Focus on Australian Revelations: Director Dean Butler discusses Absolution (Exclusive)

 

A pivotal moment in Absolution

A pivotal moment in Absolution.

On his first visit to the local Laundromat, a man has a fateful chance encounter with his wife, five years after she walked out. A powerful two hander about guilt, regrets and maybe even a chance at forgiveness.

Absolution: by Dean Butler (director).

Instead of giving a general overview of Absolution’s production I thought I’d just touch on how I prepared for filming and some of the lessons I’ve taken out of the experience.

100mm lens F2 tricky focus pull

100mm lens F2 tricky focus pull.

From the onset I didn’t want to be guilty of ‘just getting the coverage’ and making the actors do all the work. I wanted every shot to be crafted with purpose. I set about studying a lot of cinematography books and reading blog after blog from various cinematographers and directors. I picked up Mastershots volumes I – III written by writer/director Christopher Kenworthy and found myself unable to put them down.

Mastershots deconstructs how and why various camera angles, movements and lens choices have the effect they do and the psychology at play. Great stuff. I think the art of shot selection is a bit like learning guitar. You usually start off learning other peoples songs before writing your own, but the techniques you learnt from learning other songs allow you to write and play your own.

Actor Dalip Sondhi

Actor Dalip Sondhi.

Reading and watching whatever I could about cinematography oriented me towards thinking about shots and encouraged me to be ambitious in my choices.

In the past I’ve visualised shots whilst I was storyboarding which I think encouraged a very formulaic approach. What I’ve discovered works best for me is to keep the processes of visualising and storyboarding separate. Imagine and visualise first, then storyboard. That way my focus is firstly only on the sequences themselves, not struggling to draw them and potentially losing the flow of the scene in my head. Then when I’m storyboarding I’m not imagining the shots for the first time and my focus is just on drawing as well as I can.

Dalip and crew get ready

Dalip and crew get ready.

 

To storyboard Absolution I sat down with the script a few times and listened to the same song over and over. I’d close my eyes and try to see the scene in my head and look at it in different ways.

I kept visualising the scene whilst reading the script bit by bit, then without reading it going off memory. I scribbled all over the script until it was coated in shot notes and choices. When I was done, which surprisingly only took a day or two, I’d basically shot the film in my head and recorded it in (an albeit messy) written form. I just had to translate it to storyboards for everyone else.

Actor Gemma Cavoli.

Actor Gemma Cavoli.

For me a big challenge is keeping a consistent of quality throughout sequences. Often films made by aspiring filmmakers have some nice shots, then a kind of not so great one and it wrecks the flow of the film, something I really didn’t want.

Ninety percent of Absolution takes place in one location in real time. I found myself wondering if it would be best to shoot the main scene with as little angles as possible, allowing the actors to totally concentrate on their performance with less starts, stops and repeats that inevitably come with a higher shot count and more complex camera moves and focus pulls.

Dean and Shaylan discuss the scene.

Dean and Shaylan discuss the scene.

Or Alternatively, not worry about the actors – perhaps believing in them more – and freely plan the shots to support and emphasize the performance and story to the best of my ability, rather than just being a well composed shot on a long lens where we can see the actors face clearly.

I ended up going with the latter, and feel it was the way to go, but I still wonder how the film would have turned out had I taken the other approach.

Dalip Sondhi in full combat gear.

Dalip Sondhi in full combat gear.

When it came to the actual production I had discussed the shots so much with DOP Shane Piggott that I’d give some direction and clarification – lower, higher, tighter, slower push in etc, but for the most part didn’t even touch the camera. That was Shane’s domain and he did a wonderful job with his small team.

This enabled myself and the cast –  Dalip, Gemma, Jess, Shaylan and Melody to chat quite intimately and undisturbed whilst the crew prepared each setup.

Dean Butler, Stephen Burge, Dalip Sondhi and Melody Rom on location.

Dean Butler, Stephen Burge, Dalip Sondhi and Melody Rom on location.

I’ve learnt that sometimes what you think is the best take at the time, isn’t. In post production I was amazed watching the actors how subtle shifts would change the whole feel of a scene. I had quite a selection of subtly different takes, some of which I asked for – others which I didn’t even realise the actors had freely given until I reviewed the footage.

So my little piece of advice I would give other aspiring directors is to ask for different deliveries – harsher, warmer, snappier, angry, softer, faster etc. Give yourself options within the time restrictions you have unless you are 100% sure of what you want, but that doesn’t account for the fact that what you think you want at the time may not be what you wish you had later for any number of reasons.

Dalip Sondhi is surprised.

Dalip Sondhi is surprised.

It’s a tricky balance between ambition and knowing your limits. There were a few times throughout the production where things took much longer than scheduled. This was almost always due to ambitious camera moves with focus pulls on fast apertures compounded by the limitations of our equipment (jib, dolly, stills lenses) and our own ability to actually capture the shots.

I think it’s important to aim high, but also know what you can and cannot do. We put Dalip through 16 takes of just getting out of a car and walking and we had to cut the second half of the shot out of the film because we just didn’t nail it. What we got ended up working but I had to use it differently (than intended) making an early cut to another shot.

DOP Shane Piggott with Camera Asst Robert Faulkner.

DOP Shane Piggott with Camera Asst Robert Faulkner.

At the end of the day, despite a lot of things I feel I could do better now, I’m proud of the film we made. We premiered in Canada at the Vancouver International Film Festival and will have our US premiere in at the Pasadena International Film Festival in February. Absolution will have its first Australian screening on January 27 at Australian Revelations showing of The Babadook at Backlot Studios cinema in Perth.

I’m so grateful to have had a team of people (cast and crew) take a chance on the script, on me and give their time, energy and talent to this little film. If I could dedicate the film to anyone, it’s to them.

Melody Rom and Stephen Burge 42 degrees

Melody Rom and Stephen Burge 42 degrees.

Absolution will screen at Australian Revelations alongside The Babadook, January 27 at The Backlot, Perth. Tickets available here.

Melody Rom looking worse for wear.

Melody Rom looking worse for wear.

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