Extreme-location filmmaking and film/HD convergence
The challenge: produce a dramatic feature film, set entirely in the Amazon rainforest, using indigenous actors, on a tight budget. Oh yeah, and we insisted that we needed to shoot on film.
Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God tells the true story of a Yanomamö shaman in the Amazon rainforest, immersing viewers in the supernatural battle for the survival of his people. We spent almost five years in preparation and false starts before principal photography began in January 2007. Our process of shooting on film in a very remote location and our subsequent post-production workflow is a case study in the convergence of film and HD.
Step One: Pre-production planning. As we began to plan for production, our intention was to do everything in the Venezuelan jungle village and surrounding areas where the events of the movie actually took place. The location is only accessible by boat (several days’ journey past the guerilla-infested Columbian border) or by small airplane served by a grass airstrip. We would have a very small professional crew: Producer, Director, DP, 1st AC, Sound, and Make-Up. The rest of the crew and all of the actors would be indigenous Yanomamö and a few white people who grew up in the area and still live the village. And our goal was to shoot a feature-length film whose story covers forty years of Yanomamö history. You can call us crazy for any number of reasons.
We were committed to shooting on film. We felt that film alone would give us the naturalistic look we wanted, with rich jungle colors and range of light and shadow. The dynamic range of light in the jungle is extreme, with shafts of bright highlights beneath the dense canopy where it almost feels like night. With a small crew and equipment package we would have limited control of the existing light. Also, we were not sure that high-end HD cameras would be able to handle the extreme conditions: heat, humidity, rain, mud, and generally rough conditions far from the nearest town. We would be well out of reach of technical support that would likely be available only in North America. Therefore, we made the decision to shoot most of the film on Super16mm, using two Aaton LTR-54 cameras with a complete set of lenses including Zeiss super-speed primes and a Canon 8-64 zoom. Some key scenes that called for more resolution such as wide jungle shots and some of our blue screen shots would be shot on 35mm using a wild Arri IIC camera. Our jungle film stock tests, done nearly two years before we actually began production, showed us that the Kodak Vision2 stocks would be ideal for what we were doing. We would shoot as much as possible on the amazing 50D stock with scenes shot in the deep dark of the jungle or at night depending on the faster companion stocks. Most of the film is shot in natural light with very little additional lighting.
While prepping in Venezuela, we found a lab and transfer facility in Caracas, Bolivar Films, that we felt could do the job well. Still, we had to plan some unusual steps to ensure the safety of our negative, including the excavation of pits in the cool jungle soil for film storage, as we would not have dependable electricity and storage facilities. We anticipated only being able to ship film sporadically, perhaps only a few times during production. And there was no communication with the outside world except for radio and a very clever VHF radio e-mail system. No internet, of course.
Ultimately, the political situation in Venezuela deteriorated to the point that we were forced to relocate production to a more predictable spot, ultimately landing in the Central American country of Belize. With the help of the Film Commissioner, the late Emory King, we devised a new plan for locations, sets, actors, production facilities (all brought in or built by us), and for processing our negative in Toronto. John Petrella, our Director of Photography, worked closely with the Director, Christopher Bessette and our colorist, Colin Moore, at Technicolor in Toronto.
Step Two: Production. Our meetings at Technicolor laid out a plan to ship exposed negative from Belize to Toronto where Colin would do a best-light transfer of all of the negative directly to D5 tape. This workflow would give us the best look and dependability we were after from shooting on film, but would give us more flexibility via digital post. We would receive down-converted footage on DV-CAM tape in our office in Denver, CO. I was traveling back and forth between the US and Belize but I was also editing the film, which was not ideal, but workable. John and Christopher were able to view clips and select stills that I posted on a web page I set up for the film. No dailies (or even weeklies) were part of the deal. In the end, our trust in Colin to keep an eye open for problems, combined with occasional phone calls between John and Colin, kept things on track.
Colin’s reports were consistently enthusiastic and encouraging to the crew on the field. Our two-person camera department (with Assistant Cameraman, Paul Cuthbert) did an amazing job and we had only a couple of shots that needed a little extra attention in the final color sessions. If you can imagine shooting an entire feature on location in the jungle with a minimal crew of mostly first-timers, with indigenous actors, far from the resources found in North America, you can appreciate the amazing job John and Paul pulled off. The cameras worked flawlessly. That is, they always delivered a consistent, beautiful image even when electrical problems caused inconveniences like blown video assist units. As much as I love HD video cameras, a short-circuit would likely take you down entirely. Our twenty-year-old Aatons were unfazed by such things. As long as the lens was clean and the film was pulling they produced solid, amazing, state-of-the-art high-def images. We had planned a 46-day shooting schedule and we came in at 47-days!
