Lighting By Design – Tangle Series 3

Tangle is one of Australia’s most celebrated drama TV series.  Instead of the usual police, hospital, legal / crime material, Tangle instead focuses on the interconnected story of two generations and their complex family relationships across those generations. Season three will look at how the generations separate from one another and how the ties of family are stretched.

With two critically successful seasons of Tangle already having gone to air, Tangle’s creator’s and producer’s, John Edwards and Imogen Banks were keen to move the show into new territory.

The obvious thing in series TV is to not mess with the formula, to ensure that the show is consistent.  To their credit John and Imogen were keen to see what else could be done with the visual direction of the show.  They aren’t afraid to take a risk and try something new.

This would also mark the first time Emma Freeman would be setting up the show along with a designer that would be new to the show, Carrie Kennedy.  Tangle’s heritage was always that of a show that would challenge it’s audience and it was very exciting to have the chance to be involved in such a special series.

Ally (Justine Clarke) contemplates making a phone call in her new house. Available lighting only. Alexa Frame Grab

There was a number of changes from the second series in terms of locations and Carrie was heavily involved in finding more *shoot-able* locations.  The house that central character “Ally” played by Justine Clarke, ended up moving into during series 2 ended up being a very difficult location to work in for a crew and everyone wanted to find an easier location, that still suited her character.

Max (Blake Davis) and Ally (Justine Clarke) take in the view. Ultrabounce through the windows. Tungtsen Prac lamps are on just out of the top of frame. Alexa Frame Grab

As we commenced pre-production, Emma and I discussed how we wanted to approach the visual style.  Emma has an amazing connection with her cast.  She gives them a lot of time and love and it’s really important to her to create a shooting environment that prioritised the cast and their performance above all else.

Ally (Justine Clarke) is framed by her new house. Ultrabounce through windows. Alexa Frame Grab

I was also relishing the more serious themes covered by the scripts.  Having come of the rather jovial second series of Offspring, it was great to be working with material that covered darker territory.

I started to think about how we could *give* over more of the set to our cast.

Gigi (Eva Lezzaro) awakes to a surprise. Ultrabounce through windows. Alexa frame grab

I’d just done a very low budget ABC2 Series, Twentysomething in between Offspring and Tangle, and I’d ended up shooting with a lot of natural and available light.  By accident, I realised that it can often mean that you end up with a lot less hardware in the set.  It means you can give more of the set to the cast and it makes it faster to construct coverage.  Not only that, but it looked beautiful.

With a bit of help from the design department, I realised I could try and light the show using location choices and lighting from the art department, whether it was practical prop lights, lamps and pracs or even sheer curtains on windows, along with scheduling that meant we made the most of each location for the best time of day to be shooting there.

Ally (Justine Clarke) lit by sunshine on sheer curtains dressed to frame. Alexa Frame Grab

I had the very good fortune of having a very understanding designer, and Carrie was able to populate our sets with all manner of lighting assistance.

Word got out that “we weren’t using any lights” on Tangle, but the truth is that we WERE lighting, just not with film lights !  Instead we turned to practical lamps and natural lighting sources bounced through windows.  And we often were lighting by subtraction, using negative fill to increase the contrast, particularly in closeups.

Christine (Katherine McClements) lit by VistaBeam though bounce. Alexa frame grab

My gaffer Adam Hunter sourced some very interesting novelty light globes.  I’d seen them popping up in bars all over Melbourne.  It turns out they are a reproduction of the original Edison light globes.  They have a very long filament, and they have a very warm colour temperature, something close to 2300K.  Adam made up several faux prac lamps using these globes to create a new source of light which we could key with.  A sort of covered wagon with super soft stipple barndoors.

Gigi (Eva Lezzaro) lit by covered wagon baton. Alexa frame grab

Often day interiors were lit very simply.   We’d use multiple 12×12 ultrabounce frames  outside the windows and then drawing the appropriate shear curtain that had been designed into the set. Inside the locations, I would try and steer the staging towards taking advantage of the lighting though the windows and then adjust as I needed.

