CTL Conversations: Cinematography, Part 2 – Working in Commercials

By - CTL
March 27, 2017

In the second part of CTL Conversations Cinematography edition, Sean Ryan and Tristan Milani discuss the discipline and differences when working in the world of commercial advertising.

Listen to the whole interview at the bottom of the page, or read Part 1 HERE.

Sean: Looking at your career, as well as some very memorable long form projects, you’ve also had your time in commercials. With your experiences in advertising, how does that differ? With short form, you can be brought on with not a lot of prep time, so do you think you don’t always make as big of an impact in short form advertising projects as you would long form film projects?

Tristan: Good question. I’ve been doing ads now and I quite like doing them. I’ve done a lot more since I got back from the US. As I get older, I find my opinion is becoming more and more valued, and I get to work with directors of all ages. My primary reason for doing commercials is to make a living. I don’t view commercials as high art, I just don’t. I find every commercial project is a really big challenge, not only creatively but with the budgets that we’re given now which is very, very little.

But let’s contextualize this a little. When you say movies, what we mean is Australian movies, and then there’s other movies. In Australian movies, for a practical example, I’ll have to come in with four plans to attack something. The A, B, C and D plan. I will tell the Production Manager, this is the right way to do this. Now, if they don’t want to do it the right way which is often the more expensive option, then we go down to B. And if that doesn’t work, we go down to the C plan. But they want to know, what’s the D plan? And more often than not, if there’s an E plan! Through experience, I have all these ways to sell through what I need to do creatively with the director, whereas with commercials it’s a little easier and I don’t need as many plans. But I’m using that experience from Australian movies to say we can accomplish this a little simpler and a little easier.

A Producer once said to me, what do you want to be remembered for? Do you want to be remembered for a Sony ad you did in 2004, or a movie like The Boys? It might sound pretentious, but it’s not. I just want some kind of legacy left for my daughter. For her to be able to say that her Dad did this beautiful film. I view it as a real privilege to shoot an Australian film, I really do. With something like Paper Planes for example, we wanted to reach as many people as possible, and we spent many sleepless nights figuring out how we were going to tell that story. We were really proud of the figures that film did, and we told this very simple story. One thing we did was to slow everything down. We slowed the screen language down, and funnily enough, it worked.

Sean: When you touched on the fact you don’t see commercials as an art form, is that because there are always too many cooks in the kitchen. Meaning, you might get shut down by an agency or client?

Tristan: I just see commercials as something designed to sell somebody something that they possibly don’t really need. I guess clients are all powerful, but then they are hiring the best people and they probably know the product better, so our job is to help them get the best for their product, and that’s what it is, a product. I don’t see it as going into an art gallery. I apologise if that sounds pretentious!

Sean: Looking at the commercials you’ve done, are you often influencing the production or do you get handed something to execute?

Tristan: No, not at all. Most of the commercials I do are with a guy called Paul Middleditch, out of Plaza Films, we’ve worked together for about 15 years now. He’s a very knowledgeable man, and has probably taught me more about photography than anyone. I’ve been very fortunate, as he’s turned a lot of these commercials into a very creative experience for everyone because he’s just so talented at it. In the film days, we used to do everything in camera, using different filters and lighting to get what we needed. He might say I’ve got this look, and it’s kind of chocolatey, so we would do a whole range of stuff with chocolate filters. At the time, the colourists couldn’t achieve that. We could say we want it to look like a No 2 chocolate filter with a 10 green through it, and they’d say, what’s that supposed to look like? Now of course it’s all changed, and I have loads and loads of amazing filters that I never use anymore. In a sense, it’s a lost art, because all of that is done much later.

Tristan Milani ACS (right), pictured alongside long-time collaborator, Director Paul Middleditch of PLAZA Films.

Sean: Is that done because people are taking safer routes when they’re filming, do you think? Almost like they don’t want to commit to a certain look early on?

Tristan: Yeah, because they know that they can just do it later. I will say to a director, why not do this, and the young guys are just so smart and know the tech so much, they just say why Tristan? We can just do that later! That’s what I’m getting. I think now it’s getting down to more compositions, and the lighting is just more natural. I just mix up the colour temperatures between 3200, 4500 and 5600, I do a lot more of that. And there’s nothing in front of the camera except an ND. So that’s been the main difference. I do stacks of ads with all sorts of different stuff. We did 100% bleach bypass on numerous ads, which is nerve-wracking – shot at 1000 ASA. I did all sorts of things, but not anymore.

Sean: Speaking about that more natural approach, do you think that because cameras these days have a much more higher sensitivity than film stocks ever did, are people embracing natural light, and really trying to create the best version of reality, rather than a heightened, more polished version that may have been seen a bit more on film?

Tristan: Definitely, I agree. Look at it in terms of film, and the films that were nominated for Oscars this year, a lot of the ones I have seen have this natural lighting. Street lighting, ambient lighting, dust stuff…none of the ones I have seen have been heavily lit at all.

