In a near-future world, where individuals have their memories downloaded for backup, a man awakes in a strange body that is not his own. Melbourne-based Cinematographer Hugh Turral (Hath No Man) shoots the science-fiction drama Restoration for the Nine Network.
By Hugh Turral.
Restoration is a near-future science-fiction thriller, independently produced by Midnight Snack Productions. It revolves around Oliver (Grant Cartwright), a smart up-market lawyer who, under some pressure from his boss (Craig McLachlan), agrees to have his memories backed up on a routine basis by a company called Restoration Life Services (RLS). In the event of death, those memories can be uploaded into a new body. Oliver awakes from his ‘snapshot’ to find that he inhabits another body, that of Gavin Worth (Stephen Carracher), a self-made man with a shady past. He finds he is able to do many things that he could not in his own original body, such as box and play jazz piano. He agonisingly realises that he is not the only Oliver in the world. In his quest to be reunited with ‘his’ family he manipulates Emma (Nadia Townsend), an RLS technician to assist him.
Originally conceived as a web series with three fifteen minute episodes, Restoration has morphed into a film that covers a broadcast hour and premiered on the Nine Network last month, followed by the streaming service Stan.
The making and distribution of the film is a testament to the generous spirit of many individuals and organisations within the Australian film industry and the talent and tenacity of Stuart Willis (Director), Toby Gibson (Producer) and Lisa Cookson (Design Director), particularly in navigating the post-production marathon.
The film’s theme is about identity; about what distinguishes our individual thoughts, emotions and sub-conscious memory and abilities. This gives the audience a different perspective from recent science-fiction films such as Ex-Machina (2015), which are more about what it is to be human.
The Director and myself had worked on three projects prior to Restoration. Around the end of 2013, Willis started sharing a number of scripts, from which Restoration (co-written with Matthew Clayfield) emerged as the most achievable, and also closest to Willis’ long-time love affair with science-fiction. Willis and Gibson also had developed other projects but this was the first time Gibson and I worked together. I had worked very happily with the art/production design team (Cookson with Jackie Miller) on a number of different projects.
The production was partly financed via a Kickstarter campaign with the remainder coming from the production team’s own resources. We received enormous contributions in kind from goods and services providers including Docklands Studios, Cutting Edge (rushes), studio lighting gear (Con Mancuso and Andrew Lock) and rigging (TriPoint), a drone (Fluid Motion), Audi R8 (Audi), and a smashing volunteer crew. A large proportion of the money we raised was needed for the set build.
From the outset, for financial reasons, we intended to shoot on RED 4K, as we had done on our previous three projects. Gibson tried hard to bump us up the queue to get the Dragon sensor installed in my Scarlet MX, even approaching USA, UK and India offices separately. In the end the upgrade was done a couple of months after principal photography, and so the main shoot was completed in Red MX 4K and the the pick-ups were done in Dragon 5K.
Since much of the film was to be shot at night I was concerned about noise in the blacks, particularly in the blue channel. I had read in American Cinematographer Magazine that Jeff Cronenweth used an 80d filter on Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (2011), to limit blue noise, so I did a series of tests with 80c and 80d filters, and looked at them with colourist Dee McClelland using Cutting Edge’s Resolve. She demonstrated very clearly that she could do a better job cleaning the blacks from the unfiltered footage so we opted not to use them. In order to protect the black detail a bit, we shot at T2.8 closed 2/3 in the studio and on location, although occasionally we had to open up, for example in night tracking shots. Although we have control of the image through meta data, we did not normally capture at an ISO greater than 800. We set tint and colour temperature in camera. I like to play with both for recording and then adjust to something different in post as part of a pre-defined look, but this can be confusing if not well-documented, even with sample stills that have appropriate meta-data.
We tested Master Primes, which I was very keen to use, particularly for the shadow detail and tone gradation in low light conditions. Despite a very good offer, we were unable to afford them. The classic low-budget film tension between lighting and lenses. We used my set of Red Pro Primes. We particularly liked the 21mm for its field of view, clarity and minimal distortion and the 27mm as a companion. It became a running joke on set that, when framing up, we would find that a ’21 or 27 would have been ideal!’ In the end, we predominately shot on the 25mm in studio.
The classic low-budget film tension between lighting and lenses.
Pre-production started gently, seven or eight months ahead of shooting in August 2014. With most of the production meetings held at my house; involving all the creative and production departments. Background reading included writings on conscious and sub-conscious memory, cryogenic preservation, robotics and bio-engineering. Eek! There was a long list of reference, ranging from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) to Strange Days (1995), and from Zodiac (2007) through to the British television series Black Mirror (2011-).
Some years back I thought these references to be principally about visual style, but often the referenced styles are very, very different. It later dawned on me that there are elements – mood, colour, texture, production design, lighting, performance, emotion, composition, movement, long takes – that excite a director and that it is worth teasing them out separately and that became another feature of pre-production collaboration.
