Directed by Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) and shot by Ben Nott ACS (Predestination), Danger Close is the new Australian war film about the Battle of Long Tan – by Ben Nott ACS
I have long admired Stenders’ work and was very excited to embark on this journey with him. And what a journey it was!
The first week of prep on any project can be daunting as key creatives begin to unpack the magnitude of work to be achieved, compare it to the time window available then measure this against money in the budget. The inequity of this ratio was, when applied to Danger Close, in another universe when compared to other projects on my resume.
Writer Stu Beattie delivered a brilliant script — that was as dense as a celestial Black Hole — to our first assistant director Jamie Leslie, who was charged with shoe horning the project into a meagre forty-day schedule with zero allowance for a second unit.
Once Stenders had littered the production office walls with scene cards, we could see in a glance that we were faced with an absolute mountain of work. Most of it serious action sequences with multiple moving parts. The budget was 24 million AUD, not the 35 million reported on IMDB. We had to work fast, work smart and waste nothing. Gulp. Daunting.
A further complication was that the main characters assumed the names and ranks of real men, many of whom thankfully are still with us. Stenders was in the unenviable position of having to draw the line between documenting the facts and telling an entertaining story knowing that the scrutiny of these men and many in the armed forces awaited.
The only way to approach Danger Close was to break it down into days. Complete each day and move on to the next. Production designer Sam Hobbs delivered all the required ingredients, Leslie made sure all those ingredients were available on the day, Stenders was very clear about what he needed from each of those days and I offered him as much coverage as possible. Everyone did their job and we achieved something extraordinary.
As is the case with every film the aesthetic is heavily influenced by both the cinematographer and production designer, along with their teams. My collaboration with Hobbs was very rewarding. He’s an amazing creative force who presented a world that was authentic to the period and not only looked the part but had good practical work spaces. Hobbs’ world had many moving parts; Huey Helicopters, Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), blank firing 105 Howitzer guns and a practical recreation of the Nui Dat base to name a few. Together we consulted on how best to orientate the spaces for light and for key action beats.
Our key cinematic reference was Apocalypse Now (1979, cinematography by Vittorio Storaro ASC AIC). Not so much for composition, lensing or camera movement but for texture, contrast and hue of the images. Apocalypse Now is timeless in its look. The film is as relevant now as it was on release in 1979 and will still be in twenty years time. Danger Close portrays a very important part of our history and I hope it can also stand the test of time.
I knew we needed to choose a robust camera system and to this end I could not go past the ARRI Alexa Mini. The Minis were a perfect fit with the Ronin 2 gimbal which proved to be the go to camera support for the film. We used the Ronin in hand-held mode, on a rickshaw rig for low tracking, on cranes, cable-cam rigs, a mini-jib and on the hybrid dolly. I am now a massive fan of gimbals for the diverse opportunities they offer for relatively low cost to production.
After testing the Cooke Anamorphic Lenses I was sold. Because we used the entire frame to tell the story it was important that the lenses did not fall off at the edges as many of the more antique series of Anamorphic lenses tend to. The Cookes appeared to display the best balance between the distortion we all love, edge to edge sharpness and contrast.
I should also mention that we could not have made the film without the generous support of Bryan Meakin at Gear Head‘s Brisbane office who supplied the gear.
I should dedicate the majority of this article to my camera department, and the crew in general. Without this unique group there would be no film. Operators Darrin Keogh (A) and Gary Collins (B) constantly made great choices while focus pullers Ron Coe (A) Dan Clark (B) and Robbie MacKinnon (C) deserve special mention. Their work on the Cooke lenses with little or no rehearsal in situations that were incredibly dynamic was nothing less than extraordinary. Grip Billy Harmer and his team delivered many ingenious ways of moving the camera to keep the audience immersed in the action. The special effects team lead by Brian Cox were amazing. Every crew member in every department gave far more than was asked to breathe life into this film.
The film was shot in South East Queensland; split between locations in Kingaroy, Nerang and Pimpama. We built a tactical operations tent set and shot on a blue screen in a warehouse on the Gold Coast. Gaffer Matthew Slattery and I had four 8×8-foot LED panels built that we used as fill lamps in a similar way we use 12×12-foot ultra bounces when shooting day exterior. These were great broad soft sources to use under the tree canopy where the natural ambience was diminished and we needed a little lift on the actors faces. Matt repurposed these panels to create a moonlight source by building a framework that housed all four panels to create a large soft light that was light weight and had very little wind resistance. These light panels have variable colour temp from 2700 to 5600 degrees Kelvin, could be dressed with additional diffusion or egg crates and proved to be the corner stone of our lighting bag of tricks.
Making and adhering to a good plan was the only way we could hope to achieve what has turned out to be a wonderful result. We made the call to shoot ten-hour continuous days, French hours, because of the limited daylight in Winter. The crew went into triple time after 10 hours so every day the gun was to our head to complete that call sheet. If we failed to complete the day’s work then it was more than likely that material would not make the final cut. Stenders, Leslie and myself spent eight weeks in pre-production planning and, for the most part, our plan was regimentally adhered to. I’m proud to report that we shot everything Kriv wanted in the time allowed and actually finished principal photography under budget.
While I am not averse to using a DIT (Digital Intermediate Technician) for on-set colour management, nine times out of ten I gravitate toward choosing very few basic LUTs to keep the workflow simple. This was the case on Danger Close. Truth be told I don’t think there was ever an allowance in the budget for a DIT, even if I wanted one.
Regarding visual effects, we had only the flying Helicopter interiors to deal with as simulated travel which we shot on blue screen. There is, of course, considerable visual effects work in the film with muzzle flashes, tracer fire, computer-generated helicopters and jets but this work did not impact our shooting schedule as such.
The colour-grading process on the film was loads of fun! Unique to this project was the schedule. For various reasons the colour-grading was not shoe-horned into a couple of consecutive weeks, rather it was spread out over a month or more. Stenders and I spent a couple of days with colourist Ade Hauser at Cutting Edge Sydney to develop various looks for the film and then we let Hauser do his initial pass. We were then able to check back into the process over a number of weeks returning with fresh eyes to make adjustments that may not have otherwise found their way into the finished film.
I used 81EF filters up front to bring a brown warmth to the images that I felt best replicated the warmth of the tropical light and helped sell the humid climate. The 81EF also helped to mute the greens. We maintained this look for most of the film but notably departed for the rain sequence in favour of a cyan/ blue pallet. We made in-shot dynamic changes to the hue as the rain started and then finished some fifty scenes later.
Coming out of the rain we adopted a mustard yellow colour that was initiated and motivated by a smoke grenade of the same colour. We played on the idea that the mustard coloured smoke hung in the still tropical air. This look then gave way to a less saturated cooler look that took us to near the end of the film as Delta Company is almost overcome by the enemy. For the final scene the gods smiled on us providing a bleak overcast day over which we returned to the 81EF brown and warm look.
I think my favourite day on set was spent shooting the Col Joy & Little Pattie concert scenes. Probably because it was a joyous respite to what was in the main fairly heavy subject matter. Visually I loved the five days during which we covered what we called ‘generic North Vietnamese Army attack’. Over these five days we covered most of the large explosions. The coordination between the cameras, the special effects team’s explosions and stunt teams with all the their extras was incredible.
Looking back, if I were to change one thing I would have asked the caterer to vitamise everything, pour it into a cup so I could suck it up through a straw on the move. The pace was so relentless coupled with the ‘French hours’ thing that some days just didn’t let up enough to stop to eat a plated meal. That’s about it. I think we pretty much smashed the rest of it out of the park.