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Tone and Tension on ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

"Top of the Lake" was the first program produced under the auspices of the UK/Australian company See-Saw Films, which re-teamed with BBC Two for the new iteration, "Top of the Lake: China Girl."

Top of the Lake was intended by creators Jane Campion and Gerard Lee as a one-off, but after the show drew considerable acclaim—including an Emmy Award for director of photography Adam Arkapaw—Campion reevaluated. She ultimately chose to continue the story of Detective Robin Griffin, who is played by Elisabeth Moss. The series saw Griffin on the trail of a missing and pregnant 12 year old, trekking through distant mountain areas of New Zealand while simultaneously battling her own demons.

Top of the Lake was the first television program produced under the auspices of the UK/Australian company See-Saw Films, which re-teamed with BBC Two for the new iteration, Top of the Lake: China Girl. Top of the Lake: China Girl is a co-production with SundanceTV in the United States, BBC First and Foxtel in Australia, and in association with Hulu in the United States, ARTE in France and BBC Worldwide.

Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) and her assigned police partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie)
Photo by SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

The six-episode Top of the Lake: China Girl, which comes four years after Top of the Lake, finds Griffin in Sydney, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. While investigating the mystery of an Asian girl’s body having washed ashore on Bondi Beach, Robin at long last makes contact with Mary (Alice Englert), the daughter she gave up for adoption. Other characters include Mary’s adoptive mother Julia (Nicole Kidman) and the girl’s seedy fiancé Alexander (David Dencik).

To lens the new series, Campion chose Australian cinematographer Germain McMicking, who has amassed an array of credits in recent years ranging from documentary and feature work to television. Recent projects include An Accidental Soldier and this year’s psychological suspense thriller Berlin Syndrome. The DP received a cinematography award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for his work on Partisan.

In Top of the Lake: China Girl, Griffin is reunited with Mary (Alice Englert), the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years ago.
Photo by Lisa Tomasetti/SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Visually, the two series are very much separate entities, with the first set in nature and the second in more urban areas. “Creatively, the environment from the first series had run its course, so Jane wanted to take Robin to another place,” McMicking recalls. “Not being able to utilize that wonderful landscape made for a bit of a challenge to me, as I like to bring something epic, scale-wise, to the imagery. So I tried to find distinctive looks for the city: views that hadn’t been overused and alternate angles on areas we have seen in other films. The second series continues her journey but features different emphasis, such as Robin’s attempts to reconnect with her daughter so many years after the gang rape mentioned in the first series. That’s not to say there’s no crime element this time, but the police investigation in many ways is secondary to Robin’s personal story.”

McMicking favors using higher resolution and likes the depth of field achieved with larger camera sensor sizes. “I pushed for shooting ARRI Alexa with Panavision anamorphic lenses,” he notes. “We’d have cropped that to 16:9, as mandated by BBC for deliverables, but that didn’t happen, so we went 2K, with Alexa XT and Alexa Mini, shooting spherically on Leica Summilux-Cs that had what I found to be a quite filmic look and superior color rendition. Jane Campion loved the way they rendered the skin tones and faces, feeling they were very true in presentation and with precisely the right feel for this project.” Super Baltars and Panavision Primo zoom lenses filled out the lens package.

Julia Edwards (Nicole Kidman) is Mary’s adoptive mother.
Photo by SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Where the first installment’s Queenstown, New Zealand, locales were expansive, the Sydney area shoots featured very constricted locations. “Much of this series was shot in 4 x 4-meter square rooms and in vehicles,” says McMicking, “so it was essential that I be able to cram the camera into a corner—hence the Minis, which we also used for Steadicam and drone work. We didn’t want to have to use extreme wide-angle lenses in these small rooms,” which would tend to distort the actors’ faces, says McMicking

Directorial duties were divided between Campion and Ariel Kleiman, with whom McMicking had collaborated on Partisan. Each director employed a different approach. “Jane was more instinctual, whereas Ariel used enormous prep to plan things out. Getting to know each other during the first episodes really helped my understanding of what the show is about, which is good because by the time production has been underway for a while, time becomes so precious that you often have to get along with doing instead of discussing. For one scene, for example, detectives find someone who has passed away inside an apartment. We needed a lot of time to block that, so between crew call and when we got to lighting things was four or five hours, which really bit into the day. Those challenges are the kind you can’t really anticipate in advance, but again, good stuff comes out of it. Ultimately you find that the other party has come to trust in your ability to deliver based on previous discussions.”

