Milli Award-winning Director of Photography Andrew Commis ACS (Beautiful Kate, The Slap, The Daughter) sits down for a chat with Australian Cinematographer Magazine during the Melbourne International Film Festival to talk about his critically acclaimed new film, Girl Asleep.
By James Cunningham.
Girl Asleep was funded through an initiative from the Adelaide Film Festival called The Hive, where an artist in a different medium teams up in a film environment to create anything; a short film, a short documentary, or in this case a feature film. The Australian Cinematographer Andrew Commis ACS (The Rocket) had an opportunity to attend the live performance of Director Rosemary Myers’ Girl Asleep about a year before the two collaborated on the film version. “I had pretty low expectations I have to say, but I was absolutely blown away by the energy of it, the cinema of it, the ridiculousness of it, but also the drama of it,” he says. After the play finished Commis met the Director. He didn’t know how they were going to turn it into a film, but he was on board.
Girl Asleep follows 14-year-old Greta (Bethany Whitmore), a shy and awkward teenager holding on to adolescence, propelled into a weird parallel dream-like world during her fifteenth birthday party. Commis was excited by the potential adventure and was willing to overcome a few hurdles including the obligatory low-budget, but also the fact that nobody on the team had even made a film before, except for him. “I was up for the challenge. There’s not really many opportunities to make a film where you’re not immersed in naturalism or high-stakes drama. Comedy can be quite broad.” For Commis, it was a fascinating journey learning how to translate what was on Myers’ stage into a film, and “not loose all the inherently great things that had already been created.”
Assisting and mentoring Myers in her directorial-debut came naturally to Commis as, apart from his television work, every film he has worked on has been alongside a first-time Director. “I’ve been really fortunate that I get to work with what I consider really interesting directors,” says Commis. On Girl Asleep the two collaborated together from the early days on the project, “They thought it would be cheaper and easier to shoot in a forest at night because that’s where a lot of the film takes place.” “Well, we could do that,” I said, “but why don’t we make a set and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look ‘photorealistic’. Then we can play around with those playful things you can only do on stage.” They loved the idea, and it worked.
It wasn’t the first time Commis had worked with a theatre director adapting their own stage work either. His previous project The Daughter saw Commis working with Director Simon Stone adapting his own stage work. Whereas Stone was very specific in his directorial vision, working with Myers was a more collaborative process. “With Stone, I would still do my normal thing and offer up ideas but a lot of it was rebuffed. For example I might have a coverage idea and I would almost argue for another shot. But he knew what he wanted and we didn’t need it.”
Myers, on the other hand, coming from a theatre background, was a novice when it came to coverage. The Director and DOP spent a huge amount of time storyboarding the fictional world, “I would draw the entire dream world, and how it would play out and work as a set, then present that to Myers. Luckily for me, she loved it.”
For Commis, pre-production on Girl Asleep was really about ‘tuning in’ to the Director. “I spent a huge amount of time just hanging out and asking questions to try and get that insight into what might not always be obvious.” Myers and Commis would sit in a car together and go location scouting for hours at a time, Commis would use the time to start talking, “Sometimes I would ask just a random question where I’m not even looking for an answer.”
On Commis’ first feature Beautiful Kate (2010) he did something similar, “I spent two days with our Director, Rachel Ward, and asked her to simply go through the film with me and tell me what she’s thinking.” Neither Commis nor Ward had the chance to work on a feature of their own before so collectively Beautiful Kate was their first. Shot on 35mm, Beautiful Kate went on to earn Commis a Golden Tripod at the ACS National Awards for Cinematography, along with the Milli Award as ‘Australian Cinematographer of the Year’ in 2010.
It made you look at the image differently to a contemporary drama.
Something else that is immediately striking about the look of Girl Asleep is that the film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. The immediate visual interpretation of this key decision was to make the 1970s-set story feel somewhat vintage or retrospective in its appeal, “I think that’s where the impetus of the idea came from, because it’s an antiquated format.” Commis shot a test with the cast during a cast reading of the script, “This 4:3 thing just allowed for a beautiful weirdness. It made you look at the image differently to a contemporary drama.”
“It needed to be a bold film, it couldn’t be subtle.” Many of the other dramas or features that Commis has shot required subtlety in using an emotive effect that’s not dominating. “Shooting this in 4:3 allowed the effect be dominating. It required that, not to be natural and to be really heightened.” When the film is projected in cinemas it will go up in 1.85:1, “Hopefully they’ll bring the curtains across so you don’t see the black bars,” Commis says.
Variety has called Girl Asleep, ‘a blending of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Where the Wild Things Are (2009) by way of Wes Anderson’. These were all references says Commis, “There were so many in the filmmaking; Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Hal Hartley, John Hughes, the list is endless. They’re all in there and they’re not trying to be subtle.”
