Filming the ABC’s ‘Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire’

One of Australia’s leading documentary cinematographers, Andy Taylor ACS, behind the lens on ABC investigative series Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire.

By James Cunningham and Justine Taylor.

Journalists Patrick Begley and Caro Meldrum-Hanna fin ‘Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire’ – DOP Andy Taylor ACS

If you haven’t already watched Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, it’s available right now on ABC iView. It’s probably one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism to be produced in Australia and has resulted in calls for a fresh inquiry into the infamous Luna Park Ghost Train fire of 1979. Be warned, bring tissues.

One winter’s night in 1979 squeals of delight turned to screams of terror as the Ghost Train at Sydney’s iconic Luna Park erupted in flames. Six young children and one adult perished. What happened? Investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna, cinematographer Andy Taylor ACS and the Exposed team reveal stunning new information that points to arson as the possible cause of the deadly fire including corruption and a cover-up that reaches the highest levels through notorious Sydney gangster Abe Saffron and former New South Wales premier Neville Wran.

Andy Taylor ACS is one of our nation’s most experienced cinematographers. He’s won five prestigious Walkley Awards for Cinematography and a whopping twenty-six Australian Cinematographers Society Awards. His thirty-year career has seen him traverse the globe filming in war zones and major news stories to adventure travel documentaries and celebrity profiles. He’s dodged bullets in Moscow, interviewed Sir David Attenborough and the Foo Fighters, and climbed the peaks of Mount Everest with his camera. Andy’s start as a cameraman was decidedly more sedate. 

After school I studied film and television at TAFE, where I completed the certificate that was required to get into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a trainee,” says Taylor. “I started at ABC-TV in 1986 as a cameraman at the studios at Gore Hill, New South Wales, working on shows like Play School, Mr Squiggle and Countdown.

The Ghost Train Fire was the second series of Exposed for the ABC, the first was called The Case of Keli Lane which was shot by cinematographer Ron Foley in 2018. “I was asked to film the last few weeks of the first when Foley had to start on another project,” explains Taylor. 

Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna in a scene from ‘Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire’ – DOP Andy Taylor ACS

For the second series, both producer Jaya Balendra and journalist Caro Meldrum-Hana had a very strong visual sense of what they wanted the The Ghost Train Fire to look and sound like. “We all wanted it to look and feel different,” remembers Taylor. “We watched quite a few true crime documentaries searching for an interesting way of filming the interviews, sequences and re-enactments,” he says. The visual style they settled on for the interviews was inspired by Murder in the Bayou (2019, cinematography by Jeff Huchens) but overall Exposed has its own very distinct style compared to other Australian documentaries.

I wanted to shoot the highest quality possible because this series would end up streaming on ABC Television, iView as well as Netflix,” says Taylor. “We filmed the entire project in 4K, full frame in C-log3 on my Canon C500mk2 and C700FF with cine-primes. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot this entire series, including the interviews, sequences, re-enactment, drone vision, the opening titles and all of the stills photography.

Taylor is no stranger to news and documentary cinematography. In 1991 he was sent to cover the first Gulf War in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq for the ABC. “I lost count of how many times we were shelled, shot at and attacked,” he says. “We were the first crew to stumble across the so-called ‘highway to hell’, that infamous road between Kuwait and Baghdad. The battle had just finished as we arrived, and we were greeted by the most post-apocalyptic scene I’ve ever come across.” Despite the high-stake shooting conditions, Taylor persevered. 

In 1992 and 1993, Taylor was posted to the ABC Moscow bureau where he covered the Moscow uprising. “Tanks were literally firing at the Russian Parliament building as rebels attacked the television station,” says Taylor. “Seven journalists were killed that night, including the legendary British combat cameraman Rory Peck. I was standing right next to him when the shooting started. As I hit the deck, he ran straight towards the action and, sadly, was shot and killed.

Today the Rory Peck Award is one of the world’s most coveted accolades. Given to exceptional freelance camera operators who have risked their lives to report on newsworthy events. Taylor filmed Four Corners in Sydney for twelve years, including ninety-eight complete episodes of the revered current affairs show. Each Four Corners shoot lasted about a month, and Taylor covered everything from US elections to the boxing day tsunami in Aceh and the war in Afghanistan.

