Flame-haired Leading Ladies of Cinema!

[Above: monitor shot of Janet Devlin in Songbird, 2016. Credit/DoP: Christopher Newman]

   Welcome to my first blog post of 2018! I'm determined to do at least one post per month from now on, as they were few and far between last year. My time in 2017 was very much taken up by post-production on the fantasy short Songbird, a film which was a unique experience for me, in the fact that it was my biggest project to date. However, there is one thing it had in common with the majority of my previous films:

   Songbird, as with most of my films as a director, featured a lead actor with red hair.

   Up until now, I didn't question this re-occurrence. To be frank, if all my female actors had been brunettes or blondes, I don't think anyone would've seen it as a stylistic choice. But there is something striking about seeing a redheaded actor or model on screen; it invokes a fiery image that harks back to the legend of warrior queen Boudica. So I thought it would make an interesting topic for today's blog post.
   For me, my love of red-headed characters is a result of the animated comic-book adaptations I watched as a child, in the early nineties. I was enthralled by the romantic strength of Jean Grey/Phoenix and Rogue in X-men, and I loved Batman's Poison Ivy so much that I even sprayed my hair orange a couple of times (unfortunately for my Dad, I stole the spray from his professional face paint kit, briefly depriving him of the tools he needed to do 'tiger hair'!). And it wasn't just the female heroes of the small screen who had fiery manes; it's hard to look back on that era without remembering the wonderful Lion-o of Thundercats!
[Above: the heroes of my childhood happened to have red hair]
   But I'm not the only one to enhance a film's visuals through the use of redheaded women. In a recent interview with Approved by Cinephiles, I went into great depth about the use of such actors in Moulin Rouge! and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among others - all of which clearly took inspiration from the classic film The Red Shoes.
   I was first made aware of The Red Shoes during pre-production on my graduation film, The Opening Night, in 2010. The film was supposed to be a nostalgic love letter to my memories of performing on stage, and I was very inspired by Moulin Rouge! (it was, and is, one of my favourite films). So The Opening Night's cinematographer - the brilliant Emmaalouise Smith - recommended that I watch The Red Shoes for research; she also looked at a lot of the photography of Tim Walker to inspire the look of the film.
  Our lead actor was Lucy Hagan-Walker (a casting change from another actor with the same hair colour, as we consciously wanted to homage Satine in Moulin Rouge!), and when the audience first sees her character, Marianne, I wanted her hair to appear like a red halo in the shadows of the stage. We achieved this with a kino flow as a backlight, with all other lighting kept pretty minimal until Lucy stepped forward:

[Above: Marianne's entrance in The Opening Night, 2010. DoP: Emmaalouise Smith]

   The Opening Night was the first time I incorporated red hair into my cinematography. But the person who has filmed the most redheaded actors with me, so far, is Christopher Newman. As well as numerous music videos, Chris was the cinematographer on my short films Songbird and The Dress. The lead actors for both films had red hair, but we utilised this in very different ways.
   Songbird was always intended to be joyously colourful to watch, and so we practiced similar methods to those used in The Opening Night, particularly in scenes where the lead character, Jennifer (Janet Devlin), is victorious. According to Chris, the cinematography and particularly the lighting of Songbird was designed in a way that would emphasise the fantasy vibe of the film. It was also designed in a way that would show Janet in the best light (excuse the pun!) as she was someone we were really, really excited to work with:
    "[The cinematography] was saturated and dynamic. Early in pre-production I expressed my excitement to Sophie, on finding out our leading lady was Janet Devlin, whose redheaded mane I was eager to backlight to really pop the colour and shape. This harsh lighting was complimented by a soft key light to keep Janet's face lovely and soft, again dictated by her innocence within the film, but complimentary to her overall look."
   For scenes where Jennifer was less happy - for example, when she gives her first timid performance, or when she realises she's lost her voice, Chris toned down the backlight, almost completely. When Jennifer wasn't comfortable, she lost her glow; metaphorically and physically, she wasn't able to shine.
[Above: Aislinn De'Ath as Grace in The Dress, 2015. DoP: Christopher Newman]
   By contrast, The Dress was a film that only showed misery. The lead (and only) character, Grace, was feeling completely lost, to the point of lifelessness, and for that reason I wanted everything about the film to be presented in muted tones. The pale look of the film also echoed the bright white colour of Grace's wedding dress, and enhanced the importance of its initial pureness (and helped its final appearance to really stand out!).
    Chris agrees with this: "The mood of the scene, to me at least, is always the main dictator of lighting, so that’s always my first thought. When shooting ‘The Dress’ I wanted the lighting to be soft and somber due to the nature of the film, which complimented Aislinn De'Ath hair and skin tones." 
   The main reason I chose actor Aislinn De'Ath for the role of Grace was because I'd waited for the opportunity to work with her for a while. Aislinn has red hair - but, unlike in my previous work, we didn't let the colour stand out, and instead used it to support the film's subdued look. Aislinn put a lot of thought into her character's appearance, and intentionally didn't re-dye her hair until after the film was finished, so that the colour had faded. I also added extra pink midtones to the whole film during the colour grade, so that Aislinn's Grace almost looked like she was seeping into the walls. Again, both visually and figuratively, Grace was fading away.
   Finally, I didn't want to do a blog post about cinematography without featuring a few words from another of my favourite DPs, Neil Oseman, who won an award for his work on my film Night Owls.

[Above: Holly Rushbrooke as Mari in Night Owls, 2014. DoP: Neil Oseman]

   Mari, the female lead in that film (played by talented newcomer Holly Rushbrooke) had red hair - but because she was a fairly last minute casting replacement, we didn't have time to incorporate this into the film's cinematography. What's more, the costume design for both characters was designed to have them blend into the background, making them look both drab and warm-toned at the same time (and instantly showing a visual connection between the two characters). So we wouldn't have wanted to make Holly's red hair 'pop' on screen, even if it was a deciding factor during casting.
   However, Neil does still have some advice for getting the most out of red hair in film and photography:
   "Red hair looks great with backlight, but too much can bleach out the colour and almost make it look blond. I would suggest a backlight of low to medium intensity, perhaps with a quarter CTO to make the warm colour really pop. As for the key-light, sometimes a slightly cool colour can work very nicely with paler skin-tones. In Moulin Rouge!, for example, Nicole Kidman is frequently lit with blue light."
   If you want to see some further examples of red hair in photography, I have a Pinterest board dedicated to the subject, with lots of images to look through.


   There are many shades of red hair a person can have, and there are equally as many different ways to light it. Red hair on screen will always create more connotations and grab more attention than any other natural hair colour, and so I don't think I'll ever tire of working with it. 

   I already know for a fact that my next film will feature a redheaded leading lady, as it will be the second time that I'm working with The Dress star Aislinn De'Ath. Although the main casting for the film has been announced, we're having to keep the details under wraps for now - apart from a few very subtle hints myself and the actors have dropped on social media over the past year (I'll leave those to the very eagle-eyed of you to spot!). We're scheduled to shoot the film in February this year, providing we can gain enough funds for our budget in time. If you're interested in donating, or if you'd like more information, drop me an email. Alternatively, you can send funds to the project via the PayPal button on the Triskelle Pictures website.
p.s. Thank you to the wonderful cinematographers who contributed to this blog post!


Popular Posts