Cinematographer Rudi Siira behind ‘Paper Champions’

An uplifting comedy about Rey (Luke Saliba), a man who wants to find love despite having lost his ‘mana’. Screening at 2020’s Melbourne International Film Festival 68½, and co-starring Gary Sweet and John Tui, Paper Champions has been beautifully filmed by cinematographer Rudi Siira (Geeta, Insomnia City).

By Sue Jeffery.

Wade (John Tui) in scene from ‘Paper Champions’ – DOP Rudi Siira

Melbourne-based cinematographer Rudi Siira was initially approached out of the blue by actor, producer and writer Luke Saliba. He had seen some of Siira’s previous work and was wondering if the cinematographer would be interested in reading a script. “I thought it was really funny and full of heart,” says Siira. “I was drawn to the story immediately.” Siira met with director Jo-Anne Brechin soon after and the pair found they had a very similar sensibility in how they might approach the filming of Paper Champions.

In Polynesian cultures, ‘mana’ refers to strength, confidence and an ability to influence situations for one’s gain. It is a spiritual life force energy or healing power in Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. Unfortunately for Rey, a reserved and routine-loving photocopier salesman played by Saliba, he seems to have lost his mana. With the help of his big-hearted best friend Wade, played by John Tui, the film celebrates Polynesian culture as he attempts go get his manna back. Set in and entirely shot in Geelong, Paper Champions is a playful Australian romantic comedy featuring a cast that includes Gary Sweet as a former wrestler.

The creative team discussed together many film references. They were drawn to the comedic style of Taika Waititi’s films, a single-camera television comedy series called Detectorists (2014-2017, cinematography by Jamie Cairney) as well as the film Lars and the Real Girl (2007, cinematography by Adam Kimmel ASC) which for Siira captured the loneliness of the film’s main character quite beautifully.

Rudi Siira and crew behind the camera on ‘Paper Champions’ – PHOTO Jontee Langton

Paper Champions was shot on an ARRI Alexa Mini with a set of Cooke Panchro Classic lenses. “The Alexa is a camera I’ve always been comfortable shooting with and I love the way it renders images, in particular that lovely natural rolloff in the highlights. I’m able to light by eye and trust my meter, ” explains Siira. “Also, the Mini being a lighter camera is a plus with handheld work.

Siira has always been a fan of the ‘Cooke look’, and shooting Paper Champions with the Panchro Classic lenses fitted well with the retro aesthetic Siira was trying to achieve. The modern housing also made life easier for focus pulling. The cinematographer did find the lenses a little too soft when shooting wide-open, so he kept things around T2.8 to T4.

Production design was pivotal to the aesthetic of Paper Champions. “I had a great time collaborating with our production designer Bianca Milani,” says Siira. “The mustardy colour palette and design she brought to the film really complemented the story. She really nailed the retro look and although technically set in present day, it drew from 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. It made the world of Paper Champions feel like a real lived in place.

The 32mm became our go to lens for most of the film,” says Siira. “It has a certain intimacy about it, and worked great for the comedy. A lot of Rey’s world is quite rigid and static towards the start of the film, but we start getting looser with camera movement as Rey steps outside his comfort zone and his world starts falling apart.

Filming the dance hall sequence in the film ‘Paper Champions’ – PHOTO Levi Ingram

Siira is a planner who likes to work out most things during pre-production, and director Jo-Anne Brechin felt the same way. Months prior to filming the pair worked over Skype and email mapping out the cinematic language of Paper Champions. Once in Geelong, both Siira and Brechin took a great number of stills, creating a photo-board of the whole film. “Brechin has such a strong understanding of story and was an absolute joy to work with,” says Siira.

Each night during production they would talk through their plan for the next day, and rushes were viewed each morning on the way to set. This way, Siira and Brechin were able to keep a consistent look through the whole film. After the first few days of filming, Siira’s camera department got a good sense of how the cinematographer likes to work and where to place the camera. It became second nature quite quickly.

I operated the camera for most of the film, which I do prefer. 

I had worked with my first assistant camera Drew Collins on a few projects before Paper Champions,” says Siira. “He works quick and runs a tight ship, so it was a no-brainer to get him on board.” Collins introduced Siira to second assistant Austin Gilbert and to data wrangler Sarah Jo Fraser. “We had such a tight shooting schedule it was great to be able to rely on the camera department almost running itself. That way I could spend more time working with the director and lighting team. I operated the camera for most of the film, which I do prefer. I feel more connected with the actors in the scene, and able to intuitively react and move with them in the moment.

