Darrell Martin, Camera Operator on the Seven Network’s Molly, sits down with the show’s Cinematographer, Craig Barden ACS, to discuss a career that has culminated on the immensely popular television series watched by over 2.6 million Australians in 2016.
Interview by Darrell Martin.
I met Craig Barden in the 1990s while operating for him on a children’s television series at the ABC. He was the youngest DOP I had worked for and frankly I was in awe of him. He had such a keen eye and such amazing lighting skills. He was also an amazing Camera Operator himself, so you can imagine how delighted I was to work with him on the biopic Molly. It was a truly remarkable show to work on and Craig kindly agreed on being interviewed by me for Australian Cinematographer Magazine.
AC – How did you get started in the business?
CB – As a kid I was mad-keen on making my own home movies with my dad’s Super 8 camera. I grew up being fascinated by science-fiction, horror and 1970’s blockbusters like Earthquake (1974), Towering Inferno (1974) and Star Wars (1977). I studied filmmaking in Form 5 and won the school film competition with a Plasticine animation about a tragic lunar landing.
I used to walk to school in Melbourne every day past an oval that was often used by Crawford Productions to film scenes for The Sullivans (1976-83). I’d stand there and watch the cast and crew working and that’s when I realised that I wanted to work behind the camera. I decided that’s what I would try to pursue when I left school.
In those days the best way in was to start from the ground-up and I was very fortunate that Crawford Productions gave me my first job. There are so many Australian crew members who got their first break and training years at Crawfords. Most of us had to do everything from running, unit assisting or washing fleet cars until we were ready to be assigned to a particular production. My first camera department job was as a Clapper Loader on The Sullivans. I wound up working on that same oval I used to stare at!
AC – What was your first job as Director of Photography?
CB – My first job as Director of Photography was on the television show The Flying Doctors (1986-93). I had been working at Crawfords as 1st AC and B-Camera Operator when the late Ron Hagen ACS left the show as DOP to go onto another project. I was very excited to be offered the opportunity to step-up, but knew it would be a case of being thrown in the deep end. I had a couple of weeks training from my mentor, Zenon ‘Butch’ Sawko – who was the other DOP on the series shooting alternate blocks – and then it was time to either sink or swim.
AC – What was your first big break?
CB – Apart from my first job as DOP on The Flying Doctors, it would have been as DOP on the first season of the science fiction television series Farscape (1999-2003), an Australian/American co-production, originally produced for the Nine Network. Working on such a large-scale production on 35mm film with Jim Henson’s creature shop animatronics, huge sets, special effects and masses of green screen was such an amazing experience. I learnt so much.
AC – Influences, how do you get inspired?
CB – Like all Cinematographers I am interested in a multitude of genres, both film and television. In a broader sense, inspiration comes from every day life. It could be any instance where I become consciously aware of colour temperature, light and composition.
I also love seeing experimentation with colour, angles, lens and filter choices and any situation where I know a filmmaker has pushed the boundaries. I am a massive fan of Darius Khondji (AFC ASC), he’s a legend. The City of Lost Children (1995) and Se7en (1995) are masterpieces of colour and light. To me, they are inspiring examples.
AC – Any memorable blunders?
CB – It’s tempting to say ‘no’ here, but I’d be lying. Without a doubt, the most memorable, and in hindsight the most hilarious, was a story involving the late Bud Tingwell. I was a Clapper Loader on The Sullivans and on one particular day Bud was directing a scene where Dave Sullivan was to be hit by a car. I was instructed to ‘reverse load’ the magazine to sell the stunt. Later on, when I had to unload the magazine, I inadvertently sent unexposed stock to the lab and binned the exposed footage. Of course, I felt dreadful, but fortunately there were other cameras rolling on the sequence, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. Bud, being the lovely man he was, was very understanding.
The story only became funny when, many years later, I attended an ACS Awards night where Bud was a guest presenter and incorporated this anecdote in his address to the audience. He couldn’t recall the Clapper Loader’s name. As luck would have it, the next award he presented on the night was the ACS Gold Award for Drama and that Clapper Loader won it. When I got up to accept the award I confessed to all and we all had a great laugh.
AC – You’ve shot a lot of series on film. Do you miss the medium?
