When you watch a film at the cinema, you can tell the film industry people. They are the ones who make their partners stay behind for the entire credits, even as everyone else heads for the light and the loos.
When camera people watch credits roll, they look for letters like ASC, ACS, CSC, BCS, and NZCS. These letters sometimes appear after the director of photography’s name and they have special meaning in the camera world.
These acronyms represent accreditation by the American, Australian, Canadian, British, and New Zealand cinematographers’ societies. Accreditation by one of these societies is acknowledgement that you are a master cinematographer who has a consistently high quality body of work to your name, and that you have earned the recognition and acknowledgement of the profession.
Although details vary around the world, cinematographers’ societies accredit members in ways similar to other professional associations. After an appropriate qualifying period as a full member, if they feel ready, a cinematographer may apply for accreditation by submitting a range of projects. Their application is assessed by an accreditation panel and, if successful, they earn the exclusive right to use the society’s acronym after their name – in our case NZCS for New Zealand Cinematographers Society.
Full membership of NZCS is itself recognition of professional standing and something to be proud of. It requires that cinematographers have worked as directors of photography for at least five years. But until you earn accreditation, you can’t put those crucial letters after your name.
Of course, these days NZCS is not just composed of cinematographers. About half of the society are associate members who are not yet eligible for full membership, are other professional camera crew, or work with cameras and images in other ways.
Accreditation is different from a prize or award. Awards are for a particular project, and deserve lots of applause, but accreditation is awarded to the cinematographer for their body of work, requiring a level of experience and consistency that you don’t get from an individual award. Winning awards adds gloss to your CV and some NZCS members seem to have a pretty good run of awards by entering in the Australian ACS. In other countries awards are considered helpful in leading up to accreditation, but in the past there was no dedicated NZCS cinematography awards. However, this year planning is well advanced on our own new and exciting NZCS awards to be held in October.
These days NZCS, like other cinematography societies around the world, has a pretty broad definition of cinematography encompassing the full gamut of genres and formats, that involve lighting, composition and processing of moving images. This means accreditation it not just about feature films but is open to cinematographers who might specialise in areas like commercials, reality, or documentaries, all of which have their own challenges.
So as 2016 applications for NZCS accreditation are accepted, a look at some of the 18 current NZCS accredited members reveals cinematographers who have accreditations not just with NZCS, but also with Australian, Canadian, and US cinematographers’ societies. This shows NZCS accreditation is valued in the international camera world, and is worth watching for next time you watch those credits roll.
NZCS members Marc Swadel and Leon Narbey NZCS write in memory of his brother, who was well known in the New Zealand screen industry as a director, producer, and educator.
On 18 March 2016, my brother Paul lost his hard-fought battle with dementia. He was 47. He went in his sleep, surrounded by his family in his home town of Christchurch. At that moment, we all lost a great bloke and a true force for good in film and TV.
Paul crammed a lot in to his short life. He was a director and producer of Cannes-nominated, award-winning arts documentaries, music videos, features, commercials and short films. As an executive producer and development executive, he had an impressive track record of mentoring new talent with the NZ Film Commission, and as a teacher and inspiration to hundreds of students at Waikato Polytech, The Media Design School, and the Elam School of Fine Arts.
There would not be many people in film in NZ who had not known, or worked with Paul in some way.
I was amazingly lucky to be able to work as a co-director, DP, soundie and collaborator with my brother over the last 20 years. Paul came from a fine arts/painting background, and ‘got’ the art and language of cinematography, which is a rare gift in a producer or director, especially in TV.
Paul’s big grin and dark humour will be missed.
A celebration of Paul’s life and work, with a showing on 35mm, will be held at the Hollywood Cinema, 20 St Georges Rd, Avondale, at 7:30 pm this Sunday 10 April. Feel free to BYO and toast to the memory of Swad.
Marc Swadel, April 2016
‘I was fortunate to collaborate with Paul Swadel on two productions that he directed: Colin McCahon: I Am 2004, and The Big Picture series 2007.
Late at night in a London budget hotel, I had to deliver and exchange cloned HD rushes with Paul. The door opened and I was greeted with his smiling jet-lagged sleep deprived eyes, while in the dark background surrounding his face was a pool of laptops running with that day’s rushes amongst a tangle of cables, flashing drives and clones.
His face and his expression in this context will always stay with me.
Paul was the most hands on director I have ever worked with. He wanted to know everything about cameras, especially film cameras. He was more versant and cognizant of the new digital formats than I was at that time.
