When seriously ill teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlen) falls in love with smalltime drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), it’s her parents’ worst nightmare. Already a winner at international film festivals, and co-starring Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, Babyteeth sees the award-winning cinematographer Andrew Commis ACS behind the camera.
By James Cunningham.
Seriously ill teenager Milla (Eliza Scanlen) has fallen in love with the drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace). As Milla’s first brush with love brings her a new lust for life, things get messy and traditional morals go out the window. What might have been a disaster for their family instead leads to letting go and finding grace in the glorious chaos of life. Babyteeth joyously explores how good it is not to be dead and how far we will go for love.
Director Shannon Murphy met cinematographer Andrew Commis a few years back at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Commis had been taking part in their Accelerator program, doing a talk during a cinematography workshop. “We ended up chatting afterwards and realised quite quickly that we were both interested in each other’s ideas and perspectives,” tells Commis.
Murphy is also a theatre director, and Commis has shot a number of films now with directors who have come from theatre background; including The Daughter for director Simon Stone and Girl Asleep for director Rosemary Myers. “I just love their approach and process. A lot of it simply comes down to the common inspiration of storytelling that’s not predictable,” says Commis.
“In essence, that’s really what this film is,,” he explains. “On one hand you could say the narrative is relatively simple; a teenage girl, who may or may not have a terminal disease, is challenging herself and those around her how to live life. Her parents, Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), who are busy enough trying to navigate themselves let alone Milla’s developments. The story is also theirs as they contend with these issues that are compounded by the situation that Milla has befriended Moses.”
“To a degree,” says Commis, “you can imagine a familiar interpretation of that already. However the way Rita Kalnejais’ script disarms those expectations and injects an unexpected honesty and bent humour was really inspiring and invigorating.”
Commis knew Murphy was drawn to the fact that the cinematographer’s film choices tend to be distinctly different from each other, and that he doesn’t try to impose an ‘Andrew Commis look’ on any of his films. “Personally, I just love interpreting someone else’s ideas visually, responding to what those ideas are and finding what the story needs,” says Commis. “We were looking to challenge ourselves and discover something new.”
The cinematographer had also worked with producers Alex White and Jan Chapman previously on The Daughter, meaning it was a collaborative working environment from the start.
The cinematographer spoke very early with Murphy about how they wanted Babyteeth to feel ‘immediate’. The pair wanted a strong sense of perspective, largely Milla’s, and they needed a responsive energy. “We wanted the human presence in the film to be really strong. It instinctively felt like the camera should be on my shoulder so I could be the one responding rather just following,” says Commis. “No blanket rules though; I love contrast and I never want the approach to be one note. Life isn’t like that and neither is a film. You need the calm to offset the peaks.”
The ARRI Alexa Mini was pretty much a given for Commis, “I just feel so comfortable with that sensor and what I can do with it.” Commis had shot two films prior to Babyteeth with 1.66:1 aspect ratios, both for very different reasons. Coincidentally, he was liking the idea of it, again, for Babyteeth. “Widescreen felt like too much of a ‘cinematic statement’, so too the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 in a current context and then 1.85:1 just felt too ‘normal’,” says Commis.
Commis was looking to heighten this world and make it slightly off-kilter, but without making it feel forced. “The 1.66:1 ratio is also known historically as ‘European widescreen’ and many amazing films have used this ratio. But it’s not so common now,” he says. “I suggested it to Murphy and she loved the idea. It’s there, but you don’t obviously notice it.”
The cinematographer conducted numerous lens tests like he normally would before a film. “Initially, he says, “they’re always a creative search more than a technical exercise. I’m hunting a little and always have a few ideas on what I think might be right but also like to put things in that might surprise me,” he explains. Commis also does his lens tests ‘blind’, meaning he doesn’t label the lenses but discreetly puts a letter or number on screen that he can refer to later. “Then, when we project them, particularly with the director, we just feel what looks right for our story.”
One of Commis’ visual keys was to not make Babyteeth ‘glossy’ or ‘slick’ in any way. He needed to have the imperfections of life. “My initial instinct was something like Super Baltars,” he says. “They’re a pretty unique lens set made by the optical company Bausch & Lomb in the 1950s. It was their one and only foray into photographic lens production. I don’t use them often but I really love their character. There’s a softness to them which makes them very flattering and they have a great warmth. I felt this was really important.”
Commis and Murphy spoke early about how the film should never look ‘grim’ or ‘gloomy’. The filmmakers did not want to telegraph what might or might not happen to Milla. “All this was confirmed in the blind lens tests and we went with the Super Baltars,” says Commis.
