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Dr Blake … and cinematography as a screen character

Surf, sand and unthreatening bush? Not here, thanks. ABC

Most Australian TV drama series are full of light … and full of surf, sand and suburbs or endless horizons and unthreatening bush.

But one series that returned to ABC TV last month has a distinctive and darker look. The Dr Blake Mysteries portrays a 1950s Australia in sombre tones, many shades of browns and greys. No shafts of warming sunlight or endless blue skies.

The look, established by cinematographer Louis Irving in the first series, darkly reflects the psychological ecology of the main character, Lucien Blake. Speaking to me about his creative role, Irving said his job is to:

create an atmosphere when viewing the show that is sympathetic with the story line and can enhance the story line.

The use of cinematography as a contribution to character is something commonly found in cinema, not television, for a variety of reasons. Cinema is shot methodically, scene by scene, setup by setup, shot by shot, sometimes an entire day’s work contributing less than a minute of screen time. For every shot, the lighting can be optimised. The final result can demonstrate a use of light as intensely emotive as Caravaggio achieved in his paintings.

In contrast, studio dramas and sitcoms of the 1950s and ‘60s were shot on film using multiple cameras, especially in the USA. Thus the set had to be lit to be photographed from several angles simultaneously. This required uniform or “flat” lighting.

When video recording displaced cine-film, the practice continued for exactly the same reason. A skilled studio crew and experienced actors could easily record five half-hour shows in a day. In the days before efficient video tape editing, the complete program, from opening credit to final fade, was done in one take. It was a high-adrenalin work experienced today only in live outside broadcasts and studio programs such as Q&A or the Logies.

The same pressure was on productions shot largely on location, like many of Crawford Production’s later police procedurals. Indeed Crawford’s crews were very competitive, one crew shot a special episode of Division 4 on location in Tasmania in five days, averaging 15 minutes of screen-time a day.

For a long time then, production efficiency counted for more than giving a program a distinctive visual signature.

The Dr Blake Mysteries. ABC
Dr Blake, played by Craig McLachlan. ABC

Changing production technologies, especially lightweight and sensitive video cameras and the pursuit of a “point of differentiation” (as the marketers would put it) for an individual production, has allowed more distinctive cinematography into television production.

The Killing. SBS

Most distinctive is what might be called North Europe Noir – Wallander, The Bridge and Forbrydelsen (The Killing) etc. In these, the look is as powerful an influence on the way an audience responds to the narrative as the spoken word or the on-screen action.

Indeed the US remake of The Killing went to lengths to reproduce the look of the original. In Australia, the US remake aired on commercial TV and overlapped with the original on SBS. TV buffs could watch both and have trouble telling them apart.

A coincidence of script and weather conditions helped cinematographer Irving establish the look of the Dr Blake series. In episode one, a body is found in a lake. The images are straight out of a Bergman film. Louis Irving explained to me:

Unfortunately I can’t take much of the credit. Lake Wendouree – it was the coldest day of my working career I might add – It was absolutely freezing and a light drizzle came down as well … but visually it was absolutely stunning. A light mist hung in the air, the light was very flat and cold, which suited the scene beautifully. All I had to do was press the record button.

Irving sells himself short but will take credit for the other half of the look.

I will take some credit for the framing because that’s where your options are limitless … with the wonderful shapes in the frame, the living and dead trees, the distant horizon of the lake (there was the opportunity) to frame it in a certain way… that allowed for a lot of headroom to see the branches of the trees and that very gloomy sky on the day.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. ABC

The Dr Blake Mysteries is not the only contemporary Australian TV series with a look. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has a bright, primary colouration, well suited to the over-the-top stories and the UST (unresolved sexual tension) that lurks behind every conversation except, perhaps, those between Bert and Cec, and anything Aunt Prudence has to say.

East-West 101 on SBS-TV, too, had a distinctive, gritty look, especially in the exterior sequences.

The extra time and cost required to establish a distinctive look is small but is not embraced by commercial TV to the same extent as the ABC or SBS. But if making a story more compelling for an audience is what TV is about then it is a competitive advantage to a commercial operator.

A look will come, to Australian TV’s benefit.

The Dr Blake Mysteries is currently screening on ABC-TV Friday, 8.30 pm.

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