Monday, 27 June 2016

True@24fps - Rosamund Pike

Film is such a mesmerizing escape. You go to this dark room and sit there amongst complete strangers while getting lost in another reality. You forget your world and leave all troubles behind. For a moment you become that reality as you are transformed and swept into a world of make believe. Those were my thoughts when I was asked to write and direct a clip about the Beijing film festival for the luxury watch brand, IWC. 

Without going to Beijing myself, I had to advise 2 film teams, one in Hong Kong and another in Beijing, on what my vision was for the production. Long distance relationships can be challenging at the best of times. Communicating clear and accurate directions to a foreign world with completely different ideas of what is considered necessary, was certainly a unique opportunity.  

At first I was skeptical on how to work towards a strong product, being kind of handicapped sitting on the other side of the world. Doubt kept on creeping in. What if I cannot get them to do what I wanted? What if I cannot communicate my vision clear enough? Getting lost in translation? What if my concept is too complicated? What if, what shmief. The thing is that that kind of thinking can surely stuff up a production. So what do you do and where do you start?
You prepare. You write an idiot proof concept and go over every last detail with the cast / managers / producers and crew. Over and over again. Until the concept is being drilled into their heads and it becomes their reality. You fight for every last drop and you keep it up until you have what you want. Not unrealistic, but at the end of the day, your head will be on the chopping block.
For being my first long distance job affair I am extremely happy with the outcome. Thanks so much to IWC for trusting me with my vision. 
Written by Xaver Walser and Rosamund Pike
Assistant writer: Manfred Thieroff
Produced by Elisabeth Gruender and Daniela Berther
Mrs Pike Manager: Nicola Isaacs
Chinese producer: Edith Liu
Hong Kong producer: Ami Lo
Hong Kong DOP: Dean Head
Beijing Crew and camera: Mr Shuo and Jun Studio 
Additional Cinema provided by: Andy W. Bohli 
Sound mixing by Leos Gerteis at NJP Studios
Post Production house: Sub Graviti Productions
Directed by Xaver Walser

So if anybody is interested, here is the Idiot Prove Briefing I wrote to the Hong Kong & Beijing crew. 

The script is a Piece to camera with Rosamund Pike (in English) directly looking into the camera.
Please do not shoot too close to the actors. Medium shots. 
Once you think you have the shot - move out for a wide and ask the actor to repeat the action. 
Make sure the Microphone is out of shot.
Frame Talent in the middle of the picture. 
Shoot from tripod. 
Always have camera on eye level. 
Do not move the camera. 
Boom the microphone very close to the top of the frame [directional]. 
Have a backup radio microphone (not visible to the eye). 
Make sure it is dead quiet in the room. 
Make sure the LAUGHING does not distort while recording. 
If there is a problem in the audio please re-record it. Do at least 3 takes.
Do not be afraid to ask them to repeat the action. You have one shot at it so get it right.
Lighting the interview
Shoot with strong back light and only a little bit of front light. 
The back light must be your main source of lighting.
Fill it with a reflector from the front. 
Make sure the light falls soft on talent’s face. 
Slight contras on the face would be great. 
Separate the talent from the background. 
Don’t light up anything like flowerpots in the background. Don’t want to be distracted from the story.  
Some outside shots of Beijing city. 
Early morning shots before sunrise. 
Shoot the normal people in the street. (Not just fancy people.)
Maybe from a high building. 
Polluted smoky city will help a lot for production value. 
Locations: Press Conference, Red Carpet, Gala Event
Shoot the normal film festival things. 
Think sequences. Once you shoot your wide establishing shots, move immediately in and get your close-ups. 
Shoot lots of extreme close-ups of anything you can find. 
Some artistic shots. Anything that could resemble a distorted reality. 
During the Red Carpet
Once you are happy with your Red Carpet establishing shots, then film some creative shots. 
Film the feet of the people.
Film the journalists filming the celebrities. 
Don't just film the celebrities but look around for some interesting perspectives and angles. Like the view through another camera operator’s monitor. 
Film hands. People holding microphones. The different TV station’s microphones. The logos from the TV stations. (Close-up / Wide)
General things to think about
Roll sound on every shot. 
Make sure your sound is not distorting. If it’s windy put a soft cover on your microphone. 
Shoot your talents or subject on the 3rd. Two 3rd's from the bottom and two 3rd's from the left or right) 
Roll 10 sec per shot. (No more and not less) (This will give the editor room to move) 
Stay a little wider on all female talents. Look out for skin problems and change your angle. (Especially when it’s an older woman)
Make sure your colour temperature is set right. Mostly at 5600K.
ALWAYS SHOOT FROM TRIPOD. Don't move the camera.
Make sure the tripod is level on every shot. 
Microphone always out of the shot. Best is to boom from the top. 
When shooting any interviews, try to always use a backlight as your main source and fill it with a reflector as your soft front light. 
Shoot at 24fps only. (NEVER SLOW-MOTION)
Please label all your data very clearly.  Day 1. / Camera A. Card_1 / Sound files / Names of people being interviewed and so on…. 
Keep a backup hard drive copy until the film is delivered and completely finished. 
Don't just shoot lots of unnecessary footages. We don't want hours of material to work through. Think of the editor before you push the bottom. 
Lastly: Don't stop working until the fat lady sings.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Overnight success - Daniel Meuli

