Earle Dresner ACS tackles extreme weather, a refugee crisis and pandemics in this human story about a very near future and the challenges it may bring in television series The Commons.
By Darcy Yuille.
It’s clear from the first shots that The Commons is something special; a high concept Australian television series that rivals On the Beach (1959, cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno AIC ASC) for bleak storylines and large set pieces. Produced by Playmaker Media for Stan, it’s also the most expensive Australian television series produced to date.
Exploring a world on the brink of destruction that could be tomorrow or next year, the show features catastrophic weather events, a climate refugee crisis and the technological advances of super cities. On one hand, a logistical nightmare in the making, on the other, the budget and scope to use all the toys. What initially drew cinematographer Earle Dresner ACS to the series was the human story of a family trying to survive and grow in a world with an uncertain future.
“The premise of the show is set in the near future,” says Dresner. “Kind of like five to ten years in the future. I describe it as on the news and in political commentary, if we don’t do something by 2030, then we’re in serious trouble. In the show, it’s already 2030 and we didn’t do anything. This is the result.”
Dresner’s first encounter with the production came from a brief meeting with the producers where he was invited to submit his ideas. A highly-experienced commercial cinematographer, Dresner created a ‘look book’ that served to communicate key elements he believed would work to tell the story. The key features of this document covered ways the cinematographer could build the look of the world through treating the technology, the oppressive environment and characters.
One element that came to him early was the choice of Panavision C Series Anamorphic lenses. The show called for a large number of interior scenes; the characters in the story take refuge from the outside world, the heat is oppressive and the rain dangerous. As such, the idea that the heat was ever present and trying to find a way inside each location informed his use of the C Series lenses. A simple and cost effective way to create the sense of heat in the world, Dresner tested different Anamorphic and spherical lenses with lighting just on the edge and sometimes even in frame, creating an organic flare to give a sense of an always bright and hot world.
“I conducted an extensive camera and lens test, which I always try to before filming anything,” explains the cinematographer. “There were four lens types that we presented. I put together a video which tested Cooke Anamorphic lenses, the Panavision C Series, Leica Summicron and Primo Artiste Spherical. The C Series fall apart on the edges, and degradation, a key element of the story, comes through. The flares say the environment is ready to crack. It’s popular and trendy, but I’m not a fan of the sharp blue flares, we didn’t want to make a modern science fiction show, this needed to be a grounded show that could be tomorrow or next year.”
Set up director Jeffrey Walker and the producers bought into this look early on, which was important for Dresner on a show of this size. Decisions had to be made in pre-production, the show was moving so quickly and they had a tight turnaround. Production started in June 2019 and they needed to wrap by early October to deliver for Boxing Day.
With 4K acquisition the standard for SVOD’s, Dresner tested the Sony Venice, Panavision DXL2 and ARRI Alexa LF with the Alexa a clear favourite. However the size and dimensions of many of the practical locations would have made it impractical, and the Mini LF hadn’t yet been released in Australia. The Sony Venice seemed to tick most of the boxes.
Dual ISO at 500 or 2500 as base sensitivity was tested in pre-production at bracketed exposures. Daylight scenes were shot at 500 as much as possible, with a push to 800 on occasion, and for night scenes Dresner would set to a base of 2500, but then set the camera to 1600, which helped to pull the noise back and provide the cinematographer with a clean image. This allowed Dresner to make the nights more natural without the need for a massive source lighting up and down an entire street, and also to add to the existing environment rather than creating an artificial space.
“I think with every camera you’ve got to know what it’s really good at, and what it’s not as good at, and keep that in mind,” says Dresner. “There were certain things I had to adjust to, but overall I was really happy with the image. As an example, and it’s quite a technical thing, but the underexposed areas become quite saturated. If you grade down your highlights and mid-tones, which are sitting at a certain saturation, it brings in a lot of saturation, particularly in the reds. You need to be aware of it with your lighting, and aware of it with certain skin tones.”
“We were shooting actors Joanne Frogatt, who’s like porcelain, and David Lyons, who’s quite tanned. When you have two of them in the room you have to be aware that Lyons’ skin tones can go quite red very quickly. Ultimately, I mainly dealt with this in the grade, pulling out saturation in the shadow areas. One doesn’t want to give them each a separate light or make it look too lit, and time is against you. Sometimes it’s a case of giving the actor a bit more fill to get the skin tone right, but by the same token, we were looking to make a show that was quite intense and had some nice darkness to it. You don’t want to have something like that influence the way you shoot, especially now when you can do so much in post-production.”
Dresner credits the production team and the crew as a big part of their success in creating the world of The Commons. He aimed to get the best camera department possible and was able to entice a crack team of Simon Harding as his A-camera and Steadicam operator, with David Elmes and Jack Mayo as his first assistants camera; highly experienced crew more commonly found on international features.
“Harding makes everything so much better,” says Dresner. “He had a great relationship with the director so they could discuss shots if I was doing lighting, and more often than not we would share an idea before Harding would take it two steps further. I’ve known Elmes for a long time. He takes a really difficult job, and makes it look ridiculously easy. It allowed us to shoot anamorphic, to move the camera all over the place, and shoot close to wide open whenever I wanted to.”
