was a WWI battle but as the smoke and dust cleared it became apparent it was much more. Can you talk about the inspiration of sequence and how was created?
ANSWER: Obviously this was scripted. Hettie MacDonald and myself worked on the look. Images from WWI, WWII were heavily referenced. Especially the D Day landing photographs by Robert Capa. We asked the location manager to find us a muddy field. We laid over 100 meters of perforated pipe and pumped smoke through it. We used drones for the aerial shots. Footage of the Tiger Moth plane were filmed separately at Duxford airbase and later integrated into the main footage.
QUESTION: The two episodes – The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar — had a different look to them. The first being a large expansive view and second closer, tighter shots. For example, the intense scenes between Davros / Doctor.
ANSWER: I wanted to employ cinematic values into the visuals. I looked at the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone where the juxtaposition between wide shots and intense close ups creates drama and is visually compelling. It was lit darker to accentuate the idea of an aging dying Davros but also evil.
QUESTION: There is an interface between the camera and post production CGI. How did you account for the CGI in the camera work? Were you involved in any of the postproduction?
ANSWER: Dr Who is heavily reliant on CGI. We always had a CGI specialist with us on set to advise on what footage is needed for best results.
QUESTION: Can you give some insight to some of the behind the scenes work that went into creating these two episodes?
ANSWER: There is a huge army of designers, artists, electricians, camera crews, model makers, so much so it is hard to see how it all comes together but together it does.
The script comes from BBC London then it gets broken down into a shooting schedule by the 1st AD. The schedule is circulated to all the different departments to start the prep. There are many meetings to solve any problems and eventually there’s a tone meeting where all heads of departments are present and the shoot is discussed scene by scene.
QUESTION: In your first time working on Doctor Who you had it all. A Tank, The Missy (the Master), Davros, the Daleks and even Skaro. A very iconic entrance to the world of Doctor Who. Did you realise the importance of the episodes?
ANSWER: This was an incredibly exciting script especially for me who loved the programme when I was a child.
QUESTION: We have heard great things about Hettie MacDonald. What can you say about one of the series’ female directors?
ANSWER: It was thanks to Hettie MacDonald that I was hired to shoot the block. She is incredibly talented kind and lovely to work with and Hettie being visually literate made the process a lot easier.
QUESTION: We do have to ask. Are Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi together as mad as they seem in their Q&As? How about Jenna Coleman? Did she join into the madness?
ANSWER: Michelle was the maddest. Peter was gentle and lovely and Jenna was lovely too but more quiet.
QUESTION: What was it like working for the BBC?
ANSWER: It was odd in the beginning because I usually have a say on the crew I use and I would walk onto a set knowing almost everyone but here I didn’t know anyone. I was apprehensive but soon that dissipated as I was made to feel so comfortable and soon after I felt at home.
The only thing that soured the experience is the fee issue which I made public on my twitter page. When negotiating the fee I was implicitly told by the line producer that for the sake of fairness I would be paid the going rate that everybody gets. However I found out afterwards that wasn’t the case and I was paid £360.00 less per week than the rate. I raised the issue with the production office. Initially they said that should not have happened. Then changed their line and told me that I was paid a new comer’s rate which was new to me. I challenged that line and eventually they told me that fees are set on a one to one basis and are confidential and if I wanted a better rate I should get myself an agent. I can corroborate all of the above with emails.
Like any other big company, there are many good things about the BBC but there is huge room for improvement.
QUESTION: It is a challenge time around the world. I know of friends and colleagues that are still worried about upcoming business trips to States. I understand you had problems getting through JFK recently.
ANSWER: I was on my way to LA to shoot a music video for Solomon Burke’s “None Of Us Are Free”. I am a British citizen but was born in Syria. The town of my birth is stated on my passport. The immigration officer asked where the town was and as soon as I told him. I was taken to a room where I was interrogated, finger printed, photographed and my details added to a special list. I was let go 12 hours later.
QUESTION: Rock Videos and Rock’n Roll? You’ve worked with Jo Cocker. Madonna, REM, George Michaels? How did you get your first job? And how did you move beyond rock videos?
ANSWER: It was a music video. I was working as an assistant with a DOP called John Simmons who is also my guru. Two days before we were meant fly to St Lucia. I got a call form the producer asking me what cameras I wanted to use. I said ask John, then he told me that I was to shoot it because John couldn’t and recommended they use me as a DOP.
QUESTION: What’s next? What do you have upcoming?
ANSWER: A film about James Joyce when he was living in Paris just before WWII and his relationship with his daughter Lucia and the onset of her metal illness. Followed by a proper Spaghetti Western with Ennio Morricone doing the music.
You can watch Ali’s latest work in David Tennant’ new movie Mad to be Normal. See OurScreen for a viewing near you.