Ross Emery: Raised by Cinematographers

September 17, 2020
The Australian DOP had one of his greatest experiences on HBO’s Raised by Wolves, shooting half of the episodes in the highly ambitious series.

Raised by Wolves is one of the most ambitious original TV shows you will likely ever see, sci-fi or otherwise. Created by Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners, Contraband), the 10-episode first season attracted Ridley Scott to shoot the pilot with his now-regular DOP Dariusz Wolski.

A key crew member on Raised by Wolves is cinematographer Ross Emery, one of Australia’s best kept secrets. With credits ranging on everything from Dark City to the upcoming Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Emery shot 5 episodes of Raised by Wolves, including the finale.

We caught up with Emery in Sydney, which is where he grew up and lives, but rarely spends more than 6 months of the year.

“What happened on this show is they sent me the first two episodes and I was pretty much hooked straight away, in terms of the world and the conflicts that were being set up,” says Emery about the Raised by Wolves screenplay. “You could see the storyline, the origin of the characters, and it didn’t disappoint. We got delivered scripts through the whole season; it wasn’t a show where you had all the scripts at the beginning, they were basically writing as we went.

“You’d get a new script on a Friday night, and you’d literally be like a fan boy. You’d just speed read them through in an hour and then you’d ring around to the other people and say, ‘Oh my God, have you seen what’s happening in Ep eight?’”

Raised by Wolves was shot in South Africa, near Cape Town, with Emery there the entire time from last February to October.

“I was there while they were shooting the pilot,” says Emery. “I know Dariusz from a long time ago, we’ve been working together for 20 years. We both did Dark City and The Island of Dr. Moreau, and I’ve kept in touch with him over the years. It was actually really nice that this came back around and I got to work with him again.”

With Emery shooting episodes 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10, was it a collaborative process with Wolski or are cinematographers competitive? “I think sometimes people think that cinematographers have big egos, but I’ve actually found that amongst themselves, they’re all quite humble and very supportive of each other. Every time I’ve met a new cinematographer, I’ve been quite amazed how open they are and how appreciative they are of your work, and they’re very complimentary in a lot of cases. There’s a really good community spirit between cinematographers and I haven’t really seen anything where people have been protective or jealous of other people’s work.”

Can you talk about the location?

“What we’re doing on this show is re-imagining the future or imagining the future. And we’re setting it on a planet which is the closest to a human complimentary atmosphere in the universe. So, we had to imagine this planet. Where do you go to imagine the surface of a foreign planet? We went for the more desert type location on the planet to represent it because it was as far away and as alien looking as it could be, which helps with the story in terms of suspending people’s disbelief that you are actually on a different planet. If we’d set it in a forest, for example, people would go, ‘Oh, that just looks like a forest from earth’. But the attempt is to try and displace people.

“I particularly liked shooting earth because that was when we step into a dystopian future, it’s a war zone, it’s completely torn apart. But you have these characters within that world who literally have very diminished options in terms of how the rest of their life is going to go and this is where the justification for the story, in terms of there’s one action they can take, which will prolong their life, but it’s of dubious ethics and they have to take it and it pulls all the audience members in – what would you do in this situation? The duality of human beings comes out very strongly in terms of there is no good guys and bad guys, there are good people or good characters who perform bad actions because of the inevitability of the situation.”

Contrasted with the droids, who are much more clinical.

“The crux of the story is, if you really had to distil it down to an essence: what makes someone human and what makes an android; if they act humanely, does that make them a human; and a human being, if they act irrationally or illogically, does that make them less of a human?

“A shout out to Travis Fimmel, I was just in awe of him, we were just watching him bring this character all this definition and nuance that really, was on the page as well, but what Travis did with that character was just fantastic.”

You’re obviously a bit of a sci-fi fan? Do you ever crave to make a Ken Loach type film?

“Actually, you kind of do. I’m sure the guy who shoots Ken Loach’s films wants to come and do a sci-fi film. I do like sci-fi because they present you with a greater range of options visually, you have the permission to extend the look a little bit more, make it a little more extreme if it’s necessary. With Raised by Wolves, the visual opportunities were just extraordinary and you got to literally create the laws of a world in terms of the way the light works and the way that the colour of things are and the way everything happens.”

What did you shoot Raised by Wolves on?

“We shot on Panavision ultra speeds and super speeds, which are 1970s Panavision lenses and the combination of some of the newer Panavision zooms as well. Alexas were supplied by Panavision in Cape Town. Panavision have their own digital camera, but the fact that everyone has really gravitated to the Alexa as a standard and I shoot on nothing but Alexas at this point, because I think the quality is perfect, the skin tones are fantastic, the functionality and reliability is superb.

