Ben Nott ACS won the 2015 AACTA Award for ‘Best Cinematography’ for his work on the Australian science fiction thriller Predestination, written and directed by the Spierig Brothers and starring Ethan Hawke.
Interview by Dick Marks OAM.
AC – You’ve done two films now with Australian directors the Spierig Brothers. How did your experience on their new film Predestination (2014) compare with their previous film Daybreakers (2010)?
BN – Let me first say that one fact remained consistent between the two projects; the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter, are the most prepared, hard working filmmakers I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Their ability to elevate the production value of their projects by applying their unique skill sets; writing, visual effects, music, and it doesn’t end there. In addition to their ability as directors make them a potent force. They are great communicators and motivate the rest of the crew to push the envelope as far as possible.
The making of Predestination was a vastly different experience to that of Daybreakers. In my humble opinion, the project was better managed. This time around, Michael and Peter were also producers, as I imagine they felt the need to have a stake in the way the film was managed. My relationship with the boys remained largely the same, but I was more aware of the pressures we were under because they also wore the producer hat. I guess I detected other subtle differences that come with maturity and the experience of notching up another credit.
They understand that there are really important moments in a film that have massive technical implications and so those moments need to be thought about, pondered over technically and storyboarded. They use their storyboards and pre-visualisation to great effect, but I think they also recognise that the opportunity exists for the storytelling to follow a more organic path and I think they chose to make more of that opportunity in making Predestination. The brothers were, without question, a creative driving force but they were also prepared to allow the environment, locations, the actors and their department heads to have a connection, to weigh in and to assist them mould their story along the way.
AC – At what stage of the game were you privy to that change? You know, was that before you started, or was it during the course of the shooting that it opened up much better in that way?
BN – The entire office was not wallpapered in storyboards, as was the case on Daybreakers. The guys did their storyboards, but they were far more crude and were mostly used for their own purposes to get a guide of how a scene would cut or transition and not necessarily for distribution to other departments. I guess they were generally less concerned about having a premeditated view of exactly how a scene would play and more prepared to wait until they walked it through on location or set with the actors on the day.
AC – Pretty amazing transformation, given that they didn’t do any films between Daybreakers and Predestination.
BN – Yes, absolutely. But that’s indicative of smart filmmakers. They grow from every experience and Michael and Peter definitely belong in that category. Upon reflection I would say it is not so much a transformation but a maturation. These guys have been making films since their early teens and with every one of their films, big or small, they have learnt from the good and the bad. I’m sure the next instalment will see another huge leap forward.
AC – What was your biggest challenge making Predestination? You mentioned something about having four or five different time frames? Exciting for any cinematographer but also a bit daunting.
BN – The biggest challenge on this film was simply the time/finance equation. The triangle of, “You want it good, you want it cheap and you want it quick.”
AC – They’re not very comfortable bedfellows?
BN – No, but that’s it. That’s the modern way of filmmaking; there are three points of the triangle and generally you can only pick two. You can have it good and quick, but it’s expensive. But we wanted to have all three. I don’t want to get involved in a film where I can’t attempt to get close to all three, regardless of the budget. That was my biggest challenge with Predestination; not a lot of money, not a lot of time but heavy on expectation.
It is an enormous thrill to finish reading a script and have my heart pound. To say, “Oh my God, I’ve got to live up to this work. I’ve got to perform to the level of this,” rather than, “What can I do to elevate this?”
Predestination was one of those ‘Oh my God’ films. So there was an immediate anxiety. I was really excited by the script and value my relationship with the Spierig Brothers so I didn’t just want to do this job for the thirty-two shoot days, bank the cash and walk away. I wanted to do a really good job. The biggest single challenge for me was trying to manage the art verses commerce thing, because the weight of expectation was enormous… albeit largely self imposed!
AC – Do you have a particular way of easing into a film?
BN – I have developed a rather passive strategy that may initially unnerve some directors. I try to look and listen more than speak during the first couple of days pre-production, which are more often than not spent in a car scouting locations with the director. I tend to hold my opinion because generally I have not yet understood the material to the point my opinion would be valid. I am conscious of trying to just listen, take notes and understand by asking how and why questions. How do you see that? Why do you want this to happen? Why this way? By following that path I find I am quickly able to understand two things; the filmmaker’s vision, and the level of involvement and collaboration they are looking for from their cinematographer.
” I have developed a rather passive strategy that may initially unnerve some directors. “
In the case of new relationships, those few days are also about getting to know each other and developing a trust and a sense of how we can work as a team. Only then can I sit at the table and have an opinion and push back against their opinion, because I now understand the basic ingredients and the way we will shoot the film, and the dynamic of our director-cinematographer relationship.
