The devastation of dementia is translated into a haunted house horror film in Natalie Erika James’ new film Relic, from cinematographer Charlie Sarroff.
By Slade Phillips.
Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff has been fortunate enough to have collaborated with Natalie Erika James on the director’s three previous short films, as well as some music videos and commercial work. Relic was a continuation of that working relationship.
James had been developing Relic for several years and Sarroff grew very close to the project as the subject matter was something he could relate to personally. The pair’s short film Creswick (2017) was essentially a proof of concept for the film. Both explore dementia through a horror lens.
Three generations of women (Bella Heathcote, Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin) are haunted by a manifestation of aged dementia that is taking over their family home. “Mobility and low light capabilities were key factors,” explains Sarroff, who’s camera package was provided by Panavision in Melbourne. “We opted to use the ARRI Alexa SXT as A-camera, often switching to an Alexa Mini for gimbal, Steadicam, or handheld shots when in tight spaces.”
Sarroff appreciates the Alexa’s filmic qualities, dynamic range and reliable workflow with things like look-up table (LUT) creation. “It’s really become a system I know well and can trust,” he says. The cinematographer shot ARRIRAW 3.4K open gate, then extracted his 2.39:1 frame from that.
“We used Cooke S4 lenses because of their pleasing contrast and focus roll off. I loved the way they beautifully capture skin tones, are fast in low light situations, and practical in confined spaces. We worked with a lot of practical lighting, such as Phone flashlights. I was pleased with the way the Cooke S4 flares and reacts to those types of sources in frame.”
Sarroff was brought onto the production quite late in pre-production. This meant early collaborations with the film’s production designer Steven Jones-Evans were unfortunately minimal, however leading into the shoot and whilst shooting had already commenced the pair consulted about a lot of the set builds. “Many lighting points in the labyrinth sets were motivated from wall lights and Jones-Evans and I worked closely in mapping the placement of such lights to be sure we had a nice balance throughout the sets,” says Sarroff.
It was important to the director that these scenes where only partially lit as the labyrinth represents the brain of someone slipping further and further into isolation because of the increasing onset of dementia. “We wanted to give these scenes a fractured feeling so there needed to be pools of darkness for our actress’s to pass though. Jones-Evans is a phenomenal production designer and it was a privilege to work with him and to be able to shoot in environments he created,” he says.
Sarroff feels pre-production is where ideas and exploration can run rampant, and the visual language develops without the constraints of being on set. He also believes extensive pre-production allows for more spontaneity on set because the fundamentals become second nature, opening doors to opportunistic ideas and subtle nuances which often heighten the film’s cinematography.
“I was officially brought onto the film quite late but the fact I was already so close to the script and had a working relationship with the director, and have a good understanding of her taste and sensibilities really helped,” he says. “She had shared a lot of reference material with me and I would discuss the essence of each scene and often revisit locations on the weekends prior to filming so we could walk through the scenes and brain storm over our shot lists. Because of my short pre-production period it was very important to do this.”
For Sarroff’s crew, it was a mix of working with new people and bringing on crew that the cinematographer had previous relationships with. For example, it was the first time working with gaffer Adam Hunter and key grip Luke Stone. “They were very supportive and offered up their wealth of experience,” says Sarroff. “A lot of the camera department I had worked with before on short form productions.”
Matthew Jenkins was Sarroff’s first assistant camera and according to the cinematographer he did an incredible job. “A lot of the film was shot wide open, or close to it, under low light conditions,” he explains. “Towards the end of the film there was a lot of hand-held work. A special mention must go to cinematographers Max Walter and Matt Wood who came onto do splinter, second unit and B-camera work. They made great contributions to various scenes. Also our second assistant camera Thomas Haye and B-camera first assistants camera Nick Forster and Austin Haigh had our backs.”
Relic is predominately set in and around Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) country home in rural Victoria. This consisted of two house locations in Melbourne and sets that were built in a warehouse in Sunshine in Melbourne’s West. The country exterior locations were north of Melbourne around the Castlemaine and Ballarat areas.
“It was a real challenge linking all of these houses and sets to become one seamless location,” says Sarroff. “We were constantly filming our actress’s leaving certain rooms in the house then picking them up a week later in a different location or stage, so there was extra care in maintaining consistency with performance and lighting.”
Sarroff’s main approach was to light each space, then after a rehearsal adjust some of the points to our blocking positions. Most often light was motivated from practical sources and the day scenes had a soft ambience coming through windows. “We wanted the film to feel cold and overcast,” he says. “This was mainly achieved by using LED sources such as Skypanels and Quasar tubes or bouncing HMIs into bleached muslin. We often used old Mole Richardson tungsten 1K Baby Softies as key lights when lighting around practical lamp sources.”
Labyrinth scenes were predominantly lit by wall lights, flashlights and phone lights but the crew did rig rows of tungsten par cans through bleached muslin via a dimmer board above the set’s hallways to create a soft ambience. For hand held shots, where Sarroff was quite close to the actresses, the cinematographer often wore white fabric around his body to reflect their flashlights and it helped with fill and giving them an eye light.
“The scenes we shot in the labyrinth were the most difficult, as we were in a confined space and on a tight schedule,” says Sarroff. “It was a balance of creating a dark and disjointed atmosphere, while at the same time allowing the audience to see enough of what’s going on in the scene.”
Although it was a challenge, Sarroff says he found the labyrinth scenes very enjoyable to shoot. “It was quite free-flowing and I really enjoy hand-held operation,” he says. “To be so up close to the exceptional performances of our phenomenal cast was a real treat. Heavily relying on flashlights and phone lights was also quite liberating.” Sarroff adds working closely with special effects and puppetry was also one of his favourite aspects of filming Relic.
Sarroff was very much a part of the colouring process in post-production. The cinematographer worked with the film’s colourist CJ Dobsen prior to shooting to create two camera LUTS; one for day/lighter scenes and the other for night/darker scenes, which had more shadow detail. “Both of those looks had a similar muted and colder look to what we carried through into finishing. Adjustments were made in post-production but we definitely went in with a clear vision after having established the looks on set,” he says.
“It’s of course imperative that we serve and respect the director’s vision,” explains Sarroff, “but I think our job as cinematographers is to find ways to take their vision to another level. We should strive to elevate the director’s ideas, not just serve it. It’s ultimately their call on whether or not your perspective comes in to fruition, so it’s important that we push ourselves to find ways for our perspective to be something that is too good for them to refuse”.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, would Sarroff change anything or have done things differently? “I think so, yes,” he says. Hindsight always plays on the cinematographer’s mind. “We live and learn but overall, I am proud of what we made. Our budget didn’t seem to allow for it but I would much prefer to have worked with more LEDs run via Digital Multiplex Signal (DMX). Particularly in the stage and set environments. It would have provided more flexibility with ambience and colour balance and adjustments would have been faster.”
Since filming Relic the cinematographer has completed another feature film Pink Skies Ahead for director Kelly Oxford, which was set to premiere at SXSW 2020 before the event was cancelled. “Right now, everything is in shutdown due to the Coronavirus. It’s a tough time for our industry,” says Sarroff. “I’m attached to a couple of features that I hope come into fruition, however, now, both have been put on hold until everything starts to make more sense again.”
Slade Phillips is a writer based in Sydney.