Sharpshooter: The invisible man

Francis Craig Chee shooting in a field
Barrie Smith
September 30th 2016 at 11:28AM : By

In this Sharpshooter Barrie Smith talks with scientific filmmaker Francis Craig Chee who transforms the microscopic into the spectacular

Scientific filmmaker Francis Chee captures a whole world that most cinematographers never see.


Name: Francis Craig Chee

Age: 53

Family: Yes.

Languages: English only, I’m afraid!

Occupation: Marine biologist and scientific filmmaker


Chee dragonfly

Where did you grow up?

Sydney, Australia

Where do you live today?

Bristol, United Kingdom.

Why did you move to the UK?

I was working in Dublin as an Apple Final Cut pro trainer and decided to make a base in Bristol as it seemed a logical choice due to my type of work

Craig Chee, cinematographerWhat are your specialities in terms of video shooting?

I spent many years before taking a PhD, and actually during the PhD studies I used a vast range of microscopes from electron microscopes to several kinds of light and laser confocal microscopes. I wanted to bring these microscopy skills into action for what I’m now doing in terms of scientific filmmaking. So I guess my specialty is as a formally trained microscopist.

What caused you to look outside the laboratory and search for more technically adept equipment?

A regular research light microscope is great if everything you want to image happens to be on a microscope slide or in a petri dish however, once you want to film something in a vertical orientation, then you need a microscope setup that can do that, with a specialist stage as well.

You operate a 'fully pimped out' electron microscope. How do you use it in video capture?

The “pimped out microscope” is actually a Nikon research light microscope, sitting on its own custom designed and built anti-vibration table. Video is captured live via the modified phototube (for DSLRs) and or video cameras via a C mount.

I also own a custom-built long working distance microscope, but this one is mounted horizontally, again on a custom anti-vibration table. Video capture is via an F-Mount, but any kind of video mount can be fitted if required.

What are the demands of micro-/macroscopy video capture?

I guess one of the biggest and certainly the most important aspects for me is the lighting. To that end all of my lighting systems are custom designed and either built by me or co-designed and built by an engineer I’ve been working closely with. Essentially I need very, very reliable gear that simply doesn’t fail me, even if there are power failures, et cetera.

Stable filming platforms are also high up on the list too. For this reason all microscopes are on anti-vibration tables.

What kind of lighting do you use?

For all shoots involving plant growth or shoots that require a particular “day length” then fluorescent grow lights are used. All other lighting has been custom designed and made either by myself or by an engineer I work with. These later lights are all using special LEDs and custom-designed lens systems with high spec fibre optics. Sometimes I’ll use tungsten lighting when heating is not a problem.

Current assignments. Where, doing what, shooting for whom?

I’m a commissioned filmmaker for Science Photo Library (SPL). Science Photo Library is a privately owned stock photography and, more recently, stock footage agency, founded in 1981. Its headquarters are in Maida Hill, in West London.

SPL represents me in the UK and globally. I’ve been working closely with them for some years now. I also shoot for myself as a freelancer, both in the studio and abroad. Hundreds of clips get sold each year.

Currently I’m shooting time lapse and motion footage of ice crystal growth using a purpose built microscope to image actual crystal growth.

Have you had any experiences of your work being pirated?

If you mean taken and used without my permission, then you can count YouTube channels that rip off my videos marking them up as theirs and adding advertising to them.

What did you do about it?

Report them to the YouTube Police! Result: the videos are immediately removed from said channels.

Francis Chee, cinematographer

Do you ever shoot 3D?

As yet I’ve not had any requests to shoot 3D. However I am planning at some stage to build a microscope with this capacity.

What programmes and broadcasters have you shot for?

To be honest, as I sell most of my work via SPL, it’s difficult to say, as it’s usually picked up by production companies producing stuff for broadcasters, and whilst they might say who the end user is, I usually don’t know.

But some examples are a macro time-lapse of ice crystal growth on The Strangest Weather on Earth, also How the Universe Works - that was a production for Discovery Science. Another earlier one for TV in 2012 involved some macro work to be used in a BBC three part series, How to Grow a Planet. This was a request via SPL for the BBC. There is a huge list, as hundreds of clips get sold per year.

Tell us about some of your most demanding assignments?

Recently, I filmed both time-lapse and motion of cell development. It took about three weeks to nail some good sequences of blood flowing in embryonic tadpole gills using a microscope. The difficulty was in animal behaviour, as the slightest vibration caused these miniature creatures to shift their positions, many of which were not suitable for a good composition. I even have a specialist microscope stage to help avoid any vibration but once you go over X3 at the objective, the slightest bit of movement can, if filming in water, look like a tsunami!

Do you use any specialist camera gear?

The cameras are all standard DSLRs or if need be, something else I might hire. All of my scopes can fit just about any type/brand image capture device there is available.

Other gear that you access?

I sometimes hire high speed cameras. I’ve used some Olympus models in the past. I can’t recall the models. What’s important to me is the frame size and frame rate. Generally I want around at least 1000fps.

What optics do you use?

All Nikon glass for shooting macro. Nikon, Zeiss and Mitutoyo objectives for the microscopes.

Equipment "wish list"?

Maybe a good high speed camera capable of 4K? Or another good microscope setup.

Is UHD in your sights?

Not at present.

What useful piece of gear do you wish someone might make?

I’d like RED or someone else to bring out a fan-less (to avoid vibration and sucking in dust) super sensitive, low light camera that shoots 2K and 4K in colour and can be rigged for time-lapse as well.

Craig Chee, cinematographer

Best thing about your job?

After working for some big US companies in the corporate world, being my own boss, plus being able to look after our son whilst on the job.

Worst thing about your job?

There’s never enough time!

Hairiest/assignment and why?

None as yet for work, but I could fill a room with stories of non-work escapades from being held captive by mercenaries to losing a jet engine in mid flight. All of which was photographed or filmed by me - but purely for myself.

Go on, tell us about your non-work escapades?

Once while travelling to an island we were held by some mercenaries. Two of us on a local bus. To begin with, we thought a movie was being made when we saw all the guns. But very soon it was clear they were all quite real guns and real intentions. We were obviously not on any “wanted list”.

The latter was a sort of filming assignment while I was doing an MA. I was travelling in the Middle East on a no-name charter flight on an old McDonnell Douglas MD80 over the ocean, near Lebanon. We experienced a series of engine surges on the starboard engine during take off, then at altitude a serious engine surge in the same engine, whereby the pilot shut the engine down. There was a brief moment before the auto-pilot corrected for the roll of the plane and some tense 30 minutes or so before we actually landed at a completely different airport.

What do you do in your down time?

Ha! It’s pretty full on for me, but all of my remainder time is spent looking after my son!