The disappearance of a baby from a small coastal town in Australia is the catalyst for a journey into the disintegrating psychology of a young couple. Come behind-the-scenes on the production of BBC One’s outstanding new four-part miniseries The Cry, with cinematographer Sam Chiplin.
By Vanessa Abbott.
Alistair (Ewen Leslie) and Joanna (Jenna Coleman) are young parents who travel from Scotland to Australia to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter, against his Australian ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie). Along the drive from Melbourne to the town of Wilde Bay, about a four hour drive, their infant son goes missing.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Helen FitzGerald, the four-part BBC One Scottish and Australian co-production sees the mystery unravel and, under public scrutiny, a marriage collapse in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Cinematographer Sam Chiplin first heard of The Cry through Director Glendyn Ivin, whom he’d recently worked alongside on SBS miniseries Safe Harbour (2018), also starring Ewan Leslie. Ivin was in the final stages of post-production on Safe Harbour when he called Chiplin, excited about a new script he was reading.
“I was immediately drawn into the story,” says Chiplin, upon learning of the project. Scottish producers Claire Mundell and Bryan Kaczinsky had seen only the first episode of Safe Harbour, but immediately enlisted both Glendyn and Chiplin to shoot The Cry.
Discussions about camera and lenses began almost immediately. “I called Nic Godoy at Panavision in Sydney before I’d even been offered the job and began booking out specific lenses, knowing that they will be difficult to lock down,” says Chiplin. “Especially considering this was going to be a fifty-four day shoot scheduled across two countries. I’m quite ‘obsessive compulsive’ about my lenses.”
“ I’m quite ‘obsessive compulsive’ about my lenses. ”
“I booked the Panavision B, C, E, G and T Series Anamorphic lenses, as well as the Cooke Xtal Express for testing, and ended up hand picking different lenses from different sets based on specific characteristics that Ivin and I were looking for,” says Chiplin. “Ivin is a very visually intelligent director.”
“We wanted a very painterly and soft feel to the images, where highlights would bleed into shadows and pollute the contrast,” he says. “Like an old painting from the classic Dutch masters.” Chiplin certainly found that in the B and C Series Anamorphic choices.
“There’s a certain texture to those lenses that is very hard to find or recreate,” explains the cinematographer. “Each lens has a very distinct personality. Flawed and hard to control, but beautiful.” One drawback from using older glass is that resolution on the wider lenses may suffer, so Chiplin enlisted G Series 35mm and 40mm for the wider end of the spectrum.
“The sharper glass helped us render our wides a bit cleaner and gave us a different feel. Especially the flares! Not that the G Series are ‘sharp’ in the traditional sense. They are still quite a soft and painterly lens in my opinion.”
At this point during pre-production, the BBC had not yet approved the use of Anamorphic lenses, nor the 2:1 format they would be suggesting. “I wanted to get a head start on proceedings and to be fully prepared for the meetings with the BBC in London that were to follow,” says Chiplin. “After presenting tests and following a number of technical discussions, the Anamorphic format was fully embraced by the BBC and the 2:1 aspect ratio was approved.”
As for a camera decision, both Ivin and Chiplin both love the ARRI Alexa Studio XT, which has a mechanical shutter. “It’s a big camera,” says Chiplin, “but I personally believe the shutter makes a big difference to the way the image is rendered onto the sensor. The motion of the image feels slightly different to the electronic shutter of the other Alexas. Not necessarily better; simply softer, and ‘warmer’.”
“One of the downsides to the Alexa Studio is that you are capped at 48 frames-per-second on the 4:3 sensor, so we carried a Panavision Primo 35mm and 50mm. We would put the camera into 16:9 sensor mode on the rare occasion that we would want to shoot at a higher frame rate, such as up to 120 frames-per-second.”
The cinematographer explains he felt very little resistance from producers regarding the camera package. Chiplin and Producer Bryan Kaczinsky both have good relationships with Panavision and Chiplin says Kaczinsky worked very hard with Panavision London, Panavision Melbourne and Panavision Sydney to make it all work within the budget.
“I am very, very grateful for Nic Godoy from Panavision Sydney. He has been incredibly helpful and generous with his time over the course of not only this production but numerous productions I have been involved in,” says Chiplin. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say ‘no’. He is a natural-born filmmaker, a problem solver and always works hard to find the best possible gear available to him.”
Production Designer Mark Leese (This Is England) was highly collaborative during the very early stages of pre-production. “We would visit locations together and constantly discuss the world we were creating,” says Chiplin. “In particular regarding our colour palette, which is an aspect of production that Ivin and I control very closely.”
“We spoke early about keeping our colours soft, muted and subtle; like old oil paintings from artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Vilhelm Hammershøi. Classical beauty was something that we strived for, not only to complement the story, but to offset the dark subject matter that we were dealing with.”
