Cinematographer Robert Humphreys ACS on new TV drama The Strange Calls

04 September, 2012 by Robert Humphreys ACS

This article, written by respected cinematographer Robert Humphreys ACS, originally appeared at the Australian Cinematographers Society website. For more information about the show, visit The Strange Calls.  

The Strange Calls is a six-part TV drama series written and directed by Daley Pearson and produced by Tracey Robertson and co-produced by Leigh McGrath for Hoodlum and the ABC.


Bumbling city cop Toby Banks (Toby Truslove) is demoted to night duty in the sleepy beachside village of Coolum. Working out of a run-down caravan on the outskirts of town, he meets Gregor (Barry Crocker), town cleaner, board game collector and paranormal authority. They team up to investigate The Strange Calls – bizarre late-night phone calls that expose the paranormal mysteries haunting the sleepy town. A place where men turn into chickens, mermaids fall in love with locals and cats return from the grave.

We shot The Strange Calls using a single ARRI ALEXA camera from Cameraquip. Primarily just two lens were used – the light weight Optimo Zooms 15-40mm and 28-76mm. Our camera package and crew were kept as small as practical. The large bulk of the shooting was serviced by two grips (Sean Aston and Damien Kwockson) and two electrics (Glen Jones and Chris Walsingham).

The lean camera crew was headed up by 1st AC Matt Floyd assisted by Luke Jeffery and Dan Shelton. There were a few times when a larger crew was required (night exteriors) but generally it was a pretty lean streamlined team.

Second unit footage was shot by Ben Zaugg and Luke Jeffery and consisted mainly of atmospheric time lapse establishers of mount Coolum and CU insert shots. This footage, shot with a Canon 5D, cut seamlessly with the main unit ALEXA footage. The schedule was tight – a four-week shoot to capture the 6 x 30min episodes. A very steep learning curve for our young, keen and talented first time director Daley Pearson.

It certainly helped that all the key camera crew, grips and electrics had worked together on numerous productions before. Daley did a wonderful job keeping us all enthused and excited about the project. This enthusiasm was infectious. It certainly helped that the script was very funny and the cast were a delight to work with.

I would describe the visual style of The Strange Calls as traditional or classic filmmaking. We drew heavily on the 80s era masterpieces such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure.

There was no hand-held shooting. The camera generally remained mounted on a dolly, slider or tripod. With simple elegant coverage being the order of the day. We stayed well clear of the now conventional modern Australian style of quick jump-cutting with multiple cameras and long lens. For Daley and myself, the overriding mantra was to capture the wonderful comic performances of our cast and to tell their stories in a simple and straight forward manner. The camera and lighting style was very understated and naturalistic. Yet The Strange Calls retains a strong sense of style through the careful choice of lens, camera placementand movement, colour, depth of field and source lighting.

We used lots of wide shots and at the same time minimised the use of singles and close ups. Scenes often played out as looser two-shots. The wider lens allowed Coolum to feature strongly as an additional character in the story. I tried to avoid any excessively long or wide lens. Generally staying in the 25mm – 75mm range, with the 32mm being the most commonly used focal length. CUs were always shot by moving the camera closer and using a 50mm lens. This gave The Strange Calls a feature film sensibility, not the usual TV practice of simply zooming in from the same camera position. It did however restrict us to an average of 30 set ups per day. Quite a challenge.

The bulk of The Strange Calls takes place in two sets designed and built by production designer Matt Putland in a disused fish co-op in Sandgate. Various streets and houses around Brisbane's northern bayside suburbs filled in for Coolum. Coolum itself mainly provided the seaside vistas and the ominous mystical presence of Mount Coolum itself.

Matt built two matching caravan interiors, one in the studio and one in an exterior caravan set. This allowed us to make the most of the natural shoot-off through the caravan windows. The dual sets also allowed the cast to enter and exit the caravan in shot, instead of having to cut between exterior and interior sets as in traditional TV productions. He also built a police station interior in the co-op's disused offices.

The sets were lit naturalistically with built in practical lamps and sunshine directed through the strategically placed windows and sky lights. The caravan was always a place of warmth and refuge. Very homely. The tones were kept golden and warm. This also help give the film a sense of gentle nostalgia. I returned to my favorite soft/FX filters from the early-90s to help smooth out the actor's skin and again aid our slightly understated nostalgic feel.

Night exteriors were pure ET – moonlit forests complete with ominous smoke. Glen's workhorse light source was a set of LED panels. Great for subtle fill light. Easy to conceal and dim-able with adjustable colour temperature control. A great addition to the modern lighting package. In general we made as much use as possible of the ALEXA's incredible sensitivity and dynamic range and tried to use as much natural and available light as practical. Often the only artificial light was a LED panel to add some fill light in the actor's eyes and small HMI or tungsten sources placed in the deep background.

I've found over the last few long form dramas I've shot with the ALEXA that it reacts very well to the use of smoke. We used smoke quite extensively in The Strange Calls which aided the slightly retro look of film and placed it squarely within our visual reference point of classics such as ET and Close Encounters. Powerful grading tools like Cutting Edge's Baselight are superb at evening out mismatched smoke levels (inevitable when using smoke at night).

The final grade was done by Justin McDonald at Cutting Edge. I like to achieve as much as possible in-camera and don't tend to change much in the colour correction. The process is very much one of balancing up shots within the scenes and allow the edit to run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. I use the colour temperature controls in-camera to warm and cool scenes and correct the excessive green or magenta bias in the images common with most digital cameras. The grade then becomes mainly an exercise in contrast control and detail enhancement.

I generally like to give the colourist a few days on their own to set the black levels (contrast) and high lights before I make an appearance. This process allows me to be a little more creative with fresh eyes and a cinematographer's perspective. The grade is a very important time for me creatively and I always insist on being present.

So far, of the 15 features films and TV shows I've shot, I've never missed a grade. I also use the grade as an opportunity to fine tune compositions and reframe shots. Justine and I also made extensive use of subtle vignettes to draw the viewer's eye to what we considered important at that stage of the story. I'm looking forward to the introduction of ARRI's new ALEXA PLUS 4:3 camera with its extra area at the top and bottom of frame to play with, and extra detail of the ARRI RAW format. I also hope it sees a return to more wide screen anamorphic productions.

The Strange Calls is a tightly-crafted comedy with a strong visual nod to the classics of the 80s. A little Close Encounters and a lot of The X-Files. It was an absolute pleasure to photograph. Enjoy.