Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Don McAlpine ACS ASC (Moulin Rouge!) speaks to the magazine about returning to television for the much-anticipated new Foxtel series Lambs of God.
By James Cunningham.
Lambs of God, the new Australian television drama series coming to Foxtel’s Showcase and adapted from Marele Day’s novel of the same name, is about three eccentric nuns living on a secluded and remote island. Forgotten by time and the Catholic Church they are forced to defend their way of life when a priest, Father Ignatius, unwittingly finds them. An epic gothic drama ensues about love, faith and redemption.
When Day’s books was released, The New York Times called it an “unworldly, otherworldly story, by turns affecting and humorous and always absorbing,” while, closer to home Melbourne’s The Sunday Age said it was “a novel of wit, suspense and surprises, a disconcerting and potent combination of element.”
The director behind Lambs of God, Jeffrey Walker, had previously worked with cinematographer Don McAlpine ACS ASC on the film Ali’s Wedding in 2017. McAlpine is a legend in cinematography circles, having been behind such beloved and revered films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Breaker Morant (1980), Predator (1987), Patriot Games (1992), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Dressmaker, (2015) among many others.
Walker had a long list of credits directing for television when he sought out McAlpine to shoot Ali’s Wedding. “For some reason, Walker seemed particularly keen for me to shoot this feature film,” says McAlpine. “His persistence was infectious and I believed the script was both important and entertaining.”
Produced by Matchbox Pictures, Ali’s Wedding was about as low budget one could get on a professionally structured production, McAlpine explains. “My experience both with Walker and on the production was particularly rewarding in that whatever I contributed was both appreciated and understood.” Walker went on to express his wish to work with McAlpine again, and Lambs of God was that opportunity.
Prior to working with Walker, McAlpine had been doing his research on the Panasonic VariCam 35. “The particular specification of a usable 5000 ISO intrigued this old cinematographer who had spent a lifetime excessively illuminating sets and subjects while at the same time trying to achieve a particular look… mostly naturalistic,” says McAlpine.
A series of comparative tests were carried out with the assistance of Panavision. “I believed I had found a camera that could help me shoot more effectively.” McAlpine carried this experience into the selection of equipment for Lambs of God. “As I have told the people at Panasonic, I will continue to use their camera until I find something better.”
As I have told the people at Panasonic, I will continue to use their camera until I find something better
Filmed at spectacular locations in the Blue Mountains, the New South Wales south coast as well as across Tasmania, Lambs of God appears rich, moody, visually impressive
and an immersive viewing experience. “I have often confessed that half the praise that I receive should go to the production design,” says McAlpine. “This series is a classical example of that.”
“Like any successful production I have been part of, once one has the script and a cast it is the ‘trinity’ of director, cinematographer and production designer who actually make the movie,” says McAlpine. “I do understand the pressures and limitations on the production side and I do understand the massive contribution a gifted editor contributes. Music, grading and distribution are critical. However we three must produce the diamond before it is cut.”
Production designer Chris Kennedy (The Proposition, The Water Diviner, Lion), was particularly involved in every facet of Lambs of God. “Kennedy’s ability on this production was to ensure that every dollar of budget was on the screen. His designs always considered what the camera would frame,” explains McAlpine. “His empathy for the story is visible in many frames throughout the series. He produced very fine sets for the nunnery interiors.”
The work was divided between studio filming, at Fox Studios in Sydney, at locations around Sydney and also on Mount Wilson in Tasmania. “The bulk of the exterior work was shot mid-winter on Mount Wilson,” says McAlpine. “Visually fantastic, but physically freezing.”
“Initially on reading the script I see a complete piece,” says McAlpine. “Inevitably, what I see is amended by the director, production designer, performance of the cast and a host of minor factors from budget to weather. This series depicts two worlds and, I believe, we used the contrast between the two to enhance the believability of both.”
The cinematographer last had a television assignment back in 1970. “Out of arrogance I vowed I would never go back to television,” he says. “In truth, my working pattern on this was little different from a normal film production.” This seems to be a trend and consensus among television crews the world over; television is becoming more and more ‘like film’.
Lambs of God runs over four one-hour episodes, however was filmed as one continuous piece with the same director and crew for the whole production. “I believe there was an efficiency, an economy in time as well as a unity of vision throughout this production.” Simon Harding was A-Camera operator on Lambs of God. “His energy and ability was fantastic,” says McAlpine.
“He was the power and the force with the director at the coalface.” Brett Matthews was first assistant focus puller with ‘the gift’, continues McAlpine. “It is a rare gift that I have experienced maybe half a dozen times in my career where a focus puller intuitively knows what’s in focus.” Ben Dugard, gaffer and Toby Copping, key grip, provided the cinematographer with excellent support.
