Peter James ACS ASC is known for his work on Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe, Alive, Double Jeopardy, Meet the Parents and Mao’s Last Dancer among many other films. He is a proud accredited member of the Australian Cinematographers Society and American Society of Cinematographers, as well as being a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and four-time recipient of the ACS Milli Award for Cinematographer of the Year.
The much-anticipated Ladies in Black marks the thirteenth collaboration between the cinematographer and legendary Australian director Bruce Beresford.
Ladies in Black is based on a bestselling novel by director Bruce Beresford and producer Sue Milliken’s beloved university buddy, Madeleine St. John. It follows the tales of several women as they navigate changing times as Australia moves from the austerity of the post WWII 50s to the swinging 60s. The film examines cultural issues including women’s rights, the plight of immigrants, taboos surrounding sexual relationships and Australia’s inherent xenophobia.
The primary character, Lisa Miles, is in her final year of high school. Entering adulthood, she takes a school holiday job at a major Sydney department store ‘Goodes’, based on Sydney’s David Jones – ‘The Most Beautiful Store in the World’, as she awaits the results of her leaving certificate examinations. Under the tutelage of her glamorous co-workers Fay and Magda, Lisa is swept up into a new world of romance and gossip, whilst experiencing the traditional 1959 views of her family and society.
In this rite of passage tale, women take the forefront, with award-worthy performances from; Rachael Taylor as Fay; Julia Ormond as Magda; Angourie Rice as Lisa; Susie Porter as Mrs. Miles; Noni Hazlehurst as Miss Cartwright; alongside Ryan Corr as Rudi; Nicholas Hammond as Mr. Ryder; Vincent Perez as Stefan and Shane Jacobson as Mr. Miles.
It took Milliken and Beresford twenty-five years of trying to raise the funds to make Ladies in Black. According to the The Australian newspaper, the “X-factor has been the involvement of Allanah Zitserman as co-producer”. Zitserman, has impressive entrepreneurial credentials. She has produced three movies, including Russian Doll (2001) and set up the Dungog Film Festival in NSW’s Hunter Region in 2005.
“If it hadn’t been for Zitserman’s dynamism, we’d never have got the money,” says Beresford. “She was relentless. Milliken and I had tried so hard and we nearly got finance several times. Zitserman said to me, ‘I bet I can get it done’… and she could.”
Ladies in Black encapsulates everything the book celebrates. The beginning of change for women in Australia and the value of immigration in an evolving culture and of course fashion, food and Sydney. Though written in the 1990s about the 1950s, the themes are uncannily relevant today.
The film was shot over a tight thirty-day schedule at various Sydney, the Blue Mountains and on a set and locations created by production designer Felicity Abbott APDG on the Fox Studios lot at Moore Park. Blending a mixture of James’ photography, 1950s archival film footage and visual effects, Ladies in Black evokes the precise feeling of what it was like to be a young woman, working at Goodes Department Store in 1959.
“The David Jones Department Store was beautiful and so classy,” says James. “I wanted our Goodes Department store to look as full of fantasy and romance as I could, in stark contrast to the homes of our predominantly working-class girls, who were really just living out in the suburbs. Some of the girls lived in single rooms. They were poor. I wanted to convey the feeling that when they went to work they were transformed to these beautiful creatures who could appropriately serve Sydney’s elite classes. It was like shooting a Vanity Fair cover every day, looking at all these beautiful women.”
James took six weeks to prep the film. The crew had only one day to shoot interiors at the actual David Jones location on Elizabeth Street, which also fell on the first day of shooting. This day included three major scenes involving a complex choreography of cast, crew and equipment.
Preparing for the first day’s shoot required the installation of a very long Rosco scenic backing screen designed by the art department to replicate Sydney city circa 1959. The crew were shooting on the seventh floor of David Jones, and had to transform it to appear as being the ground floor.
James shot tests with his chosen selection of E and C series Panavision anamorphic lenses and two ARRI Alexa Minis. He worked with Gaffer Reg Garside, A-Cam Operator Simon Harding and Key Grip David Nichols.
