Shot by Tristan Milani ACS, high-end drama from production company Seven Studios Secret Bridesmaids’ Business is a suspenseful thriller series that sets a new standard for Australian network television.
By Calum Riddell.
Seven Studio’s new nail-biting romantic thriller, Secret Bridesmaids’ Business, represents a shift in the current trend of Australian television towards authentic, character driven stories that speak to a more modern audience. The cinematography of Secret Bridesmaids’ Business juxtaposes intense dark visuals of the thriller genre with a naturalistic beauty that allows space for story and character; a more sophisticated and cinematic approach to commercial television.
The series follows three best friends, Melanie, Saskia, and Olivia, in the months leading up to a wedding. Shown in disjointed, intriguing flash-forwards that hint at danger and tragedy. The tensions rise as secrets are revealed, a dangerous stranger forces his way into their lives, and Melanie, Saskia, and Olivia turn to each other in order to survive. The six-part thriller series premiered on Channel Seven from 29 September, and is available to stream free on 7Plus.
The set-up director Tori Garrett (episodes 1-3) and director Jennifer Perrot (episodes 3-6), had a challenge ahead of them. The characters in Secret Bridesmaids’ Business are placed in three incredibly different worlds. From seemingly idyllic Bayside suburbia, to the vast vineyards and horizons of the Mornington Peninsula, intercut with the city of Melbourne’s high-rise skyscrapers and dynamic bars and restaurants.
Tristan Milani ACS is well known in the the industry having shot films such as Rowan Wood’s excellent The Boys (1998), as well as both Balibo (2009) and Paper Planes (2014) for director/producer Robert Connolly. The cinematographer was tasked with bringing these worlds together and creating a visual style that would carry a series through tonal shifts; from romance to high-stakes thriller. Secret Bridesmaids’ Business marks Milani’s first time back to television in Australia for a number of years and may be the driving reason that his approach to this show was so singular. Taking time away from the fast schedules and sleepless nights of the Australian television world, Milani has been focusing on feature films and commercials. Coming back to Australian television, he approached the series as “six one-hour movies,” demonstrated in the sweeping approach to building each location and the careful approach to character.
The show itself utilises darkness, contrast and powerfully still frames to allow the audience to observe the characters as they each have moments where their world falls apart. Traditionally, our network television has been bright and constantly-moving to stimulate a traditional television audience and create ‘sticky drama’ that keeps viewers from changing the channel. However, as streaming services rise and the content game grows ever competitive, audiences are looking for premium, complex drama that they will watch how and when they want. A modern audience requires a modern approach to cinematography, with the support of the network, Milani was trusted to let the visuals echo the dark and suspenseful undertones of the story.
The outstanding result of this complementary approach is the product of Milani and Garrett’s long history working together. “Garrett is wonderfully responsive to visual ideas on the run,” Milani says. “She is really responsive and respectful. Hence the quality of the show we have got.” The two have worked together for close to fifteen years, harking back to shooting commercials in Asia. This succinct, experienced and concise shorthand can be observed by anyone in pre-production or on set as they approach every story beat as a team, and let the story influence every frame.
Milani had four weeks pre-production prior to a ten week shoot, mostly in Melbourne, with two regional stints down on the Mornington Pensinula.
Secret Bridesmaid’s Business was shot on Panavision PVintage lenses, aided by two Primo Zooms from Panavision, 17.5-75mm and 24-275mm. The camera package included two ARRI Alexa Mini’s for A and B Camera, with an Alexa XT for the C camera that would occasionally be brought out. The PVintage lenses were suggested by director Tori Garret, so Milani brought his daughter Gigi Milani to Panavision in Sydney for some key light tests.
In pre-production, camera tests were shot on the Primo Lenses, Noir Primo No.3’s and Ultra Speeds, and screened at Blue Post in Melbourne for the producers, director, and colourist to see. The approach to the show became about the faces and how they resolve on camera. Tristan’s approach to the visuals was all around audience empathy.
“To make the show successful, I have to make the audience love these girls,” explains Milani. “So, I have to light soft. Even though they don’t always make the right choices… you still have to love them.”
With the fast, twenty-five day per block schedule and the complicated locations, there was a need for speed and natural beauty. This informed many of the creative decisions such as the soft aesthetic that echoes the seasonal, overcast drift from autumn to winter that motivated and aided the dramatic turning of the show.
The lenses and the testing that was done became very important as the schedule grew tighter. The production needed a lens that could carry the show on sometimes natural light only, resolving and sculpting faces with a soft glow and character that kept skin tones very grounded in the real world. Following the tests, the PVintage lenses were selected as they seemed to soak up the light and resolved softer due to their older glass and lack of coating. The one small issue became the colour shift in the set due to their age. The wider lenses were warm, red and soft whereas the longer lenses, particularly the 50mm, 75mm and 100mm were sharper and cooler. This was to be fixed in post, by talented colourist Marcus Smith whom Tristan consulted with regularly during pre-production.
Milani’s filmic approach to cinematography with his use of in-camera filtering and film-style lighting resulted in pushing the ALEV III sensor to its limits. “The thing with Australian television is that we normally can’t use the best technology available to us. We wanted it to be natural and use the great technology we have, go with it, trust it and understand it,” he says. This embracement of what is possible with modern technology is what grants the show its elegance and simplicity. Allowing for a minimal lighting approach and equally restrained camera movement became the building blocks of the show’s style. “When in doubt, go wide.”
