An Interview with Toby Oliver
Toby Oliver is an award-winning cinematographer. Having worked extensively in documentary, horror and a wide range of genres, Toby’s credits include, Get Out, Dead to Me, Beneath Hill 60, Happy Death Day, Waiting Alone, Roller Dreams, and The Dirt. I spoke with Toby about his approach to shooting Beneath Hill 60, his experiences on Get Out, and how he captured the sunken place scene.
Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?
No, not cinematography exactly - I became interested in filmmaking when I was at high school (in Melbourne, Australia); I had an inspirational teacher in the class of ‘Media Studies’ and made a few short films on Super 8mm and early VHS video at school. I then was encouraged to apply for film school at Swinburne (one of just two recognized film schools in Australia at the time) and got in to their undergrad course in 1986. Swinburne was primarily a writer-director course so I made three main short films, but I did also shoot as DP a few other students movies. In fact the course was structured so all students had some experience in all crew roles on each other’s shoots. But after I graduated I realized my main interest was actually in the camera and the visuals so I pursued a long path to becoming a cinematographer. I continued to shoot many short films after I left film school, and I also got a job for a few years at a major rental house (in Melbourne) to earn a living and learn about equipment and techniques in the real industry. In 1993 I had the luck to shoot my first feature film, a super low budget indie production made by my film school classmate Alkinos Tsilimidos called ‘Everynight, Everynight’. It went to Venice Film Festival and was a minor success on the festival circuit in 1994. I then had to wait however, until 1998 to shoot my second film, ‘Fresh Air.’
Are there any particular films, or cinematographers who have really inspired your work?
Well, there are so many - I have always found Roger Deakins work inspirational, also Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis and Seamus McGarvey to name a few; classics like Blade Runner, Alien, 2001, The Shining… then Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, and more recently Roma, Mr Turner, Mad Max Fury Road, Birdman, Under the Skin, Nocturnal Animals, Dunkirk, Carol, Moonlight, Ladybird, and many more inspirational movies.
Beneath Hill 60 was a brilliantly executed film about The Great War. We don’t usually see it from the perspective of Australian soldiers, so that was really fascinating. Can you tell me more about your approach to shooting the film, and how you prepared?
Thank you - Beneath Hill 60 was a big project for me - there was a long pre production period, where I worked closely with production designer Clayton Jauncey and relied on painstaking research to make the movie as authentic as possible to the times and extreme conditions these soldiers were put through. It was a difficult shoot, working in trenches and mud and dust much like the actual soldiers did; the narrow tunnels were mostly sets created on stage but we had a rule where the camera could not really exist or shoot from outside the walls, so the sense of claustrophobia was as realistic as possible, the camera was constrained just as much as the actors were. The men in the tunnels in 1915 lived and fought by largely by candlelight, so I filmed with real candles as sources combined with very small hidden lights and bulbs to lift the exposure enough for film. We also shot handheld and on 35mm film for the added texture, but we did have a lot of problems with dirt and scratches on the film negative.
You worked as cinematographer on Get Out. Can you tell me more about this experience, and how the opportunity came about?
I was sent a copy of the script which Jordan Peele had spent several years developing, and I was immediately impressed. It was a well worked-through script, he clearly put a lot of time into it, he knew what he wanted to say, so that was really appealing. So my name was put forward as a possibility by Blumhouse Productions, and a meeting was arranged. We hit it off in our first conversation, just on the phone, and I had a few ideas about how to visually approach the film and those seemed to agree with what he was wanting to do as well, so that was really a great start. After discussions with Jordan in prep, we decided on a fairly naturalistic look and feel, especially for the opening and middle parts of the film. It was very important that our main characters’ (Chris’) world was really grounded in a normal reality to accentuate the contrast to the weirdness he encounters at the Armitage estate and the extreme situation of his capture and escape leading to the finale, where the imagery becomes more stylized and perhaps more in keeping with expectations of the horror genre. So there is a somewhat muted but natural cool color and light when we introduce Chris and Rose at his apartment in the city which then leans into warmer tones upon arriving at her parents estate. The warmth in the imagery at the estate was intended as a bit of a visual false security in a way, her parents seem very warm and welcoming with the light and tone backing that up but of course there is something very strange under the surface. I also played with color in the night scenes both inside and outside the house, using some special lighting gels and camera settings to bring a range of cyan, greenish and aqua tones into the ‘moonlight’ and ambiance rather than a straight up ‘blue’ vs ‘warm’ feel.
Jordan wanted to be super prepared, so once we had access to our main house location in prep, he asked me to shoot a ‘photo storyboard’ of all the scenes that took place at the Armitage Estate – most of the movie – in situ with Jordan himself and the other producers Bea, Sean, Gerard and Chris ‘acting out’ the scenes in lieu of the real actors who were not on location yet. Working through the whole script making these detailed photo boards was very helpful in establishing initial camera positions and actors blocking, especially considering our time on set on the day to figure all this out would be limited. That said, of course the script might change, ideas can change, actors bring other ideas for a scene to the table and sometimes the original storyboards are ignored for something new. However, with Get Out it is interesting to see how many of the sequences stick pretty close to the shots envisaged in the original storyboards. Good planning is everything, and I always ask for the maximum prep time for the DP that the production can cope with, and then make the most out of that prep time.
The sunken place scene particularly stood out for me. Can you talk me through how this scene was shot?
Conceptually, one of the bigger challenges was The Sunken Place, where Chris’ hypnotized conscious gets sent. One big inspiration was a netherworld sequence from Jonathan Glazer’s surreal sci-fi Under the Skin, which served as a sort of starting point. As scripted, Jordan Peele wanted a vaguely underwater feel, without Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) actually appearing to be underwater. As such, I utilized elements of the technique known as dry for wet. We shot it in slow motion at 200fps, and had Daniel hanging off a wire, and used the camera moving around him to create the sense that he was falling through this vast space, with the help of a little bit of digital effects, like the floating particles and so on.
Which camera did you use to shoot the film, and do you have a preferred camera/kit?
I shot Get Out on the Arri Alexa Mini, and much of my recent work since 2011 has been on the Alexa which is a wonderful camera; that said in the last year or so the Sony Venice has proven to be a compelling alternative choice, especially if required to shoot native 4K resolution for Netflix and also a number of other distributors that are now mandating 4K acquisition. For movies today really it is a choice between ARRI, Red, or Sony, they are all great cameras and as DP’s we are spoilt for choice and incredible quality these days with cameras, and also lighting like LED’s, and support equipment like wireless HD video, stabilized remote heads, gimbals and drones are amazing tools.
Can you think of a shot throughout your career that you are particularly proud of?
Camera-wise I am always interested in finding frames that visually add to the story and tone, either in the detail, composition or on a subconscious level. I love to create depth in a frame, and discover where there can be another layer of storytelling happening in the background as well as the focus in the foreground. I do like the shot in Beneath Hill 60 early on where Woodward first meets the other tunnelers in his new unit in the bunker then exits up the tunnel to the open trench beyond, into bright daylight and shellfire… this was one handheld shot with a massive iris (exposure) pull as we leave the candlelit bunker up to bright daylight outside. This shot was the only one in the movie that joined the two worlds the men passed through - the above ground carnage and below ground silence and fear.