Interview with Lee Burnett

Producer Hannah Jones, finds out more about why Lee Burnett, director of photography for ‘The Mother’s Bones’, wanted to be involved in the project and his journey into film.

Could you tell me how you came to be working on The Mother’s Bones and why you were keen to be involved in this project?

A big motivation for working on this film, was the chance to work alongside an artist that was genuinely fascinated by the quarry and the importance of it to the Cornish community. I got on board relatively early, and Abigail asked me to be DP for the film a few months later. Being involved in the project from very early on allowed me to be really involved in the development process and watch the project grow.

Cornwall is a special place to me (having lived there for over 7 years) so it was amazing to be a part of a project that let me experience a side of Cornwall I hadn’t before.


What is special/unusual/challenging about this project for you?

One of the most exciting aspects of shooting this film has been the location. Abigail and I have spent a lot of time in the quarry over the past 2 years, getting to know its history, the geological importance of the site and stories of the people who used to work there. Abigail’s curiosity for the quarry has been incredibly inspiring and absorbing.

The quarry is an arresting and eerie location. It’s been shut for years, and you can really feel the stillness when you are there. It features in the film as one of the main characters, interacting with the people and responding to them. It was a challenging thing to communicate, but I really believed in the idea.


What has it been like working with an artist? How has the creative process differed to the other projects you work on?

I’ve never worked alongside an artist for a film before, so it introduced me to some new challenges and ideas I hadn’t really expected. An art film can easily step away from the common ‘rules’ of cinematography that narrative films often follow.

‘The Mother’s Bones’ references mythical qualities, has long and lingering shots, juxtaposes images and doesn’t really follow a chronological story. In some ways this allowed us to work more creatively and feel less restricted by narrative continuity. It was a freedom I rarely get on projects. On the other hand, it meant Abigail and I had to communicate very clearly with each other throughout production, to make sure we were both on the same page about the feeling and meaning behind certain shots.

Abigail has introduced some interesting ideas into the film that have been both challenging and stimulating for me as a DP. One part of the film was shot through a microscope in a science laboratory, which required me to decipher a set of adapters and filters that allowed us to film the images clearly. The way Abigail has used some of these more abstract images to develop the film is something I have learnt a lot from.


How did you get interested in film and who are your influences?

My Dad always had a dark room in his loft and from a young age he taught me how to take 35mm photos, and how to develop and print them too. He also bought me my first video camera when I was about 14, which got me making skate films every weekend. I would watch films, make films and constantly push myself to learn about cameras and editing. I didn’t intellectualise film theory, plots or stories, I just loved cameras and making images. However, after studying photography at college I stopped pursuing film for some reason. Nobody ever told me that I could make films as a job, so I just saw it as a hobby.

I then studied graphic design at Falmouth University, graduating in 2011, but by the end of the course I felt completely uninspired by the thought of working in design. It was an amazing degree and I can see how it has influenced my film work massively, but I really struggled to be inspired by design alone. Throughout the degree I became intrigued by filmmaking again and after graduating I very quickly picked it up again.

I have since devoted all of my time to studying film and learning all of the specific skills of a DP. I started taking on small film jobs, collaborating with musicians, writers and photographers making little music videos and documentaries. I put all of my earnings into buying new kit and gradually improved.

I’m influenced by a whole host of things. I guess that’s what I love about film. You can take inspiration from so many sources in the real world, pick them apart and combine them in an infinite number of ways. As much as my technical understanding of film is inspired by film directors and cinematographers, I find a lot of my ideas come from the real world, seeing how light moves and shapes things, working out what makes something beautiful and watching how people move through the world. London’s a treat for that. I can sit for hours and watch all the strange and unique mannerisms people have, seeing how they interact with one another, making up stories about who they are. I never get bored of it.


What is your career/practice as a film maker now?

My role within film is usually that of director of photography, or camera operator, depending upon the project. The DP works closely with the director to develop the visual language of the film, choosing cameras, lenses, shooting styles, motion, lighting, colouring and many other aspects of the film. All of these details add up to create emotion and meaning and the overlap of the technical and artistic skill sets required, really fascinates me.

My work is spread across a wide variety of projects, ranging from commercials, music videos, documentaries and some narrative film. I also take on assisting and lighting work on bigger projects to gain experience and watch established DP’s working. The variety of my work keeps me excited and means I’m rarely in my comfort zone.

Recently, my good friend and I have started our own small production company. We're currently finishing post-production on our first documentary, writing a mockumentary and will be producing 3 music videos later in the year. We want to create a body of work that steers clear of any commercial influence to really let us develop our own ideas. 

Can you give me a favourite moment or anecdote about working on this film?

I was lucky enough to be there when the final composition was performed by St Keverne Band. I remember at certain points when I felt every note vibrate throughout my chest. It was genuinely quite emotional and overwhelming, and I will never forget it.