Highway Tea is a silent era, ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ tale of a budding romance between two Victorians, her rich and him poor, retold over a quintessential British ritual, high tea. The film takes place over a modern day overpass, and the images are captured using a hand-crank film camera.
The offbeat idea came to me as I drove across an overpass and spotted two people, dressed in Victorian garb, probably on their way to an event. It got me thinking: what if they whipped out a table and chairs and had tea in this most unlikely of places, compressing 120 years in the process (give or take). What if she were rich? If he were poor? What would they each bring to the table, so to speak? It felt like the premise for a quirky tale.
Time. It’s a funny old thing. Grab a picture from the last 100 years; chances are you’ll be able to pinpoint the decade it’s from. Whether it’s the bell bottoms of the 60s, the muscle cars of the 70s, or the big hairdos from the 80s, each picture has a time stamp. And it’s not just the subject that tells us when the picture was taken. From grainy, black and white pictures of war and misery, to razor sharp I-can-see-your-pores snaps from the last decade, there’s no mistaking a picture’s age. But what if you faked it? What if the subject was mismatched with the device capturing the picture? Two Indie films explore this very concept.
My Old Hand Crank Camera, a documentary by Pieter-Rim De Kroon, tells the story of a Dutch filmmaker who discovers and resurrects an old hand crank camera. He then travels across the Netherlands, capturing contemporary scenes of trams, people and wind turbines, the camera flicker and hand crank motion instantly sending the pictures back to an impossible past.
The second film, Londoners, by Joseph Ernst, documents modern day London using a similar era hand crank camera. While today’s Londoners look different and act more casually than their Edwardian counterparts, they are nonetheless equally intrigued, enough to put on a performance. This ultimately results in a bizarre mismatch between the contemporary subject matter and the unmistakable black and white pictures captured.
In both these films, it’s amazing how today’s world seems like yesteryear. How the people in front of the camera instantly become memories. How the beauty of film and fast motion tells a story that feels like it’s been lost through the years, yet it was captured just last week!
A silent movie, in colour
For most of us, the motion of cranking a camera denotes a movie title in a game of charades, but this contraption was once used to film some of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. A hundred years later, those Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton performances still amaze, the timing impeccable, the gags truly timeless.
The way we experience these classics is down to the technological limitations of the time. The motion, which appears ‘jerky’, is the result of shooting at a frame rate less than the ‘standard’ 24 frames per second (fps). This jerkiness adds to the comedy, and the hand crank rhythm has a hypnotic effect. I find this peculiar, and fascinating!
With this in mind, I felt that Highway Tea could be a whimsical intersection of these disparate elements. A romance between two people from different walks of life, and the tension that arises from them being out of step with each other. That mismatch could be implied by shooting a modern day setting with a hand crank camera, at 16 fps, but instead of black-and-white film, this would be in glorious colour! Our Victorians would stutter to the hand crank motion, begging the question: are they relics in a modern world or have they been catapulted to some distant time in the future? There’s only one way to find out…
A Cranky Affair
It turns out that finding a working, hand crank camera is not easy. I spoke to DPs, went through prop shops, and contacted a friend in New York who was rumored to own such a camera. No dice. There were more ‘modern’ cameras, like the Arriflex 2C that could be hand cranked, or much older and more authentic cameras that could only be human powered, such as the 1914 Williamson Type 4 camera. Regardless, it seemed impossible to locate an actual working camera, let alone get to the stage where I could actually shoot something!
- Bell & Howell Filmo DL70
- Kodak 7203 Vision3 50D Film Stock
- iPhone 7 housed in ALM mCAM
- ALM EnCinema SLR lens adapter
- Wollensak 17mm f2.7 Cine Velostigmat
- Wollensak 6 inch f4.5 Cine Telephoto
- Bell & Howell 1 inch f1.9 Super Comat
- Zeiss Planar ZF 50mm F1.4 (for iPhone 7)
I was venting my frustrations to fellow filmmaker Derek Prusak, a gentleman with vast experience in all manner of film cameras, from Super 8 all the way to IMAX. One day over coffee he brought in a sturdy leather camera case, plonked it in front of me, and said “shoot with that”. He must have been fed up with all my whining!
