Rodrigo Vidal Dawson on shooting ‘Indigo Lake’

When a celebrated artist begins an affair with a nightclub owner’s wife, her husband’s suspicions soon explode… before he ends up at the bottom of a lake. Indigo Lake is the third feature film from cinematographer Rodrigo Vidal Dawson (Observance, Skin Deep).

By Rodrigo Vidal Dawson.

Celebrated artist Jack (Andrew Cutcliffe) is hired by a nightclub owner Bulat (Marin Mimica) to paint a portrait of his beautiful wife Ruby (Miranda O’Hare). When Jack and Ruby fall in love, Bulat’s jealousy erupts into violence. To save themselves, the lovers are driven to attempt his murder.

I met director Martin Simpson (Gene-X) many years ago. Although we had never worked together, we had both wanted to collaborate for sometime. Simpson contacted me in early 2015 with a draft of Indigo Lake. He was looking to form a crew. It is unusual to have a cinematographer on a project prior to a producer, so I put Simpson in contact with good friend and fellow graduate of the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), Brian Cobb of Cobbstar Productions. Cobb and I had worked previously together on the science-fiction short film Lucydia (2010), directed by Jonnie Peters, when we were at AFTRS. The two of us had remained good friends and I knew that between the three of us we could assemble a team, blended with experience and fresh talent, to drive Indigo Lake.

Miranda O_Hare plays Ruby in a scene from 'Indigo Lake' - DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson
Miranda O’Hare plays Ruby in a scene from ‘Indigo Lake’ – DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson

During pre-production, Simpson and I discussed at length a range of camera system options that would best suit the ‘look’ of Indigo Lake. The Director wanted a camera system that was versatile, robust, reliable and most importantly a camera that would give him creative options with simplicity in post-production. One of Simpson’s previous projects had caused him some headaches with visual effects in post-production due to latitude, resolution and codecs. Basically overall workflow issues. We also had extensive coverage to get through on a tight schedule. We had the pleasure to work with the incredibly calm and experienced 1st AD Keith Heygate, which gave both Simpson and me the time to overcome our creative hurdles.

My director gave me enough freedom, and trusted me, to choose what I thought was the best camera system and arrangement of lenses we would need to execute the look, tone and feel of Indigo Lake. I subsequently chose a combination of ARRI cameras supplied by VA Digital Hire at Fox Studios in Sydney. Wanting to keep the glass clean and sharp I chose a set of ARRI Master Primes and two Zeiss zooms. I wanted the ability to soften the image in post-production as the primes are pin sharp, while also taking a subtle coolness out of the glass.

My A-camera was an ARRI Alexa operated by my good friend and fellow cinematographer, Michael Steel. My B-camera was an Alexa Mini which, by the time we went in to pre-production, had only been on the market for about five months. I trusted working between both cameras as I had used them on television commercials leading up to the film. We performed thorough camera tests and Beyond Screen Production in Artarmon were very happy with the results. The cameras worked perfectly within workflow expectations, cost projections and integrated seamlessly with their existing systems.

In framing Indigo Lake we wanted to pay homage to the look and feel of noir films from the 1940s and 1950s. Films such as Double Indemnity (1944), cinematography by John Francis Seitz ASC, and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), cinematography by Ernest Laszlo ASC. We wanted to play with colour saturation and contrast, referencing Brian de Palma’s 1980s thriller-noirs Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), cinematographies by Vilmos Zsigmond ASC and Stephen Henry Burum ASC, respectively. Also trying to display our own Australian touch on the look and Simpson’s narrative.

Before lighting Indigo Lake, I had many conversations with trusted friend and Gaffer Grahame Dickson. We discussed the differing environments in the script, various times of day within the narrative, the tone, feel and colour palette. We borrowed a few ideas from theatrical lighting, used unconventional gel packs on either the key or fill lighting as well as incorporating environmental aspects in to the lighting. This made our key light flicker to subtly play on the emotional state of certain scenes, giving a slightly studio/theatrical feel to the lighting.

