Australian Cinematographer Magazine sits down with Simon Ozolins ACS to discuss his career, style and work on the ABC’s new adaptation of Tomorrow When The War Began.
By Jenna McMahon.
Simon Ozolins ACS is an award-winning cinematographer whose work ranges from drama to horror to sci-fi and has worked on features, television series and music videos. Earning himself multiple accolades and accredited for his work by the Society in 2013, this Sydney-based DOP is on an upward spiral to success.
Ozolins first started out in television shows and commercials. When 2007 rolled around, digital filmmaking flourished and the Red camera was released. Filmmakers where eager but unsure about using the new technology, so Ozolins took the opportunity to learn as much as he could and offer up new skills. In 2008, Ozolins work was noticed after he travelled to Shanghai, China, to do a music video for Empire of the Sun’s Walking on a Dream. The video would later win ‘Best Music Video’ at the ARIA Awards in 2009. Following this, Ozolins has worked in television, music and the award-winning Australian science fiction film Crawlspace (2012) directed by Justin Dix.
Recently Ozolins worked on Tomorrow When the War Began, a new series with Director Brendan Maher (After the Deluge, Sisters of War, The Passing Belles).
The drama, based on the Australian classic ‘Tomorrow’ series of novels by John Marsden, follows a group of teenagers whose lives are upended as Australia is invaded and occupied by a hostile foreign military. This brilliant series has already received a large following and airs Saturdays on ABC3. Here, the Director of Photography sits down to discuss his work on the show…
AC: How did you become involved with Tomorrow When The War Began?
SO: I first heard about the opportunity through my agent then got a call from producer Michael Boughen who wanted to add my name to a pool of possible DP’s for the project. Soon after, I flew down to Melbourne to have an interview with the director of the series, Brendan Maher. We had a long chat about the show and how it was going to be approached.
I left that meeting not knowing how I went and whether I would get the job. I hadn’t done a lot of drama so I didn’t expect anything, I was just happy I had been in the mix. Then I got a call saying that I got the job and that Maher really liked me. I was excited about the project and thrilled to get the opportunity to work with Maher because he’s so experienced. I knew I would learn a lot from him.
AC: How was is, working with a critically-acclaimed director?
SO: It was quite an amazing experience. I felt privileged to work with him because of his background. If you look at Maher’s resume, he’s got a massive list of projects from Australian television in the 1980s and he’s just gotten bigger and bigger from there. I think for the last ten years he’s been working solely in the UK on shows like The Passing Bells (2014) and Strike Back (2015).
One thing that really stood out to me was his ability to block a scene. In Tomorrow When The War Began you’ve often got seven actors in a scene with a lot of movement and you’re just thinking ‘how am I going to cover all of this dialogue?’. But Maher was very instinctual with his process on set and he would have strong ideas as to where he wanted everyone to be based on what was happening in the script.
One of the joys of working with him was that he didn’t just want to work in traditional television coverage, and that’s something that I could provide.
AC: You discussed a lot of your shots on set. Were you working with storyboards through the process?
SO: No, Maher doesn’t work with storyboards. I had assumed there would be storyboards, at least for the action sequences, but maybe that’s because I’m from a commercial background. He’s much more instinctual when shooting. He likes to get the actors into the space and figure it out from there.
In saying that, we’d spend a lot of time in pre-production discussing the theory behind how Tomorrow When The War Began was going to be shot and what camera angles would best tell the story and emotions of the characters. So by the time we got on set we kind of had it figured out.
AC: Was there anything else about Maher’s process you found interesting?
SO: With his directing, Brendan had this interesting thing where you’d set up your shot and you’d be rolling the cameras and he’d walk into frame, go up to one of the actors and whisper something in their ear but it was so quiet that only the actor knew what he had said. Everyone was perplexed as to what Brendan was saying but they would never tell ‘the secret’. I still have no idea what was said.
AC: Can you explain how you execute your own style on such vastly different shoots?
