When the body of a girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer. Jane Campion returns with a second season of her acclaimed Top of the Lake miniseries, with Cinematographer Germain McMicking behind the camera on Top of the Lake: China Girl.
By James Cunningham.
When Top of the Lake hit our screens in 2013, the picturesque yet disturbing vision of Queenstown stunned viewers absorbed by an inherent darkness lurking beneath New Zealand’s natural beauty.
Powerhouse performances, unconventional storytelling and wowing critics, the series garnered eight Emmy nominations and won Elisabeth Moss a Golden Globe. Season one’s Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw ACS (Animal Kingdom) won both the AACTA Award for ‘Best Cinematography in Television’ and the Emmy Award for ‘Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries’ for his work on the show. It’s no wonder that series creator and Australian film legend Jane Campion (My Brilliant Career) returned for a second season.
Top of the Lake’s second series’ Director of Photography, Germain McMicking, had been working extensively within the commercial industry for the past decade as well as shooting documentary, narrative film and television works. He has garnered much success and great critical acclaim for his work such as the outstanding Nine Network miniseries Gallipoli (2015), the award-winning Holding the Man (2016) and this year’s Berlin Syndrome for Director Cate Shortland.
“I am not sure I will ever know the full story of how I became involved,” McMicking explains when asked how he became involved with China Girl. “I suspect there were relationships that may have played into the offer of becoming the series’ Cinematographer but I’m not sure what was the clincher.”
The team at See Saw Films – Simone Nicholson, Emile Sherman and Ian Canning – had known McMicking from Tony Krawitz’s film adaptation of Dead Europe (2012). Producer Libby Sharpe knew him from shooting commercials, whilst Producers Phillipa Campbell and Jane Campion were new to him. McMicking was also Cinematographer on Partisan (2015), directed by Ariel Kleiman who would later come on to be Co-Director with Campion. “I have enormous respect for all involved,” he says.
It was in July of 2015 that McMicking was asked to travel to Sydney to meet with Campion. “You don’t sit too many job interviews in this line of work, so the question of how to prepare and what to expect was daunting,” he says. McMicking had been a fan of Campion’s work from a young age, “I was scared I would be so star struck when introduced to her that I might go mute.”
McMicking still vividly remembers the day, “Meeting Campion with the usual pleasantries we sat down on the couch to a prolonged period of silence. It felt as if time had stood still for a while as she simply looked at me, curiously.” To McMicking, Campion came across as somewhat of a mystic and he presumed Campion was reading his energy, “She must have felt me to be okay, as she promptly offered me the job on the spot. I couldn’t believe it, I was absolutely thrilled and what a way to break the ice!”
The two auteurs discussed the scripts which McMicking had already read, as well as the visual direction for the second series. “I really loved Campion’s warm disarming nature and her strength in vision”, he says, “and although at the time I tried to be coy about it all… I knew that I would say yes.”
During that first meeting, it was clear that Campion loved the look of McMicking’s film Partisan, which had only then been recently released, along with the world that Kleiman had created. Campion expressed her great appreciation for McMicking’s craft and attention to detail in the lighting of Partisan. “In some way, she wanted to bring a similar level of texture in the light to the series’ new urban setting. So I presume that played a big part in it, and in Kleiman coming on board.” Kleiman, the Director of Partisan, ended up coming on as Director for four of the six episodes of Top of the Lake: China Girl.
Between the creative team there were many, lengthy discussions during pre-production about formats and lenses. “We were allowed to consider pretty much whatever we liked, and knowing that the series would be delivered digitally and need a 16:9 HD finish for the BBC, everything else was up for grabs, which was great,” says McMicking.
