Cinematographer Mark Bliss AČK is behind the camera on ‘Standing Up for Sunny’

Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte stars in a charming Australian romantic comedy about a loner with cerebral palsy roped into helping a friend overcome her shyness.

Premiering at the Sydney Film Festival this month, award-winning cinematographer Mark Bliss AČK is behind the camera on Standing Up for Sunny.

By Mark Bliss AČK.

Travis (RJ Mitte) and Sunny (Philippa Northeast) in ‘Standing Up for Sunny’ – DOP Mark Bliss AČK, PHOTO Supplied

My involvement with Standing Up for Sunny came through my early work with the film’s producers, Jamie Hilton. I have lensed several music videos and short films for Hilton and he has been trying to get me on some of his other feature film projects before. It was usually my schedule that prevented us from working together earlier. This time the stars aligned and I am very happy for it.

Hilton send me the script; I read it in two hours and called him right away. Immediately a meeting was set up on Skype with the director, Steven Vidler. We hit it off, bounced some references around as well as quoting several films.

Even though Standing Up for Sunny has a very tight budget the decision on how and what to shoot on was left completely to me. Knowing the schedule was only going to be twenty days to shoot a feature I knew I needed a camera that would give me the flexibility to move fast and light fast.

Barry Humphries in 'Standing Up for Sunny - DOP Mark Bliss
Barry Humphries in ‘Standing Up for Sunny’ – DOP Mark Bliss AČK

The majority of the film was to be shot hand held so the size of the camera did matter a great deal too. I have shot on the ARRI Alexa extensively over the last ten years, and lately on the Alexa Mini, so I am well aware of how far you can push it. The added advantage for me was the fact that we shot RAW, giving us extra room to move. 

We tested several different lens kits, one of them were Kowa Anamorphic, but in the end we settled upon the Cooke S4. The anamorphic, though visually stunning, would have been too difficult to work with and I think we made the right choice with the Cooke lenses. I was very fortunate not to be pressured into making a decision on financial grounds and for that I am very grateful to our producers.

Production designer Sherree Phillips and her team were working miracles with the budget. We compiled a scrap book of visual references. We would go through each location and discuss colours and styles. As the budget didn’t allow us to repaint or redecorate locations completely we would take our queue from the locations, trying to colour balance our props and wardrobe according to the location’s colour scheme. 

Travis on stage with paperbag
Travis (RJ Mitte) on stage with a paper bag in ‘Standing Up for Sunny’ – DOP Mark Bliss AČK

The pre-production process on a film of this size means there’s no room for error. All of our departments worked closely. As we were making a ‘contemporary story’ our look was dictated by the story. Inner-city student feel, if that makes sense.

The look of the film was discussed and referenced with Vidler and Phillips on several occasions. Phillips created a ‘style book’ with hundreds of photos of everything and anything that was related to Standing Up for Sunny. Interiors, exteriors, bedrooms, kitchens, vehicles, signage, lighting fixtures, props… the lot. The film is a romantic comedy, so the idea was to keep the look clean and not get overly stylised as that could detract from the story. Our approach was to keep the lighting and styling of the film truthful to the situations and locations where we filmed.

I have been based in Europe for the past ten years. So much of my regular crew I used back in the day had moved on or were no longer in the industry. The only person with whom I had working history was key grip Kris Wallis. Both Wallis and Colin McAlpine were real troopers. My focus puller was Michael Pickells, with whom I had worked on commercials before. 

Travis and Sunny eating lunch
Travis (RJ Mitte) and Sunny (Philippa Northeast) in a scene from ‘Standing up for Sunny’ – DOP Mark Bliss AČK

The surprise of the package was my gaffer Stefan Fidirikos. I met him about a week into the pre-production and we hit it off right away. Fidirikos immediately understood what was needed and how to get it. We also had several camera trainees with us which was of great help, especially when we needed to shoot with two cameras for crowd scenes. When we used two cameras I would operate A-Camera and Michael Pickells would operate B-Camera. Focus duties were divided between second assistant camera Louis Lau along with one of our camera trainees, Enna-Jay Curcuruto or Jordan Benjamin, who did amazingly well considering their inexperience. 

I also need to mention Sam Winzar who was our data wrangler. Sam kept on top of things and would give me feedback during the day on the data. Everyone on the team had their work cut out as we had a slimmed down crew. Fidirikos only had one best boy to work with and at the beginning. I was concerned as the schedule was very tight and didn’t allow for too much play. My concerns were disposed of very quickly with Fidirikos, and later Hamish Hardy, breaking world records in lighting set ups. 

It would be hard to point out a single shot as my favourite in the film. We didn’t have any intricate crane or Steadicam shots. We had no grand locations with moody lighting. However there is one sequence that really sticks in my mind. Sunny (Philippa Northeast) and Travis (RJ Mitte) are rehearsing her stand-up routine and Sunny talks about her childhood, peeling away the hard shell and exposing herself in full light. It was their acting, rather than just my cinematography, which made this scene stand out for me.

Travis (RJ Mitte) on the streets of Newtown, Sydney, in the film ‘Standing up for Sunny’ – DOP Mark Bliss AČK

In shooting moments of comedy the aim was to give our actors as much space to perform so most of our lighting came from outside and from practical sources within our sets. I wanted to maximise the time for actors by thinking ahead and having lighting fixtures in a way that could be changed within minutes as we would change for different angle or coverage of any given scene. 

We would watch the rehearsal, I would suggest coverage of the scene, the director would point out his driving point for the scene and we would simply set about doing it. As most of the film was hand-held we were able to change angles fast. I would do slight changes on consequent takes so we’d have more angles. Building upon years of experience you know exactly how to go about covering a scene and maximising your shooting time.

One of my aims is to shoot as much of the look on the day and do as little as possible during the colour grading process, and my own schedule took me back to Europe following the Standing Up for Sunny shoot. When it came to grading the options for me were quite limited. Unless a project would take me to Australia it was all about communicating with the post house. We were fortunate enough to have Jamie Hediger, from Spectrum Films, as the film’s colourist. We exchanged numerous emails and pictures that I would grade in Photoshop. He would send back single frames from every scene. I would review, make notes and send it back. Fortunately the director would come in and sit in with Hediger on the grade. 

From my perspective we managed to achieve what we set out to do, Standing Up for Sunny is a comedy and it will be now up to the audience to judge whether we succeeded or not in that respect. There were times when I had to keep myself from laughing on the set. Would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t change anything. We worked very, very hard on this film and we tried our outmost best, every day. The crew and cast put their hearts into it and I am very proud to have been part of it.

Mark Bliss AČK studied cinematography under Terry Byrne ACS at North Sydney College. He is an accredited member of the Association of Czech Cinematographers (AČK).

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