In the end, some 150 reels of negative was shot and transferred from principal photography. We shipped negative weekly in small ice chests via the FedEx agent in Belize. We ran tests in advance to be sure the packages would not be x-rayed in their circuitous route to Toronto. (There is no such thing as overnight to/from Belize. Sometimes ‘overnight’ was 7 days, but usually the film arrived at Technicolor in 2-3 days, in fine shape.)
Step Three: Post. Technicolor’s process was great for us, even though we were sort of making things up as we went along. One part of our workflow included the transfer of selected visual FX shots for compositing by Keyframe Digital Productions in southern Ontario. As I edited scenes needing visual effects, I roughed them together in FinalCut using the DV-CAM dubs. Once I had the timing together I sent cut lists of all of the footage layers back to Technicolor and they re-transferred the original negative to uncompressed digital files (Targa sequences) and sent them on hard drives to Keyframe. I sent QuickTime movies of my effects rough-ins to Keyframe for their reference and they matched the Targa sequences and did their additional magic to the scenes. We had several scenes that made use of blue screens and some scenes that needed rotoscoping. In the end, the effect scenes were flawless, whether they were intended to be very naturalistic or they were more impressionistic scenes of the Yanomamö spirit world.
As I said, I edited the film in FinalCut using the downcoverted footage. The footage came with telecine logs that I used to generate batch lists via CinemaTools. All of our sequences were 24fps to match the D5 tapes and we had no problem with translating the FCP EDLs between systems. That is, it worked great for much of the film that was simple cuts. The complications came when Christopher and I began to fine-tune the cut of the film and began to develop a much more stylized cut that included significant use of off-speed shots and layers. Once you get into that stuff, the translation from FinalCut to any other system becomes much more complicated.
Principal photography had wrapped in March 2007. By July 1, I had a complete cut of the film. Christopher and I sat together in several edit sessions over the next few months to come up with our “Director’s Cut” in early September. Once we had that together, I began to worry about the workflow we had outlined several years earlier with Technicolor. We had been aiming to keep things in a form that would easily end in a film-out to 35mm for theatrical exhibition. However, we are a very small independent company with a film that would have a long road to a theatrical release even in the best of circumstances.
As we began to look at distribution realities combined with the complexity of our cut, we met again with
Technicolor’s post-production gurus to talk over the best path for us. Having a finished cut of the film was helpful of course, because now we had reality staring us in the face, rather than the dream of several years before. My main question now was whether or not there was a workflow that would tie in to FinalCut Pro. More than one other filmmaker had told me the nightmares of converting to AVID or trying to translate the FinalCut project into anything else without technical gymnastics that were sure to break our budget and our creative enthusiasm. Fortunately, by that time, in the fall of 2007, Technicolor had just installed a FinalCut system with the intention of making more cost-effective post-production paths for filmmakers like us. This option meant that we gave up our smooth path to a 35mm film-out, but it gave us a much smoother path to a standard HD finish. In our case, we decided an HD-CAM master would do, even if we had some limited theatrical opportunities. This shift meant that Technicolor could take my FCP project files and ingest the D5 transferred footage easily and create an HD-CAM master tape, ready for a final color-correct with Colin. He assured us that he could do almost anything in that color space, especially because we were correcting for television and DVD, not theatrical projection via a film print.
Mark Betteridge, the FCP editor at Technicolor, did a fantastic job to conform our FCP sequences. Apparently our housekeeping was pretty good as we only had one shot that was out of place when we got to the final color sessions. I had feared the worst but was very pleased with Mark’s attention to detail, especially when he did have to match re-positioning by eye at times. (I had honestly expected to have a lot of corrections to make, based on experiences at other post-houses; sorry to doubt you, Mark!)
Mark created an HD-CAM master tape using my sequence reels, and then Colin worked his magic. The fact that Colin did the original best-light negative transfers proved very valuable since he already knew the footage and what we were looking for. The color-correct sessions went flawlessly even with a lot of experimentation to get the right look for our spirit-world scenes. As it always should, the final color sessions added one more layer of creative impact to the film and the final result exceeded our expectations. Beginning with John’s incredible footage, Colin made magic.
Happily, audiences have also responded enthusiastically. The Enemy God has screened in numerous festivals and has been awarded for its achievement in cinematography, among other awards. The film is now moving through the challenging world of indie film through our distributor, Entertainment 7. You can see trailers for the film and a limited-edition DVD release can be found on our web site: www.TheEnemyGod.com
Tom Khazoyan is one of the Producers and Editor of Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God. The multi-award-winning film tells the true story of a former Yanomamö shaman and the spiritual battle for the survival of his people in the Amazon rainforest. More information about the film can be found at: www.TheEnemyGod.com