Nicholson Ren | Cinematographer & Colourist

A Song for You

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A Song for You

A Song for You is a story about a musician who is composing a song for his wife while she prepares to sell and leave their home. The film was written, filmed and edited over 48 hours for the Melbourne 48 hour film competition and had a cast and crew of roughly 15 to bring the idea to life. There was a total of 25 set ups but we only used 20 shots in the whole film.

Out of the 30 films screened this year in 2018 it took home one of three Audience choice awards for our efforts.

 
 

A Doughnut | John or Joan Daley, a receptionist | “How is that possible”

The First 24 Hours

Timeline of the 48 hours

Timeline of the 48 hours

Prior to the competition we had already planned to have as much sleep as possible. A third of the first 24 hours was dedicated to having a good nights rest so that we could work 12-16 hours into Saturday. We began the competition with a smaller group for pre-production to discuss the story and prepare for the next days. Our plan was to run the shoot as we normally did even though we were on a time constraint. Instead of having everyone hang about at home base and wait while we discussed shots and planned the schedule we had a call time of 6-7am the next day for everyone else to arrive. Sleep was an important element and we didn’t want to keep anyone up unnecessarily.

Set-up in the morning was for us to get props sorted and let the supporting actors know their call times. Pictures of the couple were taken, printed and hung on the wall to give it a more authentic atmosphere and to also give time for the actor, Josh to learn to sing and play the song written the night before. Our first shot was filmed 18 hours after the competition began. While we filmed, our composer was busy remixing the score and our editor was putting together the cut as we went along. As a team we had worked multiple times together and the process was very streamlined and went as smoothly as we could have hoped. By the end of the first 24 hours we were 80% of the way through principal photography. The last scenes we had to shoot were the night shots.

The Last 24 Hours

Our aim was to finish shooting everything on Saturday and leave Sunday for Post-Production. The last scene shot was the 2nd scene in the film where Joan cooks pasta, consequently it became dinner for the cast and crew after we finished shooting that night. At the end, the majority of the cast and crew left for home while the key crew stayed behind at unit base to finish the film. Our editor worked until 3am to put together a rough cut before getting a few hours of sleep. The first cut of the film was structurally very similar to the first cut of the film and didn’t require much adjustment other than timing and audio syncing. The colour grading process was very quick and I tried to stick to something simple rather than go for a heavy grade. Towards the end of the afternoon our biggest problems were syncing the music and audio to the visuals. They were eventually completed imperfectly with an hour to spare to transport the USB to the organisers. We submitted the film 10 minutes before the deadline.

 
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An inside look

The theme of the film was “Acceptance”. We wanted to have a feeling of nostalgia associated to the scenes which we hear the piano. It was important we got into the right mindset to represent his presence or risk giving him a more sinister feeling. We avoided using the term “ghost” to describe Josh; the musician, we described him as “a memory” and made decisions of portraying him in a more loving and connected way rather than haunting. If you re-watch the film through the eyes of Joan, you will notice that she never looks at Josh. That is because we wanted to subtly convey the idea that he is never actually there but that she could feel his presence. If we were to take Josh completely out of the film it would still hold up by itself as a more realistic view through Joan’s eyes.

In order to introduce Josh as a memory I had the idea to start the camera on Joan and pan around her to reveal him as if he came out of her thoughts. The steadicam style also lent itself to feeling spiritual as we glided around the house whenever we revealed him again in other moments. Most noticeably the last shot of the film was made to feel like we’re floating as we see him playing the piano before disappearing when Joan finally moves on. As the memory of him playing the piano lingers in Joan’s mind, so does the camera in moments that we tried to stretch despite the limited time we had to fit the film in. Our longest shot lasted close to a minute, which for a 7 minute film we were afraid would bore the audience but we found that one-shot scene to be the most compelling in describing their relationship. After hearing his music at night and going downstairs to listen, Joan tries the next morning to play his music but isn’t successful until he steps in to guide her. This blend of surrealism and nostalgia is what I would define as cinematic.

