The award-winning Kieran Fowler takes us behind the scenes on his latest feature film, Skinford, a story about a British con-artist who uncovers the opportunity of a life time whilst digging his own grave.
By Kieran Fowler.
Skinford, which is about to be released internationally as a web series and as a feature film with theatrical release in Australia, is very unique in its format. Initially conceived as a web series it was later cut into a feature film.
Jimmy Skinford’s fortunes turn when a push of his shovel unearths the opportunity of a life time; a woman, buried but still breathing, who just can’t seem to die. Her mysterious gift extends to others through touch and in her company Skinny launches head first into a scheme of unparalleled mayhem.
The film is set amongst a dark conceptual world featuring larger then life characters with a lot of the our director Nik Kacevski’s inspiration taken from comic books. I was given the opportunity to be bold with my choices as a cinematographer, embracing the darkness and unusual urban colours that makes the look of the film a character in itself. The production involved a lot of stunt work and challenging location work.
This was my first time working with many of the key production team and my first time working with Kacevski. By the time I came on board they had already filmed the pilot episode months before, shot by Carl Roberston ACS (Infini). Kacevski had seen some of my work and sent me the scripts, I absolutely loved the characters and story and saw it as a real opportunity to make something very unique.
Nik and I had great first conversations about how we envisioned Skinford, we both shared a very similar ideology and were able to see eye-to-eye on the approach. We wanted to spend time to light and design each frame at the expense of our coverage being more minimalistic, I’m a big fan of directors who are able can conceive scenes in in minimal coverage and longer takes. I would definitely be happy to work with this team again, everyone got on very well and made the whole process very smooth and enjoyable.
Skinford is set entirely at night over the course of two days in terms of script time, however we skip over most of the day part of the two days and the characters spend most of their time in the shadows of night. Kacevski and I really wanted to spend longer on the lighting and designing of our frames which meant our coverage had to be simplified in order to be achievable in the twenty-day schedule. I guess there is a general stigma surrounding web series, mainly due to the low budgets, consequently meaning you have less time to light and finesse and tend to approach coverage in a more conventional way.
With Skinford this was different, we held on wides for longer and so tended to spend less time worrying about getting the over the shoulders and close ups in exchange for designing the frames more thoroughly. We were fortunate to have talented actors who were able to deliver great performances in the very little takes we gave them.
Particularly with a project like this you’re relying on locations that offer you a good amount of ambience so you have to do less background lighting and you can focus on keeping the talent and immediate backgrounds shaped, something I loved from reading Robert Elswit’s approach on Nightcrawler (2014). However, it was hard finding locations in Sydney that offered us the right look without having to spend days dressing it, logistics and also offer a good amount of light ambience.
We ended up having to do a lot more lighting work to achieve the textured world Nik and I wanted to create. We both love classic films like Bladerunner (1982) and Fight Club (1999) where you have these frames with infinite depth and we really wanted to use wides as a key part of our coverage so I wanted to spend time lighting deep into the background.
To work with a director who could understand this and really want to spend time on the lighting was quite amazing, especially on such a tight schedule. In the end I think it really paid off, as it really elevates the world that these larger than life characters inhabit.
I had to keep a consistency between the work that Robertson had done and what I was going to do. So there wasn’t much of a discussion with Kacevski in terms of the camera we were going to use, but that was fine as I prefer the Arri cameras, especially for low light work and I agreed that anamorphic was the perfect choice in capturing the stylistic world.
We used the same camera package, going with the Arri Alexa XT with a set of Panavision E-series lenses and for a car chase scene at night I opted to shoot spherical with the faster PVinatge primes and do a post crop in order to take advantage of the natural light. For underwater work I used a RED Epic with the Dragon sensor and low light OLPF with Lee Kelly’s set of Nikono’s underwater lenses. Panavision were very supportive in providing the production the gear for Skinford and so there were few financial considerations by the time I was on board the project.
I came on board Skinford with a little less than four weeks until principal photography so a lot of this time was spent with Kacevski or on location reconnaissance. I would have loved to have spent more time going through the script with the production designer, however this wasn’t the case. We were fortunate in the fact that we had great locations that didn’t require much dressing.
I was able to get some testing time in with some of the production design elements including practicals lights like various fluorescent tubes, bulkhead ship lights, streetlights, strengths of opaque plastics and other elements. It’s always one thing to see the production designer’s (Tel Montgomery) ideas/props in person but testing it in the context of the story on camera is always revealing and I always push to do this before any project.
We were watching films like Old Boy (2003) and Let Me In (2010) and pulling frames from music videos and other places. We loved how each of these films embraced the darkness and the colour palettes they presented in the night work. There are also a few street photographers I follow who have a great eye for colour and are a constant inspiration such as Marylyn Mugot and William Eggleston.
Skinford is a world where danger is always around the corner and with the characters spending a lot of their time on the run we wanted the darkness to add an element of tension, like you don’t quite know who’s lurking in the shadows.
Somehow I have managed to have worked on a lot of projects and with directors previously who love experimenting with colour and usually at night, so I go through phases of serious Vitamin-D deficiency! I’ve built up a real understanding for what I think works in terms of colours and approach, although this is an ever evolving part of me and always subjective to the story.
I have built up a recipe book over my experience of gel combinations that work well together and represent in a natural way practical sources like fluoros, sodium and mercury and an understanding of how far I can push more extreme hues on particular cameras. With Skinford and a lot of my night work I strive to keep my sources natural and motivated and I am a fan of achieving the look in camera, so I tend to get a little obsessive in my gel combinations and colours.
