* South by North (CSC)

South by North
THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE

with Douglas Koch csc

article
By Trevor Hogg, Special to Canadian Cinematographer

Photos: Sophie Giraud
© SPF (TBS) Productions Inc

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An elective English course on film and literature caused a Vancouver high school student to discover his love for making Super 8 movies and resulted in him attending film school at 22TBS D 002Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto.
Decades later, the subject matter still remains pertinent to Douglas Koch csc who reunites with frequent collaborator, filmmaker Don McKellar (The Grand Seduction) to bring the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winner «Through Black Spruce» by Joseph Boyden to the big screen, with the world premiere taking place at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018. Seated at the hospital bedside of her coma tose uncle, Will Bird (Brandon Oakes), Annie Bird (Tanaya Beatty) tells him about leaving Moosonee, Ontario, to search for her missing sister, who works as a model in Toronto.“I didn’t read the book until after we had made the film,” Koch reveals. “What was neat and unusual is that it has two narrators. Sometimes when a chapter starts, you are not sure if you’re following Annie or Will. In the film, you’re seeing each of their stories.” The Canadian Screen Award - winning cinematographer first worked with McKellar when the director was cast in the 1995 Patricia Rozema film «When Night is Falling», and they got together again when the thespian made his feature directorial debut Last Night. “What has been always super handy is Don also being a writer and actor. We might have something planned and he would say, ‘There’s no way that these guys are going to want to sit down and do this. They’ll jump up and move around.’ We would go through this exercise of videotaping stuff and trying different things. It’s so great to do that without the pressure of having a crew standing around,” Koch says.

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Annie joins Leo (Graham Greene) and his friends under the Gardiner Expressway.

Principal photography on Through Black Spruce lasted up to 24 days between August and September of 2017, with the three main settings in the story being Moosonee, James Bay and Toronto. “What is funny is that we were not shooting in any of the places we’re supposed to mainly because of the Northern tax credit that was involved in the making of the film,” Koch says. “We filmed mainly in Sudbury and the environments around there. We were only allowed to shoot in Toronto for three days, even though 40 per cent of the movie takes place there. Those three days were packed full of stuff with the CN Tower and Gardiner Expressway being in every shot. All of the interiors of the apartments, loft spaces and nightclub had to be found and/or converted in Sudbury. “There’s a scene where Annie has been taken out by a new friend and a bunch of her gang to this crazy nightclub that is frequented by models and beautiful people,” he recalls. “We found this club. You could see that the bones were in there somewhere, but it was going to be a lot of work. It was an enormous pressure on [production designer] Ian Hall, who had a huge worry of turning this place into something that looked cool. I was worried about it and so were my gaffer Fast Eddy Mikolic and key grip Jason Lenoury, as they had a thousand little things to do in this place. LED strip lighting needed to be hidden, and intelligent strobe lighting needed to be produced on

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Jesse (played by Kiowa Gordon) and Annie (played
by Tanaya Beatty)

going against it. Even Don was concerned about filling this with all of these people who look like big city glitterati.The more everyone worries the better it goes because they bring their A game.”

When shooting in Moosonee, Koch says, the crew attempted to control the fairly modest main street with a 1st AD and some PAs. “You could fit all of us in a van and it seemed like the crew,” the DP recalls. “But we managed to get a lot of stuff done in one day and then did some drone shooting. In the mornings, I would go by myself and walk around and see if I could get any additional second unit shots that we might use with my Sony a7S II. We had a ton of stuff to work with, so they just used a couple

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Tina Keeper and Brandon Oakes in a still from Through Black Spruce.

of shots, but I enjoyed the process and meeting hilarious local people.” A tricky location to find was the remote island in James Bay that Will uses as his hideaway. “In the book and script, the cabin was located on Akimiski Island, which is gigantic and extremely flat,” Koch says. “On our budget, we had to go all in or nothing. At some point, the idea of Killarney Provincial Park came up. There are these amazing almost pink rocks by the shore, and it sits on the north shore of Georgian Bay so you can’t see the other side. We wanted to make it feel like Will is off in the middle of nowhere.” Video clips shot in actual locations were placed in a Dropbox folder so the cast and crew could see what the production was doing the following week. “Don is a good visual director,” Koch notes. “He’s always aware of what we’ve just come from and what it’s going into.”

