AC – How did you find yourself working on The Untold?
HK – I find myself drawn to concepts and I enjoy shooting films that explore them. As for The Untold, the concept came about through a dinner conversation between myself, executive producer Will Fernandes and director Ron Kahlon. The idea of the Hindu karmic cycle and its implications of guilt became the main topic throughout dinner. We let the idea sizzle for a while and it really kicked off during lockdown. Kahlon presented a script treatment and we were instantly hooked.
The three of us are huge fans of horror films and we have always wanted to dive into the genre. None of us had any experience and we saw this as an opportunity to gain some. Prior to The Untold, the three of us had worked together on a smaller short film which was the direct opposite of The Untold.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous when deciding to lens the film. It was uncharted waters for the whole creative team. Ultimately, the film turned out great and I’m really happy I said yes!
AC – What was the initial visual concept for how the film would look?
HK – The initial script was very different from what is finally on screen. I initially envisioned the film to be slightly moody with vivid colours. I wanted the aesthetics to have a retro and saturated look. As the script went through development, the story and intention began to change.
The new approach laid in the narrative’s sense of ambiguity. In specific, the main character Sonia, played by Laila Thaker, suffers from remorse to a point that her hallucination blurs her sense of reality and ultimately leads to her demise. It was then that I knew I had to dive deep into the character’s psych. The film had to be visually really dark.
I drew inspiration from cinematographer Xavi Giménez’s work on the feature film The Invisible Guest (2016). I love how he was able to make everyday activities and locations look really sinister and ambiguous by heightening the mundane environment around the character. I added my own spin adding a camera motif; we always see Sonia in a mid-shot whenever she is about to go through a breakdown.
AC – What was your collaboration like with the production design team, early on in pre-production?
HK – Like all short films, the budget was really tight. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a production designer. Instead, we did our best to find locations that matched our vision. It took us four months to find the right spots and we struck gold when we found a 100-year-old weather board house near Warburton, Victoria, and a secluded yet accessible forest nearby. The house’s crooked foundations, furniture and size matched what we wanted. To top it off, it was a rent-able holiday house. As for the forest, it was sparse enough for us to work safety. We were honestly very lucky and I wouldn’t recommend proceeding without a production designer.
AC – How did the show’s look develop in terms of the locations, colour palette?
HK – The initial colour pallet was meant to be slightly bluish but as the story evolved and the tone got darker, I realised that a warmer touch would add more dimension to the story. The team decided to style the character with that I mind.
AC – What camera/s and lenses did you chose to shoot The Untold and why?
HK – Given that the film was going to be shot in the dark, I decided to use the RED Gemini. The REDs are generally good with shadow retention and the Gemini in particular worked well in low-light scenarios. As for lenses, I decided to go with the Zeiss MK I standard speeds. I wanted a vintage lens that had aesthetical flaws yet still provide a clinical enough look to represent the mundane environment. The Zeiss MK I had the traditional ‘Zeiss look’ with a touch of funk.
I was very lucky to be sponsored both the camera and lenses I wanted by a good friend, Hemil Shah who runs Full Filmy Rentals. He loved the idea and passion that the collective group showed and ultimately, he himself got infatuated.
AC – Can you talk a bit about the crew in your own camera department? Had you worked with your crew before, and what was collaboration like within your own department on The Untold?
HK – The Untold had a tight shooting schedule along with some very long and intricate movements. I decided to shoot the car scenes in a multi-camera setup to save time. My rockstar assistant camera Lewis Rodan doubled up as second camera operator for those takes. We also had quite a few Steadicam shots. My champion gaffer, Hannah Palmer, doubled up as the Steadicam operator. The camera team definitely had to hustle for this shoot and I am eternally grateful to them.
I tend to work with familiar faces and this project was no different. I am very lucky to have been surrounded by a very talented camera team. Each of them is a master of their craft and I have been working with them for years on both commercials and narrative projects.
Everyone on my team knew how I work and there wasn’t much to be said. We complemented each other very well and the camera team ran very smoothly even though the schedule was tight. We had dollies, Steadicam, handheld shots and jibs. That’s quite a bit for a small team but everyone soldiered on to make it happen. The grips, Shah and his team, were constantly moving. Till today, I don’t know how Palmer, was able to double up as both my gaffer and Steadicam operator. They are definitely a rock-solid unit.
AC – Did the horror and suspense aspect of the show change your approach to cinematography, as opposed to shooting drama or comedy?
HK – It was definitely an eye-opener for me. I am used to filming robust and flexible scenarios. With the horror and suspense genre, everything lay in precision. From lighting, movement, beats and all the way down to the duration of each take. I have always been a rather meticulous cinematographer but The Untold has taught me how to be even more precise.
AC – How did you achieve lighting in your interior scenes, as well as your night exterior locations?
HK – The aesthetics of The Untold lies heavily on a cluster-phobic environment and an innately mundane yet dark setting. The two notions are rather conflicting and each scene had to be intricately lit. I always strive to light my scenes exactly how I want it in camera. That includes the colour tones and my gaffer knew exactly what I wanted.
The forest exteriors were all night shoots. Given the fact that we shot the film in summer, it was definitely a late crew call. The director wanted the exterior scenes to have a near noir look. It was the first time that I under lit my frame to achieve such a look. I decided to light up the surrounding forest while keeping the shooting locale lit by practicals which were the car head lights and a torch light. This gave us an ambiguous feeling that there might be people nearby yet far enough to be forgotten.
We shot day for night in the interiors. I wanted the house to have an ambiguous temporal feel and as such I chose not to have any ambient light coming in. I have a fascination with top lighting my films and the interiors were exactly that. This approach worked out really well as it helped me separate my character from the background in a really small environment. I kept a simple lighting rule for the interiors. There was always a juxtaposition in each frame. The background would be dark while the character was lit and vice versa. This gave the visuals an unsettling feel which complemented the narrative.
AC – As a cinematographer, how do you ‘find your frames’?
HK – In terms of frames, I worked with what I had and embraced the location’s architecture. I chose to use wider lenses and that in turn showed the characters and their relation to the immediate surrounds. I ended up framing a lot of unsettlingly straight lines which worked out well for the horror genre.
AC – Can you talk to us about post-production? How involved were you in this process?
HK – I have an open relationship with the director. Given the fact that I was once an editor, he values my input during post-production. I would come in to give small feedback when asked. We had an amazing editor, Delaney Murphy. She got the essence of the film right from the first draft.
AC – Who was your colourist and what was the intention going into the grade?
HK – When it comes to the grade, I usually spearhead the process. For The Untold, we approached a longtime friend, Jaimie Manners CSI from Sandbox Productions. Manners is an amazing colourist and he knew what I wanted from the get go. He understood my style in general and there wasn’t much to be explored.
AC – Do you have a favourite shot or sequence in The Untold? Why?
HK – My favourite shot would be a close-up of Sonia’s expression in the forest. It is extremely dark and also a moment where I was extremely uncomfortable at how dark it was. A portion of her face literally faded into black. I was constantly double checking with the director to see if it was right. In the end, it turned out really well and I am happy I didn’t do any tweaks.
AC – Finally, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently or what would you change?
HK – If I could turn back time, I would factor in more time. Even though we had a healthy shooting schedule and a small shot list, the intricacies of lighting and blocking extremely moody scenes took a while.
Ultimately, the collective team learnt a lot from our first attempt at the horror genre. We are hoping to make a sequel and the lessons learnt will go a long way in shaping it.
Hossein Khodabandehloo is a cinematographer working in the advertising industry.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.