An interview with DOP Mark 'Hobz' Hobson ("Layers of Lies")
We interviewed Mark 'Hobz' Hobson, the director of photography for Layers of Lies, after he won LAFA. Discover his fascinating story.
Before we talk about Layers of Lies, we'd love to know more about you. How did you become a Director of Photography, and what makes you passionate about it?
In Australia I was always shooting part time, small commercials and music videos, but I never called myself a professional DP at the time. In Finland I was actually working in post as a colorist, learning all the mistakes other DPs were making in the field. I got a break when I was scheduled to color a film from Ireland when the DP dropped out 2 weeks prior filming. The Director asked me if id be interested to fly over and lens the movie. Which I did and then things really started to pick up fast, I think once that momentum started I took the profession seriously as it became my main source of income.
What I love about this job is how I can bring my real life experiences and emotions and find ways in a story that relate to me and push that into the visual language and seeing how it supports the directors vision. There is nothing better than a bunch of people coming together and making a script come to life, and at the end not just having an amazing film in your hands but more importantly having made new a family.
What was your first piece of equipment?
I think the first camera I ever had was a hand-down Sony Hi8 Camera from my father, I think it was the F55. Dad used it to shoot home movies, but after handing it to me I used to film my school mates and I doing stupid stuff and sometimes film my school band.
What inspired your decision to move to Dubai?
Being from Australia you would think I like hot weather, but its quite the opposite. I was living in Finland for 9 years prior to coming to Dubai. I never intended to move to Dubai at all, I was happy with the cold weather of the Nordics. In 2018 I whilst still residing in Finland, I was hired to film a new TV show for Lamborghini in Dubai. I was in Dubai for 5 months on production whilst during that time I met my wife who had been living in Dubai for over 20 years. After the TV show I stayed in Dubai and ended up getting married and I never returned to Europe. But lets see, I hope to be out of the sand-pit in the near future, it isn’t a place that id like to stay much longer. I have been grounded here now for nearly 5 years.
Alongside cinematography, you're also producing projects between Dubai, Helsinki, and Sydney. Can you tell us a little bit about your work commitments, and what a typical day looks like in your busy schedule?
Yes, so when I am not shooting, I am co-producing with some of my partners that are back in Europe. My business partners have quite a network in obtaining scripts from around the world, sometimes with decent names already signed and attached. We get busy finding financing for these projects. I mainly got involved in this to not just gain access to bigger projects but also to create projects that create jobs. If these longer format jobs can get funded, it can create a few months of work for 100-200 people. In time of economic downturn especially in our industry this can be a great thing for the film community.
My typical day when not shooting usually involves starting the day through email inbox, and then checking out what is happening locally within the region work wise. Its always good to see who is busy, what new production companies or new directors are around. Being a freelancer, you are really marketing yourself and having to do all the connecting. Even having representation, you still need to get out there and sell yourself and refresh your networks daily.
Earlier this year, you wrapped a feature for Disney+ - how did you get on board this phenomenal project, and what can you tell us about this experience?
I wish I could tell you more, but at the moment not too many details can be revealed except that the film is in post-production ready for release sometime next year.
As one of the most prolific and cinematic cinematographers in our industry, in your opinion, what makes a good cinematographer?
There are so many hats we actually wear, but I find the biggest key skill that makes a good cinematographer is the skill of collaboration, being able to listen, suggest, and find that middle ground from all departments and the director and being able to stay true to the story. There is of course all the technical skills and team management skills, but collaboration is what holds it all together, if you can collaborate, and collaborate well, I think you are in a good spot.
Mark 'Hobz' Hobson - Showreel
You're capable of incredible range, as can be viewed in your showreel. How do you choose which projects to work on?
Ha! that’s a great question because I think the ugly truth for a lot of us cinematographers is that from all of our jobs, 1 is for the reel and 20 are for the meal. So much of the work especially in the commercial world aren't the most perfect with clients and agencies butchering our work, but as someone that does this full time, you do have to pay the bills and feed your family. In saying this I have been blessed with the jobs that have come my way, and I also try to make my reel reflect the direction im also aiming for in my career. Even though I do shoot a lot of commercials between the longer form projects, My reel isn’t so commercial heavy, I try to leave most of my commercial work out and leave the narrative work in. This might bite me back when pitching for commercial projects which is a big chunk in the middle east region as its 90% of the work that’s available here. But when the narrative jobs come in or the jobs that need to look more western, then im usually the first to get the call.
