The post-punk look: Dick Pope on remastering Mike Leigh’s Naked

As Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Naked returns to cinemas in a 4K remastering by the BFI, Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope talks to curator James Bell about the making of the film and the work to restore its distinctive ‘post-punk’ visuals.

Naked (1993)BFI National Archive

Cinematographer Dick Pope first worked with Mike Leigh on 1990’s Life Is Sweet, and has shot every feature Leigh has made since – theirs is one of cinema’s most enduring and essential partnerships. Now widely recognised as one of the most respected cinematographers of the past few decades, Pope first made his name on television documentaries in the 1970s, working on programmes shot all around the world for the BBC and Granada TV including ‘Disappearing World’ and their ‘World in Action’ series. He moved into music promos in the 1980s, shooting, among many others, promos for The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and for Kylie Minogue, Queen and Freddie Mercury. 

Among Pope’s films with Leigh is 1993’s controversial masterpiece Naked, which follows the ferociously articulate, charismatic but emotionally violent Johnny (David Thewlis) as he goes on the run over two days and nights in an unforgiving London. First he hides out at the Dalston house of his former girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), while at the same time seducing her fragile flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), before setting off on an extended nocturnal journey through the capital’s frightening underbelly. 

As anyone familiar with the film will know, Naked has a tough, highly distinctive look, and a colour palette largely comprised of cold blues, blacks and greens. This is largely due to Pope having applied what is known as the ‘bleach bypass’ process – something he’d seen the great cinematographer Roger Deakins use on 1984 (1984), on which Pope had worked as second unit director of photography. Bleach bypass is a chemical effect that involves skipping the bleaching function during the processing of colour film, which results in a black-and-white image over the colour image, and a desaturated look with high contrast and pronounced graininess to the image.

Dick PopeRichard Blanshard

As Pope says below, bleach bypass was crucial to giving Naked what he describes as its unmistakable “post-punk” look. It’s something he was adamant had to be foremost when the option arose to remaster the film with the BFI.

As the newly remastered version of the film returns to UK cinemas and to BFI Blu-ray, Pope reflects on the experience of making Naked, and of the process of remastering the film with colleagues such as the BFI’s film conservation manager Kieron Webb and Greg Fisher, colourist at Company 3, to return it to its full gritty glory. 

When the option came to remaster Naked with the BFI, what were the key things you wanted to correct?

It was less about correcting problems than the overall look – earlier remasterings weren’t true to the bleach bypass process; they didn’t have the grit, didn’t have the contrast or the deep blacks. More than anything, I wanted to get back as near to the original as possible. 

Did you go back to original prints of the film for reference? 

Yes. Greg [Fisher] and I had viewed an original print and made an overall grading with the look of bleach bypass built-in. It was a revelation and from the outset like being transported back to 1993 and seeing it from new again, true to the original. it was so different to any copy that I’d seen since the film was released.

Bleach bypass, of course, is only on the print. It can be applied to the negative, but no studio would ever allow that because, once it’s done, that’s it. If it was on the negative subsequent adjustments would have been made very difficult. Back then I worked with Clive Noakes at Metrocolor who was colour grader on most every film I ever shot on celluloid. It was a collaboration between us both, and also Paul Collard, Metrocolor’s [formerly Kays Film Labs] genius celluloid film chemist who developed the process for 1984, which Roger Deakins shot. I did some second unit shooting for Roger on that film and so I’d had this first-hand experience of the way bleach bypass works and looks.

So it was having worked with Roger Deakins on 1984 that gave you the idea to use the bleach bypass process on Naked? How did you present the idea to Mike?

Yes, my experiences on 1984 with Roger really enthused me towards it. Also, I had seen Terrence Davies’ films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), which were shot really well with that bleach bypass look, the latter by Michael Coulter. I loved those films, as well as the bleach bypass look of them.

Naked was the first opportunity I’d had to explore that. When we first discussed the project Mike Leigh told me he envisioned a kind of Dickensian nocturnal journey through the underbelly of London. I came out of doing many pop promos and documentaries. For instance I shot the promo for The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ which had that gritty, underbelly of London look – shooting in Wapping in the middle of the night. I thought the journey that Mike was describing could really work with bleach bypass. He wanted it to be really bold – I can’t remember if he used the word ‘extreme’, but he might have done.

