Milli Award-winning Denson Baker ACS NZCS on ‘The Luminaries’

Denson Baker ACS NZCS sits down with us to discuss bringing Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries to television, this year earning him the Milli Award for Australian Cinematographer of the Year at the ACS National Awards for Cinematography.

By Dante Pragier.

A scene from ‘The Luminaries’ – DOP Denson Baker ACS NZSC

Set in the ‘wild west’ of 1860s Gold Rush-era New Zealand, The Luminaries sweeps through Dunedin and Hokitika in the South Island to unravel mysteries steeped in love, betrayal, greed, and the zodiac. 

Its expansive cast, headlined by Eve Hewson and Eva Green, move through a range of location shooting; untamed woodland, craggy clifftops and rugged coastlines, with elaborate sets constructed to portray the mud-soaked settler towns. The range of natural scenery, dependence on weather conditions, and set design requirements all contributed to an ambitious 82-day principal shoot with much planning and scouting in advance. 

 We arrived in New Zealand, I think, four months before starting to shoot. That’s the longest lead I’ve had on anything,” says Baker. “There were still a lot of questions as to how we were going to approach the series, and how much was going to be location. We travelled to a bunch of towns along the coast of the South Island. Oamaru was one which has been shot a lot but it just wasn’t really going to work for us. There were elements that would work but it was just going to be too big an undertaking. We realised quite early on that we were going to have to just build so much of the world that was in the book.

As part of this process, Baker worked closely with production designer Felicity Abbott, as well as director, and Baker’s wife, Claire McCarthy. “Having that long pre-production time with Abbott meant that we could have a lot of conversation and development quite early on,” says Baker. “We had the book as our reference so the first port of call was going to where the stories were set. It’s Dunedin and Hokitika, which we explored.

The cities and townships themselves were too developed to resemble their 1860s counterparts, but understanding the topography and distinctive scenery of the region was valuable for research and visual planning. “We wanted that authenticity and it’s still exactly as it would have been a couple hundred years ago, explains Baker.It’s still all very rugged along there. We had a great location scout, Sally Sherratt. She did locations on The Piano. Sherratt has an incredible library of options to go and see. We took flights to both coasts of the South Island. We drove all around the beaches of the North Island and saw the black volcanic beaches, the black sand, then the other sides to see the pristine white sand with less wild seas. It just meant we got to see all of our options, really, and then explore them and see what was going to fit within our schedule and what was possible.

Denson Baker ACS NZCS films ‘The Luminaries’ on loaction – PHOTO Supplied

Beyond scouting the locations directly, Baker and the team researched archival photography of Gold Rush-era South Island New Zealand. “We looked at a lot of historic photographs,” he says. “We went to Hokitika, where the story’s mainly set, and there’s a great archive there. It’s a small shop but it’s full, an absolute wealth of imagery from the period. I was fascinated to see that there was so much photography taken in the South Island of New Zealand in the 1860s. They were all photos that you can’t come across online, they’re only starting to be more seen and archived now. It was such a great visual resource.

In terms of filmic influence, Baker says that it’s hard to look past Jane Campion’s Academy Award-winning The Piano (1993, cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh) if you’re doing 1860s New Zealand. “I mean that is the benchmark,” says Baker. “It is such a beautiful film and Dryburgh’s cinematography is just exquisite. That was a really muddy, textured, world where these people coming from Victorian England are really struggling within. We really wanted to feel the mud and feel the texture, which The Piano did quite beautifully.

But Baker is quick to point out that the team didn’t want The Luminaries’ look to be compared to other shows. “We really wanted a painterly feel to our wide shots and to our landscape. We wanted it to feel epic and cinematic,” he says. To help find this look, Baker turned to artwork. “I looked at the paintings of C.F. Goldie. He’s a fabulous portrait artist who did a lot of Maori faces in that same era that we’re set. Goldie’s paintings just have such a beautiful lighting quality with lovely contrast and there’s a soft light to it. We’ve got Maori characters, too, with moko facial tattoos and so we wanted to capture a bit of that style. There are a lot of great landscape artists too that are lesser known that we saw at some of the museums and art galleries in New Zealand that we were influenced or inspired by.