Let's talk about Layers of Lies- the first Finnish-Iranian action movie. This film presents a lot of challenges for any cinematographer- and your work is no short of brilliant. How did you prepare for this shoot?
Ramin had me create a lot of lookbooks and reference boards for the Iranian team, because he told me the crew there and general public just wont understand what we are trying to achieve as they have never been exposed to our type of cinema. Apart from these cultural differences, Language barrier added another mix into our problems. As always I usually breakdown the script myself with ideas before coming before the director, But with our micro-budget and lack of drawing skills we had to previs 3D stills of every single shot we wanted to take with lighting pre-vis made out in the 3D images just to help communicate the mood we were going for. It took us about 2 months to do before hand using Shotpro, but we managed to construct just over 600 frames to create a basic 3D storyboard. The only crew that came over from Europe to Iran apart from Ramin and myself, was Ramins stunt co-ordinating/fight choreographer assistant Peyman Karai and Finnish gaffer Anton Jokikunnas. So our list of translators was limited, which is where our visual boards really helped communication to the local crew.
How did your collaboration with director Ramin Sohrab come about, and what was it like to work with him?
Back in 2016 I was wrapping up a feature in the Midwest when I stumbled across a cool kung fu video on social media and noticed the person performing in the video was based in Helsinki, Finland, which at the time was my residence. The account belonged to Action director and Wushu master Ramin Sohrab, who was born in Iran but has lived in Europe and the USA for a better portion of his life. I dropped a message to Ramin to meet up when I was back in Europe. We met up and talked about working together in the future. Fast forward a year and Ramin calls me about shooting an Indie Action Film in Iran with the twist that he wants the film shot like it’s a western production and we have about $400,000 budget. At the time I knew nothing of the region, the political sanctions from the west that were in-place on the country and that nobody had ever filmed an action film in Iran, especially a western film crew shooting something so bold in the country. Given the script and the vision of the film, $400,000 sounded like it was going to be far short of its ambitions. Having the opportunity to be the first to do something groundbreaking in the country though was tempting and I couldn’t say no.
Ramin had been working on the script for a few years already. I first wanted to understand how Ramin wanted to move between scenes in the edit room. We would spend endless hours on zoom, breaking down every shot with examples from other films even before seeing the location, just to map out how we saw the story and implant that vision in our execution. Once we saw the locations we would then find away for our intentions to fit the surroundings. There were opportunities where we could really block out a shot and draw out the length of the take and some places that just fit the story with some basic OTS’, singles and a few different wides or 2 shots to help the edit. The performance shots we tried to variate with longer following/leading shots on Steadicam and some tele-photo shots, if location didn’t allow it, we would use some Dolly movements or just a simple locked off shot on sticks to show the beauty of the shot.
The fight scenes Ramin choreographed were sometimes very long. Iran has a lack of experienced talent and athletes that know how to do Wushu in camera, so Ramin had to spend quite a few months before hand preparing his goons and villains just to sell the action in camera. Wushu kung fu has beautiful movements in the arms and legs and we wanted to show all of that, we would usually grab the entire fight scene Handheld on a wider lens showing the entire movements, whilst B cam would grab tighter Mid Closeups during the same take. We always made sure we had 2 cameras running because there would be that off chance that hits would miss or the reaction didn’t match the hit. This way Ramin would have an edit, the only things that helped stitch the fights together were getting Closeup reactions of each talent and or items that were used during the fights.
Do you speak Persian? If not, what did you do in order to overcome the language barrier?
Being Australian I can hardly speak English let alone Farsi. All jokes aside, I do travel a lot for my work and I always try learn the local language for numbers 1-10, lens sizes, here, there, where and a few other bits and pieces. I find these small things really help on a set, and the local crews appreciate your effort.
