Cinematographer Ari Wegner sits down with Dante Pragier to share her experiences with television, Tasmania and to explore the mystery of The Kettering Incident.
By Dante Pragier.
Slated for a mid-2016 premiere on Foxtel, the upcoming television mystery drama The Kettering Incident is set in the surrounds of Kettering and Bruny Island, south of Hobart. It is the co-creation of Vincent Sheehan and Tasmanian local Victoria Madden, who was the head writer, leading an impressive team including Louise Fox, Cate Shortland, and Andrew Knight. Produced by Porchlight Films (The Hunter, Animal Kingdom, The Rover), directing duties are shared by Rowan Woods and Tony Krawitz.
The story follows Dr. Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debicki) as she returns to the eponymous town and delves into the disappearance of two girls, fifteen years apart. As her investigation progresses and reveals long-buried secrets, the narrative plays against a growing sense of unease. As Cinematographer Ari Wegner puts it, “You’ll ask, ‘is that supernatural or could that have a real world explanation? Am I losing my mind or did I just see that?’”
There is lush beauty nestled in the foliage and undergrowth of Tasmania. It is moody and mysterious. Wegner tells me with a smile, “when you wake up in the morning and it’s pouring with rain, it doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be full sun by the time you get to breakfast.”
We’re having a coffee in Fitzroy, she gestures towards the park out the window. “Even the foliage on the trees is different, there are ancient forest, epic dolomite cliffs… I’m really excited to put that side of Australia on screen. Something outside of the iconic look of the desert, or the grungy inner-city suburbs. It’s a really different kind of Australia.”
Making the most of the available scenery was essential to conveying this atmosphere. Of course, with ambitious remote shooting, the crew worked carefully to adapt to the ever-changing weather conditions and logistical constraints. Further, the daunting production schedule of a location-shot television series necessitated careful time management. “We were based in Hobart. So when we were travelling more than an hour away we’d ask ourselves ‘how much do we want to go somewhere versus how much time does it take out of our day to get there?’ It’s a fine balancing act.”
Wegner had shot two feature films before, Grey Matter (2011) and Ruin (2013), but this was his first television series. ”Storyboarding is really hard on a TV drama. The length of it is equivalent to shooting four or five features back-to-back. I had six weeks of pre-production, but there’s no way you could properly board the entire thing in that time. So we boarded some of the trickiest sequences – like scenes that involved stunts or water. Apart from that we were quite traditional in our approach. On the day, we block it out, rehearse it, find the shape of it, find the coverage, then we do it.”
“It’s definitely the longest shoot I’ve ever done. It was eighteen weeks. And after the first two weeks you think, ‘I’ve still got sixteen weeks left and I’m exhausted, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this’. But you hit another place. You get a second wind. And by the end of the eighteen weeks you feel like you could keep going.”
It is easy to see how mounting stresses and fatigue could affect spirits, but Wegner is quick to point out that the length of the shoot also strengthened the collaborative experience. “You definitely get into a groove with the crew, directors and cast. Sometimes on a film it might be two weeks until you really start nailing the visual style and everyone gels, and then you might only have three or four weeks left. I guess when you’re shooting for eighteen weeks you really get a chance to get into it.”
With the crew operating cohesively and effective management of time and location, Wegner and the team were free to concentrate on creating a distinct approach to her cinematographic vision. To achieve this, she referred to initial discussions of overriding directorial philosophies and framework.
“We wanted it to have a sense of unease. The main character, Anna, comes back to her hometown after being away for fifteen years. She has a condition that means she isn’t quite sure if she’s in her right mind or not, so we wanted to bring that element into it. I tried as much as I could, for any scene she’s in, to be really with her. That you feel you are experiencing what she is experiencing. In the script she’s quite a difficult character, she does some very questionable things. It was very important for me that we kept on her side as a viewer, and I wanted to maintain a strong sense of her POV, to feel like we were seeing things as she was seeing things rather than ‘watching’ her.”