I took that on board and subsequently shot some tests. Once Mike’s given me the seed of the idea I always shoot tests for him. During this time Mike is very much immersed with the actors in their long extended rehearsal period bringing the characters alive, but also frustrated by not being actually being behind the camera and shooting. So seeing these tests is something he really looks forward to, because they inform and inspire him regarding the potential of the film’s visual language. So once he sees the results and approves, he’s 100% behind the look, and on Naked he saw those tests, absolutely loved the bleach bypass – and apart from me, became its foremost advocate. Everybody on the film then worked together to make this extreme look work.

Naked (1993)BFI National Archive

The film’s palette is mostly blues, greys, blacks. Did you work closely with production designer Alison Chitty to keep it to colours that are served well by bleach bypass? 

Yes, for the tests, Alison had me photograph many possible colours painted on boards to see how they could work both individually and together within the effect of this process. But although the film is definitely stylised, it’s also very realistic. We shot those tests both interior and exterior, day and night, and plenty in Soho itself. We couldn’t really alter anything outside and just went for it. In fact, all the filming that we did in Naked outside was just as we found it, with very few lights – a guerrilla type of filmmaking, where a lot of it was handheld because the police wouldn’t allow us to put a tripod down in the Soho streets.

When we viewed the tests, the biggest discussion was about red, because [with the bleach bypass process] red doesn’t really resolve as red – it’s much browner and darker. For instance: lipstick. There was a lot that Christine Blundell, the makeup designer, had to deal with in terms of how the process resolves red on the human face and the iris of an eye can also look very black. Of course there were lots of things that couldn’t be controlled such as red buses, red neon, post and phone boxes etc, and we had to let them be, but where she did have control Alison would bring a brighter red to the palette – so the colour resolved nearer normal after the bleach bypass. For Lindy Hemming’s costumes of course it was also a problem as darker colours could easily go to black, so there were many challenges for all of us. 

They were some things that I did bring back in the restoration, and there’s some colouration from the original that I took out – for instance some of the green from the fluorescent lighting in the office block sequence when Johnny takes shelter with Brian, the security guard. I brought back that green so it wasn’t so strong, because when I revisited it, it looked excessive and took me out of the film. The only reason it was there originally was because I could do nothing about it. That whole building was lit by fluorescent lights and I couldn’t possibly change them all, but on this restoration I did get in there and take the green back a bit.

Were there any other examples where you made adjustments for the remastered version? 

Yes, the extra contrast resulting from the process meant some scenes featured very hot bright white walls. So in the remastering I muted some of those so they didn’t look so stark. I did some of this near the beginning when the waitress played by Elizabeth Berrington goes back to Sebastian (Greg Crutwell)’s dreadful post-modernist flat, and she says “It’s really cosy here.” 

Naked (1993)BFI National Archive

How much did you and Mike work together on the remastering? Did he entrust it to you? 

Yes, that’s more or less it. I think we started the work in early 2020 and with Mike present, viewed an original print. But after that the lockdown began and things stopped. But having watched it then, he had seen it and then entrusted me to basically get on with. He didn’t next see it until there was a digital version of it that I was mostly happy with.

But during that time we discovered issues with the film that caused a lot of fluctuation throughout. It’s a terrifying thing, how celluloid deteriorates over a period of time and why these remasterings are so important. The problem was not apparent on the original bleach bypass print so it had to be the original negative that had suffered, perhaps an ongoing chemical reaction after all these years. This issue had to be corrected by the BFI at a specialist company, based in Wales and because of the pandemic took about a year to rectify. 

There were a couple of other things that we discovered: like a large hair in the gate in one scene, and there was some scratching on the original negative, but in the end it was all resolved, and that’s the joy of remastering: you can and will deal with all that stuff, especially if you have the BFI’s painstakingly thorough and generous support.