SO: I guess I’ve got a style but it’s hard for me to articulate what it is because it’s probably something subconscious. I really strive to give my own unique stamp on every project.
I go through phases, a while back I really got into making my images more low contrast using filters and refracting light by using diopters or wine glasses in front of the lens to distort the highlights of the picture. Now, I seem to be going almost the other way with more contrasty images. I often don’t even use a Matte-box or any filters on the camera, which I’m finding really liberating. It’s like nothing can get in the way of me finding that next shot.
With any project I like to talk to the Director and listen a lot at the start. I try and understand what they’re trying to do before I bring my style into it. I don’t like enforcing things on them before I get a good sense of what they’re trying to achieve.
With Tomorrow When The War Began I really wanted to bring an immediate feel to the show. Not get weighed down with heavy cameras and heavy gear but be able to move quickly and respond quickly to what was happening on set, almost like a documentary. So even though we had access to all sorts or equipment and technology I really wanted to keep it to a minimum and only use what we needed.
Even with the lighting we generally used natural lighting from windows so that the actors could move around any space freely. And it’s a show about teenagers and I think bringing a sense of immediacy to the images and the way they are captured is more appropriate to that audience than being conventional in coverage.
I find blocking is the most important time for me as the DOP to get creative on set and work out how I’m going to cover a scene. Although the camera, grip and lighting team are as quick as possible once that blocking time is over decisions have to be made pretty quickly and if you start doing it one way and then your not happy with the decision you made earlier it can be pretty hard to change it. I think knowing how to utilise my time efficiently on set is one of the most important things I’ve learned.
AC: You were working with Grant Adams as your camera operator. Firstly, how was working with him and how involved were you with the operation of the camera?
SO: Grant Adams? ‘Sideshow’ they called him. I was stoked to work with Adams. He’s got an amazing resume of jobs he’s been working on in the past few years. I was fortunate to bring him on early so I could start discussing the project in depth, rehashing what I’d talked about with Maher.
For a lot of projects I operate the camera myself but on Tomorrow When the War Began I got Adams to operate A-Camera. That gave me the opportunity to sit back, breathe a little and really figure out what was coming next, then I would jump on B-Camera. It was nice not always having a camera on my shoulder. I think when you trust your Operator’s judgement, it definitely makes a DOP’s job easier.
AC: What kind of cameras were you using?
SO: We were using the ARRI Amira for A and B, a Blackmagic Design’s Pocket Cinema Camera and GoPro HERO4 Black as a crash camera. We shot 3.2K.
Most of the show was shot on the Amiras supplied by Panavision. I’ve worked with it a lot over the past couple of years and I prefer it over the Alexa because it’s smaller and just a little bit quicker to work with because it has internal Neutral Density (ND) filters. It’s also easy to load your own custom LUTs into the Amira so you can flick between different looks very easily.
Unavailable at the time we shot Tomorrow When The War Began, nowadays I’m using the Alexa Mini which has all the benefits of the Amira but is even smaller.
AC: What sort of lenses did you use?
SO: We shot most of Tomorrow When the War Began on Optimo Zoom Lenses. They are great lenses and I love having the ability to adjust my frame without having to do a lens change. I had the 15-40 zoom for our wider shots and the 45-120 for tighter frames. We also had the 28-76, 24-290 and a doubler on hand to get that extra reach.
I use the Optimo lenses a lot because optically I like the image, it’s not too sharp like some other modern lenses and they’re so small and compact. They also matched in really well with the other prime lenses we used, the Zeiss Super Speed Mark IIs. We used these anytime we wanted to get a more intimate feel by shooting wide open at T1.3 and really isolating where we wanted the focus to be.
AC: Do you own a lot of equipment that you film on?
