Brief Encounters with the Leica M & Noctilux
By John Tuckey – See his website HERE
Nothing provides dramatic effect quite like a classic train scene. The half-empty carriage loaded with intrigue is a key Hitchcock device. Steam-wreathed platforms give Brief Encounter emotional tension on a grand scale. And where else, but the ridiculously romantic Gare du Nord, could Anouk Aimee have finally thrown off her angst and thrown herself into Jean-Louis Trintignant’s arms in the closing scene of A Man and a Woman? Unfortunately they don’t make rail travel like they used to.
My goal was to create a set of deeply atmospheric noir shots, intimate yet grand and tapping into a rich seam of old school Hollywood drama and elegance. As it turns out it’s not something you ‘just find’ and it needs more than a little planning – with a couple of false starts thrown in, it took me a total of 8 months to get access to the perfect location and an appropriate model aligned.
For a model, I was after more Ingrid Bergman than Grace Kelly, and I wanted styling to evoke the very feminine masculinity of Orry-Kelly’s women’s tailoring c. 1945. After some searching, I found the perfect coat and hat on ebay – an endless source for vintage clothing and less time-consuming than dealers and flea markets – the luggage, I already had.
Surprisingly, finding a period railway location in the UK was the easy part. Thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts all over the country there are still several beautifully preserved working railways, charming stations and impeccably restored trains.
I didn’t need a quaint station platform or too much intricate background detail. But I wanted steam-wreathed shots and authentic steam wasn’t an option – too time-consuming and unrealistic to expect a real train all stoked up on demand. So I knew I’d need a smoke machine and a partially enclosed set that would fill quickly and realistically with the smoke.
Recceing a location in advance is always good. You then get at least an idea of what lights to bring, what available light you have and what your limitations are in terms of space. Setting up and lighting is much easier and you’re aware of any potential issues beforehand. It turns out a carriage shed in Didcot was just what I needed: semi-enclosed, full of lovely old rolling stock, very fillable with fake steam.
After months of planning and delays, finally the big day: Location? Check! Model? Check! Hair and makeup? Check! Smoke machine? Check! Camera, batteries, cards, lights? Check! Shot list? Check!
Working on location, it’s essential to know exactly what you want for each shot in advance so you have everything on site. You can’t plan for the unexpected, but if you have set parameters, you know what you want to achieve and you can work efficiently within your timeframe.
Actual shooting time? it took less than 2 hours, to pace, check, rehearse, shoot, trigger the smoke machine and shoot again. The rest of the day? 1 hour travel each way, 2 hours in hair and makeup, 30mins lugging kit and props across site to the location, setting up and breaking down.
The smoke machine was worth its weight in gold, It took less than 10 minutes to fill the shed with ‘steam’, radically altering the contrast of the scene and the nature of the images as it did so. Well worth it.
If there is a single piece of advice you take from my experience … I hope it’s to forget ‘f/8 and be there’, because sometimes ‘Preparation is everything’.