When a doctor looking for her missing child awakens to find herself in an abandoned school, she must face her own demons if she is to discover the truth about where her son is. Shot by cinematographer Aaron McLisky, supernatural-thriller The School is a claustrophobic and haunting film.
By James Cunningham.
Amy, played by Megan Drury (Rescue Special Ops), is a doctor struggling to deal with her son’s accident. She still cannot manage to leave his comatose side. Becoming obsessed with finding a cure, she begins to lose control and her mental health begins to suffer.
Despite the pleas of those who care about her most, she falls deeper into her own world of denial and darkness. Finally, Amy plunges into the terrifying world of The School. Captured by a hoard of feral kids, she sets out to find her son whilst protecting a group of underworld kids from their cultish teen leader Zac, played by Will McDonald (Home and Away).
The School is the debut feature film for both the film’s Director, Storm Ashwood, and Cinematographer, Aaron McLisky. “I worked with Ashwood as a Gaffer for many years,” says the cinematographer. “He and I had lengthy chats about his numerous film projects while we worked together on music videos and short form narrative projects.”
In late 2016 producers Blake Northfield and Jim Robinson from Bronte Pictures expressed interest in The School. McLisky had never worked with the team from Bronte Pictures but was aware they had recently completed their first independent feature film Out of the Shadows (2017) with Viv Scanu ACS behind the lens.
“As you could imagine I was sceptical that a first time director would actually get a feature project off the ground,” says McLisky, “let alone get me on board.” To his surprise, in mid-February 2017 McLisky’s agent called to confirm that the project was going ahead and if he wanted it, the role of Cinematographer was being offered to him. “Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity.”
McLisky’s previous experience was mainly in television commercials, however he had a few narrative projects under his belt. The biggest of which was Fresh Blood Pilot Season (2015) with Porchlight for the ABC, and the second season of Soul Mates (2016) with production company Jungle. “The entire creative team that worked on this project were hand picked by Ashwood and even though most of us had never worked together before we had great chemistry from day one,” says McLisky.
Initial discussions around camera choice began immediately. “Having read the script before pre-production began,” explains McLisky, “I knew I wanted something light weight and compact to accommodate lots of dynamic camera moves.”
McLisky’s approach was to choreograph elegant Steadicam coverage that maintained movement, create coverage efficiencies and explore as much of the environment as possible. “I knew we had an impossible schedule from the outset,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge of working fast as I find it gives me more time to respond in the moment and quickly offer solutions, so our camera package needed to allow for that.”
McLisky wanted to deliver The School in a 2.39 aspect ratio in order to hold deep three shots for the film’s main cast in the long school corridors, and also to hide rigging in the set to allow freedom in his coverage plans. “We had the anamorphic versus spherical debate but it really became a financial decision,” he explains. “The cost of hiring an anamorphic lens kit and the added complexity for visual effects made the decision pretty quickly.”
“I had endless discussions about camera packages, however the possibility of a Netflix deal and its delivery requirements really defined the camera we used,” says McLisky. In the end, he settled with two Red Epics and a set of Cooke S4s. “It was a small kit, but worked well in tight situations.”
The cinematographer had never worked with production designer Nicola Stillone before, but within moments of discussing the The School they had agreed on so many design ideas that, McLisky says, they were finishing each others sentences. “The design on this film was incredibly ambitious to say the least,” he explains. “Ashwood’s imagination was expensive, the script read like a ten million dollar film when we had just under one.”
“Our main shooting location was the Gladesville Hospital, a former mental asylum with a haunted history, go figure.” Stillone was set the task of creating both a modern day hospital and an eerie haunted school labyrinth in the asylum. The Gladesville Mental Hospital in Sydney, formerly known as the ‘Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum’, was a psychiatric hospital built in 1838. The hospital officially closed in 1993.
In what is one of the film’s most interesting themes, the ghost children trapped in the school have developed their own society, similar to Lord of the Flies, with their own specific rules and customs. Dormitory walls are covered in graffiti which lays out law and order (“no laughter”), while in a classroom furniture has been piled high to create a kind of throne for Zac, the teen dictator, and children adorn themselves with tribal warpaint, the designs differing according to their place in the society’s hierarchy.
The look of The School was heavily influenced by a strong ‘eastern elemental theme’, McLisky tells us. “The emotional journey of the main character, Amy, is mapped through the presence of water. A device that tracks her journey towards a personal truth and the cleansing of her grief. In contrast, Zac, the antagonist of the film, represents fire who holds power over the children in the school and provides a barrier to our hero’s journey. With these two elements at odds this formed a framework to inform our colour decisions.”
McLisky’s key film reference for The School was The Orphanage (2007), directed by J.A Boyna and shot by Spanish cinematographer Óscar Faura. “The use of contrasting colour and graphic composition in that film was what I borrowed from most,” he explains. McLisky’s discussions with Ashwood also included the use of tension in The Ring (2002) directed by Gore Verbinski and shot by Bojan Bazelli ASC, then also creature design in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
First Assistant Camera on The School was Chris Braga. “I had worked before with Braga on short film and commercial projects,” says McLisky. “We spoke about the importance of acknowledging the ambitious schedule and logistical realities of the project and the need for a patient and familiar team to get us through the gruelling shoot.” He says Braga pulled together a great team of both men and women who had a perfect balance of experience and temperament.