We shot Colin McCahon: I Am in four formats: super 8mm B&W, hand cranked and single frame 16mm, and two digital formats. Paul wanted this blunt conjunction of grain and texture with the pulse and fluctuation of exposure giving it a painterly or even kinetic bounce; a subjective attempt at projecting McCahon back into a filmic landscape.
On The Big Picture we wanted a small kit for international travel and for Paul it had to be a small 1080 HD capture camera (which was the ultimate in that day).
At that time, your recording duration was very limited and we knew Hamish Keith was going to deliver long complex voice to cameras pieces and the last thing we needed was a run out just when he was peaking. Paul sorted it by devising auxiliary 1 GB external hard drives (then larger than a pack of butter) and attaching them to the camera.
But Paul was more than just a technician.
His relationship with Hamish was casual and yet firm; always able to ignite and project glowing performances from Hamish. At the National Archives in The Hague, Paul’s charm secured us the use of service trollies, making one into a make shift camera-dolly which allowed us to move with Hamish as he walked and talked amongst the many aisles of collated material, ending with Tasman’s journals. I will always remember being with Paul on our knees closely examining Isaac Gilseman’s drawings of Tasman’s encounter at Murderers Bay in 1642. It was just us in a treasure store, with a magnified lens on the camera only millimetres from the surface, capturing the marks someone else had made all those years ago.
I will very much miss Paul’s vitality, verve, and energy.
Leon Narbey, April 2016
ScreenSafe is running a roadshow to explain what you need to know, and what you need to do, now that the new health and safety legislation is in force.
ScreenSafe’s website shows the new downloadable screen industry Health and Safety Guidelines, which replace the old safety Code of Practice.
These plain English guidelines are designed to help you to meet the requirements of the Health and Safety Work Act 2015, which cames into effect on 4 April.
ScreenSafe Chair David Strong says the message from the new Act is that everybody in the screen is now responsible for health and safety.
“It’s up to everyone, no matter the scale of production, from those running the show to those working on it, to support a safe and healthy production. With the launch of the website, we will have one central and free location for everyone to learn and understand our obligations under the Act,” he says.
“We’ll be holding presentations in Wellington, Auckland and Queenstown, to provide clarity on the new legislation and answer questions as best we can. The bottom line is that we want what everyone wants, that the New Zealand screen sector is a safe, healthy and successful industry for all of us.”
To download the new safety guides go to www.screensafe.co.nz
ScreenSafe's new safety Act cheat sheet
Register to attend
Wednesday 20 April 6.30pmHospitality Suite 1st FloorSt James Theatre
Thursday 21 April 6.30pmEllerslie Event Centre
1 Ellerslie Racecourse
80 Ascot Ave, Remuera
• Webinar available for this event
Wednesday 27 April6.30pm Manata Room Mercure Queenstown Resort
In February cinematographers Dave Garbett and John Cavill related their experiences on the 2015 Ash vs Evil Dead shoot to an audience of NZCS members and guests. The event was held at Spoon, while they were prepping their 2016 shoot.
To kick things off NZCS members and new faces were treated to an episode of Ash vs Evil Dead, which set the tone of the evening and stimulated lots of questions for Garbett and Cavill.
In 2015 Dave Garbett stepped into the franchise and shot the first episode of the 2015 series, establishing the look and feel for the series. He says it is a stylised look, harking back to the B grade movie style of the original 1981 cabin-in-the-woods horror.
“It captured peoples imagination,” says Garbett. “We don’t want it to be B-grade by doing a bad job of it, but by pushing it into a stylised arena. It’s embellished real life, but trying to make it real enough that it is still believable as a story.”
He means believable in the sense of visually convincing, because this is not real life, it is an unapologetic horror, with skewered-torso, severed-head splatter.
“It makes for quite a lot of interesting conversations as you are faced with more and more bizarre situations as the episode progresses,” he adds.
The shoot came with plenty of challenges, and pretty much the whole thing is inside a studio – including the forest, which was shot at Kelly Park. They try do to as much as they can in camera, digital EFX augmenting what they have shot when necessary. One example was the sequence where the hero fights his own doppelganger imposter.
“Ninety 90 percent of it was done in camera, with some CGI face to face shots to sell the sequence,” says Garbett. “They did a really amazing job. In the old days it would have been split screen or motion control, but nowadays they can do a face replacement.”
Another in-camera sequences was a car chase with an fight inside a car, which was completed using back projection plates and exteriors shot by the second unit.
Cavill explains that they needed three back projection screens: rear, side, and overhead suspended just a few inches above the roof to put reflections onto the windscreen.
“We picked a piece of road about a kilometre and a half long and changed the street lamps to daylight, “ says Cavill. The car was towing an enormous trailer – an American style caravan.