“Although the aesthetics of a film are paramount to any of these decisions, you do have to engage with many practical and financial considerations of a production of this scale and length,” says McMicking. “Knowing you can easily get multiples of certain lenses and cameras, to cover you for multiple cameras and splinter units, is as important as having a camera system which is robust and efficient.“
The team chose to work with Panavision Sydney on China Girl as, “I’m a big fan of their glass and they run a great service. You always feel supported,” says McMicking. Of the digital formats at the time, they felt ARRI Alexa was the most filmic of the digital sensors, and with accompanying smaller bodies like the Alexa Mini would best suit their needs. The lenses, however, were more of a debate.
At one stage during pre-production the team was very close to shooting Panavision G-Series anamorphic, then extracting a 1:1.78 from that. “I’m a big fan of anamorphic glass, plus Kleiman and I had great experiences with anamorphic on Partisan,” says McMicking. “We really loved the texture and softness they would bring.” There were concerns, however, from post-production and editorial about the process. “I still believed these concerns were manageable however the 2.8K ProRes format wasn’t out at the time. I would have pushed to shoot RAW due to the extraction process, however financially this became unattainable.”
Going to a more traditional spherical pathway they tested almost everything, finally settling with the Leica Summilux Cs as their base set of glass, while supplementing the kit with McMicking’s own 50mm Bausch & Lomb Super Baltar and a 65mm Panavision Classic Soft Primo with Primo zooms. “I love the quality of Leica glass, especially in how filmic it is in their rendition of colour tones and colour contrast. They are super sharp and contrasty but incredibly photographic. We judiciously used some filtration here and there to knock the edge off and keep our blacks in a soft, misty space,” explains McMicking.
Speaking openly, McMicking feels that Production Designer Annie Beauchamp and he were a little nervous of each other during the pre-production on Top of the Lake: China Girl. They hadn’t worked together before, and both were dealing with creative heavyweights like Campion. “I reckon we were probably putting a lot pressure on ourselves to find our place in that relationship,” says McMicking.
They were taking on board a show that, previously, had been a huge hit and critical success, but also taking on something that had been wholly reimagined. It was sprawling, frightening and very fluid in how the show’s design was developing and changing through pre-production, and as Campion and Kleiman’s relationship developed.
“As often happens, pre-production is full of self-doubt and wonderings, and once you get into the shoot you don’t have time to question yourself,” says McMicking. “I think ultimately, we became a great team once we got into it. I loved Beauchamp’s sense of tone, narrative, the sets she designed and dressed, and some of the locations she was influential in finding. Beauchamp also brought with her a fantastic bunch of people in the art department, who worked incredibly hard to see this project through.”
In very early discussions, Campion was very specific about Moss’ character, Robin, being the ‘light’ within the show, and that wherever they could, McMicking needed to “find that light within her”, and articulate this somehow. So this became somewhat of an obsession for McMicking, in his thoughts about staging and lighting design to find a way to hold Robin in kind of an aura. “Even moments of darkness still retain some curious accents of play of light somewhere in the surroundings, even if it were just some simple but magical little highlights dancing on a wall,” says McMicking.
The motivation for this was made easier by the story being set over a summer period in Sydney and the feeling of a long, lingering sun was employed throughout. “Given the show’s schedule and the very lengthy dialogue scenes, which needed a consistency of light over hours, we generally had to rely on more traditional film lighting which was a great challenge,” says McMicking. “I love working purely with natural light too, when appropriate, but I do really love ‘painting’ a scene so to speak. It’s a real pleasure to be able to more specifically shape the light and tone in a space, to create mood and texture, and help tell of things unspoken.”
“I think this is one of the beautiful consistent visual motifs of the show, and something we worked very hard to maintain throughout,” the Cinematographer says.
“Arkapaw’s work on the first season was really beautiful, and rightfully heralded,” explains McMicking. “It was daunting to me coming on board a show which had won everything; AACTAs and Emmys for cinematography for example. However, this season was, at its core, written and placed so contrarily that I felt it so fundamentally different, I could take it on without feeling too much pressure of the past, and could enjoy it.”
