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Steven Hall - From 'War & Peace' to 'Tom & Jerry'

04.02.2022

 

UK-based Steven Hall has worked with some of the most established and talented names in the film and TV industries, working on productions of all sizes and budgets at locations around the globe. His work includes Star Wars, Dr Who, Gladiator, The Imitation Game, War & Peace, Swallows and Amazons, War Horse, Yesterday, Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street, plus Disney’s Dumbo (2019) and Warner Bros’ live-action movie, Tom & Jerry (2021). Steven has been a full voting member of BAFTA for more than 10 years. We spoke to Steven as he travelled between locations, to discover more about his career and how Billingham products play an essential part in his daily working life.

 

Steven Hall. Photo by Giles Keyte.

Steven Hall on the set of 'FURY' Oxfordshire, 2013. Photo by Giles Keyte. 

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and the earliest influences on your career?

I was born in East London in 1959. We were a very working class family and neither of my parents or anyone else in my family had any creative ability or ambitions. We owned a camera, used mostly for family holidays, and my first exposure to photography was being able to carry the camera to the beach and take the odd posed picture of my mum and dad. Perhaps the desire to work with cameras came from that? Like many kids of my generation, I went to the local cinema for ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ - a three hour collection of live action films and cartoons, where parents could drop off their children and go shopping (or in my case, on the bus with a group of mates – I’m not sure my parents even knew I went!) However, I do remember my dad taking me to watch the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks (in about 1968). Seeing that magical film hugely influenced my life-long love of cinema. It’s still one of my top ten favourite movies of all time.

 

Have you always been keen on photography? How did your interest begin?

As a teenager and working in a printer’s factory, I bought two items pretty quickly with my first few weeks’ wages: a car and a camera. In the late 1970s, there was a series of TV and cinema commercials promoting the popular vermouth drink Martini. The commercials featured handsome young men living a ‘Martini lifestyle’: flying to exotic places around the world, spending lots of time in speed boats and sports cars, and always accompanied by beautiful women. At that time, this was the lifestyle that I assumed working in photography would offer - and the lifestyle I believed that all photographers lived! I thought this was the lifestyle I wanted, too. All that was stopping me was a lack of talent and any knowledge of how to make a living out of a camera!

 

We believe you started as a photographer’s assistant for several highly-respected names in photography, including John Swannell, Patrick Litchfield and Brian Griffin. Which of these inspired you the most, and why?

To achieve the ‘Martini lifestyle’, I needed to get into photography. Unfortunately, hundreds and hundreds of other young men were also hankering after the same lifestyle and there was a lot of competition to get a job at an established studio. Instead, I landed a job as a sales assistant in the rental department of a London camera shop. There, I met many established photographers and assistants. It was a very short-lived career and I used the contacts I made to start working as a freelance photographer’s assistant in London. That was the beginning! Everyone I worked with inspired me in their own way, and the work they were doing - a mixture of fashion, editorial features, cars, etc. - gave me an overview of technique and style. Perhaps, most importantly, I saw how photographers chatted to their subjects, how they directed models and how they interacted with other creatives. From what I saw, making a living in photography was all about talent and technique, and being the kind of person that people would want to spend time working with. Wrap those attributes in confidence, and there you have it.

 

Steven Hall with Billingham 445 on location in Czech Republic TV Show 'Britannia'. Photo by Stanislav Honzik.
Steven Hall on location with faithful 445 bag in the Czech Republic on the TV show 'Britannia'. Photo by Stanislav Honzik. 

 

Did you study photography/filmmaking or have any formal training?

While working in the printer’s factory (but dreaming of having a ‘Martini lifestyle’) I enrolled on a photographic course at the local further education college. This is the only formal training and instruction I’ve ever had, but it didn’t lead to achieving any kind of qualification (the only formal qualification I have is in sailing – more on that later!)

 

You have worked with many high profile directors over the years, such as Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and more. Can you tell us what you enjoyed most about those experiences, and your most memorable moments?

It has been a real privilege to work with so many different directors, especially those who directed films that were big influences on me prior to getting into the industry. Memorable moments? Here’s one of many: walking through a field in Hampshire a few years ago and the assistant director on the production I had just started working on as a VFX DOP introduced me to a bearded chap wearing a baseball cap. “Steven, this is Steven,” he said - and with that introduction, I then shook hands with Steven Spielberg!

 

 

Billingham 445 in Lithuania - Photo by Steven Hall
A peaceful spot on ‘War & Peace’. Lithuania, 2015. Bag shown is a Billingham 445.

 

We read that the Hollywood blockbuster Jack the Giant Slayer was your first stereo/3D movie. Can you describe how that was made, and your role in shooting it?

