Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw
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Adam Arkapaw

Adam Arkapaw, Australian Cinematographer

Acclaimed Australian Cinematographer
BY
 Johnny Milner

Profiling the films of Adam Arkapaw, the Australian cinematographer whose work for Jane Campion, David Michôd, Cate Shortland and more, has made him a sought-after cinematographer in Hollywood and around the world.

 

The King 

Adam Arkapaw's impressive credits as DOP (Director of Photography) extend from dystopian action-adventure films like Assassin's Creed (Justin Kurzel, 2016) to historical dramas like Lore  (Cate Shortland, 2012).

In 2019, he won the AACTA Award for Best Cinematography for The King (directed by David Michôd). Based on several plays from William Shakespeare’s Henriad, the film focuses on the rise of King Henry V of England (Timothée Chalamet) and his navigating of palace politics after his father’s death:

Excerpt from The King, directed by David Michôd, 2019. Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw. NFSA title: 1605865

The clip above features the moments building up to the film's third-act battle sequence, where young Henry clashes with the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) on the fields of Agincourt. The camerawork moves between the panoramic and the intimate. Expansive wide shots showcase the grand scale of the armies and the features of the surrounding topography. A tracking shot taken in natural light captures the intense moments where Henry walks among his loyal followers in the flanking forest, showing him as a man of the people – an action king.

Meanwhile, Henry's commander and companion, John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton), leads the march of metal-clad soldiers out on the field. Handheld camera movements combined with deep breathing sounds in helmets give a subjective impression from the soldiers' perspectives, heightening the fear and terror felt in the penultimate moments before the battle. By contrast, these images are inter-cut with finely framed shots of the Dauphin lounging before his mounted knights. He finally gives the signal to attack with a casual flip of the hand.

Arkapaw's shot selection in this sequence delivers a precision and intensity that brilliantly establishes the pageantry (upon pleasant green fields) before the abject squalor where metal-encased men flail about in mud and blood. 

See images from The King in the gallery below. For more about David Michôd and Joel Edgerton see our Deep Dive article on Blue-Tongue films.

 

Animal Kingdom and Snowtown

A graduate of the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts, Arkapaw shot several shorts and music videos before working on the highly acclaimed Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010).

Loosely inspired by Melbourne's 1988 Walsh Street murders, the film's cinematography conveys a tone of naturalism and a fascination with the detail of criminal enterprise. The clip below features Jacki Weaver's chilling, Oscar-nominated performance as the matriarch of the crime family. The shaky camera style injects movement into the image – conveying a sense of realism that is emphasised further through natural lighting and a gritty colour grade:

Excerpt from Animal Kingdom, directed by David Michôd, 2010. Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw. NFSA title: 797300
Please note: this clip contains strong language

In 2011, Arkapaw shot Snowtown, working with long-time collaborator and film school friend, Justin Kurzel. Based on the infamous 'bodies in the barrels' murders, Snowtown's horrific subject matter is balanced with a carefully considered visual narrative that prevents the movie from becoming too exploitative or gratuitous.

Shot on 16mm, Arkapaw paints a haunting picture of the South Australian winter, juxtaposing stark landscapes with the tiny, bunker-like houses where much of the story takes place. Drawing on the paintings of Parmigianino and Francis Bacon, the cinematography utilises space and light to intensify the insular and claustrophobic interiors – all of which provide a haunting gothic look and feel.

Watch clips and read more about the films of Justin Kurzel.
Watch clips and read more about Snowtown on our australianscreen website.

 

Top of the Lake and True Detective

Arakapaw's foray into television began with Jane Campion's award-winning limited series Top of the Lake (2013), which centres on detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the disappearance of the pregnant 12-year-old girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe).

Featuring in the clip below is a mysteriously elegant sequence from the first episode of the series. The imagery begins with Tui riding her bike across the early morning frostbitten New Zealand landscape – a landscape marked by an ominous silence that becomes a shaping force of narrative and character throughout the series.

The camera then settles on Tui preparing to enter a lake while dressed in school uniform. A haunting and slow-moving tracking shot runs alongside Tui as she slowly becomes submerged in the watery wilderness. We then cut to her underwater – with clenched fists and almost free-floating.

The shots in this sequence are brilliantly nuanced in their consideration of composition, texture, light, colour and camera movement – and they play a vital role in establishing the tone and look of the series to come:

Excerpt from Top of the Lake, directed by Jane Campion, 2013. Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw. NFSA title: 1138335

Arkapaw also filmed the riveting first season of the HBO series True Detective (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2014), which follows a mismatched pair of Louisiana State Police detectives who pursue a serial killer over several years. Shot almost entirely on Kodak film, Arkapaw portrays Louisiana's industrialised and swampy landscape as a suffocating, sinister backdrop for the series.

He also creates 2 distinctive period aesthetics using alternative camera lenses. These include a Panavision PVintage lens, which produces a softer nostalgic tone for the earlier periods. By comparison, the later time periods employ a Panavision Primo lens, with a sharper picture and more contrast, thus achieving a modern feel.

Arkapaw won his second Emmy Award for Outstanding Cinematography for the series (his first was for Top of the Lake). Of note was the remarkable 6-minute tracking shot in Episode 5, where Agent Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) escapes with a hostage from a housing complex amidst gunfire. 

 

Narrative First

Other notable Arkapaw films include Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015), The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, 2016) and Light of My Life (Casey Affleck, 2019).

While Arkapaw's visual storytelling is often explorative in approach, it is founded on a classic simplicity that first and foremost services the narrative and provides the necessary emotional resonance for each scene.

Key to all of this are his impressive technical and creative photographic abilities and his thorough and considered understanding of narrative, film location and production design. Arkapaw has also stressed the importance of building close friendships and working with the cast and crew in creating a non-intrusive, seamless environment so that the actors have the freedom to shine.

Dr John Milner completed his PhD at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics in 2017 and has published widely on the aesthetics of film, music and art. His work is used in various institutions across Australia and abroad, including as a teaching resource.

 

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Main image: Adam Arkapaw on the set of The King (2019). Photograph: Peter Mountain. Courtesy: Netflix