The camera Derek brought with him was a Bell & Howell Filmo. Historically, these 16 mm cameras have been used by the military in the battlefield, for news gathering, student films and home movies. The Filmo is a non-reflex camera with a turret that holds three shooting lenses and a viewfinder with three matching viewing lenses. Derek also pointed out another interesting fact: “the fact that you can use a spring to power the camera or crank it by hand makes it a viable option when a power source isn’t available.” It also turns out that this particular model had variable speed capability, and could be set to shoot anywhere between 8 to 64 fps (including 16).
So in my hands I had a bona fide 1940s, hand crank film camera, waiting to be resurrected. The only problem for Derek – as the person with the most knowledge of the camera – was his automatic conscription as both the camera package supplier and onset expert. I’m sure he would have happily traded back my whining instead!
Hitting The Mark
The first person I reached out to was Greg Emerson, the film producer. He read the script and was onboard straight away. Then I told him my plans to shoot it using a hand crank camera. He was skeptical: “With everything that goes into a shoot day…talent, crew, location, support…and have it boil down to acquiring the images in such an antiquated way…ya, you could say I was nervous!”
So we shot tests. With such an old camera and set of lenses, Gordon Yould, our cinematographer, was leaving nothing to chance; “We shot a focus test to make sure the markings on the lenses were accurate, as well as the registration in the camera”, he recalls. Furthermore, the camera comes from an era when reflex cameras had yet to be invented. Essentially, you can’t just look through the lens at what you’re filming. Prusak explains further: “The Bell & Howell Filmo cameras used the parallax viewfinder system, which utilised a matching set of lenses. One of the lenses you would shoot the picture with and (an accompanying) small lens that mimicked the focal length was used as the viewfinder.” Sounds logical enough, though it’s a way of working that’s foreign to almost all of us in the digital age. Even Yould, a cinematographer who still shoots a fair amount of film, wasn’t immune to a little stress; “shooting through a range finder was definitely a little nerve racking!”
On the day of the shoot, we were off to a good start. With only a few setups and the performance already rehearsed, we had enough time to quickly go through the motions before calling for Action. Cranking the camera certainly took a little getting used to, but this is what we had signed up for; “in order to keep the frame completely still, one would need quite a hefty tripod and maybe a second mounting point on the top of the camera. But I went ahead and let it flex. I thought why lock it down? Gives it that authentic hand crank aesthetic”, Yould concluded. And before long we had a rhythm going (pun intended).
What also helped was that most of the shots were locked off; I didn’t want the 4/3 framing and the fast motion of the actors to clash with any dynamic camera moves that would have felt out of place. In other words, while I wasn’t beholden to accurately representing a certain era of filmmaking – what with our mash-up of technology, time period and mise-en-scène – I wanted to harken back to simpler times, with clean framing (no over the shoulder shots), and let the juxtaposition of the elements play out.
Things were going to plan until Yould sensed something wasn’t right; it had suddenly become impossible to crank the camera. Prusak walked over and confirmed what we feared: the camera had jammed. I guess that’s the risk you take when you shoot with a 1940s camera!
“Backup plans upon backup plans”, Emerson reflects on how we planned for the situation. “We had an extra hand crank camera from Derek’s collection, an Aaton 16mm film camera that the DP had in his arsenal, and then if all else failed we had the digital option of course. It was the only way I was able to sleep the night before!”
After what felt like a brief interlude, Prusak had us back up and running. Despite another brief but well natured interruption from a local police officer (time to present your permit!) we managed to wrap an hour before the sun came down, leaving me with some work to do in the colour timing department.
Beautifully exposed pictures…Check
When the log film scans came back from the lab, I knew we had something special. I applied a simple Log-To-Print curve to evaluate the dailies and straight away I was floored! I shared the results with the DP. “Wow, it’s really beautiful!”, Yould was more relieved than he had let on. “Waiting for the dailies, I kept going through my mental check list: Film loaded correctly – check. Correct viewfinder for the lens… check. Distance to subject… check. Correct F stop… check. Crank at 16FPS… check. And you still have a feeling that something’s gone wrong!”
Out of the can, through the eye of a bygone camera, the pictures had a texture, a feel, and the right amount of ‘imperfections’ that, ironically, today’s generation of moviemakers strive to achieve with Looks from any number of social media apps. Even though the film did end up going through a digital intermediate process, the basic look did not change all that much from the original scans. My vision of acquiring pictures with the desired look and feel in camera had worked out, without so much as a having to fire a Colorista Magic Bullet! On top of that it was a relief to grade this movie without someone, at some point, asking for grain to be added on top. That’s because it was already there!