Jack the Giant Slayer was the first, and hopefully the only, ‘shot-in-3D’ movie I’ll ever work on. The whole fad for shooting in 3D has hopefully gone away now that post-3D is so much easier and just as effective.

 

 

Billingham 445 bag on location in Botswana whilst directing 'A United Kingdom'. Photo by Steven Hall.
My faithful Billingham 445 bag on location with me in Botswana where I was Directing and DP'ing the 2nd Unit on the movie 'A United Kingdom'. Photo by Steven Hall. 

 

 

What has been the most challenging production that you have ever created or worked on?

Every production has its own different set of challenges. It could be the location, the weather, the people you’re working with, or a combination of all three. Equipment failure or difficult actors are the most frustrating (but not necessarily in that order!)

 

 

 

Prologue to 'THOR - The Dark World' Marvel Studios / Ent. Released just prior to the film to act as a bridge between 'Thor' and 'Thor - The Dark World'. Steven shot this prologue as part of his role as Additional DOP / VFX DOP on the latter. Combining live action and VFX elements - incl. some that he shot in Norway prior to principal photography.

 

 

We read that you will be directing a feature movie called A Pair of Silver Wings starring William Hurt, based on the story by James Holland. Can you give us some more details about this film?

I’ve been attached to this project for three years. It will be my first feature film as a director. It’s been a pretty long and sometimes frustrating road of development and financing so far, as well as the forced hiatus in the proceedings caused by the COVID situation. It’s a really good script and will encompass all the skills I’ve learnt from the other 43 films I’ve worked on over the past 30 years.

 

Which photographic equipment do you prefer to use, and why? 

My iPhone is the only piece of personal photographic equipment I carry now. It has everything on it that I need and I can make phone calls with it. I do, however, still carry a light meter and a spot meter.

 

 

 

Billingham 445 in Czech Republic - Photo by Steven Hall
On location for the TV show 'Britannia' in the Czech Republic. Bag shown is a Billingham 445.

 

 

From the photos you have sent us and shared on Twitter, we know you are a Billingham fan (thank you!), can you tell us how you first came to use a Billingham bag?

My relationship with a Billingham Bag started over 40 years ago. I was working as a freelance photographic assistant in London in the late 70s and early 80s and the bag was my first major self-employed business expense. It really was a huge investment at that time - I can’t remember which model it was, but it had the pouches that could be added to provide more storage space. Instead of being filled with cameras and lenses (they would come later), I filled it with numerous bits and bobs: flags, tapes, tools, etc. I would turn up at various studios and locations with my kit bag and provide an efficient and well-equipped service, often as an additional assistant to well-known photographer’s full-time assistants. In addition to the photographers mentioned earlier, I worked with Peter Sherriff, John Robert Young, Graham Young and many more. As my career progressed I started to shoot commissions for a variety of magazines - especially the Sunday Express Magazine and Creative Review – so, on certain days, out went the assistant’s tools and in went an SLR camera, rolls of film and a meter. This switching of roles for the bag continued as I built my reputation as a photographer. I kept the same bag but moved up to a medium format camera, and as time went by, the need to swap assistant’s tools for cameras became less frequent. Then, one day, disaster struck! My car was broken into in London and the whole bag was stolen. I lost everything: my Hasselblad, my Nikon and my bag. Billingham bags are so well made that I’m sure, laying somewhere at the bottom of the Thames, is what’s left of what was my 10-year-old bag, the contents of which were all probably sold in a pub for a few quid!

One of the scenes that Steven worked on as 2nd Unit Director of Photography from the new Tom and Jerry movie.

 

 

How did this experience impact your choice of career, and what did you do next?

During my time as a photographer’s assistant, I received a call to assist a photographer who was shooting some stills on a film at Elstree Studios in London. He’d never used a 10x8 plate camera and the specific photo he was shooting needed to be shot on that format. The photo would form an important story point in the movie. I’d never been on a film set and I’d certainly never met Stanley Kubrick, but there in the film The Shining is the photo I had worked on over several days. The theft of all my equipment, and remembering the excitement of being on a film set, prompted me to change direction and I started working as a camera assistant on whatever film shoots I could. The British Telecom Film Unit was one of my very early ‘clients’. As a film camera assistant, a whole lot of different tools were purchased, gathered together and put into my new Billingham Bag - the very same 445 model I still use today. Film cans, French flags, negative report sheets, gaffer tape… the whole bag filled to the brim with all manner of specialised stuff. As I moved up the grades within the camera department to camera assistant, clapper loader, focus puller and so on, the work became more serious and the contents of the bag changed according to the grade and production. The same bag was now working with me on TV commercials, TV dramas and feature films, travelling the world with me.

 

 


Commercial for XBOX 'Kinect Sports II' - one of the most complex commercials Steven has ever shot.

