Set in the maelstrom of a 1980s television newsroom, new ABC series The Newsreader from Emma Freeman (Stateless, Glitch) stars Anna Torv and Sam Reid, and sees cinematographer Earle Dresner ACS (2067, The Commons) behind the camera.
By James Cunningham.
The Newsreader is set in the maelstrom of a commercial television newsroom in 1986. Dale Jennings (Sam Reid), a diligent young reporter who is desperate to become a newsreader and Helen Norville (Anna Torv) is a notoriously ‘difficult’ star newsreader determined to build credibility. Over three months, the pair cover an extraordinary chain of news events from the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, to the complexities of the AIDS crisis.
Director Emma Freeman called cinematographer Earle Dresner ACS and asked if he was interested. “The scripts were great,” he says. “I loved the nostalgic element and the use of real events from 1986 to elevate the drama. I was equally excited about the two main characters. They are so complex.”
The pair didn’t immediately talk about visuals. “We knew we were going to have to recreate Melbourne in 1986,” he explains. “We started with the characters and the story, and the look evolved from there. One important thing that Freeman, the producers and I all agreed on was that we didn’t want cliched 1980s hair and fashion to distract from the drama.”
Dresner says the series was lucky to have the incredible Melinda Doring as production designer. “Her creativity, taste and commitment to faithfully recreate the period was amazing,” he says. Dresner worked really closely with Doring, Freeman and art director, Janie Parker, to choose locations, props and colours that would fit into a collective vision for the time and the look of the series.
In early discussions, Dresner and Freeman talked about the varied options when it comes to creating a visual aesthetic for a period piece. “Many films have successfully created a modern version of a past era,” he says. “The opposite side of the spectrum is to design a look that feels like the show was shot in the 1980s. I thought it was crucial to start testing really early and thankfully the producers supported me.”
“Often on these types of productions, you shoot make-up and wardrobe tests a few days before the start of principal photography and you may then create a look-up table (LUT) for the project but it can be too late to adjust wardrobe, locations, design elements and camera gear,” Dresner explains. “Three weeks before we were scheduled to start shooting, we spent a day at one of our proposed locations with a model with a similar look to our lead actor and I got the art department as well as hair, make-up and wardrobe involved.”
Dresner tested lenses, filters, camera settings, lighting in day interior, day exterior and night interior situations. The cinematographer then spent another day with colourist CJ Dobson, creating a variety of LUTs for The Newsreader.
“I concluded, that day, that I wanted this series to feel like it had been shot with the lenses and film stocks of the 1980s, but with the lighting of a modern show,” he says. “We showed our LUTs to Freeman and producers Joanna Werner and Michael Lucas and they loved the look. We then showed every department and made adjustments to make-up, hair, wardrobe and design, where required, to compliment the way the LUT rendered different colours and tones. We even realised that the location where we shot the test didn’t feel right when viewed through our look.”
The series’ colourist CJ Dobson adds, “I’ve created many ‘show LUTs’ but not usually so early in the testing phase. Dresner brought me into the process weeks before production started and, using his extensive camera tests, we were able to find the look of the show and ended up with LUTs that were more layered and complex than usual. This process also really cemented for me the importance of spending the time in pre-production to develop a LUT that is as close as possible to the final look.”
The team even insisted that the film grain they wanted was added to the rushes every night so that it was a part of the look from the very beginning. “Consequently, the grading process was straightforward and producers’ screenings sailed through with very few notes,” says Dobson.
There was no 4K requirement for The Newsreader, and Dresner was actually after a low resolution feel so it was an easy choice for the cinematogrpaher to shoot with the ARRI Alexa Mini in 2K resolution. “Before I started pre-production, I organised an extensive test of lenses and filters at Panavision,” says Dresner. “I tested several sets of lenses, both spherical and anamorphic and settled on the PVintage primes for their soft, vintage feel, speed and range of focal lengths.”
