Acclaimed Australian Cinematographer Anna Howard ACS (Women He’s Undressed) discusses turning her lens toward the upcoming thriller Rabbit.
By James Cunningham.
Exploring the link between identical twins and their ability to communicate telepathically, Rabbit is the debut feature from Writer/Director Luke Shanahan. “I have worked with Shanahan on television commercials for the past eight years,” says Rabbit’s Cinematographer Anna Howard ACS. “This is his first film and fortunately he asked me to be involved. We have always had a good working relationship. Our energy seems to complement each other well.”
Shanahan explains the origins of the story, “I’ve always been intrigued by sibling rivalry and, in particular, the unique relationship between twins. I was interested in exploring how two characters, sharing 99 percent of the same DNA, deal with the most extreme situations,” he says. Rabbit was the winning pitch at the MIFF 37˚ South Market in 2015, with Producer David Ngo then selected to attend London’s Production Finance Market.
For Howard, the film actually came together very fast, “I spent a lot of time with our Production Designer, Amy Baker, during around two weeks of pre-production.” Shanahan had sent both Howard and Baker a number of references, both visual and film, to absorb over a period of time. When they all got together there was a distinctive look and aesthetic that the team had all been working toward. “There was a definite synergy between us all,” says Howard.
Rabbit was filmed with the Alexa Mini at 2.8k ProRes and Howard used Master Anamorphic lenses. “We shot ProRes as the budget and time restrictions for data wrangling would not have worked shooting RAW. I have always preferred the Alexa and the new mini software allows a high resolution, 2.8k in anamorphic mode.”
The film doesn’t utilise much post-production visual effects, just a small amount of green screen and plate compositing, meaning Howard felt RAW was a bit of an ‘over kill’. “I had done a lot of research into anamorphic lenses, and whether to use old anamorphics as the film has a distinctive 1980s look to it,” says Howard. “In the end with the design, costume and style of the film – I choose the Master anamorphics as they are the perfect lenses that I could then manipulate using filters and lighting to create the look we were after.”
Howard had worked with Rabbit’s 1st AC, Matt Jenkins, on a short film Once Upon a Time in the NorthWest which had been shot in a roadhouse halfway between Broome and Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. “It was 48 Degrees and 98% humidity,” explains Howard. “We had bugs the size of planes and we all ended up with chronic heat rashes!” Howard praised Jenkins for his calm demeanour and his a expertise as a Focus Puller. “I thought if he could be like that in those conditions he could do anything.” Howard had also worked with 2nd AC Jonathon Baker prior to Rabbit also, with him having done Video Assist on Gods of Egypt (2016) with me – a film shot by fellow Aussie DOP Peter Menzies Jr. ACS.
It’s hard for the Cinematographer to select a ‘favourite’ moment in Rabbit, as the film features many memorable shots. “One has to be a particular scene at a party, says Howard, “It’s a bizarre scenario.” Lead actress playing Maude, Adelaide Clemens, drifts through the party with an almost ‘ghost like’ presence. “She appears to have had her soul removed. It’s an incredible image as well as performance.”
“Working with Shanahan was an absolute joy,” says Howard on working with Rabbit’s Director. “He is a huge talent. His vision is unique and extraordinary.” For Howard, the most important aspect of being a cinematographer is having an in-depth understanding of script characters. Howard spends a lot of time speaking with her directors on their interpretations of the script. From the characters to emotion to the different worlds that they inhabit. “Only then can I move on to the cinematography.”
Rabbit features four vastly distinctive worlds within it’s story. The film also navigates a fractured timeline, so “it was quite a challenge to make that work without it being heavy handed, and to make it cut into the story effortlessly within the style of the film.” Shanahan is an collaborative Director and he trusted the lighting, composition and design style that Howard and Baker brought to him. “He is very much a performance director but has an incredible eye for visuals.”
The production did not have a DIT on set. “I set up a LUT the old fashion way using grey scales, colour charts and a China doll.” Howard set the LUT in the camera, and also gave it to the editorial department so the rushes always had the correct grade on it. It worked extremely well. “I haven’t actually had a DIT on set, before but perhaps with a more complex shooting style it would be a joy to have one,” says Howard.
Production only wrapped in mid-October so Rabbit’s grade will not be for a few months yet. “I wanted the film to have a distinctive look and through using my LUT I hope to have achieved the grade through camera during the shoot.” Howard says she is very happy with the way the rushes look and don’t think there will be a lot of changes in the final grade. “I was brought up as a ‘film DOP’ so I tend to believe the best way to achieve a style is through camera on set at the time of shooting. Not simply making the look during post-production.”
“I was brought up as a ‘film DOP’ so I tend to believe the best way to achieve a style is through camera on set at the time of shooting. Not simply making the look during post-production.”
The crew experienced some extraordinary weather conditions in Adelaide at the time of filming. In fact the entire state of South Australia was blacked out. “We lost one day shooting but managed to squeeze it in to the remaining schedule.” Howard says she believes the style and emotion of Rabbit is very close to our initial vision and that the restrictions with time and budget did not compromise the overall film.
“We always wanted the film to have a ‘European visuals’ look to it” explains Howard, “Very soft light. Certainly we achieved this and have to really thank the weather for helping us out there.” Producer David Ngo goes further, “We didn’t expect a 150 year storm, floods and blackouts – but it’s given the film an amazing look,” he says.
Howard has a few projects on the run at the moment, including heading back to commercials, music clips, shorts and teaching. “I have a couple of feature scripts that I have been attached to. Hopefully they will get up next year. As always one has to remain eternally optimistic!”
Rabbit’s cast includes Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby), Alex Russell (Goldstone) and Belgian actress Veerle Baetens, who starred in the Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), which earned her the European Film Award for Best Actress. The film is financed with the support of the South Australian Film Corporation, LevelK and Vendetta Films.
“I am really excited about Rabbit and hope it has a great response from the audience when it is finally released mid next year. I think it is certainly one to watch out for.” So do we!
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.