Light Leaks & Jump Cuts
Highway Tea had some unique editorial challenges, specifically dealing with fast motion 16 fps material played back at the ‘standard’ 24. Taking this challenge head on was Cris Mertens, our editor for the film. “Milton wanted to keep as much of the film in its original frame rate to preserve the authenticity of the medium and pay homage to silent era films of the past. The tricky thing with 16fps is that people’s movements are incredibly fast and while large dramatic actions catch the eye – some of the subtle acting gets lost as it just flies by.” As much as Cris kept an eye on the frame rate, I literally became obsessed with it, often insisting we let the cut run a little looser in areas to force the shot to play in real-time, at 16 fps. However, there were some shots that still required a little bit of massaging, but Cris did a great job with those. “I had to pick choice moments to slow things down so the viewer could properly digest the story beat or emotional moment the actors were portraying. I used optical flow to smooth out any speed changes to make sure everything felt natural and balanced.”
One of the wonders of using an old camera are the happy accidents that occur along the way. From speed changes at the end of each take, to the final moments of a take that we decided to use as the final shot of the movie. Cris embraced it all, making the sum greater than the parts.
In many movies from the silent era, we’re accustomed to seeing a jump in the action, where some of the original material has been lost to the ravages of time. Cris used this often-seen defect in a creative manner for Highway Tea. “There’s a moment where the man takes off his jacket but takes too long to sit down. There’s no sense in wasting time showing the entire action, so instead I just cut out 4 seconds in the middle, overlaid a burn-out effect from the camera tests and walla! The moment just looks like a neat hiccup in the ‘old’ footage! In another case, I chose to use certain performances or takes because the film’s defects would compliment the moment nicely – like the last shot of the film burning out – almost as if that’s all there was to the reel!”
Pick up an iPhone
For the shot where we dolly from the ruined scone to the sardine can, we didn’t hit focus. A last minute decision to use an untested lens hurt us in the end. You can fix many things in post, but focus isn’t one of them.
Even though we returned to the location for pickups, this shot would have required too much setup time, and so I decided to shoot it myself, in my back yard, using an iPhone 7. I’ve shot tons of footage over the years with an assortment of iPhone rigs, and knew that for what we needed, the iPhone would do just fine.
First thing’s first – if we were to have any chance of matching the iPhone material to the film, I needed to have total control, and this is why I used FiLMiC Pro. This app transforms your iPhone into a very competent camera. If there’s something that can be set or overridden on the iPhone, this app can do it. You can adjust everything from focus, exposure and shutter speeds, set your white balance, shoot your material using a flat or log curve, all while monitoring real-time histograms and zebra stripes. Combine FiLMiC Pro with the EnCinema 35 SLR Adapter, and you have a very capable lightweight alternative to a DSLR! A simple grade and some 16 mm grain added in post and our audience would be none the wiser.
Striking a chord
From a score perspective, Highway Tea was a tricky little beast. Along the lines of juxtaposing the old with the new, the classic with the modern, we needed a score that would reinforce the story arc and inflection point. For this I turned to Christos Stavrinides, who composed a score that was as meticulously crafted as the pictures themselves.
“Two people… two eras… one couple… one music “. Duality. Τhe two main parameters on which the score was based was time and gender. Τhe traditional piano (feminine) of the old era struggles to coexist with the contemporary electric guitar (masculine). The addition of the clarinet and acoustic guitar underscore the divergence of the two musical worlds. An unusual tête-à-tête whose result is unpredictable. Eventually, in an unconventional yet natural manner, the duality becomes unity in harmony”.
I couldn’t have said it better myself ;)
A Moment, in Time
Today, technological barriers in filmmaking are largely non-existent. We are spoiled for choice with ultra high resolution cameras, drones that cost next to nothing, and post production tools that can fix almost anything. Even our smartphones have capabilities our hand-cranking ancestors could have only dreamed of. Yet in this sea of digital possibilities, I still see the beauty in dialing it all back, in capturing an unfolding story through a humble lens in a gloriously analogue way.
For me, the process of making Highway Tea became one of restraint versus embellishment, simplicity versus complexity. I wanted to create the feel of a film that could be found in a time capsule. Laced up on a film projector and watched on a pull-down screen, its catchy music chiming over a monophonic loudspeaker. Enjoyed, for just a moment in time. A time in the distant future, no doubt.