“Back in the studio the biggest challenge was that that you see the street lights going over the trailer,” Cavill says. At the speed they were going Cavill timed the intervals between streetlights as six seconds, which he duplicated for the car by synchronising and programming Color Source 72 LED battens, to give the same effect.
They had to introduce sufficient random camera and car shakes, and reflections, to make the whole thing look convincing, a feat the audience make clear that they had pulled off successfully.
The evening too was judged a success, thanks in large part to the willingness of Garbett and Cavill to talk openly.
Special thanks to Spoon for the venue.
Womens’ Series (1976) L-R Lorraine Engelbretson (sound recordist), Margaret Moth (camera), Julie Thomson (research) and Deidre McCartin (director). Deborah Shepard from Reframing Women: A History of New Zealand Film (Auckland: Harper Collins, 2000: 52)
In 1932 Hilda Hayward, Rudall Hayward’s first wife, picked up her camera and went to film the Auckland riots in Queen Street. It was a courageous move that made her New Zealand’s first known camerawoman and paved the way for women who have been working with movie cameras in New Zealand ever since. Hayward had previously collaborated with her husband as an editor but went on to shoot doco and drama footage with, and without him.
Later, Ramai Hayward, Rudall Hayward’s second wife, and Margaret Moth became icons for aspiring women cinematographers. Ramai is credited as the first Maori camerawoman. She was a stills photographer with her own photographic studio in Devonport before she met Rudall. Margaret left New Zealand after shooting The Women’s Series in 1976 and became a renowned CNN news and current affairs shooter. Both have since passed away.
Despite this history, in 1984, after four years in the cutting room, I joined the camera department in the New Zealand freelance film and television industry. There was only one other female camera assistant working on drama shoots. Her name was Moi Cameron and she later became a firewoman.
It is quite surreal being the only one of something. It defies reason and the isolation is problematic for a collaborative person. Thankfully, in 1988, Merata Mita invited me to a wānanga with her filmmaking buddies such as Annie Collins. It was to support Sharon Hawke and others to fulfil their roles on the upcoming Manuka series with the legendary Don Selwyn. Subsequently Josie Harbutt was working on film shoots in the 1990s and I was on Black Beauty with Rewa Harré on Kirsten Green’s first day as a loader. There was Rachel Baird, Rachel Douglas, Amanda Clark, Freddie, Tara Landry and many more stalwart women loading and pulling focus after I moved from fiction to the documentary genre. And there were still more talented women who chose not to go on become cinematographers for a myriad of reasons.
I meet women everywhere, often behind desks, or as editors, who say they wanted to become a camerawomen but it had seemed too hard. They had the impression it might be too physically taxing, which was a perception at the time, or too psychologically challenging due to impending torment from some careless cowboys – the men who could sway attitudes and atmospheres on set. Others identified unsupportive attitudes within the female dominated production office as a potential drag on their emotional resources. This was a pity because the right mentors can provide crucial support to overcome perceived and real obstacles.
Back then I was operating with film cameras – Super 8, 16mm Bolex, Aaton or ARRI 16BL – using no more than a couple of lights or a ship’s flare and often working almost alone with a director, although Chris Plummer reminded me that he held a lamp for me while filming in the bombed out Rainbow Warrior in 1985.
This was my shooting life in parallel to the mainstream industry where I was a camera assistant. I loved the physicality of being an assistant, along with the banter, the precision, the travel and adventures (even though the pressure was sometimes untenable and the osteopath became a friend).
I did it for ten years until my mother suggested I stop serving others and just shoot. That was in 1995, and she gave me that advice the year she died. My main mentor was gone. I was not one of a filmmaking dynasty or part of any other team – I was just me. I had been shooting since about 1980 – around twenty short films, a bunch of music videos, some docos and one 16mm feature film, Gravity and Grace. It was about time to call myself a cinematographer.
I joined WIFT for collegial support and access to an international arena because there was no cinematographer’s society back then. I didn't know I'd have to wait 12 years to become a foundation member of the NZCS.
It was twenty years after I joined the industry that I met my first female cinematographer, Australian Jan Kenny, and organised a WIFT weekend cinematography workshop with her. The weekend was a roaring success. Camerawomen Sharon Hawke and Ginny Loane were there. Ginny had been working in the lighting department and was a rising star then, while today she is a role model for the new generation of aspiring female cinematographers.
Since then, Jac Fitzgerald appeared on the scene and has been shooting drama and TV commercials. So, there were only a handful of us who had come up through the celluloid years. Strangely that was perceived by some as an entire platoon, commenting ‘There are lots of you now, aren’t there!’. Yet in reality there were so few women out of more than a hundred shooters. It was a matter of perception. The few stood out in high relief.
