Cinematographer Simon Chapman ACS and his crew visit a small Victorian town to film the award-winning paranormal television drama Glitch, for the ABC.
Story and interview by Garth Cecil.
Television’s current ‘golden age’ is not a new concept. The celebrated HBO/AMC/Netflix driven era is perhaps even a little on the wane. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Wire (2002-2008) and frustrated that Netflix enables my gluttony by allowing me to polish off a House of Cards (2013-) season in a few days. I mean, after coming down from that delicious sugary Underwood induced high, what do I do with my life for the fifty-one weeks until the lolly shop reopens? Well, Glitch has filled one of them (well almost one… thanks iView) and critics for good reason have lauded the ABC genre hit.
Created by Tony Ayers (Cut Snake, The Slap) and Louise Fox (Love My Way, Full Frontal) the debut season of the resurrection drama (as I’ve had to explain numerous times around the office while spreading my enthusiasm, they’re not zombies!) tells the story of some strange happenings in the sleepy (fictional) town of Yoorana.
Shot in and around Castlemaine in Northern Victoria the particular ‘happenings’ are triggered when local copper James Hayes (the currently omni-present Patrick Brammall) discovers a small crowd wandering naked and memory-less through the cemetery. Calling in the services of local doc, Elishia Glass (Genevieve O’Reilly) he takes them in for a check-up, suspecting a drug related explanation. These suspicions are thrown out the window though on coming face to face with his wife Kate (Emma Booth). Our man James is a bit rattled since Kate died two years earlier.
For the next six episodes we witness the returned, who range from Yoorana’s first Gold Rush era Mayor to a heart-of-gold 80s ladette) try and make sense of it all; Who are they? How did they die? Why are they back? James and Elishia meanwhile must try and keep their brood safe from Andrew McFarlane’s creepy Senior Sergeant Vic Eastley, the modern world in general, oh… and James’ new wife. It’s not just the people coming back from the dead either. Keep an eye out for a rotary payphone keeping the eye occupied during a dialogue scene.
For this viewer it’s the best Australian effort to date to bring feature level quality to the small screen. Brilliant writing, great acting and a wonderfully executed directorial vision make it a standout in recent memory on Aussie screens and perhaps the most complete attempt to match it quality wise with some of those ‘golden age’ names.
In trying to work out what really sets it apart a couple elements shine through. Firstly, as a country lad it is refreshing to see a portrayal of a rural setting which captures the charm (olive oil anyone?) and the boredom of a small town without resorting to hokeyness. It is also a rare gem in Aussie drama that doesn’t have definite ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’ and can ask some serious questions while still seeing the fun in things.
Another major strength for Glitch is how visually engaging it is. Simon Chapman ACS (Cut Snake, The Little Death) has crafted a grounded look that is key in selling this ‘out there’ concept as actually occurring in rural Australia.
Talking about making something so distinct from the typical ‘kitchen sink’ drama, Chapman says they knew they were making “something pretty cool”, heaping praise on the whole Glitch team. He says “it starts with that script, it starts with that story… whether that story is… giving you some creative license to push it a bit further”. Push it further they did.
Early on there was an aim for a feature film aesthetic, with Chapman using reference points such as No Country For Old Men (2007) and Director Emma Freeman drawing on True Detective (2014-), there was a clear focus not just on producing quality but also a story where landscape and story intertwine. The finished product is at times reminiscent of Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Better Call Saul (2015-), harnessing the Australian bush in much the same way as Vince Gilligan’s world uses the arid New Mexico backdrop. “We were conscious of… wanting to show landscapes… There’s an old adage in the old school of television thinking which is you’ve got to show everything in close up but… TVs are big now and I think people want more of a cinematic canvas… I was constantly pushing for wide shots with slow dollies and moving in on characters rather than just having close up coverage” says Chapman, “A motivated camera move is much more interesting than just a cut for certain things”.
On the move towards more landscape and ‘bigger’ content on television Chapman says it has a lot to do with the medium itself; “Televisions are bigger, I think people are staying at home and watching a lot more television on their screens and rather than devouring a book I think people are now devouring television series”. The quality, he says, is a virtuous circle of scripts getting smarter and audiences demanding quality that is now reaching Australian programming.
To capture this big canvas, there was no question about equipment; “Emma Freeman and I both absolutely love shooting with the Arri Alexa. She had great results with the camera on some previous shows and was quite adamant about using it. I didn’t have to be convinced! We didn’t even discuss testing other formats… In fact, it happens quite often, as people are very comfortable with that camera. I really have nothing against the other formats out there, I’ve just stuck with Arri almost exclusively for the past 4 years”.
With Freeman he also developed a very clear feel they wanted to achieve on camera that helped Chapman in selecting the lens; “Emma was after a grounded look for such a high concept show. We liked the idea of creating a warm, earthy look with a softness that helped us be enveloped into the world of these characters. Textured, hot, dusty, dark and dirty were some of the words we used to describe the look. I offered to shoot on prime lenses and specifically the PVintage primes from Panavision. I love shooting with prime lenses as it takes a bit of thought and I can play with the exposure to create different looks through depth of field”.
On what sets the PVintage apart, he explains “The PVintage are re-housed Ultra speeds and have many characteristics that helped us create the look for Glitch. They are over 30 years old and combined with the Alexa, have a wonderful softness on skin tones and flare quite easily. They don’t all perfectly match but I liked that ‘imperfection’ in the image they took an edge off the sharpness, which we liked”.
