Cinematographer James L Brown ACS On Shooting New Zealand Gang Film ‘Savage’

With cinematographer James L Brown ACS behind the camera, and inspired by the true stories of New Zealand’s gangs over the past thirty years, feature film Savage follows Danny (Jake Ryan) at defining moments in his life as he grows from a young boy into a violent enforcer of a street gang.

By James L Brown ACS.

Danny (Jake Ryan) in a scene from the film ‘Savage’ – DOP James L Brown ACS

Sam Kelly was in the process of interviewing cinematographers when he saw some of my work. We jumped on Skype and hit it off.

I was immediately drawn to his passion and it was quickly obvious that we shared a common sensibility about film and, more importantly, the world. When you connect on the basic moral principles behind a project, that’s a great way to start the journey.

Savage is about gang culture in New Zealand, set over three decades. It explores the causes of systemic abuse of young men and the lasting effects that has on society. When I first read the script, I loved that it tried to explore and understand New Zealand gang culture rather than simply condemn it. When we see what these characters have gone through, we understand how and why they ended up where they did twenty years on.

Visually, the world appealed to me on many levels. Bringing life and authenticity to a gritty subculture across multiple decades was hugely challenging. I researched it as if it was a documentary, focusing on historical photographs and references that transported me into the lives of these real people. My goal was to create the same feeling for the audience; that they were witnessing something authentically real.  

On an initial reading of a script, rather than getting caught up in what I think is right or wrong or concentrating on the logistical challenges, I try to focus purely on story. I want to understand the world and the writer’s and director’s intention. Then on subsequent readings I start to allow myself room to think about how that intention can be realised. 

In early pre-production, I flew to Wellington for a ten-day location scout with Kelly, the director, and as we drove around finding locations and taking hundreds of photos, we also found a common cinematic language. We shared our ideas and started to settle on the best way to tell the story. 

Kelly already had a well-developed ‘bible’ filled with imagery and references when I came on board. Originally he was looking for the cinematography to be more heightened, with beautifully choreographed and lyrical moments, whereas I thought the story leant itself to a slightly rawer, naturalistic approach. It was a great starting point. 

Lily (Italiyah Wilson) and Red (Poroaki McDonald) in a scene from the film ‘Savage’ – DOP James L Brown ACS

On top of this, we were making an historical story, so that also influenced our choices at every stage. We had people involved who had actually lived these stories and their guidance on lighting, colour and staging rooted the film in the truth of history. 

We had day long conversations around the best approach for each scene and then digging down into every shot. Certain scenes called for a long, single Steadicam shot that takes the audience from one story point to another, and other scenes wanted a raw and instinctive handheld approach that would create room for performances and influence how the camera reacts. 

What we landed on in the end was a compromise of these approaches that gives the film its uniquely stylised yet authentic aesthetic.

Whenever I got too caught up in filmmaking problems like schedules, budgets, crewing or gear, I would return to the work of photographers like Nan Goldin, Tish Murtha and Bruce Davidson. Connecting with imagery and the emotions they inspired would remind me about what’s really important. The truth of the image or getting the feeling of a scene right, rather than obsessing over logistics or gear.

On a practical level, I shared these lighting and art references with heads of department as it’s usually the most efficient way to express what you are thinking and for everyone to get on the same page. Some days you can exercise control that gets you to the right place. Other days you need to let go and let the location or cast guide how the scene should be captured.  Usually when I ‘light myself into a hole’ it is because I am forcing a pre-conceived idea into a space that doesn’t call for it. That’s when everyone needs to breathe, step back and be malleable. Stubbornness is my worst enemy on a drama.

Given the nature of the story, we also spent much time considering how we would visually portray gang culture without sensationalising or exploiting it. Anyone with a camera probably understands on some level the inherent power of the captured image, and it’s a balancing act to create epic images that don’t trivialise or romanticise genuine societal problems. We were very aware of this responsibility every day on set and we worked hard to stay focused on the story; of boys who lose everything and find a new family to protect them.

My love for storytelling is rooted in a need to tell stories that matter. I am inherently drawn to projects that merge the political and the cultural, and Savage does exactly that.

Actor Jake Ryan films a scene, Dana Little on Steadicam while key grip Paul Murphy spots – PHOTO Chris Moss

Much of Wellington hasn’t changed much in the last forty years so it was the perfect place to shoot period without huge resources. We had input from current and former gang members on the spaces they spent time in and again would refer back to the historical images to source authentic locations.

Obviously wardrobe and hair is also key here, and we relied heavily on the brilliance of costume designer Bob Buck, makeup designer Stefan Knight along with production designer Chris Elliot and his team. 

