Achill is a short film by writer-director Rae Gallagher, a final student at the New York Film Academy, Los Angeles. She approached me with a screenplay containing a beautiful story about the meaning and importance of brotherhood. And I'm not talking military-speak, I mean real brotherhood, family.
Alas, this particular screenplay did not make it to production, due to difficulties in setting. Nonetheless, Rae was able to tear that script apart and really get to the crux of it. In a very short amount of time, she took the same story and the same engaging characters, and placed them in a different setting/period. Thus, the screenplay for "Achill" was born.
Set on the beautiful Island of Achill, Co. Mayo, this film follows two Irish brothers growing up in the midst of the Irish Civil War spanning from their childhood in the 1920's and then following them as they mature to be young men in the mid-WWII 40's. The brothers face a difficult decision whether to leave and fight for the British to support their starving family, or stay and maintain the Irish honour their father so bravely fought for.
Right from day one, Rae and I agreed, and stressed in fact (to those that opposed), the importance of this story being shot on film. We both believed that in order to capture a drama with such a gritty setting and in this specific time period; We needed that grain, that texture that emulsion offered.
The film was split into two parts. Part one we opted to shoot in 35mm. This was to depict the joy of the character childhood. It was to be saturated, with a finer grain and handheld. The handheld was to be in a playful manner, outlining the boys characteristics. Everything is fine, everything is great. I chose to shoot solely Kodak Vision3 250D (5207) for this. I could have quickly grabbed some 50d for the job, but I wanted to play it safe. Knowing shooting in Ireland, all too well; it can get dark very quickly. Especially when shooting in forests. And having that extra stop to play with can be a lifesaver. I've always preferred the look of Kodak over Fuji, there's something about its performance in under exposure that is so flexible and the image is always slightly cleaner aswell.
For part one of the film, I maintained a shooting stop of T4-5.6. I set the stop so high because I wanted to see everything! It would have been easy to fall into temptation of the beautiful shallow depth of field of 35mm. But the location played a big part of the story, and I wanted to see it! It also let us see more of the wonderful production design, by our own Penny McGovern. This also allowed me to emphasise the shallow DOF effect when I really wanted to draw the audiences attention to something in key moments.
I shot on the Arri 435. Which was not the best for sound considering it's an MOS camera. But since it was all handheld, it was the most lightweight option available to me. And I didn't fancy having a Panavision studio on my shoulder all day! Another issue with this camera, was that it shot 4-perf. Which meant more film when we were shooting for a 2-perf 2.39:1 aspect ratio. But again, it was worth it for the handheld we sought after. With it, I had a set of 35mm Zeiss Super Speed mkii's. These lenses were gorgeous to look through on set. They had the distinctive, subtly, vintage look we were going for; but still sharp. And they could open up to T1.3; although it was not used, it was reassuring. In front of the glass I had a 1/4 BPM, I love the promists, and I love how they bloom the highlights. I felt it appropriate to achieve a more dream-like look for their childhood. I also used a circular Polariser in the matte box to take reflections off the child-actors faces, achieving a softer more pleasing look.
Considering the first part of the story was set all Day Exterior, I had a reasonably easy two days shooting it. I utilized the sun for the most part, rotating the cast until I was satisfied with the key or back. I would have my gaffer Sean Donellan, erect large frames of 1/2 silk to soften the hard sunlight off faces, then fill faces with poly board, shiny pebble or sometimes a large ultra-bounce frame. Occasionally I would bring in a 2.5 HMI through a frame of diffusion for a soft key or rim light to a scene.
Now the second part.
We wanted this section of the film to stand apart in look from the previous. We wanted it grittier and noticeably more desaturated. These were harsher times for our characters, and the daydream of their childhood had withered into a troubled reality. We opted to shoot super 16mm on Kodak Vision 3. I chose two types of stock, the 7219 500t for our interiors and night exteriors. Then 7207 250d for our day exteriors. I opened my shooting stop for the super16 to T2.8. I also lost the Pola and lowered my BPM to an 1/8. I kept the same lenses, but got the 16mm set to compensate for our change in film size and field of view.
