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David Cornwell

David Cornwell
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David Cornwell lives in Cape Town, where he writes fiction, films and features for a variety of publications. His debut novel, Like It Matters (Umuzi, 2016) has been long-listed for the 2017 Sunday Times Fiction Award.

ARRI, RED, Sony? Local industry pros pick their favourite cameras

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: The common consensus is that the production values of South African films have developed significantly in recent years. We’re seeing a wider variety of shots in a more diverse array of settings, greater experimentation with low-light shooting and a consistent output of great-looking films.

But what specific cameras are driving this success? A quick look at the equipment employed by this year’s Oscar-nominated films reveals a heavy bias towards ARRI cameras, and in particular the Alexa series (The Shape of Water, Get Out, Mudbound, Blade Runner 2049, The Darkest Hour), with only Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread (Panavision Panaflex) and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (IMAX MKIV) bucking this trend.

Does this preference also hold true for South African filmmakers?

When discussing his favourite pieces of equipment, Bruce McLaren-Lyall, senior editor (3D and Post) at The Ergo Company, is passionate about the role of the camera in the process of filmmaking:

“When you think about it, the camera is like an actor on set; arguably, the most important actor. And just like if a lead turns in a dud performance, if the camera is not doing its job, it doesn’t matter how great the script is, or how much potential the film might have had. It won’t connect with the audience.”

McLaren-Lyall goes on to explain that, from his position behind the editing desk, the job of evaluating cameras based on the raw footage he receives comes down to a “complex chain of three factors. Lighting and lenses, the camera body and the operator. You can get a sense of the lenses they’ve used and the lighting setup from the footage itself, and I work with footage coming in from different operators from all over the world. It’s a very delicate chemistry between those three factors, but – from my point of view – you tend to see certain camera bodies outperforming the others on a consistent basis.”

He is definitive in his appraisal. “The ARRI Alexas are unbeatable. On a consistent basis, the whole series – the XT, the Mini, especially when paired with Panavision lenses – gives beautiful depth, and incredible colour range in all kinds of lighting situations. You look at the raw footage and you immediately see potential in the grade; you don’t see problems. Other cameras I’ve worked with in post – like the Sony F65s and F55s, and the RED Dragons and the RED Scarlets – produce wonderful images, of course, but we go back to that chemistry between lighting, body and operator, and people just don’t seem to be able to get it as right as often. Maybe that means the ARRIs are more forgiving cameras, are more user-friendly,” he says. “But you can’t argue with the consistency and the quality of the images they produce.”

Meanwhile, Warrick Le Seur, one of the founders of Bounceboard Productions and a South African Society of Cinematographers award-nominated DoP, says, “I find that I always have a tendency to drift towards the RED range of cameras when given the choice. I think it’s the lightweight, compact bodies and easily-navigated touch screen menu that appeal to me. Although, there is also the ARRI Mini, which is an amazing camera – providing the user with ARRI’s incomparable colour science in a compact body – but I think by the time it came out I was already deep into my love for the REDs. I prefer to work on a lighter camera that won’t break my back at the end of the day but can still give me the image quality I desire, and this is where the RED brains excel for me. My ideal camera needs to be able to fit into every corner I find myself shoved into, as well as to easily switch from tripod, to gimbal, to crane or even to drone.”

Le Seur goes on to say that, “Resolution is also an important aspect for me. I feel that so much is done in post these days, allowing that extra resolution for some play in the post-production room can help a lot, especially during VFX. This is where the 6K capabilities of the RED Dragon, or the 8K of the Helium and Monstro sensors, really stand out from the rest.”

Amy Jephta – a director whose short film Soldaat won the 2017 KykNET Silwerskerm Award, and whose debut feature, Ellen, will hit South African theatres later this year – explains that although she is not particularly “technically minded”, when it comes to selecting equipment, she “likes for film to look like film. There’s something about the material nature of film that works with the style I enjoy: stark naturalism, an almost documentary feel, an organic grain that feels looser and more tactile. Like if you reached out and touched the picture, there would be texture to it. I don’t personally feel that the kind of work I want to make (intimate, close, emotional) is served by the edge and tight grain of digital. But although every filmmaker would love to, it’s not always possible to shoot on film, so I’m interested in how a cinematographer can achieve the same equivalent look and feel, toning down the sharpness of digital. My short film was shot on an ARRI Alexa Classic fitted with Zeiss Super Speeds, and that got very close to what I wanted to achieve.”

With some exciting rumours circulating about camera developments in the second half of 2018 – including new models from Sony and Blackmagic, as well as the release of the RED Hydrogen (a cellphone which promises to display “4V Holographic Video” content, and which will allow users to control RED cameras wirelessly) – it will be interesting to see which cameras remain at the vanguard of South African film production.

 

The rise of OTT and VOD services in Africa

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: South Africa – and the continent of Africa more generally – is currently undergoing a broadcasting revolution. The astronomical rise of Over-The-Top (OTT) content, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and Video On Demand (VOD) services has already wrought major changes throughout the film and television industries, with all signs pointing to even greater innovation on its way in the coming years.

In this article, we speak to industry professionals about the quantum leap in broadcasting that OTT and IPTV have initiated, discussing the technologies that have enabled their development, their various benefits, and how we can expect the South African broadcasting landscape to transform further in the near future.

What is OTT, IPTV and VOD?

Although Over-The-Top content and Internet Protocol Television are similar in that they use the same mechanism (the internet) to deliver content to consumers, there are some key differences between them. The most important distinction is that OTT uses open, unmanaged and publicly accessible internet to deliver its services, while IPTV uses a dedicated, closed network – sometimes referred to as a ‘walled garden’. This means that IPTV setups require additional hardware, as the consumer needs a way to connect directly with the provider’s streaming services (usually via a set-top box).

Both platforms offer Video On Demand (VOD) services, which refer to the consumer’s ability to watch or listen to content whenever they choose (and on whatever device they have available), rather than at a pre-scheduled broadcast time.

