Australian cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal Dawson lenses the dramatic and brooding new thriller, Observance.
By James Cunningham.
Close to bankruptcy and wracked with grief over the death of his young son, private investigator Parker (Lindsay Farris) returns to work. The brief from his mysterious ‘Employer’ is simple enough: watch a young woman, ‘Subject 1’, in her apartment and report back. This is the story of Observance, an ultra-low budget psychological thriller shot in Sydney in under two weeks during a particularly uncomfortable heatwave. The film has been steadily building buzz since it premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal last year.
The film’s Director of Photography, Rodrigo Vidal Dawson (Skin Deep), got the call from Director Joseph Sims-Dennett (Bad Behaviour) asking if he would be interested in shooting Observance. It would be Sims-Bennett’s second feature film after dropping out of film school. Vidal Dawson, a graduate of The Australian Film Television & Radio School, was sent the script to read but it was the Director’s passion and drive that saw the young DOP sign on to the project. The two hadn’t worked together previously, or hadn’t even met for that matter. He received an email followed by a short a phone conversation. Very quickly they had to form a bond and trust for each other. “We were shooting a week later”, says Vidal Dawson.
The two filmmakers immediately started talking about the look and feel of the narrative. “We had very little options available to us due to the tight budget”, says the DOP. The film’s production design team consisted of Josh Zammit, the film’s co-writer with Sims-Dennett, with Vidal Dawson occasionally adding his input and ideas. With the tiny size of the production everyone had to wear many hats. It also helped that Sims-Dennett had a very strong visual language. The team decided that the key wall behind Parker should be as nondescript as possible but feel large and monotone. The crew covered the walls with Chinese newspapers kindly donated by the local newsagent.
There are subtle hints of Roman Polanski’s early works such as Repulsion (1965), largely based inside an apartment, and of course the inevitable comparison with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Vidal Dawson added a constant flow of smoke to the set and slowly increased it to make the environment more uncomfortable as the narrative developed. He says he was fortunate to find a large frosted window in the back corner of the room which became his key source for the entire shoot. He would never suggest day or night, so the audience would not know the time in the room, but more importantly that Parker would lose his perceived time and days. “It became a jail cell of sorts”, explains the Cinematographer.
Once Vidal Dawson saw what Farris was bringing to rehearsals, he knew exactly what the camera movement and gauge of the film would be. They had no storyboards to work from, and he says in hindsight he believes it was an advantage not to have them. Time was not on the crew’s side and Farris’ performance along with his interaction within the apartment was key. “We benefited best by sitting back and watching him, then constructing the scene breakdown from there. Camera movement and framing was determined by the characters state of mind”, he explained. The film also features special performances from John Jarratt, Roger Ward and Brendan Cowell voicing the ‘Employer’.
To contribute to the details of the film’s appearance, there were multiple conversations with Make-Up Artist Nicolle Adrichem and Costume Designer Alice Collins about the general state of the characters and how their individual looks would change over the course of the film. Dawson agreed on an overall palette and helped decide the skin tone and emotional status of the characters.
“I am a big fan and supporter of how colour plays in a frame, influences narrative and affects the audience impact as well as the look of the film”, he says, “I think it comes from my Chilean background and watching so many foreign films”.
Because of the low light environments, ambitious schedule and general lack of resources it was obvious to the pair they needed a camera system that could hold detail in the shadows and have a large dynamic range. They needed the camera to be robust; it was going to take a beating. Vidal Dawson was to be the film’s sole Camera Operator as well as DOP, but he knew a thing or two about operating; “I had the privilege to work under the tutelage of DOPs such as Danny Batterham, Warrick Thornton, John Seale AM ACS ASC, Alexander Witt, Ross Emery ACS, James Cowley, Stephen Windon ACS ASC, David ‘Spider’ Lewis ACS, Warwick Brown, Michael Dillon AM ASC, Roger Lanser ACS, Jo Pickering ACS, Russell Bacon ACS and Russell Boyd ACS ASC. All amazing, talented DOPs.”
For Observance, however, their camera needed to withstand Vidal Dawson being physical, as their planned camera movements were going to be aggressive. A reliable workflow was also key. It was obvious to both he and Sims-Dennett that they needed the ARRI Alexa.
“I put in a call to Warren Day at VA Digital Hire in Sydney to explain our needs along with the unique set of circumstances of Observance, in particular the budget. He was an absolute champion.” Being a huge believer in the project and a great supporter of the Cinematographer’s work, Day agreed to help the production no matter what the hurdles were and arranged a camera package for the film that would help give the crew their desired look, feel and specific workflow. They used the ARRI Alexa supplied by VA Digital Hire with a set of Master Primes (1:2.40 at 25fps). For pick ups and macro photography they used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with L series lens.
Sims-Dennett wanted Parker’s apartment to feel claustrophobic, dark and unhealthy as if the space would slowly engulf and consume him. “We had a variety of discussions regarding framing, movement and narrative, especially the overall feel of the central character Parker”, says Vidal Dawson. Available light was an issue as the apartment had to be completely blacked out in order for Parker to be undetected by Tenneal (Stephanie King) from the across the road, “I had the smallest lighting package consisting of two Kino divas, a 2k blondie and a 575, all donated to the production by Day”.