“Technically, they’re a bit of a tricky lens. You can’t shoot them anywhere near wide open. I had them sitting at T2.8-4, but I also knew that we would end up outside at night and needed to take advantage of some of the available urban light. I just felt more freedom switching out to Zeiss Super Speeds in those situations. They too are a long time favourite. They’re much cooler or neutral than the Baltars but you get a couple more stops and I felt like they would marry well.” Commis used the Zeiss lenses for all the night scenes, including interiors, leaving the Super Baltars for around seventy-five percent of the film.
The cinematographer designed the film as a single camera, which is always his preference, and he knew he had to operate the camera himself. “It was going to define the tone of the film and I had to provide the instinctual response,” he says. “We also knew that some key scenes were ensembles, and in some cases went for six or seven pages. With the nature of how we were trying to construct the film it was obvious that we needed two cameras on occasion to capture that energy.”
Commis was looking for a camera operator that was ideally also a cinematographer in their own right. He knew he was never going be in a position to monitor or review what they were shooting. Anybody operating a second camera would have to make their own informed decisions, and Commis needed them to have a sense of the lighting and look out for that side of things as well, rather than just finding the shot.
“An extreme example of this is a particular scene towards the end of the film where we not only needed two cameras but we had them in separate rooms, in the same take,” says Commis. “The cast would move from one to the other so it could run in a real time. A very real overlap.”
“I think you can sense a lot of a cinematographer’s personality in their work and I’d been aware of Emma Paine for a little while,” says Commis. “Paine was such a great fit. She came up with some magnificent frames that, as I was hoping, surprised and excited us. She completely understood the tone.”
Commis had worked with first assistant camera Nillis Finne before on commercials, and was just waiting for the opportunity to do a film where he could employ her. “She’s got a brilliant sense of story and rhythm,” he says. “She almost becomes invisible to the process. She has an amazing work ethic and runs a super-efficient camera department. I’m very grateful she came aboard.”
Adding to Commis’ camera department were second assistant camera Tommy Rolfe, then Joel Eames came on board as first assistant on B-camera with Danielle Payne as his second assistant. “A shout out too for our impromptu trainee Saxon Welsh who proved himself to be great value,” says the cinematographer.
Commis can’t speak highly enough of the film’s production designer, Sherree Philips. “She has an amazing eye and a fantastic energy,” says Commis. “Philips was just so in tune with the characters and with what those spaces needed. Her team on scant resources were dynamite. Australia is blessed with some truly amazing production designers. Great production design is an almost unspoken secret to successful cinematography and they rarely get the credit they deserve.”
“Meanwhile, also having costume designer Amelia Gebler throw up these amazing ideas,” says Commis, “I could basically compose a frame based on her characters costumes alone! Philips and Gebler had such a fantastic synchronicity and I have to mention our hair and makeup designer Angela Conte, too. There’s a brilliant journey with the wigs that Milla’s character wears and Conte was heavily involved with the designers to make that work in the palette.”
One of the director’s requests was for herself, Commis, Philips, Sherree and Gebler to go away for a weekend well before official pre-production started. The creative team had not worked collectively before, so it was a way to connect and share ideas as a creative team early on. They threw ideas at each other and, according to Commis, it made a huge difference. “We became a tight unit and instinctively we knew the right way to approach decisions from that point on,” he says.
“A huge part of that conversation was tone and palatte,” Commis explains. “We were searching for colours that would have resonance and weren’t too safe. William Eggleston, and the palette of his 1960s chrome photography definitely was an influence. So too Olivia Bee for some of her colour compositions and energy. And photographer Rinko Kawauchi for her sense of light.”
The team of creatives watched films like A Woman Under the Influence (1974, cinematography by Mitch Breit and Al Ruban), Christiane F. (1981, cinematography by Justus Pankau and Jürgen Jürges), Breaking the Waves (1996, cinematography by Robby Müller NSC BVK), Morvan Callar (2002, cinematographer by Alwin Küchler, BSC),Victoria (2015, cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, DFF) and also American Honey (2016, cinematography by Robbie Ryan ISC BSC).
“Not all obvious points of reference,” Commis says, “but they all have a momentum and energy that we were channeling, along with distinctive palettes and tone. In hindsight, they all have female protagonists too. In the end we put together a pretty comprehensive look book and style guide. Those decisions were never going to be worked out on the fly.”
