With Australian Cinematographer Michael Steel behind the camera, a young boxer is forced to go on the run through the teeming streets of Manila in Beast, after accidentally killing his opponent in a crooked fight.
Written by Michael Steel.
Beast is a feature film I shot in and around the streets and slums of Manila, The Philippines. It’s a drama that focuses on a young half-Filipino boxer, Jamie (Chad McKinney) who tries to make amends for a disastrously fixed fight. The ninety-minute film is set over a twenty four hour period where Jamie struggles between doing what is right by his boxing opponent’s now widowed wife and son or staying complicit with his father. It takes the audience into the heart of Manila’s humid underworld.
I met Directors Tom and Sam McKeith (brothers) at AFTRS in 2010 and later that year was chosen by Tom to shoot his graduating short film Pig and we’ve been collaborating on various projects ever since. In late 2013 after shooting another short film for the boys they mentioned this feature that they had written and, along with our Producer Robert Coe, asked me if I wanted to shoot it for them. I knew after reading the treatment what a massive challenge the film would be but I was never going to turn away from it as I had always enjoyed working with Tom and Sam and believe they are immensely talented.
I was given freedom in regards to the choice of camera package, however I always kept the Directors and Producers abreast as to what I was thinking, and why. Our gear rental house, CMB in Quezon City, is one of only three in the country I believe and our producers had made a deal through them that was inclusive of not only camera needs but also lighting, gripping and personnel. Though the Directors wanted limited numbers of people on set we were forced to take many of CMB’s employees with us as that is just the way it works over there. No people; no gear. We even had one guy who’s whole job was just to hold the camera at all times.
Knowing how the Directors wanted the film to look and feel and having worked with them before, I knew what they liked and just as importantly for them, how they would want things to run on set. Another big consideration was that our lead actor, Chad McKinney, had never acted before and was in every scene of the film. I needed a reliable camera that was easy to use and that gave a solid digital negative when shooting a predominantly nocturnal story. Given all that I was set on using the Alexa shooting ARRI LogC at 2K. Our budget would not stretch to raw.
A week before shooting Jim Balthazar, head of CMB rentals, told me he could get his two new ARRI Amira cameras just in time for us to shoot with if I wanted. As I was concerned with the weight of the Alexa, Balthazar took a flight to Singapore and personally picked them up and delivered them back to me to test the day before we began shooting. As the film was to be shot mostly hand held and the Amira used the same sensor as the Alexa I had found a winner just in time. It has not been confirmed nor denied by ARRI but I believe we were the first feature film in the world to shoot with the ARRI Amira.
In the end I chose Ultra Primes as my lenses for their fast aperture speed of T1.9, which really helped with all the night work we were to do. I could have chosen Master Primes for even faster lenses but as we were to have so much hand held camera on a non-trained actor I thought I had to give my focus puller, Kuya Ray, at least some chance to get sharps. I mostly shot the night sequences of the film at T2-2 1⁄2 on the lens with either the 32mm or 50mm.
For the film’s opening boxing match, which was three rounds of actual fighting, we had a second Arri camera brought in, and as I was able to light up the cockfighting arena-come-boxing ring to T2.8 I chose to use two Angenieux Optimo zooms for speed and flexibility.
My collaboration with the design team was fairly limited, more so than I would have liked. We talked at the location surveys and at team meetings which were helpful though I would have liked more collaboration with them whilst shooting. The language barrier here was an issue as it was really only our Designer who spoke English and he was often not on set. In many regards the amount of location designing asked for was minimal as we wanted the locations to be as authentic looking as possible and the locations were chosen carefully, but on occasion it was frustrating to have so few options offered up or talked about.
To be honest the look that I was working toward above all was to keep the authenticity of the setting, so to that extent we used existing lighting where possible and only augmented it when absolutely necessary. For example in the slum location where our widowed boxer’s wife (Angeli Byani) lives they had no power so my Gaffer (Jordan Arabejo) strung up electrical wires just as we saw elsewhere and spliced into the grid so we could put up a couple of low wattage exposed practicals in otherwise pitch black stairwells.
There is so much poverty in the Philippines. At our locations, to ‘tidy it up’ would have gone against our story and shooting style. One of my mantras was if it felt too manipulative or stylised then it was no good and therefore we used no off-speed camera, no zooming except for a couple hidden during the fight scene, no dolly, no crane, no music and no ‘Hollywood lighting’. If ever I did make a shot look too ‘lit’ or a camera move felt unmotivated or ‘slick’ it was quickly pointed out by the Directors and rightly altered.
Both Directors and myself are huge fans of the Belgian filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers and we used their films Rosetta (1999), L’Enfant (2002) and The Kid With a Bike (2011), as springboards for discussions on style and realism. Other references for us were Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996), Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (2011). Though some of the above films look and feel like documentaries and un-manipulated, they are carefully crafted and expertly executed which was our challenge to achieve. Doing so without storyboards, fixed dialogue or any rehearsed choreography, so as not to hinder our non-actor lead, made this the most taxing yet ultimately rewarding shoot I have ever done. We also watched a number of other films and, though they did not inform us how to shoot Beast, they gave us many examples of how not to.
