Is This The Real World

Living in a semi-industrial coastal town, seventeen-year old Mark (Sean Keenan) is a smart kid from a chaotic family who has just thrown away a scholarship to a private school and found himself at a local high school. Award-winning DOP Ellery Ryan ACS lends his experienced eye to the human drama entitled Is This The Real World from first-time Director Martin McKenna.

By James Cunningham.

Is This The Real World is a small-budget independent feature shot in Melbourne and Broome. Starring Sean Keenan (Glitch) with Charlotte Best (Home and Away), and Susie Porter (Better Than Sex), principal photography was limited to a twenty-day Victorian shoot with an additional two days reduced unit in Western Australia.

Cinematographer Ellery Ryan ACS (Van Diemen’s Land) hadn’t worked with the Director Martin McKenna or any of the producers prior to working on Is This The Real World. This was McKenna’s director debut, also, having worked extensively as a television writer on Stingers, Neighbours, All Saints, and Packed To The Rafters.

Ryan got a call from one of the producers, checking availability, and later sent him a script. “I went down to the Melbourne office and met with the Director. We just seemed to hit it off.” They seemed to appreciated each others ideas. Ryan also really liked the script; a coming of age piece, about growing-up and trying to fit into the real world. All the excitement joy and pain of what life throws at you when you’re young. The day after their initial meeting, McKenna wrote Ryan an email to say he really wanted him to shoot his film, and the two took it from there.

Mark (Sean Keenan) shrugs in a scene from 'Is This The Real World' - DOP Ellery Ryan ACS
Mark (Sean Keenan) in a scene from ‘Is This The Real World’ – DOP Ellery Ryan ACS

There’s a whole raft of considerations in embarking on a low-budget film. Because the money is tight, the time is short,” Ryan says. “You have to plan ahead and work fast.” He explained this may mean you don’t have your normal crew, and fewer members in each department as well. “That’s fine. If you accept the job, roll up your sleeves and get on with it.”

In selecting a camera system for Is This The Real World, all these factors would come into play. “In one sense it’s just a box for recording stuff. Some boxes are much better at it than others, and some boxes are more expensive than others. So how to choose?

If you accept the job, roll up your sleeves and get on with it.

Ryan loves the Alexa and he likes the Red. He has used both many times, however in this case there was another complicating factor. He suggested to the Director at their first meeting that they use two cameras. Ryan believed there was no way they would get necessary coverage without it. Given the additional costs there would be pressure to reduce the spend in other areas. Then Cail Young at Inspiration Films offered the film a wonderful deal on two Red Epics and they all agreed that that was the way to go.

Sally Shepherd, the film’s Production Designer, did a “great job with a minuscule budget,” says Ryan. There was only one small set, the rest was on location. Ryan spoke with Shepherd about colours, textures, and she showed the DOP lots of references and colour boards. He carefully created a series of ‘reference montages’, made up of various pictures, photographs, images of paintings and artworks, and stills from other films or television shows. All the things that help communicate non-verbal ideas. “Sometimes I look back on my stupid mood-boards and wonder what the hell I was thinking. They seem to have hardly anything to do with the film I shot.”

Jimmy (Matt Cowell, aka 360) in a scene from 'Is This The Real World' - DOP Ellery Ryan ACS
Jimmy (Matt Cowell, aka ‘360’) in a scene from ‘Is This The Real World’ – DOP Ellery Ryan ACS

At the very least, these references start the process that lead to great ideas and to the making of a visual story. “Something that forms naturally has nothing to do with logic,” he says. Ryan likes logic and he works very hard at rigorous preparation, script breakdown and technical research before a film. But he thinks the ‘creative’ part of it is a bit of a mystery, “it arises somewhere far outside of reason.”