This programming system is undoubtedly the most exciting thing about OTT and IPTV services, and the chief reason for its deepening impact on the entire media landscape. As Pierre van der Hoven, founder and CEO of the OTT company Tuluntulu – “a content distribution platform for TV and radio, focusing on the African content” – explains, businesses like his can now offer “a one-stop technology, content creation, content management, distribution, marketing and monetisation service.”

What has enabled the development of IPTV and OTT in South Africa?

According to Richard Boorman, head of Communications at Showmax, there are two key components that drive the uptake of OTT video content. These are “affordable devices capable of supporting OTT video, and affordable, ideally uncapped, internet data. We’ve seen this happen in waves across the world – North America, western Europe, and parts of Asia were amongst the first to get ubiquitous high-speed uncapped fixed data connections at home. At the same time, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, media players like Apple TV, and gaming consoles all reached the point that they were both affordable and advanced enough that they could process video. As soon as both were in place, OTT usage took off in these regions.”

In terms of the local market, Stephen Watson – managing director of Discover Digital, whose VOD service is called DEOD – agrees that “greater access to broadband data and the qualitative advancement of internet connections through Fibre To The Business (FTTB) and Fibre To The Home (FTTH)” is the “first and most obvious answer” to the rapid proliferation of OTT services in South Africa and across the African continent more generally.

However, he points out that “this unfortunately does not yet impact the mass market segments, for whom FTTH is either unaffordable or inaccessible. This market segment remains reliant on mobile broadband data, which is expensive for the streaming or downloading of video content.”

This represents an enormous market opportunity, and Watson is confident that service providers will find ways to bridge the gap: “Soon the market will be littered with either zero-rated data or subsidised data for content streaming, downloading and other OTT services. Telkom and Cell C are already playing in this space with LIT TV and Black TV, respectively.”

How do VOD services benefit the film and television industries?

For Tuluntulu’s van der Hoven, “everybody benefits from more eyes watching more video content on more screens. For creators and producers, there are more opportunities and a growing market demand for video content. For consumers, the power to choose is increasingly in their hands – there are now many more options for consuming video content. For the industry in general, the use and consumption of video is exploding, and this will drive growth.”

Watson adds that “OTT platforms are opening up new distribution opportunities for creators, producers and brands that can be monetised via subscription video on demand (SVOD) and ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) models, but with the added benefit of real big data accumulation. Questions such as who watched, when did they watch, what device did they watch on, where did they watch it, all become known and – more importantly – further direct engagement with your viewers or fans becomes possible. This direct-to-consumer approach is transitioning the industry, not only for original content but even for sports bodies. Any broadcaster in Africa not offering an OTT service for their viewers to consume content on the move – on their mobiles, tablets, PCs and smart TVs – will soon become irrelevant.”

And Boorman goes even further when discussing the benefits of OTT to the television industry, discussing how the medium of TV entertainment itself has been transformed. “It’s hard to underestimate the impact of OTT video on both the art form of the TV series and on people’s viewing behaviour,” he says. “Twenty years ago each episode of a TV series was a self-contained story. Typically, within the constraints of a 40-45 minute time slot (the rest being filled by ads), a problem would emerge, the protagonists would have a setback, there would be an ‘aha’ moment, and then a final showdown in which the good guys always won. Other than the soapies, there was very little – if any – backstory from episode to episode. The reason for this was that these shows needed to accommodate people missing the episode when it first aired, and catching things out of order as they watched repeat broadcasts.”

“But then,” he explains, “along came OTT video and binge-viewing and everything changed. With the ability to watch multiple episodes back-to-back, and with the ability to keep returning to a series day after day until all its episodes (or even seasons) are finished, the complexity of the storytelling involved has changed dramatically. Think of series such as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones – all of a sudden, two-hour movies seem limited and shallow compared to the complex plots in these shows that weave stories through multiple seasons, with incredible character development.”

How can we expect things to develop over the next few years?

When asked about the future prospects of VOD platforms, all three contributors were bullish about their outlook.

Boorman ventures that, “As affordable uncapped data options expand across South Africa and ultimately across the rest of the continent, we expect to see usage growing exponentially.” He adds that, as far industry-specific innovations are concerned, “enhanced video compression, to enable more efficient use of mobile data, would be a game-changer.”

In Watson’s view, “As the larger cloud-based services like Amazon, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure become more accessible and present in the African market, the cost of content storage, content delivery network services and digital content workflows are plummeting, making it more affordable for VOD services to access the market. For example, we are launching our LIVE2VOD functionality this month, which essentially converts a linear programme just played out by a TV channel into a VOD asset on the fly. The programme can subsequently be streamed, downloaded or scheduled for download at off-peak times for consumers to enjoy. In addition, greater adoption of HEVC/H265 streaming protocols will decrease the broadband consumption and improve the quality of streaming services, too.”

Finally, van der Hoven echoes Boorman’s expectation of “exponential” growth over the next few years, and predicts that “the quality and popularity of local content will continue to increase, allowing ‘Africans to tell the African story’ themselves. User-generated content and new forms of content creation will further add to the impetus and growth of OTT platforms in South Africa and across the continent at large.”

 

Inside the high-tech, high-pressure world of Outside Broadcasting

There are few sectors of the production industry as technically demanding, and few environments as highly pressured, as outside broadcasting (OB) and its related service, electronic news gathering (ENG).

As viewers, it’s fair to say that – with the slickness of live sports events, music concerts, news segments and awards ceremonies – we are blissfully unaware of the frantically moving parts that allow the production to run smoothly. The art and the skill of outside broadcasting is to make us feel ‘like we are there’ – but to achieve this requires not only an arsenal of equipment, but a truly collective effort, characterised by the ability to remain calm and to problem-solve in even the most stressful situations.

As Anton Pretorius, founder of the Johannesburg-based company Obeco says, the basic components of OB broadcasting consist of a “studio control room in a truck. Simple as that. We add components that you don’t really see in a studio, like EVS systems, but essentially that is what an outside broadcaster provides.”

However, when you begin to break down what that service entails, it is clear that the operation is far from simple. As Pretorius explains, “You have many cameras, with cables that connect them to the van, you have a vision mixer in the van, and you have recorders that record what is being mixed. If it’s a live event, you have a Satellite News Gathering (SNG) van parked next to it that sends the mixed signal to the station. Obviously, there are a few more devices to make the end product look more exciting, but that is the gist of it.”