Can you share some details about your experience- how long was the shoot, what were some of the challenges, what cameras did you use?
The project spanned over about 70 days of shooting. A few days in Europe and the rest in Iran. When shooting in Iran, there are a few things you need to understand when it comes to your equipment availability and budgets. 1st complication was that our principal photography was to cross over the month of Ramadan. I currently live in Dubai and Ramadan for us westerners isnt so strict, we can still drink on the streets and eat when needed. Iran is quite strict with the Islamic laws, even in the heat we still must wear long pants and sleeved shirts, but most importantly is the strict laws about the fasting during the day. You have come to the understanding you are in their country, these are the laws that are in-place and must be respected.
Ramin’s choice for filming was on RED due to its lighter weight setups for the amount of action sequences we had and the many high speed shots he was planning. We planned or 2 Camera units due to the amount of coverage we needed to film in our project time frame. What we ended up actually obtaining based on availability in the country was a x1 RED Epic Dragon and x1 RED MX Scarlet for B cam. Now we had some issues that both sensors were slightly different, the Dragon had a much nicer roll-off on the highlights with the OLPF and nicer skin tones in general. Whilst the Camera B’s sensor was slightly damaged color temperature wise, for the camera nerds out there we had about 3000k in difference on B cam and the tint was off the charts. With what we had available, we tried everything from Frankenstein OLPFs and different Hot Mirrors to try get them close, but even shooting RAW it was going to need some minor tweaks in post to get them as close as they could. Color charts and White Balancing wouldn’t even bring them close, we worked out that whatever Camera A’s settings would be, then Camera B would be would need around +3400k and about -27 Tint to get them marginally the same. Lucky we were shooting RAW, the power of RED RAW really shined in post.
When it came down to lens choice, Anamorphic was of course the first preference, but with availability of equipment, economic volatility and our 2 sensor issues, we ended up obtaining a Set of Arri Master Primes to start with, which eventually ended up becoming a mixed bag of candy by the end due to availability. In the end our footage was a mix of Master Primes and Ultra Primes. There were a few sequences shots on Xeen CFs aswell.
Drones were used through out the film and we captured some amazing footage of Tehran that I don’t think western cinema has seen before. There is so much texture in that country through its visuals and Im so happy we are one of the first from the outside to put it onto the big screen.
My crew was split over 4 blocks of filming, we shot 2 blocks in Finland and 2 blocks in Iran. I was always operating on A-Cam aswell as Steadicam, as the steadicam operator they hired wanted to learn some different techniques from myself. I used to Operate few years ago, im actually a goofy operator and have the camera on my right. It was an honor to fly Amirhossein’s rig and fun to be operating again. My B camera operator on the 1st block was Award winning Cinematographer Ebi Ashfari and on the 2nd Block Abolfazl Nabati. My camera team were tough, actually the entire crew. In Iran, Insurance does not exist, we had during all our 70+ days we did have a few accidents, mainly Ramin Director severely breaking his angle during a stunt and going on recover for nearly 1.5 years before we could finish the rest of the film, this was due to lack of trained stunt men in the region. This was just one of many injuries Ramin sustained during the entire film process. But also my camera crew took some hits, one of our lighting crew also broke a leg during the construction building scene aswell as camera B focus puller Ashkan Kalhori, who broke a bone in his forearm that he pulled focus with. With a quick 1 hour visit to the hospital, Ashkan was back on set pulling focus with a cast on. Again it can be tough to see people working in these conditions coming from the west, but people in Iran have no guarantees, a bad economy and cannot say no to work because the livelihood situation there is not as stable as one would want. The work skill level there was fantastic and most importantly really good attitudes behind the crew. English was completely minimal, but on both blocks, the producer Mohsen Sarafi ensured my 1st AC would speak english, so my execution was played out correctly.
In Finland, we had a splinter unit consisting just of myself and 1st AC Olavi Murto who was helpful over the many days we were out filming in the Baltic sea on small Islands in the Finnish Archipelago.
What inspired the visuals for Layers of Lies? Did you use any references?