“Video assist, some claim, make everything easy,” says the cinematographer. “In truth, it only verifies all my mistakes!” During pre-production McAlpine sensed a concern that as a ‘non-operating cinematographer’ he might be struggling to contribute. He believes that with a production of this size and scope a cinematographer needs to be anticipating the lighting and camera placement, as well as – maybe more importantly, isolated from the forefront of production – assessing everyone’s work, including his or her own. “I was perpetually offering advice to the director, set dresser, gaffer and endlessly finding fault with my own work,” says McAlpine.
“I have never been cinematographer on the more conventional television series, where crews alternate and maybe a series producer performs the task of visual continuity,” says McAlpine. “On this production the director, with a little help from his friends, maintained this vital continuity. I tried to walk a fine line between sustaining believability and visually enhancing the story. Each assignment evolves its own language. Once you find it, use it.”
Perhaps evoking a little from the process of filming Barry Lyndon (1975, cinematography by John Alcott BSC), the night interiors on Lambs of God were all fully lit by candlelight.
The advantages were many. You could relight a scene in seconds.
“I, like most mature cinematographers, have struggled for years to hide the shadow of the candlestick on the wall. No more!,” says McAlpine. “The advantages were many. You could relight a scene in seconds.” McAlpine used four cameras to cover a tight four-shot and none of the lighting was compromised on any of the cameras. But it was these advantages that were insignificant compared to the inherent beauty and reality of the shots. “I think that the performances took my work to a different level,” says McAlpine.“I produced some of the most satisfying work I have done in my career using practical candles on all these night interiors.”
The Panasonic 5000 ISO enabled McAlpine to do this without any visible loss of quality and gave the cinematographer a colour gamut that allowed him to put the candlelit flesh tones exactly where he wanted them. Another use of this 5000 ISO was anytime McAlpine was shooting normal 800 ISO and ran out of depth. “I just used the extra 2.6 stops,” he says. “After four productions with this camera nobody has complained or even spotted the difference.”
Post-production for Lambs of God was done in Sydney with Cutting Edge providing the facilities and Dwaine Hyde as McAlpine’s “colourist, timer or grader” the cinematographer explains. “I don’t think we have found the right word for this process yet. But very quickly Hyde understood how this piece should look,” says McAlpine. “His magic added another dimension.”
“For more than half my lifetime I was limited to simply be a critic of what a colour timer interpreted to be my film. Cinematographers rarely ‘participated’ in that process,” says McAlpine. “It is amazing the results this step in post-production can achieve now. Today, cinematographers can and should be far more involved in this important step.”
Since the end of the last century McAlpine has been using a digital camera as a lighting and grading tool. “For me, the transition to digital cinema, creatively, was very straightforward,” he explains. “Digital grading has changed my work considerably. I light and expose for the grade. I expose for the greatest latitude available for the result I want in post-production.”
McAlpine recently shot another project in New Delhi, India, and that production allowed him 4K RAW. “The latitude appeared infinite. It wasn’t; however the results were utterly fantastic.” After considerable arm-twisting, the producers allowed McAlpine to shoot Lambs of God in 4K, but not RAW. “It gives you so many pretty pixels to play with. I believe those who oppose 4K RAW come from the same place as climate change deniers!”
I believe those who oppose 4K RAW come from the same place as climate change deniers!
“After completing any production there is – if you’re lucky – endless praise for what the production achieved,” says McAlpine. “This is basically a commercial imperative and, from my perspective, is always accepted with the value it deserves.”
“Having worked through the post-production and having a crew screening of two episodes in a cinema I think there was a synergy from all our contributors. Sarah Lambert’s script, Jason Stevens as producer, Chris Kennedy as production designer as well as all the countless people who helped us along the way. It has not been often, in my career, that the accumulated effort far exceeds our individual inputs. This television series is a very fine piece of work.”
One of McAlpine’s final observations is that without Jeffrey Walker seeking out his help the cinematographer would have missed what he describes as a ‘magnificent opportunity. “Walker has asked me to work on another production in the second half of this year,” McAlpine says. “From all I have said I hope the reader truly understands the belief I have in this director’s ability in all areas of his craft.”
“It may be of interest to some of our younger cinematographers why an 85-year-old would still be taking work from them,” he says. “The experience of what I have done before is a minor factor. I truly believe that with age I have developed a far more personal approach to the work. My judgement is not cluttered with career or financial concerns. I am solely doing the job to please the director and myself.”
“Honestly, I still enjoy the challenge,” McAlpine concludes. “I will stop working when people stop sending me scripts.”
Don McAlpine ACS ASC is a Milli Award-winning cinematographer who was inducted into the ACS Hall of Fame in 1997.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.