Cinematographer John Radel ACS shoots Singapore’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards

After years in exile, brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso), return to Dutch colonial Java to avenge the death of their Sultan father. 19th-century western Buffalo Boys, shot by cinematographer John Radel ACS and directed by Mike Wiluan, has been selected as Singapore’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.

By James Cunningham.

Behind-the-scenes shooting ‘Buffalo Boys’ – PHOTO Supplied

John Radel ACS is a multi-award-winning cinematographer working in both Australia and Asia. His credits include the acclaimed Dance of the Dragon (2008, directed by Max Mannix), After the Dark (2013, directed by John Huddles), as well as the wonderful Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (2006, directed by Gillian Armstrong) among many other television and film projects.

Radel had been collaborating with the director Mike Wiluan (Serangoon Road, Crazy Rich Asians) in Asia for many years while Wiluan was producing films through his company Infinite Studios. Based in Indonesia and Singapore, Wiluan is an extremely talented and successful producer.  

Buffalo Boys would be Wiluan’s first outing as a feature film director, something he has been very passionate to pursue for some time. He sent Radel the script and shortly after asked if he would be interested in shooting it. “Once I read the script,” explains Radel, “I immediately realised we would have something special. An extremely unique concept of an Asian action western, amongst the backdrop of Indonesia’s brutal history during the Dutch occupation. I knew both emotionally and visually this could be amazing.

Behind-the-scenes shooting ‘Buffalo Boys’ – PHOTO Supplied

Buffalo Boys is an action/western set in the 1800s. It’s the story of two young brothers who were smuggled out of Java (now Indonesia) by an uncle during Dutch occupation. The boys grow up as cowboys in the wild west of America, working the train lines, returning to take revenge on the Dutch who brutally murdered their parents. 

I could feel the cinematography needed to be both sensitive to the period, modern enough to give the film a relevant/current audience and fluid enough to give the action scenes the edge and unrelenting emotion they needed to pull the audience into the moment,” says the cinematographer. “Although the film is set against the backdrop of real events, the Director Mike Wiluan wanted to make sure the film was most of all entertaining, moving and cinematic.

During pre-production, Radel and Wiluan would reference images from the films of David Lean and Quentin Tarantino, to films like Unforgiven (1992, cinematography by John Newton Green ASC). “Wiluan most of all wanted the film to entertain,” says Radel. “It was not to be a ‘historical drama’. We storyboarded most of the action scenes and worked closely with our Thai stunt teams for the fight scenes. For the dramatic scenes I focused on the humanity of the moment. We had to work very fast, it was a fantastic collaboration.

Behind-the-scenes shooting ‘Buffalo Boys’ – PHOTO Supplied

Radel had been based in Asia for the past fifteen years, and had been lucky enough to work with some of the best producers and creative artists in that region. So when it came to Buffalo Boys, he was extremely honoured to be able to creatively collaborate with Production Designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet and Costume Designer Preeyanan Suwannathda. Probably some of the best designers from Thailand. 

Also from Thailand,” he says, “we had an amazing action stunt team with Kazu Patrick Tang and Wiraphon Phumatfon, who have been responsible for all the action films coming out of Thailand.  Mixed with the best Indonesian talent we really had a melting pot of cultures building a very strong creative action packed team.

Radel wanted to give Buffalo Boys a very modern feel, but at the same time he wanted the audience to know and feel deep down that this was a big screen western. “I have always loved the look of Cooke Lenses from previous films I had shot,” Radel says. “For this film I chose the Cooke Anamorphic lenses to give the film some extra depth. We filmed very shallow so I could feel and see the textures in the costumes, isolate the characters from their harsh environments, guide the audience emotionally. 

A scene from the film ‘Buffalo Boys’ – DOP John Radel ACS, PHOTO Supplied

They also had to be very lightweight for the action and fight scenes, so Radel’s crew worked a lot with the ARRI Alexa Mini, on Cable cams, black arm on quad bikes, Ronin, hand-held, dollies and jimmy jibs. “However we could put the audience in the middle of an action sequence we did it,” he says. The crew had an ARRI XR and a Phantom for certain scenes, and to enhance some of the brutal aftermath montages or dramatic fights on waterfalls. 

