Meet the Filmmaker: Russell Boyd

Apparently, it’s not easy to get an Academy Award through customs at LAX without attracting attention. So Australian journeyman cinematographer, Russell Boyd told our captive group of students at this week’s Meet the Filmmaker session. Having won his golden statue for his work on Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, Boyd was inundated with photo requests his whole trip home.

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Above: A still from “Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World”

Boyd’s body of work is astounding; so much so, in fact, that it’s impossible to succinctly identify all of his best work.  From iconic Australian films like “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “Crocodile Dundee” (both I & II) and “Gallipoli”, to Hollywood productions like “White Man Can’t Jump”, “Tin Cup”, “Ghost Rider” and “Liar, Liar”. More recently, he teamed up with his old collaborator Peter Weir to shoot “The Way Back”.

It’s a career that’s spanned five decades; an accomplishment in itself that the most ambitious among us would barely dare to dream of emulating. It speaks not only to Boyd’s talent that he claimed such a milestone, but also – perhaps even more so – to his easy going nature and fascination with digital technology.

It’s a common thread early in this year’s “Meet the Filmmaker” sessions –temperament counts, as does a willingness to learn and grow. Boyd shot to prominence shooting films during the Australian film industry’s “renaissance period” of the early 70’s, but, by his own admission, he’s now fallen in love with the whole digital process.

Above: Russel Boyd with John Seal, working on “The Last Wave” (1977)

One of the main topics of the session was the ability to alter the work of the cinematographer in post-production. Asked about the current trend of lighting a film as flat as possible and adding greater latitude to the frame in post-production, Boyd said he still prefers to shoot a film the way he wants it to look on the screen and that, as a cinematographer, he finds it “unsatisfying” to shoot any other way.

Boyd’s great passion is lighting. He was told once by a director to “use the frame to tell the story”. His advice to cinematography students to achieve this went as follows:

  • Always watch rehearsals.
  • Be aware of where the scene sits in the greater story.
  • Discuss the mood with the director (as certain directors work differently, occasionally a cinematographer with have to decide on a mood for themselves).
  • Create the desired mood with your lighting choices.

The two enemies of filmmakers, Boyd says, are money and time. This is particularly prudent advice for aspiring cinematographers in Australia. The harsh Australian sun makes balancing contrasting shadows problematic for day exteriors, and the Australian film industry is hardly flush with investors offering money to solve such difficulties. As such, Boyd believes that Australian cinematographers must be extremely resourceful.

It is precisely this resourcefulness, however, that Boyd says makes Australian cinematographers so attractive to filmmakers worldwide. A cameraman who is able to accomplish more with less is a producer’s dream in any language.

It seemed the biggest message of the session was the importance of being fluid in your stylistic approach. There are no rules for “how a film should be shot” – it’s different every time and should serve the story of the film.

Two anecdotes come to mind that displayed this philosophy well. On Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, the picnic scene was shot over five days; shooting only one hour per day. The reason? The light was just right for an hour before lunchtime. Rather than scheduling the shoot for one day, Boyd pushed for a different approach. The result is a beautifully cinematic scene in a typically Australian setting. As Boyd says “I wanted to make it look like a painting”.

Conversely, Boyd had to shoot a day-for-night scene (underexposing a scene shot during the day to make it look like night) in “Gallipoli”, where the position of the sun meant limiting the coverage so as not to fall into a lighting continuity trap.

You have to know when to give, and know when to take and most of the time; it’s a matter of instinct.

At times in the session, there were words of advice for working with actors. Boyd says they must be afforded utmost respect as they have the most difficult job in film. Boyd also stressed the importance of collaboration with the art department and he even had words of advice for our part one students who will be shooting their major dramas on 16mm black and white film (back-light the actors in order to separate them from their background).

Afterwards, Boyd hung around to enjoy some wine and nibblies with our advanced diploma students, who asked as many questions as they could fit in. In characteristic fashion, Boyd imparted as much wisdom as he could and had nothing but encouragement for all of the students.

There was a buzz about the school with Russell around. His body of work speaks for itself and he’s a lovely guy to boot. He sympathized with the difficulties our students face in breaking into the industry but appeared impressed at the pathways Sydney Film School now offers the students. This was no day to be downcast though; after all, it’s not every day you get to hang out with an Oscar winning cinematographer.

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TOM EARLS for Sydney Film School

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