Earle Dresner ACS Shoots Australian Sci-Fi Epic ‘2067’

High-concept, science fiction film 2067 explores the uncertain future of humanity. Premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2020, we sat down with cinematographer Earle Dresner ACS to talk about shooting his first feature film.

Interview by Darcy Yuille.

Kodi Smit-McPhee in ‘2067’ – DOP Earle Dresner ACS, PHOTO Matt Byrne

AC – How would you describe 2067

ED – 2067 is a film set in the last city on Earth in the year 2067. The human race is dying and we have destroyed the planet. There is barely any oxygen left and we rely on synthetic oxygen from tanks to breathe. Within this world we follow the story of Ethan (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an average guy who just wants to live his life, but who is tasked with trying to do something extraordinary to save mankind.

AC – How did you come to shoot the film? 

ED – I came to the film quite late, only a few months before the project was supposed to start shooting. Writer/director Seth Larney and I are represented by the same agency, who suggested we work together. I read the script and put together some visual references and ideas. It quickly became apparent that we were a good fit. I think, this being only his second film as a director, we bonded over a similar level of experience and enthusiasm for the project. We had both been technicians for a long time but this represented a significant step forward for both of us.

AC – What attracts you to a project? 

ED – Story is always the thing. I love good stories, storytelling and filmmaking. A lot of cinematographers say this and it took me a long time to truly understand it. I’d read quotes from filmmakers like Roger Deakins (CBE BSC ASC) and other cinematographers saying things like, “It’s all about the story,” and “it’s all about the script.” As a young cinematographer I thought differently. I thought it was all about the camera or the lighting. The more work I did the more I started to realise I was wrong. The films I enjoyed watching weren’t necessarily the fanciest productions, they were the ones with which I had an emotional connection.

Cinematographer Earle Dresner ACS, behind the viewfinder lens, on location with ‘2067’ – PHOTO Matt Byrne

AC – Did you have an emotional connection within the story of 2067

ED – Very much so, yes. In essence, it’s a story about family and about making sacrifices for the greater good. Larney managed to set up the story on a grand scale about climate change in a dystopian world. The level of complexity within the story is both gripping and challenging but is beautifully realised by the end of the film. I thought Larney did a great job finding that. The relationships of the characters is what really resonates.

AC – What were your initial thoughts, in terms of cinematography, after reading the script?

ED – When I first I read the script I just sat there and I said to myself, “Wow!” It’s a great story. I thought, “I’ve got a lot of questions, but wow!” I loved the way the story spoke about environmental destruction and about what we are doing to the planet. But, it’s also unashamedly a science fiction film.

I wouldn’t call myself a big science fiction fan. The science fiction films I really love, films like Arrival (2016, cinematography by Bradford Young ACS), are stories that happen to take place in the future or deal with other worlds, but are all about humans and human stories on a very basic level. 2067 is a human story.

The script was hugely ambitious. It read like a $100 million dollar film, but our actual budget was a fraction of that. I immediately saw the enormous challenge I would face was going to be how to create the world and get an audience to believe in it and believe in these characters.

I watched a lot of high concept science fiction films like Moon (2009, cinematography by Gary Shaw) and The Road (2009, cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe ACS AEC) along with pretty much every science fiction film ever made in Australia to better understand how I might be able to achieve this with very little money. It’s all good to think Bladerunner 2049 (2017, cinematography by Roger Deakins), but we were never going to have that budget. Mostly I was looking for insights into how to tell a story in a particular world.

Maybe it’s because I got into drama late or that I still spend a lot of my time shooting commercials, but when I start a project I tend go in all guns blazing. I dive in really deep and don’t emerge till the end. I find it really difficult if I don’t have that very deep connection with the project, or the story.

A scene from Seth Larney’s ‘2067’ – DOP Earle Dresner ACS

AC – What did you pick up on from those film references? 

ED – I wanted to get ideas; to be inspired. To see what I liked and what I didn’t like, but I wanted to make sure I was making authentic choices, responding to the script and responding to the story.

One important thing was practical lighting in sets and using light and colour to portray a world of the future. Little things that can feel ‘hi-tech’. We knew we couldn’t be outside where, in the story, there was a massive layer of smog and no nature, so I picked up on some good techniques to show the world sparingly. The plan was to use a couple of key frames to ‘go big’ and then keep the rest of the film quite intimate.

Something we wanted to do was make the world feel grounded, believable and relatable to people now. Even though the film is set fifty years in the future and there’s flying delivery trucks and lots of artificial intelligence, it’s still a gritty place where things feel familiar.

There are two time periods in the film; one in the year 2067 where there’s no nature and no oxygen, and then another even further into the future where nature has reclaimed the earth. We wanted to make a really strong distinction between the two time periods so we talked a lot about colour, contrast, light and focal lengths. The major conclusion we came to was that we wanted the part of the film set in 2067 to feel artificial. Everything about it was claustrophobic and we wanted that jungle future world to feel open. Suffocating versus filled with air.

Ryan Kwanten in a scene from ‘2067’ – DOP Earle Dresner ACS

AC – What camera and lens package did you choose? 

ED – Larney and I were very keen to shoot on anamorphic lenses mainly for their edge distortion and artefacts to help depict a world in decline. I set up a test at Panavision with the older C-series and B-series lenses because I love their softness and warm organic flares. Larney fell in love with the look. We shot ARRIRAW on an Alexa Mini and used a Ronin 2 for gimbal and remote head work.

AC – Where was the shoot? 

ED – We shot the film at Adelaide Studios and a few exterior locations. Then also a few days on the Gold Coast in a place called Ardina, twenty minutes south of Tweed Heads, for the jungle.