It must be strange to be based in Sydney but rarely shooting here; you must be away from home a lot.

“I am used to that. I think every DP gets used to that. I mean, I live in Sydney, I haven’t shot a full project in Sydney since 2014, so five years. Last year was South Africa, the year before was Canada, the year before that was UK and New Zealand and year before that was South Africa again. So, it’s just big chunks of time.”

But you paved the way for that, you went overseas pretty early, in terms of your career.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon, I actually don’t know whether I really have a connection with the Australian film industry. I’ve shot British and I shot New Zealand and I shot a lot of American. I don’t know very many of the key people in the Australian film industry, in terms of contacts with producers, so I end up on these international shows. For example, the Raised by Wolves opportunity essentially came through Dariusz, who knew me, and my name came up through another path, so my name got onto a list and out of that list three of the people in the room knew me. So, it all connects, but one of those contacts goes back 25 years.”

Conversely in Australia, you haven’t built that network.

“No, my name doesn’t float around the people who shoot Australian films. I live here and I’d love to work here. I lived overseas for a couple of years, but wherever you choose to live, it’s probably not where they’re going to shoot the film.”


There may be quite a few opportunities these days because of our coronavirus situation compared to the rest of the world?

“Interestingly enough, in January of this year, I’d been talking with [producer] Bill Pope, who I knew, because I shot second unit on The Matrix films. And Bill’s come to town to shoot this big, massive Marvel film, Shang-Chi, and we were talking and emailing because he was asking for some crew recommendations and things like that. And then he basically turned around and said, ‘Do you want to shoot second unit?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I would really love to stay at home.’ And considering that’s going to keep me in Sydney for about five months, so I said yes. It turned out to be the most genius decision I’ll probably ever make in my career because we got up to March 20 or something like that, Marvel closed us down, but they were very, very good in terms of their intent and trying to keep a reasonable proportion of the crew on wages for a while. And then eight weeks ago, we came back and they’ve been amazing in terms of introducing COVID safe protocols and really following through with them too and making sure that we can proceed with shooting this film and everyone is as safe as possible. We have daily updates, we have mandatory masks, social distancing, we have people patrolling the set, making sure that everyone’s doing the right thing, temperature checks every morning. The entire crew gets COVID tested once a week and then some of us get tested three times a week. So, considering what’s happened to the world in 2020, I’ve just made the right decision.”

You studied here, though?

“I came out of school without a huge interest in the film industry, although my father’s a documentary filmmaker [the late Ossie Emery ASC], and so I’ve had this ephemera of filmmaking around since I was born. My mother loves telling the story that I cut my teeth on film cores, the plastic core that used to go in the center of a roll of film, they were my teething rings.

“I ended up coming out of school and doing the first year of a law degree and then dumped that and did a year at film college, and then basically just started working. But at that point, that was a very busy time in Australian films and so getting a job on a film was pretty easy. I worked consistently for two or three years on Australian films and TV shows as an assistant cinematographer.

“I worked as an AC and an operator on jobs here and I’ve done TV commercials. But when the time for me to start shooting, I was asked to shoot second unit on the Marlon Brando film, The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is another whole 12 hours of interviews… I’ll get my transcripts from my therapist as well. But that came out of the blue, where basically Hollywood comes to town and they basically say, ‘Okay, we want you to shoot second unit.’ At that point, I couldn’t get a $3 million Australian film to shoot and I did that film and then Dark City, which is technically, I still think it’s an American film, it’s not an Australian film even though it was shot here. And then from then forward, any opportunity I was given was essentially given to me by a US studio, like a Lakeshore or someone like that. So, I’ve still to this point, I don’t think I’ve actually shot a true Australian film.”

Australian DOPs have been kicking goals all over the world for many years, with many citing our light as the reason. Can you elaborate?

There is no doubt that if you grow up as a DP in Australia and you deal with the harshness of the light that we have here, it does give you a certain education in the way to shoot exteriors especially. If you’re shooting an exterior film in Australia between November and April, you really have to have your story straight and you have to have your wits about you and you have to have a game plan because if you had to shoot actors in exterior Australian light, you really have to have your bag of tricks ready. The quality of the light here is very, very harsh. Harsh shadows and deep, deep shadows and very bright, brilliant light and things like that. It becomes a real difficulty. I’ve seen foreign DPs come to Australia to shoot films and they’re just horrified. And consequently, I’ve gone to Europe and shot in Europe and just been so amazed that you can shoot outside and everything looks beautiful. Beautiful, soft light, especially England in spring or autumn, is just the most beautiful light all the time and you can stand anyone anywhere and they look beautiful. And this is the quality that you get and as a cinematographer from Australian, I think you appreciate that.”

Raised by Wolves is streaming on Binge.


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