We chat with the acclaimed, yet humble, John Stokes ACS about his third season of the hugely successful Australian period drama, A Place To Call Home.
Interview by Tracey Cole.
With an illustrious career spanning three decades, winning countless awards both locally and internationally, the talent of John Stokes ACS are put to exceptional use filming this latest work.
A call from Julie McGauran, whom Stokes previously worked with from a season filming Packed to the Rafters (2008-2013), enquired into whether he would be interested in shooting a television series about a family in 1950s Australia. This was an opportunity not to be passed up. Filmed in rural Camden on the outskirts of Sydney, the scene is perfectly set for melodrama.
AC – Thinking about the look A Place To Call Home was aiming for, what references did you work from?
JS – Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) was the first reference given to the creative team by writer and creator, Bevan Lee who wanted high melodrama. I think there is a definite visual echo of that in the show. Being involved with Tim Ferrier (Production Designer) from the very beginning was incredibly important for the look of the show. Time spent collaborating with Tim on every aspect of the sets design before they were constructed; elements like wall textures, practical lighting, ceiling pieces, window sizes, painted backdrops etc., were not only enjoyable but also incredibly fruitful.
Given the tight filming schedule I wanted as much light coming from existing sources as possible allowing a quick turn around from set-up to set-up. The starting point for the show is the look being true to the period of the early 1950s be it costumes, sets and props, even using the correct incandescent bulbs for the practical lighting features. No easy task in 2015. From that point onwards I would look at the story/scenes and how could I, using lighting and camera, underscore what drama was occurring in front of the lens. The biggest influence of the look was put in front of the camera. Tim Ferrier’s production design, Lisa Meagher’s period-perfect costumes and Wizzy Molineaux’s hair and makeup, really set the scene. Once all that is in front of the camera, the pictures just fall into the lens. However, the single most important reference for the show was the films of Douglas Sirk.
AC – What factors were considered when choosing what cameras to shoot with?
JS – After many discussions and testing, the final decision came down to the Alexa and the Sony F65, both amazing cameras, but the F65 offered an efficiency the Alexa did not. Being able to change the ND filters on the F65 with a press of a button which saves twenty minutes a day of filter changing. Personally, I like the way the F65 captured the landscapes of rural Camden.
AC – How did you approach colour grading?
JS – We wanted the show to have a rich, sumptuous feel and we briefly flirted with a desaturated sepia look but quickly embraced the colour explosion of the 1950s, so it was a fairly straightforward grade.
AC – As the series is about to wrap up the third season, can you share a bit about the film crew you worked with?
JS – I have an amazing camera department many of whom I’ve worked with over the last fifteen years. A camera operator, Daisy Williamson is a truly gifted filmmaker whose enthusiasm for the shot or scene never wanes. Luke Nixon worked the B-Camera and Steadicam and is a fine operator; he always finds a great second angle. Our two focus pullers, Troy Reichman and Paul Seipel get through a tremendous volume of work with a very narrow depth of field, there is rarely a soft shot, the hardest job on set I think. I also have a wonderful gaffer and grip in Stef Fidirikkos and Aaron Walker respectively, both of whom contribute enormously to the look of A Place to Call Home. The loaders, Fiona Young and Charles Brincat are ‘top drawer’ I tend to stick to the same crew whenever I can.
AC – Even with a successful two seasons and a loyal audience, A Place To Call Home was axed the Seven Network. With some heavy lobbying it was revived in a deal by Foxtel for a third series. With the network change, did the budget or scheduling of the show also change?
JS – The budget remained the same however episode length went from 42 minutes in seasons one and two, to 50 plus minutes for this upcoming season. We shot two episodes per block of fifteen days, which is standard for an Australian drama series.
AC – Did the shows creative expectations or direction shift with the change from Seven to Foxtel? How did that affect the show?
JS – The Foxtel brief was to give them more of the same but with more ‘vigour’. I saw it as a chance to go bolder with the lighting and camera moves when the opportunity presented itself; you could say that the look of the show is evolving.
AC – Looking back on what yourself, the directors and producers had originally set out to achieve… do you think you succeeded?
JS – Yes, absolutely, we gained a very appreciative and loyal audience, not just locally but viewers world-wide embraced our show.
AC – Does it feel like you are relinquishing some control when the show goes into post-production?
JS – No, not at all. I’m involved in colour grading all the locked off episodes, also because I have placed a very specific Lookup Table (LUT) all through the workflow. 95% of what I shoot on location or on set is within a trim of how the show will be seen by our audience.
AC – As a cinematographer, how did you work to achieve the directorial vision while still imparting your own unique perspective?
JS – Each director is different, and for me its about understanding the way they want to tell the story and then taking that directors vision and adding value to it. Whatever comes after is the alchemy of the director/cinematographer collaboration.
AC – You received an ACS Award of Distinction in 2014 for your work on the series. That speaks volumes about your ability to translate with the camera. Do you have any particular shot or sequence that is a favourite for you?
JS – I have quite a few favourite scenes. Generally they are scenes that tell a really good story through strong visuals and minimal dialog. There are quite a few of those moments throughout the series.
AC – The last few years has seen a deluge of reality shows flooding the landscape, do you see the wave of high quality television productions as a sort of revolt to reality TV?
JS – I’m not sure I do. The way I see it is more that reality shows have forced TV Drama world-wide to become much more interesting and engaging. As a cinematographer I think this has opened up a whole new world of creative choices and challenges that is wonderful.
AC – What do you feel you have learnt from shooting A Place To Call Home?
JS – I learn from every production I work on, whether it’s a new camera system, lighting technology… there is always something new I can take onto the next project.
AC – Speaking of new projects, what are you working on next?
JS – I will be working on my own project The Great Ninigo Island Canoe Race, a documentary about the people of the Ninigo Islands, an island group 150 nautical miles north of Papua New Guinea, and their incredible ocean going sailing canoes.