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Petra Korner AAC • The Road Dance

Mar 28, 2023


By Darek Kuźma

Austrian cinematographer Petra Korner AAC went into adventurous mode to shoot Richie Adams’s The Road Dance in the magical and potentially perilous Outer Hebrides.

If it was not for the pandemic that was ravaging Europe during 2020, Korner would probably not have been available to shoot The Road Dance. The indie drama, set during WWI, about a community of devout folk in Gearrannan village, and one dreamer’s struggle to break free from the imposition of social roles and norms, was right up Korner’s alley as the DP had been hoping for a breather from big-budget episodic dramas.

“Every project I’d been attached to was either pushed or fell apart due to lockdowns or actors pulling out, so the script came at a perfect time,” admits Korner, whose recent credits include Netflix’s The Letter For The King and Sky’s A Discovery Of Witches.

And it was the trials and tribulations of the fiercely-independent Kirsty, around whom the plot revolves, that captured Korner’s imagination. 

“I have a rule for reading scripts – if I can sleep afterwards, it’s not for me”

“I have a rule for reading scripts – if I can sleep afterwards, it’s not for me. I stayed up all night having read the script for The Road Dance, doing visual brainstorming. The next morning I gave birth to over a hundred pages of ideas and inspirations.”

Among the visual references that shaped Korner’s thinking about the look of the film were the exquisite images, shot by DPs Néstor Almendros ASC and Haskell Wexler ASC, for Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978), and Adriano Goldman ABC BSC ASC’s audacious visual interpretation of Jane Eyre (2011), for director Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Because Adams wanted to capture the toils of everyday life in the Outer Hebrides, the film was to be shot on-location on the Isle Of Lewis, where John McKay’s 2002 novel of the same name was set.

“The production was planned as a three-week prep in the autumn, followed by six weeks of early-winter shoot,” shares Korner. “At first Richie was hesitant to hire me; he was worried about how I would handle the extreme conditions, but he quickly learned to trust me and now laughs about these worries in retrospect.

“We only had minimal crew and a small lighting and grip package, but it got me back to my roots – operating the camera and working on a more instinctive basis. However, shooting on the island was as tough as hell on actors and crew, but we all were like family.”

Korner initially wanted to shoot large format, but budget limitations made her choose the tried and true ARRI Alexa Mini. Then the conundrum was about picking the lenses.

“The project cried for Anamorphic, and thankfully the producers supported our vision, but I couldn’t find everything I was looking for in one set,” she explains. “So after pricing out a lot of options, I decided to complement our primary set of Cooke Anamorphic/i Prime Lenses, (from 25mm to 135mm in range), with a set of four Kowa Prominar lenses. 

“These Japanese vintage Anamorphics have a lot of character, plus they’re cheap, lightweight, fast, and give a painterly quality to anything fire-related in the frame. You couldn’t shoot the whole film with them, as they have so many artefacts and can only really go as wide as a 40mm, but combining them with the optically-pristine Cookes gave us a perfect range of tools.”

Korner shot most of the night interiors using the Kowas, as well as scenes depicting Kirsty’s state-of-mind. “I used the Kowas whenever the story called for something more visceral or expressionistic, like the beach scene where young Kirsty plays with her father, and learns the value of dreaming.

“With the Cookes, I used very subtle diffusion – 1/8 Tiffen Hollywood Black Magic on the wider lenses and just a little heavier on the longer end – for a bit of highlight halation and to better match them to the Kowas. For night work, I sometimes used Tiffen LowCons instead, but also only between 1/8 and 1/2 maximum.”

Despite the lack of time, she cherished every moment of the prep. “All our main exterior locations were centred around Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, on the Isle Of Lewis, which is really an outdoor museum in a gorgeous bay on the north side of the island. We had full access to it and essentially spent the whole prep there, blocking scenes with Richie and our 1st AD, Morris Milne. A very hands-on prep.”

As the blackhouses were too small to accommodate cast and crew, the shoot also involved a few days of studio work on a local stage in Stornoway, where they shot three essential interiors, including the local doctor’s and Kirsty’s family’s houses. 

“People heated their homes with peat fires which barely had any light output, mostly smoke and warmth,” she says. “I love playing with darkness and took inspiration from the gloomy mood inside these spaces, where daylight was struggling to infiltrate through tiny windows and skylights.

