Cinematographer Bonnie Elliott ACS On Shooting ABC’s ‘Stateless’

Inspired by true events; a woman escaping a cult, a refugee fleeing with his family, a father trapped in a dead-end job, and a bureaucrat on the verge of a national scandal find their lives intertwined, caught up in migrant detention.

ABC series Stateless was created and executive produced by Cate Blanchett and Tony Ayres, directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse, and shot by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott ACS.

By Bonnie Elliott ACS.

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Cate Blanchett in the ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Stateless is a six-part series that looks at the complexity of our refugee and detention policies, and the human costs of the systems created by them. Drawing on true events we follow four central characters, Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski), an airline hostess on the run from a strange cult. Ameer (Fayssal Bassi), an Afghan refugee running towards a new life with his wife and two children. Cam (Jai Courtenay), a father of three, struggling to make ends meet, who finds a new job at an Immigration Detention Centre. And Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious bureaucrat who is running out of time to contain a national scandal.

What impressed me about the scripts was how intriguing and emotionally gripping they were. The first episode opens with the juxtaposition of three of our four characters; Sofie striding confidently through an airport, Ameer and his family in transit on a cramped bus in Indonesia, Cam finishing up his shift at a car wrecking yard and trying to get home to his family, all set to Cole Porter’s ‘Accentuate the Positive’. Oh yes, and it’s Christmas. This was not how you might imagine a show on this subject matter beginning. Their various journeys bring them to an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert, where their stories collide, overlap and explode.

I thought this multi-protagonist structure gave such interesting insights to the world it was exploring, by seeing many facets and perspectives of it. The ‘human flow’ of refugees (as Ai Weiwei’s documentary called it) is a hugely complex issue facing Australia and the world. The way we deal with displaced people reveals so much about us as a society and our humanity and I felt really excited at the chance to make something on this subject, as I feel these issues can so easily fall into the background, now that off shore detention is the current policy. 

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

The visual language of Stateless begun as it often does for me, by creating a few mood boards to begin my conversations with the creators of the show Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie and Emma Freeman the set-up director. I always find this helps to refine my ideas, and of course, helps with communicating to others. From the outset I felt the show needed to have colour and energy, to create a vitality to the story world, that would help pull our audience into the humanity of this difficult place. Capturing an elemental feeling also felt important, the heat and dust of the desert around the detention centre, the precarious journey across water of the refugees, I wanted the images to feel alive and visceral.

My first conversation with Emma Freeman felt like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. She had made a website where she had collected all her own reference images, and grouped them in themes; truths, desert, water, suburbia, texture/palette, point of view and detail, entrapment or isolation, the double self, night colour. As I looked through these images I saw many that I had in my own collections, and such a clear and distinct vision for the show also, and that chimed with my own instincts.

Once we started talking we discovered a shared love of the film Moonlight (2016, cinematography by James Laxton ASC), and how the emotional calibration of the camera felt like a revelatory approach. Freeman talked about her theory for the Stateless of ‘chaos and control’, and that the story, characters and camera oscillated between these two poles. We both wanted the storytelling to be subjective, and guided by the emotional states of our characters.

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Not long after this discussion and coming onboard the show I saw Capernaum (2018, cinematography by Christopher Aoun), which is a powerfully emotional story of a young boy in Lebanon who leaves his dirt poor family in the slums of Beirut and befriends an Ethiopian woman and her baby boy, both illegal immigrants. The camera in the film moves with the characters, sometimes roughly, but always with a raw energy that responded to performance. This film also became a touchstone for us, and we organised a screening of the film during pre for everyone to come and see it.

As we started pre our aesthetic conversations opened up to include production designer Melinda Doring, costume designer Mariot Kerr and Hair & Makeup Designer Shane Thomas, all brilliant collaborators. The central world of the story was the Barton detention centre and we started defining that first. Doring had a huge project on her hands as she had to build part of a detention centre compound. There was a site we found at Port Augusta, down the road from Baxter Detention Centre that had some buildings we could build our compound out from, with demountables and fencing. Doring and Freeman had been fortunate to visit Baxter on a research trip and had a huge bank of knowledge to draw upon, as well as images of other detention centres at Woomera and Villawood, and immigration facilities around the globe. The art department built a scale model of what they were planning to build that we could move pieces of around, which was very helpful in our endless conversations about fences, and how many we could afford to build.

