Andrew Commis ACS on filming ‘High Ground’

In a bid to save his family, Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), a young Aboriginal man, teams up with ex-soldier Travis (Simon Baker) to track down Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), his uncle and the most dangerous warrior in the Territory. We chat to the award-winning Andrew Commis ACS (Beautiful Kate, Babyteeth) about shooting High Ground.

Interview by James Cunningham.

Gutjuk (Jacob Nayinggul) and Travis (Simon Baker) in ‘High Ground’ – DOP Andrew Commis ACS, PHOTO Sarah Enticknap

AC – How did you initially get involved with High Ground? What were your thoughts when you first read the script? 

AC – I had worked with producer Maggie Miles on Commission, the David Wenham directed chapter of The Turning (2013) anthology film. It was Miles who contacted me initially. 

I had seen director Stephen Johnson’s previous film Yolngu Boy (2001, cinematography by Brad Shield ACS ASC) in the cinema when it was released. It had such a unique perspective told with a great energy. I was completely intrigued about High Ground. I read the script and found it was exploring ideas that I’ve grappled with my whole adult life. I had an incredibly formative experience in Arnhem Land shooting a documentary twenty odd years ago where it dawned on me comprehensively that in twelve years of schooling I literally learnt nothing about the history of this country. I was only ever taught a white perspective of Australia and that large blocks of history were missing. I felt High Ground could intelligently and emotively help open that conversation. 

The script conveyed such an epic-ness in both narrative and visual scale, reading like a tense slow burn western so as a cinematographer my initial reaction was one of awe and excitement. 

AC – What was your thinking when it came to choosing camera and lenses? What did you choose, and why?

AC – A strong visual theme was the sense of being with characters rather than simply watching or observing them. We spoke of the immediacy of the hand-held camera that allowed freedom to respond instinctively. I also wanted the ability to have an elegance in the movement, especially with indigenous characters, so that they had a graceful connection to the land.

I felt the Alexa sensor was ideal for the richness and extremes I’d be faced with. Full-blood indigenous skin tones juxtaposed with white skin tones in full sun makes for intense contrast challenges! Obviously I was countering that as best as I could with staging and lighting but I needed the assurance of a sensor that could be complementary as possible. In an ideal world we would have shot large format but at the time that technology wasn’t quite in our reach. So the ARRI Alexa Mini was a logical choice

Landscape is such a pivotal element in the story and I didn’t want to separate characters from it. Further to that, from an indigenous perspective the connection to the natural world is intrinsic to life, everything is deeply connected. I used wide lenses generally, ranging from the 16mm to 27mm. The subject often in very close proximity so there’s a dynamic when we have even subtle movement. I combined that with a very deep stop of T11 / T16 so everything is in focus. Everything is connected.

Adding to that idea, we chose the 1.66:1 aspect ratio to accentuate the connection to earth and sky. Coincidentally, it’s also the original aspect ratio of VistaVision (a widescreen variant of the 35mm motion picture film format) and Johnson loved the idea that it helps pull you into the frame.

I also wanted to represent this landscape in as pristine condition as possible, nothing effectively has changed in tens of thousands of years. I wasn’t looking for period glass even though it’s a period film. I wanted it to look as fresh to the eye as it would have if you stood there a thousand years ago. I was looking for a lens that would be truthful to that and also be able to resolve the wider selection of lenses. In the end I didn’t really do much lens testing as I knew the Master Primes were the right fit.

A scene from the film ‘High Ground’ – DOP Andrew Commis ACS

AC – What was your collaboration like with production designer Ross Wallace and his design team, early on? 

AC – Wallace and his team did such a fantastic job in really tricky circumstances. His enthusiasm and ‘never say no’ attitude was completely inspiring; sourcing building materials, transportation and construction in crocodile infested waters were only some of the hurdles! The attention to detail in creating authentic and period correct design, along with Erin Roche our costume designer, was phenomenal.

Our main focus was building the settlement, so choosing how to locate where the police station outpost was, where the missionary house would be along with the church’s particular orientation were all key for sight lines and staging. Finding the piece of land itself was something that Johnson had his eye on for many years prior, which is just a phenomenally picturesque location, and also underwater generally for four months of the year. There were definitely saltwater crocodiles around, that’s just the way of life near water up there. Each day getting to and from set was guaranteed to see either a few, or a lot.

