Idil Sukan on painting and photographing Christina Hendricks, Gillian Anderson and more for Agatha Christie's Crooked House

The artist and photographer tells us about painting portraits in the back of a car, and what its like to see your work smashed during a movie. [Note: no spoilers]

A new Agatha Christie adaptation is as much a British Christmas tradition as mince pies and hangovers on Christmas morning. This year, Channel 5 has picked up the (sleigh-bell covered) reins to put on a new production stuffed with well-known actors, 5 with a film version of one Christie's non-Marple or Poirot novels, Crooked House.

While the cast isn't as A-list as Ken Branagh's take on Murder on the Orient Express, it's a level above most BBC adaptations - with TV comedians nowhere to be seen. Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson (seen here), Christine Hendricks and Terence Stamp give wonderfully overblown performances. Only the younger leads let it down a little by playing their roles completely straight.

The sprawling 'crooked house' in which the squabbling Leonides family live is almost a character in it's own right, covered by imposing painted portraits. These were created in record time in Corel Painter by photographer, artist and art director Idil Sukan.

Best known for photographing the UK's top comedians - which I interviewed her about back in 2014 - Idil was also the art department photographer on the film, shooting portraits and familiy photos to be used on set. Both photos and paintings were produced to very tight deadlines - as due to actors only being available for shooting days on the film, they would often be painted (if needed), printed and framed for the day after Idil could take the photos).

The way Idil tells it, working on the film had much in common with the film - with meetings by chance, channelling overwrought emotions, some frantic rushing around at the end and finally upsetting family members. Though thankfully no-one actually died (but Idil may have come close due to some of the deadlines she was working too).

Neil Bennett: How did you come to work on the production?

Idil Sukan: "It was an absolute chance meeting when I was working at Pinewood Studios taking photos on a BBC TV show. I was eating lunch in the cafeteria, choking on very hot chilli - my eyes absolutely red and mascara running down my face. But I had my Nikon D800 camera next to my tray, and sitting next to me happened to be a graphic designer looking for a photographer to come work on a film with him, to make elements of the set design and props to be used within the narrative.

"We got talking and what he was looking for exactly matched my style and the kind of work I wanted to do. It just goes to show that it’s not what you look like or who you know - just carry your camera around with you, or better yet, a giant neon sign saying 'Artist Looking For Work'.

"It originally started as just a photographic commission to take reference pictures for paintings. But it ended up as a huge project where I took the reference photography - but also I did the paintings myself. I also took dozens of photos of the cast which ended up being framed around the manor house locations of the film. "

A behind-the-scenes shot of the set featuring one of Idil's portraits

NB: Who were you working with?

IS: "The absolutely beautiful set design was spearheaded by the award-winning production designer Simon Bowles, and all the graphics-based props were designed by the brilliant Sam Moulsdale - whom I had met at the canteen. It was amazing to be part of such an incredible team who had such a clear vision and really wanted to make the sets stand out.

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Idil's digital portrait of Christina Hendricks

NB: You created a hero prop that becomes part of the narrative, a painted portrait of Christina Hendricks' character - a former Las Vegas showgirl who married the murder victim tycoon Aristide Leonides. Take us through the composition of this piece.

IS: "The painting was a great collaboration between Sam, myself, the film’s costume, hair and make up department, and of course Hendricks herself. We first art directed the photographic reference which I shot. Hendricks arrived at the shoot dressed and with a wig and in full make-up. She was stunning and incredibly generous to come to a shoot to get a photo reference, especially given the insanely tight turnaround time.

"We wanted to make a portrait of her character that was a nouveau-riche person’s idea of something traditional and impressive. Her character has married into this demanding, immensely wealthy family - and she wants to impress them, or be on the same footing as them. She is lost in a past idealised version of herself: forever young and perfect - the vision which her husband fell in love with of a Las Vegas showgirl.

"So it’s a grand painting, but her character’s taste is a bit elaborate and ostentatious - underlined by the contrast between the 60s print of the dress and the traditional oil painting style. It’s a constant, grating visual reminder to the other characters in the story who resent her so much. But we didn’t want to make it too cartoony either - we still wanted it to look great.

