Cinematographer Simon Green shoots the micro-budget Life on Earth – by Simon Green
Keiran King and Emma Burnside approached me a couple of years back to be the cinematographer on a teaser for a feature project they were developing. It was to be a micro-budget genre film; a post apocalyptic thriller with horror elements in it.
Unusually Keiran and Emma were the producers, writers and actors. There hadn’t been a director assigned to the film yet, which came to be called Life on Earth: Severance. I hadn’t worked with King before, but I had been in discussions with him about a year earlier about another film that hadn’t got off the ground yet due to securing finances.
In the meantime, I had shot a short film called All You Can Be (2017) which, coincidently, Burnside had acted in as the lead. They must have been happy with the experience and results as they got in contact again for Life on Earth.
I was excited by the extensive visual language we could employ, to tell this kind of genre piece. At the time, Canon had just released the C700. I’ve always been impressed with the durability of Canon cameras and the cinematic quality of their images.
I approached Paul Stewart, Senior Manager at Canon Professional Business. Whilst he was interested in the project and wanted support it, he only had one of these cameras in the country at the time and needed to take around to show people. Canon ended up supporting us with a C300mk2 as our A-Camera and a C500 as our B-Camera.
We shot in C-Log2 so both cameras would match. Canon also supplied two zooms; a Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm T2.8 and a Canon CN-E 30-105mm T2.8. I was extremely happy with the cinematic look of this glass.
We were EF mounted because I wanted to use some of my Lensbabys on particular shots. I think of these Lensbabys as a poor mans shift-tilt. I’ve found them to be useful in either extreme violence or beauty. For our purposes it was the earlier.
Another extremely fortunate asset to the production was being able to secure sponsorship from Atomos. They supplied two Shogun Infernos whereby we were able to record in 4K ProRes. The stability of this codec helped for the grade and also by using their monitor for being able to see sharps.
King and Burnside quite liked the visual approach I made for the teaser, which was classic beauty back-lighting along with framing the actors as people challenged and dwarfed by nature.
The director, who came in quite late, ended up being Angelo Salamanca who was a gentleman and fine collaborator. It was demanding schedule and our crew was limited with no professional grips or gaffers. Salamanca spent his time focused on the performances and the emotional arch of the story, really giving me trust and freedom to approach the film visually how I saw fit.
I didn’t take that responsibility lightly, however I came up with an approach that I thought made the film feel bigger than what it was, which was essentially a two hander. What I could do was approach every scene stylistically differently.
My logic was as long as I was conscientious to a scene’s thematic, I could adopt any style as long as it was true to what it was about. For example, a scene which out rightly portrayed conflict might be shot hand-held, where a scene that involved conventional confrontation might involve a more conventional wide-track in, and then film standard mid shot coverage.
Given the micro budget of the film, I was extremely fortunate to have Vanessa Orzlowski as my first assistant camera. Orzlowski had just completed studying at university and my understanding was that she had spent her time assisting on as many short films as she could. This film was an extraordinary challenge for any assistant. Without her positivity, focus and technical support I would have been lost.
I had worked with Orzlowski a couple of times before, once on a short film and another time on a television commercial. I was crossing my fingers hoping she would be available and interested in this film.
My other collaborators were Ben Luck, who had assisted me on many other short films and commercials previously. I was able to ask him to come on to this film to step up to operate B-Camera. Often, I also had Josh Macaulay come in to operate B-Camera when Luck was unavailable. I was extremely fortunate to have them collaborate on this film.
There were four main locations a studio whose usage was sponsored by Horizon Films in St Kilda, an apartment in Port Melbourne, a private school that doubled as a research lab and a ‘clever’ property in Wantirna South in Melbourne. I say clever because it was the remote bush location for the film and whilst it was only a couple of acres it was quite close the Melbourne CBD and had many different kinds of bush ‘looks’, in what was such a small space. This was where we spent most of our time.
We were blessed with great weather throughout the shoot, especially for our location filming. We would start these days before first light, so we could classically use back lighting when the sun came up and then move inside to a tent or caravan, as the light became more over-head and less pleasing.
We got some glorious scenes on location there. This was not only because of the light but also because of the connection between the actors – who are a romantic couple in real life – and also their willingness as performers to go to some dark places.
An incredible asset to this film was the editor Hayley Miro. She has been Jill Bilcock’s assistant on many feature films and really understood that post is the third draft of the script. The second being the shoot and the first being the script itself.
Hayley actively engaged with the producers in shaping what she thought the story was and, as a result, we had a few pick-up days to fill out these additional scenes that were realised during post-production.
The colour grading was with my regular collaborator Thanassi Panagiotaras. He is an independent colourist whose suite is set up at the commercial production company Guilty’s headquarters in Melbourne. Having done so many filmic projects with Panagiotaras there is an immediate confidence and short hand that makes working with him a pleasure.
The director and producers are extremely happy with the results of the film. Making each scene stylistically different by using a distinctive camera technique seemed like a risky idea at the time, but in hindsight to me it feels like the only way to have gone.
We are used to so many visual styles in the multitudinous of ways in which we receive visual content these days. It’s the meaning or story of each moment that drives us to keep looking at it. Knowing that encourages me to have fun with the variety of photographic visual languages we can employ to tell our stories.
King and Burnside have a number of feature films in development, as does another director whom I have been working with. In the meantime, I enjoy the different challenges that commercials bring. Another day onset means another opportunity to learn. We’re so darn lucky to do what we do.
Simon Green is cinematographer well-known for his versatility and talent in adding extra visual impact to a film project.