PRODUCTION: The Harder They Come: Digital Shootout in Jamaica
by Yor-El Francis
(indieWIRE/12.11.00) -- The 2nd annual International Jamerican Film and Music Festival went the digital route this year with a workshop aimed at giving festival-goers a taste of the DV bug. A joint effort between the Los Angeles Film School and Island Jamaica Films (producers of the DV feature, "Dancehall Queen"), the course, titled Flashpoint, brought together 13 filmmakers and novices alike for the four-day duration of the festival, held in Montego Bay from November 15 through the 19th. indieWIRE decided to look at three of the filmmakers as a case study on the feasibility of shooting DV, it's challenges and it's rewards.
We begin in the classroom where the LA film school's Carolyn Pfeiffer, Kevin Atkinson, and Andre Bidwell sought to give each of the filmmakers enough technical know how to execute their shorts.
The students were taught to control the iris, the shutter speed, the gain, how to white balance; the advantages and disadvantages of the automatic focus; the differences between long-lens shots and wider shots and how they affect depth of field; and the use of neutral and polarizer filters. They also discussed aesthetics such as frame composition, camera movement, the differences between soft and hard light, and some of the in-camera digital effects of the Canon XL1, which all crews utilized.
The idea was to conduct intensive classes the first two days and then have the students shoot their shorts the last two days of the festival. In other words, these students had to absorb a barrage of information in a very short amount of time. They were comforted, however, by the fact that the course instructors intended to give technical support during their shoots (while being careful not to interfere with their projects.)
For sound considerations, the students were taught how to boom sound from a Sennheiser K-6 microphone into the MA-100 (the XL1 accessory that takes the XLR inputs) and how to mix within the camera.
The biggest challenge was to shoot a 30-second to three-minute short without cuts and with all elements included within the take -- meaning NO POST PRODUCTION -- everything was to be done in-camera.
One of the filmmakers we followed, Kingsley Roberts, is a student at the University of the West Indies, who aspires to be a network television producer. His idea seemed simple enough to do. It consisted of basic three-point lighting on a subject from a stationary camera. Only problem, two of the lights were D.O.A. His solution was walking a hotel lamp close to the camera and tightening the shot. Roberts also found that the XL1 is difficult to focus with the 16X automatic lens provided with the camera. According to the class instructor Kevin Atkinson, this is because "its internal motor disallows effective focus pulls."
So Kingsley used one of his recently acquired skills and put the lens on Manual focus and then used the 'Push Autofocus' button as he pulled focus. As far as ergonomics, Roberts felt the XL1 handled well and was great in the small space he shot in.
Another filmmaker we followed is Denise Lloyd, an aspiring documentarian. Her idea seemed fairly easy to execute. It was a one location, interior shoot with two lighting setups and a handheld camera that followed a constantly shifting subject. When asked how the XL1 fit her shooting needs, Lloyds was quick to point out that the XL1 worked very well for her, especially given the cramped quarters of the hotel room she had to contend with. "The camera allowed me to get the shots I wanted when I wanted them," Lloyd added. Her shoot, however, was not without snafus. The lights did not work because of the 220-volt capacity of the Jamaican electrical system, so an adapter had to be sought out which seriously cut into her shoot time.
She also faced a problem most independent filmmakers face when working on a zero budget with unpaid talent: her actors were no shows. Lloyd had to do a last minute replacement with a crew member and a woman she pulled off the beach who turned out to be a director for the television sitcom, "Moesha." All in all, Lloyd gave a thumbs up for the digital filmmaking experience, saying, "The XL1 for me was a very user friendly camera, especially with the settings that range from automatic to manual. This gave me what I felt was complete control over the image which was paramount to my cinematography."
The last filmmaker we followed was Bruce Hart, a seasoned professional behind the camera. He had worked with a few digital cameras before working on the XL1. His shoot was also the most ambitious project of the lot. He had four locations, all of which had to be lit with the same lighting kit and all of which had to be in the same shot. Add to that a night exterior shot and you've got a complex maze of problems on your hands. Hart's first glitch was a lighting power source. He ran into the same voltage problems as Denise and had to wait hours for the hotel to provide a voltage adapter. However, once the shoot got underway, Hart was able to capture some magnificent night exterior shots. "The camera was small enough to shoot under bushes and powerful enough to capture a compelling image. I played around a lot with the shutter speed, slowing it down and using that as a cool effect when my subject was running." Hart ended up winning the Best Cinematography award for Jamerican's Flashpoint Digital Video workshop.
The most interesting thing about these three case studies, though, is that despite the adaptability of the XL1 to shoot in difficult shooting conditions and it's seemingly easy handling, real world filmmaking problems always seem to crop up. It would seem that the old adage of pre-production being 90% of your actual production still holds true.
When asked about the workshop and Island Jamaica Film's interest in it, Island's Justine Henzell had this to add, "Island Jamaica was very eager to support this workshop since it could strengthen the vital foundation skills of the film industry in Jamaica."
For more information on the Flashpoint workshop, call 323-936-8951, or visit the Jamerican Film Festival web site: http://www.jamericanfilmfest.com/.
[Yor-El Francis is an independent filmmaker and a freelance writer working out of New York City. He is currently producing his first feature "No Doubt Yo," a hip-hop comedy.]