“I knew that once I set the look of the film on that first day in David Jones, I had to match for weeks of shooting on stage, ” says James.
One scene depicts the moment the doors of the department store burst open to reveal dozens of shoppers pouring into the store at the beginning of the post-Christmas sales. “It was really a lot of pressure on that first day to get the look right. Plus, Beresford said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for all the lights to come on at once, before the shoppers enter the store’,” laughs James. “I quickly called, Garside and he worked out where the fuse boxes were. I shot a camera test to make sure that we weren’t going to have terrible flicker problems.”
“Nichols did an amazing job,” says James. “We had to rig and utilise a lot of the existing lighting, because we didn’t have a budget to go in there and completely light it. We just worked with what they had.”
“We shot one the biggest scenes of the film on what was the last day of pre-production,” James reflects. “It was a Friday and we had to bump in and out of David Jones. It was a nightmare getting in and out of their loading dock,” James recalls. “Plus, we needed all the art department gear in there with their complicated set dressings, a huge Christmas tree, cabinets filled with LED lighting, plus wardrobe. Moving the lighting, grip and sound gear, backings, dollies and cameras in, while hair, makeup and wardrobe prepped a huge crowd of cast and extras. That first day was simply nuts.”
“I think our production designer Felicity Abbott didn’t go to bed for more than twenty-four hours! The art department needed to work all night, as we only had one day to shoot three massive sequences.”
David Jones lent its original lights from the store to the set. This helped create a seamless transition between the location and the Fox Studio set.
“David Jones were wonderful. They loaned us a lot of things and a few key items,” says James. “Wonderful cabinets with curved glass ends, original torchiere statues – holding lanterns – and original hanging chandeliers. The majority of the cabinetry had to be built and we hid the LED lighting where we could in the cabinets. This makes a for a very flattering under light and provides a glamorous contrast to the gloomy homes where the women-in-black lived.”
James says, “The colours for the set were torturous. Really tricky. I said to Abbott, ‘there’s going to be a lot of colour in there with the colours of the people’s dresses and the different things, we have to be very careful it doesn’t become a mess.”
Abbott says, “We worked closely to develop the character of the sets, particularly the large department store set to integrate the lighting, sight lines and angles to the greatest advantage. I developed a disciplined palette in conversation with James and Beresford. We built large-scale concept models for the main set pieces, as the Director uses these for blocking and working out scenes, and these were the central focus on our creative discussions.”
“It was such a pleasure to work with James and many days on set were like a masterclass in filmmaking,” says Abbott. “He is a generous collaborator and our discussions were always lively and informative.”
“Camera testing comprised of determining colour palette, sheen levels in the larger sets, plus wardrobe and makeup, which included an extensive variety of lip colours,” explains James. “We decided to shoot in Apple ProRes 4444 XQ. The tests were taken through the post path to DCP and projected in a theatre for the director, producer and crew see on the big screen.”
James is renowned for his meticulous attention to detail and diligence for how people are represented on screen. His affection and affinity for colour is always evident. “And then! The different lip colours! I have never done a lipstick pass before, but there were so many different lipstick shades I thought I had better go through the principle actors to make sure their lip colours didn’t change.”
“You can get to grading a scene and suddenly you find a character’s lipstick shade has shifted. It’s gone to a different place! So, grader Trish Cahill and myself went through and did a quick lipstick pass, because I didn’t want the lips to go purple or tangerine when it was actually fuchsia.” James had collaborated with Cahill before in 2009, “She’s terrific. We did Mao’s Last Dancer together and she’s very good.”
A challenge they faced together was to match the archival film to the look of their footage. “We worked to find the best footage but pulling from letterbox on old 35mm film, which is really just coming off print, was tough. It isn’t coming from the original negative, so we enhanced it as much as we could. Sound Firm played around with it and were very good with that.”
James says shooting on the Fox lot was a fantastic experience. “It was a great bonus to work there. We had all our departments close at hand.”
Costuming for the film was key. Hundreds of frocks had to be sourced to clothe the large cast. The art department was responsible for all the couture not worn by the actors, so it was particularly hectic for both the art and the costume departments.
“Somebody in Adelaide was going out of business, so Abbott and the Costume Designer Wendy Cork flew over and found a truck load of clothes. They got permission to buy and bring them back, which was fantastic, because we had to re-dress the mannequins five times; before the sales, during the sales, and after the sales. All those changes of frocks! It is very embedded in the script.”
“Then, when the dresses change at the end of the season, Lisa comes in looking for ‘the dress’, only to find it is gone. It is a beautiful, beautiful dress that she wants. I think the wardrobe department was so clever to make it and they dressed her perfectly.”
Beresford wanted to do the film in anamorphic. “Because the story is small and gentle, with a delicate nature,” says James. “We tend to take anamorphic films far more seriously. We wanted it to look entirely different to television. I used the oldest anamorphic lenses I could get from Panavision, the old E and C lenses. In fact, I asked for many of the lenses I’ve used before . They have my serial numbers,” he smiles.
James got hold of the lenses he’d previously used on Paradise Road (1997) and Double Jeopardy (1999). He chose to diffuse the entire film with black pro-mist filters and nets on some closeups. “This gave a ‘gentle glow’ to the faces and helped to degrade it slightly so it would better match the archival footage and give the movie a more ‘film-like’ look,” says James.
“We used two ARRI Alexa Mini cameras all the time. It is the only way we could get through the schedule. This is the shortest schedule I’ve ever shot, so even though the budgets and schedules were smaller, we still wanted to get a big look and not let the film suffer.”
“I like using the Alexa Minis. They were easy to move around and highly versatile. There was so much we could attach to them,” says James. “We chose an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Our cinematic process gave us an anamorphic output of 4:3.
Shooting in bright scenic locations such as the Megalong Valley near Katoomba and on Sydney Harbour meant James needed to dial back the brightness on occasion. This reduced the depth of field and he used ND filters, so the camera exposure never went above T 5.6. To monitor their work, James and Beresford used a pair of Sony 25″ OLED monitors from Panavision while shooting.
“Bruce works differently now with digital. In the past he would always stand next to the camera with a pair of Leica binoculars, so he could look at the actor’s eyes,” says James. “But now, he will come to the monitor and he’ll lean over my shoulder and he can see their eyes clearly on the monitors.
While much of the Ladies in Black story takes place in Goodes Department Store, a variety of other scenes were shot on location in small homes throughout Sydney. A one-story home in Ashfield served as a boarding house, the doctor’s surgery, Paddy’s bedroom, a hallway, Noni Hazelhurst’s home and the backyard party location.
The film’s demanding pace and budget created a space for James to exercise all his tricks of the trade, including having to cheat a 180-degree reverse shot of Shane Jacobsen, Lisa’s father, as he works at his Sydney Morning Herald typesetting job.
James understands the value of pre-production and careful planning. He breaks the script down beforehand, noting every detail in a folder that is placed on the camera cart. “It’s ‘the bible’ as we say. It’s got everything in it.” His notes include story, time of day, lighting gels, lens sizes, shot in sun or cloud, camera moves and Steadicam.
“I like to give the house a geography, like from morning to night as the sun or moon passes over the house. It doesn’t confuse the audience. People instinctively understand light geography,” James explains.
In one emotional scene, where Susie Porter talks to her daughter Lisa about her future, it was clear the actress would cry and James needed to capture the moment. “Porter gets up and turns towards the kitchen. Just as she says, ‘I had better get your father’s dinner,’ the tears roll down her cheeks on the cue word ‘dinner.’ She was perfect!” says James.
“For scenes like this, you need to light it in a sensitive, naturalistic way. That happens by thinking through the time of day and working out where the sun should be. That’s what motivated my reason for where the sun sets and how I knew I could stage it in the room weeks later. You want to see the tears trickle down the cheek. If she was facing away from the light source, we wouldn’t see them.”
