Sydney Film School Director of Education Kathryn Milliss’ film industry roles have been many and varied, having moved up the ranks from being a clapper loader to where she stands now as a Director of Photography. At the start of the current semester, she spoke to SFS students about her career.
Kathryn Milliss grew up in a time of great optimism in the Australian film industry, with films such as My Brilliant Career, The Cars That Ate Paris and Mad Max finding much success and influence both here and internationally. When she started out, there weren’t as many film options open. After getting a BA with a major in drama, Kathryn went to the Swinburne Film and Television School at 23, where she wrote directed and edited films as well as lighting many of her classmate’s films.
“The means of production were different back in the day – less guided than SFS,” says Kathryn, of the uncertain nature of a blossoming industry. It was “great fun,” and she particularly enjoyed the “cowboy” feeling of the endeavour. As her class of 16 was cut down to 9, Kathryn became more and more involved in the world of cinematography.
“After leaving Swinburne, I got into cinematography as a way of getting closer to where the director is,” she explains, to watch other directors at work. “I planned to do it for a couple of years and go back to directing, but fell in love with cinematography.”
Kathryn would describe her entry into the industry as coming via a “serendipitous route”. A chance introduction to Geoff Burton, DOP on, amongst other projects, Sunday Too Far Away and Sirens, led to her first break, which “set me up for the rest of my career.”
Kathryn quickly learned that film school work gives you the opportunity to experiment but, once you enter the world of feature film sets, you have to acclimatise. When I first put foot on a professional set I though, “I know nothing but then you learn the on set protocols and find the framework to drop your film school knowledge into”. Ultimately her school experiments were precisely what allowed her to move from camera assistant to start shooting films sooner.
Kathryn started out working on large films as a clapper loader and then focus puller whilst shooting smaller grant films with her peers.
Focus pulling was more difficult in the era of film because there were no monitors on set, and you would only know if the focus was correct once the rushes came out. As such, Kathryn spent a lot of time practicing focus. Kathryn moved up again to camera operator on Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling’s The Sum of Us (1994).
Kathryn added to her income by buying and renting out a camera truck & gear on shoots “Cameras change, but grip and lighting gear stays the same.” This is a model that can still be followed for those who don’t necessarily want to go through professional rental outfits.
Kathryn’s first major talking point was Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997), which was shot on super 16mm film instead of 35mm and which suffered as a result. She described shooting the reception hall scenes day for night, designing perspex ND plates customized for the large windows at Strickland House to bring down the day time views out the window so that they would photograph like dusk and then night, “We had 360 degree shots in the wedding reception so I had put space lights rigged in the ceiling so that we could shoot fast for the fortnight we were there.” In contrast John Duigan’s Careless Love (2012), which had a fraction of the budget but a RED camera – the same used for The Social Network – allowed her to light with much smaller lighting units and with a better result.
RED cameras are impressive, she says, but 4K isn’t actually a game changer for cinema because it’s a similar resolution to 35mm film. The one thing that it does change is production design, especially on Australian TV where traditionally shows were shot on Super 16, as more detail will show up on screen and certain elements are harder to fudge as a result. A cinematographer’s constant battle is with the light, she explains, and there are tricks that can be learned, from the simple – like paying attention to the specific time of day that you need to shoot in – to the more complex, like tinting windows or deliberately underexposing areas of a shot to create the illusion of dusk.
When asked if she ever gets discouraged, Kathryn assured the students that she has never given up because the work has always flowed, never stopped, and has always been engaging.
It was easy to fall in love with film making because while there is an attractive physicality to it, always running from place to place to set up shots and scenes, intellect is always utilised: considering composition: lighting, framing and aspect in the service of the story. One of the enticements of film making, Kathryn says, is the satisfaction of having made something, be it the rushes at the end of the day, or the finished film.
When pressed for anecdotes about bad experiences on sets, Kathryn said that “I like to be positive.” The more experience you get as a DOP, the more knowledge you have of alternatives and other solutions, she says, so that individual problems become less so. Kathryn can’t emphasise enough the importance of teamwork, with everyone knowing their place and helping each other out. “Good bedside manner” is an important part of the DOP’s role.
Possibly the most amusing anecdote that Kathryn imparted was that of her experience on Duigan’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1993), which had an American-Australian crew and was shot in Jamaica. “I was worried about doing 14 hour days as a standard seeing as a ten to eleven hour days lugging gear and assisting on an Australian film would often have me falling asleep in my dinner.” American films have a lot more assistants (“the assistants have assistants”, so the joke goes), and so you have to put in a lot less physical effort than on an Australian set. “I was focus puller and I didn’t have to lift a camera”.
Kathryn also faced the inevitable question of what she thought laid in store for the future of the industry, particularly in regards to piracy.
Kathryn says “the industry is going in lots of different directions”, and when many students raised their hands to the question “who here has torrented a feature film?”, she said “it’s so easy, why wouldn’t you?”
She said that you have to consider the impact on film revenue and the flow on of that for jobs. The medical insurance provided by the Director’s Guild of America is funded by DVD sales, and so the rise of piracy has negatively impacted that, and there are huge organisations trying to solve the problem. At the same time the amount of content required by the market is growing. She gave the example of people staying afloat because small companies need to make films for “particular purposes”, such as internal corporate videos or web promotional content.
There’s a double-edge to the impression that “any high school student who has a phone and a laptop can make a movie”:“It’s like having an Olympic pool in every suburb. You find more Olympic swimmers from the increased number of contenders. Likewise the talent pool of filmmakers must increase with the increased availability of accessible tools.”
Other advice that Kathryn offered for all cinematographers was practical and community oriented: join the Australian Cinematographers Society and AACTA, and get into industry bodies as students, to take advantage of their info nights and the networking opportunities they provide. Overall, Kathryn is optimistic and promotes the idea that the sense of community that film engenders is, indeed, special.
She hopes, in future, to make a 3D film; 3D allows “a sense of scale and grandeur”, but also with meaning and purpose. “A beautiful image is a postcard unless it’s married to a narrative.”