 

 

What role does your Billingham bag play in your daily work today?

I no longer carry tools or cameras in my Billingham. The very same 40-year-old 445 bag now carries scripts, schedules and a MacBook – all still travelling the world with me as I work on film and TV productions as a 2nd Unit Director and 2nd Unit DOP. The bag is always with me. By my rough calculations, it has travelled to more than 30 countries! I’ve worked on 43 feature films, including Gladiator, Star Wars, War Horse and The Imitation Game, but sadly the bag isn’t credited on any of them.

 

 

All 3 boys about to board the family yacht with their Billingham bags. Photo by Steven Hall.

Steven Hall's three sons - each with their own Billingham boarding the family yacht in 2016. Left to right: Ollie (a serving British Army Officer) with a Hadley Pro, Harry (TV Commercials Director & Photographer) with a Hadley Large and Tom (Junior Creative & Promo Director for a major UK terrestrial broadcaster) with a Hadley Pro. Steven and his wife Janie gave each of the boys a Billingham bag when they went to university. They all still use the bags regularly.

 

 

You told us that Billingham bags now run in the family. Tell us more!

In 1991, our first son, Harry, was born. I was busy working in film and TV at the time. When I came home from being on location, there would always be a present for him in the bag – so his own love of Billingham Bags started early! Ripple dissolve to today, and all three of our sons are avid fans of Billingham. My wife Janie and I gave each of the boys a Billingham when they went to university. Our youngest, Tom, took his Hadley Pro on his gap year to the Far East (and managed to bring it back). He now takes it to the studio and edit suite where he works as a junior director and creative for a national terrestrial broadcaster. Our middle son took his Hadley Pro to the Far East on his gap year, and then the same bag went with him to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and then on to his regiment when (where?) he commissioned as a serving British Army Officer. Coming full circle, Harry – who now works as a commercials director and photographer – brings presents back for his partner in his own 445 bag. His scripts and storyboards are carried in his Billingham bag, just like me (he is also the only one in the family to own both a 445 and a Hadley).

 

 

Steven Hall and sons at the BAFTA awards with their Billingham Bags.

 

Steven Hall and 2 of his sons at BAFTA in London where Steven has been a voting member for over 10 years. Photo by Janie Swerling. Steven (left) and Harry (right) are each carrying a 445 bag - Harry's is much newer!

  

 Tweet from Steven Hall sharing his son's work that was one of the 100 images accepted to the National Portrait Gallery's 'Hold Still' project.

 

 

We read that you have recently been directing and DPing the 2nd Unit on a new Netflix production. Can you give us any details and let us know when that will be live?

In from The Cold will be on the small screen at the end of this year. I spent four and a half months in Madrid directing and shooting the 2nd Unit on it. Here is a quick description from the Netflix press release regarding the story: ‘On a European vacation with her daughter, an American single mom’s life is turned upside down when the CIA forces her to confront her long-buried past as a Russian spy.’

 

 

445 Billingham camera bag on location in Iceland. Photo by Steven Hall.

My ever present 445 bag on location with me in Iceland in 2021. Photo by Steven Hall. 

 

 

Can you give us a sneak peek into any projects you are currently working on, or planning for later this year?

Non-disclosure agreements prevent me from talking about current projects, but I have just been shooting in Iceland and Greenland for a big budget studio movie that will be out in late 2022. (I’m about to go to Antarctica on the same production) and I have just started prep on a Netflix movie which will shoot in the UK and Portugal.

 

If you could give one piece of advice to budding DOPs of the future, what would it be?

Now that technology allows it, I would shoot as much as you can and not necessarily spend too much time going through the ranks as I did. Certainly get some experience of how the industry works (as a camera trainee, for example), but shooting and putting a reel together so that people will hire you as a DOP is so very easy now. Getting your reel in front of the people who will hire you and then gaining their trust is the tricky bit. Persistence and hard work on that front will ultimately pay off.

 

If you could have done one thing differently in your career, what would that have been?

I would have been a Property Developer or an Investment Banker!

  

Finally, if you ever have time to relax within your busy schedule, what are your favourite hobbies or pastimes?

I do get plenty of time to relax… it’s called unemployment. I sail our yacht on the east coast of England as often as I can (I’m a qualified skipper). I’m a qualified skipper. I’m also a football fan, so I watch and go to football as regularly as possible. My passion is my wife and our children, and spending as much time as possible with them all.

 

 

 

Footnote:

Steven Hall can be found at:

Web site: https://www.stevenhalldop.net/

IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0356126/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/StevenHallDOP

Harry Hall can be found at: https://harrygeorgehall.net

 

 

 

Bags featured in this article

 

 

Billingham Hadley Pro Camera Bag (Khaki Canvas / Tan Leather)

 

 

 

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