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Hyper-Natural Force

Stephen Murphy, BSC, ISC takes viewers on a ride-along through the visual style of the police drama Blue Lights.

The BBC drama series Blue Lights tells the story of three rookie cops on the police force in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. Directed by Gilles Bannier, the six-episode first season was shot by cinematographers Stephen Murphy, BSC, ISC and Angus Mitchell, who used DXL2 and DXL-M cameras matched with Primo spherical primes provided by Panavision Belfast to craft a visual language that immerses viewers in the show’s milieu. Panavision recently caught up with Murphy for his firsthand account of that visual style.

Panavision: Did you and your collaborators share any specific references as you were defining the look of the series?

Stephen Murphy, BSC, ISC: Blue Lights is a gritty police drama with a hyper-naturalistic look. I talked a lot with director Gilles Bannier about the French New Wave and American films of the ’70s, particularly movies shot in New York City, like The French Connection. Gilles talked about the ‘vibration’ of an image, and it was my job to figure out what that meant. In my eyes, that became a lively camera, sometimes handheld, and observant rather than subjective, with images full of contrast and a slightly desaturated color palette. I worked with the art department and costume designer to help create certain areas of saturated color within each frame so we could have a pop of color throughout an otherwise desaturated image.

How did you determine your camera package for Blue Lights?

Murphy: My last few jobs had been on Alexa or Venice, both excellent cameras, but on this I wanted to try something different. I had used the DXL2 on a commercial a few months beforehand and had been impressed with the images and how well the camera functioned. I knew there would be a lot of handheld in Blue Lights, and I wanted a camera that balanced well on the shoulder as well as something that could break down into a smaller size for car-interior work. The DXL2 and DXL-M fit that perfectly.

What made Primos the right match for this story?

Murphy: The Primos are my favorite spherical primes — I’ve used them many, many times. For Blue Lights, I combined them with the Panavision Anamorphic Flare Adaptor to simulate some of the qualities you get with anamorphic, and occasionally I paired that with an additional Schneider Blue Streak filter for more extreme flares. The AFA gave me a nice softness on the edges of the Primos, and the flare helped break up the image in an interesting way that I really enjoyed. 

I've worked with Panavision throughout my career, from my early days as an assistant through to working as a cinematographer. I've always loved their menagerie of unique glass, and they've always been supportive and given me something unique to shoot on. 

How does this project differ from others in your career?

Murphy: Having been working on larger projects for streamers for so many years, it was interesting coming back to a smaller-budget terrestrial drama. We had to work very quickly and adapt to scheduling changes caused by Covid and bad weather. It was tough, but that also brought about a certain energy — a ‘vibration’ — that was wonderful to work with and that Gilles and I really enjoyed. Gilles is a fantastic director and a wonderful collaborator, and we had a truly lovely team around us, so it was a great set to be on every day, despite the difficulties we faced.

What inspired you to pursue a career behind the camera?

Murphy: I got into movies because of Star Wars. I saw the film when it was released as a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. Shortly after, I read a magazine about the model makers and SFX technicians who helped make it, and to me that seemed like adults playing with toys for a living! That led to the path I’m on now.

Part of me has never really grown up, and I think that's a good thing. I'm still inspired by the artists who created all those wonderfully crafted FX movies of the '70s and '80s. I spend a lot of time poring over movie poster art from the '80s and comic art from the '90s. I love iconographic images that can tell a story in a simple yet powerful way. That's something I strive for with my own work.