Cinematographer Denson Baker NZCS ACS (Oranges and Sunshine) talks about his work on the outstanding short film MESSiAH, directed by Damian Walshe-Howling.
Interview by James Cunningham.
In a playful collision of cultures, a hapless Irishman and his Parisian girlfriend get more than they bargained for when they encounter a particularly mischievous stranger in the spectacular Australian wilderness.
AC – What is MESSiAH?
DB – MESSiAH is a spiritual comedy that was the brainchild of writer/director Damian Walshe-Howling. It is part of the Lexus Short Films and produced by The Weinstein Company. We shot the film entirely in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, starring David Gulpilil AM, Stephen Hunter and Chloé Boreham.
AC – How did you get involved with MESSiAH? Had you worked with any of the producers or creative team previously?
DB – This is my second collaboration with Damian Walshe-Howling as Director. I first worked with him on a film where he was acting and we hit it off straight away, we are kindred spirits. It was, however, my first time working with The Weinstein Company, the Australian producer was Rohan Timlock from Guilty Content in Melbourne. Timlock is a lovely gentleman and Producer with equal concern for the vision as well as the budget.
AC – Was there a discussion on what to shoot with? What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras to shoot with, both filmic and financial? What did you decide and why?
DB – When I first started discussions with Walshe-Howling, he was using terms like magic realism, sweeping epic, big screen scope, I felt we needed to shoot anamorphic and everyone agreed with us, it was never questioned. However, with the extensive use of gimbal mounts on drone, MōVI and a helicopter mount, we needed to choose a lightweight camera package. We had two Alexa Minis, a set of Cooke Anamorphic primes and we also had a Cooke 36-200mm anamorphic converted zoom. The look of the zoom was beautiful, I really liked it, we ended up using it quite a bit. The package was supplied by The Vision House in Melbourne.
AC – What was your collaboration like with the Production Design team during pre-production? Can you talk about the ‘look’ you were working toward and what you set out to achieve? What references were you working from? Were there storyboards created?
DB – This was my fifth collaboration with Production Designer Gareth Davies, we are pretty used to each other’s approach and personal taste. Damian and I referenced the films Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Walkabout (1971). However, we really wanted to further develop our own visual style that we had started with our previous short film Suspended (2012). It is a visual style of magic realism and heightened reality. We didn’t have storyboards, but I did shoot a lot of stills and video in prep, Walshe-Howling used Artemis to pre-visualise shots, these all became a visual guide to what we would eventually shoot on the day, some of them became photo boards and would be circulated amongst the crew.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence? Why?
DB – We were shooting in one of the county’s most beautiful regions, however, I don’t find shots of impressive landscape alone to be inherently interesting, It is when you put a character like David Gulpilil in that landscape that it becomes truly engaging. There are many great shots in the film and we achieved some sophisticated drone moves and choreographed MōVI shots, but I think my favourite shot is a static mid shot of David Gulpilil crouching down alongside a river, it is early on in the film and it is the most simple of lighting set-ups, we chose the time of day when the sun would have him backlit, there is a subtle flare and he is lit with only with a hand held piece of silver reflector, Gulpilil’s face is a landscape unto itself, a picture maybe worth a thousand words but his face tells a thousand stories. It was an honour to work with him.
AC – As a Cinematographer, how did you work to achieve the ‘directorial vision’ while still imparting your own unique perspective as the Director of Photography?
DB – My relationship with Walshe-Howling is great and not unlike many of the other Directors that I regularly work with. There is an intrinsic trust and shared vision. I offer up shots and they are usually just like what he had in mind or occasionally better than he imagined, perhaps I have a selective memory. He likes to work with me because of my ‘own unique perspective’ and not just as someone there to achieve the ‘directorial vision’.
AC – Can you speak briefly about your own crew in the camera department? Had you worked with any of them before, and what was your working relationship with them like?
DB – We had crew from all over the country. We had crew from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, our MōVI/Drone team was Tom Waugh and Chris Fox from Ignite Digi in Hobart. They are an awesome duo and brought a lot both creatively and technically to the production. Seth Larney was Visual Effects supervisor and he also shot several spectacular time-lapse sequences for the film with a motion-control slider and DSLR. Matt Dobson was 1st AC, we flew him from Melbourne, then out of Perth we had 2nd AC Ross Metcalf, the grip team Greg McKie and Henry Richards and electrics team was Dion Borrett and Daniel Holliday. All of whom I had worked with before and love them.
AC – How involved were you in the post-production process? How did you approach colour-grading? Were you trying to achieve a particular look on MESSiAH?
DB – Unfortunately I wasn’t present for the grade. I am now living in the United States and was grading a feature in New York at the time. I find it very nerve racking, not to be in the room for a grade. I sent grade references which were frame grabs that I had worked up in Photoshop, I sent extensive notes with diagrams and descriptions of power windows etc. But it is never the same as being in the room, it is certainly not because I don’t trust the colourist, it is just that the subtleties of a grade cannot be communicated unless you are both looking at the same screen at the same time. The look we set out to achieve was saturated with a selective colour palette, much of that was achieved in production design, costume, location choice and time of day scheduling. I always feel that you can’t ever force a look upon an image in the grade unless the beginnings of that look is already there in the original image. I don’t know if it is considered an old school approach but I believe that the look should be achieved in the lighting, the design and lensing. The grade is there to finesse that look, not create it.
AC – Finally, what are you working on next?
DB – As I write this I am in Alabama, shooting additional photography for a Blumhouse horror movie, my next feature is shooting in Europe, with Director Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City) and we will hopefully be beginning prep in the new year. I have a film due for release next year called Measure of a Man, which I shot in Rhode Island, with long time collaborator, Director Jim Loach, starring Donald Sutherland, Judy Greer and Luke Wilson.
MESSiAH won the Gold Award in the Short Film Category at the 2016 SA/WA ACS Awards and Baker is now eligible for a Golden Tripod at the National ACS Awards next year.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.