The intuitive DOP decided to gel the key source in the apartment with yellow. He describes how they were always going to create an anti-balance of unhealthy green hues in the post-grade to heighten Parker’s environment. However when Parker is not on screen or he is shown outside the confines of the apartment, the look is completely different.
Vidal Dawson’s favourite sequence in Observance is the final scene where Parker and Tenneal face off. Running up and down very steep stairs, handheld, culminating in the final act was extremely challenging and rewarding for the young DOP. “It was completely taxing physically and mentally shooting in the apartment”, he said. It is a lengthy sequence moving through complete darkness into corridors of light. The passage ways were very tight and thankfully the DOP’s small frame allowed him to manoeuvre around.
“The choreography between actors and myself was hugely satisfying once we achieved what we set out to do”, Vidal Dawson says. After hitting his head against a wall while operating the camera, he simply kept going and embraced the situation. “I remembered hearing Lance Accord ASC speak about intimacy between an Operator and a his lead actor on Lost In Translation (2003), so I decide to operate the camera as much as possible with Farris so the audience could be as close to him as possible.”
Achieving Sims-Dennett’s directorial vision was a creative and collaborative process. The Director gave his Cinematographer the freedom to add certain touches that he thought were needed. “We started with a ‘building blocks’ mentality and added layers to the environment the script created,” says Vidal Dawson. The crew’s main goal was to not think about what they didn’t have but concentrate on what they did, and build from there. He continues, “I was constantly thinking not just what was central to the frame but the little details on the edges or behind the characters.” Sims-Dennett gave away the freedom to play with shaping the frame to add as many layers to the narrative as possible.
For a feature film, Observance excelled with a micro-camera crew. The team consisted of 1st AC Zoltan Jonas and 2nd AC/trainee Yasna Ar. Vidal Dawson hadn’t worked with them before and they came to the production with little practical experience, however he proclaims what they lacked in experience they made up for working incredibly hard, fast and were integral in assisting him. “Working with a young team was very refreshing as they not only helped with the day to day needs of camera, but their enthusiasm and eagerness helped me remember the beauty of filmmaking when time, resources and space is limited,” he said.
Observance didn’t see a huge amount of CGI or grade prep due to budget restrictions, and the camera department wasn’t specifically geared for onset management, dailies or onset corrections. The tight-knit team always had post workflow in mind in order to make life as easy as possible in post-production. They kept it simple and clean.
Vidal Dawson had worked with various DITs and he believes they are a great asset dependent on the project, “For VFX heavy projects they are a godsend and can definitely resolve issues quickly, but I’m not so fond of them in a drama space. Too many people start to crowd around a small screen and start pulling apart the image and conversations happen without the key players involved”. He prefers look-up-tables to be created in pre-production as a starting point so the Director/Cinematographer can have a creative pathway and give every department the opportunity to see the desired look of a project, and how it will effect them. But like many creative endeavours, he explains, “you shoot, and the look and feel starts to twist and mound itself right in front of you, having an independent voice of its own”. Vidal Dawson is of the belief that in a traditional space, with data on set, a DIT should be off set as part of a post workflow not part of on-set management.
The post-production process was significantly slower than the production team had anticipated due to the constraints of the budget. By the time picture grade came around he was unavailable due to other commitments. He had various conversations with the Director about the grade, which was completed in around sixteen days, especially during the time he was cutting with the film’s editor Charles Ivory. The edit itself was completed over the course of a year, on Final Cut Pro in Ivory’s kitchen on their respective days off.
“We first discussed how best it would compliment the overall score of the film before finalising the look. I am a bigger believer the look is only as good as the score it underpins”, says Vidal Dawson. It was important for both Director and Cinematographer that the final look wouldn’t take the audience away from the raw emotional responses they were trying to create, and he wrote extensive notes for the film’s Colourist Brad Crawford, a part-time lecturer at SAE in Sydney, to guide him through what they were trying to achieve. Scenes evoke tinges of ill-seeming tones of green, almost as if the film is becoming to look unhealthy or sea-sick as the story plays out.
“Looking back I definitely think we achieved what we set out to do,” the Cinematographer concluded. “There were some bumpy moments of course and the lack of budget and resources did push the team to creatively solve problems. In hindsight, I would have liked to have pushed the sensor/image more. I would have loved the opportunity to really test the camera in extreme low light. It’s effect on colour retention and tested lighting gel packs.”
Rejection from main stream Australian festivals and distributors failed to discourage Sims-Dennett’s determination when it came to Observance being accepted into the world. It was at the Fantasia Film Festival that The Hollywood Reporter described Observance as “One
of the most chilling experiences”, and later, after The Weinstein Company sought out the film with an invitation to screen at the BFI London Film Festival, Sight & Sound called Observance “the ‘Number 1’ film in the Cult Strand for 2015.”
Since premiering to fantastic reviews Observance received much-needed completion funding from Screen Australia. Working on Observance has taught Vidal Dawson to embrace the resources you have at your disposal and not worry about what you lack, “Once you do that it’s very liberating and a whole new world of possibilities open up.” Umbrella Entertainment is giving the film a limited release nationally and the film will be available via Video-On-Demand this month.
Vidal Dawson recently wrapped his third feature film titled Indigo Lake for writer-director Martin Simpson (Gene-X), an Australian film noir set for a 2017 release.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.