Melbourne, 1996, the Golden Age of Australian swimming is beginning. Based on a book by award-winning novelist Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap) and adapted for television, Barracuda – lensed by Stefan Duscio – is a moving story of identity, obsession, desire, the dizzy heights of success and the terrifying risk of failure.
By Stefan Duscio.
This was my first experience working on a television drama, and I found it a highly creative and collaborative process. I had admired Robert Connolly’s work for many years, and Balibo (2009) is one of my favourite Australian films. I was really excited when he asked me to come aboard as I knew he’d be approaching it with cinematic visuals and performances in mind.
Connolly told me he wanted a nimble approach, and initial discussions were for the series to be primarily shot handheld. I was very excited about the newly released ARRI Alexa Mini, and I thought it would be perfect for our shooting style, which was going to be a mix of real households, schools, cranes, and underwater housings. We needed a camera body with versatility and despite what many people tell me about the Alexa Mini – for example, that it can’t be used in a ‘production’ style mode – it excelled in every configuration.
As the series start date approached, I used the Alexa Mini on commercials in the same build as I wanted to shoot the series. Specifically, I had it kitted up so there was essentially no difference to it being in handheld mode, or production mode. This enabled myself and the Director to react to the blocking of a scene, and cover it using the appropriate technique, without being held back by changing configurations. Connolly really enjoyed this reactive approach, especially considering the large amounts of screen-time we were filming each day. We could shoot a scene off a dolly one moment, and the next be handheld.
I was really interested to see whether you could shoot Australian television on prime lenses and dollies. I heard that you had to shoot television handheld with zooms much of the time, just to keep up with the pace. I can understand why a production would choose that approach, but on the other hand, I felt that if the Director, 1st AD and Cinematographer all operated in sync, there was no reason you couldn’t shoot with a more considered approach.
We tested a couple of lens packages, and eventually settled on Panavision PVintage primes and Primo zooms. The series is set in the 1990s, and I felt this helped give the Alexa sensor and the production design a little bit of age. Rob and I found the texture of the glass generally very beautiful.
Very importantly was our wireless setup. Focus Pullers used ARRI WCU-4 remotes, so myself and B-Camera operator Shelley Farthing-Dawe were completely free to move and operate where we liked. Focus Pullers could choose to be by the camera, or by a monitor, depending on the setup. And both Alexa Minis housed Teradek video transmitters, ensuring there were never any cables to be run to a directors monitor. It was a very liberating camera setup.
I felt very fortunate to be shooting with such world class camera equipment on a low budget Australian production. I would have been happy with this gear on a major motion picture. This is due to Panavision’s wonderful support of television Producers, Directors and Cinematographers. Otherwise we would have been shooting on much lower-quality cameras and lenses.
I knew a lot of the series needed to be shot underwater, and without affordable access to an underwater remote head in Australia, we started researching other options. Connolly and I were both keen to create a unique, personal look to the underwater footage, and for it to look unlike traditional television sports coverage.
After discussing the series ideas on how to achieve underwater shots with several grips I’ve worked with, Sydney Key Grip Adam Kuiper mentioned he had successfully used a ‘snorkel lens’ from Panavision years earlier for some underwater shooting. Panavision took some time to track it and its accompanying underwater bag down. Once I had it, we tested it with my Key Grip Luke Stone in a pool. The results were fantastic, and enabled us to achieve very close shots to our cast, under and above water, sometimes during the same shot. My 1st AC, Murray Watt, was amazing in building the unusual and difficult setup on the Alexa Mini on the crane, and we used it many times throughout the series.
We also spent some time shooting simulated travel of our cast in still waters, while Farthing-Dawe filmed them from a splashbox. He was so close to our cast, and their movements were so convincing, that it’s very hard to tell they’re not actually blasting through the water. At 200fps with a strong ethereal backlight they became key visuals for our show. It really helped tell the story from the unique POV of Danny (Elias Anton), and differentiate it from traditional sports coverage we wanted to avoid.
One of Connolly’s key reference materials was a beautiful french crime film A Prophet (2009). It has a painfully beautiful and cool look to it. The performances and cinematography have a very authentic and raw quality to them. He and I looked at it to try and tap into that feeling for Barracuda. Another reference I showed to the Director was the third chapter from A Place Beyond The Pines (2012). It had a similar aesthetic, and dealt with a complex friendship between two teenage boys. Both of the these features were shot on 35mm film, and Connolly and I are big fans of the texture of film. We tried to imbue Barracuda with that feeling, while shooting digitally.
I’d worked with Production Designer Elizabeth Mary Moore and Costume Designer Cappi Ireland on feature films before, and I consulted with them about the palette as much as possible during pre-production. We were all trying to avoid warmer colours, or when we used them, to employ them very specifically.