For camera, we decided early on to maintain a consistency to the cinematography and grade throughout the eras, with only subtle shifts in the lighting colour scheme to subconsciously telegraph the differences in time. I didn’t want to process and force a vintage look as you find in some television shows. This would have felt contrived and outside of the reality we were attempting to capture.

This is Danny’s story, depicting him from boyhood to his thirties as he is pushed and pulled between his biological family and his new family, the savages. So the point-of-view of the camera became one of the most important aspects to bringing Danny to life.

We elected to shoot most of Danny’s singles on 35mm across the board for consistency, usually handheld or on Steadicam so that we could follow him and stay connected. But we shifted the height subtly across the story to create different sensibilities. In chapter one, we played just above his eye line, which showed his vulnerabilities and as the story progressed, we lowered the camera under his eye line and embraced what ended as the large and imposing character he was.  

Ninety-five percent of my work over the last five years has been on an ARRI Alexa and I didn’t see the need to journey from that. For lenses, the choice to shoot spherical was not one taken lightly. We spent a lot of time with location imagery and watching films we liked and spherical felt like it connected our characters to the locations over anamorphic.

I flew to Auckland and tested plenty of Panavision glass looking for a combination of grittiness, speed and light-weight. Paul Lake really went out of his way to find the right glass and we ultimately settled on Panavision Ultra Speeds. They’re super fast with medium contrast and, they’re lightweight. 

Danny (Jake Ryan) in a scene from ‘Savage’ – DOP James L Brown ACS

Rounding out the kit was a couple of Super Speeds, including a 55mm 1.1 which we used on select portrait moments. It’s one of my favourite spherical lenses and needed to be reserved for a moment when we wanted to isolate a character or find a bit of magic. 

Using glass from the 1970s and early 1980s also really helped bed in the period aesthetic and mitigated some of the modernity of the Alexa.

We did camera tests that pushed the Alexa into a territory where it almost fell apart. By creating a look-up table with Park Road Post in Wellington that would underexpose the sensor and then push up the on set monitoring as to bring out some of the texture in the digital. Ultimately the false colour was usually purple and I failed basic cinematography-101 every day. But we wanted to bake a look into the rushes on set and leave less room for someone to take over later.

I love pre-production. Sometimes. Finding the language of a film with the director is one of the most interesting parts of the process and then watching your dreams be crushed by the reality of a budget and schedule is one of the most painful. I try to pre-produce as much as I can.  

Kelly and I planned the blocking, lighting and moves on every location as much as possible, whilst also allowing room for invention and happy accidents. I would then create a camera blocking for every scene in Shot Designer. It’s a rudimentary program but when you’re designing plots for hundreds of scenes, the simplicity means it’s efficient. For complex scenes, nights and interiors, I designed lighting plots in Illustrator. 

By the end of pre-production, I had a miniature bible for every shoot day that was about four to six pages long with notes, lighting references, camera and lighting plots and the shot list which my crew and all the heads of departments would have access to. This was imperative with such a tight schedule and it helped the entire crew understand what Kelly and I had been conjuring up. Then on set I would always carry an iPad so I could access my own thinking and remind us what type of genius we had thought up at 2am in the production office. 

Creatively, I believe consuming all the research imagery up front really helped me understand and settle on an aesthetic so I could focus on story rather than spending all my energy every day on visuals. This full-on level of planning allowed us a lot more freedom as we went. As problems arose, we found solutions faster because we knew what we were trying to achieve and if it meant getting to that place in a different way, then so be it.

Poroaki McDonald and Jake Ryan film a scene in ‘Savage’, cinematographer James L Brown ACS behind the camera – PHOTO Chris Moss

I’ve only done a couple of jobs in New Zealand, and it was so busy over there with a heap of Hollywood productions going on, that were were fortunate to secure the incredible talent we ended up with. My Steadicam and B-camera operator, Dana Little, was a real gift. I trusted his eye; he always had my back and he has the demeanour of a Saint which helps to set a tone.

Richie Elworthy and Nicki Winer were my A-camera first and second assistants camera, respectively. Both hugely talented humans who managed the camera department like a well-oiled machine.

I like to work super fast and change my mind about shots mid take sometimes. Having a focus puller that can be malleable and roll with the punches is imperative and Elworthy was always on point. His intuition is one of those things that can’t really be taught and he’s as good as they get. 

My key and dolly grip Paul Murphy was a great part of the team. He’s a storyteller at heart so his intuition about camera movement and placement was a great support. I’ve always heard that New Zealand crews are not only exceptional technicians but also some of the most generous and collaborative people in the world… and this crew exemplified that.

Eighty-five percent of Savage was shot on locations in and around Wellington. We built two sets for the boys home in chapter one, but only because we couldn’t find the perfect locations that were era specific. I love real locations, they have restrictions that make you problem-solve in a way that can lead to something genuinely truthful. A window in the wrong place, a low ceiling, or a dodgy green oven light in the background can be restrictions that guide your hand. All these things create ambience and soul that is impossible to replicate in a studio on a tight budget.   

