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Feature Image by: Trevor Bormann

From Play School to 60 Minutes to Netflix: Becoming Andy Taylor ACS

Cinematographer Andy Taylor’s 30-year career has seen him traverse the globe filming everything from war zones and major news stories to adventure travel documentaries and celebrity profiles. He’s dodged bullets in Moscow, interviewed the likes of Sir David Attenborough and the Foo Fighters, and climbed the peaks of Mount Everest filming compelling stories. Although he now works on a freelance basis - shooting documentaries for Australian broadcasters, Netflix, National Geographic, and commercial work for various high-profile clients - Andy’s start as a cameraman was decidedly more sedate.

“After school I studied Film and TV at TAFE, where I completed the certificate which was required to get into the ABC as a trainee. I started at ABC-TV as a cameraman in the studios at Gore Hill in 1986, working on shows like Play School, Mr Squiggle and Countdown.”

Operating large LDK-5 tube cameras in a traditional studio setting, Andy was free to master the fundamentals of composition, focus, and camera movement without having to worry about adjusting exposure, colour or lighting. Within two years, he had honed his craft and begun to explore exciting new opportunities.

“By 1989 I was working in the ABC Cinecamera Department, which had around 30 crews shooting a variety of shows, including news, current affairs, dramas and documentaries.”

“I was given the option of becoming a film camera assistant or to work as a full-time news cameraman. Film seemed to be on the way out, so taking the news job was an easy decision.”

It was this decision that presented Andy with the most pivotal opportunities to begin building his reputation as a cameraman who could be counted on to deliver – no matter where in the world he was sent.

Going Big – A Long Way from Home

As Andy’s reputation soared, so too did the levels of pressure and danger. In 1991 he was sent to cover the first Gulf War in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq for the ABC. Andy struggled with being away from home for three months, but it wasn’t only homesickness that kept him awake at night.

“I lost count of how many times we were shelled, shot at and attacked! We were the first crew to stumble across the so-called Highway to Hell, the infamous road between Kuwait and Baghdad. The battle had just finished as we arrived, and we were greeted by the most post-apocalyptic scene I’ve ever come across.”

Andy Taylor at Kuwait Airport which was blown up at the start of the first Gulf War in 1991
Andy filming a British Airways 747 at Kuwait Airport which was blown up at the start of the first Gulf War in 1991 by Saddam Hussein. (Pic: Trevor Bormann).

Despite the high-stake shooting conditions, Andy persevered.

“In 1992/93, I was posted to the ABC Moscow bureau where we covered the Moscow uprising. Tanks were firing at the Russian Parliament building and rebels attacked the TV station. Seven journos were killed that night, including the legendary British combat cameraman Rory Peck. I was standing right next to him when the shooting started. As I hit the deck, he ran straight towards the action and, sadly, was shot.”

Today the Rory Peck Award is one of the world’s most coveted awards, given to exceptional freelance camera operators who have risked their lives to report on newsworthy events.

“From Moscow we also covered Siberia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the Baltic States. We also filmed a nasty war in Abkhazia, where - according to DFAT - myself and the reporter, Deb Snow were confirmed dead in a plane that was shot down over the Black Sea. My next of kin and employer had already been notified of our deaths by the time we could contact them.”

Image of Andy Taylor filming the Deep Water Horizon oil spill from a US Coast Guard Helicopter by Michael Usher
Andy filming the Deep Water Horizon oil spill from a US Coast Guard Helicopter (Pic Michael Usher)

Andy continued to travel throughout the late 90’s, as he was posted to London as the ABC bureau cameraman/editor to cover the UK, Northern Ireland, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Then it was time to return home to Sydney for a new and exciting project.

“I filmed Four Corners in Sydney for 12 years, including 98 complete episodes of the revered 45 minute current affairs show. Each Four Corners shoot lasted about a month, we covered everything from US elections to the boxing day tsunami in Aceh and the war in Afghanistan.”

Covering the 1994 Boxing Day Tsunami for Four Corners (image by Gep Blake)
Covering the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami for Four Corners (pic Gep Blake)

In 2009, after working at the ABC for almost 25 years, Channel 9’s 60 Minutes offered Andy the opportunity to work with reporters and producers who were considered to be the best of the best, including the legendary Ray Martin. Travelling as a team of four - reporter, producer, cameraman, and sound recordist - Andy shot a broad range of stories, including human interest, true crime, wildlife and adventure, science and medical, politics, celebrity profiles, wars, riots, civil unrest and natural disasters.

“In those days it was probably the best job in TV, anywhere in the world!” Andy says of that period. Anything was possible, we climbed to the summit of Kilimanjaro, trekked the Kokoda Track, the Amazon Rainforest and to Everest Base Camp.”

