Simon Dennis, BSC is interviewed by Stephen Lighthill, ASC regarding his work in Netflix period drama — an alternate-history take on Tinseltown of the 1940s.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, Hollywood imagines what the motion-picture business of the Post-War 1940s could have been like had racism, sexism and homophobia not existed to hamper the hopes and dreams of a collection of young, aspiring performers, writers and filmmakers. The show’s narrative conceit serves to reveal and cleverly critique real-world issues that remain today.
Cinematographer Simon Dennis, BSC (seen above, just right of the crane) sought an “optimistic, natural, grounded, wholesome, earthy” lighting approach featuring moments of “color noir.” Influences included the dramatic still photography of famed portraitist George Hurrell; the style of Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong; the look of 3-strip Technicolor; Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC’s lighting in the Studio-Era satire Barton Fink (1991); and the classic “Hollywood” film The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) shot by Robert L. Surtees, ASC.
Dennis has been shooting diverse movies and high-end TV drama around the world for 10 years. He prides himself on being versatile and passionate to create visuals that are story driven and emotionally motivated.
Raised in Devon, U.K., he was a very keen photographer from a young age. During a course in fine arts (he initially wanted to be a graphic designer) he discovered his love for film-making and graduated with a first-class honors degree in film and television at Napier Film School in Scotland before winning a Scottish BAFTA for his photography on the short film Sex & Death. He quickly moved into various pop promos before shooting his first feature film, The Last Great Wilderness, for director David Mackenzie.
Dennis spent 10 years soaking up as much experience as possible shooting a number of movie projects before shooting The Sweeney in 2012, which reached number one at the U.K. box office.
In 2015, he was nominated for a BAFTA and RTS award for his photography on Season 2 of the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.
Other recent projects include features American Hero, The Girl With All The Gifts and The Limehouse Golem, as well as the TV series Jekyll & Hyde, Black Sails and Krypton.
In 2017, Dennis was invited to the U.S. to shoot the miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which led to Pose, The Politician, Ratched and, most recently, Hollywood, all for Ryan Murphy TV.
Honored with the ASC Presidents Award in 2018, Stephen Lighthill, ASC earned his masters degree in journalism at Boston University and later launched his career behind the camera in San Francisco, where he gained experience photographing documentaries and television news. He honed his skill in shooting on the fly and capturing natural realism on various programs, including 60 Minutes and On the Road with Charles Kuralt, as well as the infamous concert doc Gimmie Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles.
After getting a break operating for another future ASC member, Stefan Czapsky, on the indie drama On the Edge, Lighthill soon after was able to join Local 659. A natural educator, he helped train new guild members. He would later focus on narrative production, including such series as Earth 2 and Nash Bridges.
In 2001, Bill Dill, ASC — then chair of the cinematography program at American Film Institute — offered Lighthill a full-time faculty position. He is now the head of the AFI program and a member of the ASC Board of Governors.