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SEEING IS BELIEVING: The expanding role of VFX technologies in the context of global filmmaking

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Screen Africa caught up with leading South African visual effects artist Hilton Treves to discuss his role on the production of Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer, his hopes for the local film television industry and the expanding role of VFX technologies in the context of global filmmaking.

LEAN LOCAL LANDSCAPE

Hilton Treves started the first visual effects animation house in South Africa in 1988 under the name Digital Directions. Since then, he has spent time working in Canada (for Spin Productions) and for ABC/Disney (Of Kings and Prophets), before finally setting up Cinegestix, the visual effects studio responsible for Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer.

With more than 30 years’ experience in the business, Treves speaks authoritatively on the state of the South African industry. “One of the things that’s always frustrated me is that as South Africans, we typically don’t commit to our projects the same way that we service international projects,” he says.

“You can look at Australia as a counter-example: it grew into a world-class industry because they re-invested back into their own people and their own country. The South African film industry, on the other hand, is built around the servicing model – where about five main production houses will provide 90% of the employment every year.”

As he explains, this can have serious knock-effects throughout the industry:  “You end up in a situation where professionals in the leading VFX houses think they have nothing left to achieve in this country. They wait around for international jobs and eventually think to themselves, ‘I’m leaving, and I’ll go work for George Lucas or James Cameron – somewhere my skill set can actually be put to use.’”

A PRODUCTION WITH POTENTIAL

According to Treves, this is why Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer – which enjoyed its local premiere at the recent Silwerskerm Festival – presented such a compelling opportunity. “When Racheltjie came along, two things struck me about it at the outset. First, the script was so engrossing – just powerful drama built on a beautiful, captivating story. The second was seeing the passion that the director Matthys Boshoff had for the project.”

Reading the script gave Treves a sense of the important role that visual effects would need to play in the story, and his response to Boshoff was emphatic: “Let’s do this, but let’s not compromise. Let’s give this film a proper A-list finish. So every VFX shot was considered; we looked at the project holistically, as an opportunity to showcase what we can do on a South African production filled with top-level talent. With the cinematographer we had on board [Willie Nel], we knew it was going to be filmed majestically, and the passion for the project that flowed from Matthys gave the production an added spirit – a unique energy around the set.”

While originally about 120 visual effects shots were planned, Treves explains that – in the end – more than 200 were produced as his team “became visual effects partners, collaborating with filmmakers based on storytelling and creativity.”

As he says, this allowed the filmmakers to push their creativity and to include scenes that – although difficult to execute – add immensely to the richness of the story. “There was a scene with a leopard in the first version of the script, but then they dropped it because they assumed it was going to be too expensive to pull off. But I loved that first script, and my company has been building photorealistic CG animals for years – so I told Matthys that we can do it, and we will do it.”

It was a similar story for the film’s centrepiece visual effect: the apocalyptic storm that separates Racheltjie and her brother from their family.

“The storm is as much of a character to this film as Racheltjie is. These shots were considered from the beginning: we knew from the beginning that we would have to digitally create snow, and that the storm had to be as vivid and evocative a character as any other in the film.

It’s crucial to be involved early,” Treves continues, “because there are so many different ways to achieve an effect. Do you need to do a full 3D scan of the world and place cameras in the right positions to catch the light of the room? Or are you going to do it like in the past – blocking off cameras and layering up plates? The technology today basically allows us to do anything we like, but it is how we approach it that make it viable for the project or not. And the only way to properly assess that, as a VFX supervisor, is to be involved as early as possible – to be there in the conceptualisation stages to problem-shoot issues ahead of time.”

This close cooperation was carried through into the post-production process. “Everyone was integrated. We had servers set up between Joburg and Cape Town. As they were busy with the edits and grades they would drop scenes down onto the servers and tell us they were ready for us to get to work. Then we would work on our side and send back for approval – using the best of available technologies to streamline the process and create productive feedback loops.

Reflecting on what he hopes this project achieves, Treves says: “Storytellers in this country are compromised by knowing that their budget is small. But I hope that Racheltjie shows people that if you approach things differently, you can put amazing effects on screen and tell all the epic, grand South African stories that need to be told. We are in an age where VOD platforms have empowered the world to tell their stories, and technically we achieved some phenomenal stuff here – as good as anything that’s out on Hollywood screens. And I would love to see this kind of ambition permeating throughout our industry – because that’s how you create an industry that has sustainability, that’s how you keep our talented people here.”

LOOKING FORWARD

As someone who has been on the frontline of every major innovation in VFX technology over the last 30 years, Treves is perfectly positioned to give us a sense of what to anticipate in the industry in the near future.