Life Experiences Money Can’t Buy

As well as the creative fulfilment of the job, Andy also cherishes the privileges he has been afforded thanks to his chosen career path.

“My job has allowed me to experience things money simply cannot buy. I’ve travelled to over 110 countries: SCUBA diving with crocodiles in Africa and leopard seals in Antarctica.”

“I’ve been wreck diving in Bikini Atoll, a place you’re literally not allowed to go to unless you have special permissions. I’ve filmed interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen, Kylie and the hilarious Will Ferrell. I even travelled to North Korea with a 60 Minutes crew. North Korea is the world's most isolated nation, they very rarely allow foreign news crew in, so we were very lucky to be invited. It was like stepping back in time, the cities were grey, colourless, and no one ever smiled – like being on a different planet. We were followed everywhere we went by military spies. Such a bizarre but amazing experience!”

Pyongyang in North Korea with 60 Minutes reporter Tom Steinfort and sound recordist Chick Davey (Photo: Stephen Taylor)
Pyongyang in North Korea with 60 Minutes reporter Tom Steinfort and sound recordist Chick Davey (Photo: Stephen Taylor).

Shooting with Pink in LA for 60 Minutes
Shooting with Pink in LA for 60 Minutes.

Going Freelance and the Netflix Effect

Andy left Channel 9 in 2017 and established himself as a Sydney-based freelancer.

“During the past four years I’ve been shooting a variety of projects, mainly documentary, factual, lifestyle, travel, fashion, and network promos. Most recently a three-part (5-hour) true crime documentary for the ABC and Netflix.”

“If I’m not filming documentaries, I’m often shooting commercial or promo work for clients. I’m finding that the social media platforms like Instagram are also demanding really high production values. I’ve been noticing this shift to higher production quality 4K output over the past few years. Everything has to be shot in 4K and log for colour grading now, especially for the streaming services like Stan and Netflix.”

Tools of the Trade

Andy has relied on his impressive collection of Canon cameras and lenses to get the job done for the majority of his 30-year career.

“Whether shooting for Netflix, TV news or Instagram, I shoot everything on Canon cameras with prime lenses. I have three cameras: Canon’s first RF-mount cinema video camera, the EOS C70, and two full frame Canon EOS Cinema cameras, the EOS C700 full frame, and EOS C500 Mark II. All of them are Netflix approved cameras, which is impressive. I work on the assumption that each client wants the highest quality output possible, so I shoot almost everything on Canon in 4K Clog3. The only exception is free to air broadcast, because they are still limited to editing and broadcasting in HD.

“With my Canon cameras I know I can deliver quality images every time, with beautiful skin tones using that awesome Canon colour science.”

“On a multi-cam shoot my cameras will match really well. Occasionally I’ll need to use a camera that isn’t yet on Netflix’s list, like my EOS R5 on a gimbal or my EOS 5D Mark IV in an underwater housing, which is fine. When delivering a program, Netflix will accept a small percentage of content that is shot on a non-Netflix approved camera.”

Andy also looks for flexibility in his gear as well as dependability and uncompromising image quality.

“A couple of times when I’ve shot in 4K log, the quality has actually been too high, or maybe too much data to deal with. But with my Canon cameras, this isn’t an issue as I can just pull out my SD card and provide the proxies, which are still 2K - so better than HD. Proxy recordings are not only a great way to review rushes, but they also act as backups. Once or twice I’ve accidentally reformatted a card that had important 4K footage on it, but I could still bring up the 2K proxy. It’s been a bit of a lifesaver!”

Getting “The Look”

Understandably, Andy is often asked about the gear he uses to achieve his signature aesthetic.

“It’s quite straightforward really, I always use my full frame Canon cameras with CINE prime lenses. I have over a dozen Canon RF and EF lenses in my kit. My go to lens is the Canon CN-E50mm T1.5; but the other essential lenses I usually carry are: Canon CN-E85mm T1.3; Canon CN-E24mm T1.5; plus the EF 70-200mm IS f2.8 stills lens, and a macro lens adaptor for the Canon cine lenses.

I also have the very versatile Canon CN-E 7x17 (17-120mm) T2.8, which is a fantastic lens but unfortunately, I need to switch the camera to super 35 crop mode.

“Then it’s a question of thinking about what you’re shooting and making sure the lighting is spot on. You need to know how to use your gear of course, selecting the right gear that you trust and are familiar with is half the battle. I always shoot with the aperture wide open. I rarely zoom or use zoom lenses.

Andy also relies heavily on Canon’s powerful autofocus technology when shooting interviews.

“While many pro shooters opt to use a camera body from one camera brand, and glass from another, Canon’s cameras and lenses are designed to provide multiple benefits when paired together.”