SO: I own some gear like lenses and filters. I found filters are better purchased because when you’re doing projects you’d go to a rental house and ask have you got this or that and they couldn’t find them, had rented them out or hadn’t heard of them. So I ended up buying some of my own stuff but never any cameras. I’d say it’s a tricky time to be in the camera rental business as technology is moving very quickly and you really have to keep up to be current.
I’d say it’s a tricky time to be in the camera rental business as technology is moving very quickly and you really have to keep up to be current.
AC: Did you usually have multiple cameras going at the same time?
SO: We would shoot with two cameras a lot of the time. One doing a wide shot the another doing a close up, but we would always shoot in one direction. We avoided cross coverage. Maher also likes to concentrate on one actor at a time, especially as some of them were fairly inexperienced at the start of this show.
On specific days we had as many as six cameras going at once. We had to bring on additional Operators for those days and generally would use the Alexas or whatever Panavision could offer us, then share lenses that we already had. Then we’d get the 2nd ACs to set up the little cameras like the Blackmagic or GoPro.
AC: What was it like shooting with the smaller cameras on a show like this?
SO: I’d used Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera only once before for a specific shot on a commercial but was interested in having one full time to rig into small places. It shoots in 1080p and it’s a good image but you have to get the exposure just right. That’s the tricky thing because if you over expose just a little bit the highlights just go and if you under expose it just turns to mud. Aside from that it was pretty awesome and in the end we ended up using the Blackmagic more than we thought.
The 1st AC, Chris Child, built a wireless transmitter, some handles and a remote focus onto this tiny little camera so that I could virtually hold it one handed and run after the actors. I got some shots that would have been virtually impossible to achieve on the bigger cameras. I mean the Blackmagic has limitations but I was impressed with what we could do with it.
AC: What was your favourite sequence that you filmed?
SO: The stunt and action scenes were really fun, but I also enjoyed the more intimate scenes were you really focus on the actors and what is going on emotionally.
One scene that stands out is the scene where the kids have to shoot a sick cow. We planned to shoot it right when the sun went down over some hills. The light just looked beautiful, but they have to do this awful thing. The scene is cut with soldiers gearing up getting ready to hunt and kill the kids, which was actually shot on a really rainy day. We managed to light it so it looks like sunset and is happening at the same time.
There where also a few times that we did an entire scene with just one Steadicam shot. They were quite complicated to choreograph and light. What you’ll see in the later episodes is no cuts or edits, just the full four minute shot done in one take. When you shoot like this you might spend three times as long setting up the shot and choreography wise they are tricky shots, but the actors only have to do it a couple of times and it’s a nice change for them too I think.
AC: How do you think your choices in framing and style of shooting reflected character and emotion?
SO: If we look at the shots in episode one of Fiona (Madeleine Clunies-Ross) in her house, you first see her house as a big expensive looking place. We used a lot of locked-off wide angles. We used the framing in those shots to show how disconnected the family was. The husband’s always away and you can sort of get a sense that they’re not a really a close happy family represented in the emptiness of those shots. Later, when Fiona returns to her house and the war has begun, we wanted to make it look completely different. We used the Steadicam and just drifted through with her and it creates a different feel to that character, the way she’s perceiving everything.
In general, episode one, before the war starts, is all smooth moving camera and it’s a happier place to be but once the war begins it’s pretty much all handheld for the rest of the series.
AC: Was there much CGI you had to account for when filming? And how did these affect your approach?
SO: There is a handful of shots where CGI is heavily involved. Pretty much all the explosions are done in camera and enhanced digitally. All the fighter jets and helicopters are digital. There is a lot of wire removal and things that you wouldn’t notice like plate shots for multiplying extras and to be honest I can’t remember because you can’t pick it.
One awesome shot is when the kids throw Molotov cocktails at a military truck and all the flames are CGI. The team at DDP Studios did a fantastic job and were no problem for me on set. I would ask Murray Curtis, our VFX Supervisor, if he needed me to do anything differently for VFX but I never had to change my approach at all.
