Aussie DOP Sion Michel ACS lenses the new Hong Kong gangster-flick, Heartfelt Arises.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
Two Chinese chess masters are entangled in several serial murder cases related to organ transplants. A brave cop and a criminal psychologist have to work together to find the missing links. Ken Wu’s Heartfall Arises is a crime-thriller that reunites the two stars of The Bullet Vanishes (2012), Nicolas Tse and Lau Ching Wan. This big-budget production, which is being described as a ‘high IQ crime thriller’ is set across four countries: China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan. Sion Michel ACS sat behind the camera and Australian Cinematographer recently caught up with him…
AC: Tell me about seeking out locations in Hong Kong?
SM: Hong Kong is similar to any country. You have to do a good hunt to find what you want. But there is a potential in Hong Kong, because there is so much of the city which is the old married to the new. One of our main aims on Heartfall Arises was to make Hong Kong look like the future. I tried to make it super-modern with framing and contrast.
AC: In the shots of the bay, did you intend to make Hong Kong look like Miami?
SM: That’s right! I saw Geoffrey Simpson ACS (Little Women, Shine, Oscar and Lucinda) at an ACS Awards recently. Speaking with him I realised that there is a specific reason why the Chinese industry wants foreigners such as and he and myself to shoot their films. They want our ‘western eye’ to make their vision feel more acceptable. They say we see the world differently, and they like it. They want their cinema to be more like our cinema.
AC: Is making Hong Kong look and feel like Miami such a leap of imagination?
SM: I didn’t want Hong Kong to feel more universal or futuristic; that’s how Miami looks. I wanted those shots not to be found in any other Asian cinema, I wanted this to be unique to me.
AC: You would say you are a part of Asian cinema now?
SM: Yes. Chris Doyle and myself are the only foreigners to be nominated for a Golden Horse… and he’s won it. Once a producer in Asia knows a westerner can live there, eat their food, deal with what is sometimes 16 hour days, not complain, and not be condescending, then they just love you. I was lucky in that I’ve experienced other cultures so I wasn’t coming in as though the ‘West is the best’.
AC: Which cameras did you use?
SM: Alexas. Always shoot on raw. Try to shoot on the cards. I mixed the anamorphic with spherical on Heartfall Arises.
AC: This was done on Die Hard (1988) by Jan De Bont ASC, I believe?
SM: Yes. Sometimes they were switching up the flashback scenes in the film and turning a flashback scene which was anamorphic into a present day scene. I worried, ’how am I going to clean all of this up?’ Then I decided I’ll just use them all, and then use contrast to indicate the time period events occurred in.
AC: Did you do a grade at the end of every day or did you have your LUT selected beforehand?
SM: I made a photo book of each location, then I ended up doing a grade at the end of every day.
AC: Some of the exteriors had a bleached look. Was this a throwback to the 80s?
SM: That was intentional. We were going for that feeling. The story jumps around to a lot of different periods.
AC: Liya Tong seems to have been given a very specific filter. Did you film your men and women differently?
SM: This film was a 3D conversion, so this was the first film in a very long time where I barely used any filtration. She’s a femme fatale, I tried to make her look as beatific as possible until the audience realises that she is a murderess.
AC: Where did you complete your grade?
SM: In Hong Kong. It took ten days. But I did a pre-grade before that which took seven days. What I’ve learned is the more you show producers and filmmakers in Hong Kong what you are doing, they really understand that more care will be required to create a product of the right standard for the global market.
AC: Your music video Julia Stone’s By The Horns (2012) seemed to reference the oil painting Ophelia (1852) by British artist Sir John Everett Millais.
SM: Correct. In my daily life I am always studying imagery. If I’m not re-looking at old films I’m going to the art gallery. Two days ago I saw a Bill Brandt exhibition. I’m looking at portraiture, what was the contrast, what angle is the light coming from. With cinematography we often have to work with natural light due to time constraints or the sensor. For that to work you must adapt. You can ask for a 20K and flags to shape it all up, but you might not get the gig. So I’m studying this kind of work by Brandt; how he positioned people in the light, how he dealt with exposure. With the Julia Stone video… with John Seale AM ACS ASC would you think he’d be the kind of guy reading Vogue magazine?
AC: No, but I would say that Mr Seale will always surprise you.
SM: Right, so there’s about ten of us around him at an ACS event, trying to get information from him. He tells us he would often be looking at Vogue and Mademoiselle, looking at beauty shots. I was like ‘holy crap’, I never thought of that! So I thought I’ll look at crazy, campy fashion to see who they are emulating and who they are paying respect to. That’s how I came on the Ophelia painting. I was looking at all the work of these photographers and I realised they were referencing the painting.