The cinematographer is the self-proclaimed master of the wide shot, believing it allows for symbolic representation of the character and allows space for the actors to play and become part of their own world. Secret Bridesmaids’ Business defies the modern approach to television of using the camera to force or push moments on the audience and instead hold still to let the action play within the frame.
There is also a significant use of the 35mm close-up, to bring the audience not only close to the characters but to their world as well. This style of close-up is a modern approach to storytelling that has been embraced by shows such as HBO’s mini-series Sharp Objects (2018, cinematography by Ronald Plante CSC and Yves Bélanger CSC) and Netflix’s Russian Doll (2019, series cinematography by Chris Teague). Both strong visual references for Milani and Garrett. “You have to see the girl’s eyes,” says Milani. “We wanted to avoid close-ups on 100mm lenses, we wanted to be there with them.”
Milani and Garrett wanted to avoid the look of the actors’ heads floating in front of a bokeh filled background, disconnecting the audience from the character. This philosophy allows for a stonier form of storytelling, slowing down the camera and having the confidence in the set design and the actors to play. All the worlds of Secret Bridesmaids’ Business were designed with care and precision by production designer Ben Bangay, and Milani’s frames allowed these worlds to exist authentically, grounded and connected to character.
“The whole approach was simple and unpretentious,” explains Milani. During production there were a few instances where the cinematographer’s advocation for modern technology and the utilisation of as much natural lighting as possible landed him in a bit of trouble and forced him to put his money where his mouth is.
On the 84th floor of the Eureka Tower in Melbourne was the set for Saskia’s office. “We had to pull the blinds down and play to the sun; the schedule made this very hard,” he says. Due to the size of the floor to ceiling windows, NDing them would be near to impossible with the time frame they had so they had to just make it work. While the light made the space daunting and restrictive, Milani and Garrett worked closely with gaffer Laurie Fish and key grip John Regan, and blocked the cast precisely so they could gain the coverage that they needed and not lose any natural beauty or performance.
“Director Peter Weir taught me that I need an A list and a B list when it comes to coverage,” the cinematographer muses. “The A list is the must get and the B list is everything else that is nice to have. It’s a great thing to teach. It’s all about what you can get done in a ten-hour day.”
The scenes shot at Olivia’s home among her vineyards encompasses the style and elegance of the visuals within Secret Bridesmaids’ Business. This was shot with an ARRI Alexa Mini at 4500K with a 50mm Panavision PVintage lens that is hardly graded, and no artificial lights were used. It utilises the natural beauty of the location at the right time of day, allowing the actor and set design to triumph in frame. Milani starts every conversation with where the key natural light belongs, and lets everything else fall into place.
The cinematographer praises the producers Maryanne Carroll and Amanda Crittenden for their embracing of story and fighting for the vision of the director, “We chose locations to suit the characters and the producers were so good, they somehow just got them!”
The show’s incredible setting is one of the most captivating characters within the story. The use of locations, palettes and tones that so accurately represent the world they inhabit is what allows the audience to love and engage with these three authentic women. It is a real merit to the work of the design team, lead by production designer Ben Bengay and costume designer Penny Dickinson.
For a cinematographer, this challenge of the division and integration of three words into a larger narrative is both daunting and exciting as it allows for so many possibilities and techniques to differentiate the worlds. Milani’s filmic approach to his craft can be seen as an example in his world building.
“I went all filmy and brought in-camera filtering back,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to rely on post-production to give me the look I wanted. I would never ask for the look of a Chocolate 1 filter on an image. In my experience it never looks right.”
When testing Melanie’s house, Milani added a Chocolate 1 filter that made the whites warmer and ultimately made the house feel older and more run down. This is to reflect the characters dichotomy of the two worlds that she inhabits. The warm home with her two kids and loving husband, which is beautiful but crumbling under the surface; compared to the cooler, sleek display home village where she is harbouring a secret.
This frame is lit with a 4K par through the window coupled with the cinematographer’s favourite light sources in the bedroom on the left, the source 5 and source 6 pattern projectors. This one in particular is an out of focus gobo projected at 3200K on the bedroom wall to provide depth and separation.
As a result of the naturalistic approach, the lighting philosophy was to embrace the lack of backlight and use lighting walls and practicals as a way to add depth and separation to the image. This was not only due to time constraints but was about building the environment and creating a real space for the characters to inhabit. For Milani, it was always about “the faces” and also simply “what can you get done in a ten-hour day?”
“The rise of the streaming companies has had a very positive effect on the production values we need to bring to television production in this country,” Milani believes. The high-end nature and production value of streaming content has forced television to push the boundaries and take more risks with visual storytelling. Ultimately allowing the approach to television to be done from a more filmic and cinematic style, opening the door to the possibilities of the cinematic language.
The minimalistic beauty of Tristan Milani ACS’ work on Secret Bridesmaids’ Business highlights the changing nature of our industry and also shows what can be done with a united creative team, and trust and support from a network. This show is an example of premium drama in Australia that continues to encourage intelligent cinematic storytelling that pushes the boundaries of traditional commercial television.
Tristan Milani ACS has shot ten feature films, one IMAX film (Solamax in 2000) and over forty short films. He has been nominated for seven AFI/AACTA awards for cinematography and won eleven Australian Cinematographers Society Awards.
Calum Riddell is a Scottish cinematographer based in Sydney. He has worked on a number of award winning short films, music videos and filmed commercials both here in Australia and overseas.