Monday 25 July 2011

06 Shooting Venice Vivaldi Versailles & Two Gondoliers

When my pals Richard (Bailey) and Robin (Blandy) told me they were invited, with their gondola, to be part of a spectacle in Versailles, I said I´d love to shoot it. Every Friday for one month, the organizers planned to re-create the Venetian Son et Lumiere that Louis XIV put on to entertain, and impress, his court. 20 gondolas (and their gondoliers) from different countries, were collected to participate. Historic characters, including Louis, played by a woman, would be the passengers. Fireworks, also in the style of the 17th century were part of the spectacle. And there would be a Vivaldi concert and champagne to boot. I thought what a show. A once in a lifetime chance.

So I packed my camera and tripod and took off for Versailles.  Richard and Robin, who looked like two tanned happy kids on vacation (show biz seemed to suit them), met me the night before to go over the plans. They took me to the kind of small French brasserie that I like, where the patron is amicable, even on the first visit, the waiters look the part, in their white shirts and black aprons and the food is simple but delicious.  We decided to meet the next day at the green Kiosk, in the palace gardens by the canals.

Nothing prepared me for my first sight of the famous chateau of Louis 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th.  In my imagination it had always been a place of gorgeous rooms, the Orangerie with 800 species of oranges and casual strollers in the gardens dressed in elegant costumes. What I first saw was a parking lot full of cars and a rusty statue, which looked like a giant abstract hand that was missing a sandwich.  I pressed on to the courtyard of the palace. Thousands of people were lined up three abreast in a snake-like queue to buy tickets. The sun, blazing hot, shining on the chateau decorated in gold, gave new meaning to the title “Sun King” that Louis XIV bestowed on himself.

Lucky for me there was no queue to get into the gardens - that day it was free. Thousands more people meandered up and down the paths, like so many ants, taking photos. After walking about a kilometer I came to the canals built in the form of a giant cross facing West. From the air the whole assemblage would certainly be fantastic, especially at sunset.  But up close it looked ordinary and not very filmable. Richard and Robin were almost an hour late – they arrived around noon.  With the sun at its highest it was impossible to see the shots in the monitor (will have to ask Eki what to do about that).

I just started pointing the camera and grumbled. When later I looked at the footage, saw immediately there was no sense of place – the gondola could have been anywhere. Altogether spent about 5 hours in the hot sun trying to get some decent shots. At the end of the day I was burned out. The show started at 10 PM. My ticket cost 90 Euros, included in the price of admission was the Vivaldi concert and a glass of champagne (the cost of putting on the spectacle four times came to 2,400,000 Euros). But I skipped it. After a day in the sun could not face sitting on bleachers (my seat was high up in row N) with 7,499 other spectators. Richard said I missed the boat – the sold-out show was spectacular. Had he been immortal, as he liked to think, the Sun King would have beamed his approval. But I was disappointed in my performance. Next time I shoot I´ll be better prepared.

Lesson 12: Check out locations before you shoot, to get the best results.

Next week:  07 Is He Dead?

Monday 18 July 2011

05 So You Wanna Make a Movie

The summer break gives Eki and me a chance to start thinking about our next project. “marihuanaland” has been exciting and fun but a long slog so maybe it´s time to do another “homemade”: projects I shoot and he edits (and does the music). Like a lot of things since we first began we sort of slid into it. After living in Finland for 28 years I wanted to visit my own country and film it.  We bought a small Canon HD video camcorder HV20 and Eki gave me lessons* at the café we sometimes use as an office. He also gave me a lightweight tripod and interview equipment. I set off with one suitcase and a backpack. We called the project “Back in the USA”.

Reality set in when I was on my own.  My Monday morning phone calls to Eki were usually cries for help (“Apua!” in Finnish). With Eki trying to calm me down and walk me through the lessons. Again. And again. I criss-crossed the US for three months by train (mostly broken down). Almost got frost-bitten in -17 degree weather in Chicago (longed for my crew) and totally gave up on the interview equipment (too many switches, cables and lights). But it was fun to film my family and friends and meet new (sometimes wacky) people. Came back to Finland with 17 hours of footage.  Eki groaned but got to work – not only on the edit, he had to straighten most of my shots.

“The Old Gray Mare She Ain´t What She Used to be”, is the theme song (out of copyright). Eki, Era and I sat around like we were at a campfire or on a creaky wooden front porch on a hot summer night in a tiny backwater town in the old West (actually Spacewhale, their studio in Lauttasaari). They played guitars and sang. I tried to sing along with them. Loved every minute, but when I heard the results was mortified at being so off-key. The two guys over-ruled me and it went in the film.  I learned a lot and was ready to try again.    

So last year when I was in England (Oxford) for several months, decided it would be fun to make a short doc (20 min) about their famous (or some would say infamous) class system: Posh Poor & Middleclass BRITS: an outsider´s view”.  My entrée was Richard Bailey, who has a posh eccentric hobby: he owns one of three working Venetian gondolas in Great Britain. One thing led to another and I got invited to film Wotton House – an 18th century country estate. And a Rolls Royce picnic on the grounds. It was easy to find a young homeless guy selling magazines on the street in Oxford, there were so many. It turned me into a temporary investigative reporter because his plight was dire.The middle class turned out to be the biggest problem – they were the most self-conscious. And by this time I had learned to use the interview equipment so people got to tell their own stories and I did the linking voiceover. The documentary got into the OXDOX film festival and was picked up by Journeyman Pictures, a film distributor in Great Britain.  Since April 1, 2011 it has got almost 6,000 hits on youtube. A drop in the bucket for YT but a step in the right direction for little Margie productions “homemades”.