Taking the time to scout and research during pre-production allowed Baker and the production team to visualise the right atmosphere and tone for the shoot. “We didn’t want it to be a dusty-musty period drama, we also wanted it to be a little bit contemporary. We also wanted it to be definitively New Zealand. It’s not what we’ve seen in the UK or in the United States. It had to be uniquely New Zealand. When we looked at those photographs, we would just see some incredible international faces but in this amazing landscape which was so uniquely New Zealand, and these rugged coastlines. They became a really great reference point for the textures and the designs of the places. They looked just brilliant, ready to shoot, but we had to build them all from scratch. That was the challenge.

This led to tricky decisions balancing affordability and achievability. “The initial production designs which Abbott produced were exquisite and amazing but just not within our budget,” says Baker. “It became less about ‘what can we shoot’ and it was more about ‘what’s the least we can build to make it look good?’ We leaned on visual effects quite a bit. 

A scene from ‘The Luminaries’ – DOP Denson Baker ACS NZSC

Most of the set was built in the Auckland studio, including a square-rigged ship in the carpark, while the Hokitika township was built out at Jonkers Farm to the west of Auckland. “There was certainly a great deal of Kiwi ingenuity which really saved our bacon,” says Baker. “The ship needed to look like it was on a wharf but how do you do that in a car park when you can’t dig? We had to elevate and build a wharf and the ship was put on some form of wheels.” This meant the ship could not only rock, but also be moved if necessary. 

This Kiwi ingenuity wasn’t just limited to the set design. Baker discovered that the production team had all manner of inventions up their sleeves. “Our grip Terry Joosten made a thing that he called the ‘scissor fist’. He’d made it all himself in his own workshop. It was an articulated arm that extended. It looked like a piece of steampunk engineering.” By attaching the camera to the end, they were able to achieve motions and angles that would’ve otherwise required a mini-Technocrane. “It took a little bit of jiggery and pokery but we’d get great shots with it.

One of Baker’s favourite sets to work on was ‘The House of Many Wishes’, which served in the narrative as Lydia Wells’ home in Dunedin. “It was just such a lush set and so beautifully designed by Abbott and her team,” says Baker. “She’d really thought about light. She had the windows in great places and filled with practicals and lovely textures and leather worn-down chairs… just the colour palette in there was beautiful… She’d thought about this opening so that we could get these great shots that could look down into the beautifully-designed floor which had ‘pounamu’ greenstone inlaid into it. It had a skylight up above it. 

Because it was a set and not a historic house, it just meant that we were able to do so much with it. We were able to drill a hole in the ceiling for one shot that we wanted to go up with a camera, through the floor, and then up into another set which we shot somewhere else and matched the move to bring the two together. We were cutting holes and drilling plates and able to put LEDs up very quickly for backlights into the set. Because it had this big opening, we were able to get nice big soft light, I had the DoPchoice Octa 5’ with a two-foot LED inside it which we could just put on a bar and lower these great soft lights to have as a key light and still shoot two cameras and move around and not have them in our frame. It became this great set to be able to work in and it was such a joy. It was actually quite heart-breaking to see them walk in with the sledgehammers half way through the shoot and start smashing that down and turning it into something else.

Denson Baker ACS NZCS behind the camera on ‘The Luminaries’ – PHOTO Supplied

For equipment, Baker and the team knew from the start that they’d be working with anamorphic lenses. Working Title producer Andrew Woodhead had expressed an interest in the lens’ cinematic quality, and Baker jumped at the opportunity. “I got to do a lot of camera tests, which was great,” he says. “I tested out pretty much every anamorphic set available in New Zealand, went through all the various rental houses and got the lenses out and did flare tests and looked at how faces looked and got to shoot some exteriors to really explore the look that we were after.

The production sourced their camera kits from Imagezone, a specialist rental company that Baker uses for his New Zealand-based projects.We ended up landing on the Cooke Anamorphics which just had that nice balance of being sharp and modern but still having a nice softness and a classic quality to it. We tested a lot of different filters and we ended up using Black GlimmerGlass. That’s what we liked the most. It had nice blooms and took the digital edge of the ARRI Alexa Minis. It just gave a nice contrast. I used Classic Softs occasionally, too, because we wanted an ‘old Hollywood look’ to our starlets from time-to-time.

As the narrative weaves through time, and the wellbeing of its characters shift, Baker found ways to express these transitions visually, too. “It jumps back and forth in time from a bright-eyed, crisp, straight-off-the-boat Eve Hewson to her absolute darkest hour, hooked on opium and laudanum and looking worse for wear. We really wanted to have a visual style that tracked that with texture. We were embracing noise a bit to have a bit of a textured and filmic look to it.