For some fun behind-the-scenes clips of Highway Tea, check out the following:
In the context of time, 37 seconds isn’t much, but for Yuma Takada, it’s the difference between living a normal life, versus the one she leads as a person suffering from cerebral palsy. This coming of age movie tells the story of an aspiring, disabled manga artist as she struggles to overcome an overbearing mother, a devious and capricious friend, and the sad memories of a childhood without a father, on her way to achieving her artistic dream and finding her freedom.
The eponymous movie is director Hikari’s first feature film, and packs considerable emotional punch. A little background; Hikari and I have worked together for the better part of a decade. Back in 2012 I graded Tsuyako, her award-winning short film, and in 2013 A Better Tomorrow, which premiered at Cannes later that year. I’ve always loved Hikari’s passion and her desire to tell difficult, gut-wrenching stories. With 37 Seconds beautifully photographed on location in Japan and Thailand, I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the visuals, but first I needed to understand Hikari’s vision and the motivations of Yuma as she navigates a world of adult comics, drag queens and a raging intergalactic war!
From script to casting and back again
Hikari’s bold decision to cast Mei Kayama, a young actress with cerebral palsy, in the lead role is perhaps serendipitous in hindsight, as she adds a dimension to Yuma that perhaps is only possible with an actress who struggles with each movement, every take. “Mei rides an electronic wheelchair, which makes blocking quite challenging. Since she was a first-time actress, we planned for 45 shooting days which was 10 days more than what we would normally schedule”, Hikari recalls.
What is even bolder is her decision to change course as a result of casting Mei: “The script was originally about a young woman who was paralyzed but once I auditioned Mei – who has cerebral palsy but not paralyzed (as the script called for) – I changed the story to fit her physicality.” It’s this appetite for risk-taking, as well as a willingness to adjust to new opportunities as they present themselves, that is a hallmark of a successful Indie filmmaker.
Moving with the flow
37 Seconds was produced in association with NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. In a world where 4K TV inches closer to becoming the norm, and with NHK historically being a technology trailblazer, certain requests were made to the filmmakers. Stephen Blahut, the cinematographer, explains how this affected his choice of camera: “The film had certain obligations that meant we had to plan for a 16:9 aspect ratio and 4K deliverable.” Thankfully the movie was shot in 2018, where you could have had your pick of any number of 4K+ cameras. For his A Camera, Stephen went with the Red Dragon, a 6K camera, and a set of Cooke S4 lenses, as well as 100mm Zeiss macro lens for detail shots.
It’s primarily with this setup that the filmmakers achieved one of the most standout features of 37 Seconds, the striking photography. It is both static and dynamic, dramatic yet sensitive. Stephen elaborates: “Hikari and I discussed this early on. At the start we wanted to distance the audience from Yuma, establishing them as sort of voyeurs. (We) kept the camera back and chose to have longer takes with locked off frames. I find this method encourages the audience to actively engage and think about what is going on in the frame, rather than swiftly moving past the image. It’s strenuous and rewarding at the same”.
“As the film progresses we desired to push into Yuma’s interior space and introduced dynamic elements to the shot structure. As far as striking a balance is concerned, this came through in-depth conversation between Hikari, who is also a cinematographer, and myself. We spoke at length about the relationship from scene to scene and what we were building to.”
The primary setup worked great for the majority of the movie, but there were certain scenes were the camera and the crew needed to be inconspicuous. Stephen explains: “One particular series of shots chronicles Yuma moving through the infamous Kabukichō red-light district in Tokyo. Given the nature of the environment it was essential to air on the side of caution. With a background in street photography, I traveled to the district to get a sense of the space. Hikari and I scouted the location, establishing both angles and a path for the lead actress to travel so we could be as efficient as possible on the day of the shoot. We paired down the personnel to a skeleton crew of myself, the director, and a few other team members that would hold at a distance. We opted for a Sony AS7ii paired with a DJI Ronin S Gimbal. The small package made us look like a documentary or maybe even made me look like a tourist. We were in and out in under an hour!”
A Look For All Seasons
Part of securing financing for any movie is the ‘package’ put together for potential investors. This typically includes the logline and memorable sound bites, as well as brief biographies of key cast and crew. What always stand out though are the glitzy pictures used to convey the overall ‘feel’ of the movie. In the case of 37 Seconds, both Hikari and Stephen collaborated on these pictures, their efforts culminating in a Look Book. “It was a great project for me to work on because I became acquainted with (Hikari’s) intentions, and an invaluable document in my opinion for the director, the colourist, and cinematographer. It can really establish a clear touch point for the film”, Stephen reasons.
Early on, Hikari envisioned her movie going through three different Looks, or phases: cold Tokyo, representing Yuma’s stagnant situation; passion scenes, which included Yuma discovering Tokyo’s night scene and her experience at the Love Hotel, and earthy tones, as Yuma grows as a person through knowledge and experience. Each look would reinforce Yuma’s journey and state of mind.
Before a single frame was shot, Hikari, Stephen and myself brainstormed these ideas over a Skype call between Tokyo and LA. There were the different sections of the movie, which needed to flow in and out of each other organically, as well as specific scenes such as the Love Hotel, which would be bathed in a strong magenta light. That intensity would be pushing up against the primary camera’s colour gamut, I observed at the time.
With these ideas in mind, I was sent some early test footage to create various Looks. These included interiors under both daylight and night time conditions (tungsten and fluorescent), as well as a few shots lit to simulate the aforementioned love hotel setup. I banked these Looks and refined them over time leading up to the DI of the movie.
From Look Book to Reality
From a colourist’s perspective, a Look Book provides some guidelines. While few movies fit into neat, pre-defined sections like this, it does inform you as to how to treat certain scenes, certain situations. At the same time, the movie and the protagonist are complex. Their emotions go on a roller coaster ride and take us, the audience, with them. Stephen agrees: “We wanted to keep the look book in mind when shooting the film but felt no obligation to adhere to the system we created. It really became more of guideline in the end”.
With ideas swirling, I thought about the stylized look of manga characters, with accentuated, inky lines and strong contrast, not dissimilar to a Japanese person’s slick black hair against skin that is typically paler. Getting that contrast right is tricky; traditional ‘linear’ controls such as lift, gamma and gain can easily lob off shadows and dock highlights on their way to adding contrast, and an S-Curve can stretch out the mid tone, leaving it ‘thin’. Therefore, I turned to Soft Light. This blend mode is based on the relationship of shadows and highlights to 50% grey; anything lighter than mid grey gets brighter and anything darker gets heavier. By starting off with ‘gentle contrast’ in each scene, I could use a Soft Light and opacity to control the ‘inkiness’ of the shadows, giving me progressive contrast and snappier highlights. Then if I needed a shot to be brighter or darker, I simply used overall gamma to bounce the mid tone up or down, without affecting the black/white anchor points or relative contrast. This proved crucial as we continued to refine the tone of the film; “Mei had much more of an innocent look than I anticipated, and her disability was very different than what it was in the original script, so we went more towards a brighter tone”, Hikari recalls.
To complement my blending mode approach, I decided on a ‘bias-based’ technique for the colour treatment. This forgoes the ‘typical’ clean whites/blacks approach, which all too often can suck the life out of a picture, stepping over the subtle differences of shadows tinting one way while the highlights sway in another direction. By choosing to bias the colour of the image, you respect the original photography, yet augment it with the style that is required.
For this I turned to Curves. For the majority of Tokyo scenes, I used the Blue/Cyan curves, particularly the -> Saturation and -> Density curves to gives those colours extra depth. These adjustments bend the image towards colder tones, without the coolness riding roughshod over the warmer colours, which is so important for healthy looking skin tones. Similarly, for Thailand, I used the Green/Yellow curves to capture the beauty of the jungle and the stickiness of the humidity, again keeping the other warm colours at a baseline that made sense.
By using this bias based approach to grading the movie, we were able to control how much ‘Thailand’ we wanted, or how much ‘Tokyo’. For example, when Yuma returns home in the end, Stephen wanted her to bring back a bit of Thailand with her, to signify the warmth she was bringing back to her mother. I simply used my Thailand grade and picked 50% opacity, and now we had a subdued warmth as we combined the original Tokyo look with some ‘heat’ from Thailand.
Forcing a scene that is warm earlier in a movie to a colder tone later on is something we see repeatedly, and many times it looks fake and forced. This technique is often used to enforce the emotional state of the characters, or to express the overall mood of the scene. However, in the scene where the mother confronts Yuma after going through her possessions, the tsuchikabe walls in Yuma’s house can’t suddenly turn blue because she’s having a confrontation with her mother. Did someone swap out the light bulbs?!