For Greg Nefdt, managing director of Alfacam SA – an independent company which established itself, largely, through the process of capturing the 2010 FIFA World Cup – what is essential about outside broadcasting is the “multi-camera facility” that it provides. “In the context of news, and ENG broadcasting, someone might go out with one or two cameras and the uplink vehicle, and they shoot what they need and uplink to the broadcaster,” Nefdt says. “But for covering a sports game, for example, you’re using somewhere between 12 and 24 cameras, and for some of the bigger event shows it could be more.”

Nefdt gives an insight into the unique pressures of working within such a setup. “All these cameras are filming at the same time, it’s generally live, and what you’re basically doing – in the OB van – is creating a show as it happens. You get one shot at it, and that’s it. It’s a kind of magic, really.”

Of course, such a production feat would be hard enough without any unexpected surprises along the way. However, as Nefdt explains, with so many elements involved in a production, hiccups can happen – and how they are dealt with is, ultimately, what distinguishes one OB crew from another. “Before you get onto a job, you’ve specced it, you’ve spoken to the client, you’ve done a technical brief and you’ve got a very good idea of what the show is going to look like and what it’s going to take. But, when you arrive on the show, things change. It can be various circumstances or situations that come up, and you’ve got to be able to blend in and work with those changes in a live environment, which can be challenging. And when things don’t go exactly according to plan – and because you’re working with so many components, things can go wrong – it’s vital to keep the temperature cool in the OB van and solve the problem quickly and calmly.”

He goes on to explain that one of the key features of any successful OB production is effective collaboration between the various sets of crew members. “You can have in excess of 50 crew members on a job. You have the cameramen and support crew in the venue, and then you have people inside the OB van: the director, the assistant director, EVS operators, vision controllers, vision mixer, graphics operators, auto cue operators, producers and engineering crew. Then you have crew on the audio side that are making sure everything sounds good, then the people who are managing the signal – and everyone on the crew needs to be in communication and know exactly what’s going on at all times.”

Pretorius underscores the point, saying, “Any OB van is only as good as its communications system.”

Luckily, the advancement of communications technologies such as fibre has had a tremendous effect on the OB production industry. As Thandekile Nyembezi and Eddie Seane of Vision View Productions explain, “In the past, the distance of where the van could park could cause serious challenges, but since we run our vans through fibre now, this challenge isn’t really a factor anymore.”

Pretorius emphasises the importance of this innovation. “To me, the greatest technological innovation in our industry over the last few years has to be the use of fibre. Two weeks ago we did a recording of an event in Cape Town that needed 13 cameras, video feeds all over, audio feeds and communications to everyone on the crew. The van was parked 250 metres from the stage and on the other side of a river. Every single feed had to be done using fibre – and without it, the job would have been impossible.”

In addition to the multitude of “micro problems” that outside broadcasters encounter – as Pretorius puts it, “Once you’re parked and you have three-phase power, because the equipment is so sensitive, the fight starts to keep the dust out and the cold air in” – hearing Nefdt describe the costs involved in equipping and maintaining a first-rate OB production truck gives a sense of the broader challenges facing the industry, and particularly independent players within it.

“A good outside broadcasting van, like our OB-1, if we had to replace it with all the cameras, all the long lenses, the EVS recording equipment and the audio facilities, you’re looking at about R100 million plus. And on the second-hand market, something good is still going to cost you plenty. And one of the big disadvantages in the South African market is that the quality of the OB services we produce, generally speaking, far exceeds what people are generally willing to pay for them.”

Nyembezi admits that “budget restraints will always be a cause for contention”, but insists that the only way to keep thriving in the OB industry is to “constantly nurture relationships” and to stay ahead of the pack by offering the latest technologies. “Augmented and Virtual Reality is the most exciting thing that we’ve done lately, from creating the VR environment to showing it on air. The 4K, ultra-slomo replays currently used in international cricket broadcasts – which are filmed at 2000fps – are actually directed by our very own Eddie Seane. It largely depends on where your clients are coming from because you might find an international client who wants 4K and another who are happy with HD pictures.”

As broadcasting methods and, more significantly, viewing habits continue to evolve, Nefdt sees a bright future for outside broadcasting. “The mechanisms and the platforms are changing. More and more people are finding ways to get their own broadcasting streams out to the public, who themselves are more interested in seeing the content they want to watch on the medium or device that suits them, where and when they want to. So although the landscape is changing, the advantage for OB companies is that the public is increasingly going to want to watch live multi-camera content, and they are always going to need us to be there and capture it for them.”

 

“Our Craft Is Art”: a look inside the lighting industry

One of film’s most important companion industries, lighting is a complex and dynamic field. Not only must lighting fulfil a variety of functions, from the purely practical to the highly artistic, but fast-paced advancements in lighting technology mean that the industry exists in a constant state of evolution.

In this article, we hear from leading lighting professionals about the challenges of the industry, exciting new products on the market, and how innovations in the realm of camera technology are affecting lighting practices in film and television production.

Staying Ahead of the Game

Without doubt, the main challenges of the lighting industry relate to keeping up with the latest trends and technologies. This is true of technicians and practitioners – who need to keep learning and taking on new skills as they become familiar with the new equipment that is constantly introduced onto the market – as well as those in charge of the supply of these lighting products.

Marius van Straaten, the CEO of Cape Town-based Visual Impact, says that managing product supply in the context of the dynamic and ever-changing lighting industry is “the key challenge to renting out equipment. Equipment improves quickly and therefore stock becomes outdated. Next thing you know, you have old kit on the shelf that costs you a fortune. The solution is to buy carefully and try to identify niches in the market.”

Meanwhile, Luke Frankel – CEO of Broadcast Lighting in Durban – points out that this challenge also has a logistical component: “Keeping up with demand can be challenging at times, as most items are sea-freighted due to their size, and this takes time. So we have to time our stock orders so that we always keep up with demand.”