Operating on Timetrap (1990) with Erin O'Leary, Therese Mangos, Rick Allender and Sally Smith (director/writer)
I’d shot the 16mm feature Gravity and Grace (1994) in Auckland and NY before I met my partner Mike on a Wellington production to do with domestic violence (it won me the ITVA camera award in 1995). Some productions are extra lucky. Mike and I shot and recorded my second feature, Harold Brodie’s Reality Show then we went to Ireland while I was pregnant to shoot and sound record Shirley Grace’s Erin’s Exiled Daughters. Bridie was born in 1997. After that, there were about five more short films including Felicity Morgan Rhind’s Donuts for Breakfast which screened at the New York Film Festival, amongst others.
I felt that I really needed to establish myself as a cinematographer before I had a baby. I sensed that a baby would change things and I was right. Short form drama and docos were just manageable but not the big drama shoots. I didn’t want to put stress on my daughter. I remember throwing my breast milk out the window of a moving car on the way to a recce in Piha because my baby wasn’t around to relieve the pressure naturally!
Some shoots, like Donuts for Breakfast, Bridie attended because Mike could stay with us on location. She was sick during Moby’s Island so considerate crew members carried her along the beach to keep her within eyeshot. She had her own wee department. Since I have no family close by, a change of schedule always necessitated some domestic production management on my part. I only recently learned that there is an aversion to hiring mothers in key roles because of our changed priorities.
I waited and waited to shoot a TV drama like so many of the great ones I had pulled focus on. However, there was about an eight-year drought. Bummer. Then when Mike and I were filming a doco in the US in 2001, I was able to accompany Donuts for Breakfast to Sundance. I was embraced by the doco community there and gravitated to the House of Docs, a space for panel discussions and screenings that was dedicated to documentaries. What a relief to see that the inclusive Errol Morris had his entire Interrotron crew on the podium beside him, explaining their shooting process to the audience. It was a revelation to discover a world where ideas and real people matter more than cool, career, or celebrity. I was converted. My work with factual storytelling has since led me into the field of video installation, where computers and digital imagery reign – a brave new world with almost unlimited potential.
In the past the scale of the equipment generally involved trucks. But now working with the newer, lighter weight digital cameras we are shedding the trucks and the budget! The arrival of DSLRs has democratised the medium and helped to increase the number of female shooters.
Coupled with that is the proliferation of cameras throughout almost every aspect of our lives plus the proclivity for content that many students and 48 hour pundits are happy to supply at low cost or gratis. Working in the gift economy requires optimism and energy. That’s something our young women have in spades. In addition to developing their craft, they practice their sports, build their own companies, go to art school – or go to Brazil and shoot thrilling dance movies as one of the Cinefem Scholarship applicants did. And women from all over the world have come to us. Maybe it is the worldwide fame of Weta that attracts them, or our reputation as a liberal, green society that first gave women the vote.
I believe strongly in the power of diversity to enrich our ways of being and working in the world, and initiated the informal Slow Film Movement as a counterpoint to the dollar-driven, slavish, six or seven-day week. Now owning our own gear is within our reach it means that we can be more flexible. We can avoid the costs of equipment hire, the time pressure and inhuman work schedules. Women can and are devising new ways of working. These new approaches impact on the kind of films that can be made and the stories that can be told.
Recently, I have detected a sea change for women with cameras. This was very evident at a recent WIFT/NZCS evening at Panavision. Women pretty much ran the show. It was an historical moment. Aliesha Staples held the floor as she introduced various drones and gimbals to an audience that included old hands and newbies, both male and female. The evening was electric.
In April of this year, I was invited to film a series of interviews of our women filmmakers for a New Zealand Film Commission initiative supported by Jane Campion. Jane’s comments about the woeful lack of women in film internationally – she is still the only woman to have won the coveted Cannes Palme d’Or – have galvanised the Film Commission into positive action. Together they devised the Cinefem Scholarship as a way of supporting women filmmakers and New Zealand film culture in general. The first scholarship focused on cinematography, and Ginny Loane and I represented NZCS on the selection panel along with Richard Bluck. I was struck by the combined experience of the applicants, the quality and diversity of the work and the high standard. We were keenly aware that there were very few Maori and Polynesian applicants, but were pleased that pregnant women and mothers applied for this cinematographers’ scholarship.