Commis operates on all his films, and what affected his camera selection on Girl Asleep was the availability of the MoVi Gimbal system. “There was strict composition. Also where the camera doesn’t move while all this action plays out over a long time. Other times I wanted the camera to be absolutely fluid. I knew I had to operate that.”
The Australian Cinematographers Society has an amazing mentorship program. Many years ago a young cinematography student from Melbourne called Michael Darnley telephoned the ACS National President, Ron Johanson OAM ACS, to ask if Commis would consider being his career mentor. Commis agreed, but Darnley ended up getting a full-time job at a rental house. The rental house had purchased a MoVi Gimbal and Darnley became a MoVi technician. “Every MoVi goes out with an operator and a technician. Me being the operator meant that I could get Darnley as our technician full-time on the film.” Commis’ camera department were a tight unit, they only had one camera body.
Over the course of the production they had to work out the transition from static to fluid camera, and that meant that they had to use a specific camera size. At the time of filming Girl Asleep the Alexa Mini had not been released, so Commis used a Red Dragon which, “was all to do with ergonomics.”
Even using a modern piece of equipment like the Red Dragon, Commis still found old lenses which he says he tends to do a lot. “I found this insane set of lenses!” says Commis. Adelaide-based animation studio Anifex has specialised in claymotion animation for over thirty years (think the Home Hardware and Schmackos commercials) and is home to the multi-award winning Richard Chataway ACS and the Milli Award-winning Jonathan Rossiter ACS. “They’ve got a couple of sets of lenses, and their ‘B-set’ are these really unique Japanese lenses that have never left the studio, ever.” Commis asked them for permission to take them out of the studio and use them on Girl Asleep. They agreed, to Commis’ delight, “It kind of put a slightly different spin on the Red Dragon.”
There is no film made with good cinematography without a good designer.
Speaking about his collaboration with Production Designer Jonathon Oxlade, who also worked on the original source play with Myers, Commis said he loves the collaboration on any production between the Production Designer and Cinematographer as “there is no film made with good cinematography without a good designer. It just doesn’t exist. If you’re talking about great cinematography, that also means you’re talking about great design.” During pre-production, Commis and Oxlade would talk colours, discuss locations and even built sets in miniature to try to work them out.“Our collaboration was amazing. It was a beautiful process,” he says.
“Working out how to light some of this stuff was quite a challenge,” Commis says. They were shooting in old studios on the outskirts of Adelaide with unusually low ceilings (six metres). The ceilings also weren’t load-bearing, which meant Commis couldn’t hang any lighting from above. “Then we put a forest in there, with at least a hundred fake trees,” Commis laughs. “As a Director, so to speak, I’ve set myself a challenge but as a Cinematographer I’ve gone ‘Shit, how do you light that?”
Commis came up with a solution. He rimmed the perimeter of the studio with fluorescent lights, “If you’re shooting on digital, you can get away with low-light.” Commis then had his Gaffer Robertto Karas purchase hundreds of feet of rope-light, “This became the ambience of the forest, and gave me the freedom to move the camera around. It was an epic challenge,” he says.
“Digital has really allowed the ‘lit-unlit look’ to vastly expand, says Commis. “People like Greig Fraser [ACS ASC] really, truly pioneered that.” Commis continues by saying he credits Fraser with being responsible for changing the way modern cinematography looks. “He took away lights. He was still lighting, of course, but he took away the ‘lit look’ and he was doing that on film.”
Girl Asleep is a very colourful film, both thematically and actually. On grading the picture Commis mentions that it was more about ‘managing colour’ than creating it. “The Red [Dragon], as I’ve discovered, is more volatile than the Alexa.” Not being as proficient in the ‘Red-language’ as ‘Alexa-language’, as Commis puts it, “You’d shift an exposure and the colour would just skew.”
With the help of the film’s Colourist, Marty Pepper at Kojo, the pair spent time trying to “wrangle back some colour, whereas the Alexa colour is a bit more linear.” This meant that the grade was more of a technical exercise. Commis also made sure that their Production Designer would attend to supervise some of the sessions, “He [Oxlade] is a colour genius”, says Commis.
The things I’ve turned down to do my grade!
On grading in general, Commis feels like the job of a Cinematographer isn’t completed until the grade. “For me, I’m there every day of the grade. I block out my schedule. The things I’ve turned down to do my grade!” He explains that “The grade is where you get to shape everything.” Commis says that while he’s been fortunate to work with some amazing Colourists, he often spends so much time storytelling on any given project that he knows it back-to-front.
While the coming-of-age films are common, Girl Asleep breaths new life into the genre. Currently screening to much acclaim at festivals around the world this stage-to-screen gem, with its musical numbers and stylised humour, is a perfect illustration of creative filmmaking at its best. The film gained its theatrical release in Australia earlier this month.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.