Archive for January, 2010

New Zealand Film

Recent news is that the NZ government contributed nearly $45m in the form of tax credits to the film Avatar. This is not some shonky one-off deal for James Cameron, but simply the application of the Large Budget Screen Production Fund (LBSPF). As a member of SPADA, which advocated for the LBSPF, I feel a bit mixed about it. CEO Penolope Borland has a point when she says:

“We will look back and see that the significance of the work on Avatar by Weta Digital heralds a completely new phase in New Zealand filmmaking,” says SPADA CEO Penelope Borland.  “As Weta Digital’s senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri has said, Avatar is the first major international film to come to New Zealand purely for the technological filmmaking knowledge built up here, rather than primarily because of New Zealand’s advantages as a location for shooting.  James Cameron credits Weta for their ingenuity, flexibility and capability.

The makers of Avatar spent $307m in NZ to qualify for their 15% tax rebate, which is clearly good from a commercial point of view. Most of it was spent at Peter Jackson’s Park Road studios, and there’s no doubt that his financial success has meant the establishment of a first rate production house in New Zealand, which will continue to encourage international films to come here.

On the other hand, the entire government vote for the NZFC is around $20m per year – much of which disappears in administration costs. In other words, taxpayers have contributed twice as much to a foreign film which has taken well over a billion dollars, than they have to the production of genuinely NZ films. My complaint really is not against the LBSPF, but against the minimalist support for one of the most important cultural media for telling authentic New Zealand stories.

Really and truly the debate is about the old age symbiosis of profit and art in the world of filmmaking. When the quality of a film (read ‘success’) is measured in how much popcorn is sold to how many punters, then the business side of movies is predominant. While this situation exists, Hollywood will use its massive resources to churn out bread and circuses for the masses, to the cost of films that actually have some meaningful content. Naturally enough, filmmaking has always been a hugely expensive playground, and the money needs to be earned back somewhere. So the commercial prospects of a film are a reality which everyone in the industry understands.

It’s the current level of imbalance which is of deep concern. One hope is the rise of digital cinema, which provides opportunities to make films for much less. It’s why we on The Insatiable Moon have been committed to Tom Burstyn’s philosophy of Frugal Filmmaking. And we will continue to pursue it in the marketing and distribution of the film. As far as government support goes, I’m not sure it can or even should be relied upon for quality domestic films. Maybe it’s time for Peter Jackson to put some money back into the bottom end of the market? What do you think?


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There’s been a lot of discussion about the sort of music we might use for the film. As I’ve said before, the soundscape is every bit as important to the way an audience perceives a story as the images through which it’s told. It’s not just for the emotional manipulation which is a feature of so many American movies where we’re instructed how we should be reacting to a particular scene. At it’s best, music complements and extends the meaning of a film through offering a broader sensual context. Think of Juno, where the soundtrack features a variety of artists who are perfectly fitted to the tone of the story.

Although the final music mix is one of the last stages of post, it is something that deserves thinking about. Small budget project that we are, we’ve had approaches from some very impressive candidates to do music for us – both experienced international composers and top of the line New Zealand performers. It’s flattering to get this sort of attention, but we also want to give careful thought to what will suit our film. The more accomplished candidates would want to score the film i.e. write new music to fit in with the cut. That is the traditional route for doing quality music.

But we are also considering a more radical approach in keeping with the grass roots nature of what The Insatiable Moon is all about. This would involve using original music from people who have experienced the mental health system first hand. If we went down that route, we’d be using a soundtrack a la Juno, with snippets of individual tracks rather than a scored backdrop. The deciding factor will be what suits the film best, but this is one of the options we’re considering. Our good friend Johnny Matteson has been referring musicians to us, as well as offering his own tracks. And the remarkable Luke Hurley (pictured above) has also been generous with his time and suggestions.

For the meantime, editor Paul Maxwell and director Rosemary Riddell will confer on a temporary soundtrack to go with the rough cut of the film.

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A Post on Post

I’m reading a great book on editing called The Conversations – which is literally a series of conversations between Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje – on the art of editing. It’s fascinating to me both to gain insights into the craft of film editing, and to listen to them compare the work of a writer in refining text with that of a film editor perfecting a cinematic story. While there are many differences, there are also commonalities in the process. On one level it is a technical exercise. Murch explains:

The fact is that there is always much more film shot than can ever be included in the finished product: on average, about twenty-five times too much – which would mean fifty hours of material for a two-hour film. Sometimes the ratio is as high as a hundred to one, as it was on Apocalypse Now. And films are almost always shot out of sequence, which means that on the same day the crew could find themselves filming scenes from the beginning, the end, and the middle of the script. This is done to make the schedule more efficient, but it means that someone – the editor – must take on the responsibility for finding the best material out of that great surplus and putting it in the correct order.

