Delta of Venus

An interview with director Nancy Cao and Gold Coast-based cinematographer Mark Desiatov on short film Delta of Venus interview by Vanessa Abbott 

A scene from short film ‘Delta of Venus’ – DOP Mark Desiatov

AC – What is the concept behind Delta of Venus? 

NC – Delta of Venus came about when I became interested in constructing a film like a poem; based on a set of ideas instead of a set of plots. I wanted to make a film about the troubling legacy of fairytales, as well as the artificiality of desire itself in a culture that champions aesthetics but ignores substance. 

The film consists of three visually distinct chapters; Marianne, Lilith and Elena. Each chapter depicts the erotic imagination of a different woman. While curating production design for each chapter we referenced stylistic elements from disparate sources and time-periods. The goal was to achieve hybrid, mystical designs that resist easy categorisation. This was done partially as an attempt to recreate the subconscious mind’s process of synthesising information. It’s what lends the film its vaguely nostalgic look.

AC – Were storyboards created?

NC – With the exception of a couple of shots that my cinematographer Mark Desiatov and I came up with on location, I storyboarded a good chunk of the film in pre-production. Even before I had all of the locations secured, our production designer Mahalia Hewitt was already eyeing potential props. She has a very ‘dadaist’ way of generating ideas and immediately understood, that this was an opportunity to go all out. One of our key inspirations for the set design was Tim Walker’s photography. 

AC – What cameras and lenses did you choose to shoot with? Why? 

MD – We decided to go with the ARRI Alexa Mini for its form factor, ease of use and world-renown ‘look’. There’s something which gives me a huge amount of confidence in the end result when shooting with an ARRI camera, it just makes things easier and less stressful on set. We also took into account the amount of handheld and Steadicam shots too, with a smaller camera build we were able to get the camera where we wanted without having to compromise the vision and story of the film. 

In terms of lenses there were three specific looks we were after. Early on in the pre-production stages we had discussed the use of varying the aspect ratios for each sequence of the film. Each aiding the overall look and feel, and also informing the audience on the story we were trying to tell. The aspect ratios we went with informed the lens choices and made it super easy for us to relay that on to the team at Panavison to help source the right look. In the end we went with Spherical PV Ultra Speeds for the 4:3 Sequence (Chapter 1), more of a storybook look so-to-speak. The second and third chapters were shot with Anamorphic glass, the 2.76:1 and 2:1 aspect ratios lent themselves to the PV E and B Series Vintage Anamorphic lenses. 

These lenses are super funky and have such a warped look on the edges of frame, really zoning the viewers eyes towards the centre of the frame, the stage where the actors perform in most of the shots. Sprinkle in two 11:1 zooms, spherical and anamorphic, and I was completely confident we had chosen the right lenses, a massive thanks to Brian Flexmore for assisting me in this, absolute legend. PV Glass is exceptional, from the build quality, look and feel, I can’t really fault the lenses in any way. 

A scene from short film ‘Delta of Venus’ – DOP Mark Desiatov

AC – Why did you reach out to Erika Addis during production, and how was Addis able to assist you? 

NC – I first reached out to Addis during pre-production through Marc Rosenberg, a dear mentor of mine from film school. When I told Rosenberg that I was looking for a cinematographer, he passed me Addis’ contacts, knowing that she’d have valuable advice. 

Addis and I spoke over the phone and immediately we bonded over our mutual concern for the lack of films about queer women made by actual queer, female filmmakers. Needless to say, I felt immensely privileged and fortunate to be in dialogue with one of our country’s best cinematographers, who also happens to share some of my own experience. Through talking to Addis, I have since been introduced to the wonderful work of many female cinematographers working in the Australian film industry. It’s always inspiring to see female talents in leadership roles. Personally, the fact that women like Addis endured a distinguished career in our male-dominated industry stands as a beacon of hope for me, which is all you need to know sometimes. 

AC – How did you select your locations? How did you work to make locations you were given work for the vision you had for the film?

NC – From the very beginning, Desiatov and I both agreed that the locations are the souls of our chapters. They couldn’t be fake, they had to be real for the scenes to work. Not that we had the budget for sound stages anyway, so we knew we had to go ‘full Herzog’. 