For McMicking, there wasn’t any push to ‘stay true’ to anything from the first series, besides being true to Moss’ character and trying to maintain a similar level of cinematic quality. “Really, I think Campion and the producers were happy to approach this new imagining with open hearts and minds,” he says.
There is a scene on Bondi Beach, in episode six, which McMicking is quite proud of. The night scene sees Robin (Moss) in a drunk and emotional state with Miranda (Gwendoline Christie). “As Robin wanders in an almost primal way to the windswept shoreline of Bondi Beach, a 7k Xenon light blasts down as if from a police helicopter from above.” There is a daytime scene at Bondi which McMicking likes also because of how they shot it over the course of months, but to be a single day. “I think we started during pre-production, with a helicopter shoot over a real massive crowd on the beach one forty-degree Saturday. Then over a couple of weekends I went out by myself with an Assistant capturing long lens background plates, which were used extensively to fill out crowds into the performance scenes.” In general, McMicking says they were pretty lucky with the weather as it cut together seamlessly.
During a father/daughter dance sequence, McMicking got to run multiple cameras. They also had sufficient time in pre-production to design this sequence. “I loved the light and creamy colour tones in that scene, it’s warm and pretty, but holding something fabricated and a little creepy,” says McMicking.
The Cinematographer’s work on the show is highlighted during scenes such as Robin and Miranda sitting in Miranda’s small and empty baby room, as the two drink and discuss their fears and hopes, they are bathed in an ethereal glow from the windows behind. Or when Pike (Ewan Leslie) is lying on the floor of Robin’s apartment after hearing some bad news, Robin propped against a rose-coloured wall with light playing next to her. “It was many of these scenes I photographed in the confines of very small rooms, with these amazing performances, that I especially came to love,” says McMicking.
When talking camera crew with McMicking, Ron Coe was the show’s First Assistant Camera, who McMicking cannot speak more highly of, “He did an incredible job with focus, having a great sensitivity to the material and was fantastic in managing the rest of the team.” That included Nillis Finne as First Assistant Camera for B Camera and Splinter Unit, Sandy McLennan and Cara Bowerman as Second Assistant Cameras, Tom Rolfe on Video Split, and Nir Shelter doing Data Wrangling.
Grant Adams, who had worked on Gallipoli with McMicking, came on board to shoot Second Camera, Steadicam and head up the Splinter Unit on Top of the Lake: China Girl. “He also did a fantastic job and brought all his usual flare to the project,” he says. Adams also had worked on season one of Top of the Lake in New Zealand and shared insights into that production with McMicking.
Ruru Reedy was Top of the Lake’s Gaffer, who is a friend of and collaborator with McMicking . They had worked previously together on Holding the Man, Berlin Syndrome as well as numerous television commercials. “Reedy has an incredible energy and passion for lighting, and we have a great affinity for light and tone. It was quite a hefty lighting package to have to drag out from day to day, across a huge number of locations in Sydney, but he and his team worked tirelessly to maintain the look we were after throughout.”
Geoffrey Full was Key Grip, and “he and his crew brought a great level of professionalism and experience to the project. In general I feel that there’s quite a traditional cinematic feel to the camera movement often using dolly and track to subtly zone in on characters, or move with a character through spaces in longer single shots. As a Dolly Grip, Full has a great feeling for performance, and in designing movement based on character and story.”
Luckily, McMicking was able to spend a great amount of time working on the grade with both Campion and Kleiman. The grade on Top of the Lake: China Girl was completed at Cutting Edge with Adrian Hauser. “He did a fantastic job of maintaining the subtleties of contrast and colour we’d spent so much time trying to achieve on the shoot, and he’s got a great feel for narrative and a great positive energy.”
“I think, in general, Hauser was left alone for some time to apply a general LUT across each episode, and balance any inconsistencies across each scene as much as he could before the Directors or myself would come in.” The balanced LUT removed some of the ocular contrast from the digital format to a more filmic space, softened highlights and lifted the bottom end slightly.
