Changi: articles


Through the lens, a design for drama

Changi, the ABC's major drama for 2001 starts screening nationally on 14 October. The six-part series follows the stories of six young Australian soldiers, held captive in Singapore by the Japanese during World War II. Here they learn that in time of war, humour is often the best defence. Their wartime experiences, recalled in later life, are interwoven with scenes of their lives in Australia before and after the war. Written by John Doyle, (aka Roy Slaven) the drama is an ABC in-house production, shot on locations around Sydney and in the ABC's new Sydney studio centre.

The producer for the series is Bill Hughes (The Farm, Phoenix, Janus). The director is Kate Woods(Looking for Alibrandi, The Farm, Wildside, Janus, Police Rescue, Phoenix). The Production Designer Robyn Williams, is an architecturally trained designer who specialises in drama. She has worked on a number of the ABC's major productions since 1987, most recently The Farm(with the producer and the director of Changi), Marriage Acts, Secret Men's Business and A Difficult Woman. For her Changi was something special, 'It was inspiring,'she says, 'working on something so well written. We all felt we had to live up to the quality.'

As with any drama production there were particular design challenges. These included the fact the series covered three periods - pre-war, wartime and the present. Robyn discovered that in this case the script itself was a tremendous help to the design. 'John is a very visual writer,'she explains 'and a good observer of social mores ... with a few words he pinpoints where people are in society. His brief descriptions of a family home immediately conjured up images.'

Production design for a drama begins with a close reading of the script and an analysis of it with the producer and director. Robyn worked for about two months on the research for Changi, studying photographs and images of artwork in the Australian War Memorial website and viewing memorabilia from the War Memorial Museum. She also read first hand accounts and diaries of POWs and studied historical records and pictorial accounts of the period. Although some cameras were smuggled into Changi, Robyn found paintings of the camp to be a more valuable source than photographs. She explains that artists observe detail and light and catch the essence of the scene. A hospital set in Changi was created entirely from a painting.

The primary Changi setting is the Selarang Army Barracks, a three storey, concrete ex-British barracks, enclosing a three acre parade ground, set among a complex of associated buildings.

In designing this set, Robyn had to create a space which the script required, in which the crew could shoot the scenes and which evoked an atmosphere reflecting the harsh and alienating sense of a prison. The interiors were designed as studio sets to facilitate speed of filming.

In her design Robyn was influenced by the concept of the layering and collision of cultures in this area and the fact that 'In Asia the textures are different, the detail is not so clear cut. The structures were of European origin but their look was affected by climate. Like British colonialism,'Robyn explains, 'they were mouldering in a tropical climate - water stained, mouldy and bomb-damaged after the fall of Singapore. Into this setting came Australian and Japanese soldiers carrying symbols of their culture in their meagre possessions, then scrounging and improvising to make things of use. In Nakamura's office and the Officers' Club, a Japanese aesthetic is grafted onto an English colonial base.'

The intensity and nature of the different scenes in a drama can have a bearing on the use of colour in the design of the sets. For the aesthetically limited world of the prison camp, Robyn used a limited colour palette, mostly greys, greens and occasional dark reds. As the pre-war flashbacks were idealised recollected scenes of innocence, a range of cleaner unmixed colours was used here. In the modern day scenes where a more reflective, mature mood was looked for, secondary and muted colours were selected.

For the same reasons that the designer made her colour choices, the Director of Photography, Joseph Pickering (Wildside, Grass Roots, The Farm) selected different film stock and camera styles to subtly convey the different periods in the lives of the men.

Shooting scenes set in the pre-war period Pickering used Fuji film stock, which has more subtle colours and a fog filter to enhance the romantic feeling. For the scenes in Changi where he wanted a 'Japanese feel' he used Kodak Vision 320T which has more pastel tones and can have a grainy but sharp look. To reinforce this Japanese feel he shot in the angles and style of the great Japanese film maker, Kurosawa. For the contemporary scenes he wanted a more 'old dark grunge look' with more blacks in the colour composition; for this the stock he chose was Kodak Vision 200T which he then had force-processed to give more grain. As he shot the scenes he lit and framed them in 'a more expressionistic way' as these sequences were 'from older guys' point of view.'

The National Broadcaster
Issue 15
September 27, 2001