Doing Good

Duncan Cole talks to Onfilm editor Nick Grant about making the leap to drama and switching to video when shooting Stuart Mckenzie's debut feature For Good, which begins its NZ release in February 2004.

What attracted you to For Good?

To be honest, because I had never shot any drama before, just the fact that it was a feature film made it pretty exciting. Having said that, I was also very much attracted to the script. I immediately thought it was unique, edgy and intelligent. It was also quite intimidating because it dealt with a lot of pretty dark stuff.

You've shot a shit load of music videos, as well as TVCs, but For Good is your first drama – did you feel you'd been chucked in at the deep end and it was sink or swim time?

Strange as it might seem I didn't actually feel unprepared. When you're doing TVCs and, in particular, music videos with a small budget, there's never enough preparation time. In the past that lack of time has thrown up some pretty terrifying situations and I think I've become accustomed to thinking on my feet and having to improvise feverishly on the day. You have to solve problems then and there – which is not without its charm. It's actually part of the fun a lot of the time. But with For Good, I was immediately aware that Stuart works in a very collaborative way with both his technical crew and his actors.
In pre-production we went through the script several times – we didn't storyboard but we did block everything out and we made notes and drew lots of crazy diagrams. We had the shots all worked out, and by the time we got to working I had a script so covered in notes and drawings that no one else could understand it.
So that level and depth of pre-production gave me a much greater sense of security than I'd ever had on, say, a music video. And by the time we actually started shooting, it was all there in my head and I was far from nervous – in fact, I was looking forward to it and just wanted to start shooting.

Of course, writer/director Stuart McKenzie was a first timer too – was that an advantage?

It's true that it was Stuart's first feature, as it was mine, but I don't think it's accurate to call him a "first timer". He's been involved in drama – in the theatre and making short films – forever. He had such a good handle on directing drama that he never came across like a first timer. In fact, I think I was probably the only first timer on the set, having never even been on a drama set before!

What was your brief from Stuart? Were there any key pieces of visual reference the two of you used?

In terms of visual style, Stuart wanted quite a naturalistic feeling, something that felt loose and unlit but quite rich at the same time. But we also knew from the beginning that we were going to have to shoot on video – and that wasn't going to make achieving that style very easy.

We watched all the movies that we could find that had been shot on video, such as the Dogma movies – The Celebration, Dancer in the Dark and so on. And they looked, almost without exception, pretty awful. Even though they often made good use of video's advantages – and lots of them were a really good watch as a result – they were only ever average in terms of the pictures. I'd have to say most of them never looked much better than low-budget porno.

There were two other great visual references Stuart gave me – Winterland and Mifune. They both looked unlit and quite naturalistic but they were also both shot on 16mm.
It quickly became pretty obvious that we were not going to be able to go out there and just blast away with a camera if we were going to make the pictures look better than most of those other features made on video.
At that stage I got Stuart to look at some of the atmospheric movies from the '70s that I really like – such as (DOP) Gordon Willis' films, like Klute and All The President's Men. They were a little more "lit" and had a more crafted feel than the Dogma movies, but they still had a very real feel.

In the end I think our model for a visual style came from somewhere in between those two kinds of movies. We were definitely lighting and controlling our environments but we were also trying to keep things looking quite natural.

How did you go about translating this brief into practice?

Early on, one of things I was very keen on was that we avoid shooting on a set at all costs. I thought we should just use locations; that we should find the best ones and make the best of them. My reason being that when you're shooting on a tight budget, finding a good location is always going to deliver a better picture than trying to make a set work.

I have to admit that we probably stretched ourselves in this – we did an exhaustive search for locations and eventually shot all over the place, from the top of the Wairarapa to Waikanae and everywhere in between. But I completely believe that shooting at those locations was really central to the way the film eventually looked.

How was shooting on video instead of film?

Probably the most nerve-wracking thing about the project was the worry of dealing with video. I had shot a couple of music vids on DV formats, but I had never had to try and extract an optimum performance out of a video camera.
The leaning curve was steep and I tested as much different equipment as I could. One of the first decisions we made was to steer away from handicams and go for a bigger ENG-style camcorder, not so much to avoid the "handicam look", but to take advantage of the better optics and the focal properties of a bigger CCD format.
Once we decided on a 2/3inch CCD, the options narrowed right down and it became a choice between Digital Betacam and DVCAM. The cameras themselves were pretty similar and the lenses were identical. The DigiBeta had a bit more menu system control over the look of the pictures it produced, while the DVCAM was more operator friendly – it was lighter and didn't need tape and battery changes as often.

