by Oliver Lyttelton
June 26, 2012 1:10 PM 21 Comments
Low-budget films about British council estate gigs battling aliens do not, generally speaking, win cinematography awards. Especially when they are to all intents and purposes the first big-screen credit for the DoP in question. Which is a shame, because to our mind, "Attack The Block" featured some of the most memorable lensing of 2011. But while his trophy cabinet didn't fill up as a result (at least for that film -- see below), Thomas Townend certainly announced himself as a major talent to watch.
Townend trained at the National Film And Television School, whose other alumni include Roger Deakins, Lynne Ramsay, Terence Davies, David Yates and Joachim Trier, and has been working mostly in the commercials sector for years, assembling an imperessive CV in the meantime. Once the 2000s got underway, he started to get major credits in the feature world, with 2nd unit DoP credits on "28 Days Later," "Harry Brown" and "Pride & Prejudice," as well as working on all three of Lynne Ramsay's films, serving as second unit DoP on "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (he also lensed a Doves music video for the director, a classmate at the NFTS).
While he was becoming more and more successful as a DoP in the promos world, it was likely due to the Ramsay collection that saw Paddy Considine pick him to serve as cinematographer as his short film "Dog Altogether" (which the actor/director went on to expand as feature "Tyrannosaur"). Work on Jennifer Saunders' TV comedy "The Life And Times Of Vivienne Vyle" followed, before Samantha Morton's harrowing made-for-TV directorial debut "The Unloved," which got a theatrical release, and much acclaim, in the U.S.
Even so, the kitchen sink drama of that film meant he wasn't an obvious choice for the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, and Cornish even admits that his producers held some reservations: "...they...cautioned me that using a comparatively less experienced (in terms of features) DoP would be a harder sell to the investors. In truth, as soon as everyone met Tom and saw his work, they were immediately as convinced as I was that he was the man for the job." And indeed, it turned out to be a stroke of genius; Townend could bring the grit, but he also brought a sense of color (and some astonishing lighting) that helped the film straddle the real and the fantastical.
Townend explained his approach to U.K. site The Incredible Suit, telling them that it was in part inspired by the low-budget lighting of films like "Escape From New York" and "The Terminator." "They didn’t have the resources to relight acres of city streets, and at the time municipal lighting in the U.S. was mostly mercury vapour lamps which appear as a green blue, as opposed to sodium vapour lamps which are orange. There’s bold use of colour throughout the film, in both the production design and costume, and it made sense for the lighting to follow suit. Street lighting is artificial by definition, and Joe wanted us to push saturated colour as far as would look plausible – partly as a reaction to the historically dingy and monochrome look of low budget British film-making, and also to up the ‘fun’ quotient."
Up the fun quotient it did, and it was one of the most distinctive-looking films of last year. Since then, surprisingly, Townend doesn't seem to have worked on another feature, but he's been busy -- one of his most recent credits was on an ad for Hiscox Insurance directed by "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" helmer Tomas Alfredson, demonstrating how he's come to the attention of big-name directors now, something only helped by him winning the Best Cinematography prize at the MTV Music Video Awards for his work on Adele's omnipresent, yet still awesome "Rolling In The Deep" clip. He's also hugely knowledgeable and uncompromising about film on his must-follow Twitter account @prarie_oysters, and took part in a discussion with FilmCritHulk about action cinema that displays what a master in his field he appears to be.