Report: Cinematographers in the cross-hairs

The line where art meets commerce has always been a grey one – even when it is reliant on the public purse. The issue flared in 2011 when government proposals took aim at the regulations which limit foreign actors working on local productions. And it flared again last year when, for the first time, a number of local films employed foreign cinematographers.

The appointments created a ripple of unease among local cinematographers who are regularly lauded as being amongst the world’s best. Of the seven Australians who have won Academy Awards for their work behind the camera, five are still active in the industry: Dean Semler, John Seale, Andrew Lesnie, Russell Boyd and Dion Beebe. A new breed are also making the leap into high-end features such as Ross Emery (The Wolverine), Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby) and Jules O’Loughlin (Sanctum), just to name a few.

So it came as a surprise late last year when Australian feature films The Babadook and The Rover both appointed foreign cinematographers: Radoslaw Ladczuk (Polish) and Natasha Braier (who holds a Spanish/Argentinean passport) respectively. Around the same time, the $12 million outback road movie Tracks appointed a US focus puller, ostensibly because the production couldn’t find someone with that skill-set among local camera crew. (Another local film, Son of a Gun starring Ewan McGregor, was also eyeing up a French cinematographer in late-2012 but, after much discussion, Australian cinematographer Nigel Bluck (The Tree) was appointed to shoot writer-director Julius Avery’s debut feature.) 

Those decisions raised the concern of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS).
“We don’t like this at all because we think it sets a precedent,” ACS president Ron Johanson says. “Our argument is on taxpayer-funded films.”
Screen Australia was a direct investor in all three productions, which were also eligible for the 40 per cent Producer Offset tax rebate. At the heart of the debate is why taxpayer money should be used to fund films: art and culture versus economics and employment."

It is an unusual situation: few foreign cinematographers have ever been brought in to shoot an Australian film. Before the most recent cases, Screen Australia had never funded a feature film with a foreign cinematographer (aside from one co-production which also had a foreign director).

The Rover producer Liz Watts was in pre-production when contacted by IF Magazine in late-December and not able to answer a list of queries about the circumstances and reasons which led to the appointment of Braier. The Babadook producer Kristina Ceyton also did not answer a list of emailed questions.

Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) president Brian Rosen says the choice of cinematographer ultimately comes down to the director. “It’s up to the filmmakers as to who they want to work with but it is rare that we bring DOPs into Australia. In fairness, our DOPs work overseas: they work in New Zealand, they work in America, they work in Europe, and having the odd DOP come into Australia, well, that’s going to happen. It comes down to who the director wants to work with.” 

MEAA director of entertainment and crew Mal Tulloch says the union plans to hold discussions with SPAA and the industry to develop a formal assessment process when foreign crew are being considered.

“Rather than being subjective and saying ‘I just can’t work with that person’ or ‘I just don’t like that person’s personality’ we’re actually getting to the fundamentals as to whether that person can actually do the job rather than this ‘I’ve worked with this person overseas – I just want to bring this person with me’. We don’t think that that is a valid argument to support the importation of a foreign cinematographer let alone any other crew person on a film set.” 

Screen Australia’s Significant Australian Content (SAC) test – the only hurdle to accessing the 40 per cent Producer Offset tax rebate – does consider the nationalities and places of residence of key cast and crew, including cinematographers. However, the test is an opaque one (Screen Australia cannot disclose any information about specific decisions because of tax secrecy laws) and also includes a get-out-of-jail card: the SAC test also includes “any other matters that Screen Australia considers relevant”.

If a film passes that test, qualifying expenditure is eligible for the 40 per cent Producer Offset. A cinematographer’s wages are a “below the line” cost (unlike the principal director, producers and the producers’ unit, and principal cast, which are capped at 20 per cent) and are fully-subsidised by taxpayers.

While The Rover, The Babadook and Tracks also received direct investment from Screen Australia (likely to be in the millions of dollars), it appears to have had little impact on whether the government agency will step in.

“If a project passes the SAC test, qualifies for the Offset, if there is one creative person out of the key team who is from overseas and who the producer believes is an exceptional talent, and the union agrees, then Screen Australia does not want to play Big Brother,” Screen Australia’s head of production investment Ross Matthews says.

Such a laissez-faire stance implicitly endorses the view that there is no Australian cinematographer who could fulfil the director’s vision while undermining the economic argument behind Screen Australia’s direct film funding.

Some changes have already occurred. The Tracks incident led to an agreement between the producers, See-Saw Films, to consult more widely in future before employing offshore crew, according to the MEAA. Meanwhile, a trainee was also employed to work with the camera department on the film – something that the ACS would like to see happen more regularly on productions.

(The Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) believes that any screen production receiving government investment via the Producer Offset should be required under legislation to employ a paid, first-time trainee, in an effort to generate employment, according to its recent submission to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper.)

Nonetheless, the union remains wary of the trend, Tulloch says. “We’d like to think this is a glitch and there will be very small numbers in the future but we see a very worrying trend at the moment where the easy option is to try and grab someone from overseas and we have some very talented competent cinematographers in this country who should be considered first.”

This report first appeared in IF Magazine issue #151.