Marc Furmie’s new sci-fi drama Terminus landed recently with award-winning cinematographer Kieran Fowler NZCS ACS behind the lens.
By Kieran Fowler.
I had worked with Director Marc Furmie on a few projects before Terminus, mainly music videos and advertising work but otherwise it was a first time working relationship for a lot of the key creative team and myself. A few years ago I landed back into Australia after finishing the feature film project, Duong Dua (2013), in Vietnam, soon after I got recommend to Furmie by a mutual friend to shoot a fairly small creative project. We met, started talking and we both got along really well. We shared similar mindsets and talked in a very similar film language when it came to approaching the project, and also just film in general. Furmie had seen some of my feature work from Duong Dua. He had a film script that was going to get a green light and asked whether I’d be interested
in coming onboard to shoot it. I believe there was a bit of caution about bringing me on board from the producers, especially since it was only my second feature, regardless of my experience in short form projects. In the end I think the work I had done in Vietnam really showed a lot of the dark mood and tones that the story of Terminus called for which Furmie liked.
I think it’s very necessary to be involved in the equipment choices/discussions for any project and personally I put a lot of attention into lens choice. Lens choice is one of the important tools a cinematographer and especially contemporary cinematographers have in shaping their aesthetics. For Terminus we shot widescreen on the ARRI Alexa with an arsenal of Panavision Anamorphic lenses including Close-Focus Primo’s, C-series and B-series.
We had both worked extensively with the Alexa camera systems prior to Terminus, out of all the digital sensor technology that was out we loved how the Alexa had a very ‘filmic’ quality in it’s color and latitude compared to others. I know the word ‘filmic’ is thrown around a lot but if we had the budget we probably would have shot Terminus on film, we are both celluloid fans and believe that there is still a texture and quality to the way it captures light and color that aligns with how we visualise stories, but we’ll reserve that for another film and story.
I like incorporating the grungy off beat urban tones when lighting, I think it gives you a great opportunity to play with color and especially for Terminus. We wanted to embrace the florescent greens and ‘off’ colors in our palette and I think the Alexa deals with color rendition/skin tone in these situations better then other digital cameras. I guess it also comes back to the saying ‘go with what you know’. It’s nice to simplify the technical aspects and focus on the more important aspects like the script.
Data and format was also a key consideration with the camera choice and in an ideal world we would have opted to shoot ARRI RAW but this meant a lot more storage and more crew to be handling the files and converting the dailies. I remember it was a fairly quick meeting about the possibility of going RAW, it was basically “Nope, sorry can’t happen.” It’s really amazing the difference between going RAW or Prores has on the budget. We were really happy with the Alexa Prores and it gave us plenty of room to work with in the grade.
“It’s nice to simplify the technical aspects and focus on the more important aspects like the script.”
The choice to shoot Anamorphic for Terminus came from discussions we had on the story and how we could add texture to the images to portray the down-and-out world of David Chamberlin (Jai Koutrae). We gravitated towards the Panavision anamorphic glass after some testing, we liked how the flares acted and in a way we saw it as an opportunity to pay a subtle visual homage to some of our reference films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, cinematography by Allen Daviau ASC) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, cinematography by Janusz Kamiński ASC), both of which were shot on similar lenses.
We were quite restricted in what Panavision glass we had access to at the time because there were quite a lot of films shooting that were using there Anamorphic lenses and
we didn’t have the budget to specifically fly lenses in from overseas. In the end we managed to secure a set of Close-Focus Primos after Kill Me Three Times (2014) had finished.
I loved those lenses, especially since they had the ability to focus at closer distances than most Anamorphics. This meant we didn’t need to keep throwing in diopters to get a close up. We did end up having to get a couple of C-series lenses to fill the longer lengths out and also a set of three B-series for a light weight Steadicam option, as the Close-Focus Primos are massive. They didn’t entirely match in terms of sharpness, distortion and color between sets however it was the best aesthetic option we really had at the time and from testing we were happy with how much we could match between inconstancies in the grade.
We used the older more ‘flawed’ B-series lenses for our flash back moments when Chamberlin or one of the characters is having visions as we loved how they fell apart and gave a soft dream like quality wide open, the edges get radically softer and it’s almost like a natural focus vignette. This is most prominent in the war flashbacks with Zach (Todd Lasance), where I think it worked especially well.