“ I was like ‘holy crap’, I never thought of that! “
AC: What was your camera on the plates you shot from the helicopter for the major VFX shots?
SM: From the helicopter we used a Red Epic. With drone shots I found, a lot of the time, that operators don’t have the payload right. Sometimes they don’t fly well. I started switching to a GH4, or a Sony 87S.
AC: Looking at some of your stills from Heartfelt Arises, was the work of Benoît Debie SBC on Enter The Void (2009) an influence?
SM: Yes, it was, but so too was the American photographer Greg Crewdson.
AC: You seem to love to put in little splashes of colour.
SM: It’s not that it’s unmotivated, it’s really more emotive, does that make sense?
AC: You’re coming from both an Eastern and Western sensibility, are you mixing colour philosophies?
SM: Yes, I am! I take a little bit from Vittorio Storaro ASC AIC. I’ve studied all of his films, but some of it I take with a grain of salt.
AC: How do you avoid conflict or clashes in your colour palette?
SM: I think it depends on the story. I try to keep it consistent for each script.
AC: Your lead-actor Nicholas Tse has an amazing action pedigree, like his work with Director Tsui Hark on the masterpiece Time and Tide (2000). What did you learn from working with him?
SM: To be able to capture an epiphany in a fiftieth of a second, for us to do that and to see an actor turn it on, all we can say is ‘oh my god, that’s cool’. With Nicholas, he was very intelligent. He knows what he wants the camera to say about the story. Then he’s prepared to take it somewhere new or daring.
He’s the kind of guy who’ll ask when your framing him “What are we on?” I say “Oh, 75,” and he’ll point to exactly where the frame ends on him. He knows the lens. A very camera smart guy. I’ve done two films with him now and I love working with him.
AC: Is there a strong John Woo influence on Hearfall Arises?
SM: Yes, there is. Funnily enough the references that Director Ng Ban Yu gave me, were just two… Christopher Nolan and John Woo. I said “you want me to marry Chris Nolan to John Woo?” That was the only notes he gave me besides ‘I like it’. I could leave him working on the performances and just go and shoot the movie.
We had a lot of rewrites on the film. I had to ask myself, what’s the glue that holds everything together? I realised I’d have to split all the drama stuff between a 25, a 50 and a 75. With the action scenes, which would be multi-camera, it didn’t matter as much. But we needed the same lens height. I’d be really specific and measure the dolly heights. They’d be on zooms or Optimos, and I’d see one of my operators try to sneak in an 82. I would walk over and say “no, push it in”. This worked on scenes which could be moved around or intercut. For me it was just a thing of beauty. When I saw the film cut you’ll see it’s really strong because of this technique to help with intercutting of footage.
AC: Also, you’re dealing with a similar lens universe?
SM: Exactly. Also the height. In the end it does feel, thanks to our emulating the lighting style of Wally Pfizer ASC BSC, a little Christopher Nolan mixed with John Woo.
AC: I noticed on your website there is a still of a cake with a candle. Is that a John Woo homage?
SM: Yes, I’m glad you noticed that. In Hong Kong, they definitely pick up on my little homages.
AC: Was there a Nolan influence on your plates for the effect shots of the buildings collapsing? It looked similar to The Dark Knight (2008).
SM: On Heartfall Arises I was very lucky to have our Visual Effects Supervisor on set with us every day. For the terrorist scenes you’d try to pre-visualise, or draw it out. We’d draw boards out. It became second nature.
AC: Were your plates already graded when you handed them over to effects?
SM: Yes, they were. I very much hope what people like Geoffrey Simpson and myself can bring to Asian productions, is an emphasis on pre-production, pre-visualising, storyboarding and working with the effects department. We can make films that can reach out to the global market, rather than being limited to Asia. This is because normally such productions are limited by their lets-make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach. This comes from the Hong Kong cinema of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
We can make films that can reach out to the global market, rather than being limited to Asia.
AC: What would you describe as a division between Asian and Western cinematography?
SM: In Asian cinematography there is not enough pre-planning. The idea of pre-production is not even in their mind. Australian productions are also about making the day, working in extreme lighting conditions, Hong Kong is similar. I’ve shown them how it is important to sit down and work through all of the problematic areas. We can try to make a better plan which will serve the story better, and sell more tickets. They say that it will cost too much, but I say to them “no, it will actually save you money”.
AC: Was Shanghai Triad (1995) an influence on you?
SM: Yes! I was very fortunate in the 80s and 90s that I knew Australian Director Brendan Young. Brendan really turned me onto the different cinema that came out then. Then the fifth generation filmmakers started to come out; Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assassin) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). I studied it. Then of course Wong Kar-Wai with Chris Doyle (In The Mood For Love, 2046). That was all a huge influence on me.