I believe there is an abundance of talent and commitment in New Zealand and that as a group, women in film have a great deal to offer. I am encouraged by the possibilities offered by the new media and by the passion of the younger generations and their work ethic. It is a world of talent and opportunity that the pioneers Hilda Hayward, Ramai Hayward and Margaret Moth would probably find difficult to believe and I think it should give us cause for optimism about the future.
Jamieson Montgomery (L) and Guy Quartermain (R)
Along with Dan, the DoP, I was in the front passenger seat as we drove across Mount Wellington in the early hours of Sunday morning recently to shoot a music video. As 1st AC, I held a Ronin on my lap fully rigged and ready to go. Our director Tim was in the van ahead of us as we followed in convoy to our location, an empty office building.
Along with Dan, the DoP, I was in the front passenger seat as we drove across Mount Wellington in the early hours of Sunday morning recently to shoot a music video. As 1st AC, I held a Ronin on my lap fully rigged and ready to go. Our director Tim was in the van ahead of us as we followed in convoy to our location, an empty office building.
There were no other cars on the road at that time so it was easy to see the unmarked police car quite blatantly tailing us. Thinking it just must be a quiet night for them, we didn't read too much into it and pretty soon we arrived at our location and the cop car disappeared.
About 15 minutes later, the sun was just starting to come up and a light rain had started falling on us. Tim and I were outside unloading the van and Dan was inside setting up when we amazed to hear, ‘Turn around and put your hands in the air!'
I turned around to see, just like on an episode of cops, a bunch of police officers popping into view with their guns drawn and pointed directly at us. My first reaction was, obviously, terror (the first time anyone has pointed a gun at me before, let alone multiple guns).
Pretty soon, after seeing the uniforms and connecting that to the cop tailing us earlier, the thought ran through my head: 'It’s OK, it's just the cops and they've just made a massive stuff up, I'm probably not going to get shot'.
Very quickly, Tim and I found ourselves on the ground in puddles with officers standing over us, while the rest of them looked inside for Dan and this mysterious 'firearm' that I had been spotted holding in the front seat. Judging from the all of the camera/lighting gear and the lack of any weapons, they realized pretty quickly that we were as we said we were and, as if not wanting to admit they were in the wrong, sheepishly said we could stand up and relax.
The one officer that did admit to the mistake was the one in the unmarked car who had called it in, and he was clearly apologetic and very embarrassed by the whole thing.
Before they had even left, his colleagues had already begun teasing him about it, and no doubt they will for a long time yet.
As ridiculous as it was, it could have turned out much worse than it did. I got a great story out of it, and that is one cop who won’t make the same mistake again. It’s just a shame we weren’t rolling.
This is why it was such a coup when ...
When you go on the Universal Studio tour, you know perfectly well that you are not seeing the real thing, unless you count the backs of distant trucks down studio side alleys. You can understand why – extra people on a film set is a hassle they can do without.
This is why it was such a coup when Dave Cameron ACS, NZCS vice-president and DoP on Filthy Rich, convinced the show’s producers to allow him to open the set and show NZCS members how he was approaching the shoot.
This was never going to be an ordinary lecture where a cinematographer shows a few clips and talks about his work. This time, NZCS members would be able to sit in the East Tamaki warehouse sets, watch selected scenes and have Cameron actually show them how the shots were achieved.
Nor was this a sanitised tour, as Cameron related the pressures and compromises he faced, and how he tried to turn them into positives and advantages.
To give a taste of what belonging to NZCS offers, the event was opened to non-members, and this proved to be a winner. People who are filmmakers and camera operators, but not on full-sized drama productions took full advantage of the invitation. Corporate members too, used the opportunity for staff who don’t normally get onto sets.
The evening began after the day’s wrap, when the visitors – once they’d signed confidentiality agreements and had a drink – were ushered into the main set.
Cameron showed a trailer for the show, and talked about how he was challenged to make dollars go further. Even though it is publicised as New Zealand on Air’s biggest budget TV series to date, it is a 20-episode show, and for Cameron that meant stretching each dollar further than before.
He says within the budget he couldn’t afford the 10K lights that would normally be used to simulate daylight streaming in from windows on the sets. This left him with a three-way trade off between illumination levels, lens speed, and acceptable camera ISO.
His solution was to use the more expensive ARRI Zeiss Master primes which reach T1.3 wide open, ARRI Amira cameras set at 1280 ISO, and 5K fixtures outside the windows. This was the most cost-effective combination and Cameron is happy with that images came from a set that until now, would probably be regarded as under-lit.
To take advantage of the lens speed means shooting wide open, and what’s more Cameron was not afraid to use long primes, revealing a high level of confidence in his focus pullers, Sam Matthews and Dave Steel. They seemed remarkably cheerful and relaxed about the whole thing, nearly always pulling remotely from monitors in another room.