When we really scrutinised the difference between the DigiBeta and DVCAM results, I was completely convinced DVCAM was the way to go.

The reason for this was that although the higher compression on DVCAM was compressing the colourspace slightly, it wasn't really discernible to the eye. In fact, the most noticeable effect the compression had was very slightly softening the image – which was more an advantage than anything.

So what kit did you use in the end?

We decided on the Sony DSR500 as a camera, and it worked really well. It was light and agile, it gave good control over the pictures and it had controls which allowed for accurate focussing via the viewfinder. Ergonomically it was a real pleasure to use – something I particularly appreciated since most of the film was shot off-the-shoulder.

For lighting we used mostly Kino Flo fixtures since we were always trying to soften the light – even when we were trying to contain it in pools – just to fight the inherent sharpness in the video format.

The lenses were more of a problem. The only options available were the regular ENG zoom lenses made specifically for video cameras. They were fast and versatile but optically shocking. They zoomed so noticeably when you racked focus that focus pulls had to be combined with a camera move just to hide the barreling. They were noticeably crappy wide open and they were really prone to flare.

How would you describe Stuart's approach on set?

Very much collaborative. Possibly because he comes from a theatre background, he's a real actor's director and he workshops everything with them to a great degree. Never having worked on feature before, it was great to watch this.

From my point of view, Stuart was always very open to input and suggestions during the pre-production process. He really let us go for it – which was fantastic and really fun too.

Speaking of which, how many days was the shoot?

Twenty days, plus a few more doing pick-up shots.

What were the most enjoyable aspects of working on For Good?

TVCs and music videos are always a short, sharp burst of madness. You prepare for the shoot, then you work a 20-plus hours a day, then it's all over and you're into post production. Whereas a feature film is obviously a much longer process. Because of that, you get on a roll and you really fine-tune lighting techniques as the shoot goes on.

What was the most challenging aspect (other than the tech stuff already covered)?

The weather! We were filming all over the lower North Island and Wellington basically had its worst December on record.

How (and when) did you get your start in the industry?

I've been a commercial and documentary photographer by trade for around 10 years now. In terms of getting started in the film industry, I was pretty much dropped – or actually, I may have jumped – in the deep end. My first DOP job – about six years ago – was making a couple of music vids for Shihad (now called Pacifier). And, yeah, I have to confess there was a little bit of bullshitting involved. My friend Kevin Spring, who directed the video, and I rented a 16mm camera from the National Film Unit. I didn't even know how to load it but we sort of bluffed our way through and we shot a couple of fairly decent music clips. Since then I've made about 60 music videos.

What are the attributes of a good DOP?

I could wonk on for ages about an ability to deal with framing and camera work, which are obviously essential. But for me personally I think a really thorough understanding of light, and how it works from the physics level up, is incredibly important. There are a lot of people sitting around the monitor having an input but I think a DOP's penultimate job is to make the pictures look good and juicy and a large part of that is controlling the light.

Anything else you'd like to mention?

I'd really like to add a little bit about the For Good post-production process. One really nice thing about shooting on video was the post-production options it opened up. We didn't have to add any special effects or composite shots, so when we came to do the final colour grading and tweaking we got to do it through a telecine suite at Oktobor.

Most people would usually use a computer-based online suite but I chose a telecine suite because there was more speed, power and flexibility available to us. It was also an environment that I was familiar with and it maximised what we could do within the limited time frame we had.
The online editor in Wellington also did a lot of work de-interlacing the video and removing aliasing artefacts.
Then we got to do a series of tests at Weta Digital to optimise the transfer of the digital file to film. I have to say that the people at Weta and their system were amazing and great to work with.

For Good was only standard PAL resolution to start with – but as a result of all of the above I think we got one of the best digital-to-film transfers I have ever seen and of which I think everyone can be pretty proud.

* This interview was first published in Onfilm magazine in February 2004, and is republished with permission.

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