John Harrison, CEO of Movievision and Southern Lighting, two companies based in Johannesburg, says that it helps to cultivate productive relationships with a small number of equipment agencies. “That way we know the stock from those agencies backwards, and we are always up to date with the equipment that is coming out of those factories.” Harrison and Sean Boyce, technical director of Southern Lighting Solutions, also point out that – in the context of South African film and television production – the scarcity of funding often means that lighting companies are forced to accept lower and lower prices for their services. This has a detrimental effect on the industry as a whole, as often companies cannot accumulate enough capital to reinvest in new stock.

Current Industry Trends

The experts are unanimous in identifying a shift towards LED lighting as the industry’s most noticeable recent trend.

In Van Straaten’s words, “LED technology is taking off like a rocket. Producers are increasingly appreciating secondary benefits like the very low power consumption, small size and portability.”

Frankel – whose business model is built around LED lighting – confirms this shift: “There has been a huge movement from the old tungsten forms of lighting over to LEDs. New types of LED lights are being produced in all types of styles, from LED Fresnels to LED Kinos. With technology getting better and more powerful in terms of colour processing, the use of LED in video production is increasing rapidly. Most of our LED products are in demand at the moment, with no sign of slowing down.”

Harrison admits that there has been a shift towards LED lighting, but likens the current age of LEDs to “early computers, in that they are very expensive but still quite limited in their output function compared to what you can do with tungstens and HMIs. They’re gaining ground all the time – every year they get better, brighter and more efficient – but we are still in an exploratory stage. People will continue to look to LEDs in the future, however, because it does cut down on power. Instead of needing a big, thick 63 amp cable, you can whittle it down to a 15 amp cable – and obviously you can put a lot more fixtures on the same circuit.”

Essential Gear

When asked which pieces of lighting gear they would deem to be essential – and which items of equipment every aspiring film lighting technician should be familiar with in 2018 – the interviewees drew attention to some exciting new products on the market.

For Van Straaten, it is essential to know “how to navigate the ARRI SkyPanel’s menu, as well as the Wi-Fi controls for the DS (Digital Sputnik) products.” He identifies the new DS Voyager as 2018’s must-have lighting product. “The Voyager is a Smart Light, a fixture concept which combines light source, battery, and remote controller into a single product. All you have to do is add a phone or a computer as an interface – you don’t need extra software licenses and no more hardware is required to run it.”

According to Frankel, “Every videographer should be familiar with, or have, an on-camera light (Sun Gun), as it is the most versatile and handy piece of lighting equipment that you can have.” In terms of products he is looking forward to, he says that “large power LED lights are coming in that are producing great light for large-scale stage and studio productions. There are three products that we are excited about: firstly, our LED Fresnel 300 watt, which is the equivalent of a 575 HMI, but at one-fifth of the price, making large-scale studio lighting way more affordable. Then the Shark Light 200 watt with Bowens mount fitting, which allows for any photographic accessory to be attached to the light. And, finally, a new beginners LED setup, which consists of two softbox lights with stands and is extremely affordable for startups or hobbyists.”

Boyce is hesistant over the question of ‘essential gear’: in his opinion, it should never be the case that you use whatever you have lying around, or simply what you feel comfortable with. “The best designers will use the equipment they know will give them the effect they want to create,” he says. However, he acknowledges that, “in terms of current trends, the ARRI SkyPanels are definitely some of the most popular in the film industry. Other favourites are faceted HMI units, such as the M18s from ARRI and Filmgear, as well as LED lightpanels and softlights.”

The Evolution of Camera Technology

Lighting is, of course, fundamental to the craft of filmmaking (John Bergen memorably described light as one of photography’s “primary raw materials”). But, how has the evolution of camera technology come to affect the lighting industry?

The DoP of the Oscar-winning film The Revenant, Emmanuel Lebezski, famously only used natural light in the shooting of that film, and techniques like this are becoming increasingly popular as camera technology continues to develop. As Van Straaten says, “the sensors are getting better and better, and in some instances can allow one to use less artificial lighting. I was on a commercial last week and the wide scene was beautifully lit with one S60C SkyPanel. The camera was a Sony A7S Mark II with an ISO range from 100 to 469,600.”

In Frankel’s view: “Even with today’s increasing camera technology, there will always be a need for light to create depth, textures and colour in the professional field.” He says the fact that “cameras are getting better results in low-light environments” means that “less distracting and invasive” natural lighting can be used more often, but that “some form of light to capture the aesthetics of the moment” will still be key to the videographer’s craft.

Harrison and Boyce have an interesting take on the matter, claiming that the advancements in camera technology have had a profound effect on local production values. “In my opinion,” Harrison says, “camera people are becoming more computerised. And an effect of this is that a lot of people are doing saturation lighting, which for me is not natural. But because it’s easy to do, and because you can get the instant feedback of seeing it on the camera monitor – the people behind the camera think they don’t have to worry, because everything is lit. And often it gets put out like that, it’s like a sausage factory where everything looks the same as everything else, and for some reason we find it acceptable. But that’s not our craft. Our craft is art.”

What to look forward to in 2018

Industry professionals weigh in with their hopes and expectations for the New Year…

Turbulent 2017 is almost passed, and the South African film production industry can reflect on a year of exciting growth and development. Not only were some extraordinary films produced – including powerful documentaries (Strike a Rock), bold and controversial dramas (The Wound) and stylish genre experiments (Five Fingers for Marseille) – but partnerships throughout the industry have deepened, and South African film professionals are becoming increasingly sought-after for their skills and expertise.

This strong performance, not to mention the swell of young filmmaking talent that this country possesses, points to the possibility of even bigger and brighter things on the horizon for 2018. We caught up with seven leading film industry professionals and asked them what they were most looking forward to heading into the New Year. From exciting feature productions to new industry initiatives and increases in technological capacity, their responses predict another buzzing year for South African film and television in 2018.

Karen Meiring, director of Channels at kykNET:

“We have a very exciting slate for 2018. We will be premiering two films from the talented director Christiaan Olwagen (Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie), namely Kanarie and Die Seemeeu. The year will enjoy some standout female performances, such as Diaan Lawrenson and June van Merch in Raaiselkind (February 2018), and Jill Levenberg in Ellen, which will premiere at the 2018 kykNET Silwerskermfees. kykNET will also showcase some exciting new voices next year with films such as Nommer 37 (May 2018) and Wonderlus (April 2018).