“The next big thing on the horizon over the next three to five years is virtual filmmaking – this is going change all the rules,” he says.

He references the recent Jon Favreau adaptation of The Lion King as a sign of things to come. “As impressive as the technology on show in The Lion King is – and that’s almost five years of research that’s gone into that movie – the approach to making that film is going to change what we know about the business. You need a location in Guatemala? Send a 3D scanning team out there, do the scans, and then we’ll shoot the film studio. Things are moving so fast. India built an entire industry around rotoscoping – but the AI and machine learning technology-based software tools that will make this industry redundant are going to be launched in the next six months.”

How then do VFX artists manage to stay ahead of the curve, as technological trends shift and adapt before their very eyes?

“Staying on top is a difficult game. This is because every day viewer expectations are being heightened by what is coming out of Hollywood. Also, as the head of a VFX studio, you’re constantly managing both pure artists and mathematicians, which can be a challenge – but, at the end of the day, it comes down to a question of seeing.

“We have to become experts at seeing. That’s the best piece of advice I ever got; it was from Dennis Muren, who worked with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park and other projects. The art of visual effects boils down to whether you can look at something and really see it – if you can distinguish what it is about the object that makes it realto you. This could be a glint in an animal’s eyes, or the cavitation of a snowflake as it brushes against someone’s hand – it’s about noticing those tiny details that create the effect of lifelikeness to the viewer.”

First co-production between South Africa and China currently in development

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

The first-ever co-production between South Africa and China – a conservation-inspired story entitled A Pair of Golden Wings – is in advanced stages of development.

With Darrell Roodt set to direct and Murray Clive Walker slated for a starring role, the project represents an exciting partnership between the two BRICS countries.

A Pair of Golden Wings is largely set in China’s Qinghai Province, situated in the northern foothills of the Himalayas, as well as the northern wetlands of Gauteng. It tells the story of a conservationist who strives to protect China’s endangered red-crowned crane. When she comes across a blue crane with a South African tag, she decides to return the bird to its original nesting-ground.

The production of A Pair of Golden Wings plans to bring Africa and Asia together in a friendly, cultural collaboration. The film will be the first co-production of its kind between China and South Africa, and will also mark a big step towards greater cultural collaboration between the BRICS countries.

“In the future, we hope to shoot more films that communicate to the world the beauty, charm and ethnic diversity that these countries possess. China and South Africa have a good political relationship and we want to strengthen it through this kind of cultural storytelling,” says Murray Clive Walker, who is also acting as co-producer of the film.

Walker explains that he set up Colony Films “six months ago, with the express purpose of doing a co-production with China. I got back to Johannesburg at the end of 2017, after working in China for 14 years, and it was a question of deciding to ‘do what I know.’ It occurred to me that I could leverage my Chinese resources and the experience I had of working in both countries.”

Walker continues: “I was in conversation with producer Jin – who I met about seven or eight years ago doing another movie – and he was on the lookout for a top director for this project of his. I told him I knew Darrell Roodt, who is an Oscar-nominated director – but the more we spoke about it, the more we both realised it would be ideal to make it a co-production.”

Providing an update of the progress of the project, Walker explains that “we have completed the first stage of three. We have just invited two Chinese representatives to Cape Town and Johannesburg to meet with Darrell and producer Greig Buckle at Enigma Pictures – a company which has done great work over the years in production services, including five months on Mad Max: Fury Road. The representatives also visited Cape Town Film Studios, Atlantic Film Studios and Refinery Post Production, and conducted meetings at the Gauteng Film Commission, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Chinese Embassy.”

Walker and Roodt are “currently working on the script to adapt it for the co-production. We need to flesh out the local scenes and make sure we have twenty-one filming days in South Africa – and next we’ll fly over to Beijing in April. There’ll be a whole delegation of us, hopefully with representatives from the Gauteng Film Commission and the DTI, to participate in the official signing of the contract. And after that,” he concludes, “we’ll be able to head into production.”

“Shaping Theatrical Cinema”: Q&A with Chris Vermaak, Die Seemeu DoP

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Chris Vermaak is an expert Steadicam operator and has served as DoP on three Christiaan Olwagen films in the past few years.

Screen Africa chatted to him about he brought his unique visual style to the Die Seemeeu – a mostly-Afrikaans adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play, set for nationwide release on the 5th of April.

What is your background as a DoP, and how did you first get involved with Christiaan Olwagen as a director?