Even blowing up the bridge, which was quite difficult because we where in a location using a real bridge but we had to allow that bridge to stay open. So we could only shoot for five minutes before the bridge was re-opened to traffic again. This meant we had to have everything planned down to a tee. We had to get the actors out, bring all the cars out, get our cameras set up and shoot, shoot, shoot the scene often with pyrotechnics then get off the road and open it up again for another fifteen minutes and we just repeated this process again and again. It was painful because you’d just get set up and then you’d have to open the road again. All the time you would just be watching the clock and sun slowly going down. The VFX team enhanced the explosions and removed crew and vehicles that were in the background of the wide and drone shots.
AC: So all the explosions were done on set, with fire, and the roads were still open?
SO: Yes, we were burning a lot of things practically in the background. The special effects guys would fill up saucepans of lit citrus oil and drop these off in the background so there was always black smoke and flames. They would be supplemented with smoke machines. For the explosions they would use gasoline and other things and then do it for real which was pretty cool. But I always felt safe.
I found scenes that involved being in front of gun fire more uncomfortable. You know the rounds are blank, and it’s technically safe, but deep down part of you is still thinking “hang on a minute, there is automatic fire being shot right at my camera position”.
AC: Did you run into any major obstacles whilst filming and, if so, could you explain how you overcame the problems?
SO: I found the schedule challenging because the whole thing was shot in nine weeks. I believe there was supposed to be an extra two weeks originally but at some point those two weeks got cut. It meant that things got compromised a little bit because you had to make up for lost time. We had to stick to the schedule, which meant filming in the rain and filming day-for-night which had to be forced into the schedule even if the weather wasn’t ideal. Those days were difficult.
I’m used to tight schedules doing television commercials but when you’re filming long days for nine weeks as opposed to a few days at a time, you definitely have to get comfortable with not getting much rest. In saying that you’d always want a longer schedule and I guess even on the biggest job you’d want more time. Everyone always wants more time.
AC: Did you figure out anything along the way that made day-for-night easier to shoot?
SO: We had seen Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which used the same process of day-for-night shooting. However we were in locations with a lot of buildings and shiny cars in the background, this made it difficult. We just tried as hard as we could to frame out the sky and hot, shiny objects. Some shots worked better than others.
AC: When you look back on what you, the director, producers and the rest of the creative team set out to achieve do you believe it closely mirrors your initial hopes for the series? What did you learn in the process?
SO: It’s never going to be exactly what you imagined, but I think it was pretty close to what Maher and I had discussed. I did learn a lot on this project though, mainly that having good people around you is the most important thing. I keep learning things on every job from people like my Gaffer, Karl Engler, who was a real collaborator on this and brought immense experience to the project. As was Key Grip Glen Arrowsmith and my First AC Chris Child and the rest of the team that helped me so much because they were all working at the top of their game and that makes things a lot easier.
AC: Is there talk of a second series of Tomorrow When the War Began?
SO: I think it’s too early to know but there is definitely talk of a second series. I think they’re just going to wait and see how this one goes. Nothing is confirmed.
AC: So then, what’s next for you?
SO: I’ve just been busy on commercials since finishing Tomorrow When the War Began. At the moment I am in Tasmania shooting a commercial for Tourism Tasmania. I’m with a very small crew filming all over the state. I’m shooting on an Alexa Mini with a bunch of lenses out the back of a van. Then when I get back to Sydney there’s just more commercials on the horizon and talk of a few projects which are unconfirmed at the moment.
Doing a television series you don’t get to spend very much time at home with your loved ones. I really enjoy doing drama and I definitely want to keep doing it but I don’t think I could go back to back all year round. In an ideal world, I’d love to do one feature or series a year and then commercials for the rest. It’s so tough in Australia though, there’s only a certain amount of work around, unfortunately you can’t just pick and choose ideal projects like Tomorrow When The War Began.
Jenna McMahon is a Brisbane-based writer, photographer and filmmaker whose short films have garnered multiple awards.