AC – Did you have a choice of crew? 

ED – You get a chance to look at local crews while shooting in South Australia. My grip Matt Richardson was really experienced and he did a fantastic job. The schedule was only twenty-five days, and as I said there wasn’t a lot of money. I took an approach to choose crew members who would know how to get me out of a bad situation and who would know how to do their role without having to micromanage, but also have a passion and really want to be there. Want to help me push the project forward.

Storm Ashwood was my gaffer. He has directed a couple of features himself (The School, Escape and Evasion) and I liked that even more once I found out. I loved the idea that he was looking at lighting from a story perspective and that he did that really well. He brought a lot of great ideas to the film. First assistant camera was Bryn Whittie from Melbourne, and we hired Adelaide local Claire Bishop as second assistant. Whittie and Bishop were both greatly invested in the film and excellent at what they do. Michael Gojic was my on-set digital imaging technician and did a great job managing rushes and tweaking the look-up tables as required.

Matt Richardson, Earle Dresner ACS, Matan Tatarko, Matt Testro and Finn Little on the set of ‘2067’ – PHOTO Matt Byrne

AC – Twenty-five days to shoot a science fiction film is pretty tight. What were your biggest challenges? 

ED – There were constant challenges. First of all, working with the art and production departments about how to fit everything in. There were a couple of big action scenes in the original script and we had to let one go. But, with his unwavering enthusiasm and ability to find solutions, Larney rewrote the scene so it was achievable and still served it’s purpose in the story.

It was difficult, but I very much enjoyed the challenge of sitting down with Larney, production designer Jacinta Leong and the visual effects team. We managed to come up with some amazing ideas. In the end it was just the sheer volume of work that became a challenge. It was every single day and there were no easy days on this film.

We were creating cities overgrown with nature, night scenes in an alleyway dressed as a shanty town and lightning storms in a forest at night. The biggest challenge, if I’m completely honest, was working out between production design, camera and visual effects who would be responsible for what, how much we could capture in camera and where the visual effects team would take over. Luckily, we were all collaborating for six weeks of pre-production. We went through every scene, back-and-forth, to work out how to do it.

AC – Was there an example of how this worked? 

ED – Yes. We had one main set that was a science laboratory. The set was something like twenty metres by fifteen metres and about six metres high. I was determined to use as much practical lighting as possible so we could move the camera freely and get through as much coverage as possible.

I got really lucky when the production designer told me that her art department runner had some experience with LED strip lighting. I immediately contacted David Musch, director at Mapped Design in Adelaide, and discovered he could run LED strips to his laptop and control every pixel remotely; changing colours and creating patterns. He was promptly transferred to the lighting department and we ran over two-hundred metres of LED strip throughout the set.

We built light panels out of strips and even made an electronic sign that could display words and count down numbers. The only way we could do that was because the art department helped and took from their budget to make it work.

Every lighting cue was planned. We rigged it all back to Musch’s laptop and we could control everything. About thirty-percent of the movie was filmed on that set so it saved a huge amount of time as well as looking amazing. I had two Sky Panels on wheeled stands and a few smaller LEDs, and they could be patched through the Digital Multiplex to Musch’s system so he controlled them also. If we needed to move from a close-up to a wide-shot, we could do it very easily.

A scene from ‘2067’ – DOP Earle Dresner ACS

AC – You described the story element of 2067 as important, but the special effects and visual effects are equally important, yes?

ED – If the visual effects aren’t seamless, the audience will be less engaged. People have to believe in the world that we are creating. A lot of my work with the visual effects department was working out where physical sets end and where visual effects would take over. There are also things like holograms and holographic screens we had to incorporate.

In the script, we had scientists that were supposed to have these new-age iPad type devices, all holographic. Even these became a long conversation about how we could achieve something that looked believable. We created Perspex panels, portable ones and ones on desks, then we rigged LED strip lighting around the edges so they would glow. We even put drill holes in the corners, which acted as tracking markers. They caught the light and still looked good so we could photograph them.

AC – How did the special effect inform what you did in the grade? 

ED – The final grade was done at Spectrum Films in Sydney with colourist Ben Eagleton. I knew we needed a colourist who would not only engage with the look and world we had created but also have the experience and ability to help integrate our visual effects. Ben Eagleton delivered in spades and really took the images to another level. After two weeks at Spectrum we finished the grade on a projected cinema screen at Definition Films.

A scene from ‘2067’ – DOP Earle Dresner ACS

AC – What was the most rewarding aspect about shooting 2067

ED – A crucial role for any cinematographer is to get inside the director’s head to interpret their vision, but still bring yourself and your ideas to the project. Larney and I spent so much time together drilling deep into the story and finding the language and tone of the film. No matter what compromises and challenges we had to deal with or when we were told, “we don’t have time for that” or “we can’t do this,” we knew what the end goal was. We knew where we wanted to go and we were able to find our way there. Even if we had to take a slightly different, meandering road.

Shooting 2067 is an experience that I will never forget. Not only because it’s my first feature film, but because of the relationships I built with Larney, Leong and producers Lisa Shaunessy and Kate Croser. The way we worked so passionately with the entire crew trying to create something really big and bold with limited resources was so special. I also loved working with our incredibly talented and committed cast led by Kodi Smit McPhee and Ryan Kwanten.

Earle Dresner ACS is an award-winning cinematographer who won two Gold Awards at the Australian Cinematographers Society (Victoria and Tasmania) Awards for his work on ‘Sisters’ and ‘Glitch’.

Darcy Yuille is experienced in all facets of film production, from loading to directing and everything in between. He runs a production company in Melbourne, Australia.

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