On The Water With ‘Buoyancy’, An Award-Winning Drama Shot By Australian Cinematographer Michael Latham

Inspired by the real-life plight of workers sold into Southeast Asia’s fishing industry and featuring a powerful performance from its first-time star, Buoyancy is a gripping high seas drama shot by Australian cinematographer Michael Latham.

By Michael Latham.

Chakra (Sarm Heng) in 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
Chakra (Sarm Heng) in ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

Director Rodd Rathjen and I have known each other for over ten years. We met at film school when we were studying together. We had talked about the concept of the script prior to him writing it as I strangely have a close connection to that world. I was born in Bangkok, and I have parents that are indirectly involved in anti-human trafficking advocacy in the region. Coming from that background I knew how brutal modern slavery can be and how important it is to tell that story.

From a technical point of view we both knew from the conception that a film set on water was going to be a challenge, however when Rathjen and I went to Thailand for development and to document the Thai fishing industry we realised it was going to be even harder than we first thought. It was a dangerous world with a lot to hide and so there was very little access.

It was clear early on that it was important to Rathjen that the film didn’t feel like a documentary. Trying to find that balance was what most of our conversations were about. In the end we found a mutual reference in the Steve McQueen film Hunger (2008, cinematography by Sean Bobbitt BSC). It was realistic without the documentary feel. The problem with that reference was that Hunger is beautifully lit in a controlled environment. I knew I wouldn’t have that luxury with our time and budget constraints so I was trying to figure out how to achieve a separation from realism when basically shooting in a documentary environment. In the end I decided to push to shoot anamorphic as a way to create that separation in the look and feel.

Chakra (Sarm Heng) in a scene from 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
Chakra (Sarm Heng) in a scene from ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

Unusually I am more involved in the design, costuming and coverage of a film but this one was a little different. Rathjen was very clear about what he wanted down to the point of storyboarding the film in almost its entirety. This became a huge asset later on as logistically shooting on a boat is a nightmare. Every little detail effected our schedule, from which side of the boat we were shooting to if there were fish on the deck to if nets were in the water and so on. A lot of my pre-production was just pure logistics; how we were going to be able to achieve everything as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

The camera package was the ARRI Alexa Mini. Of course I would have loved to shoot film but it wasn’t practical. The Mini has been my preferred package as it has the ‘ARRI look’ at half the weight which I think is important in keeping things moving as quickly as possible. It requires less rigging and camera support as well as enabling us to get into tighter spaces. In keeping with speed and flexibility I was pretty adamant in making sure everything was wireless, along with the fact that a boat with a full crew is a surprisingly tight space and anything extra to trip on around water is not where I wanted to be.

Rom Ran (played by Thanawut Kasro) in the film 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
Rom Ran (played by Thanawut Kasro) in the film ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

The lenses we chose were Kowa Anamorphic for their character and also supporting that idea of separating the film from a documentary aesthetic. I wanted to steer clear of the shiny commercial character that some of the more modern anamorphic lenses have. The world of Buoyancy is warn and I wanted the image to reflect that. All of this was good, in theory, but it took our poor producer Sam Jennings the better part of two weeks to source and negotiate a set of lenses in Asia. Luckily for me she persisted and fought to get a set flown in, but it was definitely a thorn in her side.

Shooting on the water was a huge conversation. We discussed just about every option on how to achieve it from dry docking the boat right through to building a bridge into the middle of the ocean. In the end we ended up with a support barge that we would dock alongside our boat which appears in the film. It gave us more flexibility as we could keep crew and supplies on there.

Knowing this was the plan we had to know which direction we were looking, as to where the boat had to be attached to the barge. If we were shooting up the front of the boat we would need to be docked from the back as so on. Minimising these moves was vital as it was a half-an-hour process. This is when Rathjen’s storyboards became vital. I mapped out every shot into floor plans to understand our field-of-view and where we needed to be docked. I would then sun track all of those floor plans and write what time of each day I thought could work for each scene, and that would get accounted for when possible into the schedule.

Chakra (played by Sarm Heng) in the film 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
Chakra (played by Sarm Heng) in the film ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

The main issue with shooting out on open water is it costs a lot of time and money to get far enough out to where you can’t see land. Your only real option is to shoot close to the coast and use the 180-degree view out to the water. But that is easier said than done because it’s rare that a coast is straight and there is an island or headlands in the way. The other issue for us was in Cambodia the sun rose from the land side so in the morning everything was horribly front-lit.

