Trapped in the elevator of a 120-floor Shanghai skyscraper, Aria (Charlotte Best) faces her tormentors. First time director Ant Furlong along with Australian cinematographer Frank Flick ACS team up to create supernatural science-fiction thriller Ascendant.
By Frank Flick ACS.
Kidnapped and held hostage in a high-speed elevator of a 120-floor building in Shanghai, Aria (Charlotte Best) has no memory of her past, who her captors are or what they want from her. Pushed to her limits, she begins to realise she has incredible powers within, kept secret to protect her and her family. Unlocking these powers is her only chance to save both herself and her father (Jonny Pasvolsky).
The shoot was scheduled for twenty-six days, with three days of additional photography done later. The skyscraper’s interior sets and a Shanghai back lane set were built at Fox Studios in Sydney. Other locations included the Northern Beaches and Centennial Park.
I was brought onto Ascendant by director Ant Furlong, who I had worked with ten years prior on a short film. This was Furlong’s first feature film as writer, director and producer. I was fortunate to collaborate with various key crew members that I have worked with for many years; gaffer Michael Adcock, key grip Gary Lincoln, first assistant camera Adrien Seffrin and stunt coordinator Glenn Suter. They are all highly experienced and awesome at their jobs.
The script for Ascendant and Furlong’s approach to it meant that approximately 85% of the film plays inside an elevator. The way the kidnappers reveal themselves and communicate with Aria is via the elevator’s large advertising screen. For all these interactions Furlong wanted the camera to stay within the elevator, only showing the tormentors on the screen, more or less from Aria’s perspective. Whilst I thought this approach could be great to emphasise the terror that Aria endures, I also felt that shooting so much in a 3x3m box was an extra challenge in terms of keeping an audience engaged.
One of our references for a similar, even more constricted, scenario was the film Buried (2010, cinematography by Eduard Grau), which plays entirely inside a coffin showing only a single character Paul, played by Ryan Reynolds, for the entire film. Buried is a great example of how to effectively enhance a story visually within the most restrictive setting.
As for our film, Furlong and I felt the elevator should appear like one of the villain’s collaborators. A character with changing moods and looks, occasionally cozy and warm and at other times threatening and scary. I also wanted to be able to let the elevator walls fall into complete darkness at times, to help us feel Aria’s isolation.
Our production designer Fiona Donovan sketched an elevator that looked sleek and high-end. Most of all, Donovan’s design allowed me to stick with my early plan to use very little film lights inside the elevator, but instead to rely almost entirely on the elevator’s practical light design.
We had Astera Titan LED-tubes within the wall sides and LED strips along the floor and ceiling peripherals. The dark bronze and brown elevator panels were mainly illuminated with the Astera tubes running at between 2300K right up to 9000K, depending on the scene. Above the opaque set ceiling we suspended two Skypanel S360s, which we ran at between 4000K and 6000K. The cameras were balanced to 3200K. Everything was run through a DMX-board and almost all sources allowed total RGB control.
Within the story, the building is still under construction and the film’s villains have hacked into the elevator to control it and to torment Aria. This narrative gave us justification to frequently and dramatically change the look of the elevator. DMX-board operator Scott Rogers created awesome in-shot lighting changes that always suited the mood of a scene.
For the shots inside the elevator that involve the large advertising screen, we decided to shoot all screen footage of the villains first and then live project it onto the screen as we shot Aria inside the elevator. Having the light of the real screen footage fall back onto Aria and onto the reflective elevator walls was for me a much more sensible approach than, as one pitching post-production house suggested, using the monitor wall as a chroma-screen and having all this done as composite shots.
I had done tests earlier and knew that even for the reverse shots away from the screen it worked well to use the screen projection as a light source. All we needed to do was apply brightness adjustments to the projected material. Playing the real footage also had the big advantage that our lead actress could work to the performances of the other actors appearing right in front of her.
The screen footage was meant to look stylised, as if the feed came from an amateur video camera that would often suffer from interferences. Our fabulous digital intermediate technician (DIT) Michael Easter was quick to establish a look for this footage and test the whole work pipeline for the screen feed within the little test time we had. This included transcoding all original screen material, which was shot on a RED-Dragon in 6K – to enable later blow ups if needed – feeding into the on-screen graphics computer, outputting onto the screens and monitoring through our production cameras – ARRI Alexa Minis – within our elevator environment.