The lighting was inventive in more ways than one, with home-made soft light boxes overhead in some sets, fluro strips built into others, and the edge taken off LED panels with a variety of soft boxes and egg crates rigged up by gaffer Grant McKinnon – a character who completely understates his insane ability to simultaneously hold the position of gaffer, builder of one-off lighting fixtures, and B camera operator. To top it all, he sometimes steps up to DoP if Cameron is called away.
After showing selected scenes, and running through his approach, Cameron took his visitors on a tour of the sets, surprising many with his talents for making the set look far more expansive on screen than in real life.
The evening wrapped with a chance to meet and greet the crew who had set up the gear, and had stayed behind to explain their part in the shoot.
NZCS is indebted to producer Steven Zanoski and line producer Nikki Baigent for their generosity in allowing this event, and the crew (see below) who stayed behind to help make it happen.
I. RECREATING AN UNKNOWN PAST How do you recreate a past that’s barely been documented? That was just one of the challenges that faced the cast and crew of The Revenant. As star Leonardo DiCaprio observes: “Making the film was almost like making a science fiction movie because there was so little to work with. I mean, not only would cinema audiences not know much about this time period, but I don’t think historians know that much about this time period either. Simply because America wasn’t America. It was the Amazon at that time. It was inhabited by indigenous people and the fur trade was sort of the first infiltration of the white man into nature, and how he manipulated that for capitalistic purposes. The fur trade was before the gold rush. It was before the oil rush. It was before we sent explorers to understand what this landscape was like.”
This sense of journeying into the unknown, or at least the unfamiliar, was just one of the attractions for director Alejandro González Iñárritu: “It is a very interesting moment in the history of this country,” he offers. “These were people in unchartered territory having real adventures. Not like us with our GPS and ‘Oh, let’s have an adventure in India.’ We don’t have adventures anymore. We know where things are. But I feel the early 19th Century has never been explored in depth because it was an unknown. There are literally no stories that have captured that period with accuracy. There was no photography; there was nothing. So everything from that period is still kind of more legend than fact. Even the Hugh Glass story. We know he survived a grizzly bear attack and sought revenge on those who abandoned him, but before and after that, his life is unknown.”
“A lot of research was done through the journals that the fur trappers kept,” confirms DiCaprio. “Because there were no novels at that time about this. There were no writers going there. It was just men hunting. There are no photographs, only etchings and drawings and stories from American Indians about what it was like.”
Production Designer Jack Fisk echoes DiCaprio: “I read the journals of people who were there, clerks, trappers; I read everything I could. But in terms of visuals, I looked at the work of the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, which is exquisite. Because even with all the journals, paintings and sketches you can find, you still have to interpret the material. Even at the time, people were interpreting things in their own way – you have to read between the lines a bit. I tried to read around and behind the subject. You find details – the soldiers had open latrines, there would be lice and rats… it wasn’t pleasant. In fact, a lot of the trappers would choose to live with the Native Americans because they were cleaner, they bathed every day, and their habitats were just better maintained.”
To accurately portray the grim lives of the trappers, many of the cast were sent to ‘Boot Camp’ to learn some of the skills of the era.
“I actually found that rather enjoyable,” says Will Poulter, who plays trapper Jim Bridger. “We did kind of everything from skinning beavers to riding horses to trying to build your own fire. A lot of what we did was really fun and very informative, not to mention quite integral in bringing us together as a group. The boot camp was very useful in terms of forging a genuine bond between us all. We were all staying in the same hotel and eating with each other every night, and all of that really helped to create a genuine sense of camaraderie. I think it was essential to what we ended up having to do on screen.”
“The camp definitely helped,” agrees Domnhall Gleeson, who plays Captain Andrew Henry. “Every little skill you learned, even if you didn’t use it in the film, brought you a little closer to your character.”
“I learned everything about survival there,” says DiCaprio. “And there was a lot of detail embedded in the script too. We had specialists to learn about the muskets we were using, which take a minute to reload. And the bear fur I had to wear… an animal which nearly kills me all of a sudden becomes my means of surviving the elements. How to start fires, how to eat, how to survive the cold temperatures. We needed to learn all of that stuff. The journals of the fur trappers gave us a sense of the conditions that these men had to go through, and they were clearly incredibly tough. It’s a different era of man, so to speak. I mean, I love nature. I do environmental work and stuff in the wild all the time. But by no means would I ever be able to say I’m a Bear Grylls-type! I couldn’t do what these men did.”
As well as portraying the trappers as authentically as possible, the filmmakers naturally wanted to do the same with the Native Americans.
