Adelaide cinematographer David Gregan shoots web-series Love, Guns and Level Ups, a thrilling and heartfelt love story infused with adventure, comedy and pop culture, thanks to some welcome funding from Screen Australia, Google and YouTube.
By James Cunningham.
Love, Guns and Level Ups is a joint venture from production company Fury Fingers Films who is made up of director and producer team Nicholas Cleary and Andrew Shanks, along with producer and editor Dan Vink. Adelaide-based David Gregan is considered the essential ‘Player 4’ in his role as cinematographer. “It’s a production company making films that are mostly based on video games,” says Gregan. “The team are big gamers, so they are passionate about this world and understand their niche market.”
Furry Fingers Films were selected in 2019 to take part in Skip Ahead, a production grant provided by Screen Australia, Google and YouTube. The initiative supports Australian online content creators who have YouTube channels with a substantial existing subscriber base, and content which has reached significant viewership. Love, Guns and Level Ups is a product of the Skip Ahead initiative.
Gregan first met Cleary and Vink at film school, and was introduced to Shanks shortly after. “We’ve been making films together for a long time,” Gregan explains. “I first read the scripts for this project about a year ago. Thoughts on style and look immediately started racing around my head.” The series contains a variety of different video game worlds that characters exist in. This provided Gregan with license to create a variety of different worlds through cinematography.
Very early on, prior to pre-production, Gregan created a moodboard with his initial thoughts for the overall look and feel of the series. “I broke down the series into each different world using colour, style and lighting descriptions for each,” he says. “I included screen grabs from a variety of different films for reference. I took my moodboard to the directors to discuss, and we tweaked from there.”
It’s clear Love, Guns and Level Ups is heavy on production and costume design, and Gregan wanted to get in early, talking to both departments ensuring everybody was on the same page. “Each world is different in terms of its look and colour palette,” says Gregan. “I wanted to experiment with some rather bold looks in the colour grade. This meant that every choice with design had to be extensively pre-planned.”
As most of the web-series is a parody of other films and video games, there is an unending amount of visual references in which Gregan and the team could use. “I’m not really a gamer, but like any cinematographer I watch a lot of films,” he says. “Nowadays video games are so cinematic, usually borrowing looks from films. We didn’t want to copy any particular style of shooting, or particular shots from films. They were merely referenced from a look and colour point-of-view.”
The overall look of Love, Guns and Level Ups is bright and colourful. Gregan began by referencing the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, cinematography by Bill Pope ASC) along with Netflix series Stranger Things (2016, cinematography by Tim Ives ASC and Lachlan Milne ACS, et al) as an overall and overarching reference for the series. He then had seperate references for each of the individual gaming worlds within the series.
The series’ ‘Egyptian world’ called for hot and sandy exteriors. Gregan referenced Lawrence of Arabia (1962, cinematography by Frederick Young OBE BSC) and the three original Indiana Jones films (1981-1989, cinematography by Douglas Slocombe OBE BSC ASC). The ‘wild wild west world’ however needed hard lighting, deep shadows and slits of light hitting character’s faces. Gregan mainly referenced Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli AIC) for the basis of his planning here.
For Gregan’s ‘medieval world’ he referenced the dark fantasy drama Willow (1988, cinematography by Adrian Biddle BSC) and of course the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003, cinematography by Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC) for its lush greens, browns and earthy tones. ‘Zombie world’ referenced the classic horror Dawn of the Dead (1978, cinematography by Michael Gornick), a very popular video game called The Last of Us as well as lighting and colour references from Blade Runner (1982, Jordan Cronenweth ASC).
“All these references were based on what initially came to mind without asking Cleary or Shanks,” says Gregan. “This worked well as it meant we didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what the series would look like. The directors took many of my visual references on board, but also others. I really like working with them. They are very open to collaboration.”
When it came to camera choice Gregan was tossing up between using the ARRI Alexa Mini and the Red Gemini. “A majority of my work is shot on the Alexa, so I was fairly keen to try the Gemini,” he says. “I find the Red has a bit more contrast in its look, whereas skin tones on the Alexa are more natural and creamy. I just wanted to try a different look with this series compared to what I was used to.”
The choice of the Red Gemini came down to the fact the cinematographer wanting to shoot parts of the series at 100 frames-per-second without dropping resolution. The Alexa Mini only shoots at 60 frames-per-second in 3.2K and the filmmakers weren’t keen to drop down to 2K.
Lens wise, Gregan chose a set of Zeiss CP.2 prime lenses. “This was partially down to budget. There was a lot of handheld work and quick focus pulls. I wanted lenses that had proper focus gears as well as consistent colour matching throughout the set,” he explains. “The image circle on these lenses are larger than the Ultra Primes or other older lenses. This meant we occasionally had to switch to filming 5K if we needed to get a wider field-of-view in a small space so we wouldn’t run into vignetting issues.” The series sourced all their gear from camera rental house Picture Hire Australia in Adelaide.
Gregan paired the Zeiss lenses with Tiffen Black Glimmer Glass filters. Fellow cinematographer Maxx Corkindale recommended the filters and Gregan tested them against standard Glimmer Glass. He found the black held contrast better whilst still softening skin tones. “They also give a nice bloom to highlights,” he says.
When shooting previous projects with Fury Fingers Films, the cinematographer had always been on zoom lenses. “Both directors [Cleary and Shanks] love their crash zooms and variable framing within shots,” says Gregan. On Love, Guns and Level Ups, however, he wanted to stray from what we had done before. He also wanted to be more considered with lens and framing choices. “When I told the directors I wanted to use prime lenses only, they were nervous. They like to work fast and were worried that lens changes would slow us down.” The team used the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder app when deciding and selecting shots, so in the end weren’t slowed down too much.
