A beautiful and contemporary re-telling of Colin Thiele’s classic Australian tale, Storm Boy sees award-winning cinematographer Bruce Young ACS behind the lens.
By James Cunningham.
Colin Thiele’s novella Storm Boy, which tells the story of a young boy and his extraordinary friendship with an orphaned pelican on South Australia’s remote Coorong National Park, has enchanted and moved Australians for over half a century.
Producers Matthew Street and Michael Boughen had both seen the iconic 1976 film adaptation – directed by Henri Safran and shot by cinematographer Geoff Burton ACS – and strongly recalled an emotional connection they had with it. “I was probably the age of Storm Boy at the time, maybe a little younger,” says Street, “and the film was dealing with life issues that were relatable to me as a kid, but to adults as well.” The producers recognised that the themes of Thiele’s 1963 book are just as relevant, and in some ways more so, today.
In 2019, however, Storm Boy would not be a remake of the 1976 film. As such, Boughen and Street decided to remain true to Thiele’s original setting of the book; the late 1950s.
Director Shawn Seet (The Code) and acclaimed cinematographer Bruce Young ACS (The Secret River) had been working together for years before their collaboration on Storm Boy. “This film, I feel, is part of a great creative journey and friendship,” explains Young. “If you look at Seet’s work he has great range as a director.” Although Young had not previously worked with producers Michael Boughen and Mathew Street, the pair very much wanted Seet to have his choice of cinematographer and fully backed the decision to bring Young on board.
The team wanted to shoot the film in South Australia, which would require support from the South Australian Government through the South Australian Film Corporation, as well as from Screen Australia. “Both organisations were incredibly supportive, both financially and in our early days of working through the difficulties of financing the film,” says Boughen.
In November 2016, Michael Boughen contacted South Australia-based location manager Mark Evans to begin conversations about Storm Boy, and discuss the need to conduct extensive site surveys once the film was financed. From March 2017, once the film was in pre-production, Evans travelled up and down the Coorong and as far north as Goolwa and as far south as Robe and Beachport, exploring every facet of the Coorong National Park and adjacent areas, to enable hero locations to be selected.
Before setting out, Evans spoke with Seet by phone and by Skype, to understand what the director was seeing in his mind and to understand how he wanted to highlight the region. “It took a long time to get the geography to work for the film, but we found the main location at Godfreys Landing then tweaked the story to fit that location,” explains Evans.
When choosing cameras for Storm Boy, “There was some discussion about shooting on a 4K camera and that really related to the possibility, I think, of a presale to an internet platform,” says the film’s cinematographer. “I was always keen on using the ARRI Alexa Mini, as were Seet and the producers. So that’s what we went with.”
“The ARRIs have a wonderful, naturalistic feel,” says Young. “Perfect for what I was intending to do on the film. We shot raw files and cropped the image to 2.35:1 so that we could use spherical lenses. I had a full set of Master Primes and Optimo Zooms for both cameras.”
To showcase these incredible locations, as well as the characters, Seet and Young decided to partly shoot with an 18mm lens… a very short lens. “Young and I wanted a shooting style that would showcase the landscape but also allow us to get close enough to the characters to forge a real emotional connection with them,” explains the director. “What the 18mm lens enabled us to do was to capture extreme close ups on Storm Boy (Fin Little) or the pelicans, but still see the whole landscape so the characters were always figures within the landscape.”
Seet and Young also used drones to shoot some scenes, particularly as it gave a crucial ‘bird’s eye’ point-of-view. “We were shooting in the actual Coorong, we weren’t fudging it on some other beach,” says Seet. We could get up high with the drones and look all the way down Ninety Mile Beach, the actual beach the story is set on, and see everything in relationship. It was accurate and fantastic.”
Young did take some inspiration from the cinematography of the original film. “Burton’s work really captures the feel of the environment, and I loved that about the original film,” he says. “I also thought his photography inside the shack which Hide-Away Tom (Peter Cummins) and Storm Boy (Greg Rowe) lived was good, lots of contrast. I really wanted the landscape to be something the audience could feel. Thematically it’s a big part of the movie.”