I love one of the final shots in the final moments of Barracuda. It begins underwater, and Danny dives in. He freestyles the whole fifty metre length of the pool, and the shot holds for a long time. It’s euphoric and calming, and at this point Danny and the audience have been through a lot of anguish together. I love that Connolly and our Editor Rodrigo Balart decided to hold that shot for so long. I believe it’s those kind of creative decisions that elevate television into a more filmic world. I feel television cuts so frequently, and we’re not given the opportunity to bask in the image or moment. I really appreciated the measured and deliberate pace that Balart and Connolly maintained.
One thing I discussed with Connolly was cross shooting, and how important he felt it was to his process. I have mixed feelings about its use. On one hand, I can see how directors, actors and editors love it as they know both performances are being captured, and an Editor can cut for performance, not continuity. John Seale AM ACS ASC always says, ‘it makes the movie better’.
On a logistic and visual level, I don’t enjoy it a lot of the time as it often requires more equipment and time to achieve it. It is often a false economy as it can take longer to setup and restrict actors blocking as there are now Camera Operators and lighting and Boom Operators all on the edge of frame. It can be claustrophobic and limiting. I love how Christopher Nolan covers drama, and he is renowned for his singular vision and single-camera style of shooting.
We employed it at very limited times during our filming. Myself and Farthing-Dawe often shot side-by-side, or on a 45 degree angle to each other. This enabled me to light and craft one direction at a time. I felt my camera and lighting crew were able to get a rhythm and pace going with this method. Once again, if I didn’t have simpatico from Connolly and our 1st AD Phil Jones, it would have been a very different shoot.
I had a fantastic camera department on Barracuda. We were very fortunate to secure the talents of Farthing-Dawe, a Cinematographer in his own right, on the second camera. I’d known of his beautiful work for some time, though didn’t know him very well before Barracuda. I’ve always enjoyed shooting alongside my cinematographer contemporaries – as Ari Wegner and I have done many times before – and so I was hoping for a similar relationship on this project.
I knew that Farthing-Dawe would be an amazing creative partner to have at my side, without the need for me to micro-manage his frame or lighting. It’s really important for me to work with people who always creatively ‘get’ the project, whether they’re a Camera Operator, Grip or Gaffer. The more experience I get, the less I want to micro-manage. I really don’t like it when a Director micro-manages my cinematography so I try and give my key collaborators that same creative freedom to explore and take their own initiative. Most crew members are incredibly film literate, and it’s important for us all to realise and tap into that well.
I should also mention how great it was to work with Jones. He was a true creative partner to myself and the Director, and helped us achieve some incredibly difficult days. I really appreciated his dedication in ensuring solid blocking time for every scene, which really helped Connolly have valuable time with his cast, and a clear set for me to plan coverage and lighting. It was priceless, and I really miss it when other 1st ADs or Directors don’t prioritise blocking time.
During pre-production, Colourist Marcus Smith at Blue Post helped the Director and myself create a unique LUT for Barracuda. We shot a bunch of camera tests, and ran them through DaVinci Resolve. We wanted a look that was cold, contrasty and filmic. We wanted the shadows crushed, and a really gentle highlight rolloff.
I’d successfully done this on the feature film Backtrack (2016), where we created a dark, cold, austere LUT. It really helped me during production to be lighting and composing with a look in camera that was very close to the final look. It also helps wardrobe and art departments to see how their colours are being rendered.
Another wonderful boon to shooting on the Alexa Mini is the advanced colour technology. Unlike the standard Alexa, it enables the importation of 3D LUTs, the same ones that editorial transcodes the rushes in. This ensures the look is very consistent from onset monitoring to the edit suite.
Much of our time in the grade was cementing this look in. I attended as much of it as I could, though Smith was great in sending me drafts of his work while I worked on another film in Colombia. We also ran a subtle amount of simulated film grain throughout the show, that helped give the images some life. You can’t beat the real thing, though I love simulating film grain – whether it’s on my digital cinematography or photography.
I’m very happy with the final images, though one thing that is very disappointing is that ABC still only transmit and stream in SD. With Netflix now streaming some series in 4K, our images have a long way to go.
One of the things I was curious about when going into Barracuda was that by shooting double the screen time each day than I was used to in features, would that yield a more ‘honest’ or ‘raw’ aesthetic? By having less time to craft the cinematography and performances, do you end up with and exciting energy and power that more time would have compromised? I don’t think I got a definite answer, though it was really challenging and exciting to explore this idea. Connolly certainly achieved some stellar and immediate performances from his mostly young cast.
I’m very proud of what we achieved on Barracuda. It’s a very exciting time to be working in television across the world and the bar is being raised every day. Being able to collaborate with a filmmaker like Robert Connolly on a series that was watched by hundreds of thousands of Australians was a wonderful creative opportunity.
Stefan Duscio is the multiple-award winning Cinematographer. He has since shot countless productions, including commercials, music videos, shorts, and feature films including Galore, Canopy and Jungle.