HBO Asia launches their new 1800s-set, original television series Grisse with Australian cinematographer Wade Muller HKSC along for the ride.
HBO Asia’s brand new original period drama Grisse, is an eight hour-long episode series set in the mid-1800s colonial period of the Dutch East Indies. The English language series chronicles the story of a group of unlikely individuals who lead a rebellion against a brutal governor. Suddenly they find themselves in control of a garrison town called Grisse. The story revolves around a number of unique characters, each from diverse backgrounds and creeds who unite for the chance to break the chains of tyranny and write their own destiny. “You’ve heard of spaghetti westerns,” says show creator Mike Wilaun, “this is a Nasi Goreng western.”
In Issue 80 of Australian Cinematographer Magazine, we covered director Mike Wiluan’s Buffalo Boys shot by Australian cinematographer John Radel ACS. Wiluan, who acts as writer and showrunner on Grisse, says that both Buffalo Boys and Grisse inhabit the same universe, as both were set in the same era, but are very different projects. Wilaun has again chosen to collaborate with key Australian talent, tapping director Tony Tilse (Underbelly) to helm six episodes and cinematographer Wade Muller HKSC (Escape and Evasion) to shoot all eight.
Muller explains only thing Buffalo Boys and Grisse have in common are the sets and costumes. “The scripts and cast are completely different for each project,” says the cinematographer. “I had always been interested in doing a period drama, and once I started reading the scripts and seeing artwork from the production design team… I was hooked.”
HBO Asia’s vice president of production, Kimberly James, had known Muller for many years when she contacted him to see if he was interested in working on the series with the Sydney-based director. “I was intrigued right away for two reasons: firstly, I think a period drama is quite an attractive genre for most cinematographers, and secondly it was the chance to work with Tilse,” explains Muller. “I almost worked with him on another project a few years earlier but unfortunately there was a date conflict, so it was nice for this project to come up. Luckily for me Tilse enjoys shooting a similar style to me by using wider lenses for close ups and use of backlighting. We felt the ‘close and wide’ gives the viewer a visceral connection to the characters.”
For the series, Wiluan spent six months studying literature on Gresik, an historical multi-ethnic city in what was formally Java (now Indonesia). “There was a Dutch base camp there,” Wilaun says. When I read this, characters immediately started popping out in my mind.” Given the time period and setting, production of Grisse is an Asian one, with actors from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, coming in to populate the series’ with colourful inhabitants.
Both Tilse and Muller are huge fans of ARRI’s Alexa cameras. On this project they chose to shoot with two Alexa Minis. “I feel the Alexa series offer the best digital highlight roll-off and can handle mixed lighting conditions better than any other digital camera on the market,” says Muller. “Most of the time we shot with two cameras, but stayed away from cross-shooting except for the few occasions where it didn’t compromise our lighting.”
Muller’s collaboration with the production design team on Grisse was fairly unusual as by the time the cinematographer came on board, production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet had already established a base from his earlier work on Buffalo Boys. “A lot of the studio backlot was ready to go and the colour palate was already in place,” he explains. “They’d built a bunch of new sets as well as a cave complex in the studio. A few other large sets had been constructed outside of the studio, in the countryside.”
Muller shot all eight episodes of Grisse, under three different directors, in under fifty days. “The schedule was tight and very ambitious,” he says. “On a lot of productions you can spend quite a bit of time waiting around. This was definitely not the case on this production. I would estimate seventy percent of the series was filmed on the backlot with the remaining either shot in the studios or on location.” Episodes were shot in order of location and cast availability. “Usually I would work with the same director for several days in a row, but sometimes I would be working with all three directors in a day!”
When speaking about his crew in the camera department, the cinematographer has the highest of praise. “Jakarta-based focus pullers Maliki Zulkarnain and Adhitya Rachman did an amazing work,” Muller says. “These guys were unbelievable at nailing every shot.” The crew had another Australian, Peter Stott, as B-Camera and Steadicam operator. “Stott is an incredible operator. We were very lucky to have him on the team.”
“I am really into hand-held and there was not too much in this series except for some action scenes, so I would get pretty excited on these days,” Muller says. “There was also a western-style gun drawing duel between two of our cast. This was definitely a bit of homage to Sergio Leone, which is definitely a highlight of the series for me.”
“Gaffer Yudi Anton knew right away the look we were wanting to achieve,” explains Muller. “We used a lot of candles and oil lanterns, both indoor and outdoor, usually supplemented by an array of Flickermaster units connected to various lamps between 25w to 2,000w. Most of these were fixed, but occasionally they would be swung on a boom if a character was walking through a building holding a lantern.”
One of the main exterior lighting challenges was to keep the light constant throughout the day, and to not be overbearingly bright. “We decided to run a huge array of silks the entire length of the backlot streets,” says Muller. The size of the combined silks was about 15m x 150m and the material was equal to a one stop silk.
“Our gaffer did a fantastic job rigging the overheard silk which worked on a wire system to make fast adjustment possible and to also easily remove as we got towards the end of the day to allow for more light,” Muller explains. “These overhead silks were then augmented by the production design team hanging large pieces of cloth between the buildings.”
There are minimal digital effects in Grisse other than some set extensions and adding a volcano and mountain ranges in the background of some wider shots. “Apart from that, there was only some computer-generated blood splatter and wire removal,” says Muller. “The explosions were all done for real by the special effects team.”
Muller always gets involved as much as possible in the grading process. “Because this was a television series as opposed to grading a feature, I approached the grade a little different as it’s hard to be available to sit for over a month of grading,” says Muller. The grade was done at Gravitate Post in Singapore by colorist Azman Mohamed. “I flew into Singapore initially to grade the first episode, then setup a system using the frame.io platform. This meant I could have correspondence with the colourist from anywhere in the world, and just make another trip towards then end of the grade to go through a bit of tweaking.”
For the look and feel of the series the pair looked at selected references, including Tulip Fever (2017, cinematography by Eigil Bryld DFF). “In the end we went with the desaturated, earthy look with some greens and reds slightly enhanced. We also introduced a bit of green in the blacks throughout the series.”
Looking back on what Muller set out to achieve on Grisse, “It would have been great to have more time in pre-production, but by the time I signed on I had just taken on a feature in Australia, reflects the cinematographer. “I only had a week on the backlot with Tilse and my gaffer initially to see what equipment was needed, and also to shoot some make up and Costume tests.” Muller then flew to the Gold Coast to shoot Escape and Evasion for director Storm Ashwood. “The day after we wrapped on the Gold Coast, I hit the ground running in Indonesia for the final couple of weeks pre-production on Grisse.”
Muller is currently shooting The Cave, directed by Tom Waller. “It depicts the fascinating true story of the Thai cave rescue. The film sets out to tell the stories of the unsung heroes behind the seventeen-day operation to save the Wild Boars boys’ soccer team, who were trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave, more than two miles inside the Earth,” says Muller. Some of the film’s lead cast is actually played by the real heroes.”
Wade Muller HKSC is an award-winning cinematographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong, China.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.