“The most important thing,” explains Iñárritu, “was that they did not become just the classic ‘Oh, the Native Americans’, ‘the Indians, or ‘the bad guys,’ or ‘the dangerous guys,’ or ‘the mysterious guys.’ My intention was always to give them very strong and very human reasons like any other person, not patronize them, and not make them the victims. I didn’t want to make them just pure and good either. I simply tried to humanize them. They are not good. They are not bad. They are just looking for exactly the same things as anyone: respect, dignity, to be heard.”
II. LOCATING THE AUTHENTIC
Authenticity was crucial to The Revenant. That meant not only researching the lives of the characters, but also finding locations that would help make the film a totally immersive experience, even if those locations were remote.
“I actually started scouting locations about five years ago,” says Iñárritu. “I knew that the film would require almost 100 locations, and it’s not like shooting in a city where you can say, ‘Okay we need a bar, we need a building, we need an apartment, we need a taxi,’ you know? Often times, the logistics are easy to solve, but when you have a landscape and a film that is in an autumn and winter, and where it goes from deep woods with huge trees to the plains, and ends up in the Rockies, and then in the middle of a valley… the distance to get to those locations, the logistics that imply even going from one little hill to a creek with snow, sometimes those locations are extremely difficult with a crew and camera and cranes etc. And then every location, in a way, has to be pointing to ‘the right sun direction’ to shoot with the right light, at the right hour and the trees, and the kind of nature has to make sense narratively to the distance that he is going… “
Iñárritu breaks off, laughing at how elaborate this sounds. “I guess what I am saying,” he smiles, “is that it was complex, but I knew that the landscapes and these locations would not just be ‘locations;’ they would basically become characters that will embrace Hugh Glass and will make him feel or will heal him or will damage him or will transform him or will give him shelter or will give him a nightmare or will protect him or will threaten him. The landscapes became a huge part of what the submersion of the audience would be, so I knew that I need very special landscapes, very remote, untouched, that didn’t look like you had seen them in other films. It was incredibly challenging, but absolutely worth it, I think.”
Production Designer Jack Fisk agrees. “I was out at those locations four or five months before the actors,” says Fisk. “Hiking to each of them was exhausting, but also exhilarating. As soon as I met Alejandro, I knew he was a passionate artist. I learned working with Terence Malick how to treat film like a fine art, so this was an extension of that. It was exciting, and a struggle. You can see Alejandro battling to find his film as he works. Everyone working on the film knew it was something special.”
III. FINDING THE LIGHT
As well as striving to find the precise locations required to evoke the period, the filmmakers also made several other key decisions to facilitate authenticity including choosing to shoot the film in sequence, shooting long uninterrupted takes, and using only available natural light.
“I think using natural light was actually an obvious choice, “says Iñárritu. “First of all, there is no way you can light a forest… Having the sun, that’s enough light, and the complexity and the beauty of that light can never be matched by artificial film light.
Because we were shooting in winter, we knew that by 3:00 PM it was dark. By 2:30 PM there was no light under the trees. The locations were often so remote that by the time we arrived we had to be ready; we would rehearse and rehearse because we would have maybe an hour or two to shoot long takes. That was it.”
But Iñárritu believes this method of working brought its own benefits: “Yes, it was a very dangerous, extreme way to shoot,” he acknowledges. “But it was also a luxurious way to shoot because you extract the most beautiful light of the day when it really speaks. In every location, you would use everything to reveal another truth. There’s nothing better than that. Cinema is light, so having the most beautiful light is what makes beautiful cinema. There really was no choice. We were shooting with 40 millimeter lenses, so there was nowhere even to hide lights. How would we cable that?”
IV. IMMERSED IN NATURE
“I think Alejandro really wanted the movie to feel very naturalistic,” says cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “That was something very important. He always wanted the movie to engage the audience in a way that felt like they were watching through a window into the past. From the beginning, we wanted the movie to be very immersive and very visceral. While we were doing tests we realized that very wide lenses allowed us to engage the audience and place the viewer in the midst of the action. It enabled us to have close ups of Leo for example and still have all the environment present in every shot, and that was something very important to Alejandro, the relationship between the environment and Glass.”
“I think Alejandro and Chivo [Lubeski] pulled off this epic intimacy,” enthuses DiCaprio, “where you see the vast landscape and you see massive battles going on, but at the same time, the camera snakes in on a small close-up of somebody to capture a moment and then moves along. I don’t think there’s ever quite been a film like it. It’s one of those highly ambitious movies that I don’t think we’ll see from the Hollywood studio system very often. It’s a very linear, simple story of a man who’s trying to seek revenge after getting mauled by a bear and losing his son. And ultimately it becomes this great piece of cinematic poetry simultaneously.”