AC: What does working in Asian cinema allow you to explore visually which you could not explore in Hollywood?
SM: Something which Dion Beebe ACS ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) could attest to is that a cameraman’s lighting and work is expected to be formulaic. There is a specific formula. Let’s say it is a superhero movie like Green Lantern (2011) – which Beebe shot – or other superhero movies, they have to be lit in a certain way. If you are trying to be creative, or put your signature on it, you have to go ‘mafia’ and sneak it in. A producer will see that, and it could very likely hurt you, hurt your career.
AC: What has determined when you have, and have not worked with Dion Beebe?
SM: When I first came into the business I knew I wanted to be a Director of Photography. I started working in Perth on small short films and Sydney productions which would come over. When I met Beebe I’d been working on small films for the AFC, and had been studying more on film at Curtin University. I felt like I climbed through the ranks. In Australia, there isn’t much room for operators, so you needed to jump straight into being the DOP.
When I was on Eternity (1994) I was working as the Focus Puller. Beebe went away to another job and I took over as the film’s DOP. I think it is always a hard step for people in our industry. I knew there was a really great opportunity for me to be a lifer first AC, a lifer focus-puller. I could have stayed with Beebe in that position, I’d still be doing it today, thirty years later. I knew in my heart I had to finish what I started. I knew I could accept this position, which I was very good at, but I also knew that I first took on the position so it would create for me the opportunity to become a Director of Photography. I made that decision on Holy Smoke (1999). Beebe called me on that and said “there’s no one else I know or trust to pull focus for me on this film”. I had the reputation in Australia at that time to pull focus without marks.
AC: That would have been important on that film because it was a big ensemble?
SM: Yes, and then you pulled by eye, you didn’t have the monitor. I said, “Sorry Beebe, I’m not going to play that role anymore.” He said, “Let’s try to bring you on as the operator.” Jane Campion ultimately decided she wanted Beebe to operate himself to limit the amount of crew present for certain scenes.
AC: What was your experience with the crew on Memoirs of a Geisha?
SM: Well, Beebe and I were trained, fit, ready. Beebe dealt with everyone in his very quiet, gentlemanly manner, whereas I was much more demonstrative. I’d be yelling “Dig that hole.” They’d say “Sion, why?” “Because were going to put the camera down there.” It’s raining on us the whole time so they go, “Sion, we’re cold!” I get down there in the hole with the camera. Beebe would say “What are doing?” and I’d reply, “We’re going for that little gold statue!”
AC: I believe you are referring to the Hatsumomo scene in the storm? That looked incredibly tough in terms of the operating involved?
SM: Long lens, anamorphic, so we’ve got about an inch for depth of field, but it looks insanely beautiful. We’ve now got the crew on our side because they’ve been seeing the dailies and how good things look. We knew what we were putting on the neg, where we could place the exposure, how it was cutting together. We knew we had something about six months in. We were ‘doing a Barry Lyndon’ (1975).
AC: Did you operate the Phantom on Gangster Squad (2013)?
SM: Yes, I did. That all started because of John Seale, one of the finest cameramen to ever come out of Australia. I remember when I was a student member of ACS, I remember we went to a meeting and discussed ‘shooting on rust’, which was the ferrous oxide on tape. Betacam was still to come, but we could see that this was maybe the way to go with acquisition.
Seale was telling stories like I’m telling now. This was 1989. He said “Listen, one day they are going to recording on little chips one day. It will then be blasted up to a satellite, then blasted down to a cinema. You all have a responsibility to learn everything you can about HD, and claim it. Don’t be afraid of it, claim it!” I remember thinking, that guy turned my head around. From then on I familiarised myself with the evolving forms of digital acquisition.
AC: The Phantom can potentially be abused. How do you know what will work best on it?
SM: Seale also taught us, in those days of celluloid, to see the world in black and white. Take your spot meter, get the Ansell Adams book on the negative, learn the zone system, learn exposure ranges in a black and white world. Use the meter only for confirmation. Beebe learned that same zone system. You might get a surprise in the dailies, but you could really pre-visualise in your mind what it would look like. The power and creativity lay in the hands of the DOP in those days. With the Phantom, you have to do the same thing, you have to know what something will be like at 1200 frames, what the intervals will be like if the editor wants to make is 600, 300, cut it all down, how is it going to ramp, where are you going to ramp it. That will influence how you pan it, or tilt it, how the focus rolls over. While you’re watching the shot you’re also pre-visualising it.
Lindsay Coleman is an author, film academic and contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.