Chapter one was shot in the backyard of a private equestrian centre on the Gold Coast. Our host was kind enough to let us borrow one of her horses. On the day of shooting, while we were filming the solo scenes with Yasmin Langlois who plays the Venus-like ‘Marianne’, Greta Oliver our other actress who plays the gender-bending Medieval Bard took up horse riding lessons last minute and became a total expert under professional instructions. 

Chapter two was actually shot in a quarry and was arguably the most challenging location to source. I was looking for a location that had the rugged characteristics of a lunar terrain, so it soon became apparent to us that our only option was to shoot it in a quarry unless we were prepared to use special effects. Despite being turned down multiple times by other quarry owners in the Gold Coast and Brisbane region, we stuck to our plans and finally landed the one that we ended up shooting in, even though the rain that mercilessly bogged us on day one had turned into a mere drizzle by day two, which is when we shot the quarry scenes. The puddles that didn’t have time to dry up created an inferno-like texture on the quarry ground that I think enhanced the overall look of the scene. 

Finally, the lush bamboo forest in chapter three that looks like something straight out of Kyoto was actually the first location we settled on. Once again, our home base city of the Gold Coast surprised us with her abundance of geographical treasures. The bamboo forest is located in a plant nursery called Bamboo Down Under in the Tambourine mountains. For the ‘Elena’ scene set in the bamboo forest, Hewitt and I designed it as a decadent fusion of both Asian and European elements, which was a fulfilling experience that allowed me to bring more of my Chinese heritage into the mix.

It was also raining non-stop on day one when we were filming in the bamboo forest. Most of the crew members had very busy schedules so we couldn’t just push back the shooting dates. As such, we basically had to work with the rain and the mud. And it only dawned upon us later that the rain actually made the footage look better. The rain, the mud, the brooding sky combined with our generous use of artificial haze gave the ‘Elena’ chapter an ethereal, underwater look. The purple tint was applied artfully in post by our colourist Kali Bateman. Going along with the East Asian elements in the ‘Elena’ chapter, the purple tint was my homage to Shuji Terayama’s avant garde films. 

I think, in a very mysterious way, the locations, and also to an extent, the weather informed us of what we needed to do. Everything fell into place in such an intuitive manner that convinced me we were indeed tapping into the dark recesses of the collective imagination. I have always been a firm advocate for storyboarding – I already had all the frames I wanted in mind before going on set. But nonetheless, there were moments that took us by surprise and made its way into the final film. 

A scene from short film ‘Delta of Venus’ – DOP Mark Desiatov

AC – Can you talk about your crew in the camera department? Did you have any lighting equipment for any of your locations? 

MD – Apart from me as cinematographer, we had the amazing Kristi Gilligan as camera operator, she’s a fabulous camera assistant which I had met on Baz Lurhman’s Elvis film shooting on the Gold Coast and she reached out to me as she wanted to build experience being behind the camera as an operator. Gilligan has learned from the best of the best in terms of operators around the country and she offered up a wealth of knowledge and timely solutions to most of the frames we were searching for. 

Our Steadicam operator Kelvin Chan is a local camera assistant who is finding his feet as a Steadicam Operator and has been one of the go-to guys for me whenever I need that floaty feel. He has such a great demeanour about him and a really keen eye for detail that I love and look for in a Steadicam operator. The third addition to our team was our focus puller Syaheed Ismail. It was my first time working with Ismail but he hit the ground running, literally moving up to Brisbane from Melbourne in and around the shoot schedule, It was nice to work with such a pleasant and technically gifted, young focus puller. He is way ahead of his years and I feel like he’ll be one to watch in the next few years up here. 

Last but not least, the Gaffer, my good friend and collaborator in lighting, Benjamin Paul Russell from Light Force Productions. Russell adds so much more than manhandling lighting equipment efficiently, he has such a great brain for the schedule, creative, story and overall production as a whole. We have a lot of trust in each other, to the point that we will completely go off course and change things on the day and know exactly the reason why without asking or questioning it. It all starts in early pre-production between us as we want to give us as much time for each other to execute and experiment on the day… to get the right light for the story. 