Ask Iñárritu if he created the film’s ‘poetic’ tone or found it and he’ll say that it is a bit of both: “I think it’s a correlation: when you are in tune with those things and you are in the right spot and the right context and you are looking for it… it happens. Sometimes it comes to you. Then again, you are a creator so sometimes you create it. Also, I just think that the nature that is exposed, the hours we shot, the locations and the landscape, which is so remote – for audiences now just to see real mountains, real Rockies, real snow, real fog, real rain, real, you know, all those things just rivers with eyes and frozen rivers – people are no longer used to seeing this in fiction. You can maybe sometimes see it in documentaries. But when you integrate the real world that we are part of and we connect with that beauty and we recognize and we contemplate it, it’s just sublime. Because we are part of that nature. We are just another creature. So I have the feeling that perhaps the tone is kind of like a creature missing their environment. It makes you feel: ‘Where is that?’ We see so many human objects and concrete, so only when we are contemplating beauty, which is around us, do you get that sense. But also what I think is important, is that Glass is remembering his life as he’s dying, as he’s trying to survive. It’s a guy that is remembering himself and putting his things together and stitching them. And as he’s doing it, it’s like the nostalgia or the memory of his wife and the relationship with his son and all that he lost and in that sense it is very romantic or poetic. And I want that. I want to have a spiritual dimension that speaks for this guy. So that people can really go into his spirit and soul.”
V. A SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
In order to maintain and protect the authenticity and naturalistic tone of The Revenant, the filmmakers decided to shoot in sequence, and using long takes to striking effect.
“By shooting in sequence,” explains Iñárritu, “it allowed me and the actors to keep finding opportunities to adapt, to rewrite, to polish and find beautiful things that can be added as the journey’s going on. You are a different person after one year, and this was one year. I think it was great to have the opportunity to be discovering and understanding the film as we were going. Sometimes with film you are God; sometimes you’re a creature and in this case, you have to surrender and be a creature of your own work. And he starts speaking to you and then you have to serve it. That was a luxury and it was great. All my films, by the way, I have shot like that.”
The long uninterrupted shots also created considerable technical challenges. “Working in nature, with natural light, you have to be flexible,” says Fisk. “But I like working like that. I had to be on set as much as possible, ready to react to a situation: ‘We need more light,’ ‘Can we simplify the background by darkening some of the trees?’ – there was a mix of black powder and water we’d spray – ‘Can we move this wall back?’ etc. I remember we illegally ‘dammed’ a river at one point to get the water level higher. We used a lot of cranes so the camera could go high, wide, could be intimate etc. with minimal intrusion. Alejandro would say: ‘I want this to be quite ‘minimal’ and then of course you’d look around by the end and see 200 Native Americans… things just got larger. The thing is, the film was being made in the moment. You need to be there. You don’t want to disappoint the director. It was exciting. You had to be inventive to get the shot. And it was a lot of afternoon and evening shooting so there was never much time: you had to be quick. Niceties went out the window; no time to be courteous. You saw a passion emerge among the crew.”
“Look… everybody worked really hard,” say DiCaprio when asked if it was a tough shoot. “The entire crew went through really extreme circumstances. Whether it was the constant extreme weather, or the cameras not working because it was 40 below zero, or the snow melting in an unprecedented warming period because of the climate change in that territory causing the entire landscape to go dry and barren within five hours. We shut down for weeks, but everyone there was committed to this movie, committed to making this vision happen.”
“The truth is,” he continues. “I don’t think we could have predicted the challenges that this movie gave us. It gave us every possible challenge you could imagine. I mean, I have stories for days… but the great thing about making movies is you’re documenting it. You’re documenting the struggle and you’re documenting all the things that we went through in making this movie and trying to achieve something. I mean, just the bear sequence on its own. You’ll never see anything like it in cinema history. It’s like there’s another sense that’s arisen in you as an audience member. You’re watching this sequence and you feel like the bear is breathing in your face. I mean, Alejandro and Chivo together are pretty magical. And it is so incredibly powerful what they pulled off.”
Dave Cameron ACS won a gold at the 2015 NSW/ACT Australian Cinematography awards held last week. Our NZCS vice-president, who holds ACS accreditation, was recognised in the Dramatised Documentaries category for his work on The Monster of Mangatiti.
The film aired on TVNZ Sunday Theatre in September and tell the harrowing story of Heather Walsh, a young woman lured to a remote farm, and held captive for almost six months before escaping.
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