Bringing the past to life

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Cinematographer Willie Nel, producer Johan Kruger and editor Warwick Allan chat to Screen Africa about the making of Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer, and the starring role played on set by the Sony Venice 6K RAW camera.

Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is a new feature film based on the historical figure of Rachel de Beer, the young Voortrekker woman whose story remains a folkloric tale of the value of family loyalty.

With the film’s release set for later this year, Screen Africa chatted to cinematographer Willie Nel and producer Johan Kruger about the unique challenges of making the film, its visual style and the pivotal role the Sony Venice camera played on set.

“THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY”

As Nel – who, in March, won a SAFTA award for his work on Meerkat Maantuig – explains, “This is set in 1890, after the goldmines were established and when things started modernising, but where [the action unfolds] was still pre-electricity. It’s a great challenge for a cinematographer to explore. Immediately, you ask yourself – how am I going to do this? And, luckily for me, we find ourselves in 2019 where we have access to cinematic tools like the Sony Venice to allow us to explore new ways to create cinema.”

Nel continues: “We wanted to create the right authenticity. Even when I watch back big-budget period films, the authenticity is ruined for me in moments – because I can see they’ve lit the scenes with film lights, mostly out of necessity because of the cameras and film stocks available to them at the time.”

Rather, Nel and director Matthys Boshoff – whose collaboration Nel describes as a “beautiful symbiosis” – developed a visual aesthetic that pays “homage to PT Anderson’s films like There Will Be Blood, with its shot selection and mature, simplified approach,” but at the same time explores new ways to create authenticity through the extensive use of practical lighting and low-light shooting conditions.

Nel describes filming scenes lit only by campfires and lanterns; moonlight that had to be created by the smallest LED sources. “I had to learn so much about my craft in the process. Things like lanterns and candles – they weren’t props anymore, they were my lights. We had to work with the actors, exploring different effects and how we could affect the storytelling by how they used their lanterns or how they interacted within a candle-lit scene.”

While, of course, this sounds like a solid visual concept in principle, how did Nel’s team manage in conditions where their lighting was effected by every flicker of wind, and by every element they were exposed to on set?

BULLETPROOF CAMERA PERFORMANCE

Nel says that, long before shooting commenced, “I was convinced [the Sony Venice 6K] was the only camera to make this film.”

He explains, “It has a lot of attributes that made it perfect for this project. For starters, it has a full-frame sensor – kind of like a homage to films from the late 1950s and 60s – with an ‘epic’ nature and that beautiful, spatial arrangement this format allows.”  The way the camera’s focus works is very particular – it is known for dramatic drop-off in the background of the frame – and, as Nel puts it, “we wanted to create a kind of time-piece, and so the look and feel of the images was perfect for that.”

Even more importantly for this project, the Venice also has two base ISO levels. Its sensitivity ranges from 500 to 2500 – compared to the range of around 800 ISO that most modern cameras have. This is almost three times more sensitive and proved to be exactly what Nel and his team were looking for on set.

Expanding on the quality of the Venice’s sensor, Nel says: “It has a very filmic quality. But, really, in terms of the way the camera perceives the world – the sensor is the intermediary, it is what represents the world on camera – and this one, I think, most closely represents what the human eye sees. The quality of the sensor is amazing; the science of it is so balanced and natural-looking.”

Another key feature of the Venice camera Nel talks about is the flexibility of its range of in-built ND filters: “Some modern cameras put these on the inside, but there are always gaps in the gradations. But not this camera – it has all the different stages going from ND3-ND2.4, so if a cloud goes overhead you can just flick to the next ND and you stay consistent in your exposure levels and control your depth of field.”

This is in addition to its “bulletproof performance” on set, which saw the camera experience extreme swings in temperature; be submerged in water; take rough rides on an ox wagon; and survive weeks of dusty conditions. “By the end of a shoot, you know what a camera can or can’t do,” Nel says.  “With the Venice, there wasn’t an issue in sight. Honestly, it’s like the Swiss army knife of cameras to me, and definitely has set the new standard.”

From a producer’s perspective, Johan Kruger says he was “very impressed” by the camera’s performance in temperatures ranging from -6 to 35 degrees Celsius, and comments that a huge benefit was “its ability to shoot in low-light conditions or at night with minimal artificial lighting required. From a production perspective, it meant a much lower-than-usual lighting budget, with the added value to move quicker between setups.”

He also echoes Nel’s thoughts about the suitability of the Venice camera for Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer: “Most of the time when shooting night scenes, we made use of natural light only – using lanterns or candles. This was a huge benefit to the actors, some of whom commented that it assisted their performance in the sense that they weren’t surrounded by the more traditional, ‘artificial’ lighting setups.”

DELIVERING IN POST

An often-overlooked aspect of any camera’s performance is how it processes data, as well as the ease and ‘freedom’ with which the images it captures can be manipulated in the post-production process.

According to Nel and Warwick Allan of Mushroom Media, these are other important areas where the Sony Venice 6K RAW OCN ST camera excels.

“OCN is Sony’s version of a RAW file,” Nel explains. “But the kind of detail you can get out in the grading process is phenomenal – it has far more flexibility than I’ve seen before.”

Nel also points to the practical benefits of the OCN file format from a data-wrangling point of view. “OCN is a very smart RAW file – it allows you to do more, but still keeps file sizes manageable. Which helps with speed and security when you’re dealing with data on set, where you need multiple backup copies of everything for safety.”

From Allan’s perspective, “There is incredible detail in the shadows and the footage feels very similar to an Alexa in terms of its responsiveness in grade and overall feel. We have found the files to be very easy to work with in post due to their efficient RAW format. We see very clean images, but with a very filmic and organic feel, too, which I find very pleasing to the eye.

“At Mushroom Media,” Allan continues, “we have re-built our grading suite to handle 4K+ material and to work in uncompressed 4K in real-time, so we are seeing pixel-for-pixel what we will be delivering and the images are really impressive at this resolution. The film will be mastered in full 4K DCI for international delivery specs, as we are expecting the film to travel far beyond the South African borders.”

Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer is set for release in October 2019. Audiences can look forward to a rich historical story visually inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson and classic movies of the 50s and 60s, and in which – in the eyes of the film’s technical crew – the Sony Venice 6K RAW camera plays a starring role.

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