"When directing her pose for the reference photographs, I wanted something a little bit over-posed, like her character was trying hard to be perfect for the painter, - a kind of affected, grand stiltedness. But equally a pose that wasn’t too demure - that still showed off her figure, looks and clothing. Hendricks looked incredible in all poses and was happy to try different things - she made it a pleasure to work on."

Detail from Idil's digital portrait of Christina Hendricks

NB: How did you ending up partially painting the portrait in a car?

"We thought we were going to shoot the reference photos the morning of the first day, so I’d have the whole day to paint and then send it off for an incredible overnight printing on a gorgeous vintage-looking textured canvas material.

"But because of a fun festival of delays that day, we weren’t able to start shooting till around 6.40pm. The overnight canvas guy had said we needed to get him the final high resolution file by 10pm. I got asked: 'Is it still possible?'

"I have never speed painted before. I did a very slow gulp and my eyes glazed over - a fixed smile on my face. 'Yes,' I said. 'It is possible'. That’s the thing about working on the art department on TV and films - you end up saying 'it’s possible' to things that were not possible before. That’s what makes me love working on them, you push yourself in ways that you didn’t know you could.

"That said, I still didn’t know if it was going to be possible when I picked up my camera. So I really worked hard on the reference photo, I got the lighting perfect, the pose perfect. This was what all my photographic training was for - I can make a photo that almost already looks like an oil painting which would mean that I could just paint, without having to spend time drafting poses and lighting directions.

"That’s when the brilliant and dashing Sam Moulsdale kicked in. He was everything an anxious, pressured painter could dream for. He picked up all my stuff, packed everything up, we were out of the studio by about 7.10pm and he bundled me and my equipment into his red Toyota. I hadn’t even quite sat down yet by the time I was downloading the reference files. We picked the best reference file within a couple of minutes.

"Using my laptop's trackpad (urrk), I began just putting together a quick reference sketch in Photoshop. We were determined and our confidence grew. I felt like I could have done the whole thing in the car.

Three copies of the prop painting were required in case of damage.

"But we soon arrived at the luxury of the Travelodge. Again Sam’s mighty leadership was key. He installed me in a room. It became our instant design studio. Finally I could take out my Wacom Intuos 5 tablet, my stylus and my one-fingered tablet gliding glove (much recommended, fellow Wacom users, if you aren’t already using one). Sam rushed away to get food and caffeine. He needed my energy levels at maximum. I felt like a boxer and he was my corner man. And the food, the urgency, the excitement - it was like a Challenge Anneka episode. Since then, I always wear neon jumpsuits to deadlines.

"Once I had the sketch and blocked out the colours, I moved into Corel Painter for the detailing, and then the fun really began. I’ve never painted so fast. Working digitally with virtual paints and brushes in a high pressure scenario like this is an absolute dream. I was able to build up brush strokes without having drying wait times - and I could change everything on the fly without having to throw mistake canvases out the Travelodge window in despair.

"With many apologies, we managed to get the final file by 11pm to the printers, and the canvases arrived the very next morning ready for us to stretch onto frames. And they looked fantastic. We got so many nice comments from the cast and crew, and the feeling of relief was amazing.

"Working on a film is very different from doing portraiture in your own studio, where you control the production and the schedule. On a film you’re utterly at the mercy of a series of producers, transportation schedules, shooting changes. You have no control. You have to happily sit and wait. (My advice: find the snacks.)"

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Idil's photo of Christina Hendricks, and it's appearance in the film

NB: Annie Atkins - the graphic designer on many of Wes Anderson's movies - recently said that as well as directly impacting the audience, your work has the equally important job of influencing the actors and helping them getting into their characters and environment. And that's just as true for work you produce that doesn't appear in the final film.

Do you agree?

IS: "I think it’s even more than that. It might sound ridiculous but I’m sure other prop makers do it: if I’m taking a photo, part of me is playing the character of the photographer who is taking the photo. If a photo in a film is taken by a spy, you have to act how a spy would act - how a spy would hold a camera, where and how they would stand to take a photo. And not just any spy, but a particular spy in the story. The shoot itself partly becomes an off-camera scene in the film, because that final photo always exists as part of the world or narrative, and with a purpose.