“Working with production designer Melinda Doring and her team in pre-production was fantastic,” says Young. “Doring is meticulous and her design of the shack is a testament to her talent.” Working collaboratively she understood the naturalistic look Young was working to achieve. “We could shoot every part of the shack as it was so authentic. It was a real joy.”
The director talked at length with Young about visual references. One was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC) and another was The Revenant (2015, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC). Seet had still images from both these films in his production office. “Although those films were very different from ours, the look of them are great references,” says Young. “Both create a strong sense of place and feature interesting colour palettes.”
Although the team didn’t work from storyboards, a series was created for the storm sequence as this helped inform the wider crew about the various visual elements that would be needed. “Seet and myself have worked so much together that we are able to communicate in a very shorthand manner,” says Young. “As one might expect, we have similar taste so are able to decide quickly on how to approach scenes in regards to coverage.”
“Once we decided on our location,” says Evans, “it dawned on me that we had to get every single thing across to the peninsula, which is only accessible by boat. The Coorong is also tidal, so getting the sets and infrastructure across, and then a crew of at least eighty people over there every day, would take a lot of organising.” Also, because the filmmakers wanted to shoot in the coldest, wettest part of the year in keeping with the script and desired aesthetics, difficult conditions arose for the crew.
“There were complications for the construction and scenic teams having to work in difficult weather conditions, Doring explains. It was hard, but very worthwhile. The location that we chose was so unique, with so much natural beauty, incredibly cinematic qualities. A lot of other locations we could have chosen would not have given us those important aspects.”
“Having the hut location built on the dunes of the Coorong National Park gives the film an incredible authenticity,” says Young. But this did mean that the cinematographer and his gaffer, Andrew Robertson, had to make careful choices and plan effectively what they could have on location. They used a relatively small generator set on the back of a 4WD that could travel by barge and be driven onto the dunes. “We would hide it as close as we could to the set, but there was still a long cable run over the sand which Robertson would have to factor in to the equation when working out how much power we could draw.”
Day interiors in the hut required the most amount of lighting. “We had decided on two M18s, a 4k and a 575 as well as an 800 Jorer,” says Young. “In addition to these we had a couple of Skypanels and a few smaller LED lamps.” The team also adapted a kerosene lamp to have a LED globe which was regularly used, even during day scenes.
Young worked very hard to get his day interiors feeling natural. “The challenge was to keep the levels inside high enough so we can see the exterior,” explains Young, who needed to create large soft sources so it felt like ambient light reaching into the shack. “It was critical to me to get this right. Inside the shack there is very little fill-light. There is a lot of contrast. It was a lot of work given the physical environment we had, however I feel pretty happy with what we achieved out there.”
“Every morning we’d get on a boat, and we’d get there just on dawn and it was like going through an airlock,” recalls the director. “We would travel into that world. At the end of the day, we’d ride back, with the birds flying over and the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen. It didn’t care about us filming there, which is one of the things I wanted to get across, that nature doesn’t care about humans. The storm will come when it comes, the wind will come up when it comes, and you have to live with that. It was tricky, but it was full of character.”
Pelicans play a big part in Storm Boy. For the filmmakers, there were two aspects of the pelicans in the film that were of paramount importance; to create the majority of the pelican performances in camera with real birds, and to establish a tangible connection between these real pelicans and Finn Little, the actor playing young Storm Boy. To achieve this vision, the producers knew they would need to start some months before pre-production and before production financing; taking the risk to bring on animal trainers to find, raise and train the pelicans.
“The bulk of the action involving pelicans is live,” says Young. “There were five birds altogether. They had been trained from when they hatched. It was amazing what the bird handlers were able to get them to do.” Of course, there are a few pelicans in the film created by the CGI team, however very few considering how detailed and specific the action sequences involving them are. “It is another element that helps make the film feel authentic and visceral.”
