Shooting with the stars

Behind the Lens speaks exclusively to DOP/Lighting cameraman Paul Bomber Harris who has worked with stars such as Ellie Goulding, The Vamps, Black Sabbath and Gregory Porter.
He tells us how his career kicked off in the 1990’s and also gives advice to readers who would like to train as a DoP.

Hi Paul. Can you tell me how your career as a DoP started?
I started my career in the industry way back in 1990 after leaving school at 16. Not knowing what I wanted to do, I moved to London with the total support of my parents and started work at Limehouse Television in Wembley. I was a runner for two years doing shows such as ‘Have I Got News For You’, ‘The Word’, ‘Dance Energy’, ‘Harry Enfield and Chums’ and pop promos including the Unplugged series on MTV. I was also fortunate enough to have worked on the video for Queen’s song ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ – what was then Freddie Mercury’s penultimate video before sadly passing away. It was at this time I remember seeing the Director of Photography (DoP) working on this, and saying to myself: “that’s what I want to do”.
While I was still a runner, I camera assisted on the show ‘The Word’. The company I was then working for went into receivership on 31st December in 1992 and I became a freelancer overnight when the production company, Planet 24, took on the entire crew as freelancers. Following this, I found my passion and started freelance camera assisting and working on sitcoms, music festivals, dramas and live music. Three years later, in 1995, I was lucky enough to be offered a 1-year trainee camera position at MTV in Camden and I operated on many music shows and interviews, which helped me quickly build up my camera skills and enabling my transition to become a freelance cameraman a year later. Always with the goal in mind to become a DoP, I looked to shoot as much single camera footage as I could to achieve this.

What advice would you give readers who are starting out on their careers?
It is so important to listen. Don’t pretend you know everything and always think: “I’m still learning”. This is the advice I’ve kept in mind and taken onboard throughout my career ever since it was given to me by David Fader at Limehouse and Chas Watts at Teddington Studios who I worked with during my 3 years of camera assisting.
Keep your head down and work hard. If you don’t know, ask. Always be on time and enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing and follow your passion, your motivation will soon fade and people around you will notice that you’re not driven by what you’re doing. Don’t ever underestimate freebies – they go a long way. Recently, I worked with an assistant called Evan Griffiths who helped me out on Dragons’ Den for a few days and on spotting his enthusiasm, I quickly got him on my shoots.

You recently worked on the Sky Arts’ show ‘Landscape Artist of the Year’. You used Sony’s F55 and FS7 cameras, can you tell me why you chose them?
I first started using Sony’s cameras in ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’s’ first series which was shot using the F800. When Sky Arts asked for a more filmic for this series, I automatically looked to Sony’s F55 as it was the natural crossover. It’s versatility and compact size not only delivered a cinematic look but its effortless adaptability meant it met our demand for quality. We were putting each of the seven cameras, all of which we rent from Procam, through their paces. Each camera experienced 6 ½ hours of footage each day in all weather conditions – from the rain in Scotland to the sunshine in Broadstairs – and it carried on shooting beautifully. And, Sony’s FS7 was used equally in this sense as a second unit camera.

Have you ever shot any music videos? What has been your favourite one to work on and what cameras did you use?
Yes, I’ve shot music videos as both a DoP and operator. I’ve shot Ellie Goulding, The Vamps, Black Sabbath and Gregory Porter, but my first DOP promo was my favourite. It was a shoot for Cowbell’s ‘Never Satisfied’ single which my friend, and first-time Director Bart Baker, shot. At the time, I remember asking another friend who I’d recently meet on a 35mm course at Beaconsfield Film School, Rod Marley, to 1st AC it with me. He was amazing. We used my Canon 5D MkII with Zeiss’ ZE lenses and shot natively in B&W on the camera, it was, and still is my favourite music video I worked on.

What would be your preferred digital camera of choice?
That’s a tough question as I believe in horses for courses. A lot of ARRI cameras are favourites for a lot of DoPs, and for me, their Alexa and Amira are beasts! However, after finding I could quickly navigate my way around Sony’s F55 and discovering that ‘The Crown’ was shot entirely on the F55 with vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses rehoused by True Lens Services (TLS), I am now set on Sony’s F55 as my preference with the ARRI a very close second.

Who are some of your influences in the industry?
Growing up watching classics like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Jaws’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Blade Runner’ and most recently, ‘The Revenant’, ‘Birdman’ and the drama ‘Peaky Blinders’, I have young and old influences. In each of these productions, the nature created by these DoPs is natural, allowing the camera to do the work and only using lighting to highlight. Jack Cardiff, Roger Deakins, Gordon Willis, Emmanuel Lubezki, Robbie Ryan and the epic talent that is George Steel all do this and it’s an approach which I love and have grown to adopt.

Have you had any scary moments throughout your career?
There are certainly some but I couldn’t possibly share them! However, many of these involve modern media, such as SxS and CF cards. There’s always that moment when handing over the rushes to the digital imaging technician and putting the new card into your camera and hitting the formatting button and then thinking “is this the card I’ve just shot on?”.

Finally, what’s next for you Paul?
Earlier in my career, a cameraman said to me: “We put images in a grey rectangle box, that’s all. If you love it, keep doing it”. I love filming and as long as my clients keep booking me, I’ll keep shooting. With the amazing luxury of filming all sorts of content, including children’s shows, live concerts, pop promos, short films and documentaries, it’s always varied.