Having worked with Doring before I know she is absolutely meticulous in her research, and prepares a wealth of reference material to explain her thinking. She based the design of our compound on Baxter and one of the most extraordinary parts of filming Stateless was that many of our refugee extras were people who had spent time in the real place. They were so impressed by our set, and how authentic it felt. I was surprised at how happy they were to be with us, re-enacting scenes that were similar to their personal experiences, sharing their knowledge with us. They clearly felt empowered by the opportunity to be a part of telling their story, and one of my most moving moments during the shoot was filming their reactions to a scene of a father and daughter saying goodbye to each other.

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Asher Keddie in the ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Kerr’s costumes would bring colour and relief to the monotony of the detention centre environment in the clothes of the refugees, and Thomas’ makeup would make us feel the heat, embracing sweat and dirt, and we agreed that everything would have a lived in, worn down feeling. During camera testing we looked at Antique Suede filters, which I had used previously on These Final Hours (2013), and we all responded to what they were doing to skin tones, and a general feeling of oppressive intensity. So we built some look-up tables (LUTs) based on the filter tests that I could dial into the camera selectively a Suede 1 or 2, and that would be sent through to post and be applied to rushes. In the past I haven’t shied away from using filters in front of the lens, as I did on These Final Hours, but I knew I would often be shooting into the sun to turn up the temperature and wanted to preserve the flare characteristics of my lenses. The best thing about having a camera with internal filters is that you can have the light flare the lens without layers of glass that can bounce around in ways you don’t always want.

Away from the detention centre, another key world within the show is the self-help cult Growing One’s Potential Achievement (GOPA) that Sofie is involved with before she ends up in Barton. The contrast of this, and the way her journey to Barton plays out in flashbacks we all agreed needed a distinctly different look. As we had decided on warmth for the detention centre, a cooler feeling felt right, with less saturated colours, more pastels. This contrasts again with Ameer and his family and their journey from Indonesia. We knew from location reconnaisssance of Lombok in the beginning of pre-production that the palette there leaned into the greens of the tropics, super-saturated pops of colour in clothes and buildings, the harsh glare of exposed bulbs on street stalls at night, the textures of monsoonal dilapidation, and the constant movement of traffic and street life, a very distinct visual environment.

I created another bunch of mood boards to express these ideas and contrasts in the story worlds, ones for each character, key locations, day and night lighting, I think there were about twenty in the end, more than I have ever done before for one project. These all ended up on Freeman’s Stateless website, along with our location reconnaisssance photos, and this became an invaluable tool of communication between the heads-of-department and the creators, producers, the ABC, and eventually the crew. I think it is a terrific way to keep everyone clear on the vision of a project and what we are all setting out to make together. 

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

My go-to camera for some time has been the ARRI Alexa Mini, for its lovely sensor and versatility of configuration. I knew the show would be a mix of hand held and Steadicam, leaning towards ‘chaos’, and tracks and sliders in ‘control’ mode. I wanted to be able to move between them quickly and easily. My favourite lenses are Zeiss Super Speeds which I chose again for Stateless as I feel they have enough character to take the image away from something clean and digital, and imbue it with humanity and warmth, without ever becoming romantic. I have recently embraced using zooms more, and had just had a great experience on The Hunting (2019) working with the Angeniuex short zooms, which give you speed and flexibility, and above all momentum. Freeman is a performance oriented director, she will often want to shoot close-ups first, and I thought she would be happy not to wait for a lens change, or re-balance of the Steadicam rig, to stay in it with the actors. I mostly used them for day exterior scenes, as I tended to favour the Super Speeds for night work and interiors, as I love the way they flare, and our set had so many wonderful sodium vapour lights that did just that.

