Cinematographer Peter Szilveszter has recently wrapped principle photography on his first feature film, upcoming bushranger epic The Legend of Ben Hall. Here, he speaks with Australian Cinematographer about the production.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
No other Australian outlaw story is more absorbing and unbelievable than that of Ben Hall. He is the Jesse James of our colonial history and Ned Kelly doesn’t begin to compare with the grand legacy of crime committed by Hall and his gang.
The film centers on the last six months in the life of the infamous bushranger, portrayed by Sydney-newcomer Jack Martin. Filming in-and-around country and rural Victoria this will be the first motion picture to portray the Ben Hall story, as well as bringing to the screen notorious outlaws such as John Gilbert and John Dunn.
Cinematographer Peter Szilveszter worked closely with Writer/Director Matthew Holmes whose screenplay was created with the greatest attention-to-detail when it came to historical fact, as well as the drama and narrative. Very few of us know Hall’s name, but The Legend of Ben Hall is set to change this for good.
AC – You’ve worked with director Matt Holmes before on a short film called The Artifice (2014). In that, the first close-up of actor Joshua Jaeger is really impressive, and the resolution is stunning given that the character is in shadow.
PS – Thanks. That was my first time using the Canon 5D Mark III. Basically we were shooting raw with it. It was a risk to take but I got to push the envelope to see what I could do with it. It’s basically like taking Canon raw photos at HD resolution. You are getting 14 Bits of image in the Canon, just like you would with an Alexa.
Holmes wanted the image to have a quality different from the standard DSLR. It was like film. You couldn’t do playback, you just had to base things off what you saw on the monitor. It was six-minute reels, similar to 35mm on film. We had to do lots of data wrangling.
These days with digital cinematography I really want to do grading as well. Even getting the raw files I know exactly what the colours, tones and textures will be. There was a lot of processing work to be done. The raw process of Canon Raw is extremely painful. It’s improved in the last year. People have written programs to make it easier. It’s still nothing like the RED though, with Redcine X where you can do whatever you need to do.
AC – How do you go about attuning yourself to directional light based on time of day?
PS – I look with Holmes at the script when it’s meant to be, what time of year it’s meant to be. It’s important to me. I would say with The Legend of Ben Hall it was more about the emotional content of the scene. Was it a desperate moment for the character, a light moment? That also became a big influence of my lighting. Directional light for me is always about trying to find a naturalistic look.
AC – I was impressed about a shot in the trailer for The Legend of Ben Hall of the characters racing on their horses across an uneven paddock at what looked like five o’clock. The shadows forming across the texture of the ground were really memorable.
PS – It’s one of those things where we really got lucky with that shot. Whenever you have the luxury of time and you see a shot that would work out beautifully then you really just go for it. Generally, on the shoot for The Legend of Ben Hall we didn’t really have such luxuries.
AC – There is an indoor cinematographer who is comfortable with the control of the studio, and an outdoor cinematographer who is unafraid of the various lighting conditions nature provides. Which are you?
PS – I am always in favour of a naturalistic approach to lighting. I like to mould it, to cut it and bounce it. I suppose it’s one of those things where I can say I like outdoor shoots because I find it easier to control the light, but then I also enjoy the challenge of a studio shoot. In Ben Hall we shot at Docklands for a few weeks. That was a real challenge.
AC – Looking at some of your past work there is a lot of quintessential Australiana featured. Tell me a little about your background…
PS – I was born in Hungary. We left just a few years before the end of Communism when I was around six years old. We escaped to Austria before coming to Australia.
I suppose I have a quite a varied background which has created a real mix of visual attitudes within me. I grew up in Hungary, which had a very depressing, Communist attitude towards things. While I was in Austria I was surrounded by the beautiful Alps, the amazing snow. Then I came to Australia and it’s a whole mishmash of multiculturalism.
Part of what has come through is a focus on the natural way of things, of people in nature. That was something I really wanted to express through my showreel. Even though I wasn’t born here I feel very much an Australian and I feel I have a very attuned, sensitised outlook on the place and the people due to coming from a different place. I think there are things that people might take for granted in being born here and living here that they would only become aware of once they leave the country. I think it helps as a visual storyteller, to use real life experience as a way to look at things in a unique way.
AC – In terms of it being early in your career do you seek out influences, or do you want to rebel from past influences?
