Conversations with Renowned Australian Cinematographer Carl Allison

Posted on: Mar 14, 2024

Photo Credit: Carl Allison

By Tahlia Norrish

In case you missed any of his 10 Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) awards or three consecutive ARIA nominations for best video, Carl Allison is the Australian cinematographer behind films such as Godless and commercials for the likes of Nissan, Shell and Fox Sports, in addition to music videos for Tones and I, Sam Phay and Client Liaison. 

We recently sat down with Allison to discuss navigating divergent creative visions, securing that first gig and more. 

Could you walk us through some of the key moments or decisions that led you to where you are today? 

Early on in my career, I was a one-man band—directing, shooting and editing various projects, from documentaries to music videos. But I found it quite limiting to the scale of projects I could take on. It wasn’t until I started finding like-minded individuals who wanted to hone their craft in their respective fields that I was able to focus just on cinematography, while also benefiting from the raised production value from what all the other collaborators brought to the table.

It’s kind of a cold way of looking at it retrospectively, but by initially taking a loss on the profits to bring more people on, project quality increased, more people took notice of the videos and my network and visibility increased.

What would you say is your superpower? 

Coming from a background where I worked in most departments, I have a general understanding of what each crew member needs to work effectively. I’m conscious of not inhibiting anyone from performing their best work. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, and supporting those around you strengthens not only what you’re creating, but also the experience in general. 

How do you approach balancing your creative vision with the director’s, especially when they diverge? 

The relationship with the director is a special one—you’re collaborating together, but ultimately, they’re leading the project, and you’re there to facilitate the vision. Cinematography is just what one department does and shouldn’t be adversely affecting performance or story for its own sake. 

Times I’ve felt when I might be on a different page to the director, [I] take it back to what they’re trying to convey in the scene and talk through what the options are and possibly ways to achieve that or elevate the vision. Like any relationship, communication is key. 

You have such a striking visual signature. What advice would you give someone wanting to craft their own? 

Find what you like and become your own critic. That brutal self-analysis is the only way to make progress. Don’t beat yourself up, but always look for ways you can improve or tweak your work practices, lighting or composition to improve on every project.

Could you offer some practical tips for emerging film professionals, particularly in regards to booking their first gig?

Each stage of a career has its own complexities, but booking that first gig is tough. Trying to get my first music video took at least a year. Even when I got my first break on a music video for the Hilltop Hoods, it took a few more years to work out how to leverage opportunities like those for more work.
I feel fortunate I started my career in music videos because it was such a great training ground for experimentation. On those small sets with limited resources, it forces you to think creatively and outside the box—a valuable skill set that you can take on to those larger jobs further down the road.

What is a piece of cinema or television that you feel all aspiring cinematographers should study? 

Like all things creative, it’s completely subjective. Just watch as much and as different cinema as you can, find out what you like and don’t like, and craft out your visual language and aesthetic. It’s been said before, but find influence beyond pop culture or what’s current. There are always trends and popular visual motifs, and, at times, you’ll be asked to replicate something that’s popular or another artist’s style just because that’s what the director or client wants. It’s important to have your own twist on that, as pure replication never stands out.

Finally, shoot, shoot, shoot. Creativity and craft are muscles. Don’t be precious, and immerse yourself in as many different opportunities as possible.
Special thanks to Allison for his time. Be sure to follow Allison’s (very cinematic) Instagram feed to stay up to date with his work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor’s Dojo — a coaching program pioneering peak performance and holistic well-being for actors.

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