Nicola Daley ACS behind the lens on the heart-warming film ‘Pin Cushion’

A mother hopes that a move to a new town will provide a better life for both herself and her awkward daughter. Nicola Daley ACS is behind the lens on the heart-warming yet complex mother-daughter study Pin Cushion.

By Harry Stranger and Meredith Emmanuel.

Director Deborah Haywood described the ideal cinematographer for her project, Pin Cushion, to longtime friend and fellow director Alex Kirkland. Kirkland’s immediate response was, “that sounds just like Nicola Daley!” Not long after, Haywood interviewed Daley.

Shooting the feature film Pin Cushion would be a breakthrough for Daley, who moved to the United Kingdom from Sydney with the goal of shifting her career from documentary to drama. “When I relocated it was a lot of hard work,” says Daley. “I cold-emailed and called a heap of people. I attended events and networked. It took me a year to find my feet. I was good, because in Australia everyone knew me for documentaries rather than features.

It also cemented two things for the cinematographer; that networking was the most important thing she could do for her career, and the importance of resilience. “No one at film school teaches you resilience. You always get knocked back from stuff. You just have to pick yourself up and move along,” explains Daley.

Iona (Lily Newmark) in 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
Iona (Lily Newmark) in ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

Before the interview with Haywood, the cinematographer read the Pin Cushion script multiple times and Daley says she found it “incredibly touching”. The story is about a mother, Lyn (Joanna Scanlan), and her daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) who move to a new town in the United Kingdom, hoping to start their lives afresh. However, things don’t go as planned and in contrast to Iona’s daydreams, the three girls she yearns to befriend turn out to be bullies. 

Lyn doesn’t fare better either; her hunchbacked figure turns her into the target of neighbours, willing to take advantage of her kindness and her friendly, naive disposition. This leaves her in much the same position as her daughter, but without a loving caring mother to come home to.

I was bullied at school, so I guess on a deep level I connected with the script,” says Daley. “The story has two very strong, three-dimensional characters, which I love. The whole production was different in some way. When we started shooting, so many of the crew confided they’d been bullied in school. Newmark, the young actress who played Iona, had also been bullied and the Director used that to bring out in her performance.

A scene from 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
A scene from the film ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

Further preparing for her interview with the Director, the cinematographer composed a visual pitch document of images she felt were relevant to the film. She and Haywood then discussed Daley’s thoughts and ideas for the script. “It’s so well written, Haywood is a writer with a tone that is hard to describe,” says Daley. “It’s dark but funny, it brilliantly treads a fine line between the two.

From doing documentaries, I know Haywood has lived a full and great life, so she draws upon that, explains Daley. “She sees the world in a slanted way, full of humour and pathos. She came to writing later in her life.” Even though the cinematographer felt like it was a shot in the dark, the two connected and she was offered the job there and then.

Pre-production on Pin Cushion lasted three weeks. During that period, Daley sought to catch up on the five years of love and effort Haywood had poured into her project thus far. “I wanted to get a feel of what Haywood was like as a director and her vision for the film, I wanted to get into her mindset for the film,” Daley says.

A scene from the film 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
A scene from the film ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

When I work with a writer or director such as Haywood,” explains Daley, “I can really dive deep into their thoughts and feelings on the characters. But because they have lived with them for so long and written so many drafts of the film, some character elements are just gospel in their minds. I have to unravel and find all those details.

To figure out each other’s style of working and thought processes, the two watched many films and poured over a variety of photographers. In particular, the bright colours and neons of William Eggleston’s work became vital to Daley’s take on Pin Cushion. “Eggleston twists colours under mixed lighting and I wanted to take inspiration from that and mess with the colour spectrum in our film,” she says. “Because the characters are marginalised and pushed to the edges of society, I wanted to convey this through the use and journey of colour throughout the visual landscape of the film.

Colours become wilder and pushed harder towards the end of the film, driving home the character’s emotional turmoil. “In a fantasy sequence when Iona gets in the bath, the lavender gels I used complemented incredibly her pale translucent skin and gave her a gorgeous ‘otherworldly’ feeling.

Iona (Lily Newmark) and Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) in 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
Iona (Lily Newmark) and Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) in ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

Framing also plays an important role in character development within the world of Pin Cushion. Daley played with character placement throughout Lyn and Iona’s story, they start off closer together and then she pushed them closer and closer to the edge of the frame as they increasingly grew apart and became outcasts in the town they had moved to. 