I despair at the number of films that haven’t been restored or remastered – which are of course the vast majority – and I despair at the deterioration of celluloid. But it’s the same in the digital world – what’s it going to be like down the line in 20, 30 years’ time? What state are those digital versions going to be in? Naked was made in 1993, but that’s not that old, not in film terms. 100 years plus of cinema and here we are trying desperately to restore a film that was only shot less than 30 years ago.

Naked (1993)BFI National Archive

You mentioned Mike wanting Naked to be a journey through a Dickensian underbelly of London, and how it is stylised to a certain extent. Would you say that it is more so than some other films you’ve worked on with Mike?

Not really. It was the subject matter, the characters and the situations that determined the look of the film and the way it’s shot; it wasn’t that this film demanded a more stylised approach than in his other films. They’re all treated with the same regard.

Naked has definitely got a post-punk look to it. But again that’s partly what the subject matter was. I don’t kick off shooting one of his films knowing what the ending is, and it has to be said, neither does he. So we’re making it up as we go along, and the shooting style evolves from the previous scene we’ve shot. It’s very organic like that.

Would Mike ever say “Let’s look at this particular film as a visual reference”? Or is that just not his approach? 

No, we never really do that. We have in the past looked at other films before we’ve started shooting but they’ve never really led to anything very conclusive. It’s more about a dialogue, tests and then the nuts and bolts of actually shooting the thing and trying to be consistent with the look of it. It’s very much an original film, all his films are – each one unto itself, each project without references to other work.

The exterior nighttime scenes definitely evoke a Dickensian London. Like the scene where Johnny is walking around with Maggie (Susan Vidler) in the disused Victorian train station.

That was what was left of Shoreditch (I think) train station behind Brick Lane. It’s no longer there, and of course was derelict at the time. That big brick wall and arches – when he walks with Maggie and talks about sensing London’s underbelly beneath them – was also there, and when they’re at the little tea stall, and she asks him how old he is. And of course we moved around Soho to lots of different areas. There were various locations, but I always tried to make it look like one journey – the whole shooting style and the lighting was about trying to make it one piece.

There’s a well-told tale concerning one moment shooting on the streets of London, where David Thewlis was standing outside Leicester Square station in character as Johnny, and was approached by a friend asking him if he was okay, as he looked so out of it. Were you shooting that with hidden cameras?

Yes. If you come out of the main entrance to Leicester Square tube station on Charing Cross Road, there’s an island in the middle of the road where we erected something like a BT tent over the camera – one of those canvas red-and-white things, with a hole in it with only the lens sticking out. And when we were ready, and Mike was ready with David, we just turned on the camera and everyone outside the tent walked away around the corner, so no crew were visible, just the tent and David on a preordained mark for focus and that’s how that came about.

You decided to use Steadicam for the film’s famous final shot, of Johnny limping away down the street away from the house. Why did you choose to use that?

We’ve used it a couple of times down the years, but very rarely. To get the shot we needed to start right in there on the stairs of that Gothic house. David came right down towards the camera, so there was no way that we could do any conventional tracking shot that went right up the road.  We thought about doing it handheld but I didn’t believe that would work – it wasn’t fluid enough. So we decided to do it on Steadicam and it was a great decision because the Steadicam was right with him as he moved – it was like the camera was almost not there. We shot it near sunset for the best look.

In fact, it’s the visual opposite of the very first shot of the film, when Johnny and the woman are down that alleyway and the camera rushes right into them. I thought that should be on a track and dolly but Mike really didn’t want to do that. He wanted it handheld so that it was really jerky and violent. I was somewhat unhappy about doing it handheld, but he was absolutely right. It was a very, very violent shot.

The whole film seems to take place either at night or dawn or dusk. Did you actually shoot at those times? 

Yes, we did. In the case of the cafe where Johnny goes for breakfast with Brian (Peter Wight) and meets Gina McKee’s character, we shot there either at first light or at dusk. It was a winter shoot so it went dark early and I think some of the things where it was supposed to be first light were shot at last light. You can shoot and pretend for dawn or dusk but you have to be very careful. It’s the lack of people also – it was very empty. That was interesting because that whole area around the cafe was in Borough Market before it was done up. It’s amazing how rough it looked. When the market was closed there was no more than a porter’s café there then. It could have been all ripped down and redeveloped. It wasn’t, it was saved and look at it now.