We also had the station that gets burnt down which was a huge undertaking for everyone. We laid it out specifically to the lens really, both for the blocking of action and for lighting as the buildings would became the light sources when they were on fire. I’m not sure I really augmented it much, a couple of tungsten units going through flicker boxes on the rock face, and perhaps a flame bar for face fill. So positioning buildings in the right spot in pre-production was effectively me positioning my lights in a pre-light. We also had to make sure the horses and cattle featured prominently in their positioning and that there was room for the cattle to be let out of their holding pens. This all had to be visible in the single drone shot. The whole sequence is a symphony of many people’s efforts.

AC – Did you have any filmic or cinematic references when developing the look of High Ground?

AC – I think a film like The Revenant (2015, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC) is always going to be some form of benchmark film reference when you have such a large amount of nature that’s at the forefront of the storytelling. But you also know you don’t have anywhere near the resources that sort of film does. At a certain point you have to switch that off and develop your own language in response to ideas of the script. The country we are on is its own point of reference in many ways, it really does inspire you in ways you don’t imagine. There is nothing better than just sitting at a location where all you can see or hear is the natural world.

Simon Baker as Travis in ‘High Ground’ – DOP Andrew Commis ACS, PHOTO Sarah Enticknap

AC – Can you tell us more about that… how might an outdoor landscape dictate how you shoot a scene?

AC – Johnson had pretty much scouted the film for more than ten years during the course of many trips through Arnhem Land. He had lots of specific locations already in mind. I did a trip months before pre-production started that gave me a solid sense of what was before us which, to be honest, was awe-inspiring. Being shown land by traditional custodians and in some cases taken to sites that literally no one has ever shot before. 

As a director, Johnson is also a very respectful collaborator. He was always running by me ideas of where he thought scenes or sequences might exist, then obviously we also had to find some new ones. Locations really are everything on a film like this. We also had the ability to essentially have 360° degree views because so much of the land is untouched by human hands.

We definitely were after a variety of landscape and the script demanded it. Obviously the land is rich with variation and jaw dropping beauty, so it was working out how to best maximise the locations for the best dramatic effect rather than just finding a postcard image. That idea doesn’t interest me at all.

We weren’t shooting at the ideal time of year for light, or temperature, for reasons well out of our control but that also kind of becomes an influence too. It roughs up the world a little and the film suited that. It helps take the polish off.

AC – Were you shooting mostly doing location work? Were any sets built? How did you approach lighting?

AC – Ninety-nine percent of High Ground is exterior, with literally one physical room made within the construction of the settlement, which is the police station.

In reality that interior was open air, and while the windows were designed with shutters, visually it made more sense for them to be open rather than closed, so it essentially became an exterior set anyway.

My gaffer, Ruru Reedy, had the Light Bridge Cine Reflect Lighting System (CLRS) system, which is a fascinating reflector system co-designed by Austrian cinematographer Christian Berger AAC, so it was a great opportunity to utilise those which I hadn’t used before.

We also had a couple of night scenes that had fire as motivation but the main lighting consideration was really the faces of our characters in exteriors.

I really tried to avoid direct light, especially on darker skin tones which respond so beautifully to reflected light. Sometimes that was simply positioning out of the sun, and then being period I was lucky that most characters tended to wear hats.

We had an array of bedsheets and unbleached muslins as well as negative fill but in the end I tended not to light the faces with physical units for the day exterior scenes.

Behind-the-scenes on ‘High Ground’ – PHOTO Supplied

AC – How do you plan for managing the camera department, as well as your own workload?

AC – The workload for a cinematographer on a feature film goes well beyond just managing a camera department. Obviously you have amazing heads of departments in your grip, gaffer and first assistant camera, but it’s also a huge pre-production process with locations and schedules well before that. 

I find this a critical and creative part of the process that really determines the look of a film. The process is often not finished when the film starts shooting either, you’re always engaging with the myriad of challenges that come up. You have to be prepared.

I love the pre-production process. It becomes such a tight triangle with yourself, the director and first assistant director. Even though so much is planned prior to the day, you have to be open to what’s happening in the moment whether that be performance, weather, animals or anything else. You just have to be prepared to be flexible on a film like this. 

AC – Who was in your camera department? 

AC – I’m incredibly thankful that I had two extremely brilliant focus pullers in Gerard Maher, and then Ron Coe when Gerard had to depart. Both great storytellers with their creative decisions in situations that were not always predictable. I hadn’t worked with either of them before but they came so highly regarded and it was a real treat to have them.

It wasn’t just with their focus pulling, but their coordinating of the department allowed me to have a particular freedom to concentrate on many of the other aspects the film required. Special acknowledgment too of Kristi Gilligan who was our second assistant camera throughout. Gilligan ran a tight, efficient ship and was bulletproof in the intense conditions.

Director Stephen Johnson and cinematographer Andrew Commis ACS on location – PHOTO Sarah Enticknap

AC – Did you operate the camera yourself?

