VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 5201/7201

The Telegram Man: Shooting the Messenger

During the long years of World War II, Australia’s small farming communities paid a terrible price. In the rural towns of New South Wales, one family each week discovered that their son or husband or brother or father would not be coming home. In the throes of such grief, one seldom considers the man who delivers the news.

Directed and produced by James F. Khehtie, The Telegram Man tells the story of people in an Australian country town in 1942, who experience first-hand, how war inexorably spreads its tentacles well beyond the battlefield. Here, in the farms and shops and pubs, pain and terror have nothing to do with a hail of bullets. It is the anguish of the soul that takes over as people wait for news of their loved ones fighting in a distant land. War scars beyond the battlefield.

Scene from The Telegram Man.

The Telegram Man stars three Australian and international screen legends Jack Thompson, Gary Sweet and Sigrid Thornton. Based on John Boyne’s poetic short story American Farm ’44, the film takes us into the world of Bill Williams (played by Jack Thompson), the man who must deliver the worst kind of news and John Lewis (played by Gary Sweet) the man who is destined to hear it. John Boyne is the award-winning author of the best-selling novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

The Telegram Man has been transported to the Australian outback allowing us to explore, through the micro-cosmos of Bill and John, how WWII forever changed the face of Australian culture. Although we look through the lens of WWII, the story of The Telegram Man remains as pertinent and beautiful in its compassion, sorrow and love as any moment in contemporary human experience.

Jack Thompson’s face fills the screen. Every detail, every passing feeling, every wrinkle of expression is played across his face in absolute perfection of depth, quality and colour. Film is certainly the most expressive and textural medium; it captures each moment of the life we can see and even reveals the things that are hidden; it is an organic medium. For Director James F. Khehtie and Director of Photography Kevin Scott, there was never any doubt that film was the only medium that could carry the story they wanted to tell.

“My intention from the very beginning was to have a high ratio between the highlights and shadows, so that the finished film would have a very contrasty look. I wanted the film to have a cinematic look and feel,” said James. After discussing how to best capture the images to reflect and echo the feeling of the WWII period portrayed in the story, both James and Kevin felt very strongly about shooting the project on film. As a period piece, there was no doubt that to get the required look, film was the only option. Having used all forms of HD, Kevin knew there was no way it could touch the look of 35mm for a film set in 1942.

Imagine a beautiful vista, a small 1940s country town and the huge sky of outback Australia spread in all its glory and colour across the screen. Then the opening rotation shot of Jack Thompson, as the telegram man, returning home after a long ride across miles of open farmland. This was to set the tone for the movie and capture the vast loneliness of the landscape and the man. It was decided that shooting 2:35 on 35mm would be the best way to layer the man, the road, the lake and the setting sun, whilst generating all the feeling associated with the audience expectations of a fine expressive art.

With a very tight budget and schedule, shooting on 35mm allowed the filmmakers to work very quickly, avoiding many of the technical problems inherent with the digital format. During the grade the team was able to pull amazing details out of the shadows, which would be virtually impossible if the film had been shot on digital. For this reason alone, digital was never really an option. There is no doubt actors prefer to work on film, and the lure of 35mm definitely helped to bring Jack, Gary and Sigrid to the project. James and Kevin agree that choosing to work on film has been the best decision made throughout the entire film process.

Three stocks were used to provide the contrast of light and shade that was central to the look of the film: KODAK VISION2 50D Color Negative Film 5201, KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. The night exteriors, as well as both day (with 85 colour correction) and night interiors were shot on the 5219. All day exteriors were shot on the 5201 and 5207. Kevin was incredibly impressed with the performance of the 5219, praising its incredible details in the shadows and the fact that it is such fine grain for a high-speed stock and how it holds up amazingly well in controlled light.

“We shot a very high contrast ratio on faces underexposing the shadow side by at least three stops, sometimes up to four, and overexposing the highlight side by one stop. Both the shadows and highlights held an amazing amount of detail. I even found myself able to crush some details out in the grade. With all this said, the windows that I had intended to blow out and overexposed by six stops still held details that could be used in the grade if required. The result for interiors is a highly contrasty look that lends itself to the period 1942. With everything being lit through windows it meant an interior look was created which lends itself beautifully to the character-based nature of the story.”

The DP was equally impressed by the performances of the 5201 and 5207, “The 50D is an amazingly contrasty and colourful film stock with virtually no grain. Its latitude, shooting directly into sunset but still keeping details in Jack’s face, is astounding. I hate to imagine what HD would’ve done to the opening scene of the movie,” said Kevin. It is a cliché but you never get a second chance to make a first impression and the opening scene of The Telegram Man captures everything that this movie is about. Only film can reach that benchmark and in this case magic unfolds from the very first frame.

The Telegram Man was shot in the countryside, at the Australiana Pioneer Village in Windsor, New South Wales, quite a distance away from the nearest major city Sydney. The Village is an engaging, diverse and imaginative location, with a time-worn feel that is impossible to recreate without the decades of life that have shaped it. There are 20 heritage-listed buildings on the site, some dating back to the early 1800s. The Village has been closed for the past 10 years, but is now in the hands of a dedicated community restoration committee who are bringing it back to public life. The incredible tree-lined street, collection of houses, post office, shops and pub give the genuine feeling of walking back in time and effortlessly provided the world of The Telegram Man.

Working in a remote location the need for reliable camera equipment was paramount. The film was shot on the 3-perf ARRI BL4, provided generously by Panavision Australia, and lensed with ARRI Master Primes. The filmmakers have always found film cameras to be the most reliable of all gauges and indeed on this shoot they performed perfectly.

The Telegram Man has been screened at numerous film festivals around the world since its release and garnered several awards, including the British Academy of Film & Television Arts / Los Angeles® (BAFTA / LA®) for short film and Best Short Honourable Mention at Academy Awards®-accredited Rhode Island International Film Festival in the US. James and Kevin are thrilled with the look of the finished film and believe they have achieved all they wished and more.

Editor's Note:
The Telegram Man will be screened at the 97th ANZAC (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps) Commemoration in April 2012 in Gallipoli, Turkey and is in consideration for the 2015 Centenary of ANZAC Commemoration. The film is recently inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia permanent collection. Visit the official website for more information:

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