PS – I’ve had a style I’ve stuck to over the past ten years that is quite naturalistic. I wouldn’t say I am one for trends. These days everyone is getting a bit full-on with drone shots. For me I’ve always generally gone with what feels right for the piece. My hope is to excel at achieving a naturalist look. If people want to hire me for a spiffy, glossy music clip probably I’m not the right guy for that.
AC – Tell me generally about the look you were trying to achieve on The Legend of Ben Hall?
PS – We had a lot of overcast days so we couldn’t really bring in a lot of hard sun. For the interiors we filmed, the characters were living in tiny, single room huts with just a single small window. So I really worked on that look of just have light coming through that single source. So they were quite dingy looking. Especially the night scenes. We threw in a candle here or there but we were really going for a harsher look.
AC – Do you feel your influences are not what people would expect?
PS – I looked at films like Dances with Wolves (1990, cinematography by Dean Semler AM ACS ASC), and True Grit (2010, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC). Those are the influences I looked for. Something that feels epic, but also intimate.
AC – What about a film such as The Lighthorseman (1987), also shot by Dean Semler AM ACS ASC. That featured a lot of contrasty, saturated cinematography?
PS – In the case of The Legend of Ben Hall, I’d take the contrast element, but not the saturation. The palette we chose, the costumes, the scenery we picked didn’t feature too much green, it was all in the service of a less saturated look. There will be little moments in the film where we will bring back the saturation but on the whole we shied away from that.
AC – That’s something interesting about Deakin’s True Grit. A lot of the night interiors had quite high saturation.
PS – Absolutely. But it was very much a single source look. It was lit to look like that and there was no fill in the room. I definitely worked towards achieving a similar look. There were a number of scenes with quite high contrast ratios in The Legend of Ben Hall.
AC – When were the moments you felt saturation was warranted?
PS – Basically, I would take notes. There is a moment in the film where Hall visits his son, whom earlier was taken away from him by his wife. There are good and bad moments in that subplot. I took mental notes on what Hall was feeling at given moments. If there’s happiness in the scene I might add a little bit of saturation. We’ve got some fun bar scenes, they might not be so grey.
AC – Lighting through widows, what did you use?
PS – Because we were mostly in the studio we used mostly bounce light. For daylight when we were shooting in the studios we used 4K lights, and threw in a 1.2K to give a sunlight pattern coming through here or there. Because the sets were recycled quite a bit we needed to conceive of a different time of day to give them slightly different looks. Because the huts had roofs we literally had to light as though we were on location.
AC – Is it correct that three Ben Hall films are planned?
PS – Yes, depending on how the film performs Holmes is hoping to bring out a series of bushranger films. I don’t know if you know this but in the early 20th Century they banned stories on bushrangers. The script Holmes has written was very big. The Legend of Ben Hall is really the start of how it all came about. It’s quite a rich history from that period.
AC – Would you say the film is a Western?
PS – Yes, for sure. We tried to avoid the traps of other films that had been targeted towards America. I think it was the series Wild Boys (2011, series cinematography by Henry Pierce ACS and Joseph Pickering ACS) where they were blowing up safes. But that never happened historically. We tried to keep it very Australian but with that Western element. There’s a bit of gunplay. We have that real vastness with some of the locations we went to. To me a key reference is Dances with Wolves.
AC – Given that Dances with Wolves was shot pre-DI what kind of an inspiration is it to you?
PS – It’s a huge inspiration. The combination of natural source lighting with the firelight looks which Semler achieved which seemed very naturalistic. It really showed me what was possible. I’d say 80% of the film was all done on location. I love not just the look but how it was achieved.
AC – How intensive was your location scouting?
PS – Matt had a few places in mind before we started. We spent a good week driving around rural Victoria getting permissions, some of which naturally fell through. There was one amazing location that would have been beautiful which we just couldn’t secure.
Because it’s shot in Victoria, and the actual landscape was around the Forbes area, which is very flat, we had to seek out locations which would evoke those flat plains which had not experienced the level of deforestation in the Forbes region. I suppose ideally we could have shot in the Forbes area and inserted backgrounds but in the end we just didn’t have the budget for things like that. We found these boulders shaped by the wind around Mansfield, and then we felt that the look there proved a reasonable equivalent to the area in New South Wales where these events occurred.
It was quite intense to make sure we got a good range of contrasts in our locations. We got forests, rocky plains and mountains. We really wanted to capture the vastness they experienced in roaming around the country.
AC – The footage in the trailer of the characters chasing each other through a wooded area looked impressive and difficult to achieve. How did you go about exposing that and what kind of a rig did you use?
