Set within in the intensely secretive world of intelligence and the top-secret US/Australia joint defence facility in central Australia, ABC/Netflix spy-thriller Pine Gap, from director Mat King and cinematographer Geoffrey Hall ACS, delves into the famously and sometimes contentiously strong alliance between our two countries.
Interview by Tracey Cole.
AC – How did you first get involved with Pine Gap?
GH – Pine Gap is an original series created by showrunner Greg Haddrick and co-writer Felicity Packard. The series was produced by Packard along with Lisa Scott for production company Screentime. I first worked with Scott on the six-part ABC series Anzac Girls (2014), and have since gone on to do two Stan series of Wolf Creek (2016-2017) with Screentime.
AC – What were Netflix’s requirements regarding final output format, and what contributed to you deciding what cameras to shoot with, both aesthetic and financial?
GH – I would normally shoot with ARRI camera’s however Netflix Original show’s require full 4K capture. Netflix provides a list of cameras that can be used. For Pine Gap I chose to work with Canon C700 and C300 cameras as I knew they would be stable and reliable. The cameras work very well for me and I was thrilled with the results.
AC – During pre-production on Pine Gap, what was your collaboration like with the production design team? Can you talk about the ‘look’ you were working toward?
GH – During pre-production the director, Mat King, and I worked closely with Production Designer Scott Bird. Bird had a huge challenge on his hands to create the world of Pine Gap. Being a ‘secret’, high-security base, very few people know what the actual facility looks like. There are only a handful of photos of the facility’s exterior.
Bird needed to build a number of large sets that would play for the facility’s interiors and also find a workable exterior that could be manipulated with 3D post effects to add the Pine Gap ‘golf balls’ (radomes that house satellite dishes and communications equipment).
We had a number of large green screen shots that had to be planned in advance and working with Bird on the interior practical lighting was important as all the sets would have full ceilings. I had worked with Bird a few years earlier on Anzac Girls and knew he would take care of what I needed in the sets.
One of the office sets had a forty-meter photograph as a backdrop. Tim Crosby from Rising Sun Pictures did a wonderful job of getting the lighting and perspective right on the photograph. He stitched something like fifty individual photos together to make the backdrop and the finished product was great.
AC – Where there any sequences that called for multiple cameras, or a second unit?
GH – The central control room set in Pine Gap took up the entire main stage in the Adelaide studios. The set had a practical second story, lots of glass partitions and corridors. We had one huge data projector screen and over one hundred monitors. This was where the main characters would play out various scenes from their workstations. Effectively, up to ten people having conversations across the room.
For these scenes I chose to run three and four cameras as I find that in large spaces the use of multiple cameras is an effective way to get the coverage needed. We had a small Second Unit in Alice Springs to get Drone and drive by shots.
AC – What was your shooting schedule like on Pine Gap? Did you encounter any particular challenges filming in South Australia or the Northern territory?
GH – Pine Gap had a realistic shooting schedule of fifty days for the six episodes. We spent seven weeks in Adelaide and three weeks in Alice Springs.
The toughest days by far were the main set days where we were doing large page-count, dialogue driven scenes. We would be shooting around nine minutes a day, so having three and four cameras really helped. Adelaide worked out brilliantly for us as the studio was perfect.
The real positive was our main exterior set for the Pine Gap facility which was the recently closed down General Motors Holden factory. The plant was built around the same time as real Pine Gap and is a similar shape. With careful use of this location, combined with CGI, I think we were able to construct a very convincing looking Pine Gap. Thankfully, Pine Gap is in Alice Springs as it is a really beautiful part of Australia to have as a backdrop. The vistas really give the production some scope.
AC – When thinking about your own crew in the camera department, how would you describe your working relationship with them?
GH – I had a great camera team in Adelaide, and on Pine Gap I was keen to get Maxx Corkindale as my B-Camera Operator. It’s often hard to find the right chemistry with a B Camera Operator but Corkindale is a great cinematographer in his own right. I can pretty much say make it good, which he always does.
I had worked with the rest of the camera team on other projects and they are all highly-skilled. I was very lucky to have a balanced team of men and women which I find creates a better on set dynamic.
AC – Were there any creative demands which needed to be met?
GH – I would have to say that the biggest challenge on Pine Gap was the heat and logistics of Alice Springs. We had a number of scenes that were set high on the hills around Alice. The problem you find in and around Alice Springs is that there are no roads to get you to the top of many hills. To get the great vistas, the crew had to carry all the gear by hand to the top. On one location that was about an hour round trip. By the time you get there its hot and windy and the cast had some fairly emotional scenes to do so every one has to focus and just get on with it. It was worth it in the end, and you do appreciate that cold beer at the end of those days.
AC – Was there a specific moment of filming you recall as a personal creative high? Why?
GH – I feel we all shine when we think outside of the box and it’s often the thing that sets directors apart. One day, on the main operations floor set, we had a two-hand scene that went for three and a half pages. Mat King came up with the idea, why don’t we get them to walk across the floor and out to one of the corridors then walk though all the set corridors and come back into the set and say good bye. I did the shot as a continuous move on a Ronin Rig and it worked a treat. That kind of thing is great fun as the pages of dialogue changed from an across the table chat to a shot that showed off the whole place.
In a practical sense, if they had moved three paces to their left from where their walk started they would have ended up in the same place with out going through all the corridors, but that’s filmmaking!
On another day we had a location fall through which was a large data centre with banks and banks of main frames, so at the last minute we had to come up with a solution. We had a small main frame set as part of the command centre. I changed the colour of the lighting and had the art department source me some large partial mirrors, I shot through one of the partial mirrors and then put the other mirror at the end of the set. The result was like when you get into a mirrored lift all of a sudden the space looks a hundred times bigger than it is; in this case because the camera is behind a partial mirror you get the effect without seeing the camera.
AC – How do you impart your own unique vision as cinematographer on a project?
GH – After getting familiar with the scripts and meeting with the producers my vision will come together with the director. If the director and cinematographer have cross purposes then you will be looking at style over content.
The director of Pine Gap, Mat King, wanted to work with a framing style that is used well in the show Mr Robot (2015-2017, cinematography by Tod Campbell). This framing style has very few close ups and often has the actors set uncomfortably in a beautifully composed frame. I really liked this idea as it worked by adding weight to the locations.
For example, if two actors were walking down one of the office corridors and they were framed conventionally then the location might look good but would be unimportant to the screen. By skewing the frame and making the location the dominant part of the frame it will over the course of the show take on a new meaning.
We went with this style and I feel it worked brilliantly. You are constantly aware that the characters are cogs in a much bigger machine and that what ever is going on in their life is second to the beast that they work for.
AC – How involved were you in post-production on Pine Gap? What was your approach to colour grading on the series?
GH – Getting to the grades on television series is often difficult as they are usually done one at a time as the completion dates move. Fortunately, I was able to get to most of the grades and I have a pretty good short hand with Marty Pepper at Kojo who handled the grade.
Most of the style in the show is to do with composition, so the grade was really about taking colour away as the Outback can get pretty intense. King and I wanted to stay away from an over saturated look.
AC – Finally, what are you working on next?
GH – I am currently shooting a new Stan series called Bloom. It’s a very spiritual, surreal show with a great cast and it’s been great to work with directors John Curran and again Mat King. I’m shooting this one 8K anamorphic, and loving it.
Tracey Cole is an experienced freelance writer and ongoing contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.