In Conversation with Barney Cokeliss

Barney Cokeliss is a multi-award-winning director and an accomplished photographer.

Barney’s latest short film, ‘Night Dancing’ has recently won the Frankfurt Biennale of the Moving Image, the LA Dance Film Festival and the Utah Dance Film Festival, after premiering on at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Leica UK have commissioned Barney to shoot a film with the Leica SL. The Leica SL is much more than a professional still-picture camera with video recording capability as it fulfils even the most stringent demands of moviemakers as a fully-fledged video camera. Barney describes his film as a mysterious nocturnal journey, which he captured on the infamous Noctilux and Summilux lenses. We caught up with Barney to see how the project is going.

How is the project progressing?

Leica is a wonderful brand to collaborate with. There’s the obvious reason that the products speak for themselves and the brand has such prestige, but it’s also particularly gratifying that the people at the company are focused on quality above all else and they apply that to the work they support just as much as to the equipment they make. So I feel I’m on my mettle to do my best work!

What do the wide apertures of the Noctilux and Summilux lenses mean to you?

There’s a special magic that comes from wide aperture lenses. Not only are you able to get a shot in conditions where you otherwise might not, but the image you produce has a quality and feel that you just can’t get stopped down. I love the slight vignette feeling you get when you shoot wide open – it pulls the eye more intimately into the image. And the greater abstraction you get from having more of the image out of focus is something you can be really creative with – it’s often what makes a shot for me.

As in film-making, sometimes what you can’t see – but can feel – is even more impactful than what’s clear.

What interplay do you find between your moving image work and your photography?

On one level they’re very different. In film you’re marshaling a bunch of people – there can be up to 100 crew involved in one of my commercials - while photography feels more like a Zen practice.

David Bailey put it well – he said directors had to be like generals and photographers like snipers. I feel my eye and brain get refreshed by going back and forth between the two roles.

The two disciplines inform each other. I like it when my photographs have a narrative feel. Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s happening, I like the viewer to feel there’s something going on.

And I love the photographic element in cinematic storytelling. I’ll often operate the camera myself for that reason – it’s very different to find the frame with the camera in your hand, and to respond to an actor’s performance in the moment. But I’ve worked with some wonderful cinematographers and the director/DoP collaboration is always a great dialogue.

The thing I find completely absorbing about film is what David O. Russell calls the ‘holy trifecta’ of performance, camera movement and music. It’s hard to beat that trio when they come together!

In photography, it’s that distillation – creating that one image that somehow resonates. It’s strange, but when I’m flipping through, selecting from the photographs I’ve shot, my eye and brain know when I’ve hit the right one long before I’ve had a chance to think about it. It’s almost pre-conscious. I guess we’ve evolved to be very quick processors of what we see – which is important if the image on your retina is of a wild animal and it’s about to eat you!

I have a similar experience when I’m selecting takes during a film edit. The difference, though, is that with film you select a moment with duration – it’s a certain movement, whether it’s of the camera or a person. And that movement creates emotion. Whereas in a still image it’s all much more crystallised. It’s almost like the difference between a solid and a liquid.

You’ve been shooting video on the SL for a while now – how have you found it?

The Leica SL has been revolutionary for me – it’s the first time I’ve been able to have 4k video in my bag with me wherever I go, enabling me to capture full-res video whenever the moment arises. The compatibility with the fast, small M lenses is fantastic – especially for low-light work, or where you want shallow depth of field.

And then, on bigger shoot days, it works brilliantly with cinema lenses – like the Summilux-C primes, which of course are easier for a focus-puller to work with, being so much bigger.

I love the fact that I can use M lenses, get the vibration less shooting of a rangefinder, and yet also have an SLR-like experience of looking through the lens and composing precisely.

The electronic viewfinder is lovely to look through. And something I find so useful for shooting on the move is the way I can adjust exposure intuitively with the finger wheel. I can choose the aperture I want for the image and let the ISO float according to how I want to expose the image moment to moment. It makes taking pictures completely spontaneous.

I can trust the EVF for exposure, so I no longer have to do instant maths in my head – I just turn the wheel until it feels right. Combined with that brilliant little crash-in button that means you know you’re in focus, it takes hand-held low-light photography into a new realm.

Often I find myself crashing in for focus and adjusting exposure at the same time – it’s like playing the piano with both hands and you just feel completely integrated with the camera.

I still love my silver 0.85 M7 – there are so many reasons I adore shooting with that one. I’m kind of obsessed with it, actually. But the SL makes sense on so many levels – it’s now my default camera of choice. And if I had to have only one camera, it would be the Leica SL.

What’s next for you, photographically and film-wise?

I’m planning an exhibition in London for later this year. And a long-awaited (at least by me!) book sometime next year.

As for film, I’m working on a feature-length adaptation of an amazing steampunk novel. It’s vividly visual and really emotive – the two things that draw me to a project

Find out more about the Leica SL here or book a test drive a see for yourself