Cinematographer Ryan Alexander Lloyd talks about shooting two distinctly different projects, both with strong connections to indigenous Australian culture – by Ryan Alexander Lloyd
Warburdar Bununu is a project I feel very lucky to have been asked to collaborate on, due to my ongoing creative relationship with the film’s producer John Harvey (Spear, The Warriors). Working alongside director Jason De Santolo in the Northern Territory with his elders and mob was humbling; the documentary aims to follow in the footsteps of the seminal documentary Two Laws (1982) – a must-see for anyone who wishes to understand the clash between colonial ideas and tens of thousands of years old indigenous customs. Our documentary follows a new generation stepping in to fight water pollution and unsafe practices by mining on the country.
Short film Elders as a project came together pretty quickly. The film’s director Tony Briggs and his producer Damienne Pradier came across a short I had lensed called The Gravedigger of Kapu (2018). The opening scene depicted a macro lens shot of an earthworm making its way through a gravesite. Briggs said from that frame alone he knew I could capture the small details of the environment needed for Elders. Little did he know how many worms had escaped my framing.
I was contacted in early November of 2018 and by the first week of December we were on location in the heat of Dimboola, Western Victoria. The film follows a young boy as his Elders leave him alone out in the country and in the heat of the day to find his own way back to camp, a crash course in tracking. The projects share a theme of knowledge lying within the land. Both exploring how knowledge and wisdom are handed down by elders, and the next generation’s duty to step up to the challenge and grow from it.
For Warburdar Bununu the look was determined by the restrictions of locations and our run-and-gun style, pushing our Canon C300 Mk2 to the max in the heat and dust. I wanted to connect the archival footage from Two Laws in the edit, while also shooting some film stock. We decided on Super8 and Kodak 50d/7203. Shooting a number of portraits of the locals with this stock helped link the two documentaries together tonally.
With Elders, I had somewhat of a free rein, the film was set in the past but at no specific time. I knew I wanted a vintage feel, a lot of it was more gut instinct than any references. A much as I wanted to capture Elders on film for the nostalgic feel, I knew it was a hard sell on a short film’s budget so the ARRI Alexa Mini became an obvious choice. Partnering the camera with a vintage Hawk Anamorphic captured perfectly the stark and earthy tones of our locations and wardrobe. Shout out to Kieran Wheeler at Hummingbird for support with the lens, and my old five to one mid-1970s Cooke Zoom.
The imperfections on older lenses just make me happy, that flawed element seems so honest in the age of super sharp and clean high-resolution cameras. When I was starting out as an assistant in my early 20s I heard the term ‘vibe’ a bit while working with cinematographers. I subscribe to that train of thought strongly now when I shoot. Always asking, does it have a ‘vibe’?
The shoot in Borroloola for Warburdar Bununu was a trek to get to. It’s roughly a twelve-hour drive southeast of Darwin. Once you’re out there you’re not going to get technical support anytime soon, so best to go prepared. Due to the heat and the locals’ routine, our shooting was restricted to early starts until 10am, then again from 4pm to dusk. That absolutely worked in my advantage. We used one portable reflector and a small, bi-colour LED for the interviews. Very minimal.
Elders had the misfortune of being shot during the first heat wave of summer with a few days reaching 40° degrees. There were also a number of restrictions with the project as anyone who has ever worked with kids will know. When your lead is a seven-year-old with no acting experience things simply don’t run like an average set. There is a need to be more inventive with coverage so there was comprise on camera moves and blocking. The director really had his work cut out for him and skilfully made the experience playful and positive. I hope to work with him again in the future.
Lighting Elders was a different story. We used 8×8 and 12×12 Ultrabounces along with large blacks for negative fill. In the heat of the day I would aim to do close-ups and shape the light with a different frame overhead, with black floppies camera side and push bounce in from the sides. If and where possible, we aimed to have the action with its back northeast in the morning and northwest in the afternoon to get some kind of shape in our wide shots.
Warburdar Bununu was all on me with a camera and lighting. We had a running joke that the producer was my gaffer as he would often struggle to hold the portable pop-up reflector. One of his finest moments of dropping the reflector actually made the final cut, I still find it super distracting. With Elders, I was lucky to work with Richard Turton as the head gaffer and grip. He was an absolute champion dragging out a crane and a bit of track in the heat and dirt. It was my first time working with focus puller Meg Perrott, we collaborated very well given the restrictions. Filling out the team was second assistant camera Bonita Carzino, an up and coming cinematographer in her own right. Carzino and I have worked together on a few projects including the very challenging Three Stories Inside a Rental Van (2019).
I would have loved to have been able to convince production to cast twins in Elders, too. I know I’m dreaming, but it would have allowed a better shooting schedule as the time of day and on-set time with a child actor really stitched me. I would also have loved to have talked production out of using a stock footage shoot of a Black cockatoo in the edit. You can’t miss it. Every cinematographer’s nightmare. Saying all that, however, I really enjoyed working with the film’s director, writer and crew. The time spent in Dimboola I think we all pulled together and essentially made a silent film with a lot of heart.
Post-production with Warburdar Bununu was very smooth. Sound Firm in Melbourne handled the project. I was pleasantly surprised with how well the Canon C300 Mk2 images were able to be shaped at the standard HD on-board codec. The skin tones soaked up the light, the main work required was to balance contrast and colour tint the time of day. For Elders, unfortunately, I wasn’t part of the post-production process as I was on set in a remote location and couldn’t make it, but did send a number of reference images I had graded from the raw footage. I would love a do-over on the grade, something I am trying to work on at the moment.
While working on Warburdar Bununu my job was to shut up and observe. Given the director’s personal connection with the country it was very easy to fall into line. Perhaps heightened by my ongoing personal journey in re-connecting with my own Maori ancestry in New Zealand. I feel the best way to work in the world of indigenous storytelling is to maintain a focus on respecting the land you are standing on. This usually means that you have to be flexible and let go of any preconceived ideas of what the environment or people ‘should’ look like, including where you have access to. I think put simply, in these projects you can achieve a far more authentic outcome by letting the land and people guide how the story is told.
Ryan Alexander Lloyd is an award-winning cinematographer who’s worked on commercials, documentaries, features and music video.