Feature film Aiyai: Wrathful Soul is a psychological, supernatural mystery thriller shot by Australian cinematographer Damien Beebe, brother of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe ACS ASC.
Interview by Slade Phillips.
AC – How did you get involved with Aiyai? Had you worked with any of the creative team before, or did you have to pitch yourself for the job?
DB – My involvement with the film started with a phone call from a colleague asking if I was interested to meet Alan Arumugam, the film’s writer and director, to hear about his independent psychological, supernatural mystery thriller due to be shot in Brisbane in 2019. As I had just moved to the Gold Coast I thought it would be a good opportunity to work on a local project; I asked to read the script.
AC – What were your initial thoughts when you read the script?
DB – Probably my first thought reading the script was that the project was very ambitious for the budget they had allocated. That itself made it appealing to me because it was a good story and I took it as a personal challenge to make it happen. The script had a few points that could be improved, but overall it was an interesting and entertaining story and I could see a lot of potential from a cinematographer’s point-of-view.
When I met Arumugam for the first time, his enthusiasm and commitment to the project were refreshing and infectious. That in itself convinced me that I wanted to be be part of the film. That despite the team being a little bit on the ‘green’ side, as well as Arumugam being a first time director of an Australian feature film.
AC – Can you talk about choosing your cameras and lenses for this film? What did you decide and why?
DB – Budget tends to play a large part in a cinematographer’s decisions. Using the ARRI Alexa Mini was the best and most versatile camera to use for me. The film needed movement and not having the luxury of time my choice was to use the Mōvi Pro and Steadicam systems to achieve this. I needed fast lenses so I was given the opportunity to work with the Sigma 1.5 high-speed lenses which I was very happy with. The use of filters also became important when creating the film’s look and using the high-speed lenses.
AC – What was your collaboration like with production designer Tim Hodgman and the production design team? Did you have any specific cinematic references?
DB – Hodgman’s eagerness to deliver was refreshing. We had a crematorium set built and I sat down with him to get the layout right for those scenes. Arumugam allowed for me to sort out the crematorium to my filming needs, which was really great. We used various filmic references but Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010, cinematography by Robert Richardson ASC) was the best reference for the ‘mood’ of the film.
AC – Who made up the crew in your camera department?
DB – The crew in my camera department were young, talented and enthusiastic. I can certainly work with that. This film was a good opportunity for those who may not have had the opportunity to work on a feature film before to step up and they didn’t disappoint. The only one I had worked with before was first assistant camera, Estaban Rivera. He and I have worked on a few projects together now.
AC – Did you ever operate the camera yourself?
DB – I love operating myself. If I have the opportunity to operate a camera myself, giving that job to somebody else is still hard for me to do.
AC – You mentioned the crematorium set, how many sets were built for the film?
DB – The only set that was built was the crematorium. The rest was filmed on various locations around Brisbane. The biggest section of the film was shot at Jimbour House, a heritage-listed homestead and one of the earliest stations established on Queensland’s Darling Downs, about 240km northwest of Brisbane. The place was absolutely perfect; as if it had been specifically built for our film.
AC – How did you approach lighting on location?
DB – Although we did use natural lighting in some locations, for the most part I do like to create my own lighting for each scene. The crematorium set was altered, to accomodate some specific lighting needs. One location that we were excited to have access to was the Brisbane cemetery that feature some very old and interesting… and spooky… elements for us to use in Aiyai.
Arumugam wanted our main character Kiran (Kabir Singh) to get pulled deeper and deeper into the dark side as the film progressed. The night shoots gave us the opportunity to create a lighting to emphasise the eeriness of the location while showcasing the cemetery itself.
AC – How many practical special effects versus digital visual effects work were you preparing for on the shoot?
DB – Most of our special effects were done in camera, with very little digital visual effects used. The old smoke and mirrors.
AC – Did you work with a digital imaging technician (DIT) on set?
DB – We had a DIT on our team for the entire shoot. Simply a must when shooting in ARRIRAW format.
AC – Tell us, how involved were you and how did you approach post-production on Aiyai?
DB – Post-production was hard as I could not be there as much as I would have liked. However I made myself available whenever I was free to meet and consult with Arumugam and the film’s editor Roberto Merlini. It was important for me to be more involved with the post-production of Aiyai, as during filming.
During filming, Arumugam was very open to discussing ways to add complexity to the original script. We have collaborated to create shots that were above and beyond the script. I wanted to be there for the process of implementing those changes with the director.
AC – What was your intention going into the grade? Who was your colourist?
DB – Early on we considered two different grades; one for cinematic release and one for an on-demand release. That is the reality of films nowadays. Not too dark and not too light, something in-between to make everyone happy. Our colourist was Pablo Mejia-Lopez, my first time working with him. I could not be with him as much as I wanted but all thing considered Mejia-Lopez did an excellent job.
AC – How did you achieve the director’s vision, while still continuing to impart your own unique perspective on the film?
DB – The film industry is mostly about personalities and their wants and needs. Getting to know what people want early on in any project is important, as is getting along. Sometimes the most creative people find it hard to express what they want. I have been in the film industry for over thirty years and in that time you get to know what directors or producers want, most of the time.
As a cinematographer, being able to bring their vision onto the big screen with the parameters you have been given is what will keep them wanting to work with you. Being able to create a style and look is what every cinematographer loves to do, and when everyone is on the same page, everything falls into place. For me, communication is the key, it can make or break a movie. Also keeping an open mind.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in Aiyai?
DB – Coming up with different ideas and ways to make a scene unique is always fun. There is a scene in the film where the camera flies down a long hallway toward the subject before he exits the house. I used a Segway with a Steadicam to fly down the narrow passageway at full-speed before stopping inches from the door closing. And it worked. It was a fun shot to do. Timing is everything.
AC – Looking back with hindsight, what would you have done differently?
DB – There are always things one considers doing differently when looking back. In this case, perhaps more pre-production, I feel this is lacking in a lot of smaller films. Having more time for shooting, yes, but the reality of it all comes down to budget. It’s being able to do your best within the budget you have been given.
As a cinematographer, having a good team around you is key. It allows you time to create the scene you want. Hopefully, in the end, everyone is happy.
Damien Beebe has over thirty-years experience as camera operator and cinematographer on blockbuster feature films and television series.
Slade Phillips is a writer based in Sydney.