South Australian cinematographer Michael Tessari shoots his first feature film, Awoken, for director Daniel J. Phillips – by Michael Tessari
A young medical student Karla (Sara West) is desperately trying to save her brother (Eric Thomson) from a terminal sleep illness called Fatal Familial Insomnia, where one is unable to sleep until you die. On her quest to help him, a more sinister reason for his condition is revealed.
Awoken was the first feature for both myself and long time collaborator Daniel J. Phillips. Written and directed by Phillips, Awoken is a $2.7 million-dollar horror film starring Thomson and West.
I credit the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) with a large part of why I was able to shoot this film. The year before, I was tasked with shooting a proof-of-concept short film which was to help find financing for the feature version. I submitted that short into the South Australian ACS Awards in 2017 and was absolutely blown away when it won the Milton Ingerson Award for best entry of the year. I believe this award was a large factor in convincing producers to take a chance on a first time cinematographer and for that I am forever grateful.
During pre-production I worked with the director to shot list and floor plan the majority of the film. This and the prior working relationship I had with Phillips allowed for a shorthand that I feel was integral in allowing us to stay consistent, make our days and keep our heads.
We shot Awoken over twenty-nine days, shooting in Hendon Studios in Adelaide with some location work in the old Royal Adelaide Hospital which was empty at the time and has since been demolished. A key stylistic choice I wanted to bring to the film and one that we had tested on the short was the concept of working within a triadic colour scheme. As the film is thematically about possession, visually I wanted to split it into three parts, each with a different colour and each representing a part of the Christian ideal of heaven, earth and hell.
As a result, the beginning of the film was designed to be primarily blue and ‘safe’ until shit begins to hit the fan and then we are in an underground facility lit primarily with sickly green fluorescent tubes. Finally, the film culminates in a battle between the forces of good and evil, the film is lit completely by candlelight.
Speaking of this final confrontation, I really wanted to achieve this lighting practically and managed to shoot the whole sequence without any film lights. This necessitated using triple wicked candles and a floating key light, consisting of a shelf of candles with a bounce board backing attached to a C-stand. Safety first!
I guess not many people watching will notice but I personally really appreciate watching it back and seeing the actual candle flame reflected in their eyes during some of those close-ups. On top of this we just had a few visual rules we set for ourselves which really helped to keep things consistent. This included longer lenses when she’s claustrophobically trapped underground and saving handheld again for when the ‘shit hits the fan’.
Awoken was such a great learning experience for me and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I can’t thank my team of Jules Wurm, Sam Steinle, Ian Routledge, Robertto Karas, Josh Koster and Warren Luxford enough. Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive an ACS Gold Award and I would have been celebrating at the national awards around this time, if it were not for the dire times we find ourselves in.
Awoken is soon to be released to view on demand in all the major territories worldwide.
Michael Tessari is a cinematographer working Australia-wide since he graduated university with honours in cinematography in 2012.