While Radel had a fairly modern approach with the camera, he contrasted this with a very soft single source lighting approach for the warm atmosphere of the film. “There were no lighting fixtures in those days, so all the light is motivated by fire or lamps which helped me create a very warm soft isolating world for our characters. Unable to escape this prison they’re trapped in,” he says.

With Sawatchaiyamet on board as Production Designer and Suwannathda as Costume Designer, Radel began very early in the process working towards a very earthy cowboy western toned look and feel, referencing old images from the era, paintings, films. “We talked a lot about layering costumes and sets, always giving depth in every frame,” he explains. “Being both authentic yet at the same time allowing for a larger than life approach that would entertain audiences.

Behind-the-scenes shooting ‘Buffalo Boys’ – PHOTO Supplied

Half of the shoot was on location throughout Indonesia and the other half was filmed at the Infinite Studios backlot in Batam, Indonesia. “This has two sound stages, one being a 30,000 sq/ft stage, plus there is a massive backlot where the main town was built,” says Radel. “The studio and backlot were fantastic, especially for staging a lot of the action scenes, explosions and gun fights. It really is a great place to work and collaborate. 

The backlot allowed Radel’s Indonesian Gaffer Yudi Anton to build a moveable scrim over the town, which the crew would simply slide to where we were shooting a scene. “The light was very harsh during the day in this region, so we would shoot our masters in the morning and afternoon,” he says. “Then for the rest of the day pull over the scrim.” Although that may sound easy, it was a lot of work and the weather would sometimes make it difficult. But Radel knew with long scenes being staged in the street they needed a solution to keep the soft light approach to the film. “It was worth it,” he says.

Radel explains he was lucky enough to be able to bring with him a camera team he has worked with in Asia for many years.My best friend and amazing Australian Camera Operator Peter Stott is a gentleman and an artist. Backed up by my Indonesian Focus Pullers Aditya Rachman and Maliki Zulkarnain, Second Assistant Habib Bolqiah, and the great Indonesian B-Camera Operator Handri Sujarwo.

Behind-the-scenes shooting ‘Buffalo Boys’ – PHOTO Supplied

Radel says he  pushed these guys ‘to the limit’, shooting anamorphic wide open with no rehearsals, in waterfall fights sequences, horse chases, sword fights and moving trains. With only forty-eight shooting days, the film’s First Assistant Director was the very talented, fellow Australian, Andy Howard. “They all did an amazing job,” he says.

Radel’s relationship with Wiluan was also beneficial to filming. “He and I have known each other for many years, so we have a friendship and a trust in each other that was extremely valuable when it came to collaborating visually,” says Radel. “I wanted him, on his first film, to be able to really focus on the cast.

From the very beginning of post-production, Radel collaborated very closely with Imagica in Malaysia and with the film’s Post-Production Supervisor, Christian Cortez. “I like the film to look as close to the final product everyday on the shoot,” he explains. “From the monitors, to the rushes, to the offline edit. 

A scene from the film ‘Buffalo Boys’ – DOP John Radel ACS, PHOTO Supplied

After shooting tests, Radel sat down with the film’s Colourist Nikul Pakdeechad and the pair created Look-Up Tables (LUTs) to set the look from beginning to end. “This was invaluable,” says Radel. “I was able to input the LUTs to all the cameras and our onset DIT team for offline rushes. Once it came to the final grade it was very easy. We used the LUTs as the base and made minor adjustments.” Radel finds this process keeps cast and crew quite motivated, knowing the look and feel of the film and with no surprises along the post-production pathway.

There is a sequence that I love in this film,” explains Radel. “It’s after the family home has been burnt to the ground and our lead actor, Ario Bayu, walks out in slow motion raising his hands as the ashes slowly land… intercut with a slow motion sequence of the village being attacked. We intercut between Ario and the Drost character (Daniel Adnan). Both on different sides of the war, both feeling loss and regret, it’s quite a powerful scene, very moving, I kept the camera very loose and let the actors play it out and the emotion is very raw.

Looking back, Radel says he really values the collaboration with everyone involved in Buffalo Boys. “The look, feel and tone of the film was born naturally and organically from the script and the performances.” He concludes by saying. “There are always things I wish we had more time to spend on, but the pace of the schedule did create an energy that is reflected in the film which gives it a feeling of pure entertainment.

John Radel ACS is a multi award-winning producer and cinematographer.

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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