“The manifesto was: let’s trust our heritage, our talent and each other”: Shabier Kirchner on shooting Small Axe

The cinematographer (and director) explains how and why he chose a different film or digital format for each film in Steve McQueen’s series of films about Black British history.

Small Axe co-writer and director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner

▶︎ The five Small Axe films are on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK and on Amazon Prime in the US.

The day before cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and writer-director Steve McQueen were scheduled to prep Lovers Rock, one of five films in McQueen’s Small Axe series, Kirchner was celebrating Carnival in Notting Hill for the first time outside the Caribbean. (The native Antiguan, known abroad for shooting films like Skate Kitchen and Sollers Point (both 2018), also shot and directed the short film Dadli, and is slated to direct an adaptation of Kei Miller’s novel Augustown as his first feature.)

“I’m there wrapped in my Antiguan flag and completely entranced by the energy between West Indian people,” Kirchner remembers. He danced until the sun went down and persisted deep into the night. McQueen took one good look at him the next morning and knew what he had been up to.

Read more in our December 2020 issue

Steve McQueen talks Small Axe and the Britain it was born from with David Olusoga. Plus personal reactions to the series by Candice Carty-Williams, Kehinde Andrews, Gary Younge, Jay Bernard and Kit de Waal.

Find out more and get a copy

“I brought all of that with me into the conversation,” Kirchner says of the day’s festivities. The two related their experiences and the conversation became a “stake in the ground” for the aesthetic they developed for Lovers Rock. Kirchner shot all five films in McQueen’s Small Axe series, based on various true stories and experiences of London’s West Indian community from the 70s and 80s. They approached each film individually and shot them all on entirely different film or digital formats. Lovers Rock takes place almost entirely on the dance floor of a house party, so Kirchner and McQueen “tethered” themselves “to how the nights would crescendo based on the tempo of the music and energy”, riding off the adrenaline of Carnival.

“We knew very quickly that we wanted this to be a party that we were invited to,” Kirchner goes on. To keep up with the tempo, Kirchner shot digital on an Arri Alexa so he could record long takes and lit the environment from above so that the actors could move freely in the space, rather than restricting them with constant adjustments or posting lights at their sides. “The same way an actor gets into character when they put on their wardrobe, I’m trying to provide a space that helps them embody their character.” This rhythmic, intuitive process was a rare through line in the making of the Small Axe films. “The manifesto was: let’s trust our heritage, our ancestry, our talent and each other to get us where we need to go,” Kirchner says.

Kirchner with script supervisor Phoebe Billington and Steve McQueen filming Lovers Rock (2020)

He recalls a pivotal scene in Mangrove, about the Black activists taken to trial for protesting the police raids on the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, where Altheia (Letitia Wright) tries to convince Frank (Shaun Parkes), the restaurant’s owner, to keep fighting. McQueen needed the actors to lead this scene, so Kirchner again lit the environment for them and the camera to move freely. Because Mangrove was captured on 2-perf 35mm film that was ‘pushed’ and ‘pulled’ [over- and under-developed] in processing to feel more “handmade” and “community built”, rather than on digital, Kirchner couldn’t see the footage right away. So he worried the footage might come out too dark, or worse, completely underexposed: “I might have just ruined one of the best performances I’ve ever seen,” he remembers worrying to himself. But the scene turned out. It was slightly dark but appropriately so, and the trust in intuition and the unknown, which McQueen encouraged, had paid off.

Kirchner filming Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe on the set of Mangrove (2020)

Intuition also led them to discoveries like the shot in Red, White, and Blue where Leroy Logan (John Boyega) sits alone in the police locker room with his face reflected on the lockers. It was a shot Kirchner accidentally discovered after the day had ended, which concisely portrayed Logan “reflected back in the institution” that he had fought from the inside to reform. Kirchner and McQueen opted to shoot on cleaner 3-perf 35mm for Red, White, And Blue, for an “unfussy” look that focused on Boyega’s performance.

Alex Wheatle, a biopic of the novelist, fluctuated tones and covered the scope of Wheatle’s life from his youth onwards, so Kirchner captured the film on the large-format Sony Venice camera, whose field of view allowed him to “have Alex in a beautiful close up but see the entire world around him at the same time”. 

Education, about a young boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) who’s tossed around the educational system, was shot on 16mm like the BBC films of the 70s. The impetus was “not rewriting history, but writing us into history,” Kirchner explains. “When you ask Steve why he made Small Axe for television, he says it’s because he wanted his mum to see it. He wants her to switch on the BBC and see our stories there on the screen in the living room. That is something that Black people got robbed of the chance of seeing.”

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