And The Winner Is

Local Sydney cinematographer Sean Ryan films short thriller/drama And The Winner Is in Queensland after receiving funding from Screen Queensland – interview by James Cunningham

Science fiction thriller And The Winner Is, directed by Cameron March, sets up a world that’s a reflection of the present and a warning of where our future could lie as society continues to evolve.

When tennis champion and international superstar Stanley finds himself caught in the midst of a public scandal, he’s left with no other choice but to seek out the very best in the world of PR and crisis management. Company representative Anja promises Stanley he’s come to the right place: their service offers full redemption, in exchange for his commitment to the process… no matter the direction it takes. A desperate Stanley agrees.

What begins as an undefined stint in isolation slowly descends into a living nightmare as Stanley is ‘triggered’ by memories from the night of the incident. Driven to destruction, it’s only when Stanley comes face to face with his darkest moment that he’s pushed further beyond his limits than he ever expected – and met with the most unforeseen of consequences as he pays the ultimate price for freedom. Screen Queensland’s ‘SQ Shorts Program’ funded the production of twelve short films this year allowing emerging filmmakers to develop standout stories for the screen. And The Winner Is was one of those projects with the short film being shot by Sean Ryan.

A scene from ‘And The Winner Is’ – DOP Sean Ryan

AC – How did you first get involved on the short film And The Winner Is?

SR – I’ve known the director for quite some time. Cameron March and I first met in high school where we were fortunate enough to have an intensive film and television department, almost operating like a mini-production company within the school. We worked together here and from the beginning knew we were both going to be in this for the long haul. We later attended Griffith Film School in Brisbane one year apart and watched each other grow. In the years since we’d been out we’ve kept in touch and always hoped to work on something together. March and producer Danielle Redford applied for funding from Screen Queensland and when they found out he had been successful he called me up and asked if I’d like to shoot it, which of course I gladly accepted.

AC – What factors did you take into consideration when choosing your camera?

SR – From day one March was passionate about shooting anamorphic, which I too believed was the right choice for this film. Although not falling cleanly into any one genre the film needed to have an essence of science fiction which we feel the 2.39:1 contributed towards. We started speaking to Brian Flexmore at Panavision Queensland and combined with a few tests and my past exposure to Panavision anamorphics we settled on the Primos for their close focusing abilities, contrast and cinematic flaring.

Because of this lens choice we opted for the Alexa XT recording ARRIRAW as we didn’t have access to a Mini at the time and wanted the true 4:3 sensor to take advantage of all the lenses had to offer. The camera package ended up being quite large and heavy but as we were on a studio dolly for three out of four days it enabled us to work quickly even with the larger package.

AC – What was your collaboration like with the production design team on this film?

SR – Jon Dowding (Mad Max, The Blue Lagoon) was our Production Designer who brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the production. As the film is set in the near future we really wanted to try and get this across without any visual effects or elements not grounded in the world today.

A big reference was Ex Machina (2014, cinematography by Rob Hardy BSC) and specifically the architectural lighting in the home where that film is set. March and I decided early on that we wanted to build strip lighting into our own sets where possible. We felt this was a means of further conveying the time period the film was set in.

Working with the production design team we sourced 60m of RGBW LED strip lights and encased them in aluminium channel with a frosted cover to give the appearance of an architectural feature. In our initial meetings and scouts I also came in with a large reference bank of images which influenced us texturally and was also the source of inspiration to paint our main set with two tone look which ended up being a great way to break up many blank walls in our hero set.

A scene from ‘And The Winner Is’ – DOP Sean Ryan

AC – Can you speak briefly about your own crew in the camera department?

SR – Having started out in Brisbane I was fortunate to have worked with a lot of crew up there and was able to bring on the best for this film. We had half-a-day of Steadicam which was used for the final scene in the film. We were lucky enough to have Alec Schultz, who is a really talented operator coming up at the moment, join us for this.

Elliott Deem came on as Focus Puller who is someone I’ve worked with a bit on a few other shorts and music videos. Deem is a talented cinematographer in his own right, and is a very knowledgeable and resourceful asset to any camera team. Connal Plunkett served as a Second who worked tirelessly to make sure we moved very quickly between setups and another great energy to have on set. Because of the pace of the shoot and amount of data we were going through we also enlisted Caleb Ware as a dedicated wrangler.

Glenn Jones came on as gaffer and when he wasn’t available, Clive Rippon stepped in. Jones is someone I’ve always turned to for advice and support in Queensland and without this the film would have turned out very differently. Nic Karam, who’s a good friend, was originally pegged as the Key Grip but when he became unavailable sent out Lee Taite and Logan Collier who was on for most of the film and on a small production like this was invaluable.

AC – What kind of digital and CGI did you work with for the film? How did you approach colour grading?

SR – We tried to minimise the use of digital visual effects as much as possible, only reserving it for a few things that were unachievable practically. A lot of information is presented to the main character via a television screen and we chose to do this practically. I didn’t want to be in a situation where we would be trying to frame it out to keep the visual effects shot count down. The graphics were made up prior to the shoot and fed to the screen via a laptop and some edit software enabled us to adjust brightness, contrast and colour cast to taste on a per shot basis.

In terms of grading the film, I touched base with the team at various stages through post-production. During the offline edit I passed on a few suggestions, however my input was mainly reserved for the grade. March and I went into the session with a ‘look book’ for each location as our time was limited in the suite. We needed to find the look as soon as possible and spend as much of our time rolling it out across all the shots. We were fortunate to have the support from Cutting Edge, the expertise of Colourist Adrian Hauser (Jungle, Predestination) who did an amazing job.

AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in And The Winner Is? Why?

SR – One of our privileges is working with extraordinary talent in front of the camera and the lead Thomas Larkin was no exception. There’s one static shot in the film where we hold on Larkin’s character Stanley for over a minute – around ten percent of the film – as he teeters on the edge of taking his own life. This was the kind of shot that left the entire set with chills and was a real exhibition of Larkin’s skill as an actor.

Cinematographer Sean Ryan on the set of 'And The Winner Is' - PHOTO Supplied
Cinematographer Sean Ryan on the set of ‘And The Winner Is’ – PHOTO Supplied

AC – How do you impart your own unique vision as cinematographer on a project?

SR – It all comes down to understanding a director’s vision. Once you have a clear picture of what they’re after, only then can you paint it for them. With the use of references and extensive conversations about the overarching approach to the look we break everything down and visually discover the type of film that we would make. From that point on, I can make decisions knowing they were servicing the director’s vision without having to involve with a director each step of the way.

AC – Looking back on what you had originally set out to achieve on And The Winner Is, do you think you succeeded? What would you have done differently?

SR – I think where we ended up is very close to the film that we’d all imagined it to be. It’s hard to say what I’d do differently, there’s always small things I wish I could change watching it through but ultimately who knows what that film would look like if I had shot it a year ago or five years from now. We’re constantly learning and exploring new techniques which at least for me why this is so damn exciting. I look forward to taking what I’ve learnt from this film and applying it to other projects down the line.

AC – Finally, what are you working on next?

SR – I’m preparing for a small personal project shooting on 16mm film, and a few music videos.

Sean Ryan is a cinematographer based in Sydney. He completed a Bachelor of Film and Screen Media from Brisbane’s Griffith Film School.

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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