Ascendant was filmed using ARRI Alexa Minis in 3.4K ARRIRAW and RED Dragon 6K cameras, with spherical Zeiss Ultraprime and Panavision anamorphic G-series and T-series lenses.
Another projection solution needed to be found for the shots seeing out of the partly see-through elevator door. We decided on back-projecting in 2K resolution onto a 12x12ft screen rather than using LED panels. As the elevator is often moving, occasionally free-falling, a wide variety of computer generated plates were created for various scenarios and camera angles. At times, we converted the back-projection system into a blue screen and had certain shots become visual effects composites.
With the recent developments in virtual-background solutions, such as Industrial Light & Magic’s StageCraft Volume set, I hope we will soon see more sophisticated projection options that can also be considered on lower budget films.
In terms of framing and camera movement we wanted to consider Aria’s isolation as well as the geographical connection to her tormentors. I did not want a handheld-observational feel, but rather controlled moves that did not distract. We used a combination of sliders, dolly and a 10ft Scorpio crane, which gave us a lot of flexibility.
Donovan’s elevator design gave us the option to remove single panels of the small set or take out a whole wall for greater flexibility. The second option was more time consuming and therefore only utilised during the last week of the shoot when we put our set onto a hydraulic gimbal. Here we filmed all of Aria’s wire stunts with the simulated elevator falls.
We had plenty of intense scenes to shoot that only involved our lead actress. Best’s workload was immense, emotionally and physically. In order to not exhaust her performance Furlong wanted to run two cameras at all times. Occasionally we would shoot close-ups before a scene master so we could capture Best’s strongest performance in tighter coverage. I was grateful for having Ricky Schamburg as second camera operator. His creative input was outstanding.
Many of the shots looking back at the villains on the screen were set up as ‘dirty’, over-the-shoulder shots. I thought this worked particularly well to bring the villains closer to Aria, making them appear even more threatening. For the scenes between Aria and her father, it helped to convey their connection despite their real physical distance to each other.
We also shot all screen footage from a neutral perspective as well as Aria’s point-of-view ‘clean’ from relevant angles. This gave valuable options in the edit. Furlong likes to sell performances in big close ups and did not always want to use the wider ‘over shoulder’ shots in the edit.
There are quite a few flashback scenes in Ascendant, also, which leave clues about who Aria really is. For these scenes and for the ending we wanted to give the audience a chance to ‘breathe’ and to give them some visual relief. Apart from shooting wider shots, I suggested to switch to anamorphic lenses. We shot tests with Panavision’s G-series lenses and Furlong loved their look, the different bokeh and flare characteristics. Panavision Australia did a wonderful job chasing down Gs and Ts for us at a time when they were hardly available.
Another visually important element in the film, but also in terms of storytelling, is the vast elevator shaft that makes up part of the 120-floor building. The script includes scenes where Aria briefly climbs out of the elevator through a broken wall panel. For these scenes a shaft-set was built, 20ft high by 30ft wide, later to be extended with CGI to show the vastness of the building’s structure. We used the 30ft Scorpio crane to follow Aria as she negotiates the beam structure of the shaft.
On top of that, visual effects company Stage 23 in Sydney, headed by visual effects supervisors Jonathan Hairman and Christian Debney, created a great number of spectacular computer-generated shots showing the elevator slowly moving through the enormous shaft or plunging at breakneck speed. The quality of their work was outstanding.
I was thrilled when asked to help light some of the computer-generated images. Lighting in an environment where you don’t have to worry about the physical limitations of your location is a treat. And then there is the magic of the -what I call- ‘perfection and imperfection layers’, adding elements like flares, smoke, lens dirt or depth-of-field to simulate the real world.
It was simply fantastic to join Furlong and help make his project a reality. He is an extremely passionate filmmaker, and a great collaborator who knows what he wants but is also open to new ideas.
Ascendant was released in Australian cinemas in April 2021.
Frank Flick ACS is a Sydney-based cinematographer and camera operator who works in feature films and other long format productions as well as television commercials.