The location of the family home in the film house had been found before Commis started pre-production. “It was very unique in its layout,” he says. “It was mid-century with a large centre atrium that had floor to ceiling glass and sliding doors. All the rooms opened onto it, so you could stand anywhere in the house and see depth.”
The location allowed natural light to exist constantly in the house. This presented Commis with a challenge in how to control it, so too the reflections. However with the amount of script set in the family home location Commis says his team felt it was a gift. “It allowed so many opportunities as to how we could stage action and not repeat ourselves,” he says.
“The home also really needed to be painted and we needed to move away from its white world bones,” says Commis. Both the cinematographer and production designer spent a lot of time working out how wall colours would work against skin colours. “We painted large swatches in the home, in different light situations, then photographed them to see which colours and tones were working best.”
From a lighting perspective, Commis didn’t want the film to just feel ‘natural’. “I want to shape it with a sense of drama, but also for the lighting not to feel too formal or overly theatrical,” he says. “It had to be eclectic. It couldn’t be one note.” Babyteeth is entirely shot on location, and probably half the film is shot in the house, so Commis knew he would need flexibility to create plenty of variations.
The ceilings inside the home were low and there was no inbuilt infrastructure to hang anything. More importantly, Commis wanted to see the ceilings and he didn’t want to have to point away from them. One of the challenges on a technical level was working out how to manage that.
“I knew that I needed a flexible scrim system so I could balance and control daylight as it moved not only through the day, but from sun to cloud,” says Commis. “My gaffer Yoshi Kwan came up with a system of eight custom-sized frames that we could configure. Sometimes we used one or two, for example in a corner, or one half of the atrium and sometimes all of them. I suggested a fabric for them called Tyvek, which is actually a relatively cheap building material.”
Commis used it initially on the feature film Girl Asleep. “What I found particularly great is you can literally cut and paste it to any size, plus it’s really durable and it breathes,” he says. “It’s white and equates to a very heavy diffusion so essentially kills a shadow, which is what I needed. In full sun it would even out the contrast in the house.”
A huge amount of effort by the crew was put into the practical lighting in the house. “Along with the production designer and my gaffer, we designed quite a few pelmets that were sympathetic to the period of the house,” says Commis. “We attached these to the walls and placed a battery operated Quasar LED behind them. That meant I could change the colour temperature and ambience to have light source options in almost every direction we looked. After a bit of negotiating, we were also able to replace some of the existing ceiling lights in the home with our own.”
“The next challenge were lengthy dusk scenes, and then night scenes that just had to be scheduled as day for night,” says Commis. “Basically blacking the whole house in the middle of summer! Due to the atrium, it would need ambience from above as well as some of the windows. Kwan, along with our key grip Dave Griffiths, came up with a beautiful enclosed truss system above the atrium which allowed us to turn it into a studio with predominantly hard blacking around the perimeter of the windows. Kwan and Griffiths are not only great guys but great creative thinkers and I couldn’t have achieved the results we got without them.”
The gaffer hung an array of his great homemade LED diffused box lights off the truss that he could run remotely off an iPad so that Commis could dial in a night or twilight ambience at a flick of switch. “The budget was struggling,” says Commis, “However I knew it was going to be the most cost effective way to get through those scenes with a minimum of interruption.”
In terms of the shooting process, nothing in Babyteeth was storyboarded which was a specific decision. They had plans for each scene as well as a sense of the blocking but it was important for them to be spontaneous and react to what was going on in each scene. Commis didn’t want to limit being able to see something unique evolving. During pre-production stand-in actors were used, who are not in the film, to run through a handful of key scenes in the film’s main location. This enabled key crew to work out basic pre-blocking of how they could stage certain scenes.
“In my experience, actors who really trust their director are more than happy to take stage direction, especially in a complex emotional piece,” says Commis. “There’s enough going on for them and that can be one less thing to think about as long as they believe the action. We can suggest positions rather than it be a complete free-form scenario. That’s the essence of cinema to be honest, it can’t just be a performance alone.”
“The great thing about working with Murphy and this cast is how in-sync they were,” he says. “I’d worked with both Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn before, and Toby Wallace and Eliza Scanlon are so experienced too. They all knew the energy of the script and I had to be ready for that, I wasn’t going to interrupt any of that once it was up and running.”
Commis says the actors in Babyteeth made the world they had designed come alive. The director also encouraged them to try variations in their performances too. “She wasn’t seeking the ‘perfect take’, and that went for the camera too,” he explains. “I wouldn’t try to lock in and perfect things too much. It was quite liberating in that sense. After a number of films behind me now I had the confidence to trust that idea. I think you can really feel that energy in the final cut.”
