Shot by Toby Oliver ACS and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, Get Out, an interracial horror film, has received universal acclaim from critics and has become the highest-grossing debut film based on an original screenplay in Hollywood history.
By Hawkins DuBois.
Get Out is the latest in a long line of massive financial successes to come out of the horror genre, but unlike many of its predecessors, Get Out has curated its success through political commentary, in addition to its scares and jokes. Writer/Director Jordan Peele does a magnificent job designing and orchestrating a perspective into the life of an African-American man so that audiences can experience the micro-aggressions and blatant racism that African-Americans face on a daily basis. The film has taken in nearly US$200 million across the globe and is the first debut film from an African-American director to earn over US$100 million domestically in the United States.
Peele does an incredible job telling the unmistakably African-American story, but the film has a unique unsung hero in the form of the film’s Australian Director of Photography, Toby Oliver ACS (Beneath Hill 60, Wolf Creek 2, The Darkness) . Thanks to Oliver’s participation, the film’s visuals build to give us a greater insight into the internal and external struggles of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), with a variety of moments that are defined by the style of camerawork that Oliver decided to employ. Chief among what makes Oliver’s lensing so effective for the film is that his lighting and camerawork are designed to match the story perfectly.
Before attending Swinburne Film School in Melbourne, Oliver first discovered his adoration of the medium during a class project, when he created a music documentary focused on members of his high school. He then cemented his dedication to the field when he created an original film: a detective/horror spoof titled Psycho 2, which Oliver, wrote, directed, and starred in himself. From there his passion for filmmaking only grew.
Upon completing his time at Swinburne, graduating alongside Australian filmmakers such as acclaimed director Andrew Dominik (Chopper), Oliver immediately set his course to find a way to shooting movies. After graduating, he decided that his best course of action for learning how to be a cinematographer would be to work at Lemac, a popular rental and production house in Australia, where he operated under the tutelage of John Bowring ACS. Oliver recognised that in the industry, it’s not about what you know but who you know.
“When you’re first starting out you don’t really know that much. I ended up shooting lots and lots of short films, music videos, all sorts of productions before I got a chance to shoot my first movie,” he explains. “I tried to shoot as much as I could, wherever I could, and often there’s no money involved. Bowring was a huge influence in terms of work ethic and technique, and how to get the most out of a shooting situation, so I learned a lot when he would take me as an assistant on some of the smaller jobs he used to do.”
While Oliver avoided the typical hierarchical rise through the ranks of the camera department, he still put in years working under Bowring at Lemac, working countless hours, until he was finally presented with an opportunity to work with one of his Swinburne classmates, Alkinos Tsilimidos. Together the pair collaborated to make the film Everynight… Evernight (1994), a black and white, hardcore violence, arthouse film. The movie received a strong reception on the film festival circuit, playing at the Venice and Montreal Film Festivals, and earning several nominations at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards.
As a film school student, he took after many of his peers, idolising European arthouse cinematographers such as Robbie Müeller (Dead Man), but he knew the importance of being flexible, and he found plenty of inspiration right at home in Australia as well.
“Legends like John Seale AM ACS ASC and Dean Semler AM ACS ASC were establishing themselves internationally, so those were guys that you could look up to. But personally, aside from Bowring, Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC was another who was a mentor to me, as he was to so many other young Australian cinematographers,” says Oliver. “I learned quite a bit from him. Just working in Australia, we came from small, lightweight, fast-moving shoots, so I learned to be quite well-planned. I learned to keep things lightweight and go small instead of big when you can.”
As Oliver built up his reputation, he began to gain more and more credit for his work. In 2000, he garnered his first major award recognition, earning a nomination at the AFI Awards for his lensing on the massively popular romantic comedy Looking for Alibrandi, and in 2004, Oliver received his second nomination for his reunion with Tsilimidos, Tom White. That same year, Oliver’s work on those films, as well as many others, earned him a place among the prestigious ranks of the Australian Cinematographers Society. The accredited Toby Oliver ACS had rightfully earned his stripes in Australia.
By 2014, Oliver was thriving as much as a local Australian cinematographer could be. But he wanted more. He was ready to make the leap to the big leagues and follow in the footsteps of predecessors such as Seale and Semler. It was time for Hollywood.
“If you’re keen to make that jump to international shows and movies, you kind of have to move. The place to move is Los Angeles,” says Oliver. “It’s a well-trodden path for Australians. I made the decision to come with my family, my wife and two children, and to try my luck. It was a bit of a risk, giving up a solid career in Australia, but I did feel that working in Australia had a ceiling to it. Lucky for me, I knew Greg MacLean, an Australian director who’s well known for the Wolf Creek franchise.”