The cinematographer favoured a classical shooting style for «Through Black Spruce», and the opening and closing of the film feature dream-like flashbacks. “We wanted to be more observational than right there with the characters,” he says. “I had my trusted Sony a7S II with me and a defunct Canon L series 50 mm f1.0 lens. It’s a soft, weird and shallow focus. Andreas Evdemon was on the main camera with a Steadicam getting a lot of great stuff, but

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Annie Bird (played by Tanaya Beatty). Annie watches over
her comatose uncle, Will Bird (Brandon Oakes). A still from
Through Black Spruce, featuring Brandon Oakes and Tantoo
Cardinal

every once in a while I captured a cool little moment.” The aspect ratio chosen on the film was 1.85:1, and footage was primarily captured with a single ARRI ALEXA Mini, with an extra camera body available to be used if needed. The lenses ranged from 18 mm to 135 mm. “It was all shot with the Zeiss Master Primes,” Koch states. “They’re super reliable. I know if I have to shoot wide open or shoot T16, these things are going to work. This is a harsh story. There were a couple of scenes that were going to be incorporated in low light levels. There were other times when we needed a longer lens and I would bring an Angenieux Optimo 24 mm to 290 mm zoom if we needed to do shots of the float airplane. Then there were a couple of times we deliberately wanted a wider lens, so we might bring in a 16 mm Master Prime.” Camera, lighting and grip gear came from William F. White, with gels being provided by Rosco Canada. “I like to use Fresnels when creating sunlight effects. We had a 6K and 4K Fresnel, as well as a mix of HMIs and tungsten. I can think of all sorts of neat things to do with LEDs, but I’m careful with them,” Koch says.

A customized colour correction method was developed by the cinematographer in Photoshop. “When Don and I were initially talking about this project, I realized that it was going to be a largely Indigenous cast. I thought back to Edward Curtis, who took portraits of Indigenous people in the late 19th century, and there’s a cool sculptural quality to the skin tone.
I felt this was something I could accomplish with my crazy Photoshop process and got excited when I found out that Bill Ferwerda at Deluxe Toronto was going to be our colourist. To my total glee, Bill was able to do the effect in DaVinci Resolve. My DIT Rany Ly and I set the look in advance. We made a few different LUTs and ended up coming back to one that became like our filmstock. Highly saturated colours like reds were affected the most. The black hair of our actors would sometimes get this amazing blue sheen and our process would exaggerate it, so you had to be careful that it didn’t get removed.

“I don’t think there’s a movie made now that doesn’t utilize visual effects in some way,” Koch observes. “It can be as simple as getting rid of things in the frame that we don’t like, such as hydro poles. In our case, we did a poor man’s process for a float plane from the 1940s in which Will flies. We had to do bluescreen for that scene and shot plates with a drone up in Moosonee. Another one that I’ve seen come up lately is blood splatter. There is one scene that had a neat touch that we hadn’t even thought of when we were doing it. You get how hard Will was hit in the head with a golf club. To have coordinated that in camera would have been a super pain in the ass. But it was done in the visual effects and you don’t even question it. We had a great visual effects supervisor named Geoff Scott.”

The cast features Tanaya Beatty, Brandon Oakes, Kiowa Gordon, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal and Tina Keeper. “All of our main actors were great,” Koch says. “Tanaya Beatty is an experienced and lovely actress; she was extremely fun to light.” Other key crew members were 1st AC Paul Steves, 2nd AD John Baxter, best boy electric Jason Poole, rigging gaffer John “Chops” Hall, key grip Jason Lenoury and dolly grip Richard Leko. “There are a lot of moments in the film that I was pleased with how they turned out in the end,” Koch muses. “In one scene, Annie is with Graham Greene and his gang of merry pranksters, and they’re cook- ing this goose at the bottom of the Don Roadway under the Gardiner. What follows afterwards when she leaves is creepy. Then there’s the amazing beauty of the island that Will runs off to with these amazing rocks at Killarney.”

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