The Recce: Telling a local story in a universal language

Greg Kriek as Henk in The Recce 

“The new 4.6K sensor didn’t have any of the issues of its predecessor. It is small and light enough to fit on our gimbal system with the right lenses. It shoots RAW at 60fps in full resolution and the latitude is comparable with cameras in a much higher price bracket.” – Jac Williams

A Man Makes a Picture production and director Ferdinand van Zyl’s debut feature film The Recce, is an ode to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that future generations wouldn’t have to.

After the South African Defence Force (SADF) wrongfully declares young recce Henk Viljoen (Greg Kriek) dead behind enemy lines, it’s up to him alone to use every skill and tool in his arsenal to make it back to his grieving wife (Christia Visser). With the enemy hot on his trail and a lethal gunshot wound in his gut, Henk’s chances for survival aren’t looking good as he navigates the treacherous war torn African landscape. “My uncle was a recce, my dad is a border war veteran and my grandfather fought in WWII, so you can say there is a fair share of guilt on my behalf for not doing national service, considering the lineage of soldiers in my family,” comments van Zyl. “My father always said that they fought so we don’t have to. So this film is somewhat of an ode to them: soldiers who sacrificed their body, mind and soul for us normal folks.”

Van Zyl says that when making The Recce, he wanted to make a film that would challenge local audiences, a film he would want to watch, a local story told in a universal language: “South African audiences don’t really get exposed to world cinema; there aren’t really a lot of platforms where we can enjoy art house films. We are inundated with American or main stream Hollywood movies, and I wanted to make a film I wanted to watch, I wanted to make a film that will challenge South African audiences; a film that subverts traditional narrative structure, a film that uses film grammar poetically. Furthermore I wanted to tell a South African story with universal themes. The Recce is a metaphorical film embedded with abstractions. The beauty of abstractions is that it’s open for interpretation, anyone can take from it what they want, and that renders the film universal and timeless.”

A Film and Television scholar at The University of Cape Town – graduating with a distinction in screenwriting – in addition to directing, van Zyl penned the script for The Recce, but despite his expertise and natural screenwriting talent, it proved to be a challenging process. After working on his original script for several months, van Zyl decided to start over. “I write my own scripts. I am a screenwriter first and foremost. Writing can be therapeutic, but it’s extremely taxing. After writing for months, I basically deleted everything, and started from scratch. I started to write intuitively, ignoring structure and traditional scriptwriting rules, specifically regarding plot points. I wanted the story to feel organic,” he explains, “When I started a couple of years back, I met with the then commissioner of the Special Forces, and basically wracked his brain and gave him hypothetical situations in the bush, to see how he would react in those moments. I did extensive research, and the film, in its infancy was very authentic and historically correct.” Van Zyl soon realised that it would be an enormous struggle to get the budget he needed to make the film he envisioned, “well not as my debut at least,” he quips. “I also didn’t feel creatively nourished. I didn’t want to make a historical film; I wanted to make Apocalypse Now. I wanted to make a film that uses the border war as a theatre to tell a metaphorical story that deals with a lot of themes, not just South African history.”

Principal photography commenced on 12 September 2016 in the Eastern Cape at executive producer Jac Williams’ family guest farm, Bergrivier. “We shot there for the first two weeks,” says Williams. “It provided us with a lot of different options for the Angola scenes, indigenous forests, acacia trees, rivers etc. and we built an African village set as well. This was designed and executed by our very talented production designer Pieter Bosman and his team.” The remainder of the film was shot in and around Cape Town, in the Kouebokke Veld, ClainWilliam (Hollandsebosch), Kersefontein on the West Coast and Worcester.

DOP Jacques van Tonder shot The Recce using the Black Magic Design URSA Mini 4.6K cameras with PL Mounts. The film’s organic yet layered look and feel was developed through close collaboration between van Zyl and van Tonder: “We wanted the camera movement and lighting to develop with the story and be contrasting between the different parts of the script,” explains van Tonder. Due to time and budget limitations, as well as limited accessibility to some locations, the team were largely reliant on available light for selected scenes. “We did extensive recces of our locations and thoroughly planned our days. This paid off on the day and we could make the most of the natural beauty of our surroundings,” he adds. “We achieved and surpassed what we set out to do and I think it looks unlike anything we have seen in South Africa before.”

Van Zyl, who is a big fan of “slow” cinema or long takes, says that he wanted the action inside the frame to determine the rhythm of the film – not the editing. “Pace should be determined by performance and camera movement, and not cutting. I wanted to be able to play out a scene with one take, without having to cut to a two shot or a single, and sometimes I don’t, I just stick to the establishing shot for four minutes without cutting.” This meant that the team carried out extensive blocking and camera rehearsals, but at the same time “unrehearsed and improvised scenes were just as common,” van Zyl explains. “I just placed the actors in a setting without dialogue or direction, and asked them to be themselves, or be the characters, and we got the most incredible stuff in those moments. I wanted to do more of those setups, because that’s where the magic is.”

Sourced from ORMS Pro Photo Warehouse in Cape Town, selecting the Black Magic Design URSA Mini 4.6K cameras was a bit of a gamble at first as they were largely untested, however the cameras later proved to exceed expectations says Williams. “We spoke about many camera systems in our planning stages and we knew what we needed from the cameras we would use. The URSA Minis had just become available and the purchase price was really good, but there was a lot of scepticism around them. It ticked many of the boxes on paper, but was untested in the field,” he says. “We did extensive testing on it and we were very happy with the resulting images. The new 4.6K sensor didn’t have any of the issues of its predecessor. It is small and light enough to fit on our gimbal system with the right lenses. It shoots RAW at 60fps in full resolution and the latitude is comparable with cameras in a much higher price bracket.”

Black Magic’s DaVinci Resolve Studio Software was utilised for dailies and post workflow, ensuring seamless integration. “Looking back, we really put the cameras through their paces and they never skipped a beat,” adds Williams. “The locations we were in dished up the worst from a camera maintenance point of view, but we never had any problems.”

Van Zyl says that South African cinema is at turning point, “or rather there’s a New Wave where we begin to see films that break away from ‘bubblegum’ entertainment; film’s that deal with real issues innovatively, or films that frankly just pursue the craft as an art form, because cinema is art…first and foremost. So it’s actually a very exciting time to be making movies locally,” he concludes.

The Recce is due for theatrical release at Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor cinemas nationwide June 2017.  


• Camera: Black Magic Design URSA Mini 4.6K cameras with PL Mounts

  • Editing software: Black Magic Design DaVinci Resolve Studio Software utilised for dailies and post workflow

• Camera sourced from ORMS Pro Photo Warehouse in Cape Town.



Writer/Director: Ferdinand van Zyl
Producer: Jac Williams
DOP: Jacques Van Tonder
Line Producer: Alan Haywayrd
1st Assistant Director: Neil Uys
Editors: Jacques Le Roux and Ferdinand Van Zyl
Production Designer: Pieter Bosman
Costume Designer: Nico Nigrini
Sound: Adriaan Drotsche

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Cera-Jane Catton
Cera-Jane Catton is a writer and journalist with years of experience in community newspapers, blogging and freelance journalism. She has worked in a cache of capacities, often finding herself behind or in front of the cameras, intentionally and less so. She has been a stunt double in two Bollywood movies, has worked in various capacities on a number of natural history documentaries, and other international productions shot in South Africa. Cera is a former Screen Africa journalist.


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