MacLean had carved a good niche with horror, and he and Oliver had teamed up for the sequel, Wolf Creek 2 (2013). “We had a lot of fun with that. MacLean got a movie with Blumhouse Productions while he was in Los Angeles with a script that became The Darkness (2016),” says Oliver. “He knew I was in Los Angeles by then, and asked me if I’d like to come and shoot that with him. He opened the door at Blumhouse for me.”
Those opportunities started with his Aussie connection to MacLean, but he quickly established himself as a dependable cinematographer for horror films. He worked on re-shoots for several Blumhouse productions, including Sinister 2 (2015) and Incarnate (2016), and when the time came for Blumhouse to put together a team for Get Out, Oliver immediately came to mind. They set him up with Peele, and very quickly they knew that the pair would be an excellent fit. Oliver had the Blumhouse experience, and his time in Australia lent itself to shooting a socially relevant, fast-paced horror shoot.
Get Out stars Kaluuya as Chris and Allison Williams as Rose, a couple who are visiting Rose’s family home so that the family can meet Chris for the first time. Rose assures Chris that her family is ardently liberal, but once the young couple arrives, Chris starts to feel as though something is off.
After reading the script, one of the key elements that Oliver sought to incorporate was an anchoring in reality, recognising that to make this story resonate, people needed to see a connection to real life. Making Chris’ struggles appear real, despite his existence in a genre film, was the core of Oliver’s storytelling game plan.
“I pitched a much more naturalistic approach that grounded the main character in the real world. When things get crazy towards the end, we diverge out of that stylistically,” says Oliver, “but Jordan always wanted to be based in a reality that people could identify with. We pushed forward trying to achieve this while still being cinematic in telling the story.”
By grounding the story and the characters in reality, Peele and Oliver push audiences to recognise the truth in the message of Get Out. Stylistically, Oliver puts viewers in a position where they feel intimately intertwined with the situation, as actors like Kaluuya frequently carry entire scenes via the emotions that pop up across their faces, delivering a better understanding of characters and situations than we could ever receive via dialogue.
And Oliver was immensely proud of the ways in which he was able to capture those emotions. But in his eyes, the technological aspects of capturing those moments weren’t necessarily the key. Oliver consistently shoots on the ARRI Alexa mini, and on this shoot he worked with a set of Angenieux lenses. Though much of the industry has come to a place where they’re overly fixated on the technology and deciding which camera to use on each shoot, Oliver is at a place where he knows there should be far more emphasis on who is shooting and how they’re shooting, rather than what someone is shooting on.
“We’re living in an age now where digital technology is going crazy, and you’ve got new cameras coming out pretty regularly, and there’s all this support technology that’s blooming,” he says. “I think it’s all too easy to get sucked into the newest, greatest technology and really lose track of what the technology’s for, which is actually filmmaking. There’s a danger that the technology starts guiding the decisions about how you’re going to visually realise a story rather than the other way around. I think there’s so much discussion, often by young filmmakers and aspiring cinematographers where they’re really getting caught up in the equipment discussion more than the creative discussion.”
“When I first started shooting, people never asked what camera did you shoot something on,” Oliver explains, “Often these days someone will see a clip or a trailer or something, and they’ll ask what did you shoot that on, and that would’ve been a question that to me is kind of irrelevant. When I was first starting out no one would ask that question. It just wasn’t important, and really it still isn’t. One camera might give you an edge in one way or another, and there’s certainly a choice for whatever job you’re working on, but I do find that there’s that sort of focus or level of importance that’s given to that beyond what it needs to be.”
“There was a quote from Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC,” Oliver says, “about ten years ago. We both sat in on some judging back in Sydney for the ACS awards and we looked at a whole bunch of stuff and there was some discussion about what was used to shoot what camera-wise, and I remember him saying, ‘look it’s not the machine, it’s the person behind the camera who’s important’, and certainly that’s what was important to him. I think people should think about that and let that swing back the other way a little bit rather than it being so incredibly focused on the gear. It’s really the people behind the gear that shoot the movie.”
With the simplicity of Oliver’s gear, it’s clear that so much more of the value in his shooting comes from himself, rather than his tech. Oliver’s cinematography frequently captures perfect moments of tension and emotion, but arguably the most demonstrative scene of Oliver moulding his work to match the requirements of the scene and character comes about halfway through the movie when Georgina, the maid played by Betty Gabriel, comes in to speak to Chris. Oliver describes the thought process of how he designs scenes in general for the film, but also the way in which they came to shoot that specific scene.
“It’s always about the characters. We would shoot close-ups with the camera just a few inches away from the actor’s face. It gives you a different perspective, where if you’re ten feet away or two feet away the shot might be the same size for the closeup, but it gives you a totally different emotional feeling. Being a little bit closer with a wide angle lens on the characters sort of positions the audience inside the character’s head where they’re almost uncomfortably close,” he says.