Panavision supplied all our equipment and were incredibly supportive as always, sending tech wiz Peter Lorz over to Adelaide to investigate when we had Teradek issues. We have all come to rely so profoundly on wireless systems and for focus pullers in particular, when you have a kinetic shooting style, it’s vital it works. The new Teradek 3000s were very reliable once we switched over to them.

Kitty May Allwood was my focus puller on A-camera, and we have previously worked together on Undertow (2018) and The Hunting. She is a brilliant technician, and has an uncanny ability to get in sync with actors, often with little or no rehearsal. Partly her skills and experience and I suspect because she is an emotionally intuitive person! And because of this she also runs the camera department with generosity and kindness. I am always grateful for the tone she sets, of positivity and calmness. 

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

The rest of my camera department were all people of similar qualities, Steadicam and B-camera operator Tim Walsh, B-camera first assistant camera Murray Johnston, second assistants camera Claire Bishop and Rebekah Hawkey and video-split Chris Daniels. Having the right crew around the camera really affects the actors and rest of the on set crew. I am very careful to work with people who have the right sort of energy. I am also conscious to have a gender balanced camera team, which not only helps create a great atmosphere on set, but is also my own way of trying to make changes to what continues to be a male dominated field.

This was my first project working with Walsh, and from the beginning this felt like another beautiful friendship as his dramatic instincts as an operator are so strong and his sense of compositions very closely aligned with my own. It was a real collaboration, and I encouraged Walsh to be in the moment as shots played out and see where the characters and emotions of the scene took him.

My lighting team was led by the Buddha of South Australian lighting, Graeme Shelton, whose experience and grace under pressure helped me to navigate a demanding schedule, and realise my ambitions for the show, which were never small. We had excellent support from electrics Chris Walsingham, Peter Giuliani and Tane Lees. Having previously collaborated with Shelton and his crew on The Hunting, we had begun to develop a shared language, and an understanding of my tastes in fixtures. Although I was delighted to be introduced to the ‘Parachilna Bounce’ on Stateless, a vintage 12×12 ultra bounce imbued with the red dust of many of Shelton’s previous adventures.

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Having already worked with grip Matt Richardson on The Hunting, and been impressed by his resourcefulness and good humour, I signed him and his excellent team of Matan Tatarko, Django Nou and Chris Lever up for another dance. I also encouraged Richardson to buy a Grip Factory Munich six-foot slider for the job. Something he has now come to love as much as I do.

Stateless was a large undertaking, filming for almost three months in Adelaide, Port Augusta and Timor. Our hilarious and brilliant first assistant director Peter McLennan somehow wrangled the complex cast availabilities and art department requirements into submission, and was a huge support to freeman and myself. The time in Port Augusta in the compound set built by the art department had some ambitious sequences that encompass many smaller scenes, involving large numbers of cast, parallel action and multiple points of view. Freeman likes to tackle these with what she calls a ‘mega block’ where we take the time to work through all the elements with the cast, so everyone understands where they are and what is going on for them, and we can plan coverage, and maximise what we can get out of each set up. 

For some of these sequences we used three cameras, which proved to be very efficient with a set as big as our compound, and with additional operators as talented as Sky Davies and Maxx Corkindale I could trust that all cameras were working effectively. I always work with a monitor that has the B-camera shot displayed so I can check lighting and framing, but when we went into chaos mode with Corkindale filming from a chopper as a ‘news camera’ and Walsh and myself at ground level, cast and extras moving in all directions, it’s about trusting that you have the right people working with you.

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Asher Keddie in ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

The lighting of the compound at night was one of my biggest challenges in pre-production, as I wanted to give freedom to the characters, and the camera, so the set needed to basically self illuminate, to facilitate 360-degree filming. Doing my research on actual detention centre lighting I found that fluorescent tubes and industrial fixtures of mercury and sodium were the main lighting used. I love the orange intensity of sodiums, and felt that favouring them would play into the feeling of heat, and also the richness of colour we wanted for the show. Contrasting this with cool white fluorescents gave us an interesting balance of dirty warmth and greenish cyan hues, broken up by the occasional daylight tube, which add a dash of lavender here and there. 