"It's the same with a prop. With my painting of Hendricks, I imagined my character as a renowned society painter under a lot of pressure, who was horrified by the idea of making her pose so ostentatiously and using such garish colours - and had to do a lot of tedious, endless corrections from his client before final sign off. The painter wanted it to be a lot more demure, so she’s effectively disowned it since. It made those crazy few hours in the Travelodge a lot more fun and I think it made for a stronger painting.

Bottom: Idil on set with her photo of Christina Hendricks

"Talking about the character of the photographer or painter’s point of view with the actor more fully creates an environment for them to perform to camera in character - and I can understand more about their take on the script, which in turn further influences my approach to the prop. And then of course when they see the finished prop on set, it feels familiar to them and allows them to have ownership of and a connection with it.

"Part of me would love to fully show up to a 19th-century shoot in crinoline and petticoats. That might be too much. But the idea is to create a prop that is a real object that an (unseen) character in the universe of the film has made.

"So every time I’ve worked in the art department of a production, it really does feel like you are almost like a small second unit, directing and producing and even acting out work in collaboration with the actors. Yeah, I’m of course massively embellishing my role as a lowly prop maker - mainly to entertain myself. But also because it having that attitude to it and feeling that responsibility for it makes the work stronger."

Idil's portrait of Amanda Abbington as Clemency Leonides

NB: Annie also mentioned that often for period films she has to make her works seem aged so they feel more correct to the viewer, even if they're supposed to be contemporary. Did you have to do that here?

IS: "It’s the same with every visual art. It’s all very well having an idea, but you have to make sure that the idea ‘reads’ visually, that the idea is communicated effectively to the audience who might just have a moment to see it. The purpose of the prop is usually more important that the look of the prop.

"Perhaps spy photographs in real life might be a lot more blurry or feature the backs of heads more often than not - but in a film, you might only have half a second to indicate to the viewer that a certain character can be seen in the photograph, so you have to purposefully make it much clearer than it would be in real life.

"Even more importantly, they have to feel correct within the world of the film. All props exist under the eyes of the director, the cinematographer and the production designer. They have to be coherent. So something may look ‘correct’ in a vacuum but stand out like a sore thumb within a certain art direction.

"You might have a more realistic art direction, or you might have a very stylised one. Either way, it should all feel like part of the same visual universe. The Harry Potter graphic design for example is particularly stylised and utterly stunning, not insignificantly because of its coherent style. It brings the wizarding world to life.

"There is no ‘real’ or ‘correct’ in cinema, it’s all affected to different degrees. Whatever it looks like, the most important thing to do is to ensure that every detail is part of a visually coherent, gliding, seamless universe, so the viewer can utterly lose themselves in the story and nothing interrupts the flow.

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Behind-the-scenes photos from the set

NB: You watched the film the first time when it aired on Channel 5, and live-tweeted your reaction. Were you expecting your portraits and photos to feature so prominently?

IS: "I could barely pay attention to the film as I was so excited. It’s the first time that my work on a film has featured so much, especially as part of the emotional arcs. Making and contributing to hero props makes you really feel like you were part of the film. The paintings and photography had been so much work so we guessed they would feature in a big way - but it’s so exciting to finally see it all on screen. You’re literally living vicariously through your props and it’s the best feeling.

"It’s particularly crazy to have something you made appear as the final shot of a film."

NB: One of the paintings is destroyed by a character in front on many others in a scene in the film. How did that make you feel?

IS: "It's heartbreaking. You do all that work on a prop just for it to be destroyed. It’s thrilling though, because you see your prop have its moment in the sun.

"After seeing it get smashed in the finished film, my Dad called me, distraught that someone would have damaged something I had made. He loves me very much."

Crooked House has been nominated for Best Production Design at the British Film Designers Guild Awards, with Simon Bowles' name on the nomination. British readers can watch it on Channel 5's catch-up service My5 before the end of Christmas Eve. It will also be released in cinemas worldwide in 2018.

See more of Idil's work on her website or Instagram.