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Doc Martin Gets the Super 16 Treatment

  • August 13, 2013

The popular UK television dramedy Doc Martin is back for its sixth season. The show follows a doctor, played by Martin Clunes, who after developing a crippling fear of blood, retrains as a GP. He moves to a quirky seaside town, where he opens a practice and quickly offends the locals with his poor bedside manner.

Doc Martin is filmed on location in the village of Port Isaac in Cornwall, England, where “apparently the sun always shines,” jokes the show’s director of photography Simon Archer, BSC. The cinematographer, who took over for Chris Howard, BSC after season 3, uses a full range of 16mm stocks on the series.

“KODAK VISION3 [50D Color Negative Film] 7203 can claim much of the credit for rendering often-inclement British weather conditions in such a way that the audience still believes it’s perpetually bright and sunny here,” says Archer.

Archer employs KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 7207 for daylight location interiors, and KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213 is the default studio stock.

“[KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film] 7219 often saves the day when we are chasing the light,” notes Archer. “It is usually my choice for night exteriors.”

This season’s camera package includes ARRIFLEX 416s mounted with a variety of ZEISS lenses, including Primes for STEADICAM and lowlight situations.

Archer has maintained the much-admired visual history established on the show by Howard, while also investing in his own preferences, working alongside directors Nigel Cole and Paul Seed this season, and Ben Bolt along with various guest directors during previous seasons.

“Anyone familiar with Cornish architecture will know how tiny the domestic spaces are, and how low the ceilings tend to be,” says Archer, citing this as one of the main challenges for the show’s production. “Our studio sets also reflect this tiny scale, so placing cameras and lights, and working with the art department to move furniture and props as a scene is filmed from different angles requires enormous reservoirs of Zen patience and calm headspace. An impulsive move can result in a concussion from contact with a low ceiling beam.”

Another challenge for Archer has been some extended grandstand scenes with long set pieces, and much of the cast outside during daylight hours. These scenes often take a couple of days to film. Demanding situations include the sun traversing the sky and weather changes. For Archer, maintaining a consistency of light is everything.

“If it’s all sun or all clouds, or all hazy scrim, that’s grand,” Archer explains. “But more often than not it’s a mix of all, and that means tons of technical lighting challenges for me and my team. I calculate to control as much as I can — as every cinematographer understands, but some are just luckier in other parts of the world with better weather. Ultimately, you do what you can to balance the changing conditions, but you cannot hold back the tide.”

Archer honed his craft at the UK National Film and Television School. While a student there in 1984, he was fortunate enough to intern with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC on Ladyhawke and Billy Williams, OBE, BSC on Dreamchild. “I loved their mastery of soft naturalistic lighting,” he recalls, “beautiful and cosmetic, yet never flat. I soon learned that emulating a master of light was not necessarily a route to producing pleasing images, but was merely copying another’s lighting technique. Without an eye and a taste of one’s own to know where the light belongs, one can end in the visual equivalent of Mickey Mouse in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ from Fantasia. He tries to conjure using his master’s spells, but it goes horribly wrong because he has no understanding or control. You can observe how a master works, but copying his techniques will not necessarily produce pleasing results without his vision of what he is trying to achieve. Developing one’s own takes time and practice.”

Archer’s work on Doc Martin can be seen when the final season of the series airs this fall.