Additionally “The 50mm T1 came into play on some flashbacks and that was a great tool to have in the kit. We spent a lot of time talking about integrating flashbacks or ‘glitches’ into the real time events on screen and doing them in-camera as much as possible. That was one of the great things about the show, each character has ‘glitch’ moments that expose a piece of their past and as an audience we are learning about their past life and ultimately how they died. We both love how filmmakers like Michel Gondry do in-camera effects and we wanted to do as much as we could in this manner”.
Lighting the first episode was a major challenge with much of the action unfolding in a dark graveyard. “Reading the script for the first time was daunting there was just page after page after page of ‘Cemetery – Night’” they didn’t take the easy way out though, the scenes were shot in a “real cemetery, in the middle of nowhere with no existing light” over just three nights. Luckily, Chapman likes a challenge and managed to utilise a “couple of big cranes with big lights” to get the job done.
Chapman lauds designer Paddy Reardon for his contribution also; “Reardon is such a wealth of knowledge and experience. He understood the look we were after and created sets and locations that had so much character. I had many at length discussions with Paddy about practical lights and my desire to have the right practicals for each location. I think he was tired of me turning up at his office most days with another request! I can’t stress how important it is to get this stuff right in pre-production. I lean quite heavily on practicals as I want the light to be motivated and he totally understood and delivered every time”.
Episode one also sees one of the risen turn to dust as James watches on. VFX Producer Scott Zero says on the series extras on iView that the eight-second sequence took a good “two or three months” work to create. Chapman says of CGI in the series; “We had a few big hero CGI shots that we tested for in pre-prod. A character literally turns to dust in front of us so that required several meetings and tests. I worked with just the one LUT for on-set monitoring. It’s the ARRI LCC which is a slightly lower contrast look than the Rec709”.
Again, quick to point out the team effort involved in the production, Chapman jumps at the chance to talk about his crew; “I had a wonderful team. Kev Campbell on A-cam put up with my bad jokes and occasional grumbling, he gave me a lot of support over some very gruelling days for which I’ll be forever grateful. Troy Reichman on B-cam was the Zen master with biggest beard on set; he got the classic B-cam long lens, no rehearsal shots and has an incredible gift for Stedicam focus pulling. Mirek Aldridge and Jackson Finter, our Camera Assistants, were the young guns doing a superb job in some really rough locations. And of course Matt ‘the Wolf’ Temple on B-cam/Stedicam; what a complete legend and what a great eye he has, he completely understood the aesthetic and created some magic shots”.
Chapman is like a proud parent when asked for a favourite shot, diplomatically avoiding any direct picking although when pressed he agrees that “one of” his favourites is the creepy stillness of a service station where moths swarm the light, “Emma and I noticed the moths around the lights… on a different service station and were like ‘please let’s hope there’s that’ because that to us, that was the show… moths around a light flickering at night, that’s beautiful”. Overall his favourite shots are generally the simple ones; “some scenes that seem so simple when you watch them, no one would ever think ‘great cinematography’ but they’re the ones I like because I know that they were anything but simple to execute”.
A busy schedule kept him from spending much time in post-production that was left mostly to Freeman and his Colourist Ian Letcher at DDP. He trusted the pair completely having worked with Letcher previously, “He is a bit of a master so I never need worry when it’s in his hands. They sent me a pro-res copy of episodes one and two to my hotel so I could view the work and make any notes. To be honest I didn’t change a thing. We wanted to just maintain the look we set out to achieve in-camera and Letcher made sure it was there. He fixed my mistakes and for that I thank him”.
On season two Chapman is tight lipped. He is thinking positively but is waiting to hear himself. He can confirm though that the story lines are there if there if the effort is rewarded with a follow up.
Beyond Glitch Chapman is a man with a full plate. He has recently wrapped true crime feature Joe Cinque’s Consolation, an adaptation of Helen Garner’s book of the same name before shooting a documentary, and moving straight on to his next feature The Killing Grounds that he describes as a “terrorising bush camping trip”.
He also has plans for a move across the Pacific around September 2016 after a successful project last year with long-time collaborator Sean Byrne. After their short film Advantage (2007) was selected for Sundance, Byrne and Chapman combined for their first feature, The Loved Ones (2009). They teamed up again for a US debut with the ‘psychological horror’ Devils Candy that is due out soon.
Chapman is a little bemused by the demand for his services on horror sets though; “it’s weird…just by virtue of shooting that first horror film, I’ve been offered a lot… I just love what it gives us in terms of shooting. They’re fun”. However, he continues, that while John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is still a favourite, he’s not a massive horror fan; “they’re not necessarily my cup of tea but I like the good ones… If I could make a film like The Shining (1980), to me that’s the kind of horror film that I would desperately love to make, that very creepy kind of horror that’s not necessarily blood and guts”.
He is keen not to be pigeon holed though, “I would just like to keep my career diverse, that’s the main thing. If I can get a diverse range of genres to shoot then I’d be really happy” referencing his childhood favourites including The Goonies (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987) he continues he would “still love to make a film like that that just puts a smile on the dial and everyone loves”. It’s Empire of the Sun (1987) that Chapman credits with triggering his interest in cinematography, he remembers looking at these camera moves thinking ‘how do they do that?’ – from there he became obsessed with the photography of films.
One early project he remembers was a documentary shot on VHS about his sister’s first skydive for a high school film class. Letting most of his other subjects fall by the wayside he admits he was “never going to get to medical school”. Many shorts with friends “lit with garden lamps” followed before the next big moment occurred in college. Shooting his first 16mm black and white, “seeing the stuff come back and projecting it” was the start of a serious love affair. We should probably be thankful. We have enough doctors.
Garth Cecil is a writer and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.