Focus On Film

Sun, Sand and Serenity on Reef Doctors

Underwater filming on Reef Doctors (photo Jasin Boland © Jonathan M Shiff Productions)
Andy Conder, Steven McGrath and Zenon ‘Butch’ Sawko on Reef Doctors (photo Jasin Boland © Jonathan M Shiff Productions)
Susan Hoecke as Freya and Richard Brancatisano as Dr. Rick D’Alessandro (photo Jasin Boland © Jonathan M Shiff Productions)

The advantage of working on Reef Doctors is getting to be in the sun, sand and serenity of Australian tropical paradises like the Gold Coast, Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef. So what's the catch? Sand, sun and serenity aren't always all they're cracked up to be.

Reef Doctors is produced by Jonathan M. Shiff and co-produced by Lisa McCune, who also stars in the drama series. The show is about the remote Hope Island Clinic on the Great Barrier Reef, run by Sam Stewart (McCune), an accomplished doctor who along with her team looks after the residents of all the neighboring islands, as well as the holidaymakers and thrill seekers who visit the area. Sam is also a single mother with a free spirit, and a determination for an unusual hobby: venom.

“Hope Island, where the show takes place, is not a real island but a carefully selected showcase of tropical Queensland locations,” explains Colin Budds, the director of the first seven episodes. “We were in the rainforests in the southeast, palm-lined beaches of the far north and the brilliance of the Great Barrier Reef. What a gig, eh? But it was bloody hot and we had stingers (jellyfish) in the water and leeches in the trees. One day when we laid down track, there was a giant Python within one meter of us. Seemingly unperturbed with its feed, it remained unmoved whilst slowly digesting.”

Reef Doctors will premiere on Australia’s TEN Network in 2013 and has been shooting on KODAK Film since the beginning.

“KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 has given us excellent results when shooting in the rainforest under a dense canopy,” says cinematographer Zenon ‘Butch’ Sawko, who worked his way up to director of photography from a grip at the Australian Broadcasting Commission. “It has superior performance in low-light situations – handling extremes in contrast well. We managed to use minimal lighting whilst maintaining detail in densely shadowed situations.”

Sawko found that KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 7203 was ideal for exterior shots, producing rich color saturation with a clean image and great tonal range. And for interiors he uses KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213.

“As with the other KODAK Films selected for Reef Doctors, the 200T Film produces a more natural balance in skin tones and texture with a fine grain and richer blacks,” adds Sawko.

Filming in the hot, humid tropics is no easy task. Whether working in the sand, scrambling through the tropical jungle, or fighting the tide, there aren’t many easy shots to set up. Sawko and Budds knew they’d need ample support from local experts and in the end felt they were well provided for from ground to air, beach to reef.

Sawko shot on AATON XTR prod 16mm cameras with 10.5mm-180mm CANON lenses, framing for 4:3 and protecting 16:9.

“We’d use two cameras wherever possible to maximize coverage,” says Sawko, who has won three Australian Cinematographers Society Awards, one for a dramatized documentary Just Another Climb and two for corporate films. “My directors (Budds and Grant Brown, who directed episodes 14 through 26) would block a scene for the A-camera and when able to, without compromising the shot, add a second camera.”

“As usual,” adds Budds, “I (politely) demand and the crew facilitates, with most of the onus falling on the camera department, or more specifically Butch. But we have worked together for over 20 years so there’s shorthand and a trust. His results under the conditions are just outstanding. From burning skies, blinding reflections off the water, black beneath ancient canopies and the unpredictable fronts of the wet season, his was not an easy task.”