AC – I operated the camera myself, as I love to do. I find it sympathetic to how I work as a cinematographer, especially on a film like this because I can be so instinctive. Working with Johnson, who had trained in news camera early in his career and also shot many music videos in his former career as a cinematographer, meant that I really was a conduit for him. He wanted a visceral energy to the camera and he loves hand-held, so I could be his interpreter.

I also had Glenn Clayton come and have a crack at the ARRI Trinity hybrid camera stabilizer. Clayton is a Steadicam operator from Melbourne and while we did use that too, it was a challenge I suggested. In many ways it’s a very different beast from the Steadicam as it’s working on a few different axis, and you can literally make it as complex as you want. I tried to not complicate it and use some of its unique features as icing on a more traditional Steadicam move. I really thank Clayton for his dedication and commitment to try and get to grips with a complex new tool without having the chance to really spend huge amounts of time with it prior. Also to Brett Smith and the team at ARRI Sydney for making that happen.

AC – How did you shoot the more ‘performance driven’ scenes in the film, and how did you approach coverage?

AC – We had a wide range of actors, literally from cast that have never been on a film set before to others that have spent a lifetime acting. High Ground is a performance driven film, of course, but that shouldn’t work in isolation to the landscape and the cinema of what we’re trying to make as a film.

I completely respect performance as sacred. It’s something I have the upmost respect for.

I know how difficult and challenging it can be and the film eventually will be judged by the effectiveness of those performances. It’s about trying to respond to what’s required. Sometimes it’s encouragement; I’m the first point of response at the camera. Other times it’s trying to stay invisible and not interrupt the process and keeping adjustments and direction to a minimum.

Generally on High Ground I kept it very loose in terms of hitting a mark or pre-designated action. Having a visual language that embodied wider lenses and the epic scope of our locations meant I could cover and flex with it. In essence, I tried to sustain a take and shoot as long as I could. That’s where the freedom of hand-held really assists this.  

Coverage was fluid, naturally some was heavily pre-determined but more often than not simply became a road map that allowed for detours.

Jack Thompson as Moran in ‘High Ground’ – DOP Andrew Commis ACS, PHOTO Sarah Enticknap

AC – How involved were you in post-production on High Ground? 

AC – I wasn’t specifically involved in post-production however I did watch a number of edits throughout the process. Naturally I love to be present throughout the grade, and do everything I can to be available

AC – Who was the colourist, and what was the approach to colour and contrast in your images?

AC – CJ Dobson was colourist on the film. We tried to push for a heightened naturalism of sorts, it wasn’t so much going for a heavy ‘look’. I didn’t want to cheat the landscape as I wanted the elders to be able to watch this film and feel we had honoured the landscape, at least in the sense of a two dimensional image. So too the wide array of skin tones.

Arnhem Land and Kakadu have a certain pop to them and they give lots of clues. Colours really do leap off the screen, the greens are vivid and the blue in the sky is almost electric at times. Making that accurate but also feeling authentic was a balance. It was my first time working with Dobson and it was a really satisfying experience, as she has a really wonderful eye. 

AC – Looking back at the film, would you change anything or what might you have done differently?

AC – If the technology was readily available at the time, shooting in large format would have been fantastic. Aside from that, there’s the forever request of time and resources. Of course techniques can always be refined and explored further but at the end of the day you have what you have and plan as best as you can.

That’s the thing with films, and films you care about it. There’s no chance to come back and make improvements. It’s there forever and hopefully can stand the test of time. No matter if a film has taken two years to come to fruition, or twenty years as is the case with High Ground, you have to put everything into it.

There’s never enough time and you don’t ever get paid for all your time, but that’s where the love of your art has to take over! That’s why I can only make films I wholeheartedly believe in, it just takes so much energy to make one.

The film had many challenges and I’m immensely proud that we physically made it to the best of our abilities as a collective. Most of all it was such a unique privilege and absolute honour to be invited by the traditional elders and community onto country. They were very much a part of the film making process, effectively lending us the keys to the kingdom to make this film entirely with their collaboration.

I sincerely hope High Ground helps open a conversation towards an educated Australia that can understand, respect and truly appreciate the vast cultural richness of our traditional custodians … the world’s oldest living civilization.

Andrew Commis ACS is a three-time AACTA Award nominee for Best Cinematography for films ‘The Rocket’ (2013), ‘Girl Asleep‘ (2015) and ‘Babyteeth‘ (2019). He was awarded the Milli Award for Australian Cinematographer of the Year in 2010 for his work on the film Beautiful Kate (2009).

James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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