We all know teamwork is important, or as Australian music icon Guy Sebastian puts it on his new record, “Cause now you’re singing with a choir. Now you’re dancing with a crew.”
Cinematographer Kieran Fowler NZCS ACS (Terminus, Skinford) has known director James Chappell for a while now. “He’s been one of my closest collaborators when it comes to music videos,” says Fowler. The pair first started working together in 2013 but hadn’t worked together for a number of years prior to collaborating again on Guy Sebastian’s Choir video, meaning it was well overdue that they team up again. “This clip was probably the biggest budget music video we’d worked on together.”
One of the main locations in Choir called for a church. “This was a real church,” explains Fowler. “We had a couple of other church locations as our first preference, however they got knocked back because of some of the lyrics in the song. It was probably a blessing in disguise as the church we ended up with (St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown Cemetery) worked really well.”
There weren’t many restrictions as far as the cinematographer was aware of, except for not putting stands or equipment on grave sites, outside. The bulk of Fowler’s lighting was done from outside through windows. “When lighting big spaces like this, and particularly when you’re on a tight music video schedule, it’s important to do a big broad brush stroke with your lighting,” says Fowler. “Something that will offer you multiple set-ups with minimal re-light time between shots and only moving a few bits and bobs for your key fill inside on the ground.”
“ This clip was probably the biggest budget music video we’d worked on together. ”
“I had an M90 through a large stained glass window at the front of the church, along with a few M40s through the smaller windows that I would re-position depending on our shooting angle,” says Fowler. “I kept these hard, non-gelled and let the windows colour the light.”
Choir was shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini. “This camera has been an industry work horse and a go to camera for me,” explains Fowler. “It’s small, has beautiful colour rendition and is super simple to operate. It’s nice to go into a shoot knowing a camera like the back of your hand, especially one with a tight schedule. I instinctively know how to expose it and what to expect.”
Fowler believes that lens choice became far more important in giving his images their personality, choosing old Cooke Xtal anamorphic lenses. “On the wider end of the set these lenses have a beautiful, not too overpowering flare,” says Fowler. “They have this kind of star-like quality to them, with subtle blooming in the highlights that roll them off quite organically. Also, with all the vertical lines in our locations I wanted a set of lenses that would distort the image. I love how the 32mm lens bows the image. It really exaggerates the frame and was perfect for giving this project a sort of ‘detachment from reality’.”
The crew worked with only a single camera on this shoot, keeping it on Steadicam for around ninety-percent of the time. “Basically everything except for the crane work in the end night section and a couple of handheld shots with the kids at dawn,” says Fowler, who didn’t shoot heaps of coverage. “It was more about wide-shots involving Guy with the dancers around him. We found the dancing looked more dramatic in wider frames, so we focused more on this.”
Unfortunately, during post-production on Choir, the cinematographer wasn’t able to physically attend the grade. “We had Matt Fezz colouring it, who I’ve worked with countless times and trust,” says Fowler, who wanted the approach to grading to be subtle. “More often than not I find ‘less is more’ with colouring.” Fowler believes most of a cinematographer’s colour is done on the day, in camera, and comes down to good locations, art direction and costume decisions with lighting also playing a key part.
“By the time the footage lands in the grade suite you should be able to add a bit of contrast if it’s needed and be eighty-percent of the way there,” says Fowler. “With subtle nudges to get it in the right zone.” Fowler’s notes for Fezz weren’t specific to each location’s look and were, in his words, ‘rather general’. “It was important to ensure saturation in the end scene didn’t play too high as there was a lot of primary colours in the frame,” says Fowler. “We also ended up swinging some of our colours in the end scenes away from a primary hue as it looked a little like a K Pop video.”
“ Having an analogue quality to the image brings it to life. It’s hard to describe why, but we like it. ”
Fowler says a cinematographer should be able to trust their colourist as well as a colourist’s instincts. “The director and I also loved adding varying levels of film grain to the image,” says Fowler. “We ramped it up more in the church because we felt the texture of that location suited a heavier grain. Having an analogue quality to the image brings it to life. It’s hard to describe why, but we like it.”
Sebastian was really happy with the end results. “It’s a song written about a good friend of his who passed away and, like the song, he wanted a really positive, upbeat and energetic video, which I think translated,” says Fowler. “He had a really emotional reaction when he first saw a cut so I’m happy we were able to do his heartfelt lyrics justice.”
Fowler, who recently picked up Best Cinematography for Choir at the CLIPPED Music Video Festival in Sydney, honestly didn’t have any notion or expectation of winning at the festival. “There were some really stunning music videos in the competition and so I was pretty chuffed to take the win,” says Fowler, humbly.
“It’s nice to get recognition for music video work, as it’s nothing but passion that goes into it,” he concludes. “That’s why I’m so stoked to see a festival like this taking off. It’s about time we had something to celebrate the art of music videos in this part of the world.”
Kieran Fowler NZCS ACS is an international, award-winning cinematographer of drama, commercial and music video works.