FILM SCHOOL TO FILM SET

Very few shooters go from classroom to commercials right out of the gate. So, can it actually be done? And if so, how? I sat down with Shelley Farthing-Dawe to find out how he’s managed to shoot some of the best looking commercials in the world so close to graduation.

By @PaddyMacrae

Paddy: Shelley, why cinematography?

Shelley: During film school I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. I think it’s hard to solidify that ambition until you get out into the real world. I had the opportunity to work for a couple of weeks as a directors assistant on a commercial that was being shot by Adam Arkapaw, and seeing the relationship between the director and the DP, that storytelling communication that was happening, it was a real revelation. Seeing cinematography as a way to tell stories.

Paddy: How have you managed to go from shooting student films to high-end commercials? What were the steps on that journey?

Shelley: In my final year of film school I probably wasn’t in class as much as I should have been, I shot everything I could. Shorts, music videos, whatever I could get my hands on. It was a steep learning curve. I started picking up the odd corporate doco type job as well.

That corporate work taught me to shoot very efficiently – at a fast pace under pressure. And at the same time I would experiment with more advanced technique in the passion (unpaid!) projects, making the kind of stuff that’s more likely to get you noticed.

That’s the reward for the unpaid stuff – it looks better, probably, and it’s more likely to propel your career into shooting that sort of stuff with real budgets attached. A few directors saw some of that stuff, people like Tony Rogers (Wilfred) and he asked me to shoot a pilot, and that turned into a couple of commercials.

I never actually contacted anyone cold, I just made a lot of stuff. I think you’re better off showing people your work, rather than telling them about it.

Paddy: Shelley, you mentioned that you didn’t spend as much time at film school as maybe your teachers would have liked, but your skills increased in that period a lot. Did film school help you? Is there any point?

Shelley: Yep. There is, definitely. I learned a lot, actually. Coming in to film school I knew absolutely nothing. Being able to shoot on film taught me great skills, which apply powerfully to digital, and it gave me the chance to screw up. That’s worth a lot. And the connections, too – when you leave, your mates are your network. I still keep in touch with plenty of them, and now they’re industry peers.

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Cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, shooting on-set (image supplied).

Paddy: You’ve been through a lot of cameras and formats in the past few years, can you give us a quick tour of your gear journey?

Shelley: The first cameras we shot on were the Sony Z1Ps, and that was the pinnacle. Nothing else has ever come close.

Paddy: Really?

Shelley laughs.

Shelley: We shot a lot of 16mm, which is a brilliant format to learn on. It teaches you a lot of great ways of working, and shooting efficiency, story coverage. We shot on a few of the Panasonic cameras, the Varicams. They were great news/TV format cameras. By the end, the 5Ds were starting to come in, but we weren’t really using them because they weren’t updated for the 25fps that we need in Australia.

You shoot on lots of cameras at film school, lots of digital formats you forget, too. But the basics of cinematography are exactly the same for those as they are for film and for digital cinema.

After film school the 5D thing really took off and I was using them a lot. They’re great, I’m glad I didn’t learn on them, but they’re great. I was shooting doco stuff on them, but still using 16mm (SRIII, XTR) and 35mm (Penelope) for drama and more and more, the Red One. Red was a really different image, I hadn’t seen that quality before, it was quite a game changer. Then I went to Red Epic, and finally my current love, Arri Alexa.

Alexa has heralded the end of a lot of the 35mm shoots here in Australia, just because of the quality of the images in terms of colour and latitude, and the ease of use of the camera itself.

Paddy: You’ve recently shot a lot of commercials. A couple of big ones in particular – for Country Road and Woodstock. Can you chat about your experience as a commercial DP on high-end brands?

Shelley: Commercials are a whole different beast after music videos and short films. Clients, agencies, it’s a real scene. Sometimes that’s fantastic, sometimes it can be a challenge – so many heads on set, so many opinions. Film is all about working with people, and with ads you multiply that by 10, there are so many bosses. Country road are a very iconic brand that’s been around a long time. They primarily do stills campaigns and they have a real look of their own. Clean, crisp images. So it was a matter of how we moved their established look book into the motion world, staying aesthetically on brand. That meant a lot of discussions about format, lenses, even shooting stops to stay sharp enough. We made the decision to shoot Arri RAW, which gave us the resolution over ProRes and we shot on Master Primes, which are optically perfect lenses. They flare beautifully and for that sort of a look, they’re a complete winner.

For that job though, like a lot of things, just as important as format, if not more, is location and time of day.

 

Paddy: How did you approach that?

Shelley: After a lot of sifting through references we made the decision to backlight everything as much as possible. We also never shot between 10:00am and 3:00am. That’s rare on commercials – as a DP you’re often asking for it, but it’s unusual that budgets and availabilities align to allow you to do it. The directors were big fans of Terrence Malick – his was a style we actively thought about.

It was a much wider shoot than I’m used to as well. We spent most of the job on a 25mm lens, because the locations are so strong, you want to see everything! We put on a 50mm one time and we just couldn’t see anything like what we wanted to.

Paddy: DPs have a unique relationship with cast. They’re always pointing a camera at them and telling them to shift this way or that. Do you enjoy the working with actors side of things? How do you manage that relationship?

