The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
The Water Diviner
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The Thing
ASC Close-Up
The Water Diviner

Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS, shares his account of shooting The Water Diviner for director Russell Crowe.

Photos by Mark Rogers, Ian Iveson, Meg White, Reg Garside and Ernie Clark, ACS, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, RatPac Entertainment, Seven Network Australia, Megiste Films, DC Tour, EJM Productions and Axphon.

Editor's Note: Andrew Lesnie died suddenly on April 27, not long after he asked us to share his recollection of this production with our readers. He was excited to promote The Water Diviner because of the story's universal themes and its particular relevance to his native Australia, and, as usual, he was especially keen to highlight the contributions of his crew. We decided to publish the article as planned; we do so with great respect. 

The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, tells the story of an Outback farmer, Joshua Connor, who journeys to Turkey at the end of World War I to find out what happened to his three sons, who were reported missing in action at the battle of Gallipoli four years earlier. His trip takes him from one of the youngest cultures on Earth to one of the oldest, and he arrives in Turkey to discover a densely populated country in the throes of political upheaval. The Greco-Turkish war rages across the country while the British occupy Constantinople. in the act

By the time Russell sent me the very fine script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, I had already worked with him on some music videos, and I had a lot of respect for his artistic choices. Nevertheless, The Water Diviner had a very ambitious story to tell on an indie budget, and the director would be playing the lead role. Russell wants collaborators, and I know he listens to ideas and suggestions.

We scouted Turkey six months ahead of the shoot. Production designer Chris Kennedy and I traveled early so we could go to Gallipoli. Having read a number of books about the conflict, I was truly amazed and very moved stand in that landscape and reflect on what had passed. We scouted Istanbul and traveled south. We narrowed our locations, and a broad plan to shoot in South Australia and Turkey, with studio work at Fox Studios in Sydney, was put in place.

Russell and I spent a lot of time watching movies (including Lawrence of Arabia, We of the Never Never, Patton, The Siege and The Tree of Life), checking out historical material, and studying artists such as Anne Magill, Andrew Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth and Albert Namatjira. We were quite taken with old black-and-white Turkish postcards that were hand-tinted.

At Panavision I tested Arri Alexas, Red Epics, Blackmagic cameras and Sony F65s, as well as spherical and anamorphic lenses — Panavision, Alura, Fujinon and Cooke. We screened all the tests for Russell. I was mindful of both the budget and the need for robust camera systems, as we would sometimes be in the middle of nowhere. I had no desire to tell Maximus that something wasn’t working. Russell had also made it clear he wanted to shoot fast; I think he was channeling Ridley Scott.

My mantra has always been “script and performance.” I felt the story told in The Water Diviner was strong, and had no doubt Russell would get good performances from the cast. My intention was to make the performance environment as actor-friendly as possible. This meant having gear that allowed flexibility and efficiency.

We decided on Alexa XTs, shooting ArriRaw. We also took some Red Epics with us; we used these mainly as additional cameras in action sequences and for visual-effects plates. We were renting from Panavision and got a great deal on Panavision glass. Given the need to maintain momentum on our 50-day shooting schedule, I decided to shoot with spherical lenses and go for a 2.40:1 center extraction. I’d had good experiences with the 19-90mm and 24-275mm Primo zooms, and indeed, they became our workhorse lenses. The Canon 150-600mm zoom got an Outback workout. We also carried a basic set of Primo primes.

For my key crew, I was fortunate to secure camera operator Peter McCaffrey, gaffer Reg Garside, key grip David Nichols, 1st ACs Colin Deane and Scott Dolan, and 2nd ACs Meg White and Rebecca Crowe (no relation to Russell). We were also able to bring Nick Forster aboard as our truck loader.

We did our final scout, and I formulated the general philosophy for the look of the picture. Considering that the story takes place in two different cultures over several time periods, there was plenty to work with. I decided the two cultures would define the look development, and the flashbacks to the battle at Gallipoli would get a special treatment. Australia, being a comparatively young world, would get a clean, sharp look, while Turkey would be slightly softer, with a warm, hazy feel. The Water Diviner is the story of a man whose narrow worldview is expanded considerably.

I decided to grain up the Gallipoli flashbacks in the DI to help separate them from the rest of the story. The effect is fairly subtle, but it does make the violence more aggressive. (The 2K digital grade was handled by colorist Peter Doyle at Definition Films.)

We started at Fox Studios with interior sets. The largest was the two-story Constantinople hotel where Connor stays while he’s searching for information about his sons. We pre-lit the set and shot makeup and wardrobe tests there, and I used these tests to fine-tune the LUT.

Russell wanted to shoot each scene in its entirety, capturing as many angles as possible simultaneously. This presents certain difficulties for the cinematographer, especially one who likes to think every frame’s a Rembrandt. However, I fully appreciated that it would help the actors, and I supported the idea. Also, I’ve been shooting multiple cameras on various projects for years, so I have a fair amount of experience shooting “theater in the round,” which ultimately gives the actors the opportunity to develop a real rhythm and interaction. Russell might have been channeling Ridley Scott, but I was channeling Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, specifically his multi-camera films for Robert Altman.

It was great watching Russell direct. He elicited some excellent performances from the cast, and I particularly enjoyed filming him. His acting is subtle, and he’s very aware of technical considerations. He had no trouble swapping his actor and director hats. He also assembled a fantastic group of co-stars, including Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Isabel Lucas, Jacqueline McKenzie, Ryan Corr, Robert Mammone, Megan Gale, Dan Wyllie, Steve Bastoni and Damon Herriman.

Reg and I pre-lit the studios with a mainly tungsten package, which was the most cost efficient. We had day and night scenes and interior and exterior sets, and the lighting was designed to allow actors to move through the hotel kitchen straight into an open sunlit courtyard, or up the main staircase and along a corridor straight onto a balcony overlooking the street. Actors could also walk in from the front patio, through the expansive lobby and into a large dining salon. Russell and I designed some interesting choreography that made the most of these options.

It’s great to get the basic lighting in place before the actors’ block-through; this way the story is worked out with the fundamental elements of the environment in place. I definitely believe it influences the outcome, and it also gives me an immediate feel for the scene. An actor might gravitate to a dark corner of the set, reflecting an internal thought. That gives me something to work with — how much or little we should see, how much privacy to afford that moment.

It also means we’re trimming towards a rehearsal or take rather than starting from scratch. It doesn’t always work out. Some situations call for one camera, and that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes an unexpected change in the approach, choreography or philosophy of a scene necessitates a change in the lighting. Most of the time it works out well.


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