AC – There’s a parallel there with presenting yourself to a producer or a director, when you’re pitching to get a film. You’re in the same boat aren’t you? You don’t know much about the film, so don’t come in there and tell them how to make it.
BN – “How do you see this film looking?” is the only question I avoid answering during an interview. In saying this I don’t want to sound like I am a non-committal fence-sitter; in fact those who have worked with me would probably say the opposite. I can’t yet give that opinion. I don’t have the right to answer that question, because I don’t know enough about the project or the pre-visualised image that the director must already have for his or her film. As a visual person I see the film in my mind as I read the script and quite often these images bear some esoteric resemblance to what we shoot, but so many other factors weigh in before we actually roll the cameras. In the case of Predestination the directors presented me with a ‘look book’ at the same time they sent me the script. I have to say this had a definite influence on the way I envisaged the images as I was reading the script and served as a great tool to short hand the initial look, style and composition conversations.
AC – When you’re working over a short period of time, thirty-two days for a film like this, it must be really intense. Do you feel, from time to time, that you are being squeezed?
BN – Yes, without a doubt. Having said that, I don’t think that working in a pressurised environment is necessarily a bad thing. The old adage ‘If you want something done, ask a busy man’ certainly rings true in our profession. I am forever grateful for the experience gained shooting series television at the beginning of my drama career. It laid the foundation to be able to deal with that pressure by honing my people management skills, decision making and rammed home the importance of being prepared.
I find myself being addicted to the adrenaline triggered by situations were I am battling the clock. The true high is, with a well organised crew, winning that battle without sacrificing quality. I am really proud of the results we achieved as a cohesive unit on Predestination without massive blowouts in overtime.
AC – Do you ever get pressured? Did you get pressured to shoot with less lights, or without lights at all? To go more with the speed of the digital system?
BN – Working at this budget level there is always going to be some constraints. Most of the time the solutions to the problems require a re-think from more than one department. The Spierig Brothers are brilliant at recognising these issues and are very flexible about the solutions.
On Predestination they were prepared to give in terms of changing scenes from night to day on the occasion that the other producers and I came to them about the fact that we could not afford to light for night and do it well. Luckily changing the time line did not affect the story, so we made huge gains in terms of the cost of lighting, manpower and the shooting schedule. By recognising the potential issues early and working together, great things can happen on a limited budget.
AC – But that has to be established right up front, doesn’t it? Your cloth is more or less cut before you roll.
BN – Yes, that battle is definitely won in pre-production. I am always pushing for more pre-production. Especially to be involved with the initial scouts. The choice of locations obviously dramatically effects the look as well as the cost and time it takes to shoot the scene and so, if possible, all the key players need to be involved at that point. For example, if the director is prepared to block the scene while considering the recommendations of the cinematographer – light direction, time of day etc. – all can profit. We were very careful to work with the natural light direction wherever possible on Predestination and not to fight against what was naturally available on the locations.
Predestination is a very complex film. Michael described it to me as a “time travelling, transgender mind fuck” during our first conversation. The film plays in the years between 1945 and 1992, continually transitioning back and forth from one period to another. Peter and Michael did a number of very detailed animated pre-visualisations during pre-production for the more complex scenes of the film. These were incredibly useful because these scenes had to be blocked, composed and executed in a very specific way.
Because the film cuts back and forth in time I also asked for a chronology that detailed the time period of each scene so my gaffer, Adam Williams, and I could make detailed notes for our treatment of each decade.
Budgeting a film is a major skill. Producers have to be part clairvoyant, part director, part cinematographer, part accountant and have some knowledge of the workings of nearly every other department. And that is only for the physical production. There are countless other twists and turns along their road to the film’s release. In short they have to have a very thorough understanding of the entire process to have a hope of coming in on budget. I realise it is sometimes not practical, but wish that they would consult more with heads of departments during the budgeting process so together we could weigh in on potential problems before they become an issue.
My relationship with the first assistant director was also very important. Jamie Leslie is a very experienced filmmaker who will, wherever possible, consider the wishes of the cinematographer regarding scheduling.
AC – I assume you had a good relationship with the art department and production designer on Predestination?
BN – Matt Putland did a fabulous job with this film. Putland has a long running relationship with the Spierig Broithers and they again called on his talents to design Predestination. My relationship with Matt was one of open honesty from the start. I wrote him an email when it was clear that we were to work together. The first line I congratulated him and the second line I said “I’m going to give you the shits because I’m going to step into your area. I hope it doesn’t give you the shits, because I’m expecting you to step into mine.” There’s got to be a cross-pollination. I find the two big enemiesare ego and insecurity. As soon as these evil twins enter a creative relationship, then trouble is sure to follow.