Most of the time it worked wonderfully.  The actors were so great to work with and often helped me out with small staging adjustments.  Lighting this way also made it far easier to light for some seriously long steadicam interiors, executed by the very excellent A camera / Steadicam operator Matt Temple.

A camera Focus Puller Cam Gaze and A camera operator / Steadicam, Matt Temple

We had some especially complex shots designed within Ally’s house that would not have been possible if the lighting hardware was inside the house.  It meant we could more or less see 360 deg and see everything.  If the camera happened to look out the window, it was usually blown out enough to disguise the ultra bounce lurking just outside and it meant I just had to try and avoid looking out the windows too often.  Of course if we wanted to see out the window, we’d move the ultrabouce.

Tangle also had some particularly large night exteriors that worked very well.  Gaffer, Adam Hunter had also introduced me to Cyan and Urban Vapour on Offspring, and we made a lot more use of it on Tangle.

Series producer Imogen Banks and Setup Director Emma Freeman were both wanted to return visually to the wonderful opening credit’s motif and start to use the house itself to frame the characters.  We also began to explore ways we could have reflections to shoot our characters with an obfuscated perspective.  Thematically, Tangle looks at the private underbelly of people’s lifes and using reflections was a great visual motif to represent their hard to focus on turmoil.

Christine (Katherine McClements) framed by her house. Available light only. Alexa Frame Grab

Using framing devices within the frame to position the characters, not only resonated with the fabulous opening credit sequence, it also helped to underscore how our lives are defined by the possessions around us.

Christine (Katherine McClements) framed by Parliament. Available light with Poly bounce. Alexa frame grab

Ally (Justine Clarke) is framed by her new house. Ultrabounce through windows. Alexa Frame Grab

Max (Blake Davis) and Chub (Dan Wyllie) have a chat. Available light. Alexa frame Grab

This would also mark the first time the series had shot with a large sensor. Well informed producer Imogen Banks was keen to explore using the then new Arri Alexa to shoot the third series after using the F23 (Bruce Young) and Super 16 (Lou Irving) in the previous two seasons.

In keeping with a highly naturalistic lighting style, we were also able to use the amazing ability of the Alexa to work with very little light.  Combined with ultra fast Master Primes, which open to T1.3, we were able to light entire scenes using a single kino tube.  Some out our exterior scenes are lit by the local council’s street lighting with only the barest supplementation from our own film lighting sources.

Max (Blake Davis) in a confrontation. Cyan 15 and Urban Vapor. Alexa frame grab

Christine (Katherine McClements) and Billy (Tony Rickards) Share a cup of tea. Lit entirely by pracs interior, and Cyan 15 on a small HMI in the background. Alexa frame grab

Our camera gear came from smaller boutique camera supplier Gear Head and Gear Head’s Michael Vlack did an outstanding job of looking after the production.

Although the lighting style was naturalistic, in many ways the staging style was more conventional.   Hand held was only occasionally used, mainly for scenes with heightened drama, but most of Tangle’s drama is subdued and very subtle.  Instead we tended to favour a more observed and lingering camera staging, trying to design coverage that was simplified and often more “film style”.  There are several single shot scenes where a simple camera move says a lot more than multiple shots could ever do.  We found it was a good way to subtly, but surely, ratchet up the tension.  It was a good pressure cooker approach.

We also improvised a new style of coverage, which we nicknamed “back-ting” or back acting.  We tried to build in quiet moments where characters are doing solitary things in their own little world.  These “backting” moments are the kinds of coverage you don’t often see.  We often chose to cover these moments by shooting the solitary characters from behind.  Sometimes, showing the back of an actor seemed to say more than shooting their faces ever could.

