Picture Perfect: A conversation with cinematographer Russell Boyd

Continuing our Peter Weir Blogathon, Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Boyd…

Russell BoydChecking the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Boyd was listed with sixty-one production credits. “[Every year] since the mid 70s through the 80s and early 90s I would often do two pictures and sometimes even start work on a third one when I was working in Australia,” explains the sixty-six year old who has worked on everything from the eerily apoplectic The Last Wave (1975) to the Hollywood slapstick comedy Liar Liar (1997). The native of Victoria did take some time off from feature filmmaking when his wife gave birth to twin boys; deciding to stay closer to home, Russell worked on numerous ads. “In any month you can have quite a number of different challenges photographically when you’re shooting commercials, and one of my beliefs has always been, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.’ I think cinematographers should shoot every day of their life just about. I think experience is very important too because it enables you to throw behind you the technical side, which lets you get on with the kinetic side of it. Early on there is a big technical monster you’ve got to harness with photography… Once you’ve come to terms with that and got comfortable with it, that is when you really can push yourself visually.”

Russell Boyd Mark Strong“I think my reputation has become, rightly or wrongly, [that of] a landscapist,” observes Russell Boyd. “A lot of the early films like Picnic at Hanging Rock [1975] and other ones like Burke & Wills [1985] were out in the middle of Australia.” The cinematographer is fascinated by the various ways he can dramatically manipulate light. “One of the things I love in terms of light is what we call back light. In other words when the sun is not behind the camera but the camera is shooting toward the sun and the light is coming from the back. It produces a great halo of light around people’s heads; it’s a very painterly device that Impressionist painters used. So we did have a look at the work of a lot of early Australian Impressionist painters and that is when I decided to shoot much of [the exteriors in] Picnic at Hanging Rock in back light.” Contemplating as to whether he has a signature shooting approach, Russell states, “If I have a style at all it is not in the selection of camera but in the lighting; you would have to call it naturalistic. I hate seeing anything on film where there is an obvious light being used to light the scene. I like to keep it as natural and as part of the environment as possible.” A major lighting test for the Australian occurred while filming the large principle cast in The Way Back (2010), his latest collaboration with fellow countryman and acclaimed director Peter Weir. “It is always a challenge if you have six key actors in a scene at the same time, particularly if they are moving from one position to another… By the second or third rehearsal the actors are starting to really feel where they want to be in a particular moment in a scene or in a shot. You then figure out the best place to put the key light, which you might call the main light which is lighting the set, in a position where it won’t intrude or look unnatural.”

“We the camera team and the other departments often suffer the harshest of environments to work in,” tells Russell Boyd who worked in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India during a principle photography period which lasted sixty-three days for The Way Back. The World War II prison escape and survival epic stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Colin Farrell (Tigerland), Ed Harris (Appaloosa), and Saoirse Ronan (Hanna). “We’d come back at the end of the day to see our dailies and there [would be] tea, biscuits and a glass of wine [waiting for us].” What troubled Russell more than the desert heat of Morocco was the uncomfortable cold climate encountered in Bulgaria. “We certainly had to wrap the cameras up in protective plastic housing from heaters and all sorts of things like that. Also, when special effects were blowing snow at us it would cover the lenses so we had to take precautions to keep the lenses clear of the snow and dry; between takes we had to wipe down the equipment a lot.”

Russell Boyd Peter WeirThe most difficult assignment for the cinematographer resulted in his being lauded with an Oscar in 2004. “[Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World] was probably one of the most difficult films I ever worked on. One, it was big budget and two, it was very complex, particularly in terms of special effects. I differentiate between special effects and visual effects because there weren’t a lot of digital effects in it. There were an awful lot of mechanical special effects in it, water explosions, all that fun. I remember, in the last six weeks in prep all the department heads would spend two weeks at the big table in the art department and we go through what still needed to be dealt with and Peter would always be there for two hours and then he would go off to do more casting. I remember about six weeks before we started shooting we all looked at each other and asked, ‘How are we going to make this picture?’ because there were so many variables… all the intricacies from the sets being, the top deck, the gun deck, the canons… all those different elements had to be extremely thought through,” he adds, regarding the seafaring Napoleonic tale where a British warship helmed by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) plays a game of cat and mouse with a French naval adversary. “The most memorable for the shooting of it was when they [Aubrey and the crew of The Surprise] were going through the storm just before going around Cape Horn.” Upon receiving my belated congratulations for being presented with an Academy Award, Russell confesses, “It came as a little bit of a surprise… You don’t become a DP [Director of Photography] with the major hope of winning an Oscar. During Master and Commander I never considered I would win one, or get nominated for that matter, but Peter’s film was such an epic it couldn’t go under the radar.”

An intriguing shot occurs in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was the first time Russell Boyd collaborated with Peter Weir; camera operator and future Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, with the help of a tripod, rotated the photographic device a full 360 degrees. “We started off with the girls, panned around and saw a lot of nature, and tilting up a bit to where they were continuing their journey,” fondly recalls Russell who counts the story about vanishing schoolgirls at the turn of the century in Australia as one of his proudest cinematic achievements. “Where it took thirty seconds on the screen it could have taken fifteen or twenty shots to progress that journey a little. It was a masterful way of doing it.” A more complicated scene to assemble occurs in the political thriller The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) featuring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver; the movie production crew and cast had to leave the Philippines without completing the principle photography. “The scene where the rain started was shot in a big fishing village near Manila. Then they ran to the car. Then the next scene is them sitting in the car. We had to leave Manila because there were death threats from some Muslim groups so we finished shooting it inside the car on the Northern beaches of Sydney. We just obliterated the windscreen with rain. We have to resort to all sorts of trickery at times.”

Russell Boyd Peter WeirSoon after The Year of Living Dangerously, Russell Boyd worked again with the mischievous Mel Gibson. “One practical joke I remember with Diane Keaton on Mrs. Soffel [1984]. There was a scene where she was walking through the jail… she was suppose to brush into him and fall over into his arms but what he did was to put one of those silly red plastic nose things on just before the take and it really scared her.” The cinematographer believes that there is method to the actor’s on-set antics. “Mel loves to have a joke right up until the camera starts rolling because he doesn’t seem to like to spend a lot of time thinking about his character. He likes to just jump right into it.” Teaming with Bruce Beresford, Russell had an opportunity to lens an Oscar-winning performance. “[With] Robert Duvall, particularly in Tender Mercies [1983], I used to sit there during a take and think, ‘Oh, God this guy really knows what he is doing.’ I don’t think he was all that easy to work with. I think he and Bruce had a few differences but he is a great actor.” Russell tells me, “A mark of a great actor is that they can play different roles.” There is also a career pitfall that needs to be avoided. “Some actors just take on too much work and don’t give the audience a rest from them. If I was an actor I would be very, very careful about doing that. Lets face it [however] actors need to eat as well so sometimes we all take on projects that aren’t necessarily great for our careers.”

For his cinematic body of work, which has seen him join forces with acclaimed filmmakers such as Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong, Norman Jewison, and Ron Shelton, Russell Boyd was presented with the Australian Film Institute Raymond Longford Award for significant contribution to Australian filmmaking in 1988.

Many thanks to Russell Boyd for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview and for supplying the images in the article.

Peter Weir Blogathon

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting read. Thank you

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