Murder Calls Australia, a dramatised crime documentary that uses phone calls associated with the crime to tell the stories, was commissioned by Channel Nine Australia through ScreenTime. It was a unique show to say the least and according to the Tim Hawkins, co-DoP on the production, their choice of a Sony F5 to shoot the show proved to be a good move in more ways than one.
Hawkins explained, “Having spent the previous six months shooting shows like Todd Sampson’s BodyHack and Real Housewives of Sydney on my Sony F5, I was looking for something different to really try and see how far and hard my F5 could be pushed. I’d been speaking with my buddy Jay Hanrahan who shot HBO’s Big Little Lies and we’d talked extensively about how it was shot in really low light often in what he described as near dark locations. With this in mind I was keen to see how the F5 would handle similar low light situations and if it could match or beat other cameras in the market. At that point I got the call from my DoP mate Matt Koopmans asking me if Id be interested in shooting the Sydney based episodes of Murder Calls, so my chance to see how far the F5 could go became reality.”
After discussing Murder Calls with Koopmans Hawkins, “jumped at the chance” as he continued, “It was exactly the style of shooting Jay and I had been talking about, super low light and heaps of off speed. Matt Koopmans is an amazing DoP with a long history of quality TV production. Everything he touches looks like gold and the thought of taking his vision, style and creativity over to finish a series was a daunting one.”
Daunting or otherwise Hawkins was up to the challenge and spent a good deal of time talking through the complexities of the Murder Calls series with Koopmans.
He added, “I was relived when he talked me though the camera, camera settings and lenses he’d been using. Matt’s also is a Sony F5 owner and obviously it’s the camera of choice for such a job. We shot all the dramatic reconstructions for Murder Calls on the Sony F5 at 75 frames, the camera was in cine EI mode S-Log 2, using a LUT in the field. I also used a Movi M5 gimbal for stabilised shots with a Sony A7S Mkii in S-Log 2 on it. I used prime lenses throughout the shoot. The shooting style Matt set was impressive, but I was really confident in the gear we’d chosen and confident of an equally good result.”
Shooting dramatic reconstructions is nothing new for Hawkins but Murder Calls was the first time he had shot in this form on the F5.
He continued, “The camera natively is very fast and has huge dynamic range and mixed with my very fast prime lenses we were able to shoot in very low light giving us the look that director Kieran ’Spud’ Murphy was looking for. We had a mantra on Murder Calls – shoot the shadow. As a result I tried to never use key lights and everything was backlit. If there was key lighting it was always practical. We placed backlights for every scene and my main lighting instruments were the Filmgear 1.2k and 400w HMI’s and often the BBS LED flyer. This style of shooting could not have been achievable with any other camera I’ve owned. The dynamic range of the F5 gave us so many more opportunities that we seized upon. As a result I found myself getting braver and braver as the shoot went on, shooting darker and darker.”
Hawkins pushed the IE ISO rating really hard trusting the idea that ‘if it looks good in the viewfinder/monitor it’ll be fine in the grade’.
He added, “More broadly speaking, the more I shoot in Cine EI mode the more my belief and trust builds on a good viewfinder mixed with and a reliable LUT. Do I use waveform monitoring? Yes, but nowhere near how I used to. I do still often flick up a waveform but more and more I find myself trusting my camera, my eye and my viewfinder. I’ll say it again, when shooting Cine EI on Sony cameras, if it looks good in the viewfinder it’ll be there in the grade.”
Hawkins got some great feedback from the show’s on-line colourist who was really happy with the flat S-Log pictures they delivered noting how little noise there was in the really dark scenes.
He continued, “I know S-Log 3 is all the go right now but I do find it gets a little noisy when pushed in low light situations. When it came to pulling up those dark pictures shot at the F5’s native 2000 ISO the colourist had no problems matching my viewfinders Exposure Index.”
Murder Calls was a fast paced drama with a small crew of no less than ten people who all pitched in getting the job done. Their daily routine would often involve three locations per day shooting multiple scenes. Often scenes were prepped in one room of a house while Hawkins was shooting in another.
He explained, “My gaffer and camera assistant were constantly working ahead of me prepping a scene while I was shooting a stabbing or some other heinous crime in the adjoining room. We literally rolled from one scene to the next with Jacky, our 1st AD, juggling locations as she pushed to keep the team producing. Having my F5 set up the way I do gave me a huge speed advantage as often it was a run and gun style of drama unit. We didn’t have the time to muck around with large camera changes. I couldn’t let my department slow the shoot up and the F5 delivered. It didn’t miss a beat.”
The drama on Murder Calls Australia had a clean, disconnected abstract feel to it. Often the drama was unfolding in the background or off to the side of a frame. Sometimes the faces of the actors were not shown at all or gave implied movement to a scene.
Hawkins concluded, “We were trying for powerful imagery but sometimes Spud wanted to break the style for added effect and introduce an in your face POV shot, something the F5 is perfect for. Murder Calls was a great series to be a part of. The Nine Network and SceenTime pulled together some great talent to produce more entertaining home grown content. These smallish budgeted series are keeping many people employed in Australia and lets hope they continue into the future. I have to say, being able to use a camera like the Sony F5 to get the kind of results we did goes a long way towards ensuring they do.”
Tim Hawkins using his Sony F5 on the set of Murder Calls.