I cut my teeth as a DoP doing SABC drama in Johannesburg. It was a great way to learn how to make do with minute budgets and little time. It was in this world that I first introduced my then-rudimentary Steadicam skills to try and add as much production value as possible in the least amount of time. I progressed into commercials work and honed my skills, continually operating Steadicam on various feature films and TVCs.

I received a call from Christiaan asking me whether I would like to DoP Johnny is nie dood nie literally days before they would start shooting. Christiaan had this idea that he wanted to keep the performances and the flow of time real: reel time becoming real time. I leapt at the opportunity. It was certainly not the first time in history that long takes without cuts would be used but….wow! This was for every scene! A whole movie of one takes!

You’ve worked on three of Christiaan’s films in the past few years: Johnny is nie dood nie, Kanarie and now Die Seemeeu. From your perspective, to what extent do you think these films should be viewed as a “trilogy”, if at all?

These three movies are unique in their visual style. All three movies were shot with basically the same collaborators and in a very short space of time (as movies go).This allowed not only the people involved to really get to know each other, but also that we could keep sight of an overall ethos – a manifesto as to our sensibility across all three projects.

All three are a testament to us shaping this strange style of theatrical cinema.
Johnny and Kanarie were set in very Afrikaans backgrounds and had us re-thinking our own ideas about ourselves and our past. What did the war do to us? What did Apartheid do to us? What did our super-controlling, morally reprehensible yet deeply religious government do to us?

Die Seemeeu is the existential question we need to ask ourselves after dealing with all of that. It has the most universal theme of all three movies.

Your website states that “A whole story can be told in a single frame”… What is it about the one-take style enabled by Steadicam shots that so appeals to you, and when did you realise that you wanted to specialise in this style?

There is a certain honesty that is inherent in a oner. It’s like when a magician shows you a trick “right before your eyes.” The audience don’t think that they were fooled – but, of course, they were. The material we are shooting is scripted. The people you see are actors. Of course we want to manipulate you into having emotions! That is what YOU want, too. It takes believable performances and perceived visual honesty to have people suspend their disbelief. Even though they obviously are still aware that they are watching a movie.

We can’t cut to a close up if someone starts crying. If you deserve a close up the camera needs to get that close to you. We can’t use one actor’s good take with a different take that worked with the other’s good performance. The passage of time is real. The timing of one actor’s performance with another is real. All these things make the audience trust in the fact that you are telling it like it is. That this is “a real story” – whatever that means.

Of all the ways to move a camera through space and time, the Steadicam is the platform that most closely mimics human movement. It behaves like a head on a neck. It follows humans where they go. It listens to them talking. When it does point of view shots, it pretends to be human. At other times, it just floats through people’s lives like a voyeuristic ghost.

What, in your opinion, does this camera style add to this film adaptation of The Seagull? Do you think it works particularly well with the ‘theatrical’ mode of performance, for example…?

Yes. We only shot Die Seemeeu after Johnny and Kanarie, and – in a way – it was as if we had developed this style for this movie. Ironically, we did experiment with shooting coverage during the filming. It just felt wrong.

I remember reading a critique in The Guardian of the Michael Mayer adaptation of The Seagull with Annette Bening as Irina. It was released way before Die Seemeeu and obviously made with much more budget. The reviewer said that – and I am paraphrasing here – even though the material was fantastic and performances were great, there was something that kept bugging him: the fact that it was cinema.

I was intrigued with this, as we had obviously done something different. Something much more theatrical, but also cinematic. Hopefully to successful ends.

Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” What sequences/shots were you particularly proud of this time around, and please share any information about how they were achieved.

The whole performance of Konstant’s play on the lake was just beautifully absurd and so visually pleasing. The location was spectacular but the weather gave us hell the whole first week of shooting! We lost so much time. When we came back and finished it in that unbelievable dusky light we couldn’t believe it ourselves! When you have to finish a scene before the sun goes down and try to maintain lighting continuity it is a blessing to be shooting one take!

What equipment was used on the shoot?

We used the Arri Alexa Mini camera with Kowa anamorphic lenses. I used my GPI PRO Steadicam rig with the Letus Helix single-axis pro stabiliser. There were no tripods, no dollies and a very small crew. The lighting package was also very small. I remember sticking a string of tungsten bulbs to the ceiling and hanging paper napkins as a skirt…

Any final reflections on the experience of shooting these three films?

I really feel privileged to have done these three movies with Christiaan. We couldn’t solve problems with money but were always brave in our choices. Strapping slide projectors to cameras, spinning the whole screen 360 degrees, not cutting even though it would have solved myriad practical problems. Always finding a way to stay true to our manifesto and giving the actors the stage. If all life be a stage, play on.

Die Seemeu is out now.

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