PS – We got some dapple light happening and that was tricky. I got down to an exposure where we’d still have nice contrast. Plus, I got a few bounce lights in, a six by six frame for the closer shots. For the wider action shots we just had to go with what nature was giving us. In terms of getting the camera around we mixed it up. The camera was sometimes on an Easyrig, sometimes a tripod. Then all the moving shots were what I call a Frankenstein rig. We had no budget to hire a Steadicam. It was a Glidecam, with a vest. We tried to make the camera as light as possible, getting the smallest matte box we could.
Once I got it down to the lowest it was about six kilos. We had to run it off the smallest batteries we could. Each time I shot we’d have to swap batteries. Usually we’d only get four takes before having to change the batteries. Each take I’d be operating and running with the actors through the forest myself so each take was usually only a twenty-second burst. We were running full speed on rough ground. There was no flat ground so I’m trying to get the framing good, run straight and not trip. So it was tough capturing that. But those shots paid off. For the second part of that block we got a Ronin. That was again tricky in terms of camera weight. Then it was a question of trying to match it up with the work I’d done on the Frankenstein Steadicam.
AC – Do give yourself rules in terms of shooting a period film?
PS – We shot a lot of it on Easyrig. We still tried to keep things quite stable but Matt wanted us to stay away from tripods. I suppose that was a way in which we broke the rules because most Westerns feature locked off shots. On this one Matt wanted to give it a little bit of life. I don’t see a problem with what we’re using, it’s more really a matter of intent. In The Piano (1993, cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh NZCS ACS) there are helicopter shots in a film set in the bush of nineteenth-century New Zealand, but if it works for the story then that is fine. We didn’t want handheld; just natural movement. We tried it on a tripod, but you could really tell that it was a situation of a camera being rotated around a particular axis.
AC – In the trailer for The Legend of Ben Hall the main actors eyes are covered in shadow but you can really pick out the detail in his eyes peering from that shadow.
PS – That shot was really something that I wanted to get. Hall is a criminal. He’s not really suited to high-key lighting. I wanted to keep those shadows happening. The character is struggling, to some degree, with his choices, so we really wanted to maintain a look that had a really active play between shadow and light. So you won’t get much high- key lighting in The Legend of Ben Hall.
AC – Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle DFF ASC BSC (The Last King Of Scotland, Slumdog Millionaire) has a fascination in treating the human face as a landscape. Is that something that you bring to your work?
PS – Oh, definitely. Holmes and I are huge fans of trying to capture the tiniest details. I base my lighting on that, and of course a little bit of grading at the end.
AC – When you are on a knife’s edge in terms of exposure how do you weigh things up with yourself?
PS – Obviously it’s a matter of knowing how digital behaves. I’m quite conscious of how digital works with highlights. If you want to blow out highlights on film it’s fine because film is very forgiving. That is in contrast with digital. So naturally I tried to avoid that effect. Exposure obviously depends on what you are depicting. Is it action or is it a close-up?
I remember there was one scene where I wanted to include low-angle bounce because a character experiences a moment where he goes to a very dark emotional place at a certain point in the scene. I wanted to add this hint of light that will reveal, especially when I can tweak it in the grade, that little bit of nastiness about the character. Shooting in the night it was the look I was hoping for but with the f-stop I was getting I wanted it to be a little bit sharper. I’m not a fan of shooting wide open. Super 35 F4 is a nice range for the film. But we had to deal with what we had in terms of power for our lights, the lights themselves, and so on. In the day its different, I was able to exert much greater control in terms of moulding a look according to my exposure. It was a very fast- paced production.
AC – Australia’s obsession for the true crime genre – Chopper Reid, or the Underbelly series (2008-2013) – seems now to be winding down. The Legend of Ben Hall seems very distinct from that trend towards urban Australian crime stories.
PS – That was something which appealed to me on this film. I thought the characters were special and unique. The film, to me, really plays more like a western than a crime film. Even down to the dialogue, the ear of Holmes is very acute.
AC – You’ve got outback footage which features brown trees, spots of green, all with a patchy lawn in the foreground. Yet despite all of these elements your grade is very sophisticated. With such a vast landscape how do you work in subtlety?
PS – That’s a good question. I try to find that subtlety sometimes just in the framing. I think it can be a matter of finding the ideal frame, with the natural light that you have, then not having to force things too much in the grade, not forcing yourself to drop in power windows later on. You want to use your skill to capture, in the most natural terms, what was in front of you on the day.
Lindsay Coleman is a writer, film academic and contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.