Wagga Wagga is an iconic Australian country town that loves its sport, but finds itself divided over its loyalty for rival codes AFL and NRL. With only three weeks pre-production before a four-week shoot, Adam Howden ACS lenses the new Australian feature film Chasing Comets starring Dan Ewing and Isabel Lucas.
By Slade Phillips and James Cunningham.
Award-winning Adam Howden ACS experienced a probably not-so-common journey into shooting Chasing Comets, joining the film as cinematographer only shortly before principle photography was due to begin. “It wasn’t even on my radar until about three weeks prior to shooting the film,” says Howden. “Jason Perini, the Director, is a very talented Australian actor who we’ve probably all seen or heard on television in one of his many television commercial appearances.”
Howden and Perini had worked together a few times before; when Perini was cast in a music video which Howden was shooting and producing, and when the actor was cast in a short film Howden had shot. “We had been speaking about doing a Tropfest film together maybe a year or two later, around 2014/15,” explains Howden. “That never eventuated.”
When Howden checked his email one day, on a day like any other, there was a message from Perini explaining that he was about to direct a feature film. They had just lost their cinematographer and he asked whether Howden he would be interested in coming on board to shoot Chasing Comets. From there things moved very quickly. “I received the script and read it that day,” says Howden. “After a chat with Producer Jason Stevens, within a few days I had signed on.”
“There was so much talent attached to the project with the likes of Isabel Lucas, Dan Ewing, Stan Walker, Rhys Muldoon, Peter Phelps, John Bachelor, George Houvardas and Justin Melvy… it was impossible to resist the opportunity the collaborate with them all.”
Getting a crack at an Australian feature film is hard enough, let alone for a first time director getting to work with a first time cinematographer. “It’s almost unheard of,” says Howden. “But after shooting twenty or so shorts films, and at least one hundred commercials, I felt ready for the challenge.”
The main issue for Howden in pre-production was that he had just three short weeks until shooting began, and the fact that the production had also lost their Production Manager due to injury. “I spent most of the first week making phone calls trying to crew my departments,” he says. “I had to proxy production manage my departments until the lovely Naomi Mitchell came on as Line Producer and Production Manager.”
The following week, Howden was away on a commercial shoot in Darwin for six days. His plan was to make lots of phone calls, then fly back to Melbourne on Saturday to see his wife and kids for a day, then fly to Sydney the following morning to start what was ‘official pre-production’ giving him a total of four days on the ground before they started shooting.
“As I came onto the production so late,” he explains, “pre-production in a creative sense was almost non existent for me.” Paul Finch, the film’s Production Designer, had done a lot of work prior to Howden joining the crew, meaning his opportunity to influence much of what was already set in motion was fairly limited. “It was more about listening to Perini and Finch to best help craft their established aesthetic, whilst at the same time giving it a look and feel that was indicative of my style.”
The film’s Director and Production Designer had collated extensive references from all kinds of films, magazines and photography. “I suppose the aesthetic was influenced by ‘indie American’ films,” explains Howden.
Chasing Comets is set in the rural New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga, though the crew only filmed there for a week. The rest of the film was shot locally around Sydney, with two weeks in Cronulla and a week at Henson Oval, in Marrickville. Henson Oval provided the perfect backdrop/location for the home of the film’s Rugby League team ‘The Comets’.
“Choosing a camera for this film was an easy choice for me,” says Howden. “The ARRI Alexa Mini is arguably the best and most versatile cinema camera on the market. It certainly was for me in March and April of 2017 when filming took place, and to this day I’d choose over almost any other cinema camera on the market.”
Howden says he loves the form factor, the skin tone, the latitude, the colour, and the way the camera sees shadows and highlights. “I’ve owned several other cameras over the past six or seven years, but buying the Alexa Mini in 2015 was a pivotal moment for me.”
The cinematographer explains that he shoots a lot of hand-held, and that the camera becomes an extension of himself. “I just love the weight of it on my shoulder or in my hand at waist level where it ends up for a lot of my shots,” he says.
“It’s a physical thing. As Christopher Doyle once said it’s a dance with the actors, and it puts me in the story and you can feel it on the day too. When you’re there on set and everything just lines up. The acting, the camera, the directing, the production design, sound and lighting when it’s all working in concert there’s no better feeling.”
Having said that, Howden explains that they used the dolly quite a bit on Chasing Comets. It was the first time that the cinematographer really had the opportunity to use a dolly on a drama setting. “It’s a very versatile piece of equipment,” he says. “With the pace we were shooting the dolly allowed us to get lots of valuable coverage and really choreograph both the camera and on screen talent.”
For lensing, Howden was able to get a set of Cooke Anamorphic/i from Lemac in Sydney. “They’re such gorgeous lenses and they added so much ‘look’ to the film. Visually, it just wouldn’t be the same without them,” says Howden.
The cinematographer explains further, “People perceive anamorphic to be more time consuming on set, but the advantages are obvious. The Cooke Anamorphic/i gives you a ‘look’ straight off the bat. I’ve found that having glass with a decent amount of character actually means less time trimming lights and more time shooting.”
Howden’s lens kit contained the Cooke Anamorphic/i 32mm, 50mm, 75mm, 100mm and 135mm. He found himself using the 75mm more than the others. “It’s an incredible lens. It’s like two lenses in one, you get the drop off of a 75mm and the width or a 32mm spherical or thereabouts, it’s quite the nice format to shoot in that regard.”
“Generally speaking we were shooting around 2.8 to 2.8 ½, however often wider than that. You have to watch the top and bottom fall off on the Cooke lenses, and there’s a couple of moments that caught me out.”
