Q&A with First Nations Director of Photography, Tyson Perkins

Why do you think the character of Jay Swan and the Mystery Road mythology is so popular with audiences?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. For starters, there is a big public fascination with the mystery of the ‘outback’: it is something that is uniquely Australian and storytelling around it has been a very formative part of our national identity. I think the way this show uses this setting and its history as the backdrop of its story is something that appeals to a lot of people. In a sense, each iteration of Mystery Road is ultimately a history lesson wrapped in the format of a crime drama! 

Outside of that, you probably cannot look past the character of Jay Swan.  He has been brilliantly played by Aaron Pederson and now, Mark Cole Smith, and I think the charisma that they both brought to him in their different ways has been hugely important for the show’s success. 

Finally, I think it also lies in the quality of filmmakers that have taken it on. Starting with Ivan Sen through to Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton, the series has always been helmed by some of Australia’s very best story tellers in this medium, so it is no surprise that it is highly regarded.

What did you learn about yourself while on set?

I think the thing I return to the most as I reflect on the experience of Mystery Road: Origin is the beauty of collaboration. Most of the reason for my nerves leading up to the shoot pertained to this feeling that I would have to solely carry the weight of the decision making about the camera and lighting language of the show.

As I touched on earlier, it became clear to me very quickly that I was working in an environment that was truly collaborative, where each decision was discussed extensively with everyone involved and where no voice was louder than another.  I think when you work in an atmosphere like that it takes a lot of the pressure off each person, and the more you lean into collective decision making, the better the end result will be. 

What has creating screen content within different genres taught you over the past decade?

My experience doing documentary, ads and music videos all played a huge part in shaping my viewpoint as a cinematographer. I think having experience in all those areas is invaluable for that reason: you learn a great deal from the diverse needs of each format, and you bring that with you as you progress in your career. For example, a lot of what I know about lighting has derived directly from the many mistakes that I made doing my own lighting for music videos over the years. 

What attracts you to a particular project? 

For me, the standout thing that attracts me to a project is gauging the commitment of the director to their vision. The process of making anything long form requires such an enormous time commitment that you really want to know that the person you are going to work with will take the ideas you develop together right through to the end. Dylan is a great example of someone like that. He maintained such a wonderful creative commitment to the show from pre through to six months of post. I think if I can see that a director is willing to make that sacrifice, it certainly inspires me to go on the journey with them. 

What advice would you offer to people wanting to work as a cinematographer? 

This is a hard one. The field of cinematography is such an enigma in terms of what the ‘right’ pathway is. You can be technically competent but without the right relationships you may not get a look in on the jobs you want and vice versa. So, I would say it’s about trying to ensure you do both. Try to find ways to make work close to the style of work you want to be making, but at the same time ensure you put equal effort to building relationships with directors who are doing work you like. On that note, it’s important to remember that being good to work with is just as important as how good you are at your job. 

This interview was first published by AusFilm in July 2023.

https://www.nsw.gov.au/departments-and-agencies/create-nsw/news/stories/tyson-perkins-interview Q&A with First Nations Director of Photography, Tyson Perkins

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