A film that influenced both Haywood and Daley’s approach to Pin Cushion’s aesthetic is Carrie (1976, cinematography by Mario Tosi). Thanks to that film, Daley decided to use ARRI’s Super Baltar prime lenses with the Alexa XT Plus, shot at 1:85 spherical ratio in ProRes 4444 XQ. The fairy tale stories of Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel were also key influences.

I did extensive lens testing before filming and I loved the look of the recently re-housed Altars from ARRI Rental UK. They were creamy and warm and those lenses combined with Iona’s beautiful skin made her bloom,” says Daley.

Iona (Lily Newmark) in a scene from 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
Iona (Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

Haywood wanted to give the film a dreamy, fairytale aesthetic, to deliver its superficially cheery, yet terrible message. This is evident in the disparity between Iona’s innocent daydreams of acceptance, which are jarringly contrasted with her reality. Daley decided to take the idea of ‘fairytale’ and really drive it in to the visual language of the film.

The film has several fantasy sequences and I wanted to differentiate these from the reality of her life, but also tie them together so that all the fantasy sequences had a common thread,” she says. “The common thread is an aquamarine gel that I use in the lighting. It ties the sequences together by giving them a pastel gauziness. I also used star filters, which are quite 1970s really! I love them. They are not very fashionable now, but they were perfect for this hazy fairytale look. 

Other scenes also required the use of filters to create a sense of emotion and here Daley turned to film colour correction filters, using them as straight colour filters, “I love taking tools we use in cinematography and twisting them, using them for other applications than what they were originally intended.” In a corner shop, Daley used an 80A filter to give the perfect icy blue feel. For scenes with an orange glow, Daley used an 85 filter.

I love taking tools we use in cinematography and twisting them, using them for other applications than what they were originally intended.

In scenes where Iona begins to explore her sexuality, Daley needed a look that would toe-the-line between reality and fantasy. “I had previously used this piece of old chandelier glass in some music videos to great effect and thought it’d be perfect for those moments in the film.” explains Daley.

The multiple images of Iona made by the fragmentation of the chandelier serve so many story elements; who Iona is, and who she’s becoming as she moves away from the innocence of childhood and wrenches herself away from under her mother’s wing.

Now armed with a well-established look, the duo went scouting in preparation for the twenty-six day shoot. Although Haywood had not explicitly stated so in the script, the movie was set and shot in her hometown of Swadlincote in the British Midlands. 

Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from 'Pin Cushion' - DOP Nicola Daley ACS
Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

When Haywood was writing the film she always imagined the film set in her hometown,” says Daley. “Originally I’m from about forty-five minutes away in Derbyshire, so we talked a lot about the look of that part of Britain. We connected because we’d both grown up in that part of the world.

Daley lived, studied and worked in Sydney for fifteen of her formative years, allowing the cinematographer to approach small-town England with fresh eyes. “When I came back to live in the UK, I saw my hometown almost through the eyes of a tourist,” she says. “Everything is made of red brick, terraced houses sitting right up to the pavements with no front lawns. These things really struck me, even though I had grown up there.

With these motifs in mind, the duo were careful to avoid the stereotypical ‘gritty-reality’ portrayal of Northern England, as it would play against the carefully-crafted fantasy look they had envisioned. Daley laughs, “We wanted to stay right away from that ‘grimy kitchen sink’ look!” In no small part, Daley’s bright colour palette along with the production designs of Francesca Massariol helped them steer well away from the cliché.

A scene from the film ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

It was also, in part, meant to give the film an other-worldly sense of time and place, happening in no particular era or specific location. The team had to spend a painstaking amount of time working out shots to avoid cars, or other contemporary items that would lend a time-period to the film.

In perhaps a world first, the shoot encountered few major obstacles. “As we shot in October and November, we had some British weather issues and so one day we were completely rained out,” Daley says. “Apart from that there were no major obstacles… other than always present tight budget and time constraints.