AC – How did the rain affect filming? 

MD – I absolutely hate rain. As a camera assistant it’s your worst nightmare along with beach days. You have to be super mindful of the equipment, and respect the fact that things will generally take twice as long. Throw into the mix a muddy forest and pitch black wrap-out and you basically have our first day in a nutshell. Luckily, Russell has amazing foresight and is prepared for most, if not all situations. We had to run a 8×8 and 12×12 weather shield over the top of the set to protect it from rain for the closer coverage, it also doubled as a very light diffusion which accomplished the look I was after, usually if it looks okay I’ll run with it and it certainly did the job. You can’t be too picky when it’s pouring with rain and the crew is slogging away in the slop. I have a lot of sympathy for any and all crew members, coming from an assisting background. 

AC – What did the post-production process look like on the film? Was footage graded and if so, who did the grade? 

MD – To be honest, I know it’s a weird a thing, but I usually trust the director and colourist in full. I don’t meddle or throw my two cents in unless I’m explicitly asked to do so. I find the directors I choose to shoot with usually have such a specific look in mind once it comes to the grade that they can effectively translate that to the colourist. 

Usually colourists are so attentive to detail that I don’t need to tell them to window the sky or boost the shadows, I’ll only get in the way and slow things down. Colourists are colourists for a reason, they are great at what they do and can always reach out to me if they need advice or want an opinion on a shot or scene. Also, as a side note, I usually try to get everything in camera so that also boosts my confidence to let things go in post. Cao was so prepped in pre-production I knew that she had it all sorted in the grade, Kali Bateman did an amazing job and I don’t think I said one thing or sent one email or reference to her during the colour work. I trust collaboration fully, especially in the hands of a professional. 

Behind-the-scenes on ‘Delta of Venus’ – PHOTO Supplied

AC – Do you each have a favourite shot in Delta of Venus? Why? 

MD – I love the shot of the two characters pushing through the red strands on the bed in chapter two. The way the wind picked up the strands and how the red absolutely shines through in the grade along with the anamorphic frame, it kind of makes me hungry to go out and keep shooting more, keep pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to shoot a scene within the bounds of telling the story. Those specific shots that embody a scene, make me want to go searching for that again. 

NC – I think my favourite shot would have to be the kaleidoscope transition shot in chapter one. We originally wanted to use the kaleidoscope filter for the third chapter, as we had discussed making it the most psychedelic chapter of the three. However, since we were shooting the film backwards, the filter didn’t arrive in time for day 1. Instead, it arrived in time for day three. I had always wanted to do something unusual for the kissing scene, so using the filter made sense, even though it was initially intended for the third chapter. 

AC – With the benefit of hindsight, what might you have done differently? 

MD – Not much to be honest. I’m not one to go back over a shoot and the final product and actually want to change things or re-shoot too often, if at all. I may say things in passing or as a joke but you have to think back and think of why things couldn’t be done. Maybe the time of day was wrong, maybe one of the crew members had a flat tyre that day driving in to set, or maybe you lacked the experience to see that problem you now see slapping you in the face. It’s completely out of your control and that’s why I love filmmaking, you’re always learning! 

NC – I think everything happened for a reason. The rain, the filter that arrived late and a slew of other things. Personally, I think the process of filmmaking for a director is like walking out of a maze. The maze has always been there from the very start, and nothing is inherently good or bad. 

My philosophy has always been to give a project everything I’ve got and leave the rest to chance. Of course, every time you make a film, you learn something new. Whether it’s technical knowledge, or new ways of working with your crew and your performers. But the bottom-line for me has always been to honour that initial spark that made you get up one day and feel the burning desire in your heart to create something out of nothing. Like a parachuter jumping out of an airplane on fire, I’m not scared of my parachute failing to open as much as I’m afraid of what would happen if I don’t jump at all. 

Mark Desiatov is a cinematographer known for his work on short films ‘Anchor’ (2015), ‘Skin Like Bark’ (2017) and ‘Sweetest Nightmare’ (2019).

Nancy Cao is an Australian writer, poet and film director.

Vanessa Abbott is a writer based in Melbourne.

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