Verona Duwarkah, CEO of Urban Brew Studios (Johannesburg):

“Urban Brew Studios will launch its new and improved studios by mid-2018. Situated at Brightwater Commons in Randburg, Johannesburg, the main studio will now measure 1 000 square metres. This is in addition to a variety of other studios of different sizes as well. Urban Brew Studios will be equipped to produce shows of all genres in various formats. With legendary productions like Live AMP, YOTV and RGB, Urban Brew Studios will continue to create innovative shows that capture the attention of audiences across all platforms.”

Stephen Webster, director and head engineer at TheWorkRoom (Cape Town):

“2018 is a big year for TheWorkRoom with the launch of our new studio facility based in Woodstock. This facility will feature a host of new benefits including larger suites, projection screens, as well as comfortable indoor and outdoor working environments. We expect to see an increase in Virtual Reality (VR) content delivered next year, as personal VR devices become mainstream and industry VR workflows begin to stabilise. We also expect the continued growth of immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos™, Auro-3D and DTS-X, as clients start to see the creative benefits of these formats.”

Bradley Joshua, business manager of Gambit Films (Cape Town):

“Gambit Films has completed the feature film Nommer 37 and we are looking forward to its local release during May 2018. Up until that time it is being submitted to international festivals, and our hope is that this film will make it into at least one big international festival before its local release. When the film is released locally, we are sure that audiences will flock to take in this ‘edge-of-your-seat’ thriller.”

Louise Barnes, managing director of EarCandy (Johannesburg): 

“EarCandy has seen an increase in the demand for dubbing into South African vernacular. We have dubbed premier children’s animation shows into isiXhosa and isiZulu this year, and we’re excited about this trend continuing into 2018. This allows content creators to extend their value chain throughout the African continent and beyond, and from the industry standpoint, the advantage of dubbing is that it increases and extends the value for production houses.”

Luke Rous, producer/co-founder of Rous House Productions (Johannesburg):

“Rous House Productions has had a very interesting 2017, starting off with nine SAFTA nominations and three wins for High Rollers, and the successful collaboration as both mentors for and partners with the kykNET Silwerskermfees for the second year running. But most of all, we have highly enjoyed returning to our comedy roots with the production of two kykNET sitcoms, Elke Skewe Pot and Die Kasteel… Next year will start off with Die Kasteel, which starts screening on kykNET from 10 January at 20h30. The show follows the De Wet family who own and run a boutique hotel in Waterkloof, Pretoria; it’s a farcical comedy shot in front of a live audience, and it’s been a rip-roaring ride for us. Our director Josh Rous hasn’t shot a feature film since 2012’s box-office hit Semi Soet, so in May we’ll be shooting our next feature with him, Bruid Van Die Jaar, a rom-com about a girl who is a bit too obsessed with a bride of the year competition, which will be released in the last quarter of 2018. In July 2018, we’ll be following up the success of the first season of Elke Skewe Pot with a second season of the show for kykNET. Other than that, there are plenty of projects on our slate and the rise of Video on Demand platforms in South Africa is going to be where a lot of our attention goes next year. We’ve begun work on a few of these players already – so watch this space.”

Written by David Cornwell

The rise of Virtual Reality in the film industry

With Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible) debuting at this year’s Cannes as the festival’s first-ever Virtual Reality (VR) installation, and with Kathryn Bigelow co-directing a VR documentary about elephant poaching called The Protectors, it is clear that some of the world’s biggest talents are exploring the filmmaking possibilities of virtual reality.

You might have seen (or even tried out) an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive, but how will this burgeoning technology affect the film industry? And how can South African filmmakers begin to prepare for the challenges of working in this new medium?

Murray Walker, a VR developer based in Cape Town, explains that although a lot of money is being invested in VR hardware and software development (especially in the United States and China), so far this has largely been concentrated on the gaming industry, with “business areas like training, education, medicine and travel all attracting investment now, too.”

Indeed, part of what is so exciting about VR’s infiltration into the film industry is that the question of how exactly it should be used is still being worked out. “Storytelling in VR is so exciting to me precisely because there are no answers right now,” Walker says. “It’s really like being back in France when the Lumieres were fiddling with their cinematography and there were no rules or best practices yet.”

Walker explains that there are two main avenues for filmmakers to explore: virtual reality and 360-degree video. He explains that, “VR is made in a game engine and rendered in real-time at 90 frames per second. 360 video is not the same as VR but is also consumed via a headset. 360 video is captured by an array of cameras, anything from 2 to 16, and the images are then stitched together to make what seems like a screen that entirely envelops the viewer. Both avenues are interesting from the point of view of film, with VR emerging more from the animation angle, and 360 video from the live capture side.”

Contemporary conversations around VR in the film industry centre around the related issues of interactivity and immersivity: of the audience member being ‘surrounded’ by the media experience, and able to navigate it themselves. As far back as 2013 (in an interview with Variety magazine), Steven Spielberg declared, “We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen. We’ve got to get rid of that and put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional experience. That’s the future.”

Walker agrees with these sentiments and is particularly enthusiastic about the interactivity that VR could provide. In fact, he thinks that this is precisely the challenge that filmmakers should embrace: “Think about giving up control as to where you want the viewer to focus and imagine non-linear storytelling. In the context of VR, I think this is really the only viable direction film can take, to be honest. When the viewer has the freedom to look anywhere, it’s incredibly hard to get them to focus where you want them to focus.”

Instead, he feels the drive should be towards “bringing gaming technology into the equation and incorporating the ever-improving conversational AIs that are out there. That way you can create a kind of film/game hybrid that will offer a unique experience for every viewer.”

While a project like this might sound far removed from traditional filmmaking, there are already products on the market that could pave the way for such experimentation. One exciting innovation has been the development of light-field cameras (such as the Lytro Immerge), which offer new ways of digitising and spatially mapping physical spaces such as film sets. As Walker puts it, “With these cameras, even when using traditional methods of capturing action, your output will be entirely 3D – allowing the viewer to change their field of view at any point.”