“In the scene where Georgina comes into the bedroom to explain why she was unplugging Chris’ iPhone, she comes closer and closer, and the camera inches back as she makes her way towards Chris, keeping the camera literally only a few inches away from her face. Gabriel delivers this amazing performance with the camera right in her face and that was really amazing. That was one of my favourite scenes in the movie,” says Oliver, “and the way those elements came together was through decisions that we made on the day.”
“During rehearsals, she didn’t come forward at all. She just stood in the doorway, and it was a static a scene. I suggested why doesn’t she creep forward and we’ll track back with her, because she was building up her performance towards the end and she gets to this emotional crescendo, and then she comes back down again, and to have her walking towards Chris at the same time adds this extra layer to all of that, and it ended up working really well,” he says.
The film of course, doesn’t limit itself to simply dictating character with those wide close ups though, no matter how incredible so many of them were. As Oliver tells it, Peele was extraordinarily bold for a first-time director and wanted to do some different stuff as well. One of the other great shots in the film comes early on, where Chris and Rose first arrive at the family home, the Armitage Estate.
“We shot that wide shot and let the action all play out through the whole greeting and the hellos and grabbing the bags and going inside, and all of this plays out in the wide shot,” says Oliver. Towards the end of the shot they slowly back away on a dolly and we reveal that the groundsman, Walter, played by Marcus Henderson, is just standing there staring. “Jordan was always very clear in his mind that that meeting scene would definitely be covered partly, if not wholly in that shot. The intention was to use it as a wide shot to break up the audience’s expectations, but also to introduce that sinister feeling that we’re watching that scene unfold from Walter’s perspective, which isn’t a perspective you’re necessarily expecting to see it from.”
The shot is effective because of how creepy it winds up feeling, especially in retrospect once you understand what it means for the audience to be watching this shot from Walter’s point-of-view. It serves as a stark contrast to what the audience has already seen, and sets the tone for the changes, cinematically and tonally, that are about to go down on the Armitage Estate.
While the lensing of the story transitions into even more of the eerie close/wide shots as the story starts to get weirder, Oliver also uses the lighting as a key signifier of how to establish the tone of the movie. For the most part, the film takes on a relatively muted colour palette, but Oliver explains that there’s more to the colours than simply muting everything. Everything is built around showing us how Chris is feeling.
One of the aspects of the film that was most visually reminiscent with people was the aesthetic of ‘the sunken place’, part state of hypnosis and part brainwashing technique. The setting has quickly taken a hold in popular culture, and it was Oliver’s execution that really helped to wrap the entire concept together.
“That was a challenge because we had to figure out how to do it,” says Oliver. “You’re going to a representation of a guy’s consciousness who has slipped away through hypnotism. To practically achieve that on the stage we had Kaluuya hanging on a wire in one spot to create this sense that he’s falling down, and we moved the camera around him because it’s in a black space where we hung big solids all around the scene, so it just looked like infinite depth with a bright single light source which is suggestive of the screen that’s above his head. I shot most of the falling stuff at quite high speed at about 200 frames per second to achieve that semi-sort of underwater feeling but not quite underwater. It ended up working pretty well, and Jordan was pretty happy with the way stuff turned out because you imagine something like that in your head and when it comes to life it’s pretty cool.“
Oliver’s contributions to bringing Peele’s vision of Get Out to life were vast, helping to draw out an intimacy from the characters and aiding a first-time director in the technical aspect of shooting, but Oliver is more proud that as an artist, he was able to work on something that’s so much bigger than he is.
“For me, it’s really important that the movie is so relevant,” he says. “That really was what grabbed me and first made me want to do the movie when I read the script, because you’ve got a film that is a genre piece, a horror piece, that’s usually to titillate and scare and entertain audiences, but what it really is is a movie that’s making a very powerful social comment about race in the United States today. That’s what makes someone like me, as a creative artist, really excited to be involved with something. The film has so many layers to it and it’s got a powerful message and not every movie or show that you work on has that. When you find a project that is able to have a message and a really entertaining story and experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat it’s just fantastic. It’s the ultimate really, in terms of what you want to collaborate on.”
Oliver is by no means a new face on the block, having built up a decades-long successful track record in his native Australia, but a recent move to Los Angeles and his phenomenal, thoughtful performance on Get Out have set him up as a breakout cinematographer; one of the top cinematographers to watch in 2017 according to Variety. His work on Get Out serves to brilliantly heighten Peele’s amazing film and Oliver’s camerawork is something that horror audiences should get used to seeing. His upcoming slate, includes names such as Insidious: Chapter 4, Wildling, and Half to Death. He is highly collaborative and adaptive, making him one of the most appealing cinematographers to work with. Now with successful films in both Australia and the United States, Oliver is sure to be a name to keep an eye on.
- Hawkins DuBois is a Creative Development Internat Hyde Park Entertainment in Los Angeles.