“For example, I regularly use two cameras on an interview: my full frame EOS C500 Mark II with a 35mm f1.4 stills lens plus my EOS C70 with a Canon CN-E 7x17 (17-120mm) T2.8 cinema servo-zoom lens. On both cameras I get an enhanced face detect and auto focus because the lens and camera work together. Autofocus is especially important for interviews. I can set up three or four cameras for an interview and know I don’t have to worry about the talent leaning forward and moving out of focus. Canon’s Face Detect function locks on and easily and reliably chases focus on the interviewer or interviewee, even with a narrow depth of field.

“I can follow each camera via the Canon Camera Connect app on my tablet, and even adjust settings from there, so I don’t need to stop an interview or rush between cameras.”

Andy’s Recommended Camera Settings

Whether shooting interviews, b-roll, fly-on-the-wall footage, or landscape glamour shots, Andy says the most important thing is to know your camera inside out. “I operate my camera now without thinking about it. After 30 years, it has become second nature, allowing me to think about what to shoot, where to position the camera and the lighting,” he explains.

“My camera setup is almost always a Canon with a full frame sensor, shooting 4K Clog3, at 25fps or 50fps. I use fast cine prime lenses and always shoot wide open to achieve a shallow depth of field. I expose the shot by dialling in the internal ND filters. I avoid zooming and never white balance the camera, just set it to either 3200 tungsten or 5600 daylight.”

Andy constantly switches from shooting on a tripod to shooting handheld or on a gimbal, an important decision that is not necessarily about how much time he has.

“It’s rare that I’m given enough time to set up. Everyone is normally in a rush, so it really helps if you’re able to travel light and efficiently, work quickly, get ready to roll and respond to what’s going on,” he says. “All of my cameras and lenses are EF or RF mount and generally speaking all interchangeable, which offers me a variety of camera and lens configurations, which helps speed things up.”

For interviews, Andy relies on a large soft source (Aperture 300DMk2 with Octo150 and egg-crate) with some fill light, depending on the ambient light and the subject and backlight, but insists that the most important thing is that you serve the story.

“Ultimately my goal is to elevate emotion and create a mood that matches what it actually feels like to be there. For example, bright and colourful or dark and sinister. And I always turn the lights off, not on! Especially house lights.”

You can see recent examples of where Andy has put this setup to good use in Griff’s Great Australian Rail Trip, with comedian/actor Griff Rhys-Jones, filmed for the ABC. This 6 x 1hr series was mainly shot hand-held on the EOS C700FF full frame camera and 24mm T1.3 CINE-prime.

“I had one camera and a few prime lenses and just followed the action. It was fun but also quite chaotic. Filming on a train isn’t easy; trying to control the background, the lighting, all the ambient sound. And then the train is always shaking! That’s when Canon’s eye tracking and face detection is invaluable. It even acts as a guide on the manual focus primes.”

Andy’s Film Career Advice

1. Start Simple: “Invest in one quality camera and lens. Master it and build from there. A Canon C500 Mark II or EOS C70 with a CN-E50mm T1.5 or RF 50mm f1.2 prime lens are all you need to shoot any type of broadcast footage. Whatever gear you buy, you must get to know it inside out - camerawork and lighting are crafts you need to master. The basics should become second nature to you, from focussing and framing to exposure and camera movement. Perfect your handheld and long-lens skills and learn how to balance your tripod correctly. Then you’ll be able to shoot anything, anywhere.”

2. Choose Your Gear Wisely: “As a professional broadcast cinematographer, you need to choose a camera brand that offers reliability and additional support as well as high quality and innovation. In other words, you need a camera brand that will have your back if things go wrong. The CPS (Canon Professional Services) team are fantastic. If I need equipment that I don’t own, I can grab it from them. They let me try out the newest gear and help keep me up and running when needed.”

3. Improve Your Attitude as Well as Your Abilities: “It’s important to show initiative when you’re on a shoot. Don't wait for someone to tell you what to do, but don’t be a 'know it all' either. Success comes from curiosity and passion, and learning from your mistakes. You’ll get more out of the stories you shoot if you take an interest in them and build a genuine rapport with your subjects. Listen to what’s being said and react to what’s going on.”

4. Shoot More: “Shoot plenty of coverage from a variety of interesting perspectives to help tell the story. Shoot cutaways and b-roll sequences whenever possible and try to go beyond simple wide shots. Look for details and close-ups that tell the whole story.”

5. Think Like an Editor: “Always try to edit the story in your head as you shoot. Construct sequences and anticipate what’s about to happen next. Get used to working without direction and always be prepared to capture the action - you may only get one chance.”

Find out more about Andy and his work on his website and Vimeo channel. Explore the Cinema Cameras and Cinema Lenses that Andy uses.