Written and directed by Luke Sullivan and shot by cinematographer Ryan Barry-Cotter, the unique Reflections in the Dust is the chronicle of a relationship between a paranoid schizophrenic clown and his blind daughter.
We speak with both the director and cinematographer of this highly-original, independent Australian feature film.
By James Cunningham.
An unspoken event has caused civilisation to crumble. Survivors cluster in the wilderness. Among them is a blind girl (Sarah Houbolt), who struggles to survive, with her father (Robin Royce Queree), a paranoid schizophrenic clown.
As she dreams of what may exist beyond the wasteland, her father is increasingly consumed by fear, paranoia and hysteria. Reflections in the Dust is a powerful allegory for the epidemic of violence against women in Australia.
“I wanted audiences to experience the entrapment, claustrophobia, confusion and fear of those suffering domestic violence,” says Director Luke Sullivan. “In many tragic circumstances the question ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ is asked. The answer to that is very complex but is often based around entrapment and confusion.”
A mixture of factual interviews in vibrant colour, juxtaposed against the fictitious story in stark black and white, was intended to leave audiences unable to distinguish between reality and fiction. “I wanted to convey the feeling of disorientation often experienced by women suffering at the hands of an abuser,” continues Sullivan. “Claustrophobia conveyed by the camera’s extreme, unwavering and literally in your face hand-held close ups.”
Sullivan had seen some of the work of cinematographer Ryan Barry-Cotter prior to starting pre-production and sent an unsolicited yet welcome email asking if he might consider shooting the film. “Sullivan thought my style and approach to visuals would be suited to the film,” Barry-Cotter explains. “Occasionally, you get lucky.”
“In my search for a cinematographer I googled and watched heaps of show reels,” says Sullivan. “Ryan’s avant-garde style caught my eye.” The clip that sold the director on Barry-Cotter’s talent was actually a wedding video he’d shot. “It was so cinematic and beautiful it felt like the love was engulfing you. That’s exactly what I wanted, not a wedding video, but someone who could transform the ordinary into an intoxicating, cinematic world.”
Once Barry-Cotter was secured as cinematographer, one of the first visual references that director Sullivan presented with was the stills photography of Sam Hiscox. “A raw, documentary style of portraiture,” he says. “The other major influence was the work of director Andrea Arnold OBE (Red Road, Fish Tank, American Honey), particularly her short film Wasp (2003, cinematography Robbie Ryan BSC). The camera had to be ‘a witness’.”
In their very first meeting Sullivan and Barry-Cotter walked around the location at Manly Dam, a heritage-listed former dam near Manly Vale, New South Wales. The pair talked about a range of cinematic influences, “not so much in terms of ‘look’ but in terms of mood and shooting philosophy,” says the cinematographer.
They both love Terrence Malick and the approach he used for Tree of Life (2011, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC). The film had a minimum budget and only had eight days to shoot. “We knew they would have to be fast and flexible,” says Barry-Cotter. “To create an environment on location that our actors could use and have the camera just follow them.”
Barry-Cotter had been working mostly in the beauty and fashion world, as well as exterior broadcast television up to this point in his career, and Sullivan would often encourage his cinematographer to be ‘more wild’ with his camera. “I had to fight my instincts on that,” he says.
“I don’t think I understood how clever Sullivan was early in the shoot. I thought all these close-ups and abstract shots would never add up,” Barry-Cotter says. “The film is really a culmination of intense scenes. I had no idea how they would come together when I shot them, but I fell into a rhythm between the director and the actors.”
As Reflections in the Dust was entirely daytime exteriors on a tight schedule, Barry-Cotter’s goal with his choice of camera was to get the most dynamic range and post-production flexibility available on their budget. “Obviously budget was a huge factor!” he says.
“Another key factor to consider was how the camera rendered motion, as the film was to be shot entirely handheld and Sullivan wanted some really wild moves,” he explains. “I wanted something that was comfortable and easy to operate too.”
The team did camera tests on location with the lead actor Robin Royce Queree in makeup. “I tested the Sony F5 and the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K,” he says. “I found the Blackmagic to be much closer to the look we wanted. I shot RAW 3:1 and rated it at 400 on location because I didn’t want to underexpose the sensor.”