As well as the exterior scenes of Johnny’s nocturnal wanderings through London, a lot of the film takes place inside the house, in quite tight setups inside small rooms. What were the challenges of filming those scenes? 

Mike Leigh and Dick Pope shooting Naked (1993)Simon Mein

That’s right. Like in this still [shown here]. We’re in this tiny bathroom where Johnny and Louise sit near the end of the film. One of the only places we could shoot from was with the camera mounted in the loo itself. It was either a case of ripping the toilet out or sitting on it! There were other scenes where we had to sink the camera down into the toilet even more. I love this photo, it’s toilet humour! It was taken by Simon Mein who takes all the stills on Mike’s films.

It’s often the case that the camera just has to be in one particular place on Mike’s films. We’re dealing with the reality of a location, there’s no floating this wall or that wall. There’s one in Naked in particular, which is the scene at the house just before Johnny leaves to go on his nocturnal journey. He’s in the sitting room, goes to the kitchen, goes up the stairs, goes back to the sitting room, in fact multiple times before he leaves and finally we look down on him as he pushes Sophie down onto the stairs and leaves. That was really difficult to get because it was a very narrow landing with little room to shoot from, leading off to the kitchen and living room. The only way David could get past us and go up the stairs was if we moved the camera.

The thing is, nobody knows that’s a tracking shot, but in fact we tracked continuously back and forth in order to see into those rooms. It’s the same in scene after scene in Mike’s films. His films are full of those invisible moves. People always think that the camera is locked down and doesn’t move in his films, like in the work of Ozu, but of course it does move. In the silhouette shot when Johnny is having his big rant at Brian about Nostradamus and the end of the universe, the camera is moving closer all the time into a much tighter shot, but it’s almost invisible, and you don’t realise it’s happening. That was what I tried to do – make it as invisible as possible, make it feel like you’re just being drawn in by the words, but the camera is actually moving in all the time.

Is Naked a film that you’re particularly proud of? 

Yes. One of my best memories of it was back in 1993. I was invited to the very first Camerimage Festival in Poland. Naked wasn’t in competition, but it was chosen for the general programme. There were some of the world’s finest cinematographers present including Sven Nykvist, Vittorio Storaro and Vilmos Zsigmond. The screening of the film was packed with cinematographers along with students from many film schools in Europe who squeezed into the aisles. After the screening It became apparent that the students had never seen anything quite like it before. They mobbed me in the auditorium then kidnapped me and took me to a smoky backroom where they demanded all I knew about everything to do with the making of the film and Mike Leigh’s method. Then at the end of the festival at the awards ceremony, the students mounted the stage and in a piece of pure agitprop, hijacked the proceedings and gave their own award to me for Naked, which is a beautiful piece I still have and treasure – a stained glass panel evoking Rosebud, the sled from Citizen Kane.

And a lot of those students went on to become the leading lights of cinema. as directors and cinematographers. So for me it’s a very special film, and has always carried a great resonance. My career took off as a result of it, because there were a lot of people who really loved it, especially American directors, who would call me up and I’d go over there and shoot a film with them. It did open up a lot of avenues for me.

Did you have a sense when you were making it that it would strike such a chord?

No, you never know with a film how it will be received. Obviously, I sometimes say to Mike how great I feel about certain scenes that we’re shooting, and when I saw Naked as a finished film it blew me away and I felt proud of it, but of course I didn’t know that it would strike as long-lasting chord as it has.

The film’s brilliantly directed and acted of course, but It’s also the way it was put together: it’s beautifully cut by the brilliant [editor] Jon Gregory, who so sadly died very recently, and the score that Andrew Dickson composed still raises the hairs on my back. From the very beginning of the film when Johnny’s in the car driving down to London and you first hear that harp – it’s art.

  • Naked has been newly remastered in 4K by the BFI National Archive and is in cinemas nationwide from 12 November. It will be released on BFI Blu-ray on 29 November.
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