CB – Occasionally, but you have to adapt. I do miss the texture and range of film, but I have learnt to love the change, more than I anticipated. With all the high dynamic range technologies available these days you can achieve equally amazing results. There is something to be said for this era when you can look at the monitor and know exactly what you’re capturing. There are rarely any surprises in rushes as everyone has access to the monitor these days. I do think learning on film has been a great advantage. I still light like I am shooting negative and the Alexa handles it perfectly.
AC – How significantly does your gear package change from job to job?
CB – I use a basic package consisting of Alexas coupled with Panavision Primo zooms, with a set of Primo prime lenses. I love using the 11-1 primo zoom. It gives me a range of 24- 275mm that is great for shooting 8 -12 minutes a day on TV drama and when its not wide enough I have a 17-70 short primo zoom as well. I keep half a dozen Primo primes on set for small spaces and handheld work. The old glass in those lenses has a certain look that I love.
After reading scripts, sifting through reference material and discussions with the Director and Producer, I then put together a list of additional equipment specific to the job; extra filters, lenses and rigs etc.
Sometimes, it’s more of an approach change than a gear change. For example, on Wentworth (2013-) we made a ‘broom-cam’ to use in the prison corridors; a Canon C300 mounted on a broom. It served as a low-angle tracking device that gave those shots great energy and brought the overhead fluorescents into play, a ridiculously simple yet effective addition to the kit that helped establish the look of that show. We also used it on Molly to introduce the band Kiss when they set foot in Melbourne for the first time. Being that low really accentuated Gene Simmons boots as they strolled thru the airport terminal.
AC – So speaking of Molly, how did the biopic come about for you?
CB – I had been working with the Director Kevin Carlin on Wentworth and he asked me if I would be interested in working on a project he had coming up. When he told me it was about Molly Meldrum and the show Countdown (1974-87) I was hugely excited. Growing up I was an avid Countdown viewer and music video fan. I really loved that time, so I was, of course, thrilled to get the job. Carlin is a very talented director and we have a great working relationship. Like all good Director/DOP relationships, we challenge and feed-off each other. We had 38 days to shoot Molly so having that kind of relationship and a form of shorthand is really important…
AC – How did you and Kevin Carlin approach the look of Molly?
CB – Carlin and Angie Higgins (Editor) had cut a style-reel together before I started and once I was on board we slowly refined and filtered this material until we were all happy with our core style. We had a timeline that spanned five decades of Meldrum’s life, some of which was already well documented on television and familiar to Australian audiences.
I used quite different lighting, filter and contrast combinations to define each decade, and each era was given its own LUT. For example with the 1970’s, I gave it a Kodak Ektachrome feel by putting a blue hue into the blacks and manipulating the contrast. I then re-applied the LUTs in the final grade with Colourist Edel Rafferty at DDP Studios.
For the sequences where Meldrum is dreaming and having surreal flashbacks, it was a great opportunity to push the colours and contrast to extremes and really make the most of the shift/tilt lenses. In the grade with Rafferty, we applied a highlight-glow effect from the Sapphire plugin to enhance and differentiate those moments.
AC – What was the most unusual trick you had to pull?
CB – When Meldrum is slipping in and out of consciousness Carlin wanted some POVs to get inside his head and to show the viewers what he was going through. To sell this idea I set about constructing a prosthetic eye that could fit over a camera lens and blink and close completely when we needed it to. I made the eyelids and surrounds from scraps of prosthetic foam and false eyelashes; kindly donated by the very talented Kirsten Veysey in Makeup. I cobbled these together using tape and then used a pair of chopsticks and an elastic band to make the eye blink. I then sat this on a 25mm prime lens pointed the camera straight up and then had medics and ambulance officers looking down the barrel as they frantically tried to save Meldrum’s life. My right hand was operating the camera while my left was squeezing the chopsticks to make the eye blink.
My right hand was operating the camera while my left was squeezing the chopsticks to make the eye blink.
AC – What was the most difficult aspect of this job?
CB – Trying to capture footage that could be intercut with archival footage or composited directly into archival footage. To make this work effectively I had to carefully consider pixel density and grain, along with angles, lenses and the lighting.
During the Meldrum’s interview with Prince Charles – where Meldrum asks the heir to the British Throne “how’s your mum?” – we had to substitute footage of the real Meldrum with our Meldrum (Samuel Johnson) into grainy low-quality archival footage of the real Prince Charles.
