As darkness falls, unsuspecting shadows begin to lurk outside a farmhouse where a pack of wild dogs are closing in, preparing to attack. Cinematographer Benjamin Shirley ACS lenses the frightening new thriller The Pack.
By Benjamin Shirley ACS.
In 2013 I was having a meeting with Nick Robertson, Director of The Pack, about a commercial and we started talking, discussing the idea of a feature about a rural family in financial ruin due to a loss of stock from a pack of wild dogs. Sadly, this stock loss is a true day occurrence in Australia. Jump to June 2014 and I am in a guard dog-training center shooting some test footage of some rather ferocious four legged friends. Very well trained to ‘take intruders down’, precisely what we needed for this film.
Robertson and I researched many films with dogs/wolves that attack humans, The Grey (2011, cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi JSC) being the most obvious. We took from that we didn’t want to rely too heavily on 3D dogs, and the budget just couldn’t handle it. What you don’t see is much more suspenseful and terrifying.
“ What you don’t see is much more suspenseful and terrifying. “
We did quite a lot of testing in Sydney regarding cameras/lens/post flow. Cameras that were considered were the Arri Alexa XT/Red Dragon and Sony F55 along with Zeiss Master anamorphic/Kowa anamorphic/Leica Summilux C and Cooke S4’s. In the end with the majority of the film is set at night, I just couldn’t go past the Alexa XT and Zeiss Master anamorphic, such a great combination when you consider T1.9 and the latitude of the Alexa. The flare and bokeh quality of the Zeiss Master anamorphic are awesome, I really fell in love with them. My initial concern was that there were only four lenes in the country (35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm) the 135mm was being delivered to Gear Head, but only about half way through the shoot. You get so used to having a huge range of lenses to choose from on commercials when shooting spherical, primes to zooms. We wanted to have a consistent feel for the audience in regards to field-of-view, so our ‘go to’ lens was the 50mm and the majority of the film was shot on that lens.
We also had two Black Magic Pocket Cine Cameras. For some of the attack scenes, the XT with an anamorphic lens was too heavy to be able to whip on and off. Knowing that these shots would be macro – anamorphic doesn’t have great minimum focus – and only be about 8 to 12 frames, the BMPCC was perfect for timing the action on these set ups. It was perfect for rifle scope shots on a 400mm Nikon f2.8 with a Metabones speed booster, that gave me another stop – shot exterior and at night – and the length when you consider the combination of a full frame stills lens on a MFT sensor.
My pre-production time started with a two-day drive with Robertson to Adelaide. It was really the first time we could talk about the movie without being interrupted. The previous week we had broken down the script – written by Evan Randall Green – with Editor Gabriella Muir. With limited time, we wanted to make sure what we shot was going to end up on the screen, not the editing room floor.
I spent about three weeks going to locations with Robertson and my stills camera, shooting a still’s board of the majority of the film. We wanted to spend our time on the shoot actually filming, not talking about lens selection and other things that would slow us down. Production thought we were a bit mad when I would give them selects to print at the end of every day. The production office walls and hallway were covered with stills scene boards.
The film is set over a fourteen-hour period of time, the majority at night. We had the luxury of doing day-for-night with the house having a typical surround balcony that we could black out. In testing, this proved more time consuming than anticipated. My Gaffer on the film was Robertto Karas. He and Grip Hugh Fretag and their teams did a fantastic job pre- lighting the house so we had many practical’s/wall busters/ reliable power etc. The location became a Hollywood wrap at the end of each day, always finished at night though, which saved production an enormous amount of time.
In regard to bringing a location like this, the house was run down and empty, to life, Production Designer Tony Cronin really did a fantastic job. He had almost the whole house painted darker and brought back to life. The property is meant to have been in the family for four generations, so it needed to feel grand but in disarray as they are having financial troubles.
The family is on such hard times that they look for a second income with a Veterinary clinic. Cronin built this in an old shed that worked beautifully along with a maze made from old bits and pieces you find around an old working property. The schedule was tight. Only two weeks with the attack dogs, to be filmed in the middle of shoot, Travis Kalenda our First Assistant Director, had his work cut out for him. We had two young actors, Katie Moore as Sophie the daughter and Hamish Phillips playing Henry the son. A lot of thought was needed regarding time we were allowed to have them on set.