Sean: Yeah, well Greig Fraser has been a big advocate of that approach…

Tristan: Yeah, and he does that so beautifully too. Russell Boyd, years ago won an Oscar for Master and Commander with an 18k and a 20x bounce. If you look at Tender Mercies too, the stuff he did with Bruce Beresford in the 80s, that’s very natural too. But you know, it’s trends. I was flat out for a year because of handheld photography, and then it’s Nah, we’re over that. Then we did speed ramping, and then nobody wanted to do that anymore either. I think that’s why ads are more technique led than films, because trends change a lot quicker. I mean, now it’s anamorphic lenses…hamburgers in anamorphic lenses! What’s this about? Anamorphics were built to capture six people riding towards you on horseback, and now we’re shooting hamburgers with them!

I had the great pleasure of going into Panavision, and they took me through all their lenses from the 1950s to the now, and was shown what they all do, because they all do something different. They’re trying to create new looks, because the digital is so homogenous. In Hollywood in particular, the vintage ones from the 70s are so popular at the moment, you can’t get them.

Sean: They’re totally booked out.

Tristan: Yeah! Totally booked out! Believe me, I’ve tried to get them out here and I can’t get them, they’re just booked out all the time. That’s what’s happening in the States now, they have this room, and they have all the lenses through the decades and it’s beautiful. You just get the camera you want, the lenses you want, stick ‘em on, set it to the 5600 or the tungsten or whatever and they just chuck it all on, so it’s not about the lighting anymore, which is very simple.

Sean: Do you think that because you can get an image with less light, the producers are putting a pressure on you to have a smaller kit? Just because you can physically capture an exposure, they think it will be okay, even though you might need more or create shape, mood and setting?

Tristan: I think that’s true. I think because their post budgets are much more the production budgets have to be smashed and lowered. I mean, I did Paper Planes in 5 weeks, and while it’s not the most beautifully photographed film, I got it done and we told a story that people really liked. I had very little gear on that. Also, if you do want a lot of gear and you demand a lot of gear, you’re seen as a very difficult, and you’re seen as very expensive. That’s part of the politics of it all, weighing that kind of thing up. I can understand if you’re a young guy coming through, you might have a strong and idea and say I want this, this, this and this, and while your pictures might be great, all those producers are going to talk and say ‘yeah, he’s great…great pictures…but man…at a cost’. I think what you’re saying about creating shape, that’s done mostly with blacks now, it’s the other way, so I tend to use one really big source on a movie and I just work off that. I think the directors I work with these days just want coverage, and stacks of it. I mean, I’m averaging around 26-27 more shots a day.

Sean: Apart from the increased sensitivity of the camera, is that because of things like the ability to record much longer takes and, you know the ability to change a card quickly, and so on…

Tristan: Well, it has made the job a lot simpler, but it’s a just a box! There’s nothing to touch anymore. Another thing that’s gone is that nobody is going to rushes anymore. I remember on the first five or six movies I did there were rushes every night, and this is really important. The producer would be in that seat, right there, and everyone else, from the costumes, the sound recordist, all there making sure they were happy. But that doesn’t happen anymore.

Sean: Do you think it will get to a point where we realise what an art form we’re losing and some of it might start to come back, or do you think the old ways will forever dwindle?

Tristan: I hope so, I really do. And I think it will. I really believe in Australian film making and I believe there is still art there, but it’s really up to you guys who are coming through. The opportunities are seemingly less and less, which I think is really sad. But I’m optimistic for the future, definitely.

Sean: Great, well…that’s about all we’ve got time for, as they say. Is there anything that you’d like to add?

Tristan: It’s been great talking to you Sean! I just want to remind people…Go to the movies! That’s all I have to say!

Sean: Go to the movies people!

TRISTAN MILANI, ACS, is an Australian-born cinematographer. Throughout his career, he has garnered accolades for not only his feature film work, but also his commercial cinematography.

Tristan has completed shooting 10 feature films, an IMAX film (SOLAMAX, dir, John Weiley), and over 40 short films. In 2001 Tristan was awarded with his ACS accreditation—something he desired all his professional career.

He has been nominated for 7 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards for Cinematography and won 11 Australian Cinematographers Society Awards (ACS) both state and national.

Here’s an example of Tristan’s latest work:


SEAN RYAN was lucky enough to be exposed to film production at an early age where he discovered his love for visual storytelling. He formalised his interest with a Bachelor in Film and Screen Media from Brisbane’s Griffith Film School. Around the same time he got together with the guys over at Alt.vfx and has spent the better part of the last four years deep in the world of visual effects.

Fortunately for Sean it wasn’t all long days in dark rooms, he was able to get his production fix working as part of an on set supervising team travelling to commercial sets in places such as Spain, South Africa, Kenya, Hungary, Thailand, Japan, Chicago and Los Angeles just to name a few. Here collaborating with some of the best directors in the advertising world.

After absorbing his surroundings Sean now boasts a diverse skill set with a thorough understanding of post production and visual effects procedures and uses these to his advantage whilst behind the camera.

Here’s the music video that won Sean a Gold Medal at this year’s ACS Awards:


If you would like to take part in a future CTL Conversation, please contact mark@crossingtheline.co

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