All actual fixtures were built into the set, and one happy accident was some of the demountables turned up with small yellow fluorescent tubes mounted to their exterior. When I saw them in the mix I embraced them too, adding another colour accent.  One of my real joys on the show was shooting in the compound at night, it was such a thrill when it got dark to turn it all on with the flick of a switch and say “we’re lit, let’s shoot! 

Aside from twisting out a few tubes or turning off a sodium that was creating camera shadows or flattening things out, it really was a self-saucing pudding. It was so efficient and gave us huge flexibility and I only wish we could have shot more scenes at night. I kept asking the show runner if we could change some day scenes to night, as our winter schedule meant our days were very short, and sometimes the mornings would be slow to start as we waited for the actors breath to stop fogging, not quite right for our hot and dusty show. Shooting in winter sun is a blessing of course, and our cast were incredibly good sports about being constantly spritzed and sweated up under their armpits, which really sold the temperature, although I think they may have groaned quietly inside every time I asked the makeup and standby team for more.

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Freeman set up the show very strongly, directing the first three episodes, and the clarity of her vision was apparent from the moment I saw the website she created. She followed this through with a deep level of preparation, which allowed her to follow her instincts on the day and work really collaboratively with the cast. Her focus on performance is well known, and she is much loved by actors for creating a set that is open to their instincts, and focused on their needs. In some circumstances Freeman prefers to shoot the closeups first, to capture the performances when they are fresh and surprising, and not waste that alchemical energy on wider shots and warming up into the scene. I haven’t worked this way much before and I found the results quite revelatory at times. My approach to lighting is about illuminating a space, not the individual shots, so this allowed me to reverse engineer back to wide shots without too much difficulty. You just have to think it through carefully, so you don’t paint yourself into any corners.

Freeman also likes to cross shoot in certain scenarios, which can really work for actors as they can overlap and feel free to change continuity, be in the moment and see where the scene takes them. I think this can work very well in some lighting situations, and when it doesn’t I would offer up another two camera scenario which would allow both actors to be on camera. What I loved about working with Freeman is the respect she has for her cast and collaborators, and through her clear and decisive leadership, takes us down a path that we all believe in.

Changing directors is always a gear change for the cast and crew of any series, as no two directors are alike, and yet the show must feel like one seamless whole, one of the biggest challenges of shooting television drama. In the first days of Moorhouse’s block we had a huge protest sequence to shoot, with masses of extras, vehicles, three cameras, plus a drone; probably one of the biggest action sequences in the series. It was straight to the deep end of the pool, and full ‘chaos’ mode to welcome Moorhouse to Stateless.

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

Fortunately Moorehouse was very collaborative, and open to listening to the cast and myself, understanding how deeply immersed we were in the characters and story world. The last three episodes see the mental health of Sofie decline, and so the visual language evolves to respond to that shift, with Moorhouse looking to find ways to heighten the emotion through camera and performance, as the show builds to an intense conclusion.

The first episode sees Ameer and his family on their journey from Indonesia to Australia, and at the beginning of pre we traveled to Lombok to scout locations. After much negotiating our permit did not eventuate, and we found ourselves looking for an alternative quite late in the shoot. We were fortunate to travel to Timor to film these important sequences, and they were incredibly welcoming of our project and crew. However we now had to find all new locations, and fast. Freeman, Doring and I drove all over Dili and the coastline one hour on either side locking them in over three days, so that we could tech scout and start filming the following week.

Timor has a very small film industry, but fortunately John Maynard the producer of Balibo (2009) had introduced us to a fixer, Michael Stone who helped us find local crew, and smoothed the way forward. It felt so important to show this journey that so many refugees take with as much authenticity as possible, and I don’t think we could ever have pulled off what we did in Dili in some of the other countries that were talked about when Indonesia fell through. The people of Dili were curious to see our crew working, and un-phased by the cameras, seeming happy to appear in shots incidentally, or featured quite closely. Filming in the central market was another day of chaos theory as Faysal Bassi improvised scenes with locals, begging for food, with our cameras in amongst it, dodging people and carts, as the life of the market swirled around us.