Shelley: I think the relationship with the cast is one of the most important on set. I love working with cast that really understand camera. Working with Isabel (Lucas) is a good example – she really understands movement of camera. There were times where she’d be walking along and I’d say “Hey, let’s run” so we did, and sometimes that stuff was the best material.

If an actor understands lensing it’s a bonus too – knowing the frame size and how big or small to be in a take.

I think though, as a general rule, a good DP will do as little as possible to interrupt the relationship between the actor and the director. If an actor is there in the moment and ready to go, and you need to tweak a backlight that might take a few minutes – then screw it. Don’t tweak it, let it go.

Paddy: You’ve shot lots of stuff overseas, what’s it like working with foreign crews?

Shelley: I love it. There are always little language differences even in the English speaking countries, but that’s fun. Our Aussie crews work very quickly, perhaps quicker than the US crews.

Paddy: You’re based in Melbourne and shoot all over the place – do you like that, or do you plan on moving certain places?

Shelley: As a DP you can kind of live wherever you want. Most of my stuff is in Australia, but travel isn’t hard. I don’t think it matters much where you live. You just want to be somewhere that you have a working network of people.

Paddy: You shot a commercial recently for Woodstock that had quite a different look to your country road advert – how did you achieve that?

Shelley: The director, Tony Rogers, loves old lenses. We shot that on MKII Zeiss Super Speeds, which really suited the locations we were shooting. The imperfections on those lenses are what are so great about them. We shot F2 for a lot of the commercial, a lot of soft DoF, the highlights really bloom, it’s beautiful. Pretty much every job I change lenses.

 

Paddy: Is that vintage lens thing unusual?

Shelley: Nup. These days I shoot more on old lenses than on new, actually. Sometimes that’s the Lomo anamorphics which are very old and, they’re well, anamorphically fu- achem, um, poor. Optically very poor. Old anamorphics give you some textures and softness, which take away the harshness of digital; they’re very filmic, especially on something like the Alexa.

Panavision recently brought out the P Vintage lenses, and now they’re one of the most used lenses out there. Putting old glass on new digital formats is just a great way to get the old film look. Gets rid of that harsh sharpness. I’d say 80% of my jobs are on older lenses.

Paddy: 4k, 8k, 36k – is this useful progression, or are things just getting silly?

Shelley: It’s funny that it’s such a big thing. People often talk like 4k is this new concept. We’ve had the equivalent for years though – 35mm! Often I couldn’t care less about resolution. If it’s a VFX heavy project, sure, but most of the best stuff I’ve shot has been 1080p on the Alexa. For me, lighting, colour and latitude are far, far more important.

Paddy: What about lighting? Do you have a certain approach to lighting looks? Do you use the same gaffers over and over?

Shelley: Yep, I try to. Getting a good working understand with a gaffer is worth a lot. The step between just shooting things and real cinematography is lighting, I think. You can get a bit caught up in camera tech, but if you can light, you’re half way there. Lighting and storytelling are the two most important things.

Paddy: Does that include the choice not to light?

Shelley: Yeah, sure. These days, people are right into the naturalistic look, particularly in commercials. But that doesn’t always mean it’s not lit, it’s often very lit. The real look is great, but natural light itself often limits your shooting hours. Consistency is incredibly important, which is where naturalistic lighting set-ups are crucial. Sometimes I’ll boost what natural light is there, just to keep it consistent so you can shoot for 8 hours a day.

One of the biggest mistakes though is to think you need to light everything. You don’t have to. If you’re shooting short things, you can get away with natural and get some fantastic results.

Paddy: What would you add to your CV if you could? If you jumped forward 10 years, what would you like to have shot?

Shelley: I’d like to get more long form under the belt – TV and film. The nature of being a young DP is that you don’t really get the big jobs until you’ve shot the smaller stuff first. Age is always one thing dictating the work you get. Gotta do your time!

It’s all about good projects and good people though. If I can work with good people and get jobs, I’m happy.

Paddy: You mentioned that you like working with good directors. What is a good director?

Shelley: They’re all pretty different, I suppose. Some are visually craft-heavy, some are really performance based and won’t talk look much at all. I like working with directors who know what they want – visual and story wise. Story is the most important thing, more than look. Directors who understand that and use look to enhance the story are always good to work with.

Paddy: If you met someone with no money and who wasn’t going to film school but wanted to be a DP, what would you tell them?

Shelley: I’d sayshoot as much as you can. Get any camera and press record, see what happens. The networking stuff is also really important. That doesn’t mean emailing everyone you can find though – find people in a similar position as yourself and meet and grow with them. Once you have a working network of people, it’s a bit easier to get on with the next steps. There are a lot of entry-level camera department positions – 2nd AC, data wrangler, split operator, these are great ways in. But you usually have to know someone to get them.

Even if you don’t go to a film school yourself – they are still a great hub to hang around. A lot of them hold crewing nights that anyone can attend and sign up for jobs – look them up. And then shoot! Shoot, shoot, shoot!

 

You can check out Shelley’s work at www.shelleyfarthingdawe.com

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