Living Universe

Australian cinematographer Frank Flick ACS joins in an interstellar search for life amongst the stars in Living Universe – by James Cunningham

Science soared into distant space recently in Living Universe, an Australian documentary tackling that behemoth of a question: are we alone in the universe? Voiced by everyone’s favourite scientist, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, along with Australian astrophysicist Professor Tamara Davis, Living Universe will be released as a four-part television series with part of the material also used for a ‘stand-alone’ cinema-release film. The film is screening nationally through Event Cinemas.

A co-production between Australian director Alex Barry and French filmmaker Vincent Amouroux, the documentary delves into the mystery of exoplanets – real planets capable of supporting complex life, of which around 3,700 have been discovered in just the past two decades. 

Eight years in the making, the film is not science fiction, but rather science ‘faction’. Living Universe blends cinematography, and state of the art visual effects with storytelling anchored in the latest scientific research from best minds in the field of space exploration, planetary science and astrobiology.

Australian cinematographer Frank Flick ACS was approached by Producer Aline Jacques from Essential Media, who he had worked with on the documentary The Great Australian Race Riot (2015). Flick filmed most of the interviews you see in the film, as well as scenes and story supporting material, shooting on a large number of locations in California, Louisiana, Ontario, British Columbia, Washington State, Massachusetts, New York State and Chile.

Steve Squyres, Professor of Physical Sciences at NASA, at Chile's Atacama Desert in 'Living Universe' - DOP Frank Flick ACS
Steve Squyres, Professor of Physical Sciences at NASA, at Chile’s Atacama Desert in ‘Living Universe’ – DOP Frank Flick ACS

I was fascinated with the subject matter and the choice of shooting locations,” says Flick. “I was quite excited when they offered the job to me.” Simultaneously there was a French crew shooting in Europe, and in Iceland. The Iceland shoot included getting most background plates for the CGI-heavy shots. Apart from having a brief exchange of thoughts with French Director Vincent Amouroux, Flick was not involved in that part of the shoot.

I collaborated on my trips with Australian Director Richard Smith,” explains Flick “who is also a scientist and had impressively detailed knowledge of the subject matter.” Over a period of five months the cinematographer and his team made three trips to the United States, and also travelled to Chile. “It ended up being a twelve-week shoot for us.

The shooting schedule, locations and small crew size called for a compact and light weight approach to the camera-kit. Another consideration was the volume of data that needed to be handled in post. 

Before I came on board, Executive Producer Marcus Gillezeau had done camera tests on Sony’s FS7 and F55 cameras. Those were evaluated by Two Dogs, the company that handled Post-Production in Australia,” Flick explains. “We agreed that the FS7’s internal XAVC-I recording codec at 250Mbps in UHD and 4:2:2 / 10-bit would be sufficient for our A-Camera material.

As a B-camera the team approved a Sony A7sII, recording in XAVC-S codec at 100Mbps in UHD. The crew shot in S-Log3 which Flick knew would give them enough latitude for flexibility in the grade.  This was needed especially since a fair amount of material was shot without knowing where it would be used in the edit and what kind of look needed to be applied in the final grade,” says Flick. They also took a couple of GoPro4s, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III for timelapse and a DJI Phantom 4 drone which became very useful for the Chile shoot. 

Flick opted for a Canon EF-Mount for his two main cameras, meaning he could take a wide range of compact and lightweight lenses, namely a full Set of Canon Cine Primes and Canon L-Series Zooms. “Needless to say that the mix of mentioned cameras always meant a certain degree of quality compromise for a cinema release film,” says Flick. “With all else to be considered, I had to accept that.

Most of the research facilities allowed the cinematographer very little time in terms of planning and setting up. Especially at NASA, where Flick was working with a lot of restrictions. “You have to move quickly,” he says.

I shot most of the interviews on Primes, on the 35 or 50mm,” says Flick. “I wanted the backgrounds to be recognisable, but not shown with too much detail, so we always shot at wider apertures for a reduced depth-of-field. 

In terms of a technical crew alongside Flick there was only Assistant Camera Marcus de Giorgio and Sound Recordist Leo Sullivan. “I had never worked before with de Giorgio, but was thrilled to have him,” Flick says. “I had worked before with Sullivan and suggested him for the job. He is a battle-proven team-player, never phased by anything and always happy to help out with other tasks.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a scene from 'Living Universe' - DOP Frank Flick ACS
The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, a scene from ‘Living Universe’ – DOP Frank Flick ACS

More than half of the shooting schedule was travel and the team covered a large amount of locations that varied greatly in terms of accessibility. “There was regular re-packing from flight mode into production mode, often swapping Pelican cases for backpacks and reducing the kit as needed,” explains Flick.

Our fabulous Production Coordinators, Cassie Williams and Gemma Atkinson, did a great job dealing with the ever-repeating challenge of finding a suitable camera vehicle and local equipment suppliers, that could complement our kit when needed.

Flick describes a couple of locations that were physically demanding, but any discomfort was short lived. “One of them was in the Canadian Rockies where we had to split the crew. Our Director Richard Smith flew with de Giorgio into the Burgess Shale to cover an interview with geologist Robert Gaines,” he says. Despite it being late summer they got surprised by a snow storm. “One of the generous scientists up there supplied de Giorgio with much needed warmer clothes to make the overnight tent-stay bearable.

Another challenging location for the crew was the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), an observatory located in Chile’s Atacama Desert at 5000m above sea level. “Before the trip we all had to pass a high-altitude health test. When we shot at ALMA, I could see why,” says Flick. 

Running around with gear and trying to shoot as much as possible within a stipulated three-hour window can become testing in ‘thin air’. We carried oxygen bottles which prevented us from running out of puff. Besides the oxygen issue, howling winds and freezing temperatures added some pain.

Flick’s input during post-production was limited to sending colour grading notes and reference frames. “Along with most cinematographers I like to attend the grade,” explains Flick, “but for various reasons this is not always possible.” The script was evolving all through the shoot and even deep into post-production. Smith left the project during editing and Barry took over as writer and director.

I did not know at all what to expect when I went into the first screening,” says Flick. “All I knew was that producers Chris Hilton, Aline Jacques and their team had done a remarkable job to get the television finished and Executive Producer Gillezeau likewise with the feature film.

Living Universe succeeds in taking audiences on a fascinating journey and telling a truly inspiring story. “I believe Executive Producer Marcus Gillezeau sees high school students as the film’s primary target audience, and I agree with that,” Flick says. “It would be great if Living Universe could be shown in schools around Australia.

Frank Flick ACS has been working as a cinematographer since 2001, and has shot for high-profile international clients such as L’Oréal, Levi’s, Sony, Pepsi, Toyota, Hyundai, Etihad Airways, Panasonic, Samsung and many more. 

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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