So much for the mechanics of editing. But of course the film editor is not so much a technician as an artist, and collaborator in conveying the vision of the film.

When it works, film editing – which could just as easily be called ‘film construction’ – identifies and exploits underlying patterns of sound and image that are not obvious on the surface. Putting a film together is, in an ideal sense, the orchestrating of all those patterns, just like different musical themes are orchestrated in a symphony. It is all pretty mysterious. It’s right at the heart of the whole exercise.

The first work of the editor is therefore that of attentiveness to the material. Our editor, Paul Maxwell (Sione’s Wedding, The Tattooist), is currently doing his first pass on the material which was gathered during our five week shoot. For the moment he’s working alone, sequestered in a darkened room with an Avid suite. Paul, as a rule, doesn’t like to visit the set during shooting. He’s not interested in how the footage was shot, or what we were trying to achieve. He wants to work with what he sees before him. And at this stage, to work in quietness and concentration. When the first pass is complete, and he has assembled the entire storyline, our director Rosemary Riddell will review it with him. And then the serious collaboration begins as they work together to realise the intended narrative of the film.

Of course there are also technical details to be attended to in post production – the mixing of sound, colour correction and so on. It’s astonishing how much of the way a film is perceived is dependent on the soundtrack. We also have a reasonable amount of chroma keying done for several blue-screen sequences. The most challenging of these can be seen in the screenshot below.

Here the blue screen was created through playing a chroma DVD through the television. Unfortunately the blue light has spilled all across the table and even shows up reflected on the bar stools and other surfaces. With restrictions on how long we had this location available for, we had no opportunity to reshoot. That means we recognised the problem while watching dailies, but made the decision it would need to be fixed in post. Currently we’re talking to vfx experts, who advise it will take around 4 days to fix the scene.

As we proceed, we’ll keep you posted on post.

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I’ve been holding off commenting on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds because I know my take on the film is out of step with many other people I respect, and because what I want to say is a little controversial. First up, the good… there’s no doubt Mr QT is a cinephile, and his homage (pronounced in the French way) to cinema history is rampant in his latest work. I particularly enjoyed the Magnificent Seven overtures. Secondly, there are the usual distinctive and trademark good performances here (though I never for a moment believed in Brad Pitt). Thirdly, there is much visual and symbolic beauty here – particularly in the cinema scenes, and when it is adorned in all its Nazi glory.

BUT, and it’s a big but, I feel the need to comment on what to my mind is the defining feature of QT films – the use of extreme and nasty violence as a means of hip humour. Tarantino reminds me of the super smart kid at school, who is so superior in his own understanding that he feels aloof. As such he can engage in sadism or belittling of others with ease, knowing as he does that he operates on a plane of understanding that is above that of the average person. I’m prepared to accept that Tarantino is riffing on violence, trying to put it back in our faces to reflect on it. But I’m afraid the actual result is the casualisation of cruelty. He has single-handedly made some desperately sick acts appear cool for a whole culture. In my worse moments, I wonder if the man has psychotic tendencies – the inability to attach moral consequence to his own actions.

The big question is, of course, do filmmakers have any moral responsibility whatsoever? After all, they’re not preachers or lawmakers. They’re story-tellers, and they offer their stories in a contestable cultural arena. Surely it is simply up to the audiences to make what they will of those stories, and a great number of people have enjoyed and admired Inglourious Basterds. But I feel strongly that the stories we tell ourselves do actually have an effect on the cultures we forge. To live out of  a story of vengeance or fear looks quite different from living out of a story of grace and compassion. As a friend of mine said yesterday, there’s the question of whether humanity is enhanced or detracted from in our artistic output. I for one wish to devote my abilities to projects which promote the former. As Arthur may have said, it’s enough that  we live in a world  with “Everyone living like there’s no such thing as right or wrong, like it doesn’t matter how you treat people.”

I’m with Arthur.