Ross Allsop, line producer in The Commons, was a great supporter of getting the right resources for the best series possible. Dresner had the experience of Steve ‘Peaches’ Daley as gaffer and Adam ‘Skull’ Kuiper as key grip. The lighting package consisted of a lot of large fixtures, Skypanels, M90s and 18Ks to create the large outside sources, and an abundance of LED fixtures were worked into the sets to integrate the lighting with the world. As much as possible in pre-production, Dresner would scout a set or location and then discuss with the art department how and where they might incorporate fixtures.
The ‘Sensory Lab’ was a location where lead character Eadie (Joanne Froggatt) works as a neuropsychologist, helping to heal trauma victims from their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. “A big hemispherical room; you go in, you sit in a chair and it takes you back into the traumatic memory,” explains Dresner. “Tim Ferrier our amazing production designer, built this room. We rigged it with LEDs so they were part of the set. You can see them in the shot, the tubes and LED ribbon, and Daley had it all controlled from an iPad. He could set colour and intensity, and he could set it to the camera so we found this amber, beer colour. We could literally say, ok, we’re looking this way, turn those off, turn these ones on, set the colour and intensity.”
The class divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is a central theme of The Commons. The lighting of these two areas was delineated by the colour and the quality of the light. In the poorer areas there were a lot of sodium vapour tones used with some green to create a gritty and dirty space. Night scenes had an element of this, but in the wealthier areas populated by the rich and privileged, the tones are cooler and closer to white, cleaner.
Dresner usually set lighting fixtures to do cool 6500 to 7000k for moonlight, and then set the camera at around 4000k. He always went for a higher colour temperatue in camera than traditionally, so warm locations look warmer and cool scenes look more cool as well as using more variations than usual, pushing the cool cooler and the warm warmer than the cinematographer would have done in the past.
The camera department ran two cameras where possible, but did have the luxury of running single camera for a large portion of the show. Many of the scenes were devised to be covered with elaborate shots that started wide and moved around to closer frames. A mixture of Steadicam, Ronin on a crane, dolly and track were used, with a Techno crane for a few days. The movement wasn’t so much about the impetus of the story, but rather it gave us a sense of action and a style that made everything feel urgent, and they definitely set out to make something that was intimate but also felt epic.
“We had the ‘Green Cathedral’, which was a big forest the art department built inside the office space,” says Dresner. “The Rural Fire Service had an enormous monitor screen left over from their previous fit out that must have been twelve meters by twelve meters, made up of about fifty screens. We found this room and we built the cathedral there. They built this four story high tree, with a whole bunch of real and fake greens around, and it sits in the hospital in the show and it serves as a place of calm and a reminder of what the world used to be like. We shot a lot of emotional scenes here. We even got the screen working and set up a big waterfall. It really served as the location that was the emotional heart of the show. We did a lot of coverage with a techno crane. All of the work we shot in there was so beautiful.”
Due to the production pace and complexity of the schedule, a second unit under Damian Wyvill ACS also operated. On set stills were important references as well as a detailed spreadsheet set up by second assistant camera Naomi Sharp that covered ratings, exposure and colour temperatures for each set and location to share with the whole team. Without a digital imaging technician (DIT) on set, Dresner made sure to get all the monitors calibrated in pre-production, and created a look-up table (LUT) to use across the cameras so the producers could see a strong representation of how the final image would look on the set monitors and in rushes.
“I definitely felt the administration role of the cinematographer kick in a lot more than I had in the past,” explains Dresner. “Most of the time you do your preparation, then you turn up on set and you are directing the camera, lighting and gripping departments, but on this show, with the help of the crew, I had to be prepared for what main unit was shooting as well as coordinating a second unit, a drone unit and pick-ups for previous blocks.”
Planning was best illustrated in a story Earle shared about a pivotal scene that closes the first episode of the show. It’s an important moment for any series, the impetus needs to be driven home to the audience, and anticipation needs to be built. Director Jeffrey Walker came to Dresner with a request, to shoot the scene at dusk, for real.
“In the first block there was a scene between Eadie and Shay (Ryan Corr), Eadie was asking Shay to help her with a dodgy IVF process,” says Dresner. “The director came to me and said ‘I’d love to shoot this at dusk’. It was a three minute dialogue scene; heavy stuff. Usually you would look to cover yourself, shoot over a few hours and try to make it look dusky. I love watching stuff that looks like it’s been shot three minutes after sunset, so I said ‘Ok, we can do this, but we need three cameras, and we are going to do the tight shots first, over shoulders and two shots, and you will get three or four takes of that, and then we’ll have a dolly and track set up already, and when I go right, it’s time, we have to throw the camera on the dolly and shoot the wide and then that’s it, it’s done. The whole scene will take forty-five minutes maximum, and you have to be cool with it and not change, and the actors have to be cool with it.”
“He did talk to the actors, and they were cool with it,” says Dresner. “It was so fantastic. Nerve wracking. But fantastic. You set it all up, rehearse, and then you jump in. After four takes, you’re flicking the ISO up, and you get this great scene, and it has a feeling and tone to it generated by the environment. Lights are coming on in the background, it’s the final scene of the first episode, and… it really brings it home.”
Earle Dresner ACS is an award-winning cinematographer who won two Gold Awards at the Australian Cinematographers Society (Victoria and Tasmania) Awards for his work on Sisters and Glitch.
Darcy Yuille is experienced in all facets of film production, from loading to directing and everything in between. He runs a production company in Melbourne, Australia.