Texturally I was also testing a variety of softening filters out in certain story specific environments and ended up using subtle strengths of black pro-mist and black satin filters. For example, I loved how the 1/8 pro-mist subtly blooms highlights and rolls off the hard edge between hot parts of the image, like a window in the background, these along with sheer curtains really helped sell the interior day shots in our built sets.
Terminus was an ambitious project, we were really up against a battle of what was affordable for a thirty-day shoot with wanting to run two cameras/units on some days to maximize our tight schedule and make as few compromises in quality. We really owe Panavision for the support with gear on this one; they really helped us out and backed the project.
I always involve myself early on with the Production Designer and build a close collaboration on any project as this relationship is one of the most important a Cinematographer has. For Terminus I would have regular meetings with the Art Department and discuss things from colour palettes and dressing to practical lighting fixtures per scene. We wanted to go quite dark with a good part of our script set
at night. I found a good part of my talks with Jamie Morris, our production designer, would be going through various practicals we could implement that would not only make sense to the location but supplement the lighting well. For example, the exterior location of the Rehabilitation Hospital was an abandoned hospital that had barely any working lights on the outside of it. We made sure we got the old florescent fixtures on the outside working with new matching tubes and the undersides of the housing painted with a new coating of white paint so it would reflect as much light as possible. I have found the choice of practical fixtures and placement more important then anything for night work and it’s becoming more and more an integral decision in my lighting plans.
The palette we strove for with Terminus was to not be afraid of integrating the more ‘real’ off beat urban tones and let them seep into the images, where we found suitable, we would go from sickly green, blue and orange tones of the town to the warmer more ‘safe’ hues in Chamberlain’s house. It really helped portray the town as somewhere you wouldn’t want to live, with a great sense of melancholy. In terms of film references we were watching a lot of David Fincher’s work such as Fight Club (1999, cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth ASC), Zodiac (2007, cinematography by Harris Savides ASC) and Gone Girl (2014, cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth ASC).
Although a part of achieving this was in the lighting, a great deal of these ideas were discussed with the production design team so we could include these colors in the dressing. We were also watching a lot of classical films through pre-production and particularly from Steven Spielberg for his use of camera blocking and the way he would choreograph long takes that would incorporate create various frames within the one take. Although we didn’t have budget for the big telescopic cranes we tried to incorporate this in a simpler way as much as possible, it also helped us survive off less coverage and move quicker through the crazy schedule.
The film wasn’t entirely storyboarded, it would have been impossible as the script was changing so much during pre-production. If you did storyboards one week, the next week they would be irrelevant because of re-writes. In saying that we did manage to have quite a bit boarded by the time we were shooting. It was mainly the bigger action sequences and set pieces so we could easily communicate to all departments how we wanted to shoot them, for example Chamberlain’s car crash and the end sequence when the meteorite housing starts to fill with water. For a fight sequence we filmed the rehearsals on my 5D and cut it together with Furmie. This gave us a good idea on shots/pacing and what we could get away with in terms of parallax. I think it’s a brilliant idea to pre-film any complicated sequences and if we had the time I’d love to try pre-film an entire film, then you’d really have a good idea on what’s working and not by the time you come to principle photography.
“ We wanted to do as much as we could in camera, not only for budget reasons but it just looks better. “
We had anticipated a fairly modest amount of CG. We wanted to do as much as we could in camera, not only for budget reasons but it just looks better. We were fortunate to have the guys at ODD Studio onboard for prosthetics and special effects work. They built props like the meteorite, tentacles and various limbs in different stages of growth. It was a mix of practical effects and CGI to enhance the in camera elements. The idea is that the meteorite is a living organism that spawns life and has healing-like powers. In one scene, an unconscious Zach (Todd Lasance) gets dragged into Chamberlain’s barn and has his amputated leg regrown from touching the meteorite. To sell the effect of his leg growing back we used a couple of real prosthetic legs in different stages of growth and shot two plates, then in post the guys slowly merged and animated between the two elements. It worked really well. Other meteorite CGI throughout the film included the addition of subtle heat haze emitting from the surface of the meteor, adding small flying insects and life forms around it and enhancing the glow of the meteor which was partly done on set using LED ribbons inside of the meteor controlled from a computer.