With this in mind, Wegner had a very specific approach to lens choices and camera movement. A number of lens options were tested, ultimately settling on Panavison PVintage. “It’s a beautiful kit. We were going to be in a lot of naturally beautiful environments, shooting a story that is at times other-worldy, so I wanted to avoid an overly digital feel. The PVintage really complemented that, I love how they flare softly and how much character each lens has. We ran a very light Glimmer Glass also, just to soften off the highlights.”
“I didn’t want to go long-lens. I feel like a lot of Australian TV does that. Maybe it’s a stylistic choice for some people, but I feel like it can separate you from the action instead of bringing you in. I guess some people find it intimate, but I actually find it to be the opposite. Personally, I think it’s distancing for the audience. So the 29mm and 40mm got a real workout. And if we went to a 50mm or a 75mm, that was really getting into the long-lens territory for this show.”
“There is a great central theme running through the series, the idea that the thing that most scares you is the thing you are most drawn to, like a moth to the flame. Our protagonist, Anna is drawn towards the truth, despite how terrifying that is for her. Expressing this visually, I decided on a central, graphic style of framing, as if people and things were right in her crosshairs, right in the center of frame.”
“Often we were on a track, slowly pushing straight in, pulled towards something, maybe against our will, in a way that was quite uneasy. Very subtle camera moves, so maybe you don’t even realise it at first. We used that to create tension. Often the camera was slightly below the eyeline. I really enjoy that. You feel the environment a bit more, being down when you’re in a great location like a tall forest. There’s something unsettling about it.”
Wegner credits key grip Brendan Shanley and his team for making the intricate camera and dolly work possible, no matter how tricky the terrain or weather conditions proved to be. “Brendan is real salt-of-the-earth, so nothing seemed too big a challenge. As a Tassie local, he took real pride in proving that no location was impossible.”
“We had this little dolly called the Goblin. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else in Australia. I think it’s an Italian make. At first you look at this thing and you’re like ‘…okay. I’ve got eighteen weeks sitting on the Goblin. But actually it was perfect. You could be in the deepest forest location and still do a tracking shot. It is this lightweight dolly that you can take apart and carry. One person can take one part, another the other bit. It can go low, it can go high. It is a really funny looking thing. Everything that’s superfluous has been removed, to the point that any excess structural metal had holes drilled out of it. So it is this swiss-cheese-looking thing. If it starts to rain, it’s cool. Everyone can run under cover and you can just leave the goblin out there, then tip it upside down, empty the water out, and it’s good to go. I actually felt a real affection for it towards the end. It was a great tool.”
I don’t like handheld for the sake of handheld.
At certain points of the narrative, the protagonist Anna experiences a kind of altered state. During these, handheld camerawork is used for a less grounded feel, but Wegner is very selective in its use. “I don’t like handheld for the sake of handheld. I think if the camera is going to move there should be a reason for it. I don’t find handheld makes anything feel more real or genuine or alive or pretty. I do love handheld, and I think well-placed, it is really beautiful. Some of my favourite sequences in filmmaking have been handheld, but I don’t like to see it as a default. My favourite kind of cinematography is when decisions are grounded in thematic or emotional logic. And, ideally, you wouldn’t necessarily notice them while watching it. But hopefully on some subconscious level it helps you as a viewer be more in the moment, feel a character’s point of view or emotion more strongly, or understand some kind of thematic point.”
Wegner embraced the advantages of an all-digital workflow to face the challenge of maintaining visual consistency. The series is set during the Tasmanian winter, but with the five-month shoot spanning the seasons, much attention was given to maintaining the winter atmosphere. “We did use digital controls, like colour temperature and LUTs. I varied colour temperatures extensively during the shoot trying to maintain a ‘winter’ feel. The camera department took meticulous notes on what temperatures we used for scenes, so we could match next time we were at the same location or shooting scenes preceding or following.”
“I developed a number of LUT’s for the shoot which were loaded into the Alexa. Depending on the situation I would choose a LUT or decide to monitor REC709. Again, the camera department made notes of these decisions so that rushes were produced with the right ‘look’ applied. In this digital environment it is very important to exert some form of control over the footage once it’s handed over, to communicate your intentions so they can be maintained throughout post-production, otherwise there’s simply no guarantee what the end result will look like.”