In the film, Mark (Sean Keenan) does not want to live in the ‘real world’. Living in a semi-industrial coastal town, the seventeen-year old is a smart kid from a chaotic family. At school he is zeroed-in on by an overbearing principal (Greg Stone) who dominates everything around him. When Mark finds his first real love he tries to escape all the forces in his life with her. “I think the interior of Mark’s house turned out well. or at least the way I wanted it to. Our little family is really struggling. We never see the dad, he’s gone,” Ryan says.

Something that forms naturally has nothing to with logic.

Mark’s mother Anna (Susie Porter) and her three kids have moved in to a weatherboard house. Jimmy (Matt Cowell, also know as Australian hip-hop artist 360) is Mark’s eldest brother, has his share of tattoos and is in serious trouble with the law. “It’s not Disney, but it’s not bleak either”, Ryan says. Indeed it’s a well-crafted look at growing up in a somewhat chaotic, scary but exciting world.

Is This The Real World is Mark’s story. So Ryan used time of day to help with the mood of different scenes including loneliness and anxiety at dusk, or renewed hope and confidence with the rising of the sun. “I know, how clichéd. But if you do it in such a way that no one notices, it becomes invisible and part of the natural world. Then it works.”

Ryan says he wanted their house to be warm and welcoming, “soft yellow tones, a sort of haven or refuge,” but also restricting and claustrophobic for a boy on the edge of manhood. He made it a little dark in the background, at the edges, in the corners. “I don’t know if it works for an audience, but it came out as I hoped and I guess that’s something.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 3.18.15 pm
Charlotte Best (Kim) with Sean Keenan (Mark) in ‘Is This The Real World’ – DOP Ellery Ryan ACS

When it comes to being a cinematographer, as far as Ryan is concerned he works for the Director. It’s the DOP’s responsibility to help the Director turn a script into a visual story that draws an audience in. But that’s not enough for Ryan. “You tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you? That’s no good. You must have ideas. About what the script means, what a scene means – and it usually has more than one meaning – and how to make some sort of visual representation of that. To make the audience feel and believe.” Ryan doesn’t suppose that he and McKenna spoke for more that twenty minutes specifically about this, but that’s what they were doing.

When speaking with Ryan about his camera crew, “This bit is about luck. Good luck,” he says. The crew had secured two Red Epic cameras, along with one set of lenses. Originally Zeiss T2 Standards; older lenses as a cheaper compromise. At the last moment, Inspiration Films came up with a set of Arri Ultra Primes for the same price. But they still wanted to use Steadicam. So they needed an operator who came with a rig.

All local operators were either working or not willing to accept the money, which hadn’t been budgeted for in the first place. Ryan remembered working with a very good Steadicam guy named Andrew Conder on a five day music video shoot some weeks previously. “He had been brought on by the Director and I didn’t know him from a bar of soap. Turned out to be very good.” But Conder lived in Queensland.

On the principle of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ I called him; apologised for short notice, ridiculous money, etc… but would he be interested? Yes, he would. He didn’t have anything else on, wasn’t too concerned about the deal, and would I like him to bring his camera crew? Sure I would!

Jimmy (Matt Cowell, aka 360) and Anna (Suzie Porter) in 'Is This The Real World' - DOP Ellery Ryan ACS
Jimmy (Matt Cowell, aka 360) and Anna (Suzie Porter) in ‘Is This The Real World’ – DOP Ellery Ryan ACS

Two days later having driven (yes, driven) down from Queensland they arrived for the last week of pre-production. Conder, his 1st AC Steve Magrath and 2nd AC Robbie MacKinnon were from day one just a pleasure to work with says Ryan,” Professional, intelligent, bold and cheerful”.

Of course their roles were completely reshuffled when the crew ran two cameras, and this was around 40-50% of the time. Ryan operated second camera himself, MacKinnon stepped up to focus-pull on Ryan’s camera and Ellery Ryan Jr. took over 2nd AC duties for both cameras. “Yes, yes, we’re related. But he seems to be ok!” joked Ryan.