Willis and I did a lot of walking around different parts of Melbourne, with a DSLR and a Black Magic Pocket Camera, both to find locations, lighting and tone, and to experiment with blocking for many scenes. Gibson together with Cookson and with some valued assistance from Screen Victoria made great use of Airbnb and other on-line services and images to find key locations, after which we would descend as a group, take photographs and measurements and also test possible blocking options. We often filmed the rudimentary staging in this way before translating them into floor plans using the Shot Designer app. Though by the middle of the shoot they were often scribbled on small index cards. We did not make great use of story boards for this film and the majority of the boards were ‘key frames’ rather than full sequences. The final plans for the layout of the Restoration Life Services (RLS) set at Docklands Studio emerged from an iterative process between design elements, space and test blocking.
We wanted a neo-noir look for the film, especially since a lot of it is shot at night. At the same time we wanted it to feel more real than stylised. We also wanted the film to be in colour, not black and white, and developed a palette of browns and greys with blue elements, in set design, clothing and at the locations. Inevitably there was a lot of white wall on location, but with our set designed by Jackie Miller, we tested different combinations of colour, texture and patterning on the walls of RLS under different lighting conditions.
Where appropriate we planned to sneak in classic noir elements such as shadows and high facial contrast. To that end we top-lit the rooms in RLS with skirted tungsten space lights and coups, all attached to dimmers, so we could vary intensity, pattern, texture and fall off. We built LED strips into the walls at head and foot height to provide an edge light and justify some floor fill. The interior of RLS was intended to be windowless, with an interior lighting regime that mimics the outside world. There is a long corridor that features strongly in the early part of the story, and we built a slatted roof, lit by at 2K Fresnel. By varying combinations of diffusion and gels, we could project different artificial times of day and different strengths of shadowing on the walls and floors as noir elements. We wanted to start the scenes in RLS with a day-to-day but slightly uncomfortable feel, and gradually go darker as the tension increased, eventually to under lighting the actors from the floor in the final moments within RLS.
We had intended to shoot many of the scenes in RLS with a wall out, to enable us to obtain a claustrophobic feel by shooting a wide with a longer 50mm lens set further back from the actors. On the day, it proved too time consuming to remove walls and we adjusted our approach. Dave Williams, our Steadicam operator, deliberately ‘dutched’ one shot on the first day and we realised that slight dutch-tilts throughout the RLS sequences – both on Steadicam and hand-held – would substitute that feeling of unease that we had lost by having to use wider lenses. For the exterior and location scenes we wanted a grittier feel in street and car park locations, to contrast with the sleek up market interiors for Gavin’s flat and Oliver’s family home.
Willis likes the responsiveness of hand-held operation to actors’ emotions. The film begins with fairly static and considered movement using a slider and progresses to Steadicam. From the moment that Oliver wakes up in Gavin’s body, most of the camera movement is handheld, save for some shots on crane, jib, jib on dolly, wally dolly and two sweeping arrivals on the Steadicam in an underground carpark. Also one exciting sequence of drone shots inside a massive warehouse.
We had to shoot many scenes with VFX in mind. Willis has a strong background in VFX, and had plans for subtle and ambitious enhancements, particularly for the interior and exterior of RLS. When budget is limited it is difficult to get large exterior wides at night and so we shot them early in the morning or late in the afternoon, using medium sized HMIs for accents. We knew that we had to replace much of the incidental furniture in front of the Manningham City Council Building in Doncaster, Victoria, for the RLS exterior despite using a jib-shot. Cookson additionally created design elements and textures to be comped into the exterior shell of the building.
One of Restoration’s key dramatic sequences is in the final act and was named the ‘memory montage’. The whole sequence is a fast-cut blending of first person POV memories. So we built a helmet cam based on a Black Magic Pocket Camera with a PL adaptor to mount Kowa S16 12,16 and 25mm Ultra Speed lenses, with wireless video and wireless follow focus.
From my perspective, a cinematographer’s job is to understand and visualise story. From the earliest possible moment to work with the director and the production designer to find a style and approach that serves story and emphasises performance. Inevitably there are stylistic elements that you feel more comfortable with. For me, this is naturalistic lighting and classic cinematic movement; but it is the style of the film and not an individual’s style that is important. Once we had decided to go hand-held for much of the film I felt that the hand-held work should be as composed and well-choreographed as possible. We spent considerable time rehearsing fight scenes and finding moves and angles both with and without Stunt Coordinator Russell Frost, mostly in the alley way out the back of my house. There were a few occasions where we needed a second camera, and Mark Morris kindly helped us out. We preferred to shoot in parallel wides and close-ups at the same time so we could keep to our lighting plan. In the studio we used a bungee rig for the longer lenses in order to match the hand-held A-camera with wider lenses.
