Australian feature films didn’t make the cut in this year’s Cannes Film Festival’s official competition or Un Certain Regard… however two short films were selected. Charles Williams’ All These Creatures, shot on 16mm film by cinematographer Adric Watson, was one of them. One of only 8 titles in the short films competition, chosen from 3,943 submissions. It went on to win the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the festival.
The film stars thirteen-year-old Ethiopian/Australian Yared Scott as Tempest, a boy who tries to understand the dark presence growing inside his father and the events that led to an inexplicable tragedy, while his backyard is infested with insects. Williams cast Scott after auditioning more than four-hundred kids, and rewrote the script to include Scott’s ethnic background.
This is the director’s fifth short film. A lot of the events depicted are “highly personal and reinterpreted,” Williams says. The Director also produced writer-director Yianni Warnock’s Homebodies, which was nominated for an AACTA award for Best Short Film in 2016.
Adric Watson had never worked with Williams, or anyone else on the project, at that stage. Watson was supposed to be moving to Berlin, however liked the script for All These Creatures and stayed an extra month just to shoot it.
Watson believes a big part of good cinematography is actually just good production design and choosing the right locations. While the shoot was to take place in Melbourne, the Director and Cinematographer both lived in Sydney. This gave the pair time with one another to discuss visuals. Production Designer Eleanora Steiner couldn’t be present for these earlier conversations, however joined them once scouting began in Melbourne.
All These Creatures was shot on an Aaton XTR Prod with Zeiss Superspeeds and a Canon 11-165mm zoom. The camera is owned by Watson, while the rest came from Panavision in Melbourne. The majority of the film was shot on Kodak Vision3 200T, with some scenes shot with 500T. It was developed by Cinelab London, with pick-ups by Werner Winkelmann at Neglab in Sydney. “While Australia at the moment isn’t the most streamlined workflow for film,” says Watson, “you can still make it work. Credit goes to our Director for putting all the pieces together.”
“Film is a pretty natural choice for me,” says Watson. “This is well trodden ground, but its visual qualities are more alluring and interesting to me. Texture is a big part of that, it’s response to colour and light as well, it’s got energy, it’s impressionistic, it’s an abstraction. I don’t really get on board with cinema trying to replicate reality.”
“I think that’s a boring outlook and undermines the very dreamlike nature of what cinema has always been,” Watson explains. “There’s something Walter Murch said, I can’t quite remember, about an image of a door in an empty room. Film feels like someone is about to enter the room, digital as though they just left.”
From the beginning Williams was on the same page about film format and worked very hard to make it work financially. “While I think it’s a beautiful format for drama,” says Watson, “I never want to push too hard if a director isn’t as enthusiastic. I wouldn’t want something technical to put unnecessary stress on an already high-pressure environment.”
“The film itself is about a boy witnessing and reflecting on his father’s mental deterioration,” says Watson. “We wanted this to be reflected in our images. Colour is huge for me. I think its psychological impact is profound and incredibly complex. We wanted to see browns and acidic greens in the production design, with costumes and locations to reflect an overwhelming atmosphere of sickness and decay. While it’s not overt, I think it does impact at an unconscious level.”
“ Colour is huge for me. I think its psychological impact is profound and incredibly complex. ”
Out of the All These Creatures crew, Watson had only worked with Focus Puller, Jordan Dowding, before. “He had been my loader on a short I’d done on 16mm years earlier and had done an amazing job,” says Watson. “He also loaded all our film so he was basically doing two jobs in one. Joey Knox, Bonita Carzino, and Thomas Dawe were our Second Assistant Cameras. Max Walter and Arron Farrugia filmed Second Unit pickups, as I was overseas.”
The grade was digital. Selects were scanned at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand, in a Digital Moving-Picture Exchange (DPX) on an ARRISCAN Film Scanner. “It stresses me out a lot to not be present in the colour-timing. I was in London during this process so I graded some stills and sent them back and forth to the Director, and our Colourist CJ Dobson. In all honesty, I haven’t even seen the final film yet, but I’m sure they did an amazing job!”
Looking back on what Watson, and Williams, had originally set out to achieve with All These Creatures, Watson reflects: “It’s hard to say. I think I look back on most things I do and think, I really should have lit that differently or framed that differently. Sometime’s it’s only through hindsight that you’re able to see the true potential of certain ideas and usually once you have forgotten the series of uncontrollable events that led you to those outcomes anyway.”
“I can’t say I would have done it differently,” he says, “but once I’ve digested all the mistakes I made, I’ll do things differently in future.”
Ardic Watson is an advocate of shooting on film. He has worked on award-winning short films, including ‘Bo Mi’ for which he was awarded AFTRS Excellence In Cinematography, and television commercials including for Jeep’s 2015 Super Bowl Grand Final TVC.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.