Paper Champions was shot entirely on location, filmed through the colder and shorter months of the year. This meant chasing light at the end of the day was always a challenge for the cinematographer. “I worked closely with our gaffer, Joshua Potts,” says Siira. “During pre-production we put together detailed lighting plans, for the most part taking a naturalist approach. 

Wade (John Tui) and Terry (Gary Sweet) in ‘Paper Champions’ – DOP Rudi Siira

The film’s tight schedule meant finding the quickest and most efficient way to doing things and also try to maximise the amount of time Brechin could spend with the actors. “Skypanels are a versatile light that allowed us to move around very quickly. When shooting interiors, I would often use tungsten lamps in Jem Balls or Chimera Pancakes. The sides would be skirted to control spill and I would sometimes add some subtle straw gel to give an even further warmth to the skin tones,” says Siira.

Siira worked closely with colourist Justin Tran during post-production. “We kept things fairly naturalist but tended to move things to the warmer side, especially in the highlights,” he explains. The film Ladybird (2017, cinematography by Sam Levy) became a reference that cinematographer and colourist discussed. Both enjoyed and tried to evoke the film’s warmer tones. “I think a lot of films tend to pull out the saturation but that approach didn’t feel right on this one, really it’s about complementing what was shot on the day. I also like to add a subtle layer of grain which gives a nice texture.

There are a number of frames in Paper Champions that Siira is quite fond of, generally the more subtle moments of the film like when Rey’s mother Morine (Kaarin Fairfax) is gazing out the window or when Rey is eating his breakfast in the kitchen. 

The kitchen scene in set during the opening sequence of the film and features no dialogue whatsoever. “It was about setting a mood and establishing the lonely nature of this character,” says Siira. “An M18 was placed outside the window providing the main motivation for light, mostly providing highlights in the background to sell the morning look, while I used a Skypanel in a chimera as a main soft key. From there we shaped with floppies and cutters to create contrast.

Actor John Tui between takes on ‘Paper Champions’ – PHOTO Levi Ingram

We found a lovely frame of Morine gazing out the window when I got up tight and close on the 25mm,” says Siira. “We used HMIs through the window and achieved a lovely soft diffusion with 6×6 frames. I liked the light fall-off on her face, it felt quite natural. From there it was accenting the background elements like Terry (Gary Sweet) and parts of the room. This was another good example of shooting down the line to make the scene work in a simple way without relying on excessive coverage and saving time by not needing to relight for the reverse direction. The more time I can give to the director to nail performances, the better.

The dance hall scenes were shot over two days and were a lot of fun for the cinematographer to shoot. “The Skypanels gave us a wonderful disco light effect built into them, which we used,” Siira says. “The hall was blacked out and filled with haze. We also had a spinning disco ball rigged up in the ceiling, with Dedolights shooting into it for that effect.

The more time I can give to the director to nail performances, the better.

“We also had our Jem Ball rigged on a boom arm that we moved around with us for a really soft wrap around key, this was generally exposed a little under key. There were 650 or 1K fresnels rigged up with some 1/4 colour temperature blue (CTB) gel which is mostly used as backlight. The dance sequence was also a lot of fun to shoot,” says Siira. “I got quite adventurous with colour in that scene, and really pushed that 1980s vibe.

Another stand out scene is a wrestling match during the climax of the film. The filmmakers found an amazing location within Geelong Town Hall, which was big enough to fit the ring and where the lighting team rigged a giant soft box with four Blondies. 

Behind-the-scenes on ‘Paper Champions’ – PHOTO Jontee Langton

Initially, Siira wanted SpaceLights but this was a more economic solution that freed up budget elsewhere to allow the crew things like Steadicam. Having a large, even soft source allowed the cinematographer to operate handheld in the ring in a 360-degree manner. 

Whilst Siira says that every shoot has its challenges, and that a cinematographer can always find something to improve upon in hindsight, finding clever ways to make a scene work in a ‘one-er’ was something that he perhaps wanted to experiment with and explore further. “Perhaps more of that,” he concludes, “but I’m proud of what we achieved and I learnt a lot on this film.   

Rudi Siira is an Australian cinematographer with a love and passion for long-form narrative and documentary film. He has recently wrapped on the documentary ‘Geeta’, which is due for cinema release in 2021.

Sue Jeffrey is a freelance writer based in Adelaide.

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