There’s a lot of mud in The Essex Serpent, sometimes on screen, mostly underfoot. It sticks to the characters, sucking them into the landscape, preventing their escape. For the filmmakers this was as much a practical problem as it was a metaphor for the period tale of a London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) who investigate reports of a mythical serpent on the coast to the East of London in the county of Essex.
“In the Essex marshes the tides are extreme,” says director of photography David Raedeker, BSC. “Sometimes we had windows of no more than an hour on a dry patch before we had to get off or be completely covered in water. There was a lot of wind too, up to 50 mph at times. No monitor up would stand up in that. We had freezing actors and crew stuck in the mud.”
The six-part romantic drama is set in Victorian England and adapted by See-Saw Films from Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel for Apple TV+. It co-stars Tom Hiddleston as the local vicar who refuses to believe in the serpent, let alone that it’s an ill omen. When tragedy strikes, Cora is accused of attracting the creature.
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“We discussed the strong gothic element to this story,” the DP says. “We wanted this kind of comparison visually between the old and the new, between London as the seat of the new industrial age and the religious hinterland of Essex.”
An ARRI Alexa LF with DNA lenses vintages were used take the harshness off the sensor. “It’s very much a dream-like story, not crystal clear, almost like a vintage photograph,” he says.
They studied photography of the period including some of the first color plates as part of a 50-page Look Bible developed between the heads of department and involving Rob Farris, director of post production at London house Goldcrest. They developed LUTs to contrast scenes set in London with those in Essex.
In prep, Raedeker tested Steadicam and gimbals against massive wind machines blow straight into the camera. The conditions necessitated some handheld work since even a Steadicam would have blown out of position.
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“We did a lot of walk and talk shots which we don’t want to be jerky but when you’re handheld on that terrain was tricky so we used a gimbal for those,” he says.
“I wanted to get more into the mud but it was very difficult. You’d sink almost up to your chest if you waded in. I had huge shoes like moon boots to walk on it so we didn’t have the time in between the tides to get into position and do complex setups.”
They filmed some scenes on an island with a small hut that was only accessible by boat or by walking two hours between tides.
“It was hard to get to and it meant we could only take limited crew numbers. All around us was mud. You couldn’t leave the grass otherwise you became quite literally stuck in the mud.”
The scenes in Essex were largely shot with natural light with additional battery powered lamps. There was no way they could cart a generator over the mud nor stabilize any form of large lighting kit on gibs or cherry pickers.
After shooting on location in Essex between February and April 2021, the team moved to studios in north London for interiors and additional exterior work in places Southwark and Islington.
“We looked for building exteriors with red brick because we wanted to emphasize red, the color of blood,” Raedeker says. “London is designed to look heavier and to lean into reds and blacks. The idea is that we feel the suffocating influence of industrialization and the machinery of progress and the work ethic.
Another expression of this is the character Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) who is a doctor and who serves to illustrate the advance of medicine versus superstition.
“To reflect Cora’s subjective point of view we don’t show London skies until the end, whereas Essex is framed for big skies.”
That was clearly different on the sound stage. “I treat a studio like a location. I think about the time of day and where the sun would be at that point to give it this naturalism. We used lamps to replicate sunlight, mainly soft illuminations.”
Despite the conditions, “weather rarely ‘reads’ strongly on screen,” he says. “Even when it rains it has to pour buckets to really show on camera and the weather in Essex, while foul at times, didn’t show up as much as wanted it to.”
For the opening scene of episode one, for example, the weather was just too clement when they originally shot it. “We needed the tide to be right, the weather to be overcast to make it easier for VFX to add in fog. But we had blazing sun.”
For this reason, they returned a few months later and reshoot the scene.
Raedeker credits his camera team for helping him on this unusually arduous shoot including focus puller Luke Cairns, loader Oliver Hallam, Grip Sam Reeves and Gaffer Sol Saihati.
“We had a really strong team. All the camera gear was in rucksacks to protect against the elements and every eventuality and it never broke down once.
“There were times when operating handheld I had to run backwards and Sam was there to guide me in the right direction — not every grip would have done that.”
They were so good Raedeker took them to his next job, shooting BBC four-part drama Best Interests, starring Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen.