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:
By nature, shorts are made to attract an audience, either for festivals by first time directors launching their careers, or many times because a financier/studio wants to see what the filmmakers are capable of on a smaller scale. This makes shorts the perfect vehicles for experimentation, and this was certainly true for Dada, an absurd story of two brothers obsessed with stealing Marcel Duchamp’s shovel back from their arch nemesis: a greedy, drunken, perverted aristocrat. The story is set in the roaring twenties, with the kind of production design and wardrobe that entails.
Director of Photography Francisco Bulgarelli wanted something special, almost fantastical to support the story. The film he kept referencing was Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeanet’s masterpiece with its intense visual style. In light of this, I decided to give this period piece a kind of painterly, tinted look, with a twist: I wanted the pictures to look like those old photographs from the turn of the 20th century that we’re all used to seeing. They always seem so dark, probably because of the slow lenses of the day and the lack of interior light. I wanted the characters to feel like they were being engulfed by darkness!
In the chess scene, I started off with a base grade, playing with contrast and density and making sure that I had good colour separation. Even though sometimes my intentions are to really push an image, I always want to start off from a neutral point as a reference. The next step was creating a luminance key starting with the blacks and going into the mid tones. I really crashed down the saturation and the gamma here, and this is the single most important step for creating that painterly effect. It’s a very different effect to hitting the blacks with the lift and black saturation, and depending on the application, I sometimes use it when creating sepia or tinted looks.
Then I pushed in the tint, in this case desaturated red in the gain, while using my gamma to counter the mid tones. This helped to keep the blacks clean further down, and has a gentler effect than shifting the pedestal. Finally, I used a custom spline in the shape of a bell to create a vignette, and then finished it off by slightly glowing the highlights to simulate the light coming through the top right window. Voila!
In the above setup, I kept the tinted look but took advantage of the direct lighting to flush the skin tones with gold tones. The red curtain in the background was also punctuated but at the same time left to recede in the vignette I created in the top corners. The contrast between the red and the gold is a classic combination, and when I added the deep shadows, the whole picture sprung to life!
Dada was a fun little short to colour time, and a great opportunity to try out some new ideas.