The crew, however, did find one shot [SPOILER ALERT: where Lyn’s character hangs herself] exceptionally difficult, as it required a more considered approach to get it right. “We couldn’t shoot in the real location, as it was far too dangerous and there wasn’t enough support in the ceiling for the safety equipment in the house we were filming in,” explains Daley. “We had to shoot the scene as a combination of real location, green screen and a fake matching wall to the real location. Because we were in Derbyshire there were no studios, so the old church hall had to double as a green screen studio.

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Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

The design department did an amazing job, not only with the whole film’s production design, but in matching these walls in Lyn’s final scene. I don’t think many people can tell it’s a green screen, which is great. I have had quite a bit of experience with VFX shooting and matching, so it was good to employ some of those skills here and problem solve how to shoot the scene safely for everyone involved.

Alongside the cinematographer’s visual effects skills, Pin Cushion utilised many of Daley’s other skills as a run-and-gun documentary cinematographer. Trained in shooting observational films, Daley mentally edited Pin Cushion in her head as she went, so when the crew were under time constraints she could get viable shots happening quickly, an ability she says is essential for indie or low-budget filmmaking, when time and money is tight. 

My focus puller Jason Henwood always has to be on his toes too, as it means I also like to film surreptitiously,” says Daley. “Often, I’ll just whisper to him that I am rolling. I did this when we had young girls on set. In the gym when the girls were playing on the apparatus, I just shot loads of natural footage of them.

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Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

Many of the girls hadn’t worked on camera before, I wanted to remove all that pressure of when the slate goes ‘crack’ and everyone is staring at them expecting a ‘performance.’ When you capture them naturally, their reactions are marvellously unaffected and you can capture some extraordinarily genuine moments.

This thinking, in part, is also due to Daley’s wealth of experience as a cinematographer. Having shot some thirty-two short films, the range and style of stories Daley has told through her career means she has countless tricks up her sleeve. 

When I started out, short films were a great place to begin because every situation, every location you encounter, every story you tell is different,” says Daley. “They really challenge you to think about your lighting and to come at it from a story point of view.

Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

For the same reasons, I love shooting commercials and music videos, because I’m challenged to tell a complete story in a short amount of time,” explains Daley. “I came from a technical background and then went to AFTRS to study cinematography. I studied and learnt so many story skills there from the brilliant Jan Kenny ACS, who was Head of Cinematography then. 

For young women considering a career in cinematography, I would advise you to travel as much as you can. Look up from your phone and look at the world, and shoot as much as you can; practice, volunteer and learn by doing. It’s the best way.

Thanks to the well-defined fairytale look Daley and Haywood developed early in pre-production, post-production simply required a quick enhancing and balance for the grade, a process Daley excels in given her training as an analog film-based cinematographer.

For young women considering a career in cinematography, I would advise you to travel as much as you can.”

The Colourist on Pin Cushion is the brilliant John Claude who graded Under the Skin (2013, cinematography by Daniel Landin BSC) for director Jonathan Glazer. “He was absolutely first-class to work with,” says Daley. “We did the DI at Dirty Looks in London which has a great theatrical grading set up. I believe I shoot the film the way I want it to look on screen, so then we only need to make very minor adjustments in post-production.

The most meaningful experience Daley gained from the shoot was the sense of camaraderie shared by the crew, who were all able to relate to the film’s themes and messaging. “As the crew worked together you would hear so many of us saying, ‘I got bullied at school’, ‘me too’ – it really resonated with so many of us on set,” she says.

Daley believes Pin Cushion connects with people because it shows adults can be bullied too. It’s not always just in the schoolyard, as we would normally assume. The film takes a three-dimensional look at bullying, seeking to humanise the people behind the actions.

Iona (played by Lily Newmark) in a scene from ‘Pin Cushion’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

There’s one scene where the main bully at school lets down her guard and shows her vulnerability to Iona. It made me think a lot about the masks we all hide behind every day,” says Daley.

It was one of those shoots where when the wrap party came around, everyone was terribly sad it was over,” remembers Daley.

The film drew us deeply together. I think you can see, when you watch the film, that it was made with everyone contributing 110%, and that it’s been made with tremendous passion and creativity.

Nicola Daley ACS has lensed numerous documentaries, including the recent Netflix portrait of shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. In 2014, Daley was the eighth woman to be accredited into the Australian Society of Cinematographers.

Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

Harry Stranger is a photographer and public relations manager based on the NSW East Coast, as well as a current Journalism, Media Arts and Production student at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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