Australia has consistently punched above its weight in producing world-class actors and directors but our talented cinematographers rarely receive similar recognition.
Filmmaker Martha Ansara estimates as many as 40 Aussie cinematographers are working overseas in films, TV, documentaries and commercials at any given time. Yet we usually hear about their exploits only when they win or are nominated for Academy Awards. Among the Oscar honourees are Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, 1990), John Seale (The English Patient, 1996), Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001), Russell Boyd (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 2003) and Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2006).
The 'unsung heroes' finally get their due in Ansara's book The Shadowcatchers: a history of cinematography in Australia, published by the Australian Cinematographers Society. The tome is being launched by director Bruce Beresford at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School on May 31.
“The world of cinematography is one which people outside it know very little about — the culture, the mentality, the conditions,” Ansara, who was one of first women to be admitted as a full member of the ACS in 1980, told SBS Film. ”I'd like people to get a feeling for the life of cinematographers in the past and in the present. Who are these people who do this extraordinary work which is creative, technical, physical and mentally and emotionally demanding?
“What do cinematographers actually do and under what conditions do they do it? I want people to [discover] what the work is like, how demanding it is, how crazy and sometimes dangerous it is, how much fun it is, and what its social milieu has been. Also to understand the changes in cinematography which epitomise the changes in Australian society.”
[Related: Landmark Moments in Australian Cinematography ]
Ansara first got the idea for the book in the mid-1970s when she realised there was very few published records of Australian cinematography and she started interviewing cameramen such as Reg Edwards and Bill Trerise, who started in the industry before World War I. Often these pioneers were as young as 13 or 14, school drop-outs from working class families.
The book is a marvellous collection of more than 380 photographs spanning every decade from 1901, plus numerous milestones, anecdotes and insights into how cinematography has evolved and changed within the framework of the forces that have shaped society.
John Seale points to a key difference between working in Oz and in the US, telling the author, “In America they treat you very godlike, here they don't. You're another mate. You just happen to hold a light meter. But over there, it's 'Sir' and it's 'Mr. Seale' and oh, you can get carried away with it. But I think I learned from [veteran DOP] Bill [Grimmond] that you're simply a cog, and on the set you may be a slightly bigger cog but without the other cogs, the film isn't going to work either.”
Ansara suggests that several factors explain why Australia has produced so many world class directors of photography, including the ability to work quickly and with small budgets; a sharing of knowledge and skills; and the ACS's efforts to improve standards by regularly arranging meetings and discussions on topics such as new equipment.
Beresford says, “I don't know why the Australian cinematographers are such a talented bunch. I think that the previous generation, prior to 1960, were rather stodgy, with the odd exception like Ross Wood. I've always felt that Giuseppe Rotunno made a difference when he came here to photograph On the Beach (in 1959). A lot of locals worked on that film in various capacities and could see a great cameraman at work first hand. His lighting was unorthodox and inventive by the standards of those days and I think that somehow there was a trickle-down effect.”
As the book notes, the digital revolution is hastening the demise of celluloid for amateurs and experts alike. Ansara points to one downside for cinematographers: whereas they handled the colour grading of 35 mm film, that process now happens digitally, sometimes without their involvement.
But she writes, “At this point, Australian cinematographers seem to be responding to the new environment with the same adaptability and self-reliance which characterised our work through the first century of cinema. Our reputation for delivering 'good stuff' continues undiminished, technically and creatively, and on a global scale.”
“Regardless of the recording medium and regardless of social and cultural change, we are still the shadowcatchers. And cinematography is essentially the same vocation — a passionate, entrancing calling, demanding creativity, technical knowledge and tremendous physical and mental stamina.”
For more info on the book go to: www.shadowcatchers.com.au
Pictured: Mad Max, 1979. Terry Gibson (stuntie) driving, David Eggby (DOP). Courtesy David Eggby