After a series of murders bearing all the markings of a familiar killer, detectives find themselves chasing the ghost of a man who has been dead for over a decade. With Ben Nott ACS behind the lens on Jigsaw, they become embroiled in a new game that’s only just begun.
By James Cunningham.
Cinematographer Ben Nott ACS (Predestination) came to the Saw franchise by way of his relationship with the Michael and Peter Spierig. Known together professionally as the Spierig Brothers, the German-born identical twin brothers are Australian film directors, producers and screenwriters. The Brothers made their directing debut in 2003 with Undead (2003), and won Best Visual Effects at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards for their second film Daybreakers (2010). Nott shot Daybreakers for the Spierig Brothers, and later shot Predestination for the duo, which earned him ‘Best Cinematography’ at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards in 2015.
“Jigsaw was our third collaboration, so the short hand in our relationship was well and truly developed which served us well over a brief preparation period,” says Nott.
The award wining cinematographer explains that the the Spierig Brothers were bought in as ‘guns for hire’ to direct Jigsaw while they were prepping on another film, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren and due out next year. “Michael was editing in Toronto while Peter was in pre-production in Melbourne,” he says.
Nott explains that early discussions about the look of Jigsaw focused around bringing a refreshed visual style to the franchise. Together, the Brothers storyboarded the entire film and every frame appears in the film. “A super tight schedule, an incredibly dense script laced with complex physical and visual effects,” Nott explains, “and the Saw audience’s lust for the intricate mechanical detail of each trap dictated that generating a comic book frames to be used as a visual road map was the only way to go.” Production Designer Tony Cowely and Nott worked closely together during their brief pre-production. The storyboards allowed them to concentrate their efforts and tailor the sets accordingly.
“The Saw franchise,” Nott opinions, “had become quite formulaic in the way it was produced. That is to say that each script backed into a number, $10 million, and a schedule, about 30 days, regardless of the content.” The cinematographer continues, “They also backed into a date… Halloween.” This meant that principal photography had to be underway in January in Toronto when it is bitterly cold, so writing was tailored toward interiors that can be shot on a stage. Meaning filmmakers were presented with climatic restrictions.
The success of the Saw franchise, produced with those boundaries, led to the producers adopting this formulaic approach and subsequently to ‘the Saw way of doing things’. Consequently, the Australian trio were presented with a lot of existing baggage when beginning their journey. “That’s not how we do things here at Saw”, was a phrase constantly repeated by production.
“Peter and Michael’s vision for this film was a definite departure from the ‘Saw way’,” says Nott. “They briefed me that they wanted to visually up res the project, take it to location rather than base it on stage and give the film it’s own visual style. To their credit the boys stuck to their guns and made this film their own whilst acknowledging the franchise has a dyed in the wool audience that has certain expectations.”
It was a given that Jigsaw was to be acquired digitally, and the ARRI Alexa was the camera of choice by all. Nott chose to shoot on the Master Primes for their speed and ability to close focus. Various traps in the story required great visual detail as part of the storytelling. “I didn’t want to be constantly messing with diopters if I shot Anamorphic,” he says.
“Thirty-two days was quick going for the density of this script and I need a nimble camera system to keep up. The Alexa Mini, with it’s internal NDs and ablility to break down to a very compact rig camera, was the perfect choice for both A and B cameras.”
Nott did all crew interviews via Skype from Cape Town and consulted about key members of all departments with Toronto local and First Assistant Camera Christopher Raucamp, with whom Nott has worked with on three projects.
“Matching personality plays such a big part of building a successful team and I find this even more so when engaging the Grip and electric teams in North America,” says Nott. “Their system relies heavily on the Key Grip and the Gaffer working in tandem to light a scene.”
“The Gaffer places the lamp and the Grip dresses the colour, diffusion, bounce and neg. IMDB is a wonderful tool for assessing experience but I was lucky to have one of the best ACs in town to help me with build a team that worked well together.”
Visual direction of Jigsaw was established very early in pre-production by a ‘look book’, and with the storyboard frames produced by the Spierig Brothers. “By his own admission Michael is a ‘crap’ storyboard artist,” says Nott, “So I was afforded plenty of interpretive artistic slippage when composing each frame.” The trio’s relationship is now so well-established that the Brothers trust that Nott will stay the course of their vision, allowing the cinematographer enormous creative freedom along their journey.
“I chose to shoot ProRes at 3.2K using the XQ codec rather than RAW to maintain a little control if my schedule did not fall into line with the colour timing window,” says Nott. “As it turns out I had one day in the suite in Toronto to review and was lucky that the digital neg had the intent baked in.” Previous films in the Saw franchise have tended to be very heavily affected in the colour suite, and this time the team were not so keen to go down that path. “I was keen to have the look we toiled hard to maintained on the set make the jump to the DPX. As always, the Colourist needed to do a pass to balance exposure/colour variations between cameras but more than the bones of intent are on the screen.”
Jigsaw has taken more than $90 million at the worldwide box office worldwide since its release, so Nott believes there is a very good argument that they succeeded. “I think I will always have moments of 20/20 hindsight when looking back on what I could have done better. The important thing is to deposited them in the bank of experience ready to be drawn upon next time.”
Nott and the Spierig Brothers have finished filming Winchester, of which Nott says he is proud of. “I am now working on a Chinese Language feature shot on the Gold Coast.” Nott concludes, “I am forever thankful that I stumbled into such a wonderfully diverse job that affords me an opportunity to work in and around many different countries and cultures and don’t for a second take it for granted.”
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.