Of course, shooting a period piece on location in New Zealand meant embracing ever-shifting sky conditions and seizing opportunities as they arose. “We totally embraced the Land of the Long White Cloud. Whenever we could get a nice light or when it was lower in the sky at the beginning and end of the day, backlit all the way,” says Baker. “We had a great first assistant director, Luke Robinson, who was happy to schedule around the light as much as he could, or was possible. That’s the thing with doing period projects, which I’ve done quite a number of now, from Medieval to Ancient Rome, to the Victorian era. The light sources are flame or sun or moon. It’s really those three. It’s cool light through windows and firelight or oil lamps and candles inside. 

But Baker is always up for a challenge. “I actually quite like working with those parameters. It means that generally the warm light is coming from a lower angle, too. You’re not always having light fixtures coming from above because they just didn’t often do that.” As a result, the natural lighting became part of the miniseries’ visual style. “We wanted that poetic naturalism that is like a beautified version of natural but with it being all from practical light sources.

A scene from ‘The Luminaries’ – DOP Denson Baker ACS NZSC

Having grown up in both New Zealand and Australia, Baker feels the connection to the land as well as the Kiwi attitude. “It does feel like home to me,” the cinematographer says. “I always feel welcome and I feel like this is somewhere where my heart belongs. I’ve worked in a variety of film crews around the world, different ways of working, different unions… There is a uniquely New Zealand way – and Australia’s similar, too. It’s a real ‘roll your sleeves up, get in there, get dirty. I’ll help you carry the camera cases when we climb to the top of the hill because it’s going to take a long time otherwise and why wouldn’t I help out?’ kind of thing.

It’s interesting because we worked with crews on The Luminaries who had all worked on massive, epic, productions from Mulan to Lord of the Rings, and all these big films that have gone to New Zealand. So, crews had this wealth of experience but they were still down-to-earth, wear-gumboots-and-flannel-shirt, get-it-done type of people which was just brilliant.

Another aspect of note is Baker’s working relationship with The Luminaries’ director, his wife, Claire McCarthy. The pair have worked together across several largescale productions, including 2018’s Ophelia, with three more collaborations in production at the time of writing. “We’ve worked together long enough that we’ve got a pretty good shorthand now,” explains Baker. “There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said because we’ve been there and done it and we know what we like and can snap into certain things. We’ll challenge each other, too.” 

Having this tacit workstyle is crucial because once the cameras start rolling, Baker and McCarthy have less opportunity to talk. “She’ll be with all her actors, flying into town, she’s doing rehearsals and fittings. I only have a small window with her to run through stuff and get her notes and make changes and focus them a little bit more.

Plus, technology is always available to bridge any physical distance and keep the crew in sync. Digital viewfinders like Artemis on the iPad proved invaluable for lining up shots, especially when Baker wasn’t operating the camera directly. Having that directorial trust, as well as the meticulous research in pre-production, frees Baker and the team up to put the planned shots away and explore opportunities as they arrive on the day. 

Cinematographer Denson Baker ACS NZCS checks the light before filming a scene on ‘The Luminaries’ – PHOTO Supplied

We’ll always have a shot list, and we’ll always have that plan in the back pocket as something to fall back on but you’ve got to go with the magic. Actors will have new ideas on the day and you’ve got to be ready to embrace them. Also, the crew comes up with some fantastic suggestions so you’ve got to flow with those, too, which we did.

Of course, keeping the style cohesive even when accommodating new ideas and opportunities is paramount. “The interesting thing with doing such a long-form project, you’ve really got to track your visual style. We were shooting moments from episodes one through four in the first week. You’ve got to be ready to improvise a bit but then you’ve got to keep it in your mind; ‘what is this cutting with?’ and ‘How is that going to work?’

Baker also credits cinematographer Kieran Fowler NZCS ACS, who took on the multiple roles of B-camera operator and additional material cinematographer, who could orbit the central production to find additional angles and opportunities. “It was brilliant having Fowler as an ally. We were able to splinter off and have him do splinter setups or even leapfrog where we could leave him to shoot some beautiful details and more artistic shots that we might not have had a lot of time to do if we weren’t able to leave the camera to have a bit more time while we started prepping the next scene. He was invaluable as an ally on that. 

