PH: What does production look like for you with a pandemic amongst us?
Ross Emery: Adaptation is a much used word; I think the type of scripts made will be the ones that can be achieved under the protocols of the pandemic. Production itself will and should be a more regulated space with protocols similar to high risk industries and the discipline needed will be something that previous production models did not really encourage, late calls on schedules, last minute crew additions or location changes will simply be not possible now. Efficiencies may be an unintended by product of pandemic protocols with more preproduction and the necessity of strictly following schedules that have been prepared. Communication is different, there are fewer face to face meetings and more virtual meetings and other electronic means of sharing ideas. On set it has been mostly minor adjustments with keeping fewer crew numbers on set, being aware of not asking for crew to perform any risky behaviour and just being a bit more patient to make sure things are done safely.
PH: Have there been a lot of safety precautions on set?
Ross Emery: We have Covid Marshalls patrolling our set constantly monitoring social distancing and mask protocols and supplying hand sanitizer. An army of covid safety crew take temperatures on arrival and ensure people strictly follow out testing procedure. On this show every crew member is tested once a week and heads of department are tested three times a week. Every morning there is an on set announcements of any hotspots and any crew members who were at risk by being at those locations are asked to come forward and are isolated until tested. Once shooting starts we have tasked the crew to personally take responsibility for their safety and the behaviour of others in following the guidelines. It became obvious that the more safely we conducted ourselves on set the more chances we have of not having to halt shooting, which would affect crew employment and income. That was a big motivator.
PH: Can you talk a little about your HBO Max series Raised by Wolves and how you became involved?
Ross Emery: I was first contacted by producer Jon Kuyper about the show and he was not aware that I have known Darius Wolski who shot the pilot for a long time and I had shot scenes for Ridley Scott’s Alien Covenant film when they shot it in Sydney, so I had a working knowledge of the Scott Free machine. When Jon suggested me to shoot, it was an easy decision. From that point onwards it was going to be in Capetown. I spent some time on set with Ridley and Darius to get a feel for what they were doing with the pilot and then I picked it up from there. We spent about five months in Capetown and its surrounding area, as well as a shooting base at the Capetown film Studios.
PH: What did you like so much about the project?
Ross Emery: Raised by Wolves was such a rewarding project as a DP. We talked about bold choices and the show was just a long series of bold choices. The story was such a thrill ride with unexpected shifts and challenging story arcs. I me needed to ensure the visuals kept up intellectually with the major themes of the show. This brought forward some great opportunities to explore unique looks and ways of seeing the story. The other aspect was seeing what a high wire act that was being performed by the cast who were really pushing boundaries and our job was to support their work and make sure our visuals were the best choice for the story. On a feature we usually only get to work with one or two main themes, but for a 10 hour show we explored multiple themes, characters and story arcs, which led to some pretty surreal moments. It was always satisfying to see how we were able to interweave the visuals into the story.
The other great thing about a show like this is the collaboration with other DPs. I ended up shooting five episodes and Erik Messerschmidt shot the others. We don’t get to do that a lot and I find cinematographers are such a like-minded group that it's always rewarding to share the creation of a show like this.
PH: Describe what the pre-production process looked like, coming up with a "look" for the series.
Ross Emery: We obviously took a lead from Ridley’s pilot and the first episodes we used it as a template for a look. That look was interesting as it felt kind of anti Sci Fi -- almost like a documentary feel -- ethnographic was a word we used for the style, capturing a way of life from an independent perspective. This meant not a lot of camera movement and staging scenes with specific geometry. Characters were arranged into their spaces dependency upon how we wanted them portrayed. This style then evolved as the story shifts and expands and new themes start appearing in the scripts. We became a little more of what I called 'Nat Geo Gothic.' This came about from the more surreal and challenging themes coming to the fore, which required the visuals adjust to accommodate these ideas. We introduced more camera movement and as new characters began appearing, tensions rise and we start seeing character's real intentions.
As for framing, we always tried to isolate the key characters. Mother, Father, Campion and Marcus are the axis and their stories are the way we view the rest of the world. As such, there was a plan to photograph them in a sympathetic way. Mother and Father are androids and they have a efficiency of movement, so we staged them in a way that might seem uncomfortable, but for an android it is about efficiency. Campion is a wanderer: he's always a bit busy and moving. Marcus is a man struggling with a split personality so he's always uncomfortable in his own skin. These traits inform our lenses, camera movement and framing choices, which are all intended to enhance the viewer's image of the characters.
Color wise, it’s a strange harsh planet so de-saturation and a harder contrast seemed right, with splashes of color that usually represent the technology they brought with them from Earth. In fact, all the technology that arrives on the planet is seen as an intrusion on the planet and is essentially a metaphor for disturbing the environment. So we played most of that tech with oddly non-natural colors like green/cyans and magenta or blue and white. This contrasted with the natural warm color we use before the main expedition arrives from Earth.
PH: What was it like shooting with the Arri Alexa and Panavision lenses?
Ross Emery: My favourite choice! Alexas are such great cameras, always giving great color rendition and latitude. They just work. They're easy to use and unlike some cameras, they don't disturb the rhythm of the crew and cast. You don’t have to wait for them and they almost never break down -- even in harsh conditions. We now have an amazing choice of lenses available from Panavision, everything from 1970s Ultra Speeds, (which we used) and more modern, optically-perfect zoom lenses. It wasn’t that long ago when you would have to think twice about using a zoom, because it was not as good as the primes optically and had a slower T Stop. Now we can have the best of both worlds.
PH: What were some of your favorite shots and why?
Ross Emery: There were so many great shots on the show it’s kind of hard to choose, but the one I do love is in the scene where Mother is inside the wreckage of the crashed spaceship transfusing herself with animal blood while an android medic looks on and advises. Sorry -- spoilers!
This scene was so surreal and the concept of an android playing with the idea of becoming human demanded something pretty dramatic. What we staged was very much something from a Heronius Bosch painting of the human descent into hell, with an animal carcass suspended from the ceiling with the mother writhing on the flood beneath, while hooked up to transfusion tubes. The android medic, who had been damaged, was hanging from a hook on the wall. We reversed the motion to see mothers writhing in an agonising way and lit the scene with a sickly chartreuse color. We added some dirty yellow/orange light coming from the medical cabinets in the walls. It was pretty cool.
PH: Can you describe some of the techniques you used and how they enhanced the look of the series?
Ross Emery: I’m not sure technique is what we were doing. The attempt was to support and react to the story as it unfolded and make sure anything we did technically meshed with the story. Once you have absorbed the script you have certain reactions to how you want the visuals to appear and as cinematographers we are the ones who can take that intangible and then use the tools of framing, lighting, color, and movement to convey the ideas into a screened frame that hopefully makes the audience react the way you want them to. I suppose that can be called 'technique,' but my idea of technique is something that is preconceived then layered over a story. We were looking moreso to interweave the visuals with the story, especially as the story progressed, so it was an evolutionary process. We did some image disturbance for scenes where it was appropriate. Marcus was an interesting character as his mental disintegration is happening inside his mind -- so visually, how do you represent that? We decided to use a very narrow depth of field lens, a T1 Panavision 50mm Superspeed made in the 70. It is optically interesting and its narrow depth lets you force the audience to look at a specific and limited area of the actor's face ie. the eye, the lips, a strand of hair. It becomes intimate and I think the character's anxiety then leaches through into the frame.