Lens wise, Barry-Cotter maintained the use of three lenses; 24mm, 35mm and 50mm Samyang Cine Primes. “Probably the best, cheap lenses ever made,” he says. “Generally, I tried to shoot at T2-3 but the extra stop came in handy when the days went long.”
In one scene Barry-Cotter was convinced the footage would be unusable as the sky was almost dark and the actors were lit only by fire. “As far as my photography is concerned I was really proud of the fire scene,” he says. “It was a crazy moment to shoot. The sun was gone and I didn’t even know if the sensor could handle the light. It turned out amazingly well on the screen. Huge respect to what Blackmagic are doing.”
Both director Sullivan and first assistant director Giovanni De Santolo were very accommodating to Barry-Cotter in terms of a shooting schedule. The small crew would shoot all their wider sequences by the water at opportune times of the day, spending the middle of the day shooting close-ups or scenes deeper in the bush where light could be broken up.
“The schedule was very tight and the location was pretty unforgiving,” Barry-Cotter says. “The only shelter was a fifteen minute hike away so we had tarps and pelican cases at the ready for the equipment. I brought to location large vacuum bags, cutting them out to house the camera and viewfinder.”
“The shooting days were really gruelling too,” says Sullivan. “Twelve and fourteen hour days, forty degree heat and Barry-Cotter with the camera on his shoulder. I knew our cinematographer was going to need strength, but he brought with him some super human stuff. I can’t thank him enough.”
“In a small production like ours you really become a family,” Barry-Cotter says. “It’s really hard physically and mentally to perform, so we relied on each other to keep pushing on. I wish I had a photo of my boots from the shoot.”
Barry-Cotter had by his side as first assistant camera, Alex Nyssan, who he says was young and keen. After the first morning of the shoot the cinematographer decided against continuing to use the wireless follow focus. “Our lead actress, Sarah Houbolt, was around five-feet tall so I had to hold the camera in some awkward positions,” he explains. “I wound up pulling focus on the lens myself for the majority of the shoot.”
Nyssan had another job that clashed with the second half of the Reflections in the Dust shoot, meaning that first assistant camera duties fell to Ryan Lee. “Lee was initially on the crew as our data wrangler, but he stepped up,” Barry-Cotter explains. “He was running cards, pulling focus, keeping the split up, putting up scrims, keeping everyone safe and loving it.” Lee is shooting some himself now and Barry-Cotter hopes to work with him again in the future.
One afternoon when cast and crew were shooting in the upper reaches of Manly Dam, Barry-Cotter was getting his close shots when he started to sink in the mud, camera on shoulder. “I was on the other side of the creek,” explains director Luke Sullivan. As he calmly began asking for help. The only people near him were the actors Sarah Houboult and Aldo Fedato. “Lucky he had the strength to hold the camera above his head just long enough for me to get over and grab it, otherwise that could have been a costly bloody disaster.”
Post-production was completed at Roar Digital in Melbourne with Charlie Ellis as colourist. Ellis and I did a lot of tedious experimentation. “Not only was I looking to get this grainy, gritty image but I also wanted to have a feeling that the audience was looking into a world they shouldn’t be, a private world,” says Sullivan.
As cinematographer, Barry-Cotter had no involvement in the post-production process on the film. “It was pretty well always my plan to have the story in black and white,” says the director. “We shot in colour so we had a choice. It was a really hard final call to make because the colour footage was visually beautiful, but l knew the story had to be grainy and gritty to get that authenticity.”
The main thing Barry-Cotter learnt from his experience shooting Reflections in the Dust was how important actors are. His perspective changed from being the cinematographer who simply makes images aesthetic or visually pleasing, to the person who is in charge of capturing the work of the actors.
“All in all though I’m proud of what we accomplished,” Barry-Cotter explains. “The mood and the look of the film were successful in my eyes.”
“I really would not change one thing,” says the director. “The result is more amazing than we could have imagined. The festivals and incredible reviews are testimony to that.”
Ryan Barry-Cotter is a freelance cinematographer, director and underwater camera operator.
Luke Sullivan is a director best known for You’re Not Thinking Straight (2016) and Reflections in the Dust (2019).
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.