Perhaps the most frightening thing about Damien Power’s new film Killing Ground is its mood. This story of two New Year’s Eve campers in the Australian bush country gets increasingly more strange and violent as it progresses, but the mood itself is decided less by the shock of violence than by the sense that violence is always about to occur.

This feeling is created largely by the camera, which, in a sense, guides the film’s story. The opening, with its spare, abrupt shots of trees, a river, a deserted campground, and other parts of the setting encourages us, from the outset, to look carefully at this film and how it works on a visual level. As more of the story is revealed, and as we jump back and forth in time to learn more about the campers who form the center of the story and the people they meet, visual storytelling becomes all the more important.

"A million things can change every day on a film set. We have to go with our gut instincts 99% of the time."

No Film School caught up with Simon Chapman, the film’s DP, over email ahead of the film's theatrical release. Chapman has worked within a wide range of genres, most recently on such films as The Devil’s Candy, Cut Snake, and The Little Death. He revealed how he created the film's mood by using extended Steadicam shots, why gut instincts are essential to working as a cinematographer, and more. 

No Film School: The mood of Killing Ground is primarily that of sustained tension, sometimes amplified, sometimes decreased—and yet it’s always there, even at seemingly peaceful moments. What were the elements you used to develop that mood, visually, and how did you conceive of putting them together? 

Simon Chapman: The director and I worked together on six short films prior to Killing Ground. This was our first feature-length film together. Having worked closely together on these shorts meant we had a fairly good idea of each other’s tastes aesthetically, and we started talking about Killing Ground while shooting another short horror called Hitchhiker.

We decided that we wanted Killing Ground to be shot in a very naturalistic style, but with detailed choreography, so it felt like we were in total control of what the audience should see and feel. The goal was to create a raw, naturalistic thriller that didn’t telegraph the horror/thriller moments. We wanted to ease the audience into a relatively normal-looking world where terrible things would eventually happen. We wanted an elegant-looking film in which horrific events take place. 

One of our techniques was the use of long, uninterrupted Steadicam shots at certain moments to keep the audience on the same timeline as the characters. There are a few key moments that use the technique and the effect is quite unsettling for an audience. Making viewers "wait" for the consequences of an action, usually off-screen, creates a more unsettled feeling.

"It’s very tempting to throw in 'cool' shots just because you can. But you have to make sure each shot helps to tell the story, rather than just showing off."

Another visual device we used was being close to the actors on wider lenses, whenever possible. Damien and I both love the feeling of wider lenses; [they make] the audience feel part of the action rather than observing. We used long lenses very sparingly and only when appropriate for a character’s POV. We stayed between a 25mm-40mm for a lot of the film. I also used quite deep focus, as I didn’t want the bush location to turn "mushy" and out of focus. We wanted to feel every leaf of every tree branch. Each bush location played an integral role in creating an unsettled feeling in each moment. 

There were no crane shots or high-angle shots. We generally tried to keep the camera close to the actors at eye height, either handheld or Steadicam. Our goal was to travel "with them" through locations as much as possible. We didn’t want to distract the audience with any fancy angles, but rather keep it grounded at all times. We used only one dolly shot in the film—a very particular parallel move during a terrifying moment. It has more impact, as we used the device so sparingly.

It’s very tempting to throw in "cool" shots just because you can. Damien and I, however, kept each other in check every day, making sure each shot helped tell the story, rather than just showing off.

Killing-ground-still-1_30975217060_o'Killing Ground'Credit: IFC

NFS: What is the highest value the person behind the camera can maintain? In other words, what should be most important to the DP, in relation to the rest of the film?

Chapman: The DP has to maintain consistent visual integrity and keep the film coherent in a visual sense. Every choice we make has an impact on the story we are helping to tell. Also, supporting the director and inspiring the crew to bring the film to life is essential. 

NFS: How has your attitude toward or your approach to cinematography changed over the years?

Chapman: My love of cinematography has remained as strong as it was when I began in college. I have had career ups and downs along the way, but I am happiest when working and standing on set, surrounded by cast and crew.

Cinematography, for me, was all instincts and passion to begin with, and it has evolved into something more serious now. The instincts and passion still remain, but I take the role more seriously now. It is a great responsibility we have, and people entrust us with vast amounts of money to see their project through. Whenever I get a job, I’m still as excited by it as I was when beginning my career.

"There’s so much to think about once shooting has begun, so the better prepared you are, the freer you will be."

NFS: What’s the most important thing a person working as a cinematographer can do to survive in the field?

Chapman: Keep pushing yourself to learn more and be inspired by the life that surrounds you. It all informs our work. Strive toward the type of work you want to shoot, and the people you want to work with. Be nice, shoot well, and don’t give up. 

NFS: You’ve done a variety of types of films, from suspense to horror to comedy—do you find that the techniques you use vary from one genre to another? That there are some tools you use that come in handy in some films but might not be useful in others? 

Chapman: I love shooting different genres. I have shot horror, comedies, period dramas, and action, and they all essentially require the same set of skills. Some comedies require VFX knowledge, stunts and action, fight scenes, and car work. The same can be said of horror or period drama. As cinematographers, we develop skills that allow us to adapt to each situation and project with hopefully enough knowledge to shoot. We also learn to seek advice when we don’t have the answers. 

Killing Ground'Killing Ground'

NFS: What do you do to prepare for a project? 

Chapman: Obviously, reading the script is first and foremost. Chatting with the director comes next, and that’s when you discover what kind of film you’re making, and whether it’s right for you. It’s then weeks of discussions with the director and key crew, location scouts and meetings, and then the testing of cameras, lenses, effects, costumes, makeup, etc.

Pre-production is essential to discovering what you need to figure out before the shoot day. Try to answer as many questions as possible before the shoot. There’s so much to think about once shooting has begun, so the better prepared you are, the freer you will be.

We often watch movies as references or look through art and photography books for inspiration. Sometimes a single image can define the whole look of a film. I like to take lots of stills on location and mull it over later. I’ll often re-visit locations on my own so I can process it all without the stress of a crew waiting for me. 

"Sometimes a single image can define the whole look of a film."

NFS: How would you distinguish between working in television and film?

Chapman: The films I have shot are all fast and furious, so TV isn’t much better in terms of time allocated to shoot. However, I like the focus of a single film. TV is usually many episodes spread across many directors, so it is difficult to maintain that singular focus you get with one director on a feature film. However, I’ve also been lucky to work on some fantastic TV dramas with one director, like Glitch and The Easybeats for ABC. They have been great, as you can establish a relationship and a level of trust that usually means better results. Great directors inspire the best work from a cinematographer.

TV has become so polished and cinematic with some of the best scripts. I would like to keep pursuing both film and television work.

NFS: How much of the work you do as a cinematographer involves planning, and how much involves instinct?

Chapman: Planning is essential, but once you arrive on set, it’s all instinct. We plan and plan so that we can be flexible to change that plan if an opportunity arises, or we see something unexpected when we arrive on set. Sometimes the director arrives and has changed their mind about something which you’ve been planning for months, or the light is falling in a different way, or the weather is bad, or the actors are sick, and we might need to rethink an entire sequence. 

A million things can change every day on a film set. We have to go with our gut instincts 99% of the time.

'Killing Ground' opens in theaters on Friday July 21.