1935 marks Year Zero for one of Australia’s biggest environmental disasters: 102 cane toads were introduced into the country as the solution to the Greyback Cane Beetle, which was decimating the Queensland sugar-cane industry. Despite their reputation as voracious devourers of living and dead matter, the toads had other ideas. Instead of eliminating the beetle, they utilized their other voracious appetite — breeding — and today, an estimated 1.5 billion toads have migrated across Northern Australia, with no end in sight to their continental conquest.
Mark Lewis’ Cane Toads: The Conquest was the first 3-D feature to screen at Sundance, and the first Australian feature to shoot in 3-D. Lewis initially began shooting in 2-D when the production company, Participant Media, nixed his 3-D pitch, but 3-D eventually ended up back on the table, and Lewis and his cinematographers — Toby Oliver, ACS; Kathryn Milliss; and Paul Nichola (who was also the stereo and visual-effects supervisor) — had only a short time to put the logistics into place.
Framing for an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the filmmakers used Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini cameras mounted on 3-D mirror rigs. A proprietary P+S Technik 3-D rig was used for interviews, while Nichola used “a fair amount of unconventional methodology to construct rigs for shooting underwater, from vehicles, off a crane, with deep focus and in macro shots, and, most importantly, to capture the toads’ POV,” he says.
“Each rig was designed to establish the required interocular,” continues Nichola. “We could also converge slightly, but there was never an intention to fully converge because we knew we would finish with a 1920x1080 image size. The additional pixels provided by the SI-2K allowed a modest amount of room for shifting without enlarging. It wasn’t feasible or necessary to have precision alignment. The left eye was used as the master simply because we had to pick one, and we were going to put the right eye through a transform pass.
“The key aesthetic for the documentary was that the lenses were almost always at the toads’ eyeline or lower — we often crane from a toad to reveal a new background vista,” he continues. To achieve these shots, Nichola constructed the “Mini-Rig,” which Digital Solutions’ Ben McNiell describes as “the best example of how we custom-built rigs to be smaller than what was commercially available. We used SI-2Ks with a set of 1-inch machine-vision lenses from a U.S. company called Kowa; they cover a bigger image area than the CMOS chips, which allowed Paul the option of optically converging the lenses. That meant he could shoot parallel, which was another plus. The toad was typically about 300mm from the lens.” The Kowas were also used for macro shots, which Nichola achieved by installing an extension barrel to pull the lenses away from the body.
Another key rig was a rigid side-by-side rig where the cameras could be set up and the pitch corrected. “That rig spent a lot of time on the crane for grand vistas,” recalls Nichola.
“The SI-2Ks were rigged with a PL mount in the first block [of filming], but there were questions raised about the back-focus, so we changed to B4 mounts for the second block,” he continues. “There was also a lot of testing of zoom lenses. In the second block of the shoot, we changed to primes, which were more manageable. The primes did shift laterally as focus was pulled, but to my mind, that didn’t matter, because with Mark’s predilection for proscenium compositions with locked-off shots, focus pulls were rare.”
Cane Toads: The Conquest uses a highly structured visual approach. “Mark was looking for a sophisticated visual style based on his trademark offbeat humor — toad POVs, interviewees looking straight at the viewer, and centered compositions that put the viewer face-to-face with the human characters and the toads,” says Oliver. Nichola adds, “We set up the 3-D depth range the same as one would establish the area of focus, and the toads worked within those parameters. We carried our own toads everywhere. The only mystery in the equation was what the toads would do in front of the camera; they aren’t readily trainable animals, and mostly they just sit in one spot.”
Principal photography lasted 22 weeks and was divided into three blocks. Oliver covered the first shoot, in the Northern Territory; Milliss handled the second, in Queensland; and Nichola took the reins for the third, in New South Wales.
Block 1 was a two-month shoot in Australia’s “Top End,” extending from tropical Northern Territory to the far north of Western Australia. Mid-November in the Territory is near the end of the dry season and is the hottest time of the year, with temperatures approaching 113°F in near 100-percent humidity. The toads congregated in vast numbers around remote waterholes, waiting for the onset of “the wet.” Oliver shot a memorable sequence at dusk at a remote location named Croc Tank Lagoon. “We set up the P+S Technik 3-D rig alongside a 30-meter-wide stretch of mud at one end of the waterhole at dusk, firing up a couple of small but punchy lights. Only a few of the nocturnal toads appeared at first, creeping out of low bushes and holes in the mud, but after an hour, thousands of them were swarming towards the muddy water, their eyes glowing like stars in the night sky.”
Block 2 of the shoot covered the toads’ early history in Australia and features interviews with contemporary toad experts and a great collection of Australian characters. “We shot in toad season, which happened that year to take us into some of the worst flooding in Queensland’s history,” recalls Milliss. For interviews, she used the P+S Technik rig with two SI-2Ks and Fujinon E-series lenses. “Mark’s interview aesthetics are wide-frame frontal compositions of the subject in their environment,” she notes. “We talked about Peter Greenaway’s early work, particularly Act of God for the boldness and humor of its interviews. An interview is not traditional 3-D fare, but the third dimension helps to create the most wonderfully intimate portrait. The audience feels they’re right in the subject’s home — that they could lean over and peer into the next room. It’s important to consider the effect of the interaxial on the subject; for instance, an IA that is pleasingly slimming for one person might be unkind to someone else’s nose.”
A Block 3 sequence titled “Creatures of Love” details the toad’s breeding cycle. Nichola combined exterior location footage with intricate macro tabletop work. Filmed on location in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, the scene was established with a crane shot revealing a male toad sunning itself on a lily pad, then swimming through the water, all the while bathed in strong sunlight provided by gold reflectors and mirrors. A female toad, meanwhile, lies in wait on a bed of water-flowers. Glittering reflections from the water provided highlights appropriate to the romance of the scene.
The tadpoles, which are only 10mm long, were shot on a 4'-square tabletop “stage” in the studio, with a blue backlight cyc replicating the location’s clear blue sky. Sunlight was recreated with a Par 575, while LEDs provided the fill. “In the studio, I increased the lighting levels to keep the depth-of-field looking consistent,” notes Nichola. “On a wider shot, the depth would take care of itself, and when I went in on longer lenses, I’d build the stop up.”
Using Silicon’s DVR software, the footage from the SI-2Ks was fed into two Dell laptops — one for the right eye and one for the left — and recorded onto 1-terabyte USB drives. HDMI splitters provided monitoring back to the cameras. “We constructed our own 1280x720 OLED screens to accurately determine focus,” explains Nichola. “I also built a 3-D monitor, which we called the ‘shoebox monitor.’ It was a very simple system using two high-resolution LCD screens reflecting into mirrors placed at 45 degrees. The images became overlaid, providing a 3-D effect without glasses.”
The picture was graded by Adrian Hauser at Cutting Edge Post in Sydney. “Adrian did an extraordinary job, especially considering that we never tested the post path all the way through,” says Lewis.