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:
My collaboration with Cinematographer Salvador Lleo continues with Tsuyako, a story set in postwar Japan, where a factory worker and mother must decide between duty and love, her family and freedom. The short was directed by Mitsuyo Miyazaki in her home town back in Japan.
The five and a half day shoot was a gruelling one, with 14 hours of footage for a running time of 27 minutes. Capturing that amount of footage in that short amount of time also meant that compromises had to be made, specifically with the lighting setups of each scene. Welcome to the world of Indy filmmaking!
The images that Salvador has captured for Tsuyako do justice to the textures and the nuances that come from hundreds of years of aging. This is the kind of stuff that is hard to reproduce on a soundstage, and from the images below you can see why. The weathered wood, the scratched steel, the dirt and grime and hard graft are all on display. For Tsuyako, Salvador used a set of standard speed Zeiss lenses T2.1, along with his Red One camera. He felt that “the low contrast and soft quality of the glass helps to round off the ‘digital edge’ of a super high resolution digital camera such as the Red One”. And he’s right, because in the absence of film stocks, you need to make the glass work harder in order to create the images that you want. Salvador’s philosophy is that “the pairing of old and new was optimal for creating a more organic and filmic image that is in tune with the period piece”.
The factory scenes were a lot of fun to colour time, specifically because of the way that Salvador used fluorescent lighting: as a fill light to his warmer tungsten key light. The secret to working with any fluorescent source from a colour timing perspective is avoiding clipping. Although this may sound like common sense, it is even more profound when using this kind of light source, because fluorescents tend to leave a horrible green ‘residue’ around the clipped areas vs. daylight or tungsten. Keep the whites legal though and you will get some strong yellow/green seeping through the image that will add body to any industrial-type setting.
Tsuyako recently won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2011 Palm Spring International Shortfest. You can read about the awards in the festival press release here, as well as in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
For more stills from the movie, visit the Gallery.
You can reach Salvador Lleo’s personal website here.
Do It is a short directed by Steve Petersen, Co-founder and Creative Director at Big Machine Design. This was Steve’s first foray into the medium of filmmaking, and an attempt to prove that he could tell a story in a format longer than the 30 second TV spots he has mastered over the years.
The story is about Bernie, a tormented pharmacy clerk who has delusions of putting society right by killing the current ineffective mayor and replacing him with another. Tormented by his demons and his inability to act, Bernie’s’ vivid fantasies get him into trouble more than once, and prove to him that ultimately the only way to fix the problem is to come up with a plan and just Do It!
Coming from the graphic design world, Steve is a very visual director, and for Do It he incorporated many graphic elements into his movie: graffiti splattering across the walls as Bernie wanders the streets at night, depicting his inner thoughts, as well as hand drawn title cards that break up each act. Steve also wanted this ‘superhero comic style’ to be present in all the live action sequences. For example, Bernie tries to overcome his loneliness and low self-esteem by fantasizing about being superhuman. In this altered state he becomes the hero, beating up the bad guys and saving the day. When he comes down from his ‘high’, we are back in his dreary world. Steve wanted to match the framing and the pace of each scene with recognisable colour cues to signify the state Bernie was in, augmenting the intense graphical style.
The challenge was to balance the intense look Steve wanted with some ‘breather’ scenes that would give the audience time to reset their eyes! If everything is super intense all the time, the effect quickly wears off. Luckily, the story provided opportunities for a more mellow palette in some scenes, particularly the ones where Bernie is going about his drab and mediocre life.
For all the pharmacy scenes, I decided to use a muted and cooler palette. I started off by balancing out the blacks and highlights, and then dialing down the saturation by 20%, which is a substantial amount on a well exposed image. I also added a slight blue tint to the mid tones. This gave me a good base and starting point.
All the bottles on the shelves and Bernie’s blue uniform still felt very vivid, so I qualified both the blues and greens and brought those down separately. I left the reds where they were because I didn’t want to desaturate the skin tones further.
To give the image a little bit of ‘snap’, I used a luminance key to select the highlights and then brought up the gain, which added contrast to Bernie’s face. I also let the highlights burn off a little, pulling the eye further away from Bernie’s blue uniform that still felt a little pronounced. Bringing the saturation down further would have made it look monochromatic.
For the images below, which I fondly referred to as the ‘Abbey Road’ setup, I started off by stretching the image to the point where my brightest areas (car on the right) were clipping. When I’m going for a high contrast look, I usually try to either crush the blacks or blow out the highlights, rarely doing both. This avoids the much dreaded ‘video look’. I then warmed up the highlights, knowing that I’d get red ‘contamination’ in the sky, but I would take care of that later on. For my blacks I went more towards green; the combination of red highlights and green blacks pushes orange into the mid tones, picking up the warmth in the buildings and the tarmac.
Then I treated all the primaries separately, blasting saturation in the blues and to a lesser extent the greens, while reducing the saturation in a narrow band of reds. This gave me rich red highlights from my base correction, without the excessive tint in the skin tones. I then burned off the corners with a strong vignette, while qualifying the sky inside of the shape and boosting the gain a little. This created a halo effect coming from behind the skyscrapers in the background. I also then took out the red I had introduced in my base correction.
Finally I did an overall grade, pulling the highlights and mid tones towards a cooler palette, and again boosting overall saturation. I almost always do a grade on top of all my other corrections, largely because this has the effect of rolling all the colours into one unified look.
You can visit the Do It gallery by using the following link.