Australian cinematographer Ross Emery ACS takes on androids, ideology, and foreign lands on HBO’s science-fiction drama Raised By Wolves, from executive producer Ridley Scott.
By Sarah Jo Fraser.
In Raised By Wolves, Kepler-22b becomes the home of two androids tasked with saving the human race after a war of religious differences destroys the Earth. Armed with only human embryos and some space-age technology ‘Mother’, a re-programmed necromancer android played by Amanda Collin, and ‘Father’, a re-programmed general service android played by Abubakar Salim, give birth to six human children in the pursuit of creating an atheistic, science-driven colony. However their mission comes into jeopardy when an ark of Mithraic survivors, a militaristic religious group from Earth, turn up unannounced.
“This was my first dive into episodic work,” explains cinematographer Ross Emery ACS, who shot five episodes of the epic ten-part series. Having previously collaborated with director and executive producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and fellow cinematographer Darius Wolski ASC (The Martian, Prometheus) who set up the series with the first two episodes, Emery knew he had a large task ahead of him. “In a feature you kind of have a single theme that you’re working with, and a couple of story and character arcs. On this show we have an evolving story with multiple character arcs and a story arc that is more like a roller-coaster.”
It doesn’t take long to be struck by the scenery in Raised By Wolves; the main settlement in the series was built on a farm in Lourensford, a town about an hour south-east of Cape Town in South Africa. Emery recalls, “Ridley Scott was the main decision maker about that particular location as it had a massive escarpment that serves as a backdrop to a lot of the scenes. We found the escarpment had its own personality. On some days we saw huge cloud waterfalls flowing down towards the set and some days the mist layers gave the location another persona. Changing light throughout the day also revealed more variance.”
Emery explains it gave the visuals an ‘alien-like’ quality, which they learnt to use to their advantage. “We would schedule scenes according to the way we wanted the location to look. For me, tonally, I wanted to present a world that was foreign and strange, where we could witness the battle between human emotions and ideologies,” he says.
Preparation for the massive undertaking that would be Raised by Wolves was a key element of the process. “Pre-production is where you really need to get the details right, so I spent time in Cape Town while they shot the pilot,” says Emery. They had to take the initial ideas and styles that were set up by Scott and Wolski in the pilot and use them as a starting point. “The settlement set where our Mother and Father first set up was strongly established. The pilot had an immediate kind of feel — an almost documentary style — capturing this little family creating a life in a harsh and desaturated environment.”
Emery made a conscious choice to centre-frame key characters and off-frame minor characters, while being careful also to only go tight on key characters. “Our setups could not look pretty or self-aware, occasionally we would be setting up a shot and the feeling would be that it was too attractive,” he says. Movement was restricted in early episodes to create tension, while “any movement had to be motivated to reveal something, or move with a character on their journey. In later episodes we freed things up, as the story started moving faster and more action began.”
Along with Wolski, Emery alternated shooting blocks with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC (Mindhunter, Mank) across the series, keeping in close contact throughout the shoot about different ideas that were coming through the scripts and the best way to tackle them. “We felt responsible for maintaining that visual continuity as we had five different directors on the show, all with subtly different ideas that had to be acknowledged while preserving the look,” he says.
“Director Luke Scott (episodes 3, 4 and 10) liked getting a lot of coverage,” he explains. “His episodes had a lot of scenes with large numbers of actors who had significant contributions to the story, so all of their performances needed to be covered. It was exciting to set up a scene we could cover in a few set-ups with multiple cameras. It’s less fatiguing on the actors and we get a lot of coverage of the supporting actors too, which in this story can be very important.”
“Director Alex Gabassi (episodes 7 and 8) preferred to weave the coverage into the camera movement and favoured less traditional coverage. The nice thing was that each director’s episodes suited the way they approached them. We did try to keep our lens choices in the range we had decided, and I think that helped with the visual continuity of the show.”
The idea of ‘perspective’ was an important consideration for the series. Emery toyed with an android point-of-view but ultimately decided the science-fiction quality of it didn’t align with the tone of Raised by Wolves. “…with the fun exception of one scene where Mother thinks she has internal damage and removes an eyeball to look inside her abdomen. For this scene, we used a GoPro with a tub of transparent gel and android internals to depict what the character sees,” says Emery.
“At one point in the series a character descends into madness, and we worked hard to support the actor’s work on the day showing the disturbance in his mind by shooting on a Panavision Super Speed T1 lens with a very narrow depth of field at 48fps on a Steadicam. It was very difficult to pull focus, but the focus drops were part of the effect and gave the scene an out-of-control feel,” says Emery.
Emery is a big proponent for the technology of the narrative world driving the lighting of the show and building practical sources into production design. “For example, we had scenes where the Mithraic soldiers hide in a cave system. What kind of flashlights would these soldiers have? What powers them? What colour light do they emit?” he asks. “Props and I worked hard to find the flashlight that looked correct, could put out the light intensity we wanted, could be dimmed and not flicker, and had hardware that the actors could work with. We had to make sure this was usable for the actors because it had to be part of their performance, and they were the ones lighting the scene. We shot those scenes with nothing but the flashlights.”
“ We shot those scenes with nothing but the flashlights. ”
“It means you can work faster and have a good aesthetic base for lighting. The interiors of the settlement had fire sources and light spheres which the androids brought with them on their spacecraft; we decided they were efficient, organic, light-emitting devices that recharged via solar power,” explains Emery.
“The spacecraft themselves were a different idea. The Mithraics use a power source called a ‘dark photon’ which powers their ships as well as their life support and their androids; all are solar-based technology. The ‘dark photon’ system emitted a cool white or a purple glow, with some sections shifting to green and orange, such as in the medical bays. This contrasted beautifully with the warm soft light from the spheres in the family settlement.”
Practically, this meant Emery utilised LED lighting widely to have control over the colour of the lighting source. He often opted for a series of 4×4 LED floppies, which were flat frames covered with LEDs that could be used with different diffusion panels. “These were very easy to work with in small spaces and highly controllable,” recalls Emery.
Raised By Wolves also adopted a day-for-night look, determined by Scott himself, which involved grading bright exterior shots into a ‘night’ look, justified by the planet Kepler-22b having three moons. “We would over-light the foreground and actors with three 18K HMIs and under-expose the background. When it works well it’s great, but sometimes we couldn’t shoot the perfect angle for the effect, so we did what we could and would sometimes get the visual effects team to help darken backgrounds where needed,” says Emery.
“Supplying images to stand up to a show with Ridley Scott’s name on it,” emphasises Emery, was what made this job truly unique. “World building is a fun job and we were consistently going over what is normal coverage and lighting to live up to a show that’s really pushing the limits. Ridley Scott is one of the masters of visual storytelling and it was a high bar we set.”
Raised By Wolves was shot on ARRI Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini cameras supplied by Panavision Cape Town, with a mix of Panavision Zoom Lenses, and Primo and Super Speed Primes, as well as a Panavision Super Speed T1 lens for select scenes. The HBO Max series is available via streaming service Binge in Australia and was also recently renewed for a second series.
Ross Emery ACS is an award-winning cinematographer based in Sydney, Australia, best known for his work on The Wolverine (2013) and Woman in Gold (2013).
Sarah Jo Fraser was the recipient of Screen Australia’s 2018 ‘Gender Matters’ cinematography placement program and is based in Melbourne, Australia.