The VFX list grew substantially over the course of the shoot, which isn’t a good scenario for any production, especially
one with a tight budget. The main culprit was the amount of screens we ended up having to composite footage onto, which was overlooked. We had a DIT on set to ingest and managed the footage and he usually hid in the darkest corner behind a monitor with green code all over the displays, which made me think of The Matrix (1999) whenever I visited him. He was used mainly for transcoding footage with a simple REC709 LUT. I’ve never really done anything fancy with a DIT in terms of creating LUTs and looks for different monitors on set except on a couple of commercials. I like keeping things simple throughout the process and having some consistency in the way I work from job to job. I think REC709 isn’t a great LUT to look at when watching back rushes as I find it too contrasty, but we didn’t have a lot of time to play around on Terminus.
I think as a cinematographer it’s important to build a good communication with your Director and really understand the vision they have for the project, as they’ve been involved in the script for far longer then you. For the first part of pre-production I did a lot more listening in our discussions to understand Furmie’s perspective of the script and get on a similar level. It is a very much in these collaborations that I find my personal perspective on things gets incorporated on the project. Everyday we would be meeting and chatting through things from coverage, mood/colour and ways of portraying certain themes or characters. We built a good amount of trust with our experience working together, and on Terminus he had confidence in my approach, enough so that it meant he could spend more time focusing on the performance and less on the images being created. An important quality to have in a Director/DP relationship.
I’d worked with our First AC/Focus Puller, Adam Lynch, quite a lot. He was my AC on Duong Dua and by the time we came to Terminus we were pretty efficient as a team, although now he’s embarking on a shooting career. The rest of my crew was made up of new collaborations. We had an interesting situation with the gaffer, Michael Adcock jumped on board after he finished on The Rover (2014) and could only do the first three or so weeks as he had commitments with a film in China. So we got Mark Jefferies to be on board for the last block, which went well and working with them both was a real pleasure as they had plenty of experience to offer up.
“ It’s a great thing about you really build lasting relationships with people. ”
There were points where we were running two units, or a second camera, which was operated by Jonathan Tyler, or for a couple of days we had Tom Gleeson. This really helped alleviate some of the schedule and although I’m not a fan of multiple camera coverage, I don’t think what we did would have been possible if we didn’t have these guys. For multiple camera work I would usually try and position the cameras as close as possible to each other without going further then 90 degrees away from me in order to not have to compensate on my lighting.
By the end of it we were all very close and I’ve gone on to work with many of the crew again. It’s a great thing about feature filmmaking; you really build lasting relationships with people.
I was very involved in the colour grade for Terminus, apart from that I only saw a few rough edits from time to time and was not really involved in much of that process. We graded for two weeks at Definition Films in Sydney and were very fortunate to have Jamie Hediger on board as our Colourist. The Director and I spent a good two days at the start of grading, setting a particular ‘look’ for each of the scenes, which was really just grading one or two shots and then Hediger spent a week by himself filling in the gaps.
We really wanted to create a sort of lifeless image forTerminus, keeping the colours quite de-saturated and embracing the more off beat tones, never really having a ‘correctly white-balanced’ image. There were a couple of exceptions when we worked against this idea intentionally.
In a scene where Chamberlain wakes up in hospital after an interaction with the meteor – this was a turning point in the film – we chose to bathe the actor in white light to support the idea of the life-giving powers from the meteor. It’s the first time in the film we see a truly pure white image and in a way it’s almost angelic. There were a few of ‘religious connotations’ throughout the film, and you could say the story as a whole is a modern take on Noah’s Ark. Having these brooding darker images really played as a nice contrast against the dry palette we capture in the countryside.
I wouldn’t say the finished film was exactly what we set out to achieve, but I find this with a lot of projects in a good way.Terminus naturally evolved through all the processes and ongoing changes while filming. The script was constantly getting re-written throughout principle photography, scenes were getting cut out and other elements meant that what we originally set out to make was always evolving and for the better. If we had made the film from the first draft it would be much different to the finished Terminus!
I do think we were successful in achieving the story, themes and journey of Chamberlain’s character that we wanted to tell from the beginning. The unsettling mood and atmosphere we managed to create throughout the film was something we got right. I find it hard watching your own work back, I get quite anxious especially when others are watching because I tend to focus on all the little flaws and things that I could have done better. On the other hand there are times when I think, yeah, we nailed that.
Born and raised around the beautiful mountain landscape of New Zealand’s South Island, Kieran Fowler NZCS ACS developed his eye for filmmaking from a young age. Duong Dua won ‘Best Cinematography for a Feature’ at the Vietnam Film Festival, and was awarded silver at the NSW ACS Awards in 2014.