Our leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jack Campbell both Australians but living in Los Angeles, really helped the kids on set and bonded as a family does in hard times. Travis’s other hurdle was the weather. The rain; yep, we had plenty of that. The set after about three weeks of filming started to become a bit of a mud pit, a very difficult place to work. Rain pushed us to do more night interiors than we wanted. But in the end we only did about two-hours of overtime for the whole duration of the shoot. Hats off to our caterer Sonya Marshall. When you are working in such harsh conditions, feeding your crew well is a big plus.
Producing The Pack was Michael Robinson and Kent Smith ACS, with Christine Williams line producing. Smith is a cinematographer in his own right, so it was great to have his support from the start regarding gear. When we scouted the location in summer, it was quite dry but coming back four months later the grass was lush and green – not the look you want for a hard outback rural property. After our make up and wardrobe testing, we spent a night outside to shoot a few setups and took the footage into KOJO with Marty Pepper to have a look at gel/camera colour temp combinations. Pepper who graded the film, put the test footage up on a theatrical screen at the South Australian Film Corporation. You really get a wonderful idea of how such small tweaks to lighting/gel combinations and camera settings you can get.
I came to the conclusion that Lookup Tables were not needed on this project. I shot the film open gate Pro Res 4444. The camera was set to 5600k for day work and 4400k for all our night shooting. The combination of 1/2 CTO and Lee 117 gel was a great look for moon lit scenes. It has a steel kind of kick to it.
I don’t like the moon to be blue; it just looked fake. We pulled out some saturation and dropped the exposure levels to help get rid of some of the noise in the blacks. I have to say you don’t really get much noise in the blacks with the Alexa, but I did set the camera to 1250 ASA for some of the night shots. The dark was definitely one of the most important characters in the film. Robertson and I both have the same viewpoint that what you can’t see is much more intense than what you can.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Jack Campbell’s character is searching for his sheep dog that has run off into the deep dark forest at night. We shot the wide shot day-for-night and the rest of the scene when the sun had gone down. It was lit with some LED flashlights that I found in Sydney that are used by hunters for shooting at night.
They have a max output of 900 lumens and a few different output settings. The bounce that it gave off the ground was perfect when Campbell was running back from the forest to the house. I didn’t have to augment much more lighting to the scene.
“ Production thought we were a bit mad when I would give them selects to print at the end of walls and hallway were covered with stills scene boards. ”
When you are shooting anamorphic wide open you do have problems with focus. The question “is it sharp?” is more about which eye do you want in focus. Bryn Whitie was my 1st AC. He is old school when it comes to running a tape and pulling focus. On this he changed his way of thinking and ended up pulling off the 17” monitor, Robertson was very quick to give up his director’s chair in front of the monitor to Bryn. With most of the film being hand held, framing and distance was a constantly evolving between takes. I really love composing for wide screen, but operating like this is very physical.
The two weeks with the dogs were intense. They were muzzled but they still scared the pants off me. These were not the kind of dogs that you would pat between takes. The leader of the dog pack was called ‘Tyson’ he belonged to the trainer and was a massive animal. When he was sprayed black, he really looked the part. Along with the knowledge that this was an attack dog, he kept me on my toes at all times. I thought that I would wait until the end of filming to play with Tyson. But when the time came, I figured that I had managed to get to the end of this experience with out being bitten that it was best to just let that thought go. When you first hear their guttural growl, a lot of respect (and the hair on the back of your neck) comes to play. We had some intense attack scenes with multiple dogs. The sound of the dogs when they hit at the same time at pace was something I won’t forget quickly.
We only left the house location for a few days of shooting, so it became a home away from home. Robertson and I would spend Saturday going through what was coming up the next week and Sunday was spent with Muir looking at assemblies with what ever scary sound tracks the Director could find. He always harked on about sound design doing a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ and he was right.
The final grade was a bit broken up because we were flying to KOJO in Adelaide whenever Robertson and I had the time. Pepper did an amazing job grading the film as well as VFX supervisor. It’s not often that you have someone on a DP’s side in the grade when you want to go darker and then darker again. I don’t think you ever finish a film, but at some point it has to be mastered out. It was a great experience and I cannot wait for the next one.
Benjamin Shirley ACS is an award-winning cinematographer of television commercials. His credits include commercials for Qantas, Mercedes-Benz, and Schweppes among many others.