Cooke railway4

Fifty years ago, one of British cinema’s best-loved family movies, 'The Railway Children', was released. Based on the 1906 novel of the same name by E. Nesbit, the story of the Waterbury family has been a favourite among audiences ever since.

The country landscapes and steam railways made famous by the original film are now returning to cinema screens in a sequel ‘The Railway Children Return’. Jenny Agutter, who played one of the children in the original film, reprises her role as Bobbie, now a grandmother, who takes in three young evacuees during World War 2.

The project presented a range of interesting creative and technical challenges to the DoP Kit Fraser, who intended to create a grittier, more realistic visual aesthetic for the new adaptation, while still following the style of the original film.

Cooke railway

Kit chose to shoot the project with the ARRI Alexa Mini LF camera largely for its size, as he wanted to shoot handheld, as well for as its format. The LF model outputs a high pixel count, which was necessary for theatrical and Canal+ distribution.

For lighting, the crew used combinations of daylight, tungsten lights, LEDs and HMIs, tailored to suit the specific shooting conditions on the day and to match the requirements of each scene. One of the main lighting challenges the crew faced was waiting for rain to stop so that they could continue shooting. They also had to work around the limited hours that the young actors were allowed to work each day, which required careful planning and coordination to make sure that the lighting remained consistent throughout the shoot.

When it came to deciding on the lenses to use for the film, Kit said, “As a production team, we wanted to pay homage to the original film while also updating the visuals. The director Morgan Matthews and I felt that anamorphics would give the film a more cinematic look as well, without looking overly glossy. This decision also allowed for a shallower depth of field and tight focus, which matched what Morgan was looking for.”

Cooke railway2

Kit has been using Cooke lenses since he started working in the industry in 2006, describing them as his choice for most of his projects. “For this production, I used Cooke FF 1.8x anamorphics as they allowed me to capture 90% of the sensor’s resolution in the standard Anamorphic 2.39.1 ratio, which was well within the distributor’s requirements. 2x anamorphic reduces the overall pixel count by 25% on a FF Sensor. Anything lower than 1.8x limits the Anamorphic characteristics in the image even further,” he said.

“These lenses allowed me to capture more information, and though I almost always use Cooke lenses, I invariably test them to show the directors how they will perform. In this case, they were evaluated against Hawk anamorphic lenses and Cooke sphericals, before we ultimately landed on the Cooke anamorphics.”

Made in England since 1894, Cooke lenses have been chosen by cinematographers since then for their distinctive fusion of sharpness, tonal warmth and depth. Each Cooke lens is hand-crafted using a combination of modern and traditional techniques with personal dexterity that come together to create the Cooke Look. Cooke is also the developer behind /i Technology, the protocol enabling vital lens and camera information to be captured and passed digitally to post-production teams.

Cooke railway3

“Cooke lenses give classic anamorphic flares that are softer and have the characteristics of older lenses without being too intrusive on the picture,” said Kit. “They are also kinder on the skin for different actors, rendering images more softly while also maintaining sharpness creating a beautiful aesthetic to the final picture. The Cooke Look certainly influences my overall ideas for the visuals of a project and is something I have returned to for many films.”

Mastering Motion Control

To help achieve some of the movie’s more exciting shots, Kit chose equipment from Mark Roberts Motion Control (MRMC), specialists in motion control, automation, broadcast robotics, volumetric and remote image capture.

Their Modula System is a modular rig that can be configured to meet a range of different shooting requirements. At one key point in the story, for instance, the Director wanted to recreate a scene from the original film – shot in the same location over 50 years before – in which the children must run to stop a train.

“With such specific requirements and scenes to shoot, we used motion control to help achieve realistic shots of the steam trains travelling past the cameras,” said Kit. “We wanted the audience to feel a real sense of danger for the character Thomas who was to run across the track in front of the approaching train. We also wanted to keep the camera moving to keep up with Thomas' pace and then come to a stop as he reached the middle of the track. We knew that we couldn't put a child so close alongside (and especially not in front of) a moving train.

MRMC Modula

“So, we opted to capture that shot in multiple, separate passes that we could composite together in post – one of Thomas running on his own without the train, one of the train's approach, and a clean pass to help the VFX team with any clean-ups and stitching they would need to do to put the action passes precisely together.”

This is why the role of the Modula rig was so important – to make sure the camera moves for each pass was the exactly same. It was also essential to protect the cameraman. Kit said, “We were using handheld cameras for a lot of the film and wanted to continue that sense of energy but knew that we couldn't run an operator in front of a moving train! The crew built the rig on scaffolding into the hillside beside the track to support the motion control rig on the uneven ground of the location and to maintain a consistent height for the base of the motion control rig throughout the shot. It allowed us to capture the pass of the train stopping close to the camera.”

As they were shooting on a live track, the crew was tasked with completing preparations on the day of the shoot. Even though the shot demanded incorporating all three elements – the lift column, turret, and arm and PTZ head, they found the controls for the camera movement and focus straightforward to use.

Kit commented, “Working on this project was a great opportunity to revisit a classic piece of British film-making. As ever, the choice of technology played a huge role, and by choosing equipment from Cooke and MRMC, we were able to capture the essence of the original production but also bring it fully up-to-date for a contemporary audience.”