I met Daniel Meuli 12 years ago when we still had so much to learn. It was the time of shooting DV Pal, 4:3 aspect ratio and the 'love' for interlayers. I was so proud of my PD 170 camera that could shoot 720 x 576 resolution. It was the time before YouTube and such a thing as social media. Then it was just called being social.. or having a conversation.... and that's all we had. A conversation about snowboarding, pictures and passion. 

As the years passed, they shaped our world in so many ways and it made us whom we are. We tried different things in the hope that somebody will believe in what we are doing, only to fail miserably over and over again.  Until the day comes when we find that one thing. That one thing that drives you to get out of bed in the morning and the dream that nobody sees, but you. That elusive tunnel vision. Your dad tells you to get a real job and he is probably right, but you are too stupid to listen to him. You keep it up and gamble all your money out on a dream that's just a dream. It's not even real. And although the dream becomes blurred and you feel like your are losing ground, you still keep on throwing everything you have at it. Every last drop of power you pour wholeheartedly into a moment, until you feel like crying. Until your body cries out for mercy, but you don’t stop. And then suddenly after 10 years of slaving away, that wonderful magical overnight success story. Wooo you are lucky… That's it…. Yes.. it's just luck. The last 10 years of earning no money, working 18 hours a day and not having fun with the friends. The scrapes and the bruises. No, he’s just lucky and now we are jealous of him, of you, or me. 

Well, that is the story of many having overnight success. Also the story of our dear friend Daniel Meuli. So let's raise a glass to the rebels, the rockers and the punks who did not listen to the world and did it their way. We salute you all. Cheers...

Written by Xaver Walser

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Normal is a function on a washing machine

At about ten to five in the afternoon I got the call to come right away to the Hilton Hotel in Beverley Hills to film a very influential person delivering a commercial message directly to camera. My producer and I were shopping at an outlet store a good hour away. Yes I know, shocking the shopping thing, but like always it was not just about pushing the red button and saying action. In-fact, I was not at all prepared for this important moment.

Here I was, about to shoot one of the world’s most iconic TV personalities and suddenly I found myself in uncharted waters, unprepared and with no idea what to expect. So we hit the road back to LA and while 93.1 Jack FM was blasting away, I was introduced to the script. The freeway that's actually never free of cars, was working in our favor for we were making good progress and in a short time we were back at our hotel. Packed at record speed and off we were. Word came quickly that the gaffer was stuck in traffic and in my head I started making plans how we were going to light this without him. Fortunately I had some simple lights with me that would have to do. One battery operated LED, ten small camping lights, some candle lights and one reflector. Surely nothing special, however it was then that I remembered that we still had a borrowed 40 year old Kino Flow in the back of our rented car. The light belonged to one of the talents we filmed the day before and somehow ended up in our car during the wrap. This thing really saved my fate.
It was a weird sinking feeling when I finally saw the shooting location. As a visual element it was not appealing to the eye to say the least, and with no sign of our lighting/gaffer I had to figure this one out by myself. These are the moments when you have to rely on your experience and pull an elephant out of a hat. Move one table. Then the chair to the corner. And you keep on going until all are out of the frame. Then slowly bring in only the bare minimum to put the puzzle together. 

