With cinematographer Bryan Mason behind the camera on Sophie Hyde’s Animals, long-time friends and party-lovers Laura and Tyler navigate life and love in Dublin, Ireland.
By Slade Phillips.
Director Sophie Hyde and cinematographer Bryan Mason are long time collaborators, working alongside each other on films such as 2014’s hit 52 Tuesdays. “We share a vital shorthand and have built up a shared sense of aesthetic,” explains Mason. The pair have worked across multiple formats and lengths now; documentary, short dramas as well as drama series including 2017’s Fucking Adelaide and this year’s The Hunting. Now, Animals marks their second feature drama project together.
Animals is based on a book of the same name by English writer Emma Jane Unsworth. “After Unsworth and Hyde were a couple of drafts into the screenplay, Hyde came to me with the book and the script,” says Mason. “The characters were great.” The story reminded Mason of a much-loved film, Withnail and I (1987, cinematography by Peter Hannan ACS BSC).
The director’s references for the look and feel of Animals were quite specific and from a wide variety of sources. “Hyde had a great sense of the potential texture, feel and tone of the film from early on,” says Mason. “A lot of her early references were still images but, in the financing stages of this film, we collated a series of film references and cut together a mood reel. Basically a 2-3 minute edit of moments from features and television shows which in some way communicated the feel of our film as we imagined it.”
These references included Basquiat (1996, cinematography), Trainspotting (1996, cinematography by Brian Tufano BSC), Morvern Callar (2002, cinematography by Alwin Küchler BSC), Blue Valentine (2010, cinematography by Andrij Parekh ASC), On the Road (2012, cinematography by Éric Gautier AFC) and Wetlands (2013, cinematography by Jakub Bejnarowicz) as well as scenes from television shows such as Absolutely Fabulous, Transparent and Broad City. “The list really goes on,” says Mason.
The cinematographer found it a fascinating experience to create this reel as much to define what the film didn’t feel and look like as to what it did. “Ultimately it became a great tool and touchstone for where we were heading tonally and visually,” he says. “Some films were there for the humour, some for the friendship, some for visual reference and others some just for a feeling. Together they showed how the movie would feel and really helped us finance the film.”
Animals is an Australian, Irish co-production. The first of its kind. “We had a mostly Irish team and we took some key Australian crew members with us,” says Mason. “Renate Henschke was costume designer, she is Australian and currently Australian-based, but had spent twelve years living and working in Dublin, so she knew the city and the people well and had a strong team there.” Hyde and Mason also worked with Henschke on Fucking Adelaide and were excited to continue this great working relationship.
“Louise Matthews was our Dublin-based production designer so this was a new relationship,” explains Mason. Matthews, Hyde and Mason had a series of Skype conversations prior to pre-production to start to co-ordinate ideas and begin to define the palette of Animals. These conversations continued throughout pre-production. “Through many location scouts and pints of Guinness we built a great working collaboration within the team.”
The story of the film is set around the long-term friendship of fledgling writer Laura (Holliday Grainger) and broad-about-town Tyler (Alia Shawkat), a decade into the pair’s hedonistic swing through the bars, alleyways and men of Dublin. This quest for the eternal party is challenged when Laura’s younger sister Jean (Amy Molloy) announces she is pregnant, and Laura meets Jim (Fra Fee) a focussed concert pianist. The bubble which Laura and Tyler have been living in is strained and threatens to pop.
“For the look of the film it was important for us to visually represent this ‘bubble’, the world of the central relationship,” explains Mason. “A seductive and slightly heightened look without being romanticised or losing touch with their often-grotty reality. The term we used in pre-production which seemed to fit was ‘dilapidated glamour’. That is what we tried to find and create.”
A good portion of Animals is set at night; in the bars, clubs and alleyways of Dublin. The crew only had a 23-day schedule to shoot the 110-page script. “As always, the logistics of the shooting schedule impacted our camera and lighting package,” says Mason. “I was initially considering shooting this film anamorphic, however it became clear that this was not the right choice given my parameters.” What Mason needed was camera with a small enough camera body to move quickly, often in handheld mode and fast enough lenses to make the most of the available light in the streets of Dublin.
“After some testing and consideration, I rather fell for the look of Panavision’s P-Vintage lenses on the front of an ARRI Alexa Mini,” he says. “The six-lens package we got from Panavision Ireland was fast, with the most sluggish of the lenses being the 150mm at T1.5! The speed and look of these lenses when paired with the colour rendering of the Alexa gave us a look which seemed to capture the feel we were after.”
Mason landed in Dublin with six weeks to prep the film and settle in. “I was not able to bring any of my regular camera team from Australia, so crewing up the camera and lighting department were high on my list of priorities,” he says. “Dublin is a busy city for production. Because of the government’s tax rebate there are often multiple major productions running concurrently. As such, it was slightly tricky to find crew. However, the generosity of local cinematographers was absolutely brilliant in finding our team, who came highly recommended even though they hadn’t worked on many big productions. I asked a lot of my focus puller, JJ Sullivan, as I was sometimes shooting at T1 flat, hand-held. Sullivan rose to the challenge magnificently. The camera team ended up being four people including myself, with a grip and a two-man lighting team. We weren’t many, but everyone leaned in, worked really hard and did a fantastic job.”
Around 85% of Animals was shot in real locations, with the remainder being filmed on built sets in an old school building that stood in for Tyler’s apartment and various other places in the script. “It was essentially a location because it was an unused, unpowered run-down building,” says Mason. Location hunting took a good portion of the team’s time in pre-production. “It is quite a challenge to land in a city you do not know at all with a script full of locations to find while carrying quite a specific vision to realise. The production design team did a beautiful job augmenting real locations where needed and realising the detail and lived in quality of Tyler’s apartment.”