It was fortunate to have such an amazing crew on Skinford, especially to endure a month of night shoots in some fairly crazy locations. By the time I had joined the production there had been many decisions made by Robertson and some of the crew roles had been filled on his accord and so I was working with some new crew, but they were excellent and really came on board at 150 per cent, without their passion and expertise this film would definitely not be the same.
Kacevski and myself went back to the location plenty of times to try and figure out a plan of attack. It was very helpful to get the actors in on one of our prep days so He and I could very roughly shoot the entire chase scene on my Sony A7 camera, he edited the footage into a sequence and we quickly learnt what additional shots we needed or what did and didn’t work.
The production involved a lot of stunt work as well as challenging location work like chase through the corridors and engine room of an old ship. When it came time to shoot this scene I really had to be smart in the way I lit things as I didn’t have the time tweak too much. I ended up asking for a three hour pre-light where I had the production design team and gaffer basically light the space, rather than particular angles.
This involved placing practical lights in clever places that could light the characters faces as they ran through the space in some shots but also add depth in the background of other shots if we were shooting towards them. Additional to a whole heap of fluorescent tube practicals, 2’ Kino’s hidden, bare tungsten bulbs and bulk head lights I used these custom high CRI 1’x1’ LED flexible light mats a local supplier made for me that I could contort into tight spaces and hide to produce soft pools of light.
I wanted to create a visual identity for each level of the ship as the characters descended lower into the engine room, to help the audience understand the geography of where the characters were throughout the sequence. For the first floor corridor I wanted a more classic warm feel and made sure all the practical lights in the corridor had 40W tungsten globes supplemented by tungsten 2’ Kinos in the roof. As they descended to the first floor of the engine room I wanted it to be a harsher orange and so my sources were tungsten based with an additional full CT straw to exaggerate the grit and texture of the space and when we see the lower floors it’s a cooler blue/green fluorescent colour, using daylight fluorescent or Kino’s gel’d with ¼ CTB and 1/4 plus green. This was definitely one of the trickiest sequences of the film and one of those fun challenges I learnt a lot from.
I was only involved in the colour grade phase of post-production. There are quite a few VFX shots in Skinford including a few graphic shots like a head removal, people exploding and other compositing work like wire and rig removal for the stunts. Because I really strive to capture the look of the image as much as I can in camera I tend to try and keep things simple in the grade.
The bulk of what we did was retain a natural skin tone for the actors through all the coloured lighting, natural in the context of the conditions and spaces they were lit for and so sometimes this required keying to isolate the skin tone. Our colourist, Matt Fezz, is brilliant, he and I have worked together on many projects and he has a technique of mixing film stock LUTs into the image in subtle ways and I found this a nice way of shifting some of the hues into a more filmic zone and less in the electric digital spectrum you can sometimes get.
We ended up using 4K 35mm grain scans and overlaying it in a method that’s natural to how film grain works, more grain in the shadows and less in the highlights, to add more texture and grit to the image. This along with some subtle sharpening to the Alexa image seems to render an image more akin to negative film. It’s a very beautiful combination of shooting digital to capture the latitude in the lower light spectrum while using post processing to give it a more analogue feel.
My favourite moment in the film is the end dialogue sequence between Skinny and his father. The intensity of the acting and how it’s conveyed through our coverage makes for such an emotional and intense scene and wrap up. I’ve got to hand it to the actors who were able to deliver such amazing performances at 3:00am in the sub-degree temperatures with barely any clothes on.
There is also a shot we referred to as the ‘Meat Fireworks shot’ which was fairly spectacular. It’s a single long tracking shot at 50FPS that sees these escaping characters with remotely triggered explosives planted in them one-by-one explode as the camera tracks across them.
At one-point half way through the first week of principal I was looking at the rushes and got a little concerned that I was underexposing the image too much, so I asked Kacevski what he thought and he was loving it, he didn’t want to sit on the fence and was encouraging to always go darker and bolder.
A lot of the important discussions I had with the director were in pre-production and early on in the process I like to do more listening initially, to understand the vision that’s in the director’s head as they’ve been involved in the script for a lot longer than I have but by the time principal photography comes around we have a blueprint made up of both of our combined minds. Although I find a lot of personal ‘style’ as a cinematographer comes through my approach, once I have an idea of what we want to do it’s up for me to interoperate that.
For me in Skinford, I had a particular taste for how I exposed and lit the faces, what lights and quality of light I love and how I interpret the colours of the night scape lighting that are decisions the director wasn’t necessarily involved in or aware of as much.
We set out to make a bold film that was engaging and constantly moving at fast pace and I believe we did. I am very proud that we stuck to a certain approach and throughout the film even in the face of crazy schedules and days. I always find it hard to look back on projects as you’re constantly critiquing your work and battling with the, ‘I should have done this’ or ‘gone a little darker with the lighting in that scene’. Looking back on it there are certain days I believe the schedule was way too unachievable and I wish I had pushed the production more to amend this, but it’s constant battle we fight, time and money.
I’ve just come back from Vietnam off another feature film that I have to say was the toughest challenge I’ve had as a cinematographer to date. I’m just staying local for the near future working on commercials, music videos and other short form work at this stage.
There is talk of other films shooting this year that I might be involved in and in particular an indie drama with a really nice script and characters being shot in Australia later in the year, but nothing set in stone at this stage.
Kieran Fowler is an international award-winning cinematographer of feature films, music videos, documentary and commercial work.