'Small Axe' Cinematographer Steps Into Spotlight With Steve McQueen's Film Series

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series - Kaleidoscopic Party and Courtroom
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

From left: Partygoers take to the dance floor in a swirl of music in 'Lovers Rock.'; Malachi Kirby (standing) plays real-life activist Darcus Howe, seen rising to his own defense in 'Mangrove.'

A relative newcomer to the world of international filmmaking, Shabier Kirchner, 33, vaulted ahead of more celebrated cinematographers when the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently named his work on Steve McQueen's Small Axe series the year's best cinematography.

A native of Antigua who is mostly self-taught, Kirchner had filmed several shorts and indie features, including Skate Kitchen, (2018), about teen girl skateboarders, when he received a call from Sean Bobbitt, McQueen's usual cinematographer who'd worked with the director on such films as Hunger and 12 Years a Slave. Bobbitt wanted to meet in London. Flattered, Kirchner admits, "I'm a huge admirer of his work," not realizing at the time that his fellow DP was unavailable to work on McQueen's newest project and so was helping him to select another cinematographer to step in.

Small Axe, now available on Amazon Prime, would present a challenge, since it's a set of five original films, each using a separate cast and telling a different story about London's West Indian community from the late 1960s through the mid-'80s. Kirchner was asked to lens each movie in an uniquely appropriate format with its own individual lighting characteristics.

The longest film in the series, Mangrove — a true story centering on the Mangrove Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill and the 1971 trial of the so-called Mangrove Nine, individuals accused of starting a riot during a protest — moves from street demonstrations to courtroom drama. Kirchner chose to use 2-perf 35mm film. "We wanted it to feel specific to the era," he explains, adding that the format gave the story a Kodachrome, textured feeling "not quite as heavy as 16mm but something that maintained the patina of the era."

For the extensive trial scenes (shot in an actual courtroom in London's Kings Cross), Kirchner employed long takes dictated by the performances of the film's protagonists as they rise to defend themselves. "Steve is very much about responding to the actors — setting up an environment and then letting the actors find where they need to be, and the camera will be in conversation with that," he says.

Stylistically, Lovers Rock — its title refers to the Lovers Rock reggae genre — couldn't be more different. A fictional story set at a house party in 1980, it follows the partygoers, the girls dressed in jewel-like dresses, through a fluid and pulsating midsummer night of romantic pursuit. Kirchner chose to use an ARRI Alexa Mini, mostly handheld, to capture long takes on the dance floor. Describing it as a fever dream, the DP says he and McQueen "wanted the camera to be a person at the party, a type of person that's in love, a person that is lonely, a person that is anxious.

"Some of those long takes were coordinated very specifically, and some were just completely in the moment," he continues, adding that an overhead lighting rig allowed him to shoot 360 degrees. "We changed the lighting according to the narrative, the emotion of what was happening. We wanted it to feel quite contemporary in its feel, but also a spiritual representation of Black love."

This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.