“Following that it was a general conversation about whether to go darker here or there, or to swing the skin tones one way or the other. It was all very subtle but very nuanced work, which takes a lot of time and patient eyes,” says McMicking. On subsequent viewings on big screens, both at the Cannes Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), McMicking thought the grade looked great and was really proud of what the team achieved.
For McMicking, working with Jane Campion was a divine experience and it is clear he loved every second of it. “Campion is a master of the medium, very self assured and totally in love with the characters and story she is creating. She has an immense heart and interest in people, she really wants to get inside your head, to understand you and bring you in.”
“There was always an energy on set with Campion, where you weren’t quite sure what to expect. Some days it felt quite measured, quiet and calm, and then other days the energy would shift and she would run at a furious pace, shoot a single take and move on. It’s kind of like you were sitting on the ocean floor, and never sure which way or how far the tide would shift. So it added a beautiful organic feel to each day’s work.”
At the start of each day Campion would bring the entire crew together, even the unit crew and caterers, and eloquently describe to everyone what the day’s scene was about and what they meant to each character. “It was a fantastic and inclusionary entry each day to the world she was creating,” says McMicking.
The Cinematographer remembers Campion’s beautiful hand-drawn storyboards that she would share throughout pre-production and during the shoot. “Just a few simple key frames and moments which really told what the scene was about. It was all you really needed,” says McMicking.
Working with Kleiman was less of a mystery to McMicking as the Cinematographer had spent a lot of time working with him on Partisan. The two had developed a shorthand and shared a taste in the way things should look and feel.
“Kleiman is also a great performance director, very fastidious and has an incredibly strong will to get things just right. He loves a moving master to cover an entire scene, and then later will often come in for some bare coverage,” he says. “It’s lovely to watch on screen when you see the ballet between the moving camera and characters within a space. When this coordination works its such an elegant and considered way to tell a scene.” McMicking says they would have loved to have done more of this, but with the nature of some days feeling more television-like in schedule than others, he explains that “One does have to call on multiple angles to get through the day.”
“I think as a cinematographer, it’s an ever changing approach process in how to achieve your director’s vision. We are all unique and so you have to be adaptive to different directors personalities, energy and how they communicate. I don’t think I have any formalised process to this, but just try to be true to the script, concentrate on performance, really listen and be open to the director’s ideas,” says McMicking. “Hopefully if the trust is there the director will be open to your ideas also. As for the question of imparting your own unique perspective? That’s more difficult to answer, but I think as an artist in the very act of dedicating your creative thought and instincts to a project, some of your artistry and perspective is bound to get caught up in the beautiful amalgam of film making.”
Looking back at Top of the Lake: China Girl, McMiking is really proud of what he achieved, and loves that Campion along with Gerard Lee had the interest and will to write something that was “so damn good.” McMicking admires them, in many ways, reinventing the show with it’s distinctly different location, new characters and arguably different tone. “Last time I watched it at MIFF, I was in tears of laughter at one moment and almost weeping at others,” he says.
McMicking knows the second season has polarised audiences, with some absolutely passionate about the its new rendering while others miss the feel and tone from season one. “Of course there are always things you would have done differently, a few scenes here and there where I probably could have pushed back against schedule pressure and spent some more time on. Or made different choices with lensing, lighting, coverage, or the decision to shoot simulated travel shots without any proper testing. But you could drive yourself mad if you go too deep,” he explains. “I feel that it’s good to learn from hindsight, but you can’t get all sulky about it. Onwards and upwards as they say!”
The future now looks bright for McMicking, but most currently he is looking forward to shooting a film called Acute Misfortune, based on the book of the same name by Eric Jensen. This true story tells of the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between the artist Adam Cullen and his biographer Eric Jensen. “It’s a fantastic story and script, and a smaller and more intimate film. This will be the first feature to be directed by Thomas Wright, who’s an actor, writer and theatre director. I think it will be a great film, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.