During location reconnaissance I had a spot picked out that gave me almost a 210-degree clean view of the water allowing me the best chance at angling the boat for the sun, but we only ended up shooting there one day. The seas were too rough that day and it was smashing the boat against the barge. We couldn’t risk the safety of the crew and we were loosing a lot of time so we had to shoot a lot of the film in more sheltered areas. This made it very difficult to avoid seeing any land whilst trying to adjust for light. My 210-degree view turned into a 90-degree view and keeping the boat straight is neigh impossible as currents push it around constantly even with two anchors. We would sometimes start a take and by the end a headland had crept into shot.

Cinematographer Michael Latham is behind the camera on 'Buoyancy' - PHOTO Rafael Winer
Cinematographer Michael Latham is behind the camera on ‘Buoyancy’ – PHOTO Rafael Winer

Simple coverage like a reverse shot scene becomes so much more complicated as the reverse might have land in it and you can’t just flip the boat because it throws your lighting continuity out with the sun. There was a lot of angling the boat into a position just past the right angle then hoping it will drift into the correct position through the take. For some of the more complicated scenes we would venture out past the bay or into deeper water but for the most part we played this juggling act.

Once you go into night you have the same problem but a new one arises; you are still trying to avoid land but the only way to light the ocean is to backlight it because of its angle of reflectance. We were brainstorming all sorts of ideas like rigging off the boat to balloon lights out in the middle of the ocean on a smaller boat. That idea was pretty quickly shut down as it turned out Cambodia didn’t have a huge supply of helium and so we would basically need the whole country’s supply. Importing turned out to be too difficult and expensive so we ended up moving locations and shot with a pier deep in the background on which we put lighting up on a crane.

Ultimately shooting on water is about adapting and problem solving. There was always a variable that came up and we just had to try and make it work. It was definitely character building.

Chakra (Sarm Heng) in the film 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
Chakra (Sarm Heng) in the film ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

I had a full Cambodian crew; camera, light and gripping. They were awesome and all worked hard at getting me what I needed. They kept me and the rest of the crew safe in an unpredictable environment and toughed out the shoot with no complaints, which is saying something when you’re in tropical heat with no shade on a rocking boat with the smell of fish.

Rathjen’s inspiration for certain scenes had come from stories from real slavery fishermen finding decomposing body parts in fishing nets. The stories you hear are sometime so crazy they are hard to believe, but every now and then you would get reminded of the reality of the situation. We were doing a scene where a dead body floats past our boat and Rathjen was directing the actor to posture himself correctly. One of our other actors, who was himself a survivor of a slavery fishing boat, pointed out how when he saw dead bodies they would float a certain way depending on their size and state of decay. It is shocking to think that someone might have seen one victim floating in an ocean let alone so many. It was these glimpses of their ordeals that were so humbling.

The trawler at sunset in a scene from the film 'Buoyancy' - DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer
The trawler at sunset in a scene from the film ‘Buoyancy’ – DOP Michael Latham, PHOTO Rafael Winer

Sadly I missed the grade. I had another shoot in Brazil and the timing was really specific on both projects so we couldn’t make it work. Rathjen knows what he wants so I didn’t feel worried about it. Our colourist would send stills and I would give notes. It’s always challenging not being in the room so you have to trust that you are doing what is appropriate for the story.

I always find it hard to separate my work and the inner criticism. I think there is something to be proud of in the achievement of completing a film on an independent budget in a tough environment and about such an important topic. The credit goes to the whole cast and crew for pulling through to make it happen.

I think we set out to make a film that shines a light on modern-day slavery through the journey of our main character. Hopefully we made something that carries a story, engages an audience, makes them feel something and ideally makes a little bit of a difference in the world. If we have achieved that then to me that is success.

Cinematographer Michael Latham shooting 'Buoyancy' on location - PHOTO Rafael Winer
Cinematographer Michael Latham shooting ‘Buoyancy’ on location – PHOTO Rafael Winer

I think within context of the restrictions there is not much that could have been done differently. Of course there are the little things that you would change but do they make a difference to the final film? Probably not. When you are at the mercy of the elements so many of the challenges were unique to the day depending on the ocean, the weather and the action in the scene. I wish there was a silver bullet to shooting on water but I have a feeling even people that spend a life time capturing that environment are still at its mercy.

Michael Latham is an award-winning cinematographer known for his work on Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Strange Colours (2018).

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