If a cinematographer and production designer can co-operate without ego, then success is assured, because the best idea always wins and the film profits. So yes, I do think I have had a good relationship with Putland and I hope he would say the same. He had a major hand in choosing the films locations as well as, obviously, designing the sets. The major set, a down trodden, smokey bar in New York’s Bowery, played for thirty-two dialogue heavy script pages; roughly one third of the movie. Our collective approach to directing, designing, scheduling and photographing this set was a major triumph that changed the game for the way we were able to execute the rest of the film. Michael and Peter approached the first assistant director and myself about the possibility of shooting out the set in five days! If we achieved, this we would earn ourselves great freedom to shoot the remaining two thirds of the film with a more relaxed schedule. Much was down to the directors to have their actors up to speed and Putland to design a set that allowed us to shoot quickly and stay within his tight budget.
AC – And keep it interesting?
BN – Absolutely. I suggested an island bar and thankfully Putland was willing to consider my thoughts. All the scenes played out between a barman and a customer and I knew we had a better chance of cross shooting the coverage if Putland was to give us a design along those lines. The ability to shoot both sides of the conversation simultaneously was the only way we were going to complete the heavy page count each day and for obvious reasons, this idea appealed to Michael and Peter. To accommodate this, the bar area had to be lit from above. I suggested a large soft source and Putland went to work on designing a ceiling piece that ticked all the aesthetic boxes whilst allowing me to control the quality of light and the amount of fall off into the rest of the room. We consulted on the wall colour beyond the bar area, knowing that it should be darker to give us contrast against the lit bar area. Wendy Cork, our wardrobe designer, tested and adjusted wardrobe to fit with the Putland’s colour pallet and the practical’s he dotted around to augment the warm, tobacco filtered light from above. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. The actors loved the freedom to move around the space and the directors got their free flowing performances with the same continuity.
AC – You like your practicals, don’t you? You like to have your light sources in the shot.
BN – I certainly do subscribe to using practical lighting where ever appropriate; I just think it looks a thousand times better. If the audience can see the light source then I think the photography is more authentic, more believable and appealing.
AC – It anchors the viewer in a more of realistic and familiar environment. Do you have any tips… better ways of using practical lighting?
BN – Shooting now with digital cameras I really take a lot of time testing practical lamps. Most importantly, it’s about the density of the shade. In pre-production I need to be in tune with the production designer’s intention for the use of practical lamps on any sets from the perspective of a) aesthetics, where is it positioned in the set, and b) lighting, how can I utilise it as a source of illumination. I always check with the stand-by to make sure they have plenty of streaks and tips, black spay and other goodies we use to knock the edge off a bright globe facing camera. I’m also a big fan of having a big pump pack of water-based, black spray paint hanging around the set. A good stand-by painter is a weapon, because I think if you can paint contrast in as well as light it, quite often the paint option is the best. I also tend to use neutral density grads more indoors than on exterior locations to knock down the exposure in the corners up high.
AC – You don’t rely on somebody in post-production to make that decision for you?
BN – Never rely on anybody in post-production to fix what can be fixed on the day. I believe in supplying the director and the editor with the best looking offline possible. The film will no doubt be screened to other important players and possibly a test audience before it is colour timed and so I believe it is important to have the exposures as even as possible and the mood and hue of the imagery close to the final intent. In addition, there is a chance that I will not be available when it come time to do the Digital Intermediate, so having the look ‘burnt in’ as much as possible gives the colourist a good indication of the path I intended.
” Never rely on anybody in post-production to fix what can be fixed on the day. “
AC – This leads me to ask an obvious question… did you supervise the Digital Intermediate?
BN – I was in fact shooting another project when the colour timing was scheduled. Luckily I was in Melbourne and was able to spend a couple of weekends up in Sydney with Cutting Edge’s fabulous colourist Adrian Hauser. He and I have a long running relationship, so I felt in very good hands. I had first assistant camera Andrew Jerram take 2K frame grabs from the Alexa of every set up in the film, these I supplied to Adrian to use as an initial guide. He then went through and evened up the density and slight colour shifts from shot-to-shot allowing me to spend my limited time working with him on any creative changes. I hold Hauser in very high regard and was so proud when he told me the film was one of the easiest he has ever graded.
AC – Did you use different light sources for the different time periods?