For me, this is naturalistic lighting and classic cinematic movement; but it is the style of the film and not an individual’s style that is important.
We had a large rotating volunteer crew in the camera department through production and additional photography. We enjoyed five different focus pullers, four seconds, three gaffers and three best boys. Plus a couple of good Melbourne DOPs taking on lighting duties in the studio. I had to call in all the favours I had from good people I had worked with on other productions and I am intensely grateful to all of them. Many have become good friends if they weren’t beforehand.
A great 1st AD is such a benefit and we were lucky to score the cool and calm James Short, who I had been fortunate to work with a couple of years before. The cheery Thomas Formosa-Doyle did the largest number of days focus pulling and covered us through the considerable number of additional days, running on to mid-2015. Willis and I were amazed at his skills when we were doing vehicle tracking shots in Footscray, at night on a Canon-Optex 200mm lens at T2 closed a third.
Kirk Daly, who pulled focus on the first three days in Studio likewise had a Eureka moment when we did a fairly mad, semi-choreographed hand-held dance for a confrontation between the newly awoken Gavin/Oliver and Emma (Nadia Townsend), the RLS technician. Chris Eon Mitskinis did the most days as gaffer even though he was in the process of transforming into camera assistant. He helped me set the studio lighting and performed miracles rigging and lighting the alley where Gavin-Oliver and Oliver fight. Luckily, we had him as a focus puller on the final pick up day when we re-shot the opening scene.
Shooting and post-production are so closely linked in digital capture, especially when you work with a director like Willis who ‘shoots for the cut’. I like to achieve a look in-camera as far as possible through use of lighting, camera settings and filters, although for Restoration this was mostly limited to neutral density and graduated filters.
The original intention was to edit sequences directly after shooting and Cutting Edge archived our raw material and generated H.264 dailies, which were put on line for us to review. After principal photography, the production approached Cindy Clarkson, who had done a beautiful job on a short that I had shot the year before, as well as a large number of more well known works. We were thrilled to have her join the team.
Additional photography was dictated mostly by the edit and VFX needs. Willis had shot some great placeholder street scenes with Gavin using a DSLR, after the main shoot whilst, I was overseas. For visual continuity we redid these with the RED Dragon. We also needed to film some close-up stunt hands playing the Fender Rhodes for Gavin-Oliver’s electric discovery and to film Gavin’s face in exactly the same position as Oliver’s for morphs in various scenes and we used the iStop-Motion software to superimpose live capture on our previously recorded footage.
We had experimented with the ACES (Academy Colour Encoding System) workflow in a music clip and Willis was keen to use it again for two main reasons: 1) we had used three camera sensors, Red MX, Red Dragon and Black Magic M4/3, and 2) all the compositing was done in Nuke, which uses linear-to-light encoded EXR files as standard. ACES would allow us to unify our colour science.
Post-production has been an epic effort, particularly from Willis and Cookson, and from the band of VFX specialists that Willis leveraged to help complete subtle and compelling additions to key scenes. We had insufficient funds to build the set for RLS as high as needed, and had no roof corner pieces for any of the rooms or along one end of the corridor. We knew we could not avoid some shoot off, and that this would have to be ‘fixed in post’. There is some amazing roof replacement work, in hand-held tracking shots, that mimics the slatted lighting set up we used of the other, more often seen, end of the corridor.
The grade was done by Adrian Hauser, using Baselight at Cutting Edge in Sydney, who did a superb job in capturing the intent of our original looks and subtly improving them. Hauser had to contend with a different grading pathway from the one I tested before shooting, and we can see a small tinge of orange noise in some shots, derived from managing the blue noise through the ACES pathway. I suspect he had to work much harder than he should have to achieve what we wanted.
Looking back, there are a number of lessons from shooting Restoration. It is useful to have a properly catalogued and framed set of pre-production stills and to generate a formal meta-data document for the looks, along with graded reference frames to make the colourist’s job a little easier in case you are not available at the grade. I realised also that, although I understand the principles and steps in the ACES workflow and the Colour Decision Lists (CDLs), I need to learn the detail, in order to do a better job in preparation and on-set. Having reviewed the screener a few times recently, I can see where I could have added some more expressive framings to heighten the drama at key points without drawing attention to the cinematography and I make a mental note to be more aware of these possibilities for the future. This thought particularly struck me after watching Peaky Blinders (2013-). I find that I like Steadicam a lot more than I did before, and that I am more open to different possibilities for ‘appropriate tools’ for the job.
Did I mention that we had a lot of fun? How good would it be if a shoot like that was happening every day! Currently, I am reading scripts and looking for a feature-length drama or series that someone is prepared to entrust to me. In the meantime I am working on a couple of documentary projects.
Hugh Turral is a cinematographer with a keen interest in drama, comedy and documentary film.