In the crime mystery Top of the Lake: China Girl, Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) has returned to Sydney and is trying to rebuild her life. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer, until Robin realizes that “China Girl” didn’t die alone.
Photo by Sally Bongers/SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

The DP carried a large lighting package throughout the shoot. “That was very useful to me in creating a distinctive character for the show that set it apart from the original, which was out in such beautiful natural surroundings,” says McMicking, who usually favors using practical lights as a basis for his lighting. “More often than not, the in-frame light isn’t enough to satisfy the requirement to keep [actors] in the best light, so you augment that off-camera as needed.

“In terms of maintaining a sense of daylight coming in through windows, you work out when the best time of day is for the ideal light and plan around that. Having 18Ks and 12K MoleBeams on hand to push through windows helped carry us through lengthy dialogue sequences that might take two days to complete. In the first episode, there’s a 15-minute dinner conversation that is more like something you’d find in a Woody Allen film,” the DP marvels. “This series is far more literate than most, just beautifully written. The strength of the dialogue was such that you didn’t have to push hard to come up with inventive coverage.”

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti/SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Finding appropriate locations to shoot was one thing, but keeping them was another. “Shooting in Sydney has become a bit of a problem of late,” the cinematographer acknowledges. “Considering the real estate values involved, a lot of people owning the properties don’t get excited about them being used for films, seeing the productions mainly as disruptions. They don’t need the money, so sometimes you can lose a location the day before shooting. We were 80 percent location, so when this happened, we’d have to find someplace else and figure out how to make it work on the fly, without the typical prep time. There were frustrations about that, but there was also the feeling of pulling together and making the best of an awkward situation, which can result in something nice and unexpected happening.”

Other ways that McMicking strove to give China Girl its own visual identity was through sustained camera movement. “We used a lot of long dolly moves,” he explains. “But some of the moves were done in places where you can’t put down rail or where we needed a different feel to the movement, so we’d go handheld as needed. I took my cues from the page. The emotion and the drama were all there on the page—we just had to capture it.”

Mary (Alice Englert) and her boyfriend Puss (David Dencik)
Photo by SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Stage shoots, including an office set that catches fire, took place in an industrial warehouse in Sydney. “We did some really lengthy driving scenes in the studio as well,” says McMicking, who admits that greenscreen is by no means his ideal methodology for handling car work. “We did have a projection screen up front for the actors to see, which worked because we had taken care to shoot plates well prior to regular shooting. It can get pretty abstract when doing greenscreen, what with bounce light from passing cars and headlights going by, and then there are lights from stores you pass beaming into the vehicle. I worked with my gaffer so we’d have appropriate interactives, especially when passing through a tunnel. Overall I’d say it worked, but I still wish I’d have gotten another crack at it.”

McMicking managed to be present for half of the grading process, which took place at Australian post facility Cutting Edge. “I was lucky enough to sit in for two weeks, working with Jane and Ariel,” McMicking reports. “This was probably eight months after finishing up, but I had set the looks up during shooting, and I had had conversations with Cutting Edge’s [senior digital intermediate colorist] Adrian Hauser about what we did each day.”

Julia Edwards (Nicole Kidman)
Photo by Sally Bongers/SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Among the strongest memories the DP has from China Girl is the screening at Cannes. “They ran all six episodes, and it was an amazing showcase that held up very well on the big screen,” McMicking says. “When you hear about people sitting through a whole series at once, it sounds kind of crazy at first, but I’ve started doing it myself in the confines of my home, either with a box of DVDs or through downloading the material. And the crowds at Cannes stuck around to see the whole thing! That was a real validation of our efforts.”

Top of the Lake: China Girl debuted on BBC Two in the U.K. on July 27 and launches in the United States on Sept. 10 on SundanceTV. 

Download the September 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine