In “Australia,” director Baz Luhrmann pays homage to his homeland in a sweeping period saga that’s also a throwback to the spectacles Hollywood used to make but rarely does anymore. “We referenced back to movies like ‘Giant’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’ but used a more modern approach to make the film look more naturalistic,” says d.p. Mandy Walker.
On the surface, the film is an epic romantic adventure, but the subtext involves “the stolen generations,” Aboriginal children taken from their families and raised in white society. Pic spans the late 1930s and into the first days of WWII, and stars Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and 11-year-old Brandon Walters, who plays a mixed-race Aborigine named Nullah.
Walker’s involvement from start to finish spanned 2½ years. Filming itself lasted five months. Some 2.7 million feet of film was shot, from visuals of remote locations to scenes shot on Sydney soundstges. Panoramas of Australia’s austere but beautiful outback punctuate the start of the film. The images were by and large captured by the DP at “magic hour,” the end of the day “when the light is at its most beautiful and the sun is setting or has just set,” she explains.
The major set piece is the cattle drive and stampede through the Kuraman desert, or the “Great Never, Never,” on the way to Darwin on Australia’s north shore. Walker supervised a second unit that shot the rampage. Up to six cameras were employed, including one tracking from overhead on a 2,000 foot cable that’s capable of getting very close to the action.
“We were out in the desert in the middle of nowhere for several weeks and had to bring in our whole infrastructure,” says Walker of the shoot’s arduous physical demands. Trucks from Sydney traveled six days to haul in the needed equipment. The cast and crew were put up in 250 tents.
By contrast, photography on the soundstages often took place on minimal sets augmented by CGI. Romance first flares between Kidman and Jackman at a nighttime campfire set against a star-filled deep blue sky. It was shot against blue screen with only two rocks and a tree on the set.
One of the climactic scenes involves a squadron of Japanese planes bombing Darwin and an offshore island during World War II. The planes were part CGI and also footage from “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a film about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which was restored and incorporated.
The escape by Nullah and other children from the island took intricate coordination. “This was one of our biggest lighting setups,” notes Walker. Lights were hung from a half dozen cranes, and little fire lamps were hidden on the beach. “When you see the kids all running into the water that was done on location,” says the DP. “But close-up shots were done in a tank in the studio.”
The digital intermediate (DI) process in post-production took five weeks, with many days lasting into the wee hours. Required was the subtle integration of filmed scenes, along with some 1,200 CGI shots. “Luckily, the person who did the DI came from a film grading background, so I trusted him not to go too far,” says Walker. “DI’s can do a lot, but they also can look too electronic.”
If Walker gets nominated for an Oscar for cinematography, she would be the first woman to achieve that honor.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Secret weapon: Occasional use of old fashioned Panavision lenses which would add flare and bloom
Aesthetic: A modern version of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic.