Shot In Chelsea – Q&A with Dean Gray

Dean Gray is a Director of Photography and member of The Guild of Television Camera Professionals. With over a decade of experience and an immense passion for delivering beautiful, thought-provoking imagery, Dean has filmed across a wide spectrum of genres and platforms in the UK and internationally.

He has filmed with numerous high profile music artists such as Dua Lipa, Sam Smith and Kylie Minogue as well as for brands and record labels such a MTV, Red Bull, Universal Records and Warner Music.

Dean has also filmed numerous commercials, TV series and documentaries, but his most recognised work is featured on the BAFTA winning series, Made In Chelsea.

Please tell us about your earlier days before you got behind the camera. What inspired you towards photography?

From an early age, I used to find myself looking at landscapes and architecture, finding symmetry and patterns that captured my imagination. I was naturally practising composition of an image from a young age and I think it was around the age of 15 that I knew I needed to work in the visual arts and that it had to involve a camera of some form.

How did you enter the career of TV filming?

After finishing a media production degree in 2001, I worked as a runner at ITV. Whilst there, I met a director who put me in touch with Picture Canning (a camera facilities company in Wandsworth) who I joined in 2003. My role was a kit room technician, which involved maintaining broadcast cameras ready for clients to hire. This allowed me to build a strong technical understanding of the latest camera technology and was a superb confidence builder, as I was borrowing cameras on weekends to shoot my own projects. I also camera assisted for various Directors of Photography gaining valuable on set experience. After Picture Canning, I spent a short time working in Dubai for Atlas Television before returning to the UK to join Procam Television. It was here that I made a big push to shoot lots of projects in my spare time. My best friend was an aspiring music video director at the time, so we shot lots of music videos together which I would always make a point of showing to my mangers. This paid off, Procam added me to their list of in-house crew and I started to camera operate on a wide range of TV shows, building up my own client base. In 2009 I went freelance as a camera operator and it’s been the most rewarding career.

What are the main differences in techniques and technology used between still photography, videography for TV and cinematography?

That’s an interesting question because aside from the technological differences between still photography and moving image, the actual techniques and visual grammar used in all 3 disciplines are very similar. In particular, understanding the nature of light and the many different methods you can use to manipulate light to create different artistic expressions is a fundamental skill set that spans all these disciplines.

Please explain your role as Director of Photography and what does a typical working day look like?

My role as a Director of Photography is not only about delivering the director’s vision, but to also offer guidance and a view on how a sequence is filmed. It’s my job to select the correct cameras, lenses, lighting selection and camera team, to enable the director to achieve their vision and then deliver a final product that surpasses expectations.

As I work across a wide spectrum of genres, each day can vary hugely. That said, the pattern of a working day is similar. I’m a new parent, so I’ll often arrive on location having had at least 3 coffees, then it’s a discussion with the director and crew about what the day ahead involves, any time pressures we need to be aware of and how best to shoot and light what we are filming. A typical shoot day is 12 hours, which sounds quite long, but if we happen to be outside or on locations with uncontrollable natural light, I’m often acutely aware of where the sun is and how long we have left before we start ‘losing the light’. Regardless of the shoot, I try and create a calm environment on set, as ideally you want directors, producers and the on screen talent to enjoy working with you.

In terms of how the audience can enjoy your recordings at their best, can you share your opinions on display formats such as LCD TV, OLED TV or projected images? What would be the ideal way of watching your content?

In a dream scenario, every viewer would have a large display setup that reproduces the contrast ratios, colour palette and composition that you’ve created on set, as accurately as possible. But now, alongside traditional display formats like OLED TVs or cinema screens, you now have content being broadcast on social media, which is typically viewed on mobile phones. A mobile phone does not deliver the same viewing experience as watching a recording on a large, high resolution display, but it’s now becoming a large part of how audiences view content and it’s another element that I need to be aware of early on in the production process.

How did you get involved in filming for Made In Chelsea? How does the photography contribute to its award-winning success?

I was asked to camera operate for a Director of Photography friend on Series 2 of Made In Chelsea and I continued in the camera operator role for 7 more series, before stepping up as Director of Photography. I’ve been lucky enough to film in some stunning locations around the world and I’ve made some great friends working on the show. It has also helped push my career forward, as clients often approach you wanting to recreate the Made in Chelsea ‘look’.

I think because we shoot Made in Chelsea in an almost drama like fashion, with lots of attention to detail in how scenes are lit and framed, viewers can enjoy all the drama, gossiping and love lives of the cast, played out within locations and environments that look aspirational and luxurious and it’s this combination of drama and eye-pleasing visuals, that probably makes for quite an intoxicating mix for the audience.

The photography style of Made In Chelsea has evolved over the decade and most recently, the hand-held camera technique was employed for many shots – what factors influenced this and how was this received by viewers and your friends and peers?

I think this change came about after feedback that the show was starting to feel too staged and not real and so adding hand-held cameras techniques was seen as a way to make it feel more organic and real. It certainly adds an extra layer of complexity to how we film larger scenes, as the producers now want the cameras to be more fluid and reactive to the action, which means that the placement of lighting needs to be very carefully considered to be able to maintain the high standards of the show, whilst also allowing action to unfold without pauses for lighting tweaks or changes.

Filming for Made In Chelsea has continued during the pandemic – can you share some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome? Can you share any particularly memorable experiences?

Yes, we have been fortunate to be able to continue filming. I remember my first day back on Made in Chelsea in August 2020 walking onto location and being issued a face mask, hand sanitiser and meeting our Covid supervisor. After 3 months of worry and stress about not having an income, the sense of relief to be working again was enormous.

Can you share any advice for those seeking a career in the TV and Film industry?

My main piece of advice to anyone looking to start a career in the camera department is to practise your craft as often as possible. Everyone now has a high-quality camera built into their phones, so even if you don’t have access to a broadcast quality camera, you have a tool in your pocket that can really help you develop an eye for a frame. I’ve made so many mistakes shooting my own projects, but it’s the endless hours of shooting, lighting and reviewing the work that allows you to start to develop confidence in your abilities.

Finally, please share some of your favourite TV shows and movies.

In terms of TV drama, I’m a huge fan of Chernobyl. The cinematography and soundtrack combine beautifully to create a sense a of tension and unease that never seems to let up. It stayed with me long after viewing.

A film that again stayed with me long after viewing was ‘Let The Right One In’ (the Swedish original) which is set in a snowy Swedish suburb of Stockholm. It’s a blend of horror, thriller, love story and again the cinematography creates an atmosphere that draws you into a cold, bleak and uneasy world and never lets go. The final act will live long in the memory, I’ll say no more!

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