For the sets, production designer Chris Elliot and the art team did an incredible job pulling off a set that accommodated numerous long Steadicam shots with practicals built into the design.  Full with texture and again that completely encapsulated the era and the story.

For lighting, Kelly and I talked a lot about playing with shadows. Danny’s story is pretty dark but we tried, where we could, to find little moments of hope where he connected with other people. In these moments, we made the lighting richer and more saturated, added a bit of fill and made the space feel safer. 

Actors James Matamua and Jack Parker in a scene from the film ‘Savage’ – DOP James L Brown ACS

I’m incredibly indebted to gaffer Adrian Hebron and the lighting department who all did an awesome job on the film. There was a heap of lighting to do on almost every setup and they worked so hard with limited resources and time. The night exteriors were challenging as we needed to shoot 360-degrees with long Steadicam shots. Thanks to Wellington’s wild winds, I couldn’t fly overhead soft boxes so we often needed to build in industrial practicals to cover the scene. These were often mixed colour temps and dimmed at different levels to deliberately give the sense of the lighting not feeling too crafted.

The gang’s pad night time exteriors in chapter three was our most difficult location. It was extreme weather right on the coast and the action happens over an enormous space. Winds coming through each night would shut down most shoots but in Wellington it’s just in their DNA. We had a base lighting setup of the night exteriors of a T12 and some 6K par cans up on a mountain for general underexposed ambience and then a series of about 15 specifically placed industrial pracs to light the set along with three fires with flame bars. From there we would float around a couple of S60 Sky Panels or 4×4 Light RGB light matts for the controlled lighting.

For interiors, Hebron used custom RGB, DMX-controlled light matts and they became my go-to lamps. We had the colour at about 10,000k with a touch of green and usually rigged into the roof for freedom. For room tone, we inserted Phillips hue lights into the practicals at every location which gave us incredible freedom to tweak the interior colour and level of the space. The result was a slightly muddy amber green feel to the practical lights, which was perfect for this story.

I’m excited to see where lighting is heading in the next few years. Wireless, lightweight solutions have transformed the way we work, and putting the camera and lighting crew on headsets has also improved the energy. Everything is a lot calmer and respectful to the actors and you don’t have a bunch of big egos running around on set competing to be heard. On a film like Savage where a scene might include untrained actors, a large number of extras, as well as actual gang members, the last thing you need is more big personalities yelling across the room.

During pre-production, we created look-up tables with our colourist, Claire Burlinson, at Park Road Post. Then on set, we under-exposed the log by between one to two stops, working with these pre-determined look-up tables. We deliberately destroyed the image as much as we could in-camera to bring out some texture in the digital sensor. Post-production producer Amanda Heatley and the whole team were an amazing support. When you walk into Park Road Post you are in a facility that is amongst the best in the world and that support allows you to be even more gutsy in your approach.

Once the edit was locked, I spent one week grading Savage in Wellington. Burlinson is a skilful colourist and had a great sensibility for the story we were all trying to tell. There was a pretty engrained look so we didn’t redraw or question our original approach to the colouring. In the end the focus was more in matching the two cameras and the crazy Wellington weather going from full sun to rain to sun within the scenes.

To give the images some grunge, especially day scenes, we tested a variation of Park Road Post’s own process of using the Sapphire plugin on SGO’s Mistika suite. This is a plugin that reacts to the RGB layers that was closer to the way a film stock would react.

There is a scene outside the gang’s pad in chapter three where all the lights are out and we are in this big wide open space with single source 12K lighting the carpark. Danny pulls Red (Poroaki McDonald) outside as he has just been taken advantage of. 

We’re seeing Red become a man under the older brother mentorship of Danny and the camera is intuitively communicating the emotion of the scene as it evolves. The director just let me go for it instinctively as the performance evolved. It was one of the simplest scenes in the film and one of the most effective.

Of course knowing what I know now, I may do things differently because that’s the nature of filmmaking and cinematography. With a different lead up we might have shot on 16mm pushed two stops, or even an iPhone! All you have are your instincts in the moment about what the story demands. We worked hard to make the best decisions for the story and, right or wrong, I don’t think you can regret that. 

In the end it’s the vision of Sam Kelly and producer Vicky Pope. These two wonderful people fought every step of the way to pull off this beast. Kelly is as dedicated as they come and Pope was the most supportive producer I have ever worked with. 

I’m very proud of the film and feel it’s such an amazing achievement for everyone involved.

James L Brown ACS is an award-winning freelance cinematographer based in Sydney. He is known for his work on feature film ‘Matar a Jesús‘ (2017) and short film ‘Black Lips’ (2018)

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