In a post-apocalyptic future, Carl Robertson ACS talks about shooting short film Ascendant for director Josh Zammit – by Carl Robertson ACS

2. A scene from 'Ascendant' - DOP Carl Robertson ACS
A scene from the short film ‘Ascendant’ – DOP Carl Robertson ACS

Ascendant is essentially a story set in a post-apocalyptic future where a doctor relives his former love of greyhound racing and explores an old abandoned greyhound track. As he ventures throughout the facility he uncovers a biological engineering program where dogs had once been surgically enhanced and mutated to race. The films themes are an exploration of corruption, hidden societies and our human need to be on top and advancing at all costs to be the ultimate animal.

Josh Zammit who co-wrote the film with Sam Loveridge and also directed the film, he had been talking with me about filming this particular story for a while and I was drawn immediately to it as there is no dialogue in the film and its completely atmospheric. There are a lot of questions behind this story and I liked that as we have to communicate those ideas through just being visual and sound effects with no dialogue. It’s challenging to create subtext from a simple shot for instance but when all the key elements are on that same endeavour or trajectory in a creative process your questioning and reasoning gives you the right choice from that moment in time. The processes I am subconsciously deliberating when shooting this way relies more on my instinct and my documentary background and its the way I like to work as there is greater creative freedom.

The decision to shoot black and white was an easy one as it lent itself to the the film’s abstract theme, nihilistic tone and post-apocalyptic setting. Zammit and I had been looking to do a black and white project together for some time and it was always seen at its inception that black and white was the obvious choice to create this story. Personally we felt black and white places the audience in a different mindset and allows you to bring realism to the elements of abstraction in a film. Black and white draws you in subconsciously to accept it as a tangible experience even though its hypnotic and not how we see the natural world.

We looked at a lot of black and white photographs of the 1950s of greyhound racing generally and I guess the tone of the story was influenced by a lot of Tarkovsky’s work but we didn’t draw visually from any particular film. I get a lot of my visual approach instinctually from talking through the story in depth with the director and spending time in the locations, feeling the space. I prefer the look to evolve from discussions rather than being influenced by a direct image. There is so much visual reference readily material available now that you can easily lose sight of your own identity and your own innate sense for creating an image. I feel muted by looking at other films particularly. We spent a lot of time talking through the story in great depth and then allowed the look and imagery come from that. Sharing music and photos that carry thematic and aesthetic resonance is how Zammit and I prefer to communicate ideas.

A scene from the short film ‘Ascendant’ – DOP Carl Robertson ACS

We opted to shoot anamorphic as we wanted our protagonist to use the full width of the frame and allow him to discover and explore the facility. Choosing to let the character lead us to the edges of the wide frame and allowing him to react before we see what he is seeing built an element of suspense. The width of the anamorphic frame allowed us to exploit the unknown. We really stripped back the subjective view of this world and we kept allowing the frames to breathe and hold for as comfortably possible. The setting is very atmospheric and otherworldly and we always kept our camera moves subtle and really we just allowed our audience soak in the visceral and emotional arc of the film. Using anamorphic already creates an abstract experience because of the many imperfections and aberrations you get with using them. The format subconsciously builds an experience that feels a little unnatural and intriguing.

We used E-Series anamorphic lenses from Panavision and these have quite a nostalgic feel being lenses from the 1970s. I also tend to gravitate towards these lenses as they are practical being a T2 lens and their focus fall off is more gradual which suited this story. The choice of lens or camera format didn’t have as much impact as the choice of black and white, but remained important. We shot on an ARRI Alexa Plus and I tested a lot of props and did location set tests to work out the grey scale values I wanted in the final image for shooting black and white. I used colour in my lighting so I could control the greyscale values I wanted on the set or props. If you viewed the image in colour you would have seen a miss match of different hues of lighting everywhere in the frame it looked like a dogs breakfast, but it was the best approach that worked for me so I could control what I wanted in camera shooting black and white digitally rather than rely completely on post.

The lighting got more spartan the deeper we got into the characters journey where our protagonist was leading us into this hidden society which eventually revealed the horror of these mutated dogs. My lighting approach to the film was quite simple keying with single sources and changing the angle of the key as we delved deeper into the film. I used a lot of practicals on the interiors and supplemented them to create the shape but also to feel more natural. I pushed hand moving lights through the windows simulating the industrial landscape outside the club house. I rigged multiple 4ifoot single tubes LEDs across the ceiling in the club house and then draped 12×12 silks and 20×20 silks unframed underneath the tubes to create a very soft ambience. On the ground I had a couple of Arri Sky Panels and other RGB sources to shape with.