Baker describes a day’s shooting he was particularly proud of, on location at Bethells Beach; a shoot that the cinematographer initially thought to be unachievable. “We really wanted to shoot scenes with Eva Green and Eve Hewson on the beach in this cave at Bethells Beach in the black sand,” says Baker. “It was going to be quite a mammoth effort to get the whole main unit not only down there, but do it efficiently within our schedule. We were just shooting so many other things. We were being pushed to maybe shoot them in an interior or shoot them on the street but there had been so many scenes on the street already. I think it started when first talking with the actors. They were all up for the challenge, ‘yes, let’s do it!’” And so they headed to the beach.

A splinter crew of just Baker with a camera, mainly hand-held, and a slider, a small second-unit team, and Green and Hewson drove to Bethells Beach with one vehicle so as not to disturb the scene with tyre marks and footprints. “We just went and smashed out these three great cinematic scenes. They’re the ones in the trailer and they worked well. One of them is the final scene of the whole miniseries, as well, with Eva Green standing there at the beach looking out to the sunset.

A scene from ‘The Luminaries’ – DOP Denson Baker ACS NZSC

Hearing Baker’s stories of pre-production and the shoot itself, it sounds as though he’s well at home in the busy, often daunting world of television shoot scheduling. It’s surprising to hear, then, that The Luminaries was only Baker’s second piece of television work, with the long shoot durations, higher-pressure daily shoots, and increased exterior influences relatively new challenges to confront. “The thing that I have found is quite different between television and cinema is that, with television, there’s still this feeling that it’s a producer-writer’s medium. Less so than cinema, where a director’s calling the shots,” says Baker.

The nature of the scripting, for example, could create challenges or force the removal of beloved sequences. “This often happens with television,” he says. “Scripts start to get rewritten as you go or aren’t finished for the final episode while you’re still shooting the first episode. Unlike a feature where you’re pretty close to locked with the script when you first start rolling.

This means that scenes or even whole episodes could change well into production. One casualty of this process was a series of transition sequences devised by Baker and McCarthy. “We wanted to design some transitions into the ways where we moved back and forwards in time. Some of them, I thought, were just awesome. We tested some and we even did some cuts during the shoot to see if things were working,” explains Baker. “However, later structural changes meant these scenes no longer fit together. Sadly, a lot of those clever transitions ended up on the cutting room floor.

That said, this television process had advantages, too, for example by creating a closer relationship with the writers. For The Luminaries, this was particularly fruitful because Eleanor Catton, writer of the novel, had adapted the script herself. Baker was able to discuss ideas with Catton, who would often sit by the monitors on set. “Part of the story is about how these characters all link and their paths cross,” says Baker. “Each of them represents a different planet, star sign, or the sun and the moon. Our protagonist, Anna Wetherell, played by Eve Hewson, she’s the moon. She goes through all the phases of the moon throughout the story.

McCarthy, Catton, and Baker discussed the idea of lighting Hewson based on the different phases of the moon. “We just thought it’d be a nice little undercurrent. It wouldn’t be obvious to the audience but it was a nice little touch,” he explains. “We asked Catton to put the moon phase of the character into the script. So, the scene headings would say ‘waxing gibbous’. Some were based on what date it was set. If you’ve read the book, you’ll see that she’s very specific. ‘April 27th, 1860’ for example. Catton would then put that moon phase in there so we could say, ‘okay, cool. She’s a crescent moon, it’s a new moon, waxing gibbous moon.’ That would influence a little bit, I mean it would change depending on the blocking as to whether she stayed in that moon phase but that was a nice little touch that Catton was involved with. She thought it was really cool!

Eva and Eve in ‘The Luminaries’ – IMAGE Denson Baker ACS NZCS

The bumps and barriers of the past year don’t seem to have held back Baker and McCarthy’s plans, with three projects in various stages of production. Up next, they’ve flown off to Birmingham, England, where they’re currently filming The Colour Room, starring Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor and Matthew Goode. “It’s set in the 1920s which is a really fascinating and fun period to work in, the roaring twenties,” Baker says. “Again, we’re wanting it to be a really contemporary take on a period that we’re quite familiar with. So, we really want to push the experimentation of some of the techniques and be a little bit more adventurous with the visual style. It’s going to be quite exciting.

Denson Baker NZCS ACS is an award winning cinematographer of international feature films, music videos, documentaries and commercials.

Dante Pragier is based in the United Kingdom, and a regular contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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