I had to consider lenses, angles, lighting and framing to match the original footage. It all had to be very close or it would have looked fake, the scene would not have been convincing. We then shot Johnson against a green screen in our set and Scott Zero (Visual Effects) composited him into the original footage after adding a complementary amount of grain and defocusing.
AC – How did you approach recreating the look of Countdown? And how valuable was the source material?
CB – I binge-watched hours and hours of Rage’s Countdown specials and made notes about the show’s camera and lighting style. So, source material was the defining influence for our shooting style of specific components. Most episodes of Countdown included studio-based performances, interviews, album and concert reviews and video clips. We had to cover a lot of bases from the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The old star filter was a signature style for a lot of the original studio performances. Panavision still had some of these and I had hoped to use them on our set but, after testing them, we found them to be incompatible and the results were disappointing. Generally speaking, I try not to rely too heavily on the post-production process if it’s something I think I can handle in camera. However, in the case of the star filter effect, the desired effect was achieved at DDP Studios in Smoke, again using the Sapphire plug in.
We used two Alexas 90% of the time to get the coverage and get the day shot; I also had a Canon C300 on hand for 2nd unit and rig shots.
It was fabulous to have Darrell Martin as our B-Camera Operator, particularly as Martin had worked on Countdown in the mid-1980s as a trainee on the show. He brought with him some of the original tricks such as zooming past the singer and defocusing at the end of a verse or chorus which provided a classic 1970’s transition to the next shot. This gave our clips a really authentic feel.
The boys at Panavision found an old Betacam buried out the back, which they managed to bring back to life.
I looked into using an old video camera to recreate footage, particularly interview footage, shot back in the day that I knew would have to be intercut with Johnson. The boys at Panavision found an old Betacam buried out the back, which they managed to bring back to life. I was pretty excited about the possibilities of using it to recreate some of the clips for the show. Unfortunately the tests were disappointing; a low ASA rating of about 160 and high noise factor resulted in a very poor quality image. It would have required an enormous amount of light to achieve an average result and we just didn’t have the time, so I stuck with the Alexas and we degraded the image in post.
We also ended up using some Super 8 as well! I had a scene where Meldrum and his new car were being shot by one of the cast on a home movie camera that at the time was a Super 8 camera.
Now that NanoLab has opened a processing lab in Daylesford in Victoria I couldn’t resist. Carrie Kennedy, the Series Production Designer, lent me a Super 8 camera and I bought a couple of rolls of Agfa Aviphot 200 D and began testing; the results were amazing. The images were full of great texture, soft muted tones, grain, scratches and bits of crap floating around from inside the camera, it really brings a great look to Molly that would have been tricky to recreate in post. It took me back full circle to film class in Form 5 where I started with film and Super 8.
AC – What was your favourite or most satisfying moment on the show?
CB – I had so much fun shooting the clips for John Paul Young’s ‘Yesterday’s Hero’ and Skyhooks ‘Party To End All Parties’. We shot these at the ABC Studios at Ripponlea in Studio 32 next to Studio 31 where most of Countdown had been shot. Both studios looked the same except for a higher roof in one. Even the studio walls were the same as they were thirty years ago so it gave us a great vibe to be there in that space. Carrie Kennedy and the series other Production Designer, Ben Morieson, along with their team did such a beautiful job on the sets, recreating the Countdown look with the signs made out of light bulbs and many colorful backdrops. The cast were also fabulous and really into recreating those iconic performances.
My Gaffer, Lex Martin, and I spent time going through the colour palette of each of the different segments and clips to ensure an even look for the ‘show within a show’. We used a lot of coloured Parcans in the grid just like they did back in the day, which was great when we wanted to shoot low and actually see them in shot. We must have done something right because a couple of longtime ABC staff wandered into the studio and said it was like being in a time warp! I remember sitting up on the crane zooming and panning around these performances with thirty screaming kids below me, the bands thrashing around on stage and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. It was an amazing day on a fantastic project that I didn’t want to end.
Craig Barden ACS is a Melbourne-based Cinematographer who has worked on many drama productions including Wentworth, City Homicide, Halifax and The Doctor Blake Mysteries.
Darrell Martin has been in the film and television industry for over 25 years. He has been freelance for the last 12 years as DOP shooting and operating on low-budget features, television series and music videos.