Pro video blog…Produced by Philip Johnston DoP/Editor

Day ONE…Wednesday afternoon 9th December 2009

I had been asked by Sam from the BBC if I could meet up with Director of Photography (DP) Graham Smith to make sure we were both happy with the setup. I turned up with my gleaming 15″ hi-brightness prompter but it soon became apparent that the 7″ standard lo-tech prompter would suffice.

Technical… The camcorder was Graham’s Sony 750 with a 35mm adapter, wireless pull focus and Arri prime lenses.

Day TWO… Thursday 10th December 2009

Hunterston House in Ayrshire was to be my first day with the crew and the thing I was not prepared for was the temperature, it was baltic, the catering van was 1st port of call for hot food and cups of warm tea, seemingly when you live in such a big old fashioned house as you can appreciate it’s very hard and expensive to keep warm so you only heat the rooms you are living in. I was freezing most of day one and had stupidly put on a pair of trainers thinking inside a big old house would be warm !

Most of the interior shots you see in this production were shot in 3 locations in Scotland, Hunterston House in Ayrshire, Ardgowan house near Greenock and Effingee Studios in Glasgow. The old houses fascinated me they have rooms that are not used so the prop department has cart blanch to re decorate or sometimes re design the room to fit in with the period.

Two things fascinated me firstly was the ability of the focus puller Sue to get it right on so many occasions…she would use an old fashioned tape measure hooked onto the Sony 750 which was positioned at the sensors plane which is marked on most pro camcorders for this very use, then she would take the other end to the actors face…now thats fine if you are going to pull focus from a static position ‘A’ to a a static position ‘B’ but most of Grahams shots involved the dolly so you have an unknown speed travelling along a track and by some genius on Sue’s behalf few shots were spoiled by lack of focus.

Thought a picture of this amazing lady ‘Sue’ should come in about now, from memory I don’t think she has been focus pulling for much longer than about  10 years but I take my hat off to Sue as she was a shear delight to watch.

The other person worth watching was Nick Green the lighting director, he works closely with the DP in every shot creating fantastic lighting moods that  look natural not setup. I watched as a freezing cold room was transformed into a Mediterranean sun lit room which was very confusing for my body as we were in the grip of a cold spell reaching -7º and little to no heating.

What did I learn…lots about lighting and using ‘flags’ as they are called to deflect light, we are always taught when  lighting to diffuse, close down the barn doors, bounce the light…only the wizards like Nick treat lighting like a  paintbrush and taking it to the 2nd level…not all light is wanted and most of us spend or waste time messing about with stray lighting trying to light your subject forgetting that you have the ability to take light away as well as add it to a scene.

Flaggs are nothing fancier than sheets of black foam board that you position in front of a light to cast a shadow, taking  the edge off a certain part of your scene. You can watch Van Gogh “Painted with Words” on BBC ONE today (Monday) at 17.10

Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Van Gogh was a delight to work with and a true professional, the amount of dialogue he had to remember was amazing although he had a prompter he rarely needed it.


Having been working in the video business since 1988 I have amassed a great amount of knowledge of both the kit and production values over the last 30 years.

4 thoughts on “Van Gogh “Painted with Words” BBC Docu-Drama…Filmed during December 2009

  1. Hi Kayleigh, It sure gave us a better January, financially, that’s for sure. PS. That’s why I took photographs on day one, firstly for Graham the DP and secondly to help pad out my blog.

  2. Hi there!
    I am not sure wether you will receive this comment or not, since this is such an old post. But just wanted to thank you for sharing such an interesting story behind this wonderful documentary. 🙂
    I live in Lisbon, Portugal and I have been searching for so many online stores to try and buy the DVD for this inspiring story. Do you have any idea of where can I find a copy?

    Thank you so much for any help that you can give me with this.

    Best wishes,

  3. Still freezing as ever here except on the top floor where I live, we are just getting our own film website together finally after all these years of dodgy dvd’s for promo.
    Any stills of BC for the site would be great if it is allowed ! Angus

    HDW : Just got to look them out for you and email down to you, I took them…my copyright…The assistant producer was not happy thought I was being amateurish taking pictures he did not appreciate or care I was running this blog and the pictures were for an article, I even withheld them till the transmission date. The DoP took pictures and was never questioned once, the usual pecking order nonsense, I hope I never meet that pillock again.

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