Nutcote, where renowned Australian children’s author and illustrator May Gibbs lived for over forty-four years at Kurraba Point, Sydney, proved to be a challenging location for James. The house acted as the Mosman apartment for Magda’s character, played by Julia Ormond. It also appears as a venue for a multitude of intense character dialogs, lunches, dinners and the film’s final celebratory party scenes.
“We had a fantastic locations guy, Jeremy Peek,” says James. “He is just the best and unbelievable. How he found half of the places we worked at, I will never know. He got Nutcote for us. A feature film crew has never shot there before. We had to take every precaution to protect the home while we worked there.”
James continues, “Oh, but that location is just insane, It’s like climbing down a cliff face to get the gear in. It’s a National Trust home and you can’t swing a cat in there when it’s dressed to the nines to accommodate fifteen to twenty actors.”
“Having two cameras whirring away, while you can’t float walls or do anything is very limiting, but fortunately we blocked the scenes in ways designed to get the best performances,” he says.
With only six days to shoot at Nutcote, James had to light a wide variety of day and night scenes, making sure to capture glimpses of Sydney Harbour through the windows during daylight hours. For the big finale they had to bring the lights inside, but for the rest of the scenes all the lights were outside.
“We couldn’t go into the neighbour’s houses to place lights, so it was fiddly to create a beautifully lit space where we could pan 360 degrees around the room and not see any gear,” explains the cinematographer. “We went through rolls of Rosco scrim and gels, while we bounced light off reflectors, through side passages and around corners, when there was no room.”
“We wanted to see the views out the windows. We wanted to see the harbour outside all the time. Because we were using anamorphic lenses, it brings the backgrounds closer—so the water almost feels like it’s right outside the windows.” says James. “A bit of a trick.”
“The final part of the movie happens at Nutcote and the whole film hangs on those scenes. If that section didn’t work, then the whole film wouldn’t work. It was very, very important to get it right. And, I think we did it!”
“During post-production we needed to give it a little bit of a ‘look,’ but there wasn’t a big colour shift,” says James. “I did put a little more colour into the film. Digital can be a little bit bland and if I lit it again today, I would light it with a little bit more colour. I just felt that the digital didn’t quite grab the colour, particularly the subtle colours. I am not talking about disco colouring. I am talking about quarter oranges and quarter blues and the tonality of delicate sunrises and subtle sunsets.”
Largely, in the grading, it “was about darkening down some things, adjusting dynamic ranges and other small tweaks. For example, the weather in the Blue Mountains didn’t cooperate well with us. Yet despite the grey days, we made it look bright, sunny and humid.”
“For all our crew, this was a labour of love,” says James. “I couldn’t have been surrounded by a better group of filmmakers and I’m tremendously grateful to have worked with: Second Unit Director of Photography and B Camera Operator Richard Bradshaw, First Assistant A Camera Gerard Maher, First Assistant B Camera and Focus Puller Adrian Seffrin, Gaffer Reg Garside, Second Assistant A Camera Kristi Gilligan, A Camera and Steadicam Simon Harding, Second Assistant B Camera Inaki De Ubago, Digital Intermediate Technician Aleksei Vanamois, Key Grip David Nichols, Dolly Grip Brett McDowell and Best Boy Grant Wilson.”
Like all great artists, James is always analysing and critiquing his own work. “I was worried that it shouldn’t look too garish or too obvious, so I erred on the conservative. That’s probably the only thing I would change if I did it again.”
“Sony is a great distributor and have been exceptionally supportive of our work. I’m hopeful the film will be released outside Australia and appreciated by wider audiences,” says James. “I’m proud of my work with Bruce and hope my cinematography colleagues will get to see it. Perhaps at Camerimage one day!”
Velinda Wardell ACS is a cinematographer based in Sydney, winning numerous awards including two national Awards of Distinction from the Australian Cinematographers Society, and was accredited in 2008.
Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.