Disappearing the camera

Hunter Cordaiy talks to Robert Humphreys

Robert Humphreys

Robert Humphreys

Robert Humphreys

Robert Humphreys is a cinematographer whose credits include David Caesar’s Mullet, a major award winner at the recent Shanghai Film Festival, and Tony Ayres’ Walking on Water which premiered as part of the 2002 Adelaide Festival and will be released by Dendy Films on September 23.

When did your interest in cinematography start? Was it film in general or photography in particular?

You often see quotes from people who work in film who made Super 8 films when they were 10 years old and were passionate filmmakers from the cradle…Well I can’t in all honesty say that’s me…my interest in film came from being a viewer, but it wasn’t until I went to the NSW Institute of Technology in the early 80s that I can say I thought ‘this is the life for me.’ My career path went parallel between stills photographer and cinematographer. I took lot of photos for rock bands, album covers, posters, and some theatrical stills and a little bit of fashion. And at the same time I was filming pop clips and eventually cinematography was much more of a challenge than stills photography.

Did you train as a cinematographer?

I actually wanted to be a journalist and it wasn’t until I went to uni and saw the cruel hard world of journalism I realised I didn’t like it…but in the Communications degree there was a filmmaking course and that pretty much took over as the great fascination. I basically spent 3 years watching films.

Which ones had the greatest influence?

We watched everything…Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini, Visconti, film noir, and my special favourite, Bertolucci…I think The Conformist is one of the truly great pieces of cinematography and for me that film is a text book.

Australian films as well?

Yes. The very first Australian film I saw I had to sneak out of school to see. It was The Devil’s Playground, which I still remember in incredible detail, then Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave.

If you were a photographer you would be able to have a consistent if developing style, but cinematographers work across forms, for very different audiences and directors. How does that affect the evolution of a style?

I think that the cinematographer is not so much an artist but more a craftperson whose job it is to visualise a director’s dream, to visualise words from a page…being an architect is an analogy. I also believe it’s a team of collaborators who make a film, so it’s directors and producers, or writer-directors who have a dream of a film.

So you change your style to suit the form of the film?

I pride myself on not having a recognisable style; every film I do is dictated by the script, and I try to visualise a film. Flower Girl was a breakthrough for me, and also for the director Kate Shortland. It was one of those films that was a melding of styles. Where it came from is interesting. One of the all-time classics for me is Godard’s Breathless. It is still for me the most influential piece of cinema that I can think of, in that it was all hand-held, jump cut, it broke all the rules of editing, and it was pretty much shot with natural light, and it was filmed by Raoul Coutard. In Australia we like to think of cameramen like Chris Doyle as being breakthrough operators who use available light and are freeing the form,. but to me all of those films are Breathless shot in colour.

A lot of my style is based on not being intrusive: I don’t like to look at a picture and be able to see the technology behind it. I don’t like excessive backlight which is what you get in film noir, or camera moves which are designed to take you out of the story. If I have a choice my style is naturalistic. So if you’re in an interior in a house, say, it will be lit from the window, and in Flower Girl there’s only about 2 lights and we researched the locations very carefully to give us that effect.

Colour is everything in this film, and I strove for a really saturated image. If I have to admit to a house style it would be that use of colour! So on Mullet and Walking on Water there is a strong colour palette…it’s controlled by the designers, but what I do is saturate it so it becomes a strong part of the story.

How does that different response to each script connect to your choices of technology?

I’ll receive a script from a director. The cinematographer and the designer tend to be on the project from the very beginning, from first draft or very early. I’ll read it. We’ll talk about the specifics and have broad discussions about films [the director, the designer] like or don’t like, photos and paintings as well, almost anything they think is relevant to their script.

Can you give an example..let’s say Mullet?

David Caesar talked about Mullet being a Western. It had a classic Western structure…the lone gunslinger/outlaw coming back to the hometown, and David always wanted it to be a big wide-screen experience. There’s little camera movement, the composition is classical, and to that end he made a tape of influences…films like Hud, which has a detached, wide-screen, observational style of filming. For interiors he looked at Drugstore Cowboy. He didn’t want Mullet to look exactly like those films but their influences added something to the discussions.

Then with Walking on Water, [director] Tony Ayres and I looked at a lot of things. We couldn’t settle on anything until it came to 2 references. The first was a film called Under the Skin, photographed by Barry Ackroyd (he works with Ken Loach a lot) and his strengths are to create very naturalistic looking films where the camera never draws attention to itself…everything is quite elegant. But Under the Skin is quite different. It uses long lenses, the camera is quite jerky and uses only natural light…We settled on that as the closest template and mixed it with the work of photographer, Nan Goldin, an American. Her work is incredibly honest, naturalistic, raw and powerful, documenting the death of her friends in the 80s from AIDS.

What about the differences between cameras?

For Walking on Water we used an Ariflex and for Mullet we used a BL Evolution, one on the shoulder and the other never moved. Some cinematographers are highly technical and others like myself are more intuitive in their relation to the choice of camera. With Walking on Water we used long lenses, and the reason for that was that you can isolate actors in their environment, and so you tend to draw the audience’s attention to their performance rather than the environment. It’s also a good budgetary thing because it doesn’t need huge sets. Mullet was shot on Super 35mm which is standard 35mm blown up to anamorphic format, 2.35 to 1 ratio.

You also shoot for TV. You’re in the middle of Fat Cow Motel which is described as a multiplatform production.

It’s a TV series shot in Queensland, paid for by Austar, and going on air on Austar and Foxtel. It’s a 13 part series where each of the half hour episodes poses a problem which is solved at the beginning of the following episode…a lateral thinking problem, and is often tied up with a mystery in the town.

Sounds like David Lynch.

Yes, I could happily describe it as a cross between Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. The cinematography avoids the classical Australian soap opera look, and as for the multiplatform side of it, each of the clues that are posed is elaborated on different platforms such as internet, text messages, and viewers register and receive the clues.

Is this the future…technologies altering the narrative, creating an open text?

It’s open in the sense that they’re trying to give people more value…the story on screen is 23 minutes each week, but if you go online there’s hours more.

How does this affect the future of what we might call classical cinema?

A story is a story…classical cinema equals classical story. There are always people who will go to the movies to see those stories…even if the home screens get bigger. I still think the movies will be attractive as long as people are communal animals and enjoy that experience.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 23

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002