How Cinematographer Gavin Finney Brought Heaven and Hell to Life in ‘Good Omens’

The premise of Good Omens is deceptively simple: An angel named Aziraphale and a demon known as Crowley team up to stop the apocalypse. The way the story plays out is anything but—a millennia-spanning, globe-trotting romp involving a psychic witch, a misplaced Antichrist, and the lost city of Atlantis, among other things.

Co-authored by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the novel Good Omens has maintained a devoted fanbase since its publication in 1990. Rumors of a potential film adaptation circulated for years (Terry Gilliam’s name was thrown around at one point), but Pratchett’s death in 2015 put speculations to a screeching halt when Gaiman made clear he had no intention of adapting the story alone. However, a posthumously delivered letter of encouragement from Pratchett himself convinced his co-author to reconsider. On May 31, 2019, Good Omens’ nearly 30-year journey from page to screen finally came to an end with the release of a six-part limited series co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios.

With Gaiman as showrunner and sole credited writer of the series, Good Omens is somewhat unusual among book adaptations in the degree to which the author still has a good deal of creative control, albeit now in a team environment.

According to cinematographer Gavin Finney, whom I spoke with earlier this month, having Gaiman at the helm was an ideal situation—it helped ensure the series stayed true to the spirit of the book and also, somewhat ironically, made it easier to diverge from the source material when necessary. “I think if we had had another team of writers on board they would have been perhaps more slavish to the scripts, and it might not have been so good, whereas he had permission, effectively, from himself.”

Gaiman might have removed, changed, and even added some things to optimize Good Omens for the screen, but his scripts still presented a unique challenge from a visual standpoint.

“I can’t think of a shoot I’ve been on with such an enormous range,” Finney said. “And the thing is, you need to give each period and place its own distinctive look. But at the same time, when you put it all together, it has to make sense.”

Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) confront preteen Antichrist Adam (Sam Taylor Buck)

A significant part of achieving these distinctive looks was done through production and costume design, but color grading also played a key role. After shooting in LogC—a recording mode that retains more information in the image, allowing for greater control in color grading—Finney used DaVinci Resolve to apply unique, time period-specific “looks” to the dailies designed using a plugin called FilmConvert. These looks served as something of a “first pass,” so that everyone, including the editors, was on the same page regarding the look of the show before they got around to the full color grade, which Finney maintained is one of the most important parts of the process—and one in which he always stays highly involved. “It’s so powerful what can be done now in post. To preserve your image you have to be there.”

When it came to making sure all the various periods and looks still came together to make a visually coherent whole, Finney and his team established certain elements of style to define the series’ look across the board—namely, an overall sense of movement, sweeping into and out of scenes, and the steady presence of overhead and bird’s eye shots. “Would go from dolly track to Steadicam to technocrane pretty much every day,” Finney recalled, noting that out of 119 days of shooting, a whopping 77 involved technocranes.

“That was discussed very early on, that that would be a key way of giving it a particular edge and a particular feel,” Finney said, emphasizing that these decisions were strongly rooted in the narrative itself. “This is a story narrated by God. You’ve got an excuse for being above everyone.”

When I got to asking Finney about some of the many incredible shots and scenes in Good Omens, I started with one of the more explosive ones—the burning of Aziraphale’s bookshop. In this day and age, it can sometimes be difficult to tell what on-screen mayhem and destruction was done practically as opposed to through computer wizardry, which is why I was mildly surprised when I saw some behind-the-scenes images indicating that much of Crowley’s race through the fiery bookstore inferno was done on set as opposed to in post-production.

Production designer Michael Ralph built the two-story bookshop specifically for its ultimate fate. Everything inside—desks, tables, chairs, around 6,000 books—was bought as opposed to rented, considering the production wouldn’t be able to return it. “All of that beautiful stuff you see we set fire to,” Finney said.

In addition to real-life fire provided by flame bars, Finney and his team used lighting to further accentuate and control the look of the fire, using a type of LED light called an Arri SkyPanel that has a special effect “fire” mode.

While being set on fire does, as one would imagine, irreversible damage, Finney noted they were still able to get multiple takes in. “A lot of work went into making sure it looked spectacular but was very safe and controllable. So we had a lot of fire marshals. They could put it out very quickly. And then we could start it very quickly as well. There was a lot of planning involved to make sure that was safe but effective and looked great.”

Next, I asked him about another even more pivotal moment—when Crowley creates an extradimensional pocket of sorts so that he and Aziraphale can give Adam, the 11-year-old antichrist, a rousing “remember your humanity” pep-talk prior to facing Satan. The brief sojourn to an ethereal dune-scape provides a nice change of scenery for the episode which until that point is mostly restricted to a military air base where Adam and his friends—as well as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, some heavenly and hellish representatives, and a few others—have gathered to await Satan’s arrival.

Finney recalled that the air base scenes were filmed over about 8 days, and that it wasn’t an easy location to shoot. Partly because it takes quite a bit of creativity to keep a flat tarmac dotted with the occasional hangar visually interesting for around 25 minutes, and partly just because of the season. “At that time of the year in the UK it gets dark at about half-past three, and it’s not light until about after eight o’clock in the morning. So you’ve got a very limited time to shoot,” he said, adding that the weather all changed daily. He also noted that the dusky, reddish-orange skies—”it’s written [in the script] that the sky is turning red because the whole circular motorway around London is on fire”—all had to be added in post-production.