Darragh Scott, the film’s gaffer, pitched the use of Carpetlights very early in conversations. Scott had been working in the electrics department of Vikings for three seasons and was very familiar with the ultra-thin, flexible and very controllable LED Carpetlights. “We were only able to secure two lights 1-63cm X 23cm and 1-1220cm X 630cm due to their popularity, and after working with them for a couple of days these became our go to lights for many of our set-ups,” says Mason. “They are light, fast and produce a beautiful quality of light.”
“Philosophically, I like to light fast where possible and to give performers as much physical space to move and be free within the location,” he says. “The less set up time and relighting time means more shooting time and more performance time. It is a balance to be sure, sometimes you need to take the time to get the set up right, but that is the ideal.” To enact this Mason spends a lot of time planning. “I tend to do quite a detailed mud map of each location as it is secured and mark in where the power is coming from; where I will secure lights, lighting angles and gels, potential camera positions and a rough idea of the blocking. I often work through these plans with the director and of course things inevitably change, however I find this level of preparation means I have a solid plan for each location. It gives me a good base to work from.”
Interestingly, Mason also worked as editor on the film. “I often work in both capacities on projects,” he says. “I find shooting and editing are great companion skills. Do I think like an editor while working as cinematographer? I hope so. To a certain extent, I think it’s necessary to consider your coverage and how a scene might cut together as you plan and shoot, especially when time is limited. I also know what it’s like in the edit suite to not have enough coverage to be flexible, so I’m conscious of that. Then getting into the edit knowing exactly what footage you have, what you have shot for and what the short-comings are, what you may need to work harder on in the suite to make work, is invaluable. There are moments when doing both roles where you need to ‘turn off’ the other though, for sure.”
An example on Animals happened early in the shoot. Hyde was very keen to shoot a series of shots where characters looked directly into the camera. Not scripted, just a visual idea. Mason’s editor brain began screaming, “These don’t have a place in the film!” In the end, however, the pair used these to good effect, and it was a blessing to have them. It was important that as cinematographer Mason embraced that idea rather than blocking it.
Mason then worked with Marty Pepper at Kojo to do the grade. “He really has a great eye for colour and has become a trusted collaborator over the years,” says Mason. In pre-production, Pepper set up a series of Look Up Tables (LUTs) for Mason to use for his camera tests. “I sent the test footage back with notes and ideas. Pepper tweaked one LUT in particular and this became our shooting LUT. I loaded it onto the camera then lit and shot everything for that LUT, for that look. It was a pleasure to be lighting and shooting for something so close to the final look of the film. We were seeing it on set and the investors were seeing it in rushes, which was excellent. It also meant that in the grade, what we needed to do was minimal; balancing and enhancing mainly.”
There is a scene in Animals that plays out in one, two-minute Steadicam shot. It features a drunken Laura and Tyler arguing, as they disgracefully leave an incident. “This is a favourite,” exclaims Mason. “We wanted to shoot the scene at dusk so we knew planning would be key to achieving this well. During pre-production we organised with the council for the streetlights to be turned on an hour earlier than normal. This give us the illusion of it being later, which meant we got an extra two or three takes.” The crew only had two days of Steadicam across the whole shoot, so Mason worked closely with first assistant director Jules Benoiton to schedule the Steadicam scenes and shots he wanted, onto those days. “Furthermore, in pre-production I sent Steadicam operator Roman Bugovskiy reference clips to give him an idea of the shots we were hoping to achieve for each scene.”
On the day, while the camera team were setting up the rig, Hyde was rehearsing the scene with the actors. As light fell and the crew were approaching the ideal shooting conditions, a disgruntled local parked her car in the middle of the street to register her protest about the circus of the film disturbing her quiet neighbourhood. “Perfect,” laughs Mason. “The locations team handled this wonderfully well and we only lost about two takes. We got rolling on the shot and the first take was a really good approximation of what we were going for and the performers were running hot coming out of a good forty-minute rehearsal.”
Mason and his crew managed to get another two takes, then quickly shot two alternate versions of the scene; one from behind and one slightly closer and more focussed on Laura. “Just to give us options if we wanted to change the timing or if we felt like it didn’t hold for the entire two-minute take,” he explains. “In the edit, removed from the heat of the shoot, it turned out that the first take had the strongest overall performances from both cast members and the light was perfect. There certainly were stronger technical takes for focus and framing but that is a great example of where my role as editor wins out over my cinematographer preferences. As an editor you always go with what is going to make a stronger film.”
When Mason looks back on the mood-reel they created very early on, it feels very true to the finished film. “I learnt so much shooting this film,” says Mason. “We faced a lot of challenges with both the schedule and being in an unfamiliar country. In hindsight I might have opted for a deeper stop a little more often to ease the stress on my focus puller!”, he jokes.
Coming straight out of finishing Animals Mason worked as editor on Maya Newell’s feature documentary In My Blood It Runs, which will release in Australian cinemas early in 2020, then moved directly onto editing the SBS series The Hunting. “I also created, shot and edited, the title sequence for that show, which was all shot underwater, enlisting the help of the brilliant Malcolm Ludgate ACS for the deep water shots,” he finishes. “At the moment we are busy writing, imagining and developing the next lot of projects from Closer Productions. There is an exciting lot of ideas brewing!”
Bryan Mason’s diverse credits include the Sundance-selected titles Shut Up Little Man! (2011) and 52 Tuesdays (2013).