When a Nigerian boy becomes displaced by war he is forced to integrate into Australian society. We sit down for a conversation with cinematographer Calum Stewart about shooting the breathtaking new film Akoni for writer/director Genna Chanelle Hayes.
Interview by James Cunningham.
AC – Can you describe Akoni in your own words?
CS – Akoni probably sits across a number of genres, but at its heart it’s a love story. The lead character is a young Nigerian man called Akoni (Kit Esuroso), who is forced to flee his homeland. Displaced and living in Australia, he struggles to make ends meet and finds himself living on the street. He inadvertently meets a local girl who is dealing with her own very different tragedy. The two form a reluctant and unlikely bond, finding solace and healing in each other as events unfold around them.
AC – How did you initially get involved with this project?
CS – The director, Genna Chanelle Hayes, initially got in touch after viewing some of my previous work and asked if I would be willing to assist with mocking up visuals in order to put together a short teaser. Through our collaboration on that, as well as some proceeding commercial projects, we formed a great bond and creative understanding. I was subsequently asked if I would be interested in stepping in as cinematographer for the feature. I knew it would be a massive undertaking, having never shot a narrative feature before, but I was very keen to do so.
AC – What were your initial thoughts when you read the script?
CS – I really liked the rawness and originality of the script and was excited about the possible directions we could take the film, visually. We had discussed the limitations of a smaller budget at length and I felt strongly that, while it was an ambitious script, it had a narrative that could flourish with the resources that were available to us. Furthermore, as with all the director’s previous work, the script dealt with difficult themes, had a lot of heart and felt fresh and original. All of which are a fantastic starting point for visual storytelling.
AC – How did you choose your equipment?
CS – Camera and lens was one area I hoped to be able to give ourselves a head start. We felt the narrative naturally lent itself to hand-held and being able to move the camera organically with the characters was key; allowing the audience to be in their world and to journey with them wherever possible. We also needed something that wouldn’t leave us stranded in tough conditions, and was light enough to move quickly with a small crew. The schedule was going to be tight, particularly so in Africa where resources were going to be somewhat limited.
Coming from a documentary background the ARRI Amira was immediately top of my wish list. It’s a camera that is beautifully balanced shooting off-the-shoulder for long periods of time, and also has a very forgiving sensor. I knew I would be able to push the image pretty hard and be confident we were not sacrificing detail in key areas.
We shot everything at ARRI’s internally ‘up-ressed’ 4K UHD (internal processing that turns an image from the 3.2k sensor into a ‘4K UHD’ image, meaning it is technically not true 4K UHD) with a 2.35:1 ratio using ARRI log C and a ProRes 442HQ codec. Ideally I would have liked to have shot with a larger codec to retain the additional detail for post-production, but budget largely dictated the amount of data we could handle at 4K UHD. Shooting 2K at 4444HQ was discussed, and this would have been my preference had 4K not been a requirement.
We sourced a set of Canon Cinema prime lenses to pair with the Amira, giving us a T1.5 if we needed it. I opted for two sets of filtration to push our two distinct looks and to take the edge off of the C-NEs. These being Hollywood Black Magic for our Africa block and Glimmerglass in Australia at lesser strengths where I needed a more subtle effect, particularly with blooming of the highlights.
There was a bit of a delay before we could undertake the Africa photography, so for access reasons we ended up shooting this with the Alexa Mini. The Mini, custom rigged, felt nicely balanced and I found it to be a more than suitable replacement for the Amira.
AC – What was your collaboration like with the production design team?
CS – During pre-production, I worked closely with the talented Carlo Crescini and his production design team. We worked to develop the lead characters spaces individually, and create two very distinct looks that would print incredibly well. It was also key to maintain the rawness and authenticity of the locations, to stay true to our characters worlds, which was a balancing act at times and meant locations were very carefully selected to allow this, and to ensure they could also be adapted to meet our lighting and camera requirements.
AC – What ‘look’ were you working toward? Did you have any visual references?
CS – Genna’s work always has strong ties to the natural world and as this script being no different, we were instinctively drawn to the work of Terrence Malick. There were two disparate worlds we wanted to create in this picture, which we also needed to link visually so that the juxtaposition between the two wasn’t overly distracting for an audience. A visceral connection to nature and landscape gave us the opportunity to do this, as well as the use of colour, recurring themes and compositionally linking the characters.