There are, furthermore, some interesting physiological challenges involved with working in the medium of VR. Walker says that he has observed that “suddenly immersing someone in a different space has this stunning effect, where the viewer has this almost cognitive dissonance while the brain tries to figure out what’s just happened. The first 30 seconds or so, the viewer is really spending all their energy just orientating themselves. So I’ve found that starting them in a simple space and not having much happen until they are comfortable and paying proper attention works well. Also remember that high-end VR headsets only allow movement in a two-by-two metre area, so you can’t ask the viewer to move around too much.”

He also points out that “the sense of personal space exists in VR just like in real life. It’s pretty uncomfortable to have someone right in your face. And in VR, your face is essentially the camera, so positioning stuff at least an arm’s length away is a solid guideline.”

Finally, he draws attention to the crucial role that sound plays in the VR experience. “Sound is extremely important to immerse the viewer effectively. In VR, the viewer is spatially aware in a 360-degree sense, so if sounds don’t come from the correct place in space, it can break the immersion pretty severely.”

Battling to understand how all of these components might come together to form a coherent narrative experience, I asked Walker to describe the best example of VR film that he’s seen. “It has to be Gnomes & Goblins by Jon Favreau. It was only a demo, but I think it really shows the way that film in the age of VR will go. In it, you need to befriend a little, shy goblin. You do this by gently giving him an acorn. Move too quickly and he runs away. It can take ages to get him to trust you enough, and the essence of the experience is that he really starts to feel like he’s a living being. When you finally do win him over, he gives you a present in return. It’s a really simple concept, but it was beautifully put together – obviously entirely in CGI, made in a game engine – and it properly impressed me. I was laughing out loud thinking of the potential that this little ‘film’ demonstrated.”

Although the possibilities suggested by this kind of ‘media melding’ are genuinely exciting, Walker doesn’t see VR as a replacement for film at all.

“I think it will just be another option for filmmakers. I don’t believe traditional 2D film will be consigned to the entertainment dump anytime soon. VR is a new storytelling platform, not a direct replacement of an existing platform. For one thing, headsets are – by design – isolating, which takes the social aspect out of watching a film, which I think many people enjoy. For another, most of us watch films to relax: we don’t necessarily want to be the actor. Imagine how exhausting it would be to ‘play out’ Die Hard! I think, at least for the next few decades VR will run parallel to normal ways of filmmaking, offering an entirely different set of challenges and opportunities. It won’t suddenly make normal filmmaking and storytelling redundant.”

So even if the future of film is ‘safe’ from major disruption at the hands of VR, it will be interesting to see how South African filmmakers respond to the advent of new these technologies – especially in the light of the recent growth and continued international interest in our animation industry.

 

Another 10 000 night milestone for Cape Town Productions and Protea Hotels

“The industry generates billions of Rands in revenue, and it has created thousands of permanent jobs, as well as many part-time jobs. Of great importance, too, is the positive spill-over for many other sectors, such as the accommodation and food sectors, transport, vehicle and equipment hire, among others.” – Danny Bryer

“While the function was, of course, a celebration in honour of a very specific milestone in the history of the relationship between Cape Town Productions and the Protea Hotels by Marriott group, it was also a fascinating glimpse into the extent of the film industry’s contribution to the South African economy.”

On Thursday 22 June, the African Pride 15 on Orange Hotel played host to an event celebrating a significant milestone in the relationship between the establishment and Cape Town Productions: the lodging of 10 000 nights by the production company at the hotel.

Douglas Allen, the general manager, welcomed the crowd – which gathered in the hotel’s stylish Judge’s Lounge – and introduced Gavin and Denise Levy, the owners of Cape Town Productions. Gavin then gave a speech in which he shared the history of his working relationship with Allen, which has developed over the course of more than 20 successful years.

After opening its doors in 1988, Cape Town Productions was already a prominent figure in the city’s film industry, when Allen – under the direction of Danny Bryer and Arthur Gillis of the Protea Hotel Group (now Protea Hotels by Marriott) – approached Levy with the idea of setting up a hotel establishment customised for the needs of the film production business. As Levy explained, this model needed to include about “25 key requirements for the production industry, such as centralised check-in facilities, privatised ice-machines, tailor-made collection rooms, clothing rails and steamers” – a daunting list of specifications that was, nonetheless, implemented at Cape Town’s Protea Hotel Victoria Junction in the mid-1990s.

This unique approach to servicing the production industry – where the very construction of the hotel is geared around the industry’s specific needs – has yielded great success for both parties. After lodging 10 000 bed nights in a four-year period at the African Pride Hotel in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, Cape Town Productions has now repeated the trick at the African Pride 15 on Orange establishment, which borders the Mother City’s CBD and has been servicing the production industry since 2010.

Levy spoke about the challenges of the production industry, the vagaries of managing within a field full of variables like “bureaucracy, inclement weather, difficult personalities, tricky clients and sensitive locations” – and he underscored the importance of having reliable partners, especially when it comes to accommodating clients who sometimes need to be away from home for months at a time.

Allen then picked up on this theme of the complexity of the interaction between the production and accommodation industries, highlighting the sheer scale of the logistics involved – from cultivating personal relationships, to planning, coordinating and being involved in endless meetings – and he gave more of an insight into what was involved in transforming his establishments into “what we term them now, ‘production-friendly hotels’.” This included things like complying with requests to have the beds taken out of the hotel rooms to make space for dress rails, needing to set up stations for hair stylists to be able to work at the breakfast tables, and building specialised cabinets to ensure that the keys to the various production vans would never get mixed up or be inaccessible to the crews at any time of day or night.

While the function was, of course, a celebration in honour of a very specific milestone in the history of the relationship between Cape Town Productions and the Protea Hotels by Marriott group, it was also a fascinating glimpse into the extent of the film industry’s contribution to the South African economy.

“The industry generates billions of Rands in revenue,” commented Danny Bryer, the director of Sales, Marketing and Revenue Management for Protea Hotels by Marriott, “and it has created thousands of permanent jobs, as well as many part-time jobs. Of great importance, too, is the positive spill-over for many other sectors, such as the accommodation and food sectors, transport, vehicle and equipment hire, among others.”