During pre-reproduction Gregan used a number of apps. As he found himself shooting a lot of day exteriors in the full-blown heat of summer, he used an app called Helios which features a sun tracker allowing the cinematographer to plan where he would be shooting, in what direction and in what locations.
“For interior scenes I made lighting diagram plans using the Shot Designer app. I then gave these plans to my gaffer Hugh Freytag so he knew what was needed on specific days,” says Gregan. “I also gave these plans to second unit cinematographer and B-camera operator Viv Madigan. When Madigan had to go off and shoot second unit without me, he had a rough plan of attack. Shot Designer also allows the user to name what lights you want to use. This was a huge help in keeping on top of gear lists.”
The ambitious web-series called for a lot of two-camera coverage, drones and gimbal work. Gregan created spreadsheets for each shooting day which listed extra or specialised equipment he needed. The cinematographer is generally very organised when it comes to pre-production in any project. He shares his time between freelance work as a cinematographer and his role as rental manager at Picture Hire Australia.
“I have to be on top of stuff both technically and practically,” he says. “I also spent many years in the lighting department, as well as working as an assistant camera.” Love, Guns and Level Ups was entirely filmed on location, and luckily for Gregan saw only a few small insert shots on green screen.
“My approach to lighting the exteriors was mostly to use the sun as a back or side light,” he explains. “If having to scrim we would use an eight-by-eight frame with a light diffusion material so we weren’t softening the hard sun too much. For bounce we often used a material called ‘holey bounce’ which has tiny perforated holes to help spread the light. For some of the desert or wild west scenes we used unbleached muslin bounce to warm the skin tones.”
There are some very colourful arcade scenes which meant Gregan could play a lot with coloured gels, as well as flickering effects of the gaming screens. “For this we used a mixture of ARRI L7’-Cs, two-foot Kino Flo Diva LEDs and Astera Titan tubes,” he says.
Gregan’s crew was relatively small due to budget constraints. Jake Cooper was first assistant camera, Cherie Luk was clapper loader and Hugh Freytag acted as a combined gaffer/grip. Rebecca Taylor was first assistant to Madigan on B-camera. “I had worked with most of them before so it was easy to collaborate as the schedule was tight,” he says.
“I always operated A-camera unless it was gimbal work,” he explains. “Then I would be on the joystick and someone else would operate the Ronin. A good portion of the series is handheld, with Cooper pulling focus wirelessly on an ARRI SXU 1, which is a single channel wireless unit. He did a great job considering how frantic the camera work is.”
Special effects work was mainly done by director Nick Cleary and editor Dan Vink. “The effects are very cartoonish and colourful which works well for the feel we were going for,” says Gregan. “I also find that if you rely too heavily on special effects without the budget to back it up it can look cheap. I didn’t have a lot to do with the actual effects during post-production, simply approving scenes as they went along. The team have done effects for all their films, so I trusted them.”
The colour grade was a different story where the cinematographer was heavily involved. Early on, when costume tests were being done, Gregan shot footage and took it into a DaVinci Resolve suite. “I had a play with look-up tables, just to make sure we were in the right ballpark,” he explains. From here, Gregan created custom look-up tables for each world. He ended up using a Red Dragon look-up table on the Red Gemini which was good as an overall series go-to.
The series was filmed 4K at 800 ISO with a 6:1 compression ratio for most of the shoot, only changing ratio to 3:1 for specific visual effect scenes. Source footage was R3D, a Red file format, and then ProRes for viewing rushes.
Colourist was Caleb De Leon, who is based in Queensland, and who had been in discussions with the directors early on. Due to Covid-19 they couldn’t do any grading face-to-face, meaning the pair had numerous Skype calls. Gregan also sent De Leon his moodboards. Once Gregan had discussed with De Leon how he wanted each world to look, the cinematographer would send back screen grabs of different versions of varying intensities of the look-up tables and the pair would then pick and choose which path was best.
“In the wild west and zombie worlds we used a heavier film grain, whereas in the medieval world and the arcade scenes world grain was a lot finer,” he says. “We also wanted to differentiate the fantasy world with the real world. The real world had a much softer ‘Alexa look’ to it with less contrast and no grain, whereas the fantasy worlds had a lot more contrast in the images and added grain.”
“My favourite scene in the series is in episode four where the cast are battling zombies in an old, dilapidated house and trying to board the place up whilst trying to resolve their own relationship issues,” says Gregan. As it was a particularly tense scene I was able to play with rays of light coming in through the window generated by a couple of M18s and a hazer. This also allowed me to keep the location very dark with lots of black in the frame.
There is dialogue between our two protagonists, where secrets are being revealed. The main character Bree (played by Lisa Fanto) is set against a heavily backlit window, and I played some of her dialogue in complete silhouette to mirror the secrets being kept. She then moves forward into the light as the two characters become more honest with each other. Gregan says he was also very lucky that day as the weather was overcast and this helped to sell the bleak look of the zombie world.
Gregan says as with most of his projects there was never enough budget. “Even though I thought the Zeiss Compact Primes were a good choice it would have been nice to play with a range of different lenses, and even shoot Anamorphic for some worlds,” he says. “But overall I am pretty happy with the end result… and we had a hell of a lot of fun making it!”
David Gregan won a SA & WA ACS Silver Award in 2019 for the short film ’37 Things’. He was additional camera operator on the feature ‘Hotel Mumbai’ (2018, cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews ACS) as well as second unit, B-camera on the film ‘Never Too Late’ (2020, cinematography by Peter Falk ACS) and recently wrapped on ABC television series ‘Aftertaste’ (2020, cinematography by Anna Howard ACS).
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.