So I went with the photography of the scene, which was more naturally lit but also had a strong key light. I increased the gain significantly, while dropping the mid tones deeper, which has the effect of thrusting the characters into the limelight. Then I pushed some very strong vignettes, rotating them from shot to shot to make sure they weren’t hiding any faces. The vignettes serve to separate the characters from the background, and to heighten the conflict between them.
For the Love Hotel, we can see a clear thread between the Look Book, the early tests we did, and the final result we ended up with. The strong magenta is a bold choice, and a welcome one. The colour has become anathema in grading circles, and in my mind that is a problem, as this gorgeous colour can represent passion just like the colour red, but at the same time adds overtones of sleaze and ambiguity. The magenta that bathes the Love Hotel is a culmination of the use of that colour, as we build up to it from the point where Yuma begins to discover the Tokyo night life. From the scene where Yuma encounters the drag queens, to her detour into the famous Kabukichō red-light district, Hikari and I had a few arm wrestles over how much magenta we should ‘creep in’, but in the end we both felt that its use made the picture richer and more layered.
In a final ‘twist’ to our magenta journey, we swing wildly to a sea of cyan as Yuma washes her shame in the bathroom. The saturation of the cyan against the Soft Light, dense black deliver the punch and conclusion to this episode of Yuma’s self-discovery.
Distance? What distance!
With the movie having such an unconventional plot, it should come as no surprise that the DI was anything but conventional. With the director, DP and colourist all located in different parts of the world, we needed a way to communicate our ideas and address notes over a robust feedback channel, regardless of time zone. Enter Frame.io, a leader in the world of cloud-based video review and collaboration.
From the very first Skype call I had with both the director and DP, to the remote review sessions, to the exchange of media through Frame.io, this is a project that could not have been executed using the ‘traditional’ way. As a big fan of the service, I’d used Frame.io on countless smaller projects (shorts, music videos), but never on a feature. A 4K feature, and one that would require regular uploads, deliveries to and from multiple vendors, and a paper trail for every step of the way. So we rolled up our sleeves and took the plunge.
On studio pictures, remote services between your creative team members is not a big deal, and that’s because the client pays a pretty penny to have those services available to them. But what about the independent filmmaker, who often has similar demands, but pockets that are more holey than deep? That’s where services like Frame.io enter the picture. Hikari recalls the transition to working this way: “At first it was challenging because of the time difference. But then it became so much easier because of the ease-of-use of Frame.io; I was able to review all the reels as they progressed through colour, share my thoughts down to the specific section of the image, and receive feedback from Milton, our colourist. Being able to work interactively this way meant that I could still work closely with Milton, even though I was in Japan, which was wonderful!”
Our utilization of Frame.io didn’t end with remote reviews. After delivering VFX pulls to multiple vendors through Frame.io, and realizing that it made the process so much more efficient, we moved more and more of our day-to-day activities to Frame.io; VFX deliveries back to us (versus hard drives), reel turnovers, complete with Avid Bins, media and offlines, and communication between team members all benefitted from the process. We reviewed entire reels. Created manifests out of CSV exports. We came 90% close to approving the final movie, all while achieving phenomenal transfer speeds. We became so comfortable with the process that uploading hundreds of gigabytes of data a day became common practice.
The strength of a service like Frame.io is not merely the wonderfully thought out and crafted tools that the company offers, or even the open Application Programming Interface (API) that allows you to customize the service to your heart’s content. The opportunity comes in the risk that it encourages the filmmaker to take, to replace ‘traditional’ processes with disruptive ones, which streamline the moviemaking process as a whole. For that we thank the hard working NY-based team at Frame.io.
Remember to smile!
Just like Hikari’s decision to take a gamble on Mei, and change the script to reflect her reality, Hikari’s message is bold yet nuanced: “Don’t hold back. Allow experiences to happen, because you never know what doors they may open. And remember to have fun with it all”. I don’t know any filmmaker worth their salt who would disagree with that statement!
37 Seconds Premiered at the 69th Berlin Film Festival to critical acclaim. It won both the Audience Award as well as the CICAE Art Cinema Award under the prestigious Panorama section. It is also an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019. The movie was produced by knockonwood, Inc. Films Boutique has picked up sales and Netflix is the worldwide distributor.