Levy was forthcoming about film production’s sphere of influence, crediting it with the creation of an “entire industry of suppliers. From hair and make-up and model agencies to equipment rental companies, from catering to location companies, the list goes on extensively. The production industry now, as a whole, generates R5 billion before the multiplier [the aggregate effect of investment over time] – so it actually injects in excess of R8 billion into the economy of South Africa each year. Our industry also employs 26 000 people, and that’s before applying the multiplier. So it’s truly a significant industry.”

Interestingly, this influence also extends far beyond the hard economics of investment and job creation. In a private interview, Levy revealed that being a pioneer of the South African production industry has led to some high-level responsibilities, “chairing and sitting on a number of steering commissions” that have brought great changes to an array of related sectors. “The first was the film permit office, where I sat on the steering committee to organise the online film permit system, which the City of Cape Town developed and now uses very successfully” – and then, on an even larger scale, Levy was called upon again when shifting visa regulations in 2014 threatened the industry’s livelihood by changing the status of certain visa exempt countries. “When the visa rules changed three years ago, it was devastating for the industry as a whole – something to the effect of a 38 per cent drop in revenue for the industry, in one year. It was very much apparent that a committee needed to be set up on behalf of the film industry to deal with the Department of Home Affairs – which we did, and still continue to do on behalf of our clients.”

Further, the Film Industry Fund is an initiative that ensures that film locations benefit directly from their involvement in shoots. “A certain portion of the location fee is directed into the fund: money which is ring-fenced for use in that specific community. For example, we shot recently in the Bo-Kaap and improved a neighbourhood park, built a jungle gym there, and we built a library with 8 000 books after a shoot in Kommetjie.”

Finally, Levy reflected on what, after 29 years in the business, he sees as one of the most satisfying developments in the South African production industry: “the transfer of skills has been amazing. You know, 20 years ago, the crews that used to fly in here consisted of dozens of people. Everybody from the hair and make-up department, their assistants, photographer’s assistants, stylists and their assistants – the whole crew used to come out here. But over the years there’s been a significant transfer of skills and skills development, which has created this wonderful local employment base. And now our clients come out in teams of five – all the rest of the people involved in the project are local. Our skill-sets and our equipment companies, in terms of gaffers, sparks, grips – they are absolutely phenomenal, and every year our clients are more and more impressed by what they’re seeing here in South Africa.”

With this sense of the film production industry’s greater significance to the South African social landscape hanging in the air, it was a fitting end to the function when Volker Heiden, the new vice president of Protea Hotels by Marriott (Marriott International, Middle East and Africa) presented Cape Town Productions with a final token of the hotel’s appreciation: a charitable donation of R10 000 (to represent the 10 000 hotel nights) in Gavin Levy’s name to the Reach For A Dream Foundation.

Roberta Durrant on the making of her new feature Krotoa

Roberta Durrant is a celebrated director and producer, and the founder of Penguin Films. Following the success of 2013’s Felix – a heart-warming story about a young saxophonist who dreams of making it as a jazz musician – her latest feature, Krotoa, is a rich historical epic that depicts prominent figures from South Africa’s early colonial history. Centred around the story of Krotoa – a young Khoi woman who worked as a translator for Jan Van Riebeeck – the film promises to be a stylish and significant contribution to South African cinema, collecting no fewer than eight international film awards in the lead-up to its local release.

Screen Africa caught up with Roberta to chat about researching Krotoa’s story, the challenges of recreating a late-1600s aesthetic and what audiences should expect from her sweeping new feature…

Where did the idea for a film about Krotoa come from?

We pitched to the SABC several years back for a documentary series called Hidden Histories, and one of the stories that we pitched to them was the story of Krotoa – because she is very much part of the hidden history of this country. Kaye Ann Williams, who wrote the script for the feature together with Margaret Goldsmid, made the documentary – and from this process, it was quite clear that there was a strong narrative quality to Krotoa’s life story. So, basically, we created a narrative drama inspired by the facts. So, although we stayed as true to the facts and the timeline of her life as possible, we also took dramatic licence – and this dramatic licence was more around deductions made by various historians. Because even at the time people believed different things and drew different conclusions about her life. So from all of that information, a feature film script was developed.

And what is it about the character that you found so special?

I think her story is quite relevant now, because it has to do with identity. First of all, she was a visionary: she believed there was a middle way between the two cultures, the Dutch – a culture which she was assimilated into at the age of 11 – and the Khoi San, with whom she never lost her ties. And so she spent her life between these two cultures, and she believed that a middle way was possible – though, of course, we know that it took another 300 years to materialise. And her experience was unique, because at a very young age she was taken into Van Riebeeck’s fort and then at 16 became one of his interpreters, and she played an important role in negotiating between the Dutch and the Khoi. And then, finally, her marriage to Pieter Van Meerhof – who was the fort doctor at the time – was the first mixed-race marriage in the new colony, at least the first that was written down and recorded as such. So she’s a very interesting, unique kind of figure – and there haven’t been many stories that focus on women like Krotoa, even though they were such significant figures of their time.

The film was produced by Penguin Films, your own company. How did you manage to finance the project, and what were the biggest challenges you encountered?

We made it with the support from the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry and Kyk Net. In terms of challenges, we had to be very careful how we made it because we didn’t have a lot of money and obviously we were doing a ‘period’ piece. We had to keep it quite contained, so – first of all – we had to find an area where there was nothing around. We shot out near Agulhas, partly in the Reserve and partly on private farms, areas where you can still find untouched and undeveloped fynbos – like it might have looked in 1652. And then we had to recreate Van Riebeeck’s original fort, which was built from wood and turf and mud – all quite primitive. With these constraints and the fact we didn’t have a huge budget, we had to confine the story and personalise it, really tell it from Krotoa’s point of view.

Any other cinematographic features viewers should keep an eye out for?