BN – Yes. This film was such a wonderful opportunity. I chose to use different sources, colour temperatures, filtration and played with saturation. For the 1940s and 1950s I used a lot of big source, three-quarter back light, so that there was a kind of a glowing edge to the images. The locations dictated this in a way. The art direction and wardrobe gave us pastel colours and shades to play with.
AC – Was that big source in shot, or was that something you had coming in from out of shot?
BN – The lighting unit itself could’ve been anything, but the placement was usually motivated by the architecture of the location. We chose to introduce atmospheric smoke and this meant that I needed very little fill. I also use soft effects filters to glow the highlights along with applying a twenty-percent desaturation Look-Up Table (LUT). I rarely stray from REC 709 as my go too LUT except for saturation which I feel more comfortable controlling in this way. I am a little bit old school in that I believe in doing the work in-camera as much as possible, so I rely less on editorial applying the correct LUTs by keeping the dailies work flow really simple.
AC – What about the other time periods?
BN – The 1960s were characterised by Kino Flo as the source, lighting daylight at 5600K with the camera set to 4800. I used no filtration or atmosphere. We decided we wanted this period to be more vibrant as our hero was discovering her world… she had hope. Putland’s design team was again the driving force here, providing a pallet of vibrant colours from the cool end of the spectrum.
AC – Did you choose a different focal length for this time period? Did you give it a little bit more depth of field just to make everything sharper and pop a bit, or did you stick with your original aperture?
BN – Everything was much sharper. We didn’t use smoke, the image was very clean, as opposed to consciously shooting with more depth of field. The use of Kino Flo soft light as our source also helped with this philosophy I think. Without atmospherics or filtration to break them down the ARRI Master Primes gave me razor sharp, clean, contrasty images that well suited our impression of this era.
The 1970s were spent in the bar that has already had a mention. Tungsten lighting with sodium gel and a smoke machine permanently fired up. Very busy design elements and dressing. Tasty! 1992 was the final look. Putland did a great job of designing all the lighting fixtures into these sets. A large lightbox ran down the centre of each room augmented by pelmet lighting around the edges. The clean, hard, cold look was defined much more by the art direction and wardrobe than a particular photographic technique.
AC – It sounds like the ultimate journey and opportunity for a cinematographer.
BN – Predestination was a blast! Jobs like this rarely present and I am so pleased to have had this opportunity.
AC – Tell us about the way you operate now. I was on the set with you one day and you were operating with the wheels, off a monitor, positioned right on the edge of the set but away from the camera. Can you tell us about choosing to do it that way
BN – Composing the frame is one of the joys of doing the job. Nobody knows that better than a cinematographer. I think it’s the best job on the set, no question about it. I found my eye became so attuned to the optical viewfinder of a film camera that exposure, contrast and hue judgment calls were made through the finder. The camera is the focal point of the set and so having the key players sitting on or around the dolly made for better communication.
With the arrival of digital, much of that intimacy with the process, crew and the actors, disappeared. We humans are always lured to the sweetest fruit and the sweetest fruit in the digital film making world is the good old high-definition monitor, usually positioned away from the set and camera. Try as I might, I can’t not stay away from it. I struggled to acclimatise to a digital viewfinder and so for a couple of years drifted away from operating, because I needed to see, like everyone else, that big beautiful image. By removing myself from the finder or from behind the magazine, the decision-making had to travel an extra fifty feet and with that comes an obvious inefficiency.
The crew look for answers and have to resort to leaving their post on the set, yelling out or waiting their turn on the radio to get those answers. I really didn’t like being removed from the filmmaking nucleus in that way.
My solution is to operate the camera remotely and by doing so I can tick all the boxes. So now I order a geared head and hire a set of hot wheels and motors that fit onto the spindles in place of the hand wheels. These are cabled to remote wheels that sit beneath the monitor trolley. Now, I sit as close to set as possible in front of my monitors, my new viewfinder, right next to the director. I find that it empowers directors enormously to have a camera operator sitting beside them, and also have the cinematographer sitting next to them. If they want to change their mind or change something about the composition of the shot mid-stream, all they need do is to whisper and it will happen.
Directors can craft the frame exactly how they want, so it’s probably the closest they get to actually operating and I’m sure that removes a lot of frustration. Also, from a collaborative standpoint, it puts the two key players on the set together and keeps them together, which is a really terrific thing. Decisions are made very quickly, quietly and succinctly. In addition, I know that the images are better matched if we are shooting multi-cam, because I can keep an eye on both cameras. I generally have remote iris capability by my workstation also so I can directly control exposure and find my self pulling iris rather than taking the time to light the set to one exposure.
AC – I’ll wrap up with one last question. The digital experience of working on this as against film, was it a good one?