There were challenges, however, in shooting scenes that featured specific bird action. “Generally what I did,” explains Young, “was put the long Optimo Zoom on both cameras so we could get a variety of shots without interrupting the action. This approach worked particularly well in the scene where Storm Boy plays hide-and-seek with one of the pelicans.”
Cast and crew were surprised every day by the birds and their improvisations. Specific actions had been built into the script, but the filmmakers developed what they called the ‘flexible thinking’ principle; that they would be open to what the birds did. This philosophy would carry through other aspects of the production.
“We had to adapt the script to their performances. Their performances, however, were amazing,” says Boughen. “We were only imagining what we might get on the page, but these are personalities, these are characters and they brought so much more to it. People will I’m sure assume we used CGI pelicans, and we did in a very few limited specific moments, but basically everything you see was real and it was spectacular.”
Seet continues, “We filmed a scene in which Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) talks to young Storm Boy, and the pelicans were not really interested in the discussion. Every time we went to shoot the scene, the pelicans would wander off. Someone said ‘forget about the dialogue, just go into the dance’. As soon as Fingerbone Bill started dancing, it was like the pelicans had read the script. They turned, wandered over and stood in a row. Watching him. It was magic.”
“The camera team I worked with were absolutely fantastic,” says Young. B-Camera’s first assistant Jules Wurm, who lives in South Australia, and Young had worked together years before when Young was a second-unit cinematographer on Farscape (2002). Pim Kulk, who was the A-Camera’s focus puller, had done lots of work with cinematographer prior to Storm Boy. “Both of them did great work; lots of coverage is hand-held and we never put marks down which makes it challenging for them.”
“Andrew ‘AJ’ Johnson operated the second camera and Steadicam,” says Young. “Although we hadn’t worked together we immediately got along. He is a remarkable Steadicam operator. His rhythm and timing are highly intuitive.”
“My key crew members were supported by an outstanding camera team that did an excellent job at keeping the equipment in good order in difficult conditions,” explains Young. I believe that a crew need to be responsive to what the director is trying to do, even when it challenges.”
Young’s favourite scene in the film is when Storm Boy arrives with the baby pelicans. He races in and out of the shack as he organises food and a nest for them. “It is a great example of when the director wants to cover a scene and as a cinematographer I have to fill the shack with ambient light,” explains Young. “The boy runs outside in the same shot so I had to change the stop while I operated and be able to have the lights outside so the camera doesn’t see them when he runs out. It’s a great scene dramatically, and a perfect example of the conceptual approach to the cinematography.”
Marty Pepper was the colourist on Storm Boy. “He did a great job,” says Young. “We had a grading suite setup in the theatre in Adelaide. An incredible luxury for me.”
The changing environmental elements meant that on a number of scenes the lighting conditions were different between some shots. No more than the storm sequence that was shot over a number of days and in different locations. “We had a good amount of time in the grade which is so important because it gives you the time to review and really get the consistency of the look spot on,” Young explains.
The film had its challenges, but something very special was created by a connected team, from South Australia and interstate, who shared a passion for and connection to the story. Producer Michael Boughen, South Australian by birth, lived his first 23 years in the state, but hadn’t been to the Coorong until securing the adaptation rights to Storm Boy.
“I was stunned by the beauty of the place, the grandeur and the majesty of it,” producer Michael Boughen says. “I’m very proud of the performances, I’m very proud of the film. We had a wonderful crew who were very engaged with it from day one. There wasn’t a single person that didn’t believe in what we were doing.”
“There’s an underlying friction which is a good fiction. There are certain rules that you have to go with in the Coorong, but also a freedom. You go along with what nature throws at you, don’t go against it. It’s some beautiful country. There’s something about South Australia, every time we visit, we have a feeling of being looked after.”
The producers were proud of the way the film was developed, produced, and the messages it will convey to Australian and international audiences, which remain true to the spirit of Thiele’s story. “If Colin Thiele was alive today,” says Matthew Street, “I hope he would give the film his blessing.”
Bruce Young ACS is a Gold Tripod-winning cinematographer, known for his work on quality Australian dramas and films.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.