Originally posted here, by Graeme Nicol
Only weeks after picking up a couple of typically recommended “Film School” textbooks The Language of Film and Shot by Shot in an Edinburgh bookstore, with a view to spending the forthcoming Beijing winter brushing up on “proper film-making” as opposed to the interview plus B-roll “multimedia” approach I’d shot before, I was thrown into a role as Director of Photography on a short film by screenwriter/director/producer Fernanda Fraiz. I’d known Fernanda from my time working at a stock-advertising photography studio in 2012, where like me, she had also worked as a producer & photographer. I hadn’t seen her much around Beijing since then, but it transpired that I’d got to know a whole bunch of people related to the Beijing music scene that she’d also got to know, in particular the singer-songwriter PeiPei aka Little Punk, who had been lead actress in the music-related short film ICEBERG, which Fernanda worked as art director on.
Initially Fernanda had contacted me about a little series of photos she’d found on my website calledHutong Nights that I’d shot back in 2010, asking about including them as an interlude in a new film idea she was planning to direct by herself, but when I happened to bump into her in bar a couple of days later, the conversation shifted to being willing to help out with any camera work needed, and then discussion of lenses, equipment, and schedules, and cancelling other work commitments if needed. To some slight surprise, I had talked myself on-board the project as Director of Photography. Not bad, considering I had still only made it as far as Chapter 2 of “The Language of Film”. It barely needs mentioned that a strong component of finding creative opportunities in Beijing is to visit the right bars and be willing to get drunk and talk shit with people.
Anyway, five weeks later and the film is 99 % “in the can” (plus we also filmed a music video for one of Little Punk’s songs). Just in time too, with Beijing’s winter beginning to kick in. Although everyone involved in making the short film was offering their time unpaid, the crew applied themselves to it like a proper professional shoot. We didn’t shoot continuously, in the early stages allowing enough time between shoots to allow for re-writing the script, changing or cancelling some scenes, and allowing me to do other work, but as the shooting went on, we certainly put in a few 10-12 hour shoot days in quick succession, and got fairly exhausted… It was my first proper stab at doing cinematography on a film of this size, just as it was Fernanda’s first time directing this sort of DIY short film where she doubled up on a number of roles – in fact most of the roles… even boom operator. I think a huge amount has been learned by both of us, as well as by the several first-time actors who were brought in. Coming out of the other end of such a focused period in your life leaves you with a sense of satisfaction which is difficult to describe to anyone who has never been in “that zone”. There’s a kind of decompression period needed, with a lot of sleep, and no guilt whatsoever at that sleep lasting until mid-afternoon. I recall a similar feeling of satisfaction after completing my TRADE WINDS documentary project. It’s what creative people live for I guess. No doubt Fernanda, who still has the editing process to begin, cannot afford to relax just yet. But me, yeah, I’m taking it easy for this coming month. I might even finish writing those blog posts I began in the summer. I’m also feeling hungry for the next project. I want more. The film still has audio effects to be made for it by a local audio-engineer & musician Shen Lijia, to be mixed with the ambient noise and dialogues recorded while shooting, then edited to somewhere between 20-25 minutes long, and then, I’m not sure… Fernanda hasn’t mentioned looking for crowd-funding for it via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, planning to do most of the post-production herself, but she does plan to submit it to the film festival circuit. Will the film be good enough ? Well, it’s definitely going to have a lo-fi DIY aesthetic, looking very much like a low-budget guerrilla-style small-crew production which was shot on DSLRs without access to jibs and dollies etc, but I think as long as a film embraces and acknowledges this style rather than tries to disguise it, that’s no bad thing, especially if the plot, photography, and characterization of the main characters is strong, which I think it is. Finishing off, I recall a great little quote from that “Language of Film” book I mentioned before that I’m currently reading, from the director Robert Bresson… “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film, but placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, coming to life again like flowers in water”. I’m glad to have been involved in the middle part of this process, the resuscitation and killing, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film come back to life again next year when it finds its audience.
Graeme Nicol is a Scottish Photographer based in Beijing. He spends his time documenting Chinese life and its Underground Music Scene.