Jack Peddey, our camera attachment, was given much more responsibility and seemed to cope just fine. “We also managed to get Greg Parish to shoot some impressive underwater footage for us and Daniel Wieckmann got some great second unit shots.” Along with Key Grip Tony Hall and Gaffer Con Mancuso they ended up with a talented, efficient and close-knit camera crew. Ryan looks back with a lot of pleasure and appreciation at their time together.

I think it’s really important to be involved in the grade, to finish the work you started.

Ryan has it in his contract that he’s present at the grade. Unless he’s unavailable, or on another film. “I think it’s really important to be involved in the grade, to finish the work you started.” Ryan believes there may be a time coming when producers don’t want cinematographers in the grading suite. He also believes that’s crazy and so far it hasn’t happened to him. “We need to be aware and en garde. We need to make our case. At the very least the cinematographer constitutes another pair of trained and experienced eyes.” Cinematographers, however, can be so much more than that.

It’s quite amazing what you can do in a digital grade… and it’s fun. Often when you’re shooting it’s just stressful; the enjoyment part comes with the results.” Ryan is not a great fan of shooting with LUTs on set or grading on set at the end of the day, although he does manipulate the colour temperature metadata from scene to scene and he often puts colour in the lighting.

Effectively Ryan is trying to make the image on the monitor as close as possible to what the final graded output should be. “With grading, well you’re just making everything better without the feeling that night is falling and time is slipping away at $100,000 a minute.”

Is This The Real World was graded at DDP Studios in Melbourne on the Lustre with Ian Letcher. By the time they sat down in the screening room for the first run through Letcher had already made a lot of the shot-to-shot technical corrections to make it all seamless. Then McKenna, Letcher and Ryan went through the film several times refining and enhancing the ideas with overall colour, contrast and exposure tweaks; applying occasional windows and tracked grads to the shots.

I won’t bore you with a scene by scene description, but perhaps one example will do. After Grandma is taken to hospital we see the family visit her several times. Mark attends reluctantly and stays in the doorway. Perhaps he is aware of her approaching death. I wanted it to be a little grimmer each time and also to make the audience feel the inexorable passing of time, the slide towards death. I did some of this in the lighting. Subsequent visits a bit darker and a bit cooler, two at night and one in the day, each lit differently. Then we pushed that look a bit more in the grade. Hopefully the audience feel it rather than being consciously aware of it.

Ellery Ryan ACS on set with (clockwise) Director Martin McKenna, Director_s Attachment Luke Morrissey and Matt Cowell who plays Jimmy - PHOTO Greg Noakes
Ellery Ryan ACS on set with (clockwise) Director Martin McKenna, Director’s Attachment Luke Morrissey and Matt Cowell (aka ‘360’) who plays Jimmy – PHOTO Greg Noakes

McKenna has some lovely words for Ryan on working together on the film, “He’s an amazing cinematographer and I don’t think I really knew how good they could be until I had the chance to work with him,” says the Director. “I could rave about his contribution to my film all day. He brings such an incredible and comprehensive understanding of telling a visual story to set. Plus he’s a pleasure to be around.

Looking back on what the Director/Producers had originally set out to achieve on making Is This The Real World, I ask Ryan if he thinks they succeeded. “A man’s gotta know his limitations. Nothing is perfect,” he says, “There are always things to go wrong.”

Ryan always tries to make every shot in his films exactly ‘right’ but says he never has and does not suppose he ever will. “You have to accept the limitations imposed; of time, budget and maybe of your own talent. But I think we did succeed. And I think this film is a sort of little classic about youth and growing up. Time will tell about that.”

As to what Ryan has learned from Is This The Real World,Maybe I would reinforced this… our job as cinematographers is to make something good. We’re not there just to record what happens in front of the camera.”

Ryan has just completed another film, Emo the Musical for Director Neil Triffett (Liar) and is now “trying to secure a corner room, the one with the electric rocking chair, at the Old Cinematographers’ Home,” he says. “I’m waiting for a great director to send me a great script. Which reminds me… better make a few calls.”

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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