 
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This was the first I experimented with using a gimbal and trying to move the camera in larger motions. I used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera on a Zhi Yun Crane II for all the steadicam shots while everything else was shot using my Blackmagic Production Camera on either a tripod or a dolly. The set location was also the house of one of the producers and it served as our unit base. We tried to design the story around what we had readily available - plenty of cardboard boxes and an already half-empty house. My biggest concern were the walls being too plain and white but I overcame that problem by never shooting directly against one but by always having a background with depth. Light falloff also helped in giving the walls some texture and I tried to enhance that even more by never filling in the shadows and to always light from only one direction.

Lighting during the day was 90% natural and when the sun went behind the clouds I had an Aputure 300D shooting directly into the house to bring up the ambience. One of the more noticeable effect of this is in last shot of the film where the shadow of the porch door is patterned against the back wall. Another daylight set up I had was using a 2K blondie with 1/2 CTB to light all scenes in the hallway and to place different levels of diffusion in front of the light depending on the emotion of the scene.

Daylight setup 1 - 2K Blondie with 1/2 CTB, no diffusion. 5600K WB

Daylight setup 1 - 2K Blondie with 1/2 CTB, no diffusion. 5600K WB

Daylight setup 2 - 2K Blondie with 1 stop diffusion through skylight and black/ cutters on the windows behind the camera to prevent any fill

Daylight setup 2 - 2K Blondie with 1 stop diffusion through skylight and black/ cutters on the windows behind the camera to prevent any fill

Night set up - 2K Blondie on dimmers with 1/2 CTB and Strong Green gel shining into a 1 stop diffuser. Camera balanced to 4400K WB

Night set up - 2K Blondie on dimmers with 1/2 CTB and Strong Green gel shining into a 1 stop diffuser. Camera balanced to 4400K WB

The night set ups had the most diffused the lights in order to give the softest look and to not look eerie or haunting. In the grade I pushed a little of the skin tones back in to try and keep them looking natural but kept the surroundings a little greener to get a colder nightly feel. Each scene that had the couple together alone had a slightly warmer tone than those where she was alone and packing the house. Anything to do with selling and packing up the house alone was depicted in a more neutral tone.

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My favourite scene and shot of the film is when Joan comes down to listen to Josh play the piano. The scene is covered in 3 shots. Upon the first viewing the initial idea is that Joan wakes up to Josh practicing downstairs and she goes down to listen but after understanding that Josh is a memory the context of the scene changes to something more melancholic. In hindsight, Josh is never there and he never plays the piano so the music we hear is all in Joan’s head and when we realise that she’s standing in front of an empty piano remembering the last time her husband sat there playing a song we’re treated to a touch of nostalgia and longing. As we also don’t cut to a POV shot of Josh and we don’t clearly see his face we’re left with a sense of detachment and mystery that morphs into sentimentality when we see them close together in the next scene while he guides her to play his music.

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Conclusion

It was very interesting watching the other films at the 48 hour festival. The majority of films went down a comical route which arguably suited lower budget storytelling, the execution of comedic moments and style does not require much technical finesse or preparation than a dramatic piece does. They would also feature the 3 prompts very noticeably in the film which I felt could restrict its acceptance in other film festivals. All other winners of the audience choice awards were comedy films and the winner of best film being a mixture of comedy and moral teachings. It felt good to have created something that felt different from the crowd but also a film which could stand by itself outside the boundaries and requirements of the 48hff. I am very proud to say that there was a noticeable shift in atmosphere when our film began playing, the giggles and spattering of chuckles throughout the other films became pure silence during our 7 minutes until the very end. But that eventually gave way to the last film of the night following ours about a guy who summons a donut-demon when he can’t find a place that sells donuts after dark.

The goal for next year’s 48hff is to retain the audience choice award as well as attaining nominations for technical achievements.