Part of the script was the topic of light. I knew that the only way was to basically fill the frame with light. But without my lighting guy this would be a challenge. The bed lamps had these funny shaped glass balls that I placed directly in front of the lens. It gave a cool out of focus flare effect. I went a little over the top, but my options were deteriorating by the minute. Then suddenly the door opened and his entire entourage marched through the door. Time was up. Good evening Mr King. Honour to meet you. 

The make-up artist made it just in time and bought me a few extra moments. While Larry King was reading his lines for the very first time and getting some powder in the face,  I duck-taped the boom-pole onto the half open door that somehow was the perfect angle for my need. Sound check 123… ooo, I hate those type of sound checks. The levels are normally never the same than performing the actual script lines and experience told me to make the levels softer than his “123 sound check". Sir do you mind to please look at the camera so that I can check focus? Thank you. Camera rolling, sound checked, standing by ... And action....

His powerful voice filled the dodgy little hotel room... That mesmerizing strong voice that we all know so well from years of CNN Live talk show. By the way, I was right with the levels. 

We were once accused of having the text too wordy but there was no time to change anything. Just keep on going, Sir. I was told that he will do one take only. One time, one angle, one frame size. Man, how can I even express the pressure during a situation like this. There are so many things that could go wrong. The list is endless. Sometimes one could simply just forget to press Record. It happens to the best cinematographers. 

Once he swallowed a word and suddenly it gave me the slimmest hope that we could maybe do one more take. "Was that ooo right!!” Mr King announced. Not really a question, I thought and with a slight uncoolness in my voice I gently approached the unthinkable. Sir, that was fantastic thank you very much, however do you mind if we do it one more time. Would love to change to a 85mm. He surely had no idea or couldn’t care less what I was on about, however agreed to give one last strive towards perfection. And so he did it flawless the second time around and I even had time for some small creative lighting choices

And that's it. We shook hands and suddenly he was gone. As if he was never there. Although there was some evidence that something was going down here. It looked like a bomb exploded in the little room. Not one bit of furniture was in the right place anymore. I was exhausted and felt like I just lost 6 months of my life. Then a knock on the door. The lighting guy arrived. Oo well, what to say to that..

Tips of the day:

Always during shooting window, have your gear ready and batteries charged.
- Stay calm and rely on your experience.
- Use practical lighting and offer space in your car for the gaffers lights. You never know when it could come in handy.
- If your first light setup does not work, change it and change it fast... And then stick to your decisions and make it work.
- Don't be afraid to ask... They can only say no.. But if they say yes it just might help you to secure that next amazing job.
Lastly, there is no such thing as a normal shooting day. Things change unexpectedly all the time and you need to be able to adapt and be flexible for change.

 Normal - it's a function on a washing machine - nothing more.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

LA - In and Out

It was that time again. At the check-in counter, trying to distribute weight between hand and check-in luggage. Keep calm, keep on smiling and remember to distract the check-in lady with superficial questions. How are you? What a lovely day. When are YOU going on holiday? This time I was on my way direction west. That was the intention, however after several hours in the air, according to the GPS tracking system, it declared something else. Why so far north when the shortest way would be directly over the Atlantic. I opened up the little airplane sliding window and to my surprise it was night time. However, local time said 3 in the afternoon. Then within the full moon ray a clue to the puzzle was revealed. A large iceberg landscape towered endlessly to the horizon. We were after all flying the shortest way to the land of opportunity. Straight up over the north pole.

I sat next to two very intelligent guys. Ahmed and Mohammed were going on a week's holiday to the USA. They are both from Iraq. Man, I could not contain myself and started my usual list of uncool questions. It was interesting to hear their view on their Muslim faith, the falling of Sadam Hussein and their argument on how the concept of terrorism originated. I love these kind of conversations. You learn so much from other people by stepping out and not being afraid of making a fool of yourself. 

I arrived in Los Angeles on Thanksgving evening. This is a big deal in the USA, taking Thanksgiving more serious than Christmas. The streets were deserted and most restaurants closed. People spend time with their families, and the United States profits from 46,000,000 turkeys losing flight on that thanksgiving night. Hungry and clueless I settled for the only open place I could find. Burger King. The king of plastic. That's how it started and after that it took time to cleanse my system. I have to say that from probably watching too many movies I had an ignorant impression of what American people look like. I know that Los Angeles by no means represent the entire country but for the moment that was my point of reference. To my suprise, skinny Asian looking people were what it was all about. Never before have I seen so many Asian people together, and all speaking American English. Truly an unique sight. I also quickly realised that there is probably no such thing as a cliche type of American people. They come from everywhere in the world and in the case of LA it was the continent of Asia.