My favourite scene in the film stands out for its apparent simplicity. It is a single shot scene done in one take between a teary eight-year-old boy (Whyzel Myo Indonto) and our hero Jamie which takes place in a shopping mall bathroom. The boy is distressed about his sore eyes and Jamie just talks him through and demonstrates putting in eye drops before delivering them to him and walking back out. What I love about this scene is the honesty of the performances, you feel right there with them totally lost in the moment. Without a rehearsal or instruction and to have a crying little boy and a non-actor. It could have gone poorly but it all just worked and comes across so naturally and authentic. The stark pools of dirty green light over the sinks and tiles in the dimly lit space just added to the intimacy shared between the two.
The thing I am most proud of in Beast is the lighting, in that you never notice it, and that was imperative within the realism we set up in our world. Though I believe the cinematography will never be called ‘pretty’ it serves its story faithfully and therefore offers moments of beauty.
My fingerprints are all over the film but in ways I hope are totally unnoticeable.
Also working as the sole operator, I approached every shot attempting not to force anything onto what was unfolding before me. As there was no rehearsal or set dialogue, and often no knowledge about what Jamie was going to feel like doing physically I had to be on my toes and just feel it as we rolled. My fingerprints are all over the film but in ways I hope are totally unnoticeable. Many scenes are complete in one long hand held shot and when possible scenes were shot consecutively without cutting. This helped the Directors by letting McKinney remain in character for longer, give more cutting options around the beginning and end of scenes and it also felt right in keeping with our dogmatic approach to making the process more documentary like, more realistic.
All our crew were Filipino locals and I had not met any of them before camera tests began. Besides camera and lens tests I took a few of Manila’s best 1st ACs through their paces to pick the most suitable for such a tough shoot and in the end chose Kuya Ray, who I was told was about seventy years old and had done a number of big films. I would have asked him more about his previous work but like most of our crew he didn’t speak any English. Thankfully my trusty 2nd AC Bradley Liew did speak English and relayed messages for me when needed. Liew was a real gem of a man and even stepped up and operated a few shots for me when I went down with a badly infected throat and couldn’t stand any longer. At one point our production stopped for three days as I was unable to turn my head, eat or speak. Our shoot had suffered an earthquake, a typhoon and flash flooding but it was my throat in the end that was the only thing to slow us down which is a real credit to the Filipino work ethic.
On the lighting side of things my hard working Gaffer, Arabejo, also spoke English and was my translator to the rest of his guys and the grips department when my dodgy hand signals didn’t work – which was often. Regardless of downpours, energy sapping humidity, six-day weeks of long hours and all-nighters, the crew pushed on and kept a smile. Despite the communication difficulties we all got to know each other really well as we had the common language of filmmaking to join us together.
I wasn’t too involved in the post-production side of things, though I had definite ideas in mind for the grade. We shot a 1.85:1 aspect ratio using Arri LogC at 2K on the ProRes 4444 codec, which gave us a good amount of information for grading without going the more expensive route of shooting RAW with an Alexa. Knowing the Directors love of shooting fast and penchant for long takes – sometimes up to twenty minutes – I knew shooting RAW would not have been tenable in any case.
During pre-production we all came to agree on the style and mood of the picture so when shooting began I was able to get the look very close to where it had to be. So much so that we completed the grade in four days instead of the two weeks given to me. I have to mention Trackdown’s facilities and my amazing Grader, Billy Wychgel, who really took care of us. Wychgel was so intuitive and though he knew the look I wanted he always offered up new ideas and could show them to me quickly.
For me, the look we wanted from the grade had to integrate seamlessly into the style of realism that we established on set, therefore we didn’t over correct any in-situ lights we encountered, nor did we do anything like bloom the highlights or add colour into our shadows. What was true for Jamie’s Manila would be true in our grade and the city itself gave us a look of dark, humid and gritty streets littered with vibrant coloured lights and walls. Often I found myself lighting these walls and not the actors as it felt right for the characters and the spaces they inhabited.
I think we achieved what we set out to do – though we got there by very different means than what we could ever have imagined. To succeed as we did in wrestling this story to the screen was an immense effort by everyone involved. As we couldn’t afford a long pre-production or shoot we just had to adapt on the run and find a way to overcome hurdles and differences of filming in a foreign country with a new crew.
As we immersed ourselves in the new culture and people the film kept evolving and became deeper than what we could have ever made up to begin with.
With the script used as more of a starting off piece for the actors, and having a young lead who had never been in front of a camera before, we achieved something that didn’t really exist until it was on camera. As we immersed ourselves in the new culture and people the film kept evolving and became deeper than what we could have ever made up to begin with. From this, I learned that there is no singular right way to make a film, which sounds obvious but the lesson is important. Once you believe in that, it frees you to be bold, unorthodox and not sweat the small stuff.
In hindsight, the biggest change I would make would be to alter the ISO from 800 to 1600 during many of our night shoots to give my 1st AC a bigger stop than T2. I did it on a couple of occasions from necessity and it came out so well that I had no reason to fear using it more often. The Amira really did come through with flying colours.
At the moment I am shooting a documentary called Colour Theory Underground about graffiti artists from various cities around Australia. After that it’s still a bit up in the air, but there is another feature script to pour over which hopefully I will be rolling on before the year is out.
Michael Steel is a freelance cinematographer based ‘wherever he needs to be’.