The crew also utilised a set of Howden’s own Leica Summicron Cs for scenes involving a news reporter to differentiate that look, and take a nod toward the cleaner sharper images of broadcast sport and news. Those images were then enhanced further with a 1.78:1 centre crop during post-production.
Crewing low-budget films and television series in Australia can be a challenge, however Howden found himself lucky to score amazing talent to help him along the way. “I had to get a couple of different focus pullers during the first week, until my full-time First Assistant Camera arrived,” says Howden. “It was worth the wait. Geoff Skilbeck and is an old friend, who had actually helped train me up when I was an assistant in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” Howden also managed to secure one of his regular Sydney Grips, Kris Wallis, who he loves working with.
In the lighting department, Howden received a recommendation for Gaffer Russel Fewtrell whom he hadn’t worked with before. Fewtrell is highly experienced, and this really helped Howden and his crew move quickly between lighting set-ups. “He’d already be reading our minds of where lamps would go for lighting our reverses,. Having him one step ahead like that was critical. Fewtrell was great and I couldn’t have done it without those guys having my back,” he says. “They were fantastic.”
Howden’s lighting kit was far from elaborate, but it was decent. He used a combination of ARRI M40s, M18s, a 800w Joker, an ARRI Skypanel S60, a couple of LiteMats and other smaller LEDs. “The sky panels really blew me away on this film,” says Howden. “I pretty well can’t do a shoot without them these days. They’re such a versatile and bright LED. They really are pretty special.”
The NRL and AFL games in Chasing Comets were a challenge for Howden. They were let down by extras on both teams not showing up, so they ended up using some of the crew in jerseys out on the field. “I think even the Stand By Props makes an appearance in the Comets Rugby League side,” says Howden. “If you take a close look, it’s a rag tag league team but in a way that’s part of the charm of a rural team anyway.”
They filmed a combination of staged moments, live games and random moments that all cut together to make the film’s NRL and AFL games. The Rugby League was shot at Henson Oval in Marrickville, Sydney, whilst the AFL was shot at Gumly Gumly Oval in Wagga Wagga. The Comet’s changerooms were also at Henson Oval. “The changerooms there are just great,” says Howden. “They just ooze authenticity and you can literally still smell the sweat from the last game.”
The last day of the shoot was at Henson Oval, shooting around a couple of real Rugby League games. “At half-time and between game change overs we would run onto the field and quickly knock out some shots,” says Howden. “Then we’d have to get off the field very quickly so the real games could continue. It was quite the circus but fun at the same time.” Howden says he sometimes enjoys working with ridiculous limitations, as it focuses the mind and makes things both challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Chasing Comets was edited by the Scott Walmsley in Sydney, with the rest of post-production handled by Final Post in Newcastle. “It’s a great facility set up and run by Shane Burrell, it’s in a great location in central Newcastle and it’s quite nice getting away there to focus on the task at hand.”
Howden did a few days of colour-grading with Burrell, setting up looks and going through the various references which the cinematographer had collated. He referenced films like The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC), No Country for Old Men (2007, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC), Drive (2011, cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel ASC) and Killing Me Softly (2012, cinematography by Greig Fraser ACS ASC).
Burrell was then left to work on Chasing Comets for a few months, with Howden returning in early May for two final days. “Burrell had done an outstanding job in the interim period so the last couple of days were just a matter of tweaking things up and down or pushing and pulling it here or there subtly,” says Howden.
“I would say the general cinematography aesthetic for the film is natural, with a slight bias towards warm tobaccos hues and a subtle desaturation,” the cinematographer says. “We really tried to make it feel like a country town without going so far that it doesn’t stand the test of time.”
“As I’ve grown as a cinematographer I generally find that more natural, subtler grades tend to have more longevity and still look great when you go back them years later.”
There are a couple of sequences in Chasing Comets that Howden really loves. The first is a flashback sequence with actors Dan Ewing and Isabel Lucas. “I think we had about three or four hours of shooting where we just wandered the streets of Cronulla before moving to the main beach car park to shoot around the hero car using only the late setting sun and car headlights as our lighting sources,” says Howden.
“I really enjoy this kind of shooting because you can get your hands dirty. Collaborating with the actors and the director, you can find the gorgeous natural light and moments that just have a certain energy and really work. It’s great fun and often yields very lovely results.”
Another favourite scene of Howden’s is when Ewing and Stan Walker arrive at a nightclub, shot at Sydney’s The Star Casino. “We did a slow-motion reverse track as the boys enter,” he explains. “I was on a dolly, but hand-held so it felt a bit loose. I just love the combination of Walker’s big and confident performance, juxtaposed with Ewing’s somber mood.” That was one of the first set-ups of the film, on the first day of shooting.
“The Star nightclub location was incredible,” says Howden. “We had full control of the entire nightclub’s lighting, and had one of the in-house guys to run it.” On a location scout, Howden tried a couple of looks before further developing and enhancing them on the day with two ARRI Sky Panels, among some other fixtures.
“I also really love the lighting and framing on the boys at the bar in that scene,” he says. “The combination of the warmer skin tones set against the cooler aqua blue LED lighting of the in-house nightclub lighting is a nice combination.”
But it wasn’t all perfect. Given the very compressed time Howden had in pre-production, there are definitely things on the Chasing Comets shoot he would do differently if given the opportunity. “There’s a scene toward the end of the film where two actors are framed near the top of the frame in a mid-shot, and the focus roll of top and bottom just makes them look a bit mushy. I just didn’t pick it up on the day,” he says.
“We didn’t have time to test the lenses properly so I’ve learnt my lesson there. Next film, we test the lenses and project them, no matter how short our pre-production is.”
Adam Howden ACS is a multi-award winning Australian cinematographer and AFTRS graduate. He has shot hundreds of television commercials including for Ford, Holden and M&Ms.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.