Sheyda (Nicole Verhoeven) and Bulat (Marin Mimica) in a scene from 'Indigo Lake' - DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson
Sheyda (Nicole Verhoeven) and Bulat (Marin Mimica) in a scene from ‘Indigo Lake’ – DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson

In pre-production, we sat down with Production Designer Jamie Cranney and discussed the overall colour palette for Indigo Lake. Cranney and I wanted to be as precise as possible with colour hue and saturation levels of set dressing, especially considering that both ‘indigo’ and ‘lake’ were such important terms in the film. It represented not only the name of the film but also refers to a physical place. It would be the focus of the eyes in our lead character Ruby, the tone of the night sky, the painting in our narrative, the calm before the storm, as well as death.

After discussing at length considerations of these elements and how they would be affected by the grade, in particular the contrast of the lighting and the working LUTs, Cranney created a colour swatch for the film. Every department would to use this as a starting point. It would help the Make-Up and Costume departments understand our colour vision, but also how it would affect their creative choices moving forward regarding colour reproduction and detail.

The paintings of Brett Whiteley became references, as did the songwriting of James Reyne and Australian Crawl, as well as old Winfield Blue cigarette advertising posters.

Within the ‘look’ of the film we all discussed colour schemes, contrast and saturation of 1980s Australian pop-culture. The paintings of Brett Whiteley became references, as did the songwriting of James Reyne and Australian Crawl, as well as old Winfield Blue cigarette advertising posters. There is an Australian feel to that material, and we wanted to incorporate that feel into the ‘look’ of Indigo Lake.

Cranney and I spoke about giving specific importance to certain colours at different times of the day. For example, we wanted the art studio of Jack’s character to be hot and bright, to feel as if there was space to breathe. When it was night we wanted the shaft of colour coming from the exterior windows to make the same room feel claustrophobic, small and dark. We wanted the textures to feel hyper-real during the day and a touch off after dark. The environments had evidence of hot splashed days, so at night everything had a subtle wash to it. Imprinted by dust and discoloured by heat which was only evident at night.

We were always going to play heavily in the grade with contrast and push shadow areas in our lighting. So Cranney made sure certain textures were used on set that had been saturated and subtle reflective finishes used, in particular the set walls. Cranney did a wonderful job paying homage to a very well-known genre, adding a personal touch and Australian flare to the scenery.

Ruby's mother (Lauren Clair) in a scene from 'Indigo Lake' - DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson
Ruby’s mother (Lauren Clair) in a scene from ‘Indigo Lake’ – DOP Rodrigo Vidal Dawson

We did not have too much CGI work, but what we did was incredibly important as it was the final fight scene of the film. This involved a four handed scene which then broke into two one-on-one fights, with gunshots and knives, then people falling down mine shafts.

Jacob Ingles was our Visual Effects Supervisor and we (Production Designer Jamie Cranney along side Safety Supervisor and Stunt Coordinator Mick Hodge) spoke about the sequence. The set-build on location was at Manly Dam, an area of urban bushland in the Northern Beaches region of Sydney. It was integrated with a studio-build at Fox Studios at Moore Park. It depicted both ladder climbs and falls as Bulat’s character comes back from what seems his final act of the film. Once I had the drawings and measurements from Cranney’s team we drew up the studio scaffold towers that we would have to construct in order to match Manly Dam.

I plotted my lighting plan, and the possible camera angles that we would need coming out of a mixture of Steadicam, dolly and handheld-moves. We were able to make some fairly accurate decisions five weeks out from the day’s scheduled shooting at Fox Studios. We were able to work out lighting-rigs, camera scaffold towers, support lines for stunts and placement of all green-screen and negative fill. We only had a half-day pre-light and build and a one-day shoot. It was the last day of shoot and the most expensive. Hodge and Ingles were invaluable in pre-production. I also have to add the invaluable contribution of the on set conversations with Armourer, Gideon Marshall, and Special Effects guru David Trethewey.

After going into so much CGI preparation for the only scene that needed it, Ingles was very keen to see the whole post-production workflow from start to finish as he too was going to manage the post-production. We decided he would be invaluable as my DIT and he thankfully accepted.

I created my LUTs in pre-production during camera tests with the assistance of Colourist Michael Graham, who would be doing the final grade many months later. Ingles was able to create the on-set post workflow, dailies creation and editorial packages for our Editor (Julian Griffiths). It was invaluable, and whenever I encountered a few set hurdles Ingles was able to tweak the LUTs as I needed. It was also a great advantage having him, as he would be able to send out screenshots of footage, both raw and with LUTs, to the Make-Up, Costume and Art Departments to see how it would affect each department’s creative decisions. If they had concerns about colour reproduction of garments, to pigmentation adjustments for cast, I could address the effects of the current look and how more refinement would be added down the line.

