Layers That Matter is a short film that makes up part of Country Road’s latest campaign. It highlights Australian farmers and manufacturers which the brand is working with to make their garments better. Melbourne-based cinematographer Marcus Cropp was brought on to shoot this film for Country Road by director Ned Donohoe. “We have collaborated on a few other films for the brand over the past year and I was rapt to be asked again,” says Cropp.
The pitch was to shoot a documentary-style piece about the real people and the stories behind the Australian made materials that Country Road uses to create clothing. “The concept creator and art director Rupert Carr-Gregg referenced lots of beautiful medium-format film stills which I believe were taken by the photographer Saskia Wilson, who we also worked with on the campaign,” explains Cropp.
Cropp thought a photographic aspect ratio would suit the content nicely, and the cinematographer landed on 3:2 ratio with a more fluid, wider-lens feel. “There was a selection of in-situ farmers and Australian landscape shots, all with a golden, earthy tone,” he says. Short advertising film ‘Good Wool by Theory’ (director Steve Brahms and cinematographer Julian Kapadia) was also mentioned, though it was noted we were looking for a more relaxed and contemplative edit pace.”
The film, being a fairly traditional documentary in how it was set up, didn’t use a production designer, or have story boards. “There were story points that we set out to capture, but rather than scripting anything we spent time with the interviewees and let situations play out between the characters in the locations they felt comfortable in,” says Cropp. “As someone coming from shooting lots of heavily boarded commercials it can be a nice departure to find your favourite moments on the day and follow those.”
The locations in the film, from the farms to the factory, are the actual locations where the cotton is grown and the clothes are made. “They are all the actual locations,” says Cropp. “We had received location information and stills from producer Skye Campbell, a local to one of the spots in Tasmania, and from the owners at each of the other places.
Cropp wasn’t able to do reconnaissance a great deal before hand, mainly a few hours before on the day. “This could mean standing in the dark at 5am with a torch, the Sun Seeker and Artemis apps, or exploring a farm during the middle of the day, then sitting around waiting for the good light before shooting in the early evening,” he explains. “There’s often a few key shots in a sequence I might find with Artemis or my stills camera beforehand, but at any given time we would follow the subjects through any surprise situations that occurred.”
A lot of Cropp’s exteriors are filmed at sunrise, or sunset. The cinematographer wanted to show the magic and the work of what goes into creating these fibres and a lot of it does tend to happen early in the morning. “We just had it happen slightly earlier during the shoot for the really nice light and for the mist,” says Cropp.
“The restricted, muted colour palette of the dry hills in that light was a nice bonus. I think having such a small amount of available light did effect the comfort of our subjects and the animals, and both were probably a bit more at home than if it had been later in the day. The largest work behind shooting at these times is convincing production to start very early, and to stop before the sun gets high. Luckily this was not a hard sell on our shoot and we used the middle of the days to travel or hit the local bakery. We did have a few moments where talent was on a roll, so we were shooting in less than ideal light, but that’s a big part of documentary style shooting too.”
The director wanted to incorporate a zoom out as a visual motif, and a way to tie the different locations and stories together. Layers That Matter was filmed with the ARRI Alexa Mini LF, Cooke S7i Primes and the Fujinon Premista 28-100. “I like the Cooke S7i lenses because they are a nice combination of high image quality and organic feel, not too sharp, so perfect for our subject matter,” says Cropp.
“For hand-held, I prefer a slightly heavier lens such as the Cookes, not just for the centre of gravity of the build but also to be able to operate in a controlled and smooth way. The Cooke 32mm was the primary lens for any handheld scenes. The Premista is a lens I have used many times because of the excellent image quality and versatility, however we did need to take the edge off that one with a Glimmerglass.”
The camera department consisted only of Cropp as cinematographer and fellow cinematographer Roderick Th’ng as the film’s focus puller. “Th’ng would switch between looking at the monitor and moving around with an operator depending on the situation, so even when something off the cuff happened we were never caught out for sharps,” says Cropp. “I did have a few floppies, an unbleached muslin bounce and some small LED lights in the kit for this, but I knew from the outset it was unlikely we would use them, given the documentary-style nature of the shoot.”
Cropp wasn’t largely involved in post-production, however the director shared with him the various edits as they came in. “Abe Wynen from Crayon did the grade, I have worked with him many times and he always brings something special to a project,” says Cropp. “After seeing the project and treatment this time, Wynen brought the paintings of Australian impressionists Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton into the reference mix, and took the grade to a really great place with those in mind.”
One of Cropp’s favourite shots is one of the quicker shots in the film. “The shot of Robyn (one of the main subjects of the film) planting trees by the river with her family is my favourite,” he says. “It tells her story, and shows a part of her wry sense of humour as she banters with her grandchildren.”
Looking back, the cinematographer would probably have loved to spend more time lighting things, but it probably wouldn’t have worked with how the project ran. “There is one thing I would definitely change though; I got a dodgy breakfast wrap in a small town on the way to set early one morning, it made me so sick I was almost unable to film… never again!”
Marcus Cropp is a cinematographer working in Melbourne and Hobart. He was awarded Gold at the Victorian ACS Awards in 2019 for his work on Pant Active’s ‘We Like Strong’.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.