I recently had the privilege to shoot two short films back-to-back for two different writer/directors. The films were Atlas by Gene Albert and The Complex by Dane McCusker. I had previously been cinematographer for McCusker on three short films since 2010, but doing Atlas was my first collaboration with Albert who I had met during our days studying at AFTRS.
With Albert’s future-tense action film script Atlas I was immediately drawn by the fact it had barely any dialogue. Instead it relied heavily on visuals and performance to tell the story. It also offered me the opportunity of working with a new director in capturing a realistic dystopian world with elements of science fiction.
With The Complex, I was drawn to how tight Dane’s script was and how much it conveyed in only twelve pages. The topical story captured the essence of the many personal complexities of apartment dwellers today so I knew it would be a compelling film if we didn’t over complicate it.
Due to budget constraints neither Atlas or The Complex had a professional production designer, which was a shame. Albert took on the important role himself on Atlas and though he did a great job it did mean he had to wear multiple hats.
The whole film was shot on a large property in Bilpin, New South Wales, that Albert wrote specifically to suit. Thankfully much of what we needed already existed and what was altered was done by Albert and his partner in the weeks leading up to the shoot.
Throughout The Complex we follow our lead actress, Jessica Murphy, gradually moving into a new apartment by herself. As the film progresses we see the apartment fill up and become homely. As the apartment, McCusker’s actual residence, was full of furniture we decided to shoot the film back-to-front which helped ease the design workload.
“ Short films are generally a test of your ability to achieve great results despite the lack of resources. ”
I would love to say that on short films you always get the camera gear you really want but as every cinematographer knows that is rarely the case. Even with the great contacts I have built up over the years at various rental houses it wasn’t financially feasible on the budgets we had. As Atlas was self-funded by Albert we were always going to be using his Canon C200 with a set of Canon CN-E Primes hired at mates rates from Nic Owens, a fellow cinematographer and good friend.
The C200 held up really well and was an excellent size for all the DJI Ronin 2 gimbal shooting we did. Another great plus of the C200 was that we could shoot Canon RAW internally on CFast2 cards. The robustness of RAW really helped when dealing with the constantly changing exterior lighting conditions.
Miraculously, I did get the camera package I wanted on The Complex, an ARRI Alexa Mini and a set of Ultra Primes lenses from Cameraquip. The small size of the camera and lenses helped in the confines of the apartment where the shoot took place. Also, the large dynamic range helped when balancing the bright east facing apartment windows with our actors.
After the first two days on Atlas we regrettably lost our gaffer Brooks Robinson as he had other work to go onto to. From then on it fell onto other crew members to help and support me when needed. For The Complex it was the first time on a film I did not have any lighting or grip personnel to help. Initially, I was concerned after seeing how tight the location was and in coming up with a solid shooting plan. With McCusker and first assistant director Jaime Lewis I realised that it could be done.
The Atlas script is the start of Albert’s much larger science fiction, action feature film idea. The first eight pages of the twelve-page script we were essentially setting up characters, locations and conflict, not actually shooting any action sequences. There is an arc to the film from the opening where the camera moves are much more subtle than in later scenes. For the majority of the film the camera lived on the gimbal. We also got in a second body and ramped up the use of hand-held towards the end.
The Complex is a story about two people of differing yet valid opinions. We wanted our camera to simply observe, not to play favourites. Though we mostly follow our lead actress we wanted the audience to stay objective, so when seen together we did a lot of reverse shots and reactions. Hitchcock was one of our key references. To keep the small one bedroom apartment with white walls from appearing bland I mostly shaped the existing light, keeping walls dim with our actors in the best available light.
Albert was a director great to work with as he is very trusting, visually orientated and who works organically with what he sees in the moment. He also understands editing which was great for breaking down scenes. I pushed for more pre-production time to plan and schedule as I know how much it adds to a film. I’m thankful and relieved Albert pushed the film back and allowed that to happen.
Much of what worked well with McCusker on The Complex came from a solid understanding of our previous collaborations together. The fact was he trusted me to execute a plan without many key crew members and conversely I could trust that he knew what he was asking for and did so with respect.
I choose to shoot short films to fulfil a creative passion which is generally not the reason your technical crew come on board. These ‘love’ jobs however are just not possible without their time and support and so to everyone who gave us that I thank you.
Of special note on Atlas was my camera assistant Sam Vines who did an outstanding job. He truly gave more of himself to the film than I can thank him for. I’d also like to mention Charles Taparell for donating a second Canon C200 and also fellow cinematographer Tahsin Rahman for coming on to operate B-camera during the final chase scenes in the film.
For reasons of availability on The Complex I had to change camera assistants during the shoot with both Benjamin Powell and Gokulchand Mandalapu coming in and doing a great job during their time. Neither the director nor I had met either one before but they came in and performed brilliantly under pressure.
My favourite sequence in Atlas is set in a shed on the property we used as our unit base. It was very late at night and after an extremely long day. We had no gaffer and there were multiple light sources that I had to synchronise to turn on and off by crew members plugging them in and out of sockets. It was memorable not just because it came out so well but that it was achieved despite all the hardships we had to get through to make it happen.
On The Complex my two favourite shots bookend the film. Though we storyboarded the opening scene to have four shots, and had the time to get them, we realised when filming that our opening wide-shot felt right for the entire scene. The final shot of the film was actually the first shot we did, as we shot the film back-to-front. As it was time specific and didn’t fit in our weekend schedule, we organised it for the evening prior to our first shoot day. A cherry picker was brought in and I went up in the bucket to get the shot we wanted at the right time of day which really set a great tone for the rest of our shoot.
What I took away from these two films was that despite all the constraints you may encounter. If you have a dedicated and passionate crew all helping each other to achieve the best results, you can get over almost any hurdle. I am so thankful to have collaborated alongside so many great people who all went above and beyond their own roles to make the films the best they could be.
“ If you have a dedicated and passionate crew all helping each other to achieve the best results, you can get over almost any hurdle. ”
In terms of post-production, the look of Atlas started with my own temporary grades that I applied to .tiff files using the Lightroom program. Shots to be graded were selected from the most challenging scenes that I then sent on to Albert for feedback.
As the post-production process for Atlas is still ongoing I cannot tell you who the actual grader will be, though it is set to be done at Vandal in Sydney who I am yet to collaborate with. The only CGI in either film will be just one shot in Atlas where Albert will add CG drones into the final shot of the film.
The Complex was a very simple film to grade and it was complete after just a couple of short days on a DaVinci Resolve operated by Conlan McKenzie; a great, young grader who has helped me out so many times that I can’t thank him enough. The process was that we did an initial pass and noted a couple of shots for special attention. After a second pass we sent a link to Albert for feedback and from that made a few tweaks and it was done.
The only thing I would change on Atlas would have been to have more pre-production time in order to get the pages down a bit more so that our shooting days weren’t so long and demanding on our threadbare crew. For The Complex I would have liked someone on lighting as it would have sped up the process and been less physically demanding on me.
Overall though I am very proud of these two films and excited for people to see them on the big screen in the near future.
I am currently filming a television show with director Keaton Stewart and Ambience entertainment.
Michael Steel is a freelance cinematographer based ‘wherever he needs to be’.