EKI´s Lessons:

01 Use the tripod, hand-held for style only
02 Frame your shots
03 Hold the camera and shoot for at least 10 seconds
04 Take the wide shots then the details.  Lots of up-close details
05 In most cases it´s good to have something moving in the shot
06 For “Homemades”: one hour of footage for each 5 min edited
07 Limit unedited interviews to 10 minutes
08 Pay attention to the audio – it´s half the film
09 Never “zoom in” for style.
10 After 5 shoots clean your camera
11 Make sure you have EXTRA batteries
next week:  06 Shooting Venice Vivaldi Versailles & two Gondoliers

Monday 11 July 2011

04 Finland on Vacation

Around Midsummer any Finn who can, leaves the cities, the suburbs and if out of the country comes back from wherever they are, to go native. We pack up and head to our mökkis –  houses, shacks, huts, any kind of dwelling as long as it´s by the sea, on a lake, on an island, or in the woods. If it´s isolated so much the better. No running water, electricity, indoor loos? Great. Roughing it is part of the fun. Boats are part of it too. And there´s plenty of time to play, party (or work outdoors) – it gets light around 3:00 am, dark at around 11:00 pm. Food isn´t a problem: you set out the nets and catch fish. Or throw a bunch of sausages on the grill. Pick blueberries, wild strawberries, nettles and dandelion. August is crayfish season. A bunch of people get together and scarf down a dozen or so with a vodka and beer chasers (if they´re daring) as many times as their stomach, or budget,  allows. All that fresh air, you sleep like a log.

Eki joins the exodus for a week or two. He goes to the Tvärminne zoological station in the Finnish archipelago, founded in 1902, to help with the studies his parents Olli and Liisa Halkka started 40 years ago. Both were geneticists in Helsinki University - and continued their work well into retirement age. In 2009, his last summer, Olli still joined the crew to lead the research while terminally ill. Since his death, Liisa has taken over. Their major focus is the population genetics of the meadow spittlebug (philaenus spumarius), the current work is largely about how the changing climate affects the populations.  Eki usually stays in a dorm with the biology students and teachers who come here in the summer to do research. I´ve never been there, but bet it´s not all work.  Eki probably takes his guitar and they stay up late like when we were on a shoot one summer on an island. The crew worked 12 hour days and partied till the small hours. It was hell to get Eki on his feet at 8:30 am.  That´s when he told me never, ever talk to him (unless the building was on fire) before 10:00.  The change will be good. Before the summer break he was working 18 hour days at his computer to complete all of his clients´projects. Although in August we still have to finish “marihuanaland”.

Not everyone is lucky enough to get away. A skeleton crew is left behind to keep things running and take care of the tourists. Every year this quirky country attracts more and more foreigners. Good publicity has helped. For example, Monocle magazine named Helsinki Number One Livable city in the world 2011, for its clean air, seaside location, fabulous design (Design capital in 2012), world-class architecture, one of the best bookstores in Europe (a must-see in an Alvar Aalto building), a growing food culture and to boot its safety and accessibility - almost everyone speaks English. Kippis!

Next week: 05 So You Wanna Make a Movie

Friday 1 July 2011

03 In the Belly of the Beast

SpaceWhale, the studio Eki shares with his GP´s (see previous blog) is located in the bowels of an industrial building a couple of miles from the center of Helsinki.  It´s quite a big space. One end is used for shooting commercials, videos, etc;  the other end is chockablock with guitars, drums, a piano and a shiny red amp. On one side are two couches covered in black, a coffee table full of stuff, a frig stuffed with drinks, with a coffee machine on top and shelves full of paper cups, paper plates, extra coffee and more stuff. Across the room are the work stations. It´s a guy´s kinda place. I love working here.

Eki says I´m the only director/producer that he lets sit in on the edit.  But we´ve been working together so long it just feels natural.  We usually get started around 10:30 - I know from experience that it´s best not to talk to Eki before 10:00 am.  Our current project "marihuanaland" is almost finished.  We let it rest for a month and last Monday looked at it with fresh eyes.  Even after 17 years, I´m always amazed at how much time is spent on the technical side, such as color corrections, voice harmonization (we call it "maggylizing" because I do the narration),  How switching a scene, or scenes, around can make the story so much stronger. And how adding a short pause in the right place can make the narration clearer. We both agreed to cut one whole scene because it looked fake and contrived.  And then there are the credits.  A minefield. You can´t forget anybody and you have to spell their names correctly. There are always lots of people on our "wish to thank list."

In a way it´s grueling work, spending hours in front of a computer looking at the same scenes over and over checking for things to correct and change. And sometimes boring.  For example, when the footage is rendering. But the hours speed by and suddenly it´s 7:00,  8:00, or sometimes much later. But the really terrible thing is when the final version is finished and ready to deliver. When that´s it.  No more chances to make it APAP (as perfect as possible). Or if you´re behind schedule APBP (ain´t perfect but passable).