First Shakespeare, then Chaucer: Cinematographer Richard Greatrex (Shakespeare in Love) has now filmed stories that include two of the most celebrated writers in the English language. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Payback), A Knight's Tale stars Heath Ledger (The Patriot) as William Thatcher, a 14th-century peasant who transforms himself into Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland, traveling the European jousting tournament circuit with the help of his loyal companions, including one Geoffrey Chaucer, who forges his nobility papers.

The director wanted to combine a medieval look in the production design with a modern style of camera work and editing, including the very unusual idea of using classic rock songs, such as Queen's “We Will Rock You,” to infuse the action scenes with the kind of excitement today's audiences can relate to.

“The first thing we were concerned about was a certain sense of reality,” Greatrex explains, “so I tried to stick to as many naturalistic rules as I could.” The cinematographer used a range of amber gels to convey a candlelight look, especially Lee Filters' new CT Straw. “I always light soft,” he says, with “Chimera units, big light boxes, and also the modern version of Chinese paper lanterns. I use them all the time, handheld on a little boom, so people have always got a little chink of light in their eyes.”

He continues, “The other level which we had, which I thought was the most exciting, was that we wanted to shoot it in a very contemporary way. In that journey around Europe, all the jousting contests, we speculated that it was like a Formula One Grand Prix circuit, or a rock band tour circuit, so we tried to put in elements of how a contemporary audience might react to this kind of spectacle. That obviously was very opposite to the realism — we kind of ignored that as far as the use of the camera.”

And there were a lot of cameras in use, with multiple crews shooting the large-scale stadium scenes. “We had our A unit, that nearly always shot everything with two cameras, and sometimes three. We had an action unit who tended to do everything that was stunt-related; at times they were shooting with five, six, even seven cameras. Then we had a C unit that every time there was a crowd, be it in a beer hall or in a stadium, their modus operandi was to shoot all the little details of folks' faces: Working like a documentary, they'd just go and get lost in it all. There were a lot of jigsaw pieces in it. It's very much an editor's film: There was enough stuff shot to edit it any way you want. I found after a while that became one of my main concerns, just to make sure that we were providing footage, because it was so action-oriented.” (Gaffer on the film was Andy Arnautov; grip was Jiri Gazda.)

The film was shot in the Super 35 format, to give it a widescreen look without the problems of anamorphic lenses. “I like practical lights to be quite bright in the shot, especially candles and oil lamps, and you just can't get the basic stop out of an anamorphic system,” the DP explains. Plus, postproduction CGI houses prefer Super 35 for computer manipulation, which was a big factor on this film. Many shots of the stadiums required extensions of the crowds and the sets. “Even with all the resources we had in the Czech Republic — we had 1,200 extras on big days — it still would only quarter-fill the stadium,” he says. “We had a number of jousting locations, but obviously we didn't build a separate one for each, so different backgrounds are put in to change those sets, to express this journey of the Grand Prix circuit.”

Greatrex had a journey of his own. Including eight weeks of preproduction, he was in Prague for nearly six months. “It was a hard slog,” he admits, “but I'm very keen on preproduction. I try to immerse myself, because I think if you can get input early, you can help things swing the right way. So often you come on late and things are decided, and a lot of the time you're just fighting the circumstances that people have created.”

He likes to participate in location scouting because “it's not very easy to sit down with a director across a table and say, ‘Tell me the style of this film.’ You have to spend time with your director and designer, just going to look at places, even if they're not right. You go and look and you say that's not right, because of this and that, and you build up this bank of what's in the director's head.”

Sony Columbia wanted to shoot the film in Prague for its authentic medieval atmosphere, “but in fact we never shot in the city at all,” Greatrex says, “because it's just so full of tourists you can't work!” Another drawback was lack of equipment. “There's very little, and what there is is very primitive, I'm afraid,” he comments.

The camera gear came from FGV Schmilde in Munich, and the lighting package came from England-based AFM Lighting, which has an office in Barrandov Studios. The major stadium set was built on the backlot there; most other locations are exterior countryside. “We had a fabulous location manager; his prime thing was ‘don't drive more than 40 minutes,’ and we never did. It was wonderful from that point of view.”

What was not wonderful was the weather. “The first two weeks were stiflingly hot, very sunny — it seemed to be as much overhead as I've experienced in Texas — it was a hell of a job to control it. And then it rained for another four or five weeks. In the end we were forced into weather cover, interiors. So, matching was absolute hell, and matching is hell in that kind of action movie, with that many units working, anyway. In the end you just have to think, “Well, let's just hope it will cut together.”

The DP dealt with the logistics of this in British stiff-upper-lip fashion. “We had to always plan the day out, and move around with the sun. It was a tough call, especially when you've got so many people in the stadium. Not only were there 1,000 extras, but the horses and all the guys that go with them are not quick things to move around, and you'll be shooting away on the interior of one of the grandstands and the sun has moved, and you come back from lunch and you have to start somewhere else completely again. We had to be constantly on guard with it. And then it would rain. Very tough, I found all that.”

At least the multi-tiered design of the stadium sets helped him hide lighting instruments and all those multiple-camera crews. “The cameras were potentially in shot lots of times, but it was a vast auditorium, it was easy to lose them. And we tended to dress the guys on the third camera in suitable clothes, and we never found a problem with that.”

He also had a relatively easy time shooting some training sequences in a forest. The location manager found an old estate whose owners seem surprisingly obliging. “If we wanted to cut a path we just cut a path, and if we wanted an access road he just built an access road. There was never that kind of logistical problem. I just tried to augment the sun when it started to drop off in the later afternoon. I had 12ks up on the edges of the ridges to give a little bit of highlight, otherwise the greenery went very dead at times.”

There are several flashback scenes in the movie, showing how the humble thatcher's son came to be a squire for a noble knight, and dreamed of one day becoming a knight himself. These were shot straightforwardly, to be given to the postproduction house for atmospheric manipulation. “We were originally going to shoot them in different ways,” Greatrex says. “The first thought was to shoot them in Super 8, but Mill, our CGI company, said please don't do that, we can make it look like anything you want. I treated the lighting differently; for instance, the barn scene at night, with the father and son looking at the stars, I drastically underexposed that so it had a very intimate feel.” He worked up three samples of different treatments for these segments, and the director made the final decisions, working with the postproduction house on the finishing touches. A Knight's Tale was released May 11.

Greatrex is currently on location in the Outer Hebrides shooting Rocket Post, based on the true story of a German scientist who emigrated to a remote Scottish island in the 1930s to develop rockets for non-military purposes. “But then he's blackmailed into returning to Germany, and subsequently shot for treason,” the DP explains with typically dry British humor. “It's a completely bizarre kind of English story.”