A studio re-enactment of the Ghost Train Fire – DOP Andy Taylor ACS

In 2009, after working at the ABC for almost twenty-five years, Channel 9’s 60 Minutes offered Taylor the opportunity to work with reporters and producers who were considered the ‘best of the best’, including the legendary Ray Martin AM. Travelling as a team of four; reporter, producer, camera and sound. “In those days it was probably the best job in television, anywhere in the world,” he says. “Anything was possible.” As well as the creative fulfilment of the job, Taylor also cherishes the privileges he’s been afforded thanks to his chosen career path.

Taylor departed the Nine Network in 2017 and established himself as a Sydney-based freelancer. During the past four years he’s been shooting a variety of projects, mainly documentary and that’s what brought him to Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire for the ABC and Netflix. There were a number of elements that required a lot of planning and consideration in order for Taylor to maintain a consistent style, especially creating an abstract and impressionistic look for the re-enactments in the series, but that’s where the similarity with other documentaries ends. 

This investigation played out in real time as each part of the puzzle came together, so we had no idea where this story was going to take us until the very last interview,” says Taylor. “The people we interviewed would be presented with documents and photos, then question each piece of evidence which would often reveal new information to help tell the story. All of this was glued together by journalists Meldrum-Hanna and her co-investigator Patrick Begley, sometimes they would investigate new leads in their office at the ABC. There were also several ‘pieces to camera’ in the car while travelling to meet some of the key talent, which explained where we were going and any new developments.

Taylor filmed all three of the ninety-minute episodes over fourteen months in 2020 and 2021, meaning Covid was a major obstacle, especially as many of the on-screen talent were now elderly. “The ABC was very strict on how we operated, we worked in a small team of four in the field, with journalist, producer, sound recordist and my-self, using minimal equipment which had to be cleaned and positioned away from anyone we filmed. Even locations within the ABC Ultimo headquarters and Studio 26 at Gore Hill required special permission from the ABC Managing Director,” he explains.

Our main set was the production office in Ultimo, it was a secure room hidden away with two desks and a cork board which became this kind of work in progress evidence board,” says Taylor. “I had permanent lighting set up in this office which was very simply; two Kino Diva 400 and a flexible 2×1 LED in a dome mounted on the ceiling.

Filming journalists Patrick Begley and Caro Meldrum-Hanna for ‘Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire’ – DOP Andy Taylor ACS

All of the re-enactments were shot with a very limited budget and filmed quickly but carefully, with a few basic props and extras. Mainly ABC staff, friends or interns. The only real expenses were hiring an old bus, ferry and various period cars. Most of the props, the wardrobe and locations from the 1970s were sourced from within the ABC. The filmmakers used rehearsal rooms, training rooms, technical areas and empty offices, which Taylor says he filmed in a ‘very stylised way’. 

I shot most of the re-enactments on my own with my own Canon C500mkii full-frame at 50fps and a 50mm cine-prime lens,” explains Taylor. “Shooting with a very narrow depth of field (T1.2) helped me to disguise faces, locations and other details which might date the re-enactments. Other than the fire scenes, most of the re-enactments were directed by either myself or series producer Jaya Balendra. Our editor Lile Judickas did a fantastic job cutting these scenes, especially with the audio effects and amazing sound track by Mitch Stewart from music composition and production company The D.A’s Office.

Andy has relied on his impressive collection of Canon cameras and lenses to get the job done for the majority of his thirty-year career. “Whether shooting for Netflix, television news or Instagram, I shoot everything on Canon cameras with prime lenses,” explains Taylor. “I have three cameras; Canon’s first RF-mount cinema video camera, the EOS C70, and two full frame Canon EOS Cinema cameras, the EOS C700 full frame and EOS C500 Mark II. All of them are Netflix approved cameras, which is impressive. I work on the assumption that each client wants the highest quality output possible, so I shoot almost everything in 4K C-log3.”

The fire re-enactments on Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire were shot in a studio and required plenty of planning because the filmmakers wanted them to look as authentic as possible. “The replica ghost train was designed by Andrew Raymond and constructed by the ABC’s scenic art department at Gore Hill, then assembled right next door in Studio 26,” says Taylor. Over five days inside the studio, with the guidance of safety adviser Gordon Waddell, pyrotechnician Lou Stefanel slowly and carefully burnt down the set. There were many specific shots that Taylor needed to cover in order to match eye-witnesses accounts of the actual fire back in 1979. “These sequences, which really helped tell the stories from the survivors, ride operators and eyewitnesses were directed by John Mavety. 

The fire re-enactments sequences worked out really well for Taylor, and after five days of burning the ghost train set in the studio they took the façade out to a quarry and blew it to pieces. “Those explosion shots are probably my favorites,” he says. “I especially like the way that some shots and scenes are played in reverse to give the impression of ‘winding back the clock’.

Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna mid-interview – PHOTO Andy Taylor ACS

The cinematographer alongside second camera Andrew McClymont filmed all of these fire re-enactments using Taylor’s C500Mkii and C700FF with primes. “We wanted to make sure that the flames and explosions weren’t over exposed, keeping that deep orange colour,” says Taylor. “To achieve this and disguise the faces of the actors, I pumped in plenty of back-light using my Creamsource Micro LED lights and Aputure 300D Mk2, along with various coloured theatrical lights and strings of fairy lights to emulate a showground, which were provided by our gaffer Ben Viney. 

Taylor filmed at least seventy interviews for Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, most of these people had never spoken publicly about the fire and some were extremely reluctant to talk, so the filmmakers tried to use minimal gear for the interviews. “Each interview was filmed using two cameras, one wide and the other tight, both low camera angles with lots of depth and a soft, blown-out window in the background,” explains Taylor. “Many of the interviews were four hours long. In fact, you might notice in some that it was nighttime outside by the time we finished! I was operating both cameras and data wrangling on the run. 

The interview locations were all a bit weird, often sitting on a bed in my motel room, or at the kitchen bench. To establish each of the talent we filmed them hand-held from behind, walking through their house or down a path, then sitting down to be interviewed. The talent would introduce themselves in voiceover during these shots.

For Taylor, it’s a question of thinking about what he is filming and making sure lighting is spot on. Selecting gear that an operator trusts and is familiar with is half the battle. Taylor always films with the aperture wide open and rarely zooms or uses zoom lenses. He relies heavily on Canon’s powerful autofocus technology when shooting interviews.

Whether shooting interviews, b-roll, fly-on-the-wall footage, or landscape glamour shots, Taylor says the most important thing is to know your camera inside out, “I operate my camera now without thinking about it. After thirty years, it has become second nature, allowing me to think about what to shoot, where to position the camera and the lighting,” he explains.

Filming Ghost Train Fire survivor Jason Holman – DOP Andy Taylor ACS

The subject matter here is sensitive, and the crew try to be very respectful. “I think I approach most interviews the same way,” says Taylor. “When your eye is effectively in the viewfinder of two cameras at once and you’re reacting to documents and photos being passed around, and data wrangling two backup drives at the same time, there is limited time to become emotionally involved, even though I do appreciate how distressing it is for the people we are filming.

I try to not let it affect me personally, which probably comes from shooting lots of very sad and upsetting stories over the past thirty years for Four Corners and 60 Minutes,” he says. “Even though I do listen to every word, I guess I just detach a little and concentrate on my camerawork and lighting. My wife Jo was the sound recordist on the last few crucial interviews for this series, she found it very difficult to listen to the family’s reactions when they were told what we had uncovered. Although, as a viewer, watching these interviews back in the fine cut, I did get a little emotional, I guess that’s because I now had time to take it all in. Some of my friends found these interviews too upsetting to watch.

Taylor had very little to do with post-production on the series, other than some data wrangle and sitting in on the colour grade which was done by Simon Brazzalotto at the ABC. “He did a fantastic job,” says Taylor. “I feel like he fixed up many of my lighting mistakes and really enhanced the archival shots and re-enactments, especially those flames.

Even though Taylor and the Exposed team have received plenty of fantastic feedback and some great reviews, when he looks back at what he’s shot all he see are his own mistakes. “Small things that nobody else would notice like inconsistent lighting on interviews that we couldn’t fix in the grade,” says Taylor. “Mainly because the sun had gone down by the time the interview was finished!

Some of the research interviews were conducted on the phone and these were filmed in the office with GoPros. “Obviously not ideal,” says Taylor. “I would have preferred to shoot them properly. Due to Covid, on at least one occasion I had to shoot, record sound and produce remotely with the journalist conducting the interview via Zoom.

From the fire re-enactment in ‘Exposed The Ghost Train Fire’ – DOP Andy Taylor ACS_auto_x2

In the end, Taylor is super happy with the result. “I think that this is a master class in storytelling from Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Jaya Balendra and executive producer Sue Spencer, along with a small but amazing team managed by production manager Susan Cardwell,” concludes Taylor. “It is a very sad and confronting story, especially for the families involved, but really well told with fantastic production values.

Andy Taylor ACS is one of Australia’s most experienced cinematographers.

James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

Justine Taylor is a manager at Canon Australia.

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