All images courtesy of Knockonwood Inc.
In Never Hike Alone, director Vincent DiSanti dances on the fringes of the biggest horror franchise of all time, Friday the 13th. In this fan movie, we follow Kyle McLeod (Andrew Leighty), an adventure blogger on a mission to find the infamous camping grounds of Crystal Lake. Throughout the movie he documents his progress with his action camera, the entries of which become progressively grimmer, as his survival skills are put to the extreme test in a game of cat and mouse with the camp’s resident serial killer, Jason Voorhees.
The video diary style plays well to a younger audience brought up on Facebook Live and a ‘found footage’ approach to filmmaking popularized by another long running franchise, Paranormal Activity. At the same time there is plenty of meat for lifelong fans to sink their teeth into. Pun not intended!
From the sweeping camera angles to the locations to the design – Never Hike Alone screams of production values typically associated with a studio picture, not an Indie crafted together using blood, sweat and little help from Kickstarter. The result is a movie that adds to the horror lore of Friday the 13th, albeit in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.
The Hidden Location
Like any independent filmmaker knows, one of the hardest things to cheat on a project like this is the design. For a major studio picture, you have the funds and the means to build almost anything you can imagine, either practically or virtually. With Indies, you’re down to whatever you can put together on a shoestring budget, or, for the more resourceful filmmaker, what you can find.
Through a passing conversation with a couple Vince had been working with during the original trailer, they casually mentioned an abandoned camp up the road, College Camp, and whether he’d be shooting there. What followed was something akin to a real-life sleuth investigation that had Vince superimposing a phone image over a paper map, in search of the location equivalent to the holy grail. “I began zooming in and scanning a satellite view of the forest where I eventually found one of the buildings tucked between a grouping of trees. From there I traced a path that seemed like a road leading all the way back to the highway.”
That path led him to College Camp; “from that moment, we knew we had struck gold”. The abandoned camp – with its cavernous main cabin hall, creepy attic and countless rooms and buildings – would fatefully become Camp Crystal Lake in Never Hike Alone, allowing Vince to expand the scope of the story he wanted to tell.
Toys of the Trade
As someone who’s graded a fair share of Indies, I’m used to dealing with cameras of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s due to budgetary constraints, coverage needs over a compressed timescale, or just the desire to eek the best picture possible out of the most unlikely of cameras, Indie filmmakers have always pushed the boundaries in this area.
At the start of Never Hike Alone, the primary narrative camera was the Sony A7sii. This seemed like the best DSLR choice at the time, producing the most filmic images, but production is rarely just about the final result: “Its major downfall was that it was a difficult camera to rig as it required several accessories that never seemed to work together simultaneously. On top of that, the rig had trouble keeping up with the physical demands of the fight scenes and slowed us down a ton on set”, DiSanti recalls.
- Red Epic 8K
- Varicam 35
- Sony FS7
- Sony A7sii
- DJI Phantom 3 Professional
- (x2) Go Pro Hero 4 Blacks
ZEISS ZF LENSES:
- 25mm f/2.0
- 35mm f/1.4
- 50mm f/1.4
- 85mm f/1.4
But as luck would have it, cameraman Evan Butka, who’d been renting Vince his beautiful Zeiss lenses for the movie, became enamored with the project. He soon jumped onboard, bringing along his Red Epic 8K camera. “Shooting with the Red made life so much easier from a technical standpoint and of course gave us beautiful 8K images that would give us much more leeway in post.”
In another twist of kindness, Evan introduced Vince to Ben Meredith, another cameraman who would step in when Evan wasn’t available. And what do cameramen have? Cameras – this time a Varicam 35, ideal for low light situations; “We relied on the Varicam to capture a lot of our night and early morning scenes. Overall that camera is a workhorse that never let us down or gave us any issues.”
Finally, to round things off, Co-DP JD Martz brought with him his personal Sony FS7, which ended up becoming the B camera for the majority of the production. “It was great for guerrilla shooting when the main production cameras were not available. Most of the scene of Kyle running from camp with Jason giving chase was shot with that camera.”