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

We also found an incredible black sand beach to shoot our boat departure scene. Scripted as a night scene, there was no way we could light this with the resources available in Timor, so I had to embrace shooting at dusk. As long as it looked like they were leaving under the cover of darkness I knew our story could work, even if it felt like very early pre dawn light. On the day we shot the scene the clouds rolled in, giving us an extra forty five minutes of light to film in. Shoes off, up to my knees in water, I smiled and thanked Timor from the bottom of my heart.

I was fortunate that the producers were able to accommodate a long overseas trip I had planned straight after we wrapped, so that I could attend the grade of Stateless. They also agreed to a more generous schedule than I have had on previous series, so we had a few days to establish looks across the show, and then four days grading per episode. Given the pace at which we shoot television drama, I really think it is money well spent not rushing the grade, and I appreciated that the producers concurred! Having a proper amount of time to crystallise the different story worlds and finesse transitions, and also allow time for reviews and addressing notes really makes all the difference.

Colourist Brett Manson and I have a long collaboration that started on These Final Hours, and more recently includes H is for Happiness (2018) and Slam (2019). It is a true delight to grade with someone that you share an aesthetic understanding, and who knows your taste already. We started off by referring back to all my original mood boards, which Manson keeps at close hand when working with me, as we sometimes come back to them as we go along. We had a few LUTs already built that we had used on the shoot, the Antique Suede filter replication, and one that swung the cool white fluorescent into a more cyan place, away from yellow. These proved a good foundation to build on as we worked together to accentuate and define the different worlds our characters start in, whilst maintaining a cohesive overall feeling of contrast and colour density. 

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A scene from ABC television series ‘Stateless’ – DOP Bonnie Elliott ACS

I think my favourite sequence is the GOPA Eisteddfod in episode one. Who doesn’t love a song and dance routine? Filming Cate Blanchett singing ‘Let’s get away from it all’ onstage in a sparkling Rita Hayworth style gown designed by Kerr, in makeup that had just a touch of the John Waters, as Yvonne Strahovski danced in front of her in a killer red satin dress is an experience I will always remember fondly. During the sequence Sofie starts to lose confidence and freak out. A scene that had started in control mode with dolly moves, fluid Steadicam, and an overhead Busby Berkeley geometry shot changes gears into handheld. I got in amongst the dancers on a shift and tilt lens, pulling focus myself in a jagged and destabilised way. I then employed a fractal filter for a few specials in front of a 50mm Super Speed, as Freeman had wanted to create a sort of kaleidoscopic distortion effect. I had ordered these filters online from the United States and they finally arrived in the post the very day we shot the scene we needed them for, much to my relief and amazement.

A dramatic handheld confrontation in the glare of a follow spot unfolds with the leader of the cult (Dominic West) before Sofie flees, with Walsh doing an extraordinary running shot down the street leading her with an unbalanced Steadicam rig, to create a hand held feel, that fully situates the audience inside the trauma of her experience. I feel this sequence encapsulates what Freeman and I were going for with the different camera modes of ‘chaos and control’. I was particularly proud that we filmed the Eisteddfod part of the sequence in the first week of the shoot. It was a hugely ambitious day, but so wonderful seeing all the design, camera, performance and choreography elements come together, and I knew from then that we might just pull off the whole series.

As I get ready to fly to Berlin for the premiere of Stateless at that city’s film festival, I feel proud that the real commitment and hard work we all put into this series shines so brightly. Tech checking the DCP with some distance from the grade, and with the sound and music all mixed, I felt deeply affected by what I saw. I think we all felt the pressure of honouring the subject matter, and the need to make something engaging, that is so compelling you don’t want to look away. I know it has been a long road for the creators to get Stateless made, so I hope everyone who watches as it goes to air in Australia is as thoroughly absorbed as I was.

Bonnie Elliott ACS is is an award-winning cinematographer who works across drama, documentary, commercials and video art.

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