AC – How did you approach shooting in different parts of the word, different continents?
CS – I’m always excited at the prospect of shooting in obscure or unusual places. I feel blessed that we work in an industry that takes us to all these weird and wonderful locations and allows us to experience walks of life we would normally only ever get to observe from the outside. That said shooting in a foreign country is not without its challenges and this project was no exception. After much research and deliberation by the production team, it was decided that the regions of Nigeria where we initially wanted to film would not be safe for a foreign crew; that a very similar look could be achieved in and around Tamale in the Northern regions of Ghana where security and crew safety could be managed more effectively.
For me, any time spent on the ground prior to shooting in a foreign environment is worth its weight in gold. Other than time to prepare, adjusting to climate – it was consistently above forty degrees in Ghana – and diet change is important. When you’re working with a small crew, someone getting sick can wreak havoc on the schedule. Also, having time to gel with local crew prior to the first day together can make a world of difference.
With these types of locations it seems that no matter how much research you do you never fully know what you are dealing with until you are on the ground and can experience it first hand.
AC – Can you tell us about your crew?
CS – I can’t speak highly enough of my crew on this project. We asked a lot of them in frequently difficult conditions, my focus pullers had a particularly tough time. Where possible I lit to a T2 or T2.8 but often I would be shooting wide open, off-the-shoulder in low-light conditions with little in the way of camera rehearsals. Thankfully, both Paul Hoad (First Assistant Camera, Australia) and Ed Massey (First Assistant Camera, Ghana) had the skills and experience to adapt quickly on the fly and find those sharps regardless of what I threw at them.
I want the camera department to feel like a collaborative one and for that you need guys and girls who aren’t afraid to speak up – within reason! – when they see something that I might have overlooked. We’re all working towards the same goal and if someone has a great idea then I want to hear it. Being ‘in the trenches’ together can really help bring you closer together, though I’m sure the opposite is also true.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in Akoni? Why?
CS – It seems that like most cinematographers I talk to, I tend to obsess over images I’m displeased with rather than the ones I like. I do feel, however, a particular affinity to some of the sequences we captured in Africa.
One that stands out is a key scene early in the film where Akoni, concerned for the safety of his family, is traveling back to his village on a bus. This is a dangerous time and route for him to be traveling so the journey is a tense one. We shot the scene with twenty locals from the surrounding area acting as extras, all speaking in a variety of dialects with little or no acting experience. We also had chickens and goats to wrangle and a bus that threatened to break down at any second, as its predecessors had done on their way to location that morning which had put us massively behind on time.
We managed to block and push through the coverage without too many issues but we came out the other side feeling exhausted, a little jaded and not entirely sure we had captured the scene exactly as we had intended. However, any reservations I had disappeared when I saw it in the cut, there is a beautiful rawness and authenticity to it that, for me, encapsulates everything we set out to achieve with this film.
AC – Looking back on what you set out to achieve with the film, with hindsight, what might you have done differently?
CS – As this was my first narrative feature, the learning curve was a steep one. It was tough going at times and there are many lessons I learned along the way, but I feel I am a much more rounded and efficient filmmaker for the experience.
The most important lesson I think I learned is that there is no such thing as too much pre-production time. I’m sure some people may disagree but our pre-production saved us on many occasions and got us through what was at times, a pretty grueling schedule.
Further to that, you can never underestimate the importance of keeping your crew happy and firing on all cylinders because when you are under the pump and everything is falling apart at the seams, you need people who are willing to go that extra mile for you to get things back on track.
This was a challenging shoot at times and availability meant I didn’t have the consistency across the camera department that I would have liked. But every single member of crew I worked with on this were outstanding and I couldn’t have done it without them.
AC – What are you working on next?
CS – I’m just about to go into the grade on a long-form documentary project I have been working on since 2013. I’m excited to finally see that come to fruition. Other than that there is the usual spattering of commercial and short form projects, and I have a couple of feature documentaries kicking off in the next few months, one of which will be shooting in India and Australia, the other in Kenya. I also hope to have the opportunity to delve deeper into the narrative world and continue on this exhaustive and rewarding journey of learning and honing my craft.
Calum Stewart is a skilled cinematographer and camera operator with a wealth of industry experience gained on a diverse range of national and international projects.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.