For exterior scenes, we were fairly lucky in terms of weather and cloud coverage. It was easily decidable to play the scenes for overcast. I would bring in a 2.5k or 1.2k HMI if I needed a rim for more dramatic or edgy scenes. Then by using poly I was able to bring up the level on faces. And that's pretty much it! That grey, dull look that we got from the beautiful Irish sky's is what I wanted, and it delivered.
For pinnacle scenes, that I believed required a more pleasing aesthetic, I would work closely with the 1st AD, Marcus Campbell, to schedule these to be shot in and around magic hours.
In the Interior scenes, things got a whole lot more interesting for me. This is my first period project.. So where I'm so used to utilizing practicals as sources in interiors, here, I had to be a bit more clever. An Irish home at this time would not have had electricity, so there main source of light would be firelight. This is where the look was born, out of necessity.
I illuminated scenes using tungsten balanced lamps usually sporting an extra 1/2 cto or straw on the lamp for extra warmth. I'm a big fan of using colour for contrast, so I would almost always introduce a soft daylight source from windows, which would turn up blue, posing as moonlight. Since all my lighting was constant, I would often add a flicker to room to convince the lighting that it was fire-based. My gaffer would hook up a flicker box with a redhead and bounce it off a piece of poly on the fill side. I'd make sure to flag this off the background so it didn't flatten my image.
For the most part, I would use small sources like 300w fresnals rigged neatly to the ceiling for hair lights and rims. Then practical oil lamps, that Penny thankfully provided, would influence keys on faces. All of our lighting was powered on a single 10k genie, so we would not upset the small island of Achill's power.
I would work off a J.L Fisher Dolly manned by key grip, Rob Kelly. Which made it easy for me to dolly around the room and frame up exactly the shot I wanted. For the director, it was very important that when the audience were introduced to these characters, they would stay with them hroughout the story. I made it common to shoot close ups with wider lenses and physically move the camera closer to the actor. This way of shooting makes it more personal for the viewer I believe, rather than sticking on a telephoto and shooting from a mile back. It gives a different feeling. A sense of being with the character.
One interestingly new experience for me was shooting, night for day interiors. The shot you see above with the blown out window was in fact shot in pitch black. I bounced a 2.5k HMI and a 1.2k into a white screen set outside the window, creating the daylight look, then I continued to light with warm tungsten as candlelight inside.
An important scene to mention would be a clash between the two brothers leading them to a fist fight amongst the vast open area , the boglands of Achill. Here we had a very intense scene that I wanted to emphasise. I wanted the audience to feel although there was something wrong. I wanted them to feel uncomfortably close to this action. I had my 1st AC change the shutter angle in the SRIII to 45degress. This gave the scene that sense of urgency I believe. That choppy sharpness that I personally love seeing used in film-making. Though we shot this on a cloudy day, I brought in a hard light to rim both the actors to give them that extra bit of edge. I also remember pulling an ND and stopping down to make the image sharper.
After a week of production, our loader JJ Sulivan wrapped up the cans, filled in the negs and sent them off to FotoKem Labs in LA. There, the negatives got a one light process exposed as normal and were scanned for a 2k 444 Prores. In post (ongoing in LA) we will be letterboxing for a 2.39:1 finish. The preview screen grabs you have seen in this post were captured at 720p and touched simply for contrast a and colour in photoshop.
I could go on for pages and pages all about the style of this film and how we approached it, but frankly I'm sure no one would read it! So I'll leave it there.
A few thanks I'd like to make are ofcourse to my amazing crew:
- Mike Gilbert - 1st AC
- JJ Sullivan - 2nd AC
- Sean Donnellan - Gaffer
- Oisin Gallagher - Best Boy
- Rob Kelly - Key Grip
- Donal Sheehan - Assistant Grip
- Jack O'Higgins - Stills Photographer (who I would often spot giving the sparks a hand)
Special thanks to the lads at Teach Solais, for the Lighting Package (Jason Foran you legend) and to Kev, Eva and John at Panavision Ireland for both camera packages. and all the guidance we could have hoped for
A wonderful production that I'm very glad to be a part of, and can't wait for you all to see it!
All the best,
BTS Photogrpahy by Jack O'Higgins