Born on Thursday Island and raised in the Torres Strait, Murray Lui is recognised as the first professional Torres Strait Islander cinematographer. He has worked with the ABC and SBS on programs including The Family Law, Rosehaven and Jacob, which won him an ACS Gold Tripod in 2009. We sit down to talk with Lui in Townsville.
Interview by Corey Hague.
AC: I’ve just watched the first few episodes of Family Rules…
ML: Oh yeah, that was a bit of fun, doing an observational-documentary series about an indigenous family. It was pretty crazy with nine women in the house.
AC: How did you keep everything under control?
ML: It was like chucking rocks into a pond you then see what happens and how it evolves. I grew up shooting documentaries so, I kind of like that approach. There were two director/shooters and myself, we would coordinate it all together on site with the producers. On any day that we were shooting they had an idea or a storyline that we wanted to follow.
Originally there was an idea that the narration could come from the actual activities on shot material. After shooting it for a few weeks it was clear that there was no way we could do that. We needed interviews with good sound to link it all, because we shot over six months.
AC: The interviews really help tie it together. They also look very lush…
ML: That’s because I was allowed to light it! The interviews were shot over months, so we had to maintain a look to it all. If you cut back to an interview, an audience should be able to follow it. So we had the chance to light it, all studio based with classic three-point lighting.
Our version of the observational-documentary can be draining visually, because the camera is so busy with so many characters and there is a lot of movement, so you needed a break essentially. A visual break. We shot everything on the Sony FS5 and that was nice.
AC: How did you find the FS5 for ‘run and gun’ type shooting?
ML: Well because it was new rig, I had never had a go with one, and because the initial shooter/director was new, they wanted to give her a camera where there wasn’t too much for her to look after. The camera is pretty decent with automatic functions. It was enough for what we needed.
On my FS5 I was using a Metabones adapter with Canon EF lenses, so I had slightly better lensing than the other operators. But I liked it, you get to do stuff with the LUTs and I had enough batteries to shoot all day. The only issue was time coding, so we ended up using this gadget called a Tentacle Sync, which created audio timecode which was perfect. The Tentacle Sync just helped unify sound and pictures in post quicker. We were shooting without it for the first month or so and the Assistant Editor Vincent Lange was going crazy. It saved our backsides basically, and we all ended up buying one of those kits.
AC: How did you find working with other camera operators?
ML: One of the directors was very new to the role, so there was a bit of mentoring and training going on which is interesting. But I like doing that. I like the challenge of it, it keeps you fresh if you have people who are passionate about projects and are excited to be a part of it, even if they are not complete masters. It was a new thing for NITV too, they are branching out from a lot of the broadcast stuff which they’ve done in the past. I enjoyed it.
AC: It is a format that we have seen, but it’s a fresh perspective. Even seeing Perth on the television is a bit different…
ML: I think so. As an East-coaster I had a different view of Perth, particularly because we were shooting and indigenous family in Perth. East Midlands is one of the lower socio-economic areas of Perth.
I was excited about trying to do something different, and all the production executives and producers were women, and it was a very female based story. I am from a family of girls so it was something I enjoyed. It got a little crazy at times, but it was like I was around my sisters.
AC: How useful was your documentary background for reality television?
ML: Coming from documentaries, the sound department, nine times out of ten, tends to save my ass. Sound connects you, you never really stop hearing, even when you are asleep.
When I shoot, sometimes it’s about what I am hearing rather than what I am seeing. I prefer operators who are good listeners, who follow dialogue because you can feel the rhythms in the way people talk. You want to be able to follow dialogue and let the camera be sympathetic to it.
AC: And in the middle of Family Rules you were called away to Rosehaven. Was that a completely different approach?
ML: Yes, I started Family Rules when it was summer time in Perth and stinking hot, and then I went to Tasmania for Rosehaven just as winter was starting in Tasmania. Completely different scenarios, completely different light.
I had worked with the director on The Family Law, John Brough. He is precise, methodical and very prepared. So coming from an observational-documentary to a shoot to where he was always prepared and very knowledgeable about craft, it was a complete jump. Plus we were shooting with Arri Alexas, so it was like chalk and cheese really.
AC: Comedy is not an easy thing to shoot…
ML: No, but I think it is all in the scripts, which the writers and stars were across. Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola understand rhythms of comedy, and Brough has done a lot of comedy too. They all just understand that rhythm. All I had to do was take care of that visual stuff and watch them at work.
AC: The shots were left to play out, were there many two-shots?
ML: Yes, I mean they are our characters so you have to allow them room. If you are cutting between those conversations, it would be very ‘cutty’. So you hold them in a two shot. The coverage on Rosehaven was quite simple, we had the odd slider to correct if we needed to, but for the most part they just did what they did.
We were framing in 2.20:1, which is a slightly different frame format. Brough started doing that on The Family Law to give it a slightly more cinematic look and it worked out nice. Group shots, twos and threes and the odd single with lots of room.
AC: Does something like an aspect ratio influence your camera choice?
ML: Yes and no. I think now I just like Alexas and we knew we were shooting into winter so we needed something that could be really flexible.
My biggest concern was shooting McGregor because he is so beautifully pale. I had to push a little warmth into him. A lot of my fill sources were Kinos through muslin. It wasn’t filtration, we just had to build a little warmth into the rooms… and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
AC: Were you working with LUTs on set?
ML: I set up an ARRI LUT in the software, just a basic kind of thing that we stuck on everything, and for monitoring while we were there. It was really simple just to give Brough and everyone a ball park idea. Plus we would always ask for rushes in the best resolution so I could watch everything. Just so I could see it and monitor what was going on, for my own brain. I had a couple of LUTs for interior and exterior. I don’t try and complicate that stuff.
Because you’ve got video village there as well, if you’ve got upstairs people you don’t want them to get too shocked whether you’re over exposing something for a purpose or you’re under exposing something for a reason, it’s all reasonably safe. It’s a rough idea. Then you just try and expose as well as you can.
If you’ve done your homework while you are on the concept stuff, by the time you are lighting it should just be free forming and creative.
AC: What is your approach to pre-production?
ML: I have got in the habit of providing a little concept board, about how the show could look based on the scripts. We looked at films beforehand. The Director’s big one was Local Hero (1983). Another one was Lars and the Real Girl (2007), so we were going for warm interiors and cool blue light outside.
I do enjoy pre-production, to really get stuff sorted in your head so there are no real surprises. It gives you more flexibility and if something does goes sideways you can skip around it.
AC: I was really impressed with the night exteriors, they looked fantastic…
ML: Thank you. That is the Alexa doing what the Alexa does. We had very little time really, particularly in Tasmania as it’s coming towards winter. You don’t have a ten-hour shooting day, you have a six hour shooting day in terms of light. The light changes and goes so quickly. Some of the night exterior stuff is well into the dark, and because Tasmanian light can sometimes hold to that twilight a little bit longer, it allowed to us to get what we needed.
For that stuff it was really simple three point lighting, we had a big source at the back, and I think it was a 4K, and then just front-y, side fill. That was kind of that, while the Alexa did the rest.
On a couple of those nights it rained in the afternoon, so there was still moisture on the vegetation, it was the classic thing that you put a backlight behind some trees with some rain on it, and it kind of glows and gives you beautiful separation and depth. On those fast turnaround shows, you have to have a plan in place to be quick, to get all that stuff working And have a bit of luck!
That, combined with Brough, who is a great director that understands craft and coverage and how to manipulate actors to stand where we need them to make all that work. McGregor and Pacquola are fantastic also, whatever we needed the team just helped to make it all work.
AC: It was shot on real locations?
ML: Yes, because we did not have the budget! Emma Fletcher, our Production Designer is fantastic. That whole office space was literally a big gutted room with this huge counter at the front. She built all that and I used whatever electrical systems was available to light parts of the room. It was such a deep room I couldn’t get anything in from the outside without seeing it, so I had to use a lot of practicals to get that far into the room with lighting. It was great using actual locations, because you can see outside, and see the hills.
AC: You are busy with network television these days. How did you get started?
ML: I graduated from AFTRS in 2000, and then I went into documentaries for about five or six years. Then I got a job on a television show called Remote Area Nurse which was produced by Penny Chapman out of Sydney. Remote Area Nurse was shot in the Torres Strait, and someone I went to film school with let them know that I actually am a Torres Strait Islander. So, you know, I was culturally appropriate.
Ian Jones was my boss, and he is a fantastic old school, tough cameraman. I was kind of foisted on him, but he took me on board, which I am always thankful for. That sort of started my television experience.
AC: You mentioned being culturally appropriate. How important is that?
ML: It is important to me. Particularly very early on and with documentary work because a lot of them were about indigenous storytelling. I first started doing stuff in my own community, doing things with BRACS (Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme). That was my original interest, although I had an interest in stills too, thanks to my grandfather. Although I never thought it could actually be a career.
With the indigenous storytelling stuff, there was a real push in the early 1990s to get more practitioners involved, directors and to a lesser extent technical people like camera people. They would often ask for a black cameraman because there are protocols and there is a subtleness that exists in these communities. I understand or at least have a familiarity those protocols and I can behave appropriately.
In the past there had been non-indigenous crews who – while they didn’t behave badly, they were just unaware of certain things. Then when other people came in to try and make stories it became harder. People in communities had justifiably become defensive about it.
I was just happy enough to be caught up in all that stuff and that is why documentary became the market that I cornered myself in. I had gained a lot of experience shooting in some really remote areas around this country.
I remember early on when I first went to some of these remote places, how new it was. You had a traditional owner showing you the place, but you would see it in a completely different way. There was a lot of respect, and I come from the outside in. I’m not visiting so I have an understanding. It helps.
AC: Do you watch your work when it’s screening on television?
ML: I kind of put it behind me. All I see is what I did wrong, you know? It’s great to be a part of it, but I think what I try and get into at the end of it was ‘what did I learn from this?’ I’m always asking that question. The older I get, the more I try and save it up for the next one to try out, and see if I can fit it into that project.
I am pretty happy with where I am at the moment. My work has been quite interesting and it’s interesting to me. We all yearn for good yarns to be a part of. This business is the ultimate team sport, but you wouldn’t do it otherwise.
Corey Hauge is a digital content creator, working freelance after half a decade with the ABC.