Joe (Kick Gurry) shows us some of his best "backing". Alexa Frame grab

We found an amazing house in Sandringham, by the ocean that offered a whole new set of possibilities.  Everyone liked the fact that is was somewhat more rundown.  “Ally” had been forced to downscale after the unexpected death of her husband “Vince” in series 1 and the slightly downtrodden but with character house was a perfect fit.  It had a sort of beach Californian bungalow style to it and even though it was amongst relatively affluent houses, it certainly didn’t feel that way.  It did have amazing character though.

One of Tangle’s recurring characters, Christine, played by Katherine McClemments spends a lot of time at her now disgraced husband’s former place of work the Parliament of Victoria.

Over the course of the series, she would visit Parliament several times. For me, this would mean shooting for the first time at the parliamentary buildings of Victoria, where we were only able to secure a single day of shooting for the entire season.  Shooting on a very long Saturday, we had to shoot scenes for both the first and second blocks, with second block director Michael J Roland kicking off the morning before Emma Freeman returned to complete her parliament scenes from the first block.

Christine (Katherine McClemments) and Ally (Justine Clarke) share a brew. Lit by VistaBeams through grid cloth. Alexa frame grab

Tangle was a very special set to be a part of.  The cast are truly outstanding, from the youngest of the “kids” all the way up through the “grownups”.   The cast all know they are working on something really special and they are a very tight knit group.  It was special to invited to join the Tangle family and to work on something everyone think’s is pretty special.

Thanks to Craig Barden for his fantastic 2nd unit work and especially to Kim Vecera from Foxtel for commissioning the series in the first place. And the rest of my wonderful crew, Grip John Smith, focus pullers Cam Gaze and Grant “Grunter” Sweetnham, Ben Bryan my loader, and Kat Schachte on video split.

Watch the trailer

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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6 Responses to Lighting By Design – Tangle Series 3

  1. Markus Schindler says:

    Nice post!

  2. ryan says:

    any more seasons do you reackon?

  3. Charlene Loh says:

    Great post, loved reading and loved the season. Well done, it looks amazing !

  4. PiDicus Rex says:

    Brand names of the toys used to make the light do whats needed,…. Googling and reading 🙂
    Thanks John, great post.

  5. richreilly says:

    I like the idea of “backting”..opens up a variation on POV or OTS…opens up a a different contextual feel as well as giving actor more options to contribute than in POV or OTS.
    You wrote regarding heavy use of available light: “Lighting this way also made it far easier to light for some seriously long steadicam interiors”. Granted, I work in skeleton crew, low budget and severely time constrained situations..but I tend to try to emulate natural light in a way that can be relied upon over time as opposed to having to deal with changing levels/characteristics due to changing cloud cover, weather..and frankly running out of daylight when seasonally short or schedule is tight enough to shifts in direction and luminance. Did you approach it by having a lot of exterior light modifiers at the ready to respond quickly to these types of changes? Or was it the (in my experience) rare case of time surplus inclusive expectations regarding time? Thanks!

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi again, and thanks for commenting.

      Available light and naturalism are very much part of my thinking and my go to for lighting sensibility. But it’s a fickle source as you’ve noted. Things can change quickly. I usually try to have a lot of influence over the schedule. This is the biggest clanger, and I often on the survey try and work out where the sun is going and when the “good” times to be shooting in certain directions will be. IN the case of Tangle, this show, and really a lot of my work, by having sheer’s and curtains up, they tend to blow out when lit by daylight. In a pinch you can also just “light” the windows (with larger sources, often 4K’s bounced for example) and this gives you a daylight feel. I then (if it’s night and i’m lighting day) use a couple of 5K tungsten mole beams sniper’d in through some slots in a curtain here and there to give me some sunlight accents.

      So again, by “design” by using curtains, you can hide some of those sins of when the weather changes. Mostly the big issues now are the overall exposures riding up and down as the clouds come though and although tedious, it’s not THAT difficult with a good colourist to dynamic those shots.


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