The Strange Calls is a six-part TV drama series written and directed by
Queenslander Daley Pearson and produced by Tracey Robertson and co-produced by
Leigh McGrath for Hoodlum and the ABC.
Bumbling city cop Toby Banks (Toby Truslove) is demoted to night duty in the sleepy
beachside village of Coolum. Working out of a run-down caravan on the outskirts of
town, he meets Gregor (Barry Crocker), town cleaner, board game collector and
paranormal authority. They team up to investigate The Strange Calls – bizarre late-
night phone calls that expose the paranormal mysteries haunting the sleepy town. A
place where men turn into chickens, mermaids fall in love with locals and cats return
from the grave.
We shot The Strange Calls using a single ARRI ALEXA camera from Cameraquip.
Primarily just two lens were used – the light weight Optimo Zooms 15-40mm and
28-76mm. Our camera package and crew were kept as small as practical. The large
bulk of the shooting was serviced by two grips (Sean Aston and Damien Kwockson)
and two electrics (Glen Jones and Chris Walsingham). The lean camera crew was
headed up by 1st AC Matt Floyd assisted by Luke Jeffery and Dan Shelton. There
were a few times when a larger crew was required (night exteriors) but generally it
was a pretty lean streamlined team.
Second unit footage was shot by Ben Zaugg and Luke Jeffery and consisted mainly of
atmospheric time lapse establishers of mount Coolum and CU insert shots. This
footage, shot with a Canon 5D, cut seamlessly with the main unit ALEXA footage.
The schedule was tight – a four-week shoot to capture the 6 x 30min episodes. A very
steep learning curve for our young, keen and talented first time director Daley
It certainly helped that all the key camera crew, grips and electrics had worked
together on numerous productions before. Daley did a wonderful job keeping us all
enthused and excited about the project. This enthusiasm was infectious. It certainly
helped that the script was very funny and the cast were a delight to work with.
I would describe the visual style of The Strange Calls as traditional or classic
filmmaking. We drew heavily on the 80s era masterpieces such as The X-Files, Twin
Peaks and Northern Exposure.
There was no hand-held shooting. The camera generally remained mounted on a
dolly, slider or tripod. With simple elegant coverage being the order of the day. We
stayed well clear of the now conventional modern Australian style of quick jump-
cutting with multiple cameras and long lens. For Daley and myself, the overriding
mantra was to capture the wonderful comic performances of our cast and to tell their
stories in a simple and straight forward manner. The camera and lighting style was
very understated and naturalistic. Yet The Strange Calls retains a strong sense of
style through the careful choice of lens, camera placement and movement, colour,
depth of field and source lighting.
We used lots of wide shots and at the same time minimised the use of singles and
close ups. Scenes often played out as looser two-shots. The wider lens allowed
Coolum to feature strongly as an additional character in the story. I tried to avoid any
excessively long or wide lens. Generally staying in the 25mm – 75mm range, with the
32mm being the most commonly used focal length. CUs were always shot by moving
the camera closer and using a 50mm lens. This gave The Strange Calls a feature film
sensibility, not the usual TV practice of simply zooming in from the same camera
position. It did however restrict us to an average of 30 set ups per day. Quite a
The bulk of The Strange Calls takes place in two sets designed and built by
production designer Matt Putland in a disused fish co-op in Sandgate. Various streets
and houses around Brisbane’s northern bayside suburbs filled in for Coolum. Coolum
itself mainly provided the seaside vistas and the ominous mystical presence of Mount
Matt built two matching caravan interiors, one in the studio and one in an exterior
caravan set. This allowed us to make the most of the natural shoot-off through the
caravan windows. The dual sets also allowed the cast to enter and exit the caravan in
shot, instead of having to cut between exterior and interior sets as in traditional TV
productions. He also built a police station interior in the co-op’s disused offices.
The sets were lit naturalistically with built in practical lamps and sunshine directed
through the strategically placed windows and sky lights. The caravan was always a
place of warmth and refuge. Very homely. The tones were kept golden and warm.
This also help give the film a sense of gentle nostalgia. I returned to my favorite
soft/FX filters from the early-90s to help smooth out the actor’s skin and again aid
our slightly understated nostalgic feel.
Night exteriors were pure ET – moonlit forests complete with ominous smoke. Glen’s
workhorse light source was a set of LED panels. Great for subtle fill light. Easy to
conceal and dim-able with adjustable colour temperature control. A great addition to
the modern lighting package. In general we made as much use as possible of the
ALEXA’s incredible sensitivity and dynamic range and tried to use as much natural
and available light as practical. Often the only artificial light was a LED panel to add
some fill light in the actor’s eyes and small HMI or tungsten sources placed in the
I’ve found over the last few long form dramas I’ve shot with the ALEXA that it reacts
very well to the use of smoke. We used smoke quite extensively in The Strange
Calls which aided the slightly retro look of film and placed it squarely within our
visual reference point of classics such as ET and Close Encounters. Powerful grading
tools like Cutting Edge’s Baselight are superb at evening out mismatched smoke
levels (inevitable when using smoke at night).
The final grade was done by Justin McDonald at Cutting Edge. I like to achieve as
much as possible in-camera and don’t tend to change much in the colour correction.
The process is very much one of balancing up shots within the scenes and allow the
edit to run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. I use the colour temperature
controls in-camera to warm and cool scenes and correct the excessive green or
magenta bias in the images common with most digital cameras. The grade then
becomes mainly an exercise in contrast control and detail enhancement.
I generally like to give the colourist a few days on their own to set the black levels
(contrast) and high lights before I make an appearance. This process allows me to be
a little more creative with fresh eyes and a cinematographer’s perspective. The grade
is a very important time for me creatively and I always insist on being present.
So far, of the 15 features films and TV shows I’ve shot, I’ve never missed a grade. I
also use the grade as an opportunity to fine tune compositions and reframe shots.
Justine and I also made extensive use of subtle vignettes to draw the viewer’s eye to
what we considered important at that stage of the story. I’m looking forward to the
introduction of ARRI’s new ALEXA PLUS 4:3 camera with its extra area at the top
and bottom of frame to play with, and extra detail of the ARRI RAW format. I also
hope it sees a return to more wide screen anamorphic productions.
The Strange Calls is a tightly-crafted comedy with a strong visual nod to the classics
of the 80s. A little Close Encounters and a lot of The X-Files. It was an absolute
pleasure to photograph.
By Robert Humphreys ACS – Australian Cinematographers Society