Because the area we shot it in was so beautiful, the team (Greg Heimann, SASC/DOP; Edward Liebenberg, art director; Emma Moss, wardrobe) tried to incorporate a sense of the place with sweeping vistas and attention to the natural elements of each shot. We also took great pains in terms of art direction to differentiate between the palette of the Khoi settlement and the Dutch fort, which had its own contrasting colour palette to the natural surroundings.

You must be delighted by the international response to the film?

Yes, it’s been picked up for distribution as well as featuring strongly at many competitions. We tested the waters quite carefully at the beginning, we went to smaller festivals like INDIEfest – and then we won Best Show there, and that gave us encouragement to go further. Because our team is so female-driven – from the director to the writers to the lead character, of course – we’ve selected our festivals accordingly. We’ve just been selected for the Female Eye Film Festival in June. And of course we were very pleased to win Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival. From here, we’ll see how it goes. But the film has had a great response internationally so far: other than at Nashville, wherever it’s been seen, it’s won.

Do you think South African audiences will be as receptive?

I think it will be an interesting film for South Africans to go to. It’s not short! It’s two hours long. When you go, you must go expecting to be taken on a journey – to give two hours to having an experience. It’s always a challenge when making a film about someone’s life, trying to stick to the facts and the chronology of it, and Krotoa’s life had such a natural rise and fall that we needed to include all of it. We couldn’t just focus on her relationship with Van Riebeeck or Van Meerhof, or just her relationship with the Khoi San – it all had to be in there, to paint the picture as accurately as possible.

Finally, now that Krotoa is gearing up for its local release and you’ve gained a bit of distance from the project, what in your opinion is the film’s most enduring quality?

I think what carries the film very strongly are the extraordinary performances. I have to say that Crystal Donna Roberts was excellent as Krotoa – she threw herself into that part and she lived it, and she’s extraordinary in the film. And once you’re grabbed by her, you go on that journey with her because she’s so powerful and compelling. And I think, for me, that is the driving force of the film: once you’ve grasped onto Krotoa’s story – it takes hold of you – it’s an emotional experience, and I think that is the strength of the film.

New voices, new media

How Coloured Mentality reveals the potential of the South African web series

South African art has a proud history of social responsibility, with creatives investing their work with ideas aimed towards inspiring conversations around major issues such as race, gender and class. It has been a prevalent trend throughout the development of the modern South African canon – which is unsurprising, given the amount of social inequalities we as a nation still need to redress –and it is assuring to know that the next generation of filmmakers are not shying away from the challenge. In fact, they seem to be utilising new forms of media that are even more fit for the task.

Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman are twenty-something creatives based in Cape Town. Although they juggle a lot of roles and responsibilities (Koopman, for example, also co-directs a feminist NPO), the two have gained serious attention for their recently-released Coloured Mentality, a five-part documentary series comprised of responses to searching questions surrounding various aspects of the coloured experience in South Africa. Released on YouTube in tandem with a coordinated social media campaign, the series is not only a fine example of ‘conscious content’, but an exciting glimpse into new media’s ability to provide young filmmakers with both a platform and an interactive audience for their work.

In the duo’s own words, Coloured Mentality was inspired, simultaneously, by a desire “to understand ourselves as Cape Town 20-somethings who grew up as coloured. What did that mean? How does it relate to our ancestry? Are we Khoisan? Who are we?”; and an acknowledgement that they “were not the only people struggling to find answers to these questions, and so we shared our search with our community.”

The result is a direct and consistently compelling documentary series that is deceptively simple in its structure. This is because although each episode consists simply of interviewees responding to a particular question that keys into the coloured experience, the questions themselves are truly illuminating – laying bare the political ramifications of our language (and indeed our imaginations) when we seek to talk about that most seemingly ‘natural’ of personal belongings: identity.

The questions – “What is a coloured?”; “Is Afrikaans a white language?”; “Are coloured people black?”; “What is coloured culture?”; “Does coloured privilege exist?” – succeed in eliciting such rich responses from the interviewees (many of whom are prominent media figures) precisely because they touch on ideas that connect the individual’s experience to their own understanding of their community’s experience. As the duo says, “identity is an individual experience as much as it is a group experience” – and it is their sensitivity to this insight that makes the series such a resounding success, creating a form of representing voices where the boundaries of the conversation are set by the voices themselves, a process whereby the filmmakers become “characters within” the documentary as much as its authors.

And, arguably, an even greater part of the success of the series has been its on-going provision of a platform for engaged viewers to continue to debate the issues arising from the interview segments. For Koopman and Summers, “the series ultimately became less about the episodes themselves, and more about the conversation they ignited,” with people sharing their views with one another on the Coloured Mentality Facebook page (which is now approaching 20 000 members). Even a cursory glance at the page reveals keen and impassioned debate, heartfelt personal responses such as poetry inspired by the conversations, and enlivened and engaged suggestions for future episodes and areas of exploration.

The good news for fans of documentary features is that Coloured Mentality was always conceived as a preparatory project leading up to the duo’s next release, a full-length film “about our experiences during a 1000km Liberation Walk led by a group of eccentric Khoi activists.” Currently in post-production and tentatively titled The Walk Back, the documentary (which, like the series, is being produced by Gambit Films) will delve even deeper into the fraught terrain of personal understandings of identity in the context of South Africa’s diverse social landscape. Describing the film as “self-reflective” and the process as “very challenging”, the filmmakers have come away from the experience with the conviction that “we live in a fragmented society, and part of acknowledging this is recognising that there are many different types of people who feel relegated and unheard. Just like identity, social consciousness is not homogeneous: we need to address the unique issues different people are facing before we can expect the ‘unity in diversity’ ideal.”

While we wait for the documentary’s release, young South African filmmakers can take enormous encouragement from the success of Coloured Mentality. Not only has it been well received by the “smart, discerning and interested” internet audience in South Africa, but – through the filmmakers’ strategic cultivation of an online forum where invested viewers can interact with one another – they have also devised a way of achieving what all too few South African works have managed before: a means of continuing (in fact, deepening) the conversation after the fact. Never mind the directness and accessibility of the web series format, it is this feature that may see its popularity spike – the possibility that work may have a lasting and evolving impact, remaining in dialogue with its audience long after the credits have rolled.

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