My favourite shot in Indigo Lake is the interior car scene where Bulat is driving a Mustang with Ruby in the trunk. No dialogue. I just love every element of this shot, the framing, lighting, the actor’s movement and his expression. His look is so powerful and his body language says everything you need to know about the scene.

As I mentioned, the Director gave me the liberty to put my stamp on the look of the film. We spoke in depth about the noir looks of yesteryear and how we wanted to push the overall conventions of the genre. I was able push the colour palette, the detail in the shadow areas or lack of and played with non-complementary colours to play with emotion, tone and environment with the amazing assistance and cooperation of the entire production crew.

David Trethewey (Special Effects) with Rodrigo Vidal Dawson (Cinematographer) - PHOTO Supplied
David Trethewey (Special Effects) with Rodrigo Vidal Dawson (Cinematographer) – PHOTO Supplied

I was fortunate enough to be able to assemble a terrific camera crew, full of experience and great personalities. I am a big believer you should try to work with as many friends as possible. Not just because they are good people and care about the roles they do, but also they care about the people around them by nurturing and teaching one another. It is a mantra I borrowed from John Seale AM ACS ASC years ago when he visited AFTRS and I was fortunate enough to steal a few seconds of his time when he was buying a coffee at the café.

I was incredibly fortunate to have good friend Michael Steel as my A-Camera Operator, who has an amazing eye and great sensibility with cast. Jonathan Tyler and Tim Walsh lent their smooth and steady touch as my Steadicam Operators. A-Camera AC and Camera Manager was Fiona Young, who I had previously worked with on television commercials in Queensland. I absolutely loved her work ethic and attention to detail, so I did everything I could to poach her from north of the border. B-Camera AC was good friend Sam Vines, 2nd AC was Hannah Klassek and we were fortunate to have an amazing trainee during the course of the film, Dan Anderson, who ran our Video Village.

I learnt a great lesson on Indigo Lake; time in pre-production and multi coloured post-it notes are invaluable as I was not able to spend as much time as I would have liked in the final grade as other project commitments clashed. When it came time for the final grade, I reviewed the final cut and referred back to all my notes from the many months prior and continued the conversation with the Colourist that we had back in pre-production.

Prior to sending my notes to Graham, the Colourist, I met up with Simpson, the Director, again. We discussed heavily the score and sound design that he had been working on. I wanted to gauge how different it was, if at all, after ten months of shooting. I wanted to know if Simpson had made creative changes, subtle or not subtle, after the effects of the near five-month picture and sound edit process. I wanted to see how discussions with the composer had possibly changed his view on the look and most importantly the tone of the film. I was able to tweak the look to complement the score and flow of the narrative. After I had a better understanding, I compiled emails for all the environments for Graham for his sessions and he went to work.

I was able to sit in a few short sessions and importantly in the final session. The final grade unfortunately was completed in two blocks, due to Indigo Lake competing with session time with other projects. Graham would email me DPX grabs for review. At the time I was on set and out of town on other projects. I would send back my notes regarding saturation, hue and luminance, overall contrast, how much detail I want to loose in the shadow areas and when I wanted to push highlights.

My notes became shorter and shorter as Graham understood the finer details of what I was trying to achieve. Towards the end of the grade I had complete confidence that all the elements of the image were being addressed. The last thing we did was set the level of grain/noise to take off the sharpness off the image.

In hindsight, there is not a lot I would change as I learnt a huge amount during the shoot. Some of the images that I am most proud of are either happy accidents due to naively experimenting with pushing too much or hurdles that we overcame due to the budget and limitations. I believe we achieved more than the goals we set ourselves as a production team.

The only thing that I would change is my own personal approach of looking after myself physically and mentally in preparing myself for the demands of the shoot; be it exercising, drinking lots of water or recognising rest is just as important as work. One of the things I learnt as the Cinematographer on Indigo Lake was to trust your instinct and that fear or doubt can restrict experimentation. Embrace the negative as well as the positive, your work may be much better for it. I’m in development with a couple of interesting projects that are in various stages of pre-production and I am looking forward to the next set of challenges being thrown my way.

Rodrigo Vidal Dawson is a Sydney-based cinematographer. His experience encompasses a wide range of narrative, commercial, art and documentary projects.

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