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Moon in the News

Nice piece in Tangatawhenua News. Check it out here

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Jen Wood, Production Assistant at work

Just been watching Martin Scorcese’s speech at the Golden Globes, which is well worth a look – you can see it here. In it he talks about the vast army of people that he’s collaborated with in his career, and reaffirms the place of film as the most collaborative of all the arts. The making of any film is the result of a community of people bringing their talents to bear, which is why I really don’t like vanity credits. Staying behind in a theatre to watch the credits is not so much being a poseur as it is paying homage to each of the people who have been involved in bringing a story to the screen for your edification.

When it became apparent that The Insatiable Moon was going to proceed as a low budget feature, it was obvious that we weren’t going to have enough money to pay everyone. There may be an infinite number of ways to slice a pie, but none of them increase the size of the pie. So we needed a deliberate strategy. What we opted for was to pay the key cast as well as we possibly could, and to give heads of departments in the crew something approaching market rates. For everyone else, we needed to offer work experience i.e. unpaid work. I’ve already spoken about the great contribution made by extras (here). When it came to crewing up, we had to find a host of people who were willing to pitch in without reward. Fortunately for us, we hit upon some of the very best of graduates from a couple of film schools. The first and most prolific supplier of these was South Seas Film & Television School. The second was the film & media stream of Unitec. From the outset we decided that the people who signed up for our film were to be regarded as trainees rather than volunteers. That meant that the heads of departments had some responsibility to supervise and train the folk working alongside them. What we discovered was that our trainees were people of the highest calibre, who not only turned up every day on set, but gave 100% of their skill and dedication. We also had some, such as Robbie and Jono, who ran unit catering for us simply out of their love of film.

The budget was of course stretched beyond breaking point, and we ended up by overspending to a small extent. Pretty much the amount we overspent by was the exact amount we offered to our trainees at wrap, as a very small gesture of thanks for their sterling work. It was money well spent. We could not possibly have made the film without their contributions. Naturally we are giving them full credits in the film. If you stay behind at the end, you’ll be able to applaud their contribution.

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Seeing things

It always seems to me a work of magic when people capture beautiful images. It’s a great art to be able to ‘see’ through a lens, and to understand how that restricted field of vision changes reality. A good photographer is able to create meaning and insight simply through their framing of what to the uninitiated seems ordinary. That craft is one of seeing; of having finely honed instincts for what is there to be seen. It requires sensitivity to light, to seeing the way it paints people and places and gives mood and texture. I’m full of admiration for those who are gifted in this way.

We were fortunate enough to have several associated with the film The Insatiable Moon. The first of course was our brilliant cinematographer and DOP Tom Burstyn – a creative genius. He has a knack for capturing magic with minimal fuss – we used fewer lights and less time setting up than any standard filmmaking operation because of his skill. Of course, he has a lifetime of experience which he can call on to produce cinematic miracles. But we also were blessed with the presence of Tom’s niece, Violaine. She made the courageous decision to fly from France to be with us for the duration of the film as our stills photographer. We had no idea at the time of what a gift she would be. Her coming at all was an example of the generosity and goodness of people who became part of the project.

We quickly discovered that she had twin talents as a superb photographer as well as a brilliant graphic designer. Vio captured magnificent images which showed she understood the essence of the story. She did it in a way which was both unobtrusive and non-invasive, and quickly became a favourite among other members of the crew. As we got to know her, we became aware of terrific design skills, exhibited in work for some very high profile clients. And it turned out she’d done lots of design for film posters. Part way through the shoot, she came up with a concept for a poster for The Insatiable Moon. We helped to find a studio space where she could take Rawiri Paratene to get the necessary shots. What I’ve seen thus far of the design process is spectacular. Violaine was a great contributor to the process, and has provided us with the source material so necessary to promoting the film when it’s finished.

Another accidental encounter was with Steve Hardy, a local photographer who simply showed up on location one day and started taking photos. In conversation with him, it turned out he was an amazing guy. He has for many years devoted himself to capturing people in the Ponsonby area who he considers interesting. That category includes most of the local street people, and it turned out we had many friends in common. What a superb vocation, to be dedicated to spending his life recording images of a world that most people walk past but don’t see. Steve stayed with us throughout the rest of the shoot, befriended everyone in the crew, and eventually became an extra as well. We hope that we may be able to assist him to hold an exhibition of his remarkable material sometime in the future.

Alongside Arthur, all of these people are seeing things…

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