“ Classical beauty was something that we strived for, not only to complement the story, but to offset the dark subject matter that we were dealing with. ”
Chiplin created an eighty-page ‘visual manifesto’ that acted as a source of visual inspiration and a guide for the crew. Full of hundreds of visual references from films and photographers, it gave the creative team a solid visual grounding to work with. “This was particularly important as we were working with two separate crew across two different countries,” he says. “It was an excellent visual touchstone for everyone involved.”
Aside from numerous photographers featured in Chiplin’s manifesto, Czech television series Wasteland (2016, cinematography by Stepán Kucera) was a strong reference. As were the films Leviathan (2014, cinematography by Mikhail Krichman RGC) and Loveless (2017, cinematography also by Mikhail Krichman RGC) both from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev.
“These had the softness and beauty we were looking for; coupled with dark, challenging and emotional material. To keep an audience engaged in challenging material is a very subtle dance and personally, I thought they all handled it perfectly.”
Chiplin and Ivin decided to shoot The Cry with one camera. This put them under a slightly elevated time pressure than if they shot the miniseries with two or more cameras. “The Australian shoot, in particular, felt very tight because the shoot was split at five weeks in each country,” he says. “There was a bit more story taking place inside Australia.”
“Occasionally we would bring in Second Unit to help on some of the heavier days. This was run by cinematographer Max Walter and we also occasionally employed a Steadicam.”
Ninety-percent of The Cry was shot on location, with the remaining ten-percent scheduled across a number of studios. “There are a few scenes set on a plane that we shot in an incredible plane set in Maidenhead, a large market town in Berkshire, England. The set up had removable seats and walls, as well as panel controlled LED lighting,” says Chiplin. “I usually tense up when I see plane scenes in a script, but we had a very positive experience there.”
“Did everything go as planned? Absolutely not.” says Chiplin. “With location work, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But it always feels real, and as long as the story is being honoured, everything else around it will click.”
Chiplin worked with two separate crews across Scotland and Australia on The Cry. In Australia, he worked with First Assistant Camera Cameron Gaze, who Chiplin had known for some time. “Gaze is a phenomenal focus puller,” says the cinematographer.
“Glendyn and I would often encourage the crew to start shooting at very little notice to capture a certain emotion or tone from an actor, so very frequently, Gaze would be pulling sharps on soft anamorphic lenses, wide open with no marks and didn’t complain once. Well, not to me anyway.”
In Scotland, he worked with a young First Assistant Camera named Chris Maxwell. “He’d come up quickly and I now know why,” says Chiplin. “Maxwell was a gun focus puller who ran the team incredibly smoothly. I was nervous being dropped into an unknown land and rolling the dice on a ‘local’ focus puller, but my fears were quickly extinguished.”
Post-production on The Cry was completed in Glasgow, however Ivin and Chiplin wanted to use Sydney-based Colourist Olivier Fontenay (Top of the Lake, Safe Harbour, The Kettering Incident). “We developed a system where Fontenay and I would grade from Sydney, while Glendyn and the producers would monitor from Glasgow,” Chiplin explains.
“Usually, Fontenay and I would do almost a full days work, then send the project to Glasgow. They would open it up and we would jump on Skype to go through everything shot by shot. This wasn’t without its… difficulties… however, ultimately, we got to work with a close collaborator of ours so it made the whole process worth it.”
“Unusually in this series, my favourite scenes are not overly visual, but rather actor driven scenes that touched me emotionally,” says Chiplin. “I have a deep respect for actors and enjoy being close to them and strengthening my relationship with them; learning how to best help them portray the story is one of the biggest gifts of being a cinematographer in my opinion. If the story and the emotion doesn’t work then pretty pictures won’t get you very far.”
“ If the story and the emotion doesn’t work then pretty pictures won’t get you very far. ”
“Early and clear communication is key to my collaboration with any director,” explains Chiplin. “Allowing them to see my vision for the pictures, working with them to discover which areas they respond to, and which areas aren’t working for them personally.”
Ivin and Chiplin are incredibly lucky in that they see the world very similarly. “Often, we need not even discuss an idea because we both know exactly what each other are thinking. In that respect, achieving the overall directorial vision and satisfying my own perspective as a photographer was intertwined.”
“Personally,” Chiplin concludes, “I think we have created a show that is very close to what I imagined. A tense, beautiful and haunting story that explores the complexity of human relationships.”
“I’m currently in Western Australia,” he says, “shooting a film with Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) called Dirt Music, which is an adaptation of a Tim Winton novel. It’s very hot over here.”
Sam Chiplinis Sydney-based cinematographer who’s additional credits include ‘Safe Harbour’ and ‘The Lines’, an independent US feature film for director Kiku Ohe which was theatrically released in 2018.