It's not easy to eat healthy here and after my Thanksgiving Burger King experience I was adament not to repeat my mistake. So with that in mind my driver Paul, a skinny Asian looking guy took me to, what is considered the number one burger joint in America called “In-N-Out”. Opposite side sat a dodgy looking family. Dodgy by the way is actually not a word here.. the equivalent would be a “Sketchy" looking family. I watched with fascination how the family started devouring their burgers. During the eating frenzy a piece of cheese got stuck unto the 20+ year old son’s nose. It happened in the middle of a verbal argument with his mom, where he was accusing her of making a scene about everything. In disbelieve I watched him not noticing the hanging cheese. Then while the trickling cheese slowly started rubberising longer from his nose and he still yapping at his mom while chewing  on the last bit of cheese that made it into his mouth, the next face dive was approaching.  With a clean swinging motion the burger went right back into his face and his nose disappeared again into the juicy burger. I could not imagine what was going to happen and with great anticipation I eagerly awaited the outcome. To my surprise with complete control over the situation and probably having experience in these type of situations, he wiped the dripping cheese away with his hamburger and gone was any trace of the cheese. My mouth was hanging open. I have to say that I was impressed. Even better was that nobody thought anything of it. That was the moment when the name "In-N-Out” was forever transformed in my mind. 

One of my highlights was the 6th Street Downtown LA bridge. For me this was truly a dream come true. Located in an industrial area, the bridge crosses the famous LA river channel connecting LA industrial to LA Downtown. I have seen this iconic bridge in so many classic skateboard films over decades of growing up with the sport. More recently it showcased a magnificent 3,000 skaters in the film “We are Blood”. Not to forget drag sensation Ken Block who made his recent appearance in his legendary 1965 Ford Mustang in the film "Gymkhana 7" speeding over 6th Street bridge. At first I was wary of all the wandering people on the bridge and was at unease with all the film gear. Then I noticed that it was actually like-minded photographers cruising around to get the perfect shot. Not necessary pros, no, just guys high on life and with that deep underlined love for what they were doing. Believing in the dream was enough of a driving force for them. I was inspired - to say the least and could not wipe the smile off my face. Just being there and talking about this legendary bridge and sharing thoughts on framing and lenses, was everything. Everybody simply stoked on life and soaked in the golden glow of the magic hour. 

Two weeks of little sleep and lots of filming went by quickly and I experienced so many amazing moments. Strange to always dream of going somewhere and then suddenly it's all over. I will miss this country and its people. People are dynamic and things are happening here. The country is clean and very organised. Nobody is afraid to work and try new things and people really work very hard here. You don’t have the spoilt mentality of the world owing them something. There are so many moments I will remember. From the little squirrel running over the power line in the middle of the street to my 'In-N-Out' experience. Learning how to work fast and find solutions on the fly. How to deal with minimum lighting and filter techniques to get great results. And once again I realised that it's all about people skills in this business. If you want to be the best possible filmmaker, be a great caring person and it will take you a long way. People don’t necessary only work with the best guy for the job - they work with the person they get along with.  

If you have a little time in LA and district here is my 1- 10 of where to eat. LA county dining. 
  1. Burger Lounge ($8.24) (Food)
  2. Kurian Town District Los Angeles Orange Café ($8.50) (Food)
  3. Maisis Kabab Glendale ($7.95) (Food)
  4. Mediterranean Beach Cafe, Venice Beach ($10.99) (Food)
  5. Norms Diner, Orange County Garden Grove ($14.50) (Food)
  6. Denny’s Diner Hollywood, LA ($10.95) (Food)
  7. In-N-Out Burger Culver City LA ($3.75) (Food)
  8. Urth Cafè Downtown LA ($3.50) (Coffee only)
  9. Mak Cafè, Kurian Town District LA. ($6.35)(Most expensive coffee of my life)
  10. Burger King ($5.85) (Food)