“I cannot speak highly enough of my Steadicam and B-Camera Operator Damien King,” says McLisky. “He was my right hand man throughout the shoot.” King joined the team after coming highly recommended from industry operators, bringing a militant endurance and great sense of humour and focus that, McLisky says, formed the backbone of the team. “A much needed skillset for some of our challenging shoot days.”
“My working relationship with my camera crew was a dream,” he says, “as it was with my lighting and gripping department.” Having shot television schedules before McLisky learnt that team chemistry is sometimes more valuable than an individual’s abilities. “You quickly become a family and by supporting each other anything is possible,” says McLisky.
The School is a large mix of practical makeup and post effects. Will Gammon from Cumulus VFX in Byron Bay joined the team to supervise all the visual effects in the film, and for McLisky this was the most ambitious project he has ever completed in terms of working with visual effects. “Dealing with everything from CGI spiders to bodies passing through walls, Gammon became an invaluable asset to our team,” says McLisky, “He had great ideas and managed to pre-visualise sequences that heads of department’s could dissect weeks before the shoot.”
The most ambitious sequence in The School would have to be the final fight scene, explains the cinematographer. “In the script this sequence is staged in a giant underground sewer, something that was surprisingly hard to find in Sydney,” he says. “Ashwood scouted large underground tunnels to see if we could film on location, but it appeared the most logistically controllable option was to build a set and utilise the digital wizardry of Gammon.”
It just so happened that the Gladesville Hospital had an abandoned swimming pool. “A perfect place to build our set,” says McLisky. “With our already stretched budget, giant 8x12m walls were erected over the pool then dressed to look like a sewer. The rest was to be created through VFX set extension and crafty compositing work.”
“I was lucky enough to see some early cuts of the film,” says McLisky, “and was invited to give edit feedback at a producers’ screening, but sadly our grading budget disappeared by the time we got to the end of post-production.” The team ended up only being able to afford limited days in the grade which made specific clean-ups near impossible.
“The saving grace was some time I spent with Colourist Billy Wychgel grading a marketing trailer a few weeks earlier,” he explains. “It was a chance to set some levels and define the look of the film. I knew I wanted to soften off some of the highlights and set specific looks to the different areas of the school. In the end our final Colourist Jamie Hediger did an amazing job pushing the darkness and refining the overall look in the time that he had.”
McLisky is particularly proud of the use of graphic frames throughout the film. He and both Ashwood and Stillone made a conscious effort to find a distinction between strong verticals and curved lines as a visual theme throughout The School. “I find interesting compositions which give you story and character all in one, are just so powerful,” says McLisky.
“I am particularly proud of a high overhead crane shot that we did looking down an architecturally striking staircase,” he says. “The spiralling shape of the staircase seemed to swallow Amy’s character as she walked down it. It matched the emotion and narrative story beat in the film as Amy begins to unravel.”
Ashwood had said to McLisky that he wanted the film to feel like Peter Pan meets The Orphanage meets Lord of the Flies. The Director wanted The School to feel dark, but not terrifying, and he wanted camera work that was elegant yet energetic. “All the things I was thinking,” says McLisky.
Ashwood says the school is a type of purgatory, “The physical realm of the school is a place where children might find themselves once they die,” explains the Director. “This might be a place where kids get stuck. This mother is trying to find her son in a very different world to ours which is controlled by children.”
The visual language of The School speaks to the way McLisky worked to achieve a balance of story as well as his own unique visual perspective as a cinematographer. “I pitched ambitious single take Steadicam shots that held tension in scenes that could have easily been two-handers,” he says. “With the help of great production design I was able to give the film a bold palate and play with lighting design that was sometimes completely un-naturalistic, but visually striking.”
From script to screen The School has ended up being slightly different to the film that the team first saw in their minds, but does McLisky think that means it is a failure? No way. “I think the challenges we experienced created incredible outcomes,” he says.
“Tonally, I wish we had pushed the film further, and I think working with children as our main cast presented scheduling challenges too. I am proud of what we managed to achieve with what we had. For my first feature film, I’m incredibly grateful… and excited to do it all again.”
The School, with its complicated mythology, literary allusions, and psychological underpinnings, not to mention its stylised visual aesthetic, is like few other Australian genre efforts in recent memory. As far as Northfield is concerned, though, that uniqueness is an asset. “For an Australian film, it’ll stand out,” says the film’s Producer. “For a film, it’ll stand out.”
Aaron McLisky is a cinematographer who graduated in 2007 with a degree in Screen Production from Macquarie University. In 2018, he will shoot the third season of popular SBS comedy ‘The Family Law’.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.