Working in ankle-deep mud

Xe bo, doing what the jeeps could not.

The mud was so sticky, it'd pull the shoes right off your feet. For almost two weeks we were slogging in it.

At any rate, when far afield and encountering difficulties with the terrain, hire local farmers. They will have a solution.

Why the Production Designer is my best friend

To celebrate the theatrical release of Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm (House in the Alley), I'll share this photo. It was taken when the production design team was about halfway through their work transforming the house in which we shot 80% of the film.

This one photo guided the look for most of the film. I even incorporated the fluorescent bulb work lights they had lying on the floor.

When the director and I walked in, I could see all the conversations we'd had about aesthetics, mood, color and tone take a concrete form that we could execute. I was very excited.

This photo might simply show an empty room with a light bulb on the floor. But for me it showed me what the film was going to look like. The work on making the walls look old was maybe halfway done, but I could start to feel the textures. The colors were there. It inspired lighting that was unusual, but motivated and rooted in the character of the house. We played with reflective surfaces. The photo speaks to a house that is unfinished yet has a rot rising from the foundations.

I was thrilled with the production design team's work on this house - it made my work so much easier and so much better.  Even if we were simply shooting a closeup against a blank wall, the wall had texture, character and visual interest. I really appreciated that they sought my input and did their best to incorporate my requests. I'm happy with the work I did on the film, however, without their work, the film wouldn't look even half so good.

As a cinematographer who primarily works on projects with very limited resources, I like to see those resources go on screen. That means locations and production design. I can do so much more with a couple lights and a great space than with all the equipment I could possibly dream of in a boring space.

Thanks to the production design team on Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm for giving the rest of us in the cast & crew an inspiring space to in which to shoot.

It's not a mistake if you're consistent.

Usually I find my work constrained by limitations. This is typical and I don't expect it to change. And constants are ok. Limitations foster creativity. Probably more than resources.

Many times I have some constraint which prevents me from executing a shot in a conventionally desirable manner. I find that fighting it is an exercise in frustration and gives a poor result almost every time.  The most effective approach I have found is to embrace my limitations instead, and find a way to make them work for me.

Start early and be consistent. Suddenly what started as a mistake becomes a style. What made me crazy in the beginning becomes the look in the project that I love most.

Anamorphic lens flares are the most obvious trend in this sort of thing lately, but it can also be focus issue, lighting challenges, camera movement or any other aspect of the craft where the gulf between what one would like to do and what is possible can't be bridged.

Now, to be frank, this doesn't always work. But I've learned to at least anticipate when that's coming and accept it as a parameter of the job. No sense making myself crazy with something that can't be fixed.

I was taught early on to focus on doing what I can do and doing it well rather than break my neck trying to do what I can't do well and worrying about it. That a mistake is only a failure if you fail to learn from it. That there are no problems, only challenges. I make my living with these words.

That and great close-ups. More words of wisdom: Wide shots win awards. Close-ups get you work.

To be sure, I've encountered challenges that bested me. But at least I found a way to learn from them. On the flip side, much of my best work has come from finding creative ways to embrace the limitations of a project and turn them to my advantage.

That's all great. But my real takeaway from the school of hard knocks where these ideas are a daily struggle: Don't complain. Directors hate a complainer. Producers hate a complainer. Exceed expectations instead.

Believing that the challenges I face make me better, that helps.

Unfamiliar streets

Whenever I lose my way, I don't like to think of it as being lost. Rather it's just unscheduled location scouting.

Personal branding

I'm told it's helpful to have a personal trademark - a distinctive look or characteristic by which folks will remember you. Unfortunately blue jeans and black t-shirts fall short of being distinctive. Consequently my trademark with crews in Vietnam is a smelly towel.

I take consolation in being a Douglas Adams fan. What he has to say on the subject of towels holds true.

On my first feature here, we didn't have a shoulder brace for handheld shots. What little duvy I had, I needed for lighting. So one of my camera assistants provided me with a light-blue towel to cushion the weight of the camera on my shoulder. The shoot involved a fair amount of handheld work. Vietnam is a humid and rainy place, so this towel collected a lot of... moisture. This is in addition to the dirt, dust, grime, grease, and burnt patches it collected as it did double duty for cleanup, fell into this or that mess, or was employed to extinguish a conflagration. It acquired quite an odor.

To the point where the guys would hand it to me whilst holding their noses. Every time the director called for handheld, I started hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?"

Now my Vietnamese language skills could be compared to what you'd hear from a hard-living 18-month-old toddler cradled in a 12k, swaddled in a steadicam vest, and drinking too much black coffee. Not that I'm particularly foul-mouthed, but I have a propensity for mispronouncing Vietnamese words in a manner which creates malapropisms of the most vulgar imaginable description. I'm told that after 30, one can only learn a new language to the level of someone in middle school. With Vietnamese, I'll be happy if I learn it to the level of someone that's potty-trained.

At any rate, after hearing "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" a couple hundred times, enough for me to distinguish the words, I asked what it meant. "Where's the smelly towel?"

Then one day, the guys offered me a brand-new towel. Sensing an opportunity to try out a new phrase, I said "Khăn hôi ở đâu?" Oops. One guy ran to the boxes and everyone else burst into laughter. After that, there were no further efforts to offer me a fresh towel.

At the end of the show, I kept it as a souvenir. I brought it home. The housekeeper, who usually finds a way to reuse everything I discard, promptly threw it away in disgust.