“So with the help of the SFX crew, I opted for flame bars on close-ups, which I always prefer over LEDs. On stage, I lit day interiors with Tungsten T12s, primarily bounced into unbleached muslin to match the overcast look of the Outer Hebrides. I often added a Source 4 Leko gelled with ½ CTB into the mix from inside.” 

Korner’s LED package included ARRI S60 and S30 SkyPanels, Astera Helios and Titan Tubes, Litepanels Gemini and 1×1 Velvet Lights. “For flame-based night interiors, it’s important for me to maintain colour separation. Orange gets sucked into the blacks, so it’s nice to infuse them with cooler tones. The Velvet Light became indispensable because of its white colour consistency on even the lowest dimmer percentiles.” 

When it came to day exteriors, she had to be as minimalistic as possible. “We couldn’t put up large fixtures or frames because of the sheer force of the wind. The winds were so strong, that your words would not travel, and it was if you were speaking into a void. I never experienced anything like that before. So we used comms to talk to one another, and I didn’t use any lighting, but rather went for negative fill, mostly just floppies, and shot a lot of day-for-night.

But the wind was not the only natural adversary. They were not able to fight-off the constant downpours either.

“We had some gorgeously sunny days during prep, but by the time we started shooting, the rain had become a force to be reckoned with too,” she admits. “It rained every single day. We were all drenched, no matter how many layers of waterproof clothing we wore. On the plus side, there were always some moment when the sun made an appearance, and everything was sparkling and looked magical, and obviously always tried to push the button then.”

“Shooting on the island was as tough as hell… but we all were like family”

This was when Korner’s organisational skills came in handy. “I’m a meticulous scheduler,” she remarks. “We had the luxury to be able to photoboard most of the film during prep, and I worked closely with the Richie and Miles to make sure we had AM and PM staging scenarios for every day-exterior scene. If we had to swap scenes around, we’d have the sun in the right place regardless. We still encountered some heart-breaking moments when we couldn’t get the light we’d hoped for, but they were quite rare given the circumstances.”

One such moment was the scene on the Western Front, to where young lads of Gearrannan are sent by way of universal conscription.

“For the battlefield scenes we were on a windy meadow where the Speed Rail was literally bending, that’s how much torque we had. By the time we got to the trenches scenes, it was already dusk, so I was asked whether I could quickly pull those off as night-for-day. I bounced two ARRI SkyPanels up top, silhouetted the soldiers against smoke and only used one practical oil lamp below. We shot it fast and simple, and actually, everyone loved the result.”

Though the film has its share of romance and visual beauty, at its heart lies a poignant tale of the ugliness inherent to human nature, which manifests the most not on the battlefield, but during the eponymous event, when the village elders organise a road dance to bid farewell to their conscripted boys. It was not a pleasant time for the crew either..

“Because of the availability of our ensemble cast, the scene was crammed into just two days, and we weren’t able to shoot dusk-for-night as we had hoped,” remembers Korner. “We had the biggest rainstorm ever and couldn’t reschedule. There was no dry spot on the set. We had rigged lights on stands and made them windproof, but even that got too dangerous. We had placed SFX gas-fire buckets, but these wouldn’t stay lit either. In the end, my gaffer, Gilles Boisacq, was literally holding Titan Tubes on fire mode, doing the dance with me as I was operating.”

This is a pivotal moment as an incident involving Kirsty changes the course of the story. 

“Kirsty is a dreamer by nature, whereas everyone else just tries to survive the hardships of village life. So I tried to convey her state of mind and eagerness to see what’s behind the horizon through framing her against the sky as much as I could, and by the colour scheme,” says Korner. “Then she changes at the road dance, so the imagery changes to match what’s going on in her head.”

What happens next is something that viewers will have to discover for themselves. Needless to say, Korner is proud of the project and the adventure she lived through on The Road Dance set. 

The only thing missing was a proper grade. “We worked with Company 3’s colourist Joseph Bicknell in New York. In prep, we did a remote session together to establish a few basic film-based LUTs, based on my camera tests. But when the DI time came, I was stuck in Austria, which had gone into another lockdown. Doing the grade remotely on an iPad was anything but ideal, but it’s something no one could do anything about. What’s important is that the film is a marvel, and I hope many people will see it on the big screen where it belongs!”

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