Of Lin & Log
Working with many different cameras doesn’t have to be a nightmare; if all the material has a video gamma-style transfer curve (like Rec709), you can create a base by dialing out any differences using a primary grade, upon which you apply your Looks and other tweaks such as sharpness. This was my approach when matching the DJI Phantom shots with the Sony cameras throughout the extreme hiking scenes, as well as the night showdown between Kyle and Jason. For the ‘video diary’ footage though, the intention was to retain a visual difference between the punchy, ultra-sharp Go Pro material, and the more filmic narrative pictures from the Red Epic. As such, I kept the former bright and vivid and let any corrections ride in most instances, even if it meant blowing out highlights. However, for the latter I kept the contrast in check more than I normally would to create a softer look.
The real challenge arose when Log and Lin material were intercut. This happens throughout the movie, especially during the fight and chase scenes. In these instances it is important to consider the final deliverable. “Our original goal was to release the film for free on YouTube, however, we found ourselves with a unique opportunity to premiere at the Telluride Horror Show”, DiSanti informed us when we started testing the pipeline. With that information, I could make some decisions.
This setup for me meant a 709 world (sRGB on most computer screens), and thus I chose to convert my log images to video gamma using a base correction (versus using an output LUT). Since the conversion was ‘live’, I could always dig beneath it to retrieve any blown or crushed details, while reaping the benefits of a ‘homogenised’ timeline, allowing me to easily apply Looks between the Lin and Log material. Since the pictures were pretty much bang on in terms of exposure, we had minimal problems.
For the Red material specifically, the manufacturer gives you a plethora of choices for just about any occasion. Unlike other jobs where I typically choose to work in RedLogFilm space, for Never Hike Alone I chose RedColor2 / RedGamma2 for my colourspace and transfer curve. This gave me rich images with a slightly flatter look, perfect to use as a starting point.
Out of the can, the images looked beautiful, but lacked uniformity. This was purely down to the varying capabilities of the cameras, as well as the intercutting style between the video diary shots and the narrative footage. Before considering any specific Look treatments, it was essential to balance everything out.
From a colour perspective, I wanted to create a distinction between the time when Kyle is looking for Camp Crystal Lake, when he actually finds it, when Jason finds him, to the time the terror unfolds in and around the camp and beyond.
For the exteriors near the camp, there was a lot of warmth in the environment; this is Southern California in mid Spring, where any green ground cover can quickly dry out under the bright sun, casting russets and golden hues across the underbrush. Those colours impart a warm and inviting feel, the opposite of the foreboding Look I was aiming for.
To set that tone, I modified a Look I’d used for a past job – June Gloom. Basically, you start by selecting three colours – yellow, red and magenta – from the black point all the way up to the mid tone, with a good deal of feathering into the highlights. Those ranges are then desaturated, leaving behind the cooler colours, but also some life in the skin tones. On first glance the image appears to cool, but it’s misleading: the absence of warmth is what tricks your eye into thinking the image is much bluer. The modification I made to this Look was to further saturate the greens and blues left behind, as well as any warm colours left behind that were key story points.
The result is a creepy, ominous look that repels any inherent warmth in the image (like the fried underbrush). It’s especially effective on cloudier days, which are devoid of brighter highlights.
It’s in the Sky!
Nothing makes a picture look like a million dollars more than well timed aerial footage, and this movie has plenty of it. “I purchased a [DJI Phantom 3 Professional] and learned to fly it on my own for the production.” DiSanti states. And watching the movie – from the breathtaking reveal over the lake to the epic crane as the ambulance races off leaving Jason in its wake – I would say he didn’t do a half bad job: “The hardest shot in the entire film was definitely the shot where Kyle runs across the log while the camera dollies forward over a large creek.” So if the director thing doesn’t work out Vince, then he can always be a drone operator!
Never Hike Alone premiered at Telluride Horror Show to glowing reviews as well as simultaneously launching online on YouTube. The movie continues to rein in hundreds of thousands of horror fans from around the world, and has ticked up to an astonishing 900K+ views on YouTube. Lifelong fans of the Friday the 13th series haven’t felt this good about a Friday film since the 80s. “What seemed like a pipe dream early on in the process ended up being an experience I will certainly never forget”, DiSanti concludes.
The scope of the project is probably captured best by Greg Emerson, the online editor for the project: “Never Hike Alone was a full throttle 4K DI editorial job: six different camera types with variations in resolution, aspect ratio and bit depth. Digital FX, paint outs, variable re-speeds, reticule overlays…the show had everything that a $100M, big studio film would.”
For my full interview with director Vincent DiSanti, check out The Search for Camp Crystal Lake.