In the years since, it's become a running joke with my crews. At the beginning of every show I am proudly presented a brand new khăn thơm (fragrant towel). I ask for a smelly one instead. We contrive new and interesting ways to get the towel dirty and, if possible, engulfed in flames. We hide it from the production assistants and housekeepers who try to wash it. We complain when they locate it by the odor and bring it back clean the next morning. We gauge the luck of the shoot by the condition of the khăn hôi. After awhile, it adds whole new layers to the phase "Always good for a gag."

I've employed logos, color schema, distinctive wardrobe and nifty accessories to no avail. A smelly towel has become my personal trademark. Fortunately, scent can be a powerful memory trigger.

When you think you've seen it all

The other night I encountered the first person I've ever met who has climbed Everest. An altogether fascinating individual. On the subject of love, he told the most romantic story I've ever heard in my life. I won't recount it because I couldn't do it justice. Suffice to say, the girl he wanted to impress fainted.

Yesterday I woke up to an unusual amount of rooster crowing. In the afternoon a friend came by my house to pick something up.  He said "I think I'm here... is it a big white house?" The house I live in isn't white, I think. The street is so narrow, I couldn't say I've gotten a good look at it. At any rate, I said "Are they having cockfights in the street?" My friend says yes. "Ok, you're here."

Prognostications on film's demise may be premature.

Kodak declared bankruptcy. Film is poised to take another big hit in the near future as projection completes the transition digital, and processing facilities soon won't be able amortize overhead costs striking theatrical prints. 3D and the coming move to 60 fps projection are not film friendly.

As audiences become increasingly desensitized to degraded, over-compressed video viewed on the web and digital television, the financial calculus against investing in image quality is moving ever further against film. Besides which, I'm guessing that digital image capture has about five years to go before surpassing film in terms of image quality and capability in every regard.

However, there's one thing special about film which digital doesn't capture. Shooting film requires discipline. Takes are expensive. There's no WYSIWYG monitoring. Every department head lives in fear of missing something and having it show up in dailies.

In my experience, attitudes and behavior on a film set are markedly different than a digital set, especially after the magic words "Roll Camera" are uttered.

Digital frees a filmmaker from many constraints.  Some of those constraints are helpful. With digital, I find there's tendency to roll on everything, even rehearsals, and hope to get lucky. I'm not saying the disciplines of shooting film can't be applied on a digital shoot. Just that digital makes it easier to lapse. Shots very commonly get taken before they're ready.

So you start getting twelve mediocre takes for every setup. The first three are rehearsals. The next three have technical issues that were overlooked during the rolling rehearsals because the camera was rolling. The next six are spent with the actors trying to recapture the performance of take four which was out of focus because the marks got changed but the camera rolled right away to maintain the energy from take three or something like that. And so on. With film, I see far fewer wasted takes.

My experience is that four takes on film will reliably yield a better result than any number of takes on digital. The difference really comes in the cast's performances. Actors are able to conserve their energy and give each take their best, knowing that the whole crew is truly ready to execute smoothly and give the performance its due.

Under the pressures of production and long hours, the mechanics of shooting film create a buffer against slipping into doing sloppy work. Film helps actors give their best performances.  With film you increase the likelihood of fewer and better takes and things move faster. If I'm right about that, film won't be disappearing any time soon, though it might become an endangered species.

Building friendships anywhere

I came across an interesting article today about food and the nature of disgust.

"Don't judge" is a nice kind of platitude to throw around.  The true test comes when one is far from home. A large part of my ability to work successfully with people from around the world involves forming bonds of friendship that transcend barriers of language and culture. A fun way to form those bonds is with food.

Cow tongue is decent boiled in a lemongrass & rice soup. Rats, mice, dogs, and crickets are fairly routine menu choices here in Vietnam.

Snake wine is everywhere - people only buy it for display though. They make homemade "wine" (with an alcohol content closer to whiskey) out of almost anything else. 
Garlic wine is rough. I board with a Vietnamese family and the dad loves that stuff.  Good for the health and all that.  I have to drink it fairly often and try to like it. Strawberry and banana wines are about what you'd expect - delicious. Lin Chee mushroom wine is amazing - delightfully aromatic. 

I tried all kinds of food when I first got here - goat, duck blood mousse, pig brain, pig ears, eel, frog, and a bunch of stuff where I just didn't ask. The only thing I've seen on a plate which no one actually eats are chicken heads.

My favorite out-of-the-ordinary food so far is crocodile. Apparently crocodile is a popular dish. Consequently there is a problem in the countryside with crocodiles escaping from farms. Anyway, I went to one place where they brought a little fella out. I held him. He was pretty squirmy. 

 And no wonder, because they then slit his throat, drained the blood, and took him to the kitchen. 

We grilled the meat at the table and drank the blood cut with vodka. That was some strong drink. I hoped it was safe because of the vodka. 

Grilled crocodile with okra tastes great. Much better than rattlesnake. Crocodile soup, not so much. I'm told the reason they kill the crocodile in front of you is so that you will know the food is fresh. Just like lobster.

My takeaway from the article that motivated this missive is that in a foreign country, acceptance of the food signifies something deeper, an acceptance of the people and an embrace of their culture.  Eating anything that is put in front me is a good way to build trust and foster relationships. And to have fun. People here get a kick out of putting the strangest delicacies on the table in front of me. I've had to demure on occasion, to my great chagrin.  I've also eaten things that really put my gag suppression skills to the test. But in every case, I get tested in an entertaining way and I try to rise to the challenge. We have fun. And I never know. Sometimes, contrary to all expectation, what I'm eating turns out to be delicious.