Growing up outside of London in a working class family, Peter Holland had no exposure to the film industry or theatre arts. As a student at the East London Comprehensive School, Holland felt that his choices after graduation were either working in the London rubber factory or the dole. “I saw no point in continuing at school,” he recalls, so he quit at the age of 15 and went to work at what he deemed “reasonable menial jobs.” Three years later he worked his way through the Mediterranean, returned to London for a few years and then decided to travel the Kangaroo route, which runs from Sydney west to London. “I was looking for inspiration,” Holland says explaining that at the time, “I was a little bit rudderless. Nothing I was doing was really fulfilling or exciting and I didn’t see much of a future in it – especially in England.”
As it turned out, though, the Kangaroo route expedition took a back seat to what he found in Sydney. Upon his arrival, Holland “fell in with a cool bunch of filmmakers” and his transition into the world of cinematography began.
Perhaps the turning point that led him to working in film was when, as a favour to a friend, he brought her a script she had left behind. Bribed by the promise of being able to take pictures on a film set, Holland made the 40-minute drive to where a film was being shot on a beach. As he watched the film crew at work, he was struck by the team’s synchronicity and camaraderie. “Everyone was working in tandem, silently and proficiently,” he remembers. “I thought, this is an environment I could work in” and, after speaking with one of the camera crew, Miriana Marusicwho became a mentor and friend – he realised, “These are the kind of people I could happily work with all the time and joyfully.”
A few months later, Marusic offered him an internship on a TV show she was working on for Warner Brothers. Holland happily accepted the opportunity to shadow a gaffer. He made a deal with the clapper loader to save the short ends (of raw film) for him and went on to make his first film: Amazing Daze. Holland wrote the script and with the help of his friends, a borrowed 16mm camera, props from second hand stores, completed this 4 ½ minute film in about three weeks. Winning a prize at an independent film festival in Melbourne gave him the confidence he needed to carry on.
Working on different projects, Holland gained more training in lighting than anything else but his goal was to be a cinematographer. “I made a pact with myself – I’ll start working lighting and the camera department when I can but I’ll give up a week’s paid assisting work if someone asked me to put film through my camera – even if it’s for free. As long as I’m putting film through the camera, I’m learning.” He had seen a lot of young, potential cinematographers become brilliant focus pullers or best boys or gaffers and, being seduced by regular, well-paying work, never reach their goal. Holland didn’t want that for himself.
His first paid work as an assistant, in the electric department, was on Vacant Possession. Dion Beebe, the DP, had just come out of film school and there was quite a buzz about him. Working with Beebe turned out to be a great learning experience for Holland. “It was wonderful to watch him closely and see how he worked,” Holland recalls. At the same time, Holland got a taste of what it was like to be the new guy when he was asked to put on his Wellies (rubber boots), go out in the rain and operate the Scissor Arc – which consisted of two long pieces of wood with a bolt in the centre and two arc welding terminals at the end. “I thought they were playing a practical joke on the new guy, so I’m laughing and thinking I might be green but I’m not stupid.” Despite it being his first night on a paid job, he refused to go stand in the rain with open DC 110 terminals running. So they sent the best boy out there. “I’ve never seen a scissor arc since,” Holland says, “and I’m glad that’s the case.” But, he added, the simulated lightning the device produced was fantastic.
While Holland was working and starting to get some paid jobs as DP, he found it hard to “jump the fence” from assistant to DP. When his name came up for a job, it might be accompanied by, “Oh, you mean Pete the gaffer” or “Pete the focus puller” or “Pete the camera assistant.” Holland decided that he had to make a change, so he applied to the Australian Film and Television Radio School to get a Masters degree in cinematography. A federal school, they would pay for everything and given him a small stipend, which Holland could supplement with working at night on film projects. But the school regularly received hundreds of applications and interviewed maybe 8-12 people for the four coveted cinematography slots. Fortunately, the school accepted his show reel and work history instead of a degree, allowing Holland to go from 15-year-old dropout to getting a Masters in cinematography.
He worked as a lighting assistant – mostly 2nd unit with Ross Emery– on the Matrix trilogy (Matrix 2 and 3 while he was in film school). “I learned a lot working on the Matrix,” Holland explains. “I loved the lighting style and on my film Gabriel, I unconsciously borrowed massively from Bill Pope’s lighting style on Matrix. It was a revelation to watch someone use so much fluorescent, so much top light. I loved it.” Other notable films that Holland worked on include Babe: Pig in the City, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Moulin Rouge.
But beyond films, Holland sees a lot of opportunity for growth in TV drama and was DP for StartUp, a 10-episode streaming TV series on Sony’s Crackle, released in September 2016.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges on StartUp was the lighting and small physical spaces within which they worked. They were shooting some scenes in restrictive locations, including a little concrete house in the favela of Miami’s Little Haiti. In addition to space restrictions, scenes moved between the interior of one house, to the exterior, into another house and then down into a basement with extreme lighting changes throughout. In fact, Holland managed to achieve two seven-stop iris pulls in one five-minute scene. Nerve-wracking, yes, but he did it.
A big fan of Chimera (he started using Chimera products in the mid-1990s when they first came to Australia), Holland recalls how the ease with which one can modify lighting with Chimera boxes really helped when shooting StartUp. “These are labor-saving devices – if you want to adjust a lamp 30° to the right, it’s really easy – you unlock it, move it, tighten it up and it’s done.” Otherwise, Holland explains, when you have a frame up, it takes two people to handle that: “You move the flag out of the way, pick up two C-stands, move the frame, reposition it, re-set the flag. The effort and the labor time and equipment you need and the footprint are exponentially larger” than working with Chimeras. This was especially important during StartUp given the limited amount of space in some scenes. “We’re panning with the lens” in that tiny space and with a traditional setup, the stands and other gear would be visible in the shot. Using Chimeras, there was enough room to pan without seeing the lights and stands. But practical considerations like ease of use and small footprint aside, Holland loves the quality of light that he gets from Chimera products, especially when using LEDs. “I demand all LED units are fitted with Chimera boxes before they come on set,” Holland reports, adding that, “without a good, well-diffused screen like a Chimera modifier in front of the LEDs, the catchlights look very artificial and distracting, especially on a 40-foot screen.”
Working on a TV series was a refreshing change for Holland, who explains that “I love the idea of working on a show that runs for 6 months so you can establish a look and feel for a project and see it through.” For Holland, StartUp “wasn’t about the money. It was about the script, the content and the people involved. I love it and am really proud of the series and of everyone who was a part of it.”
Holland received his ACS accreditation in November 2013 and is also a member of IASTE 600. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and kids, and is represented worldwide by Dattner Dispoto and Associates.