Dresner tested every diffusion filter he could get his hands on and ended up with a Hollywood Blackmagic #1 as his primary filter for most situations, and a Black Diff FX #1 for situations where the Hollywood produced too much blooming of the highlights. Through testing, Dresner also decided to shoot the entire show at 1600 ISO to further degrade the image by introducing added noise.
“I was so incredibly lucky on this series to be able to get a really top crew,” adds Dresner. “They all excel at their jobs and are also lovely people who worked so hard and shared my passion for the project.” Simon Harding was A-camera and Steadicam operator. “His skill and enthusiasm is second to none, and Steadicam was a huge part of the show. We designed complicated scenes with actors constantly moving around a location and used Steadicam to master the entire scene. Often, because of Harding’s skill and experience, we would only need a couple other of angles to complete the coverage.”
Matt Dobson operated B-camera and covered for Harding on Steadicam for a couple of weeks while he was stuck in hotel quarantine. “B-camera can be a difficult job when a lot of coverage is designed around a single camera, but Dobson was great at finding frames that elevated the coverage rather than just fitting in where he could,” says Dresner.
Grant Sweetnam and Lisa Cushing were first assistants camera. “Sweetnam is a master at his craft so I was thrilled he accepted the job, and Cushing was a revelation,” says Dresner. “She didn’t have a huge amount of focus pulling experience but she far exceeded expectations.”
The team was rounded out by second assistants camera Thomas Formosa-Doyle and Hazal Alakus. “I’d also like to mention my key grip Dan Mitton, and gaffer Matt Begg and both their teams,” he says. “We had a very tight schedule but the hard work of the entire crew allowed Freeman and I to make the show we wanted to, never giving in to the pressure of budget and schedule to ‘just get it shot’.”
Freeman directed all six episodes of The Newsreader. “It’s a huge undertaking for a director but Freeman is a force of nature and is so well prepared,” says Dresner. “It also meant we could shoot our locations which was an enormous benefit. It was challenging for Freeman and the actors to jump between scenes from episode one to episode six, sometimes in the same day but we were blessed with such a good cast who were prepared, professional and very collaborative. They really were a joy to work with.”
Most of The Newsreader was shot on location but, of course, the crew had to avoid anything that was built or made after 1985. “We scoured Melbourne and found some fantastic houses that suited the period and the characters,” says Dresner. “Doring and her team used an old, abandoned building to create the newsroom office and we built the news desk in a television studio complete with cameras, monitors and other equipment from the time.”
Along with technical advisor Andre Switzer, the crew managed to hide smaller cameras inside the old pedestal cameras and with a complicated system of splitters and down converters, provided live feeds to the camera monitors as well as floor monitors and monitors built into the news desk. “We wanted the news desk to feel like a throne, as if reaching the summit of newsreader was hugely rewarding but also high pressure,” explains Dresner. “We built the desk so it was elevated and created a strong pool of light to illuminate the desk while the rest of the studio fell away into darkness. Sitting in the ‘hot seat’ could make you feel like a monarch, or the loneliest person on earth.”
There are many shots and sequences in The Newsreader that are favourites of Dresner. “Some of the really long uncut Steadicam shots come to mind but my favourite sequence to shoot was probably when we recreated the Russell Street bombing,” he says. “We locked down Russell Street, which hasn’t changed much at all since 1986 and Doring and the special effects team dressed it with burnt out cars and period ambulances and fire engines. It was a stressful but exciting day with lots of extras, three cameras, lots of smoke and explosions.”
Dresner is very proud of what he achieved on The Newsreader. “I feel like we created an intense drama with heart and humour and with a strong voice and bold visuals,” he says. “I pushed myself out of my comfort zone more than ever before and I’m so glad I did. The more I do this job, the more I learn to trust my instincts and am willing to fight for what we need to make the best series possible.”
After spending a few months shooting commercials, Dresner is starting a new series with Freeman called Love Me, an Australian remake of the popular Swedish series being produced by Aquarius Films and Warner Bros as the first original series for streaming service Binge.
Earle Dresner ACS is a multi award-winning cinematographer known for his work on ‘2067’ and ‘The Commons’.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.