“But aside from all the digital tools, my main emphasis was on choosing the right time of day to shoot and to utilise practical effects as much as possible. So much can be achieved in camera especially in collaboration with the art department. They did a great job keeping us in ‘winter’. We used atmos in the deep background, condensation on interior windows, we were wetting down foliage. Those kind of things are a lot more exciting to me than just pulling it all down in the grade.”
Wegner praises the entire crew and cast for going above and beyond. With an infectious sense of fraternity, she struggles to include everyone she wants to credit. “I felt really lucky to have such a supportive crew, people who aren’t just superb technicians but true collaborators. Especially on an away shoot, you depend on the people around you so much more, and it might sound like a cliché, but they really do become your surrogate family.”
“I want to talk a little about Steve Price, my gaffer. He and his team did an amazing job, especially given the resources and the time we had. The look of the series is really testament to him and his guys, their hard work and sheer determination. Even at the bitter end, to be at my side still helping me to push for it to be great and not just ‘good enough’ is invaluable. I enjoy having a really collaborative relationship with a gaffer. Steve is just so brilliant at that. He’s a real artist, and a really strong creative force.”
The Kettering Incident was filmed with two cameras and this was a new experience for Wegner. “Grant Adams was on B-Camera and Steadicam. He’s a fantastic operator, and a great camera department member to have on board. He brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm, even when it’s 2am and freezing cold.” The camera department was completed by A-Camera 1st ACs Jani Hakli, Daniel Foeldes, and Henry West with B-Camera 1st AC Rikki Byrne. 2nd ACs were Tim Walsh (A-Camera) and Zac Peel-MacGregor (B-Camera) with Leuke Marriott on video split.
As part of the Tasmanian funding requirements, several departments were offered local attachments, an invaluable chance for someone to gain experience and a practical understanding of the workings of a set. Wegner interviewed several candidates and chose Hobart local Scott Bradshaw, and some of Bradshaw’s images can be seen in this feature.
“I did a few attachments back in the day when I was starting out and definitely lapped them up. I really believe in the importance of training people. It’s your responsibility. Someone trained you so it’s only natural that you should train the next generation. It’s really satisfying to see. Someone comes in, they’ve never been on a film set, they don’t know where to stand, they don’t know you get free breakfast so that’s exciting. By the end of the eighteen weeks you can call them on the radio, say ‘grab me the 29mm’, and they’re going to bring you the right lens, with the right doughnut, and all the right accessories. Especially for something this long, there was an opportunity for someone to develop a good level of experience. To get a taste of the best of it and the worst of it. I’m really pleased with how that worked out. Scott was awesome, he never felt like an attachment, he was just part of the team.”
The Kettering Incident was completed by colourist Olivier Fontenay, who Wegner had previously worked with on feature film Ruin in 2012. “I love working with Olivier, again, he’s someone who is a true collaborator. Story and themes are always his first point of call for creative decisions and for me, that’s the perfect approach.”
Wegner is passionate about Tasmania’s potential as a film destination, and hopes to see more film and television projects emerge. With a few notable exceptions like Van Diemen’s Land (2009) and The Hunter (2011), Tasmania is arguably under-explored as a film and television locale.
“I think there’s a real misconception about how difficult it is to shoot in Tasmania. But once you’re there, you can look 360 degrees and it’s more than worth it. You find things that you simply can’t create or cheat. Driving around, you’re constantly in awe. Everyone is helpful and friendly. When we were location scouting, people would regularly offer us scones and tea, and say ‘come to my house’ and ‘you should meet my uncle’. There was an old-fashioned excitement about a film production being in town. You try and do that in Melbourne or Sydney and you get ‘Oh yeah? How much money have you got? You’re not parking in my street!’”
My real passion is drama and story, breaking down a script, defining themes and translating them into a visual language.
Since The Kettering Incident, Wegner headed to the UK to shoot the feature film Lady Macbeth, currently in post-production. “I love commercials but my real passion is drama and story, breaking down a script, defining themes and translating them into a visual language. I love being on set day after day with the same crew, getting into a groove with everyone. That’s what gets me excited.”
The Kettering Incident is set to debut in mid-2016 on Foxtel’s showcase channel.
Dante Pragier is a writer based in Birmingham, UK. He is an ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.