The first lookbooks were based around Skyfall and Sicario, what inspired us more though was the clean slate that we had for Iran, given that no western production had ever done a movie there let alone an action film. Most movies about iran have been shot in Turkey. So for us this was a great stand for us to create the first look for cinematic Iran.
What was the most enjoyable scene to shoot, and why?
I think my favorite scene was Definitely the opening action scene of the burning building. This 15min scene is something we initially discussed months before even arriving to Iran, because no matter what lights you use, no matter what gels or DMX automation you try to implement, at the end of the day fire is fire, you just cant mimic the way the flames move and reflect off surfaces.
We were filming the scenes interiors in a 4 floor building used by the Tehran fire department for rescue training and confined space rescue. The building itself was designed to be ingulfed by flames for training, so we had no issue lighting the building up and shooting under safety precautions.
The fire you see in the scene is real, the only lighting tools I brought into the building were 4x4 Gold reflectors to help that glow in any closes ups and a few flags to help push smoke where we needed. On our Cameras the air-intake for the RED’s are just under the lens mounts so I had the team fix up some custom filters to stop any carbon and unwanted dusts getting pulled into the brain. To simulate a building that was on fire and collapsing we had our art team throwing shovels of dirt and grit all over us to really feel it in camera, the escape tunnel was also a training confined space within the same training lot. It was a tough maneuver in the dark not to mention the sewer piping was filled with scorpions. Just another day at the office for an Australian but still had to take safe precautions. It was definitely a lot of fun to shoot, but some very long nights of shooting and a lot of smoke.
Were you involved in post-production at all?
Before post began Ramin asked me to grab some references for the grade because I knew it was going to be a challenge with the matching to A camera. That sensor on B cam was just on another planet and we did what we could do on set to get them as close as we could. Not just this issue but also the understanding to how Ramin wanted the film to look originally “Western”. He didn’t want the over saturated and over-brightened look that the middle east usually delivers. The film went through a pass in Iran with the colorist they had hired there. After 1 month working on the movie and some frustrating episodes with the industry there, Ramin asked me if I could color the film. Being that I shot the film, understood the issue with the B cam sensor, having a history with coloring, and just so happen to have a color suite in Dubai, I decided to take the job and try preserve what we intended to create. Ramin flew over from Tehran to Dubai to stay with me for a month whilst we colored the film. We were so appreciative of the power within RED RAW, and how much we could push on the footage before even hitting the nodes and starting the grade.
Thankfully everything which we shot in Europe was working and calibrated as it should be with no issues, Angel Films Oy supplied us in Helsinki for our Finnish block of shooting.
What are you most proud of?
I think something we are all proud of is pulling off a western script and an action film in a country that has never seen this before. There were so many challenges and considering the micro budget of the film, we gave it a polished look of a something 10 times the budget size.
Do you have any tips for younger filmmakers who wish to walk in your footsteps?
Network Network Network, honeslty its all about who you know and who knows you, you are only as strong as your network. Of course you still need to find your own visual voice in your cinematography, but knowing people is where things move.
If you could work on any project, what would it be and why?
I think since a kid its always been a “Bond Film”, exotic locations, big planned action sequences, big cut-aways and giving a visual language to the Villain.
What's next for Layers of Lies, and what's next for you?
At the moment it’s the commercial season here in the middle east, so Ill be filled with commercial work until early next year where I will start prep for CCrime/Heist Feature to be shot in Dubai, I also have a series in Development with Money Heist Director “Javier Quintas” for 2025. The zoom calls and workshopping of the story has started, so its going to be interesting once that also kicks into 2nd gear.
Is there anything you'd like to add or someone you wish to thank?
I'd like to thank Ramin for first of all trusting me with his film and allowing me to make a lot of the visual decisions on the film as he was busy with Directing, stunt directing and even acting, so he threw a big responsibility on my shoulders which I embraced. I think the biggest thanks goes out to my wife for letting me always travel for a longer period to go do what I love. These kind of projects are really tough on relationships, and I don’t think a lot of people would survive them without the right partner.
Where can our readers view more of your work?
Website - http://www.markhobz.com
Social media - www.instagram.com/markhobz