While dune-filled landscapes also feature in other scenes earlier in the series, such as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, they have an entirely different look to them in Crowley’s time bubble, largely in part to the time of day they were filmed. “When we shoot very early in the morning or very late in the evening, you get amazing shape on the dunes, which was perfect for Eden. But in the middle of the day they kind of go flatter,” Finney said, elaborating that this flatter look added an ethereal quality to the landscape that was ideal. To further this ethereal quality, the cinematographer brought in large silks to fly over the actors in order to make the look softer, which also helped further aesthetically distinguish the scene from those set in the Garden of Eden.

Although realizing it was not unlike asking a parent to name a favorite child, I nonetheless asked Finney if he had any favorite shots from the series. He gave me one per episode.

For episode 1, he named the scene in which Aziraphale and Crowley enter Heaven and Hell, respectively—which happen to be located in the same ethereal highrise. After entering the building, the angel takes the up escalator while his demon friend goes down—straight through the shiny black granite floor. The idea of Heaven and Hell sharing the same building had long gestated in Neil Gaiman’s imagination, but there was one detail that still needed to be worked out—how to compellingly visualize the two characters entering the same building only to end up in such diametrically different environments. It was production designer Michael Ralph who came up with the idea of Crowley going down through the floor. It took quite a bit of work to bring the idea to life, but the cinematographer was very pleased with the results. “It’s satisfying, because it tells the story very neatly in a couple of shots.”

For episode 2, Finney picked out the crane shot showing the angel Gabriel’s arrival at Aziraphale’s bookshop, in which the camera begins across the street, descends towards the store, and then enters through a side window in one continuous take. “That was cool to work out,” he said. “It was very sunny outside and you can never build up that much light inside, so we had to try and get everything in that scene to match.”

In episode 3, he found the WWII-set church scene in which Crowley saves Aziraphale from double-crossing Nazi agents particularly satisfying. “Neil always wanted that to look like a 1940s spy movie, an old film noir, so we really cranked up the film noir look in there. It’s all candles and beams of moonlight,” he said. Finney’s favorite shot comes about halfway through the scene, when Crowley arrives, a shadowy silhouette with a dramatically brimmed hat, hopping gingerly down the aisle—what with him being a demon and the whole “consecrated ground” thing. “I thought it was very satisfying. I love that shot.”

He thought the scene in episode 4 where Crowley booby traps his apartment with holy water was a lot of fun, and enjoyed the challenge of medium and part-time courtesan Madame Tracy’s episode 5 séance. One of his favorite shots in episode 6 also took place in Madame Tracy’s apartment—at least in part. Shadwell, a witchfinder who’s more bark than bite (and Tracy’s neighbor) leaves his apartment to visit hers—and the camera follows him from overhead all the way. To pull it off, they had to build a big scaffolding deck over the top of the set, put a track on it, and then put a crane on top of that—”so the crane could arc arm in and out as it needed to, and then track across.” It then took several rehearsals with stand-ins and another few tries with the actors before they finally got a perfect take.

But in the end, some the most innovative camera work in the series hides behind seemingly simple shots. For instance, an extended joke in the fourth episode based on that age-old question “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”—angels don’t really dance, except for Aziraphale, who learned the gavotte in the late 18th century, but demons do, making “how many demons can dance on the head of a pin?” the more relevant question—involves a flashback to Aziraphale performing said dance.

It’s a fun, brief black-and-white scene—and shot with a specially made camera.

Finney knew he wanted the gavotte scene to have an old film look, but he also knew that shooting with the ARRI ALEXA SXT and then adding old-timey effects in post-production never looked quite right. “Mainly because the film’s rock solid, nothing’s moving, and the exposure’s rock solid and the speed’s rock solid, and none of those things were rock solid in the past.” The earliest movie cameras were hand-cranked and required the cameraperson to wind the camera steadily at the right speed. However, even the steadiest human hands are still subject to some degree of human error, meaning that speed in old films tends to be slightly variable, as does exposure since slower cranking meant each frame got more exposure and faster cranking meant each frame got less. Old films also feature a wavering known as “film weave” due to the imperfect movement of the film through the camera.

Gavin Finney operating the hand-cranked D-21

It wasn’t the first time Finney had run into the problem of trying to get an “old film” look in the digital era—and the last time he encountered the issue, about a decade ago, he came up with a rather ingenious solution. “We found out that there would be a way of actually attaching a hand crank handle from a film camera digitally to the D-21”—the Arriflex D-21, one of Arri’s first digital cameras—”and it’s only that camera that can do this.” Basically, the D-21 has an off-board, as opposed to an onboard, recorder, and so the hand crank affects how fast the camera records. “The world’s only hand-cranked digital camera.”

However, there was one notable difference: while the D-21 was cutting edge back in the late 2000s, it’s since become something of a relic itself. Still, when Finney reached out to Arri Media in London, they stripped down four D-21s they had in stock to rebuild the design, which was then shipped out to Cape Town, Good Omens’ filming location. To get even more of a compelling “old-film” look in-camera, Finney used a Lensbaby creative-effect lens. “If you held that loose on the front of the lens mount whilst you were cranking the camera, it joggled the lens and that makes the image move like it’s weaving in the gate.” The only things left to add in post-production were some film grain and the conversion to black and white.

Ultimately, the hand-cranked D-21 was only used for one scene, which Finney called representative of the attitude both he and the rest of the crew took towards the series. “That’s the kind of lengths we went to, everyone went to, to really pull something out of the bag and make every scene in Good Omens something special.”

" Ciara Wardlow : @ciara_wardlow Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.."