“Working out the tone of this film is not something you could really do completely on paper,” says Commis. “You couldn’t fully realise that until you’re assembling it as a whole. The tonal shifts are so complex. This process allowed Murphy and editor Steve Evans the flexibility to navigate those threads in the edit.”
Commis was invited in towards the end before lock off to offer some feedback. “I was absolutely blown away,” he says. “It moved me in a way I didn’t expect, and I was able to surrender to watching it as a film and not just the work that went into it.”
Billy Wychgel was the colourist on Babyteeth. “Wychgel is a real artisan,” says Commis. “A long-term collaborator and friend. I think this is our fifth feature film together so we’ve got a great shorthand. It was also a good chance to mix it up as I generally like working chronologically in a grade and Wychgel often suggests we bounce around and look at something over there, then bounce back to here. So I took him up on that! Essentially the grade for me was largely making sure all those creative decisions and thousands of conversations we had were honoured.”
“Like most of my previous films I’ve worked out how it looks pretty much before the grade through lens choices and particularly light,” says Commis. “Not so much with look-up tables (LUTs), however. I generally use a pretty standard LUT with a little less contrast and don’t complicate it too much. To use the old film language, I’m pretty much shooting to a one light.”
Commis says there’s a sequence in the second half of Babyteeth which could be the most satisfying of his career. “It’s Milla’s big night out with Moses and they end up at a party,” he says. “We wanted the feel of an art school party more than a club, it needed to feel overwhelming but also immersive with a license to be bold. This was a brand new world for her.”
“There was the initial technical challenge, and that was one part of it, but the magic of the scene came about by the creative synchronicity of coming up with the idea, which could fail, and then just going for it. The end result became so much more than we hoped for. It transcended,” he says.
The crew filmed the scene at Sydney College of Arts in Rozelle. A gathering of old stone buildings with massively thick walls and spans. The crew designed the scene so Milla and Moses could enter from stairs before passing through a waiting zone of sorts, and then into the party itself. The important thing was that it was also a journey, so even once Milla entered the party she would go further in before something else would reveal itself.
“It was particularly important to feel this with Milla’s perspective,” explains Commis. “I was responsive in a sort of gliding style of handheld. We were playing the music that was the actual track in the final film so I could really lock in to that feel when I was operating. It was designed largely as one shot to accentuate the experience with Milla and I was preparing to see everything in every room.”
Philips had felt projections would help define the space and they became the key design motif, which soon became the key lighting motif. “I spent quite a bit of time in the space well before we shot,” says Commis. “Often just by myself, pre-visualising how we could transform and light what was in essence a really blank white space; four large rooms in a u-shape. It was a tricky space too with nowhere to really hang lights, especially film lights.”
Commis spent a huge amount of time with Philips and her team choosing and testing projectors, and the material that would be played on them. They would become the cinematographer’s key light sources and Commis treated them that way. “How they would flare, the colours, the intensity… everything would be based off these projectors in terms of exposure and additional lighting. I then supplemented with things like rope lights, existing gelled practicals, gelled windows and a couple of small LED Quasar units that we could sync. Just trying to make sure I had depth both in colour and light throughout the space.”
“I kept some lasers up my sleeve too as an additional ‘icing on the cake’. I don’t find excuses to light with them that often. I love using them, especially as a key source. My gaffer sourced me a couple of gems, so again we could program the colour and shape of the laser.”
Commis mixed all these ingredients together, then with the addition of the main cast and party extras it created a beautiful alchemy which the cinematographer says he couldn’t quite have predicted. “We searched for a few moments where the sync of a projection was timing with an emotion and we got some magic,” he says.
“The film lent itself to being bold and exploring. This was a real methodology we ran with across the board. Any challenge could generally be overcome with a new idea. We honoured our creative decisions,” says Commis. “Obviously that doesn’t always happen, but in this case we definitely achieved that and I’m really proud of.”
Babyteeth has since been the darling of the international festival circuit, screening in competition at the Venice International Film Festival late last year where it was nominated for the Golden Lion and Toby Wallace picked up the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Actor.
Babyteeth receives its Australian cinema release on 23 July, 2020.
Andrew Commis ACS is a highly accomplished cinematographer, winning the coveted Milli Award for Australian Cinematographer of the Year in 2010 for his work on the film ‘Beautiful Kate’ (2009).
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.