Ascendant_Still_02 copy
A scene from the short film ‘Ascendant’ – DOP Carl Robertson ACS

For the exteriors I was able to access the control of each light on the race track in the far distance and then used various HMIs and Sky panels for the large stadium areas and parts of the foreground of the track. The way I sculpted light didn’t change for me when shooting Black and white digitally, but using colour to manipulate the way a set, prop or skin-tone appeared did change and I used colour to achieve the desired look did.

The nature of working on short films is there isn’t often much money, if any at all. So the crew that came onboard where giving time for a token fee and some just came onboard to gain more experience in a particular role or connections. I didn’t get the same crew for the entire shoot because of the budget, but It’s a great way to meet new crew and work with people you may not have been aware about before. I worked with two different gaffers over different days for the larger set-ups where I required more infrastructure on other days I had a smaller kit which I just worked myself. I had worked with both gaffers before Andrew Robertson, Mat Wilson and with grips Joe and Christian Bruneteau. It was the first time I had worked with first assistant camera Jeffery Troung and he was always on his a-game. I was shooting wide open often and he was doing everything by eye, old school style, rather than reacting from a monitor. He gathered a great team together for me as well.

We shot for a total of seven days, split over a period of more than a year, due to our main location pulling out due to the government scrutiny of the New South Wales greyhound industry at the time. We had to wait a year after the initial half of the shoot before the track would allow us to gain access to the facility again and even then we were only allowed to shoot for a short period time each night for around four hours. Our producer Sam Loveridge did an amazing job even getting access to the location considering what had transpired, it took a lot of negotiating by him to finish the bulk of the film. Also unfortunately during this time of limbo, our lead dog Coco got cancer and passed away and then we had to have another similar looking dog trained to take over the role.

Working with the dog was tough as we could only afford the dog for a couple of nights and there was a lot to get through that was difficult technically and involved quite a bit of infrastructure and coordination. I was pleased in the end how we managed to fuse shots and continuity across such large time gaps between shoots.

A scene from the short film ‘Ascendant’ – DOP Carl Robertson ACS

I was lucky to have colourist Dwaine Hyde from Cutting Edge come onboard and help us out. He has an amazing tuned eye and because we have been working together for many years he understands my approach so the process is easy and I always get the results I want. We did a bit of testing initially so I could work out the lighting hue values I needed to light the set with so I could establish the grey tones that I wanted in camera. I wanted a more low contrast black and white look with the blacks having their own identity and remaining slightly creamy. We were able to establish the final look from my initial lighting and set tests. Most of the work was done in camera after that point so once we got to the grade it was pretty easy going and fast during that process.

I try to give each frame equal weight in the montage of images that builds the entire scene and story. My favourite scene, however, is when our protagonist discovers that something is still lurking in the facility inside the banquet room. It looks like whoever was in there abruptly left midway through a celebration and the environment has now taken on an element of decay and formed as a character that is rundown. Abandonment was the central to the theme in the film so I thought that worked well. I like this scene because it’s so simple in every way from the lighting that penetrates through the windows to the industrial landscape that highlight the protagonist’s hesitation as he senses something that is not quite right. I enjoyed being able to create compositions that hold unusually long. We had a lot of fun creating mystery and subjectivity by obscuring perspective through the decay in the foreground. Everything marries together in its simplest and purest form and I guess I love that in visual story telling.

1. A scene from 'Ascendant' - DOP Carl Robertson ACS
A scene from the short film ‘Ascendant’ – DOP Carl Robertson ACS

The many discussions and ideas that I had with director Josh Zammit ultimately ended up on screen and worked for us as a storytelling device. Through our use of lighting movement and holding shots to cover entire scenes, forcing at times a very unsettling mood, helped us create the tone of the film. It was also one of the most under resourced short films I’ve been involved with and forced me to work a certain way and challenged me to be very instinctual. Coming from a tv news, documentary background I had to draw upon those skills but use them in a more controlled and purposed frame. It was a very ying and yang mix which was extremely liberating and made it an enjoyable experience. I’m not sure if I would change anything about what I had done looking back as you are always reacting to your own personal life experience at a point in time of making any film. It;s what your knowledge, sensibilities and intuitiveness are creating at that time and interpreting from the page, locations, design, performances to bring the life to the image.

At the moment I’m finishing shooting a documentary in regional New South Wales and will start pre-production in December on a fantasy-action film that is slated to shoot early next year.

Carl Robertson ACS is known for his work on Infini (2015).

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