Nicholson Ren | Cinematographer & Colourist
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What's Left Production Diary

Capturing the past - The questions we asked

The interesting aspect of the web-series is that we are able see all the orphan's backstories. It is much more compelling to show than tell and it isn't just a simple flashback to accompany a description but rather we are able to see a whole series of events unfold that ends up with the children at the orphanage. When filming the episodes we refer to scenes as the "present" or the "past" scene. 

Filming a flashback scene typically begins with the questions "Do we want to make it look different?", "What are the themes that differentiate the past and present?", "Should there be a style change or a technical change?" and that is where we began. 

1. Do we want to make it look different? Yes. The decision was pretty simple. The orphans were all in different situations before they met at the orphanage, there should be something linking those periods in their lives. 

2. What are the themes that differentiate the past and present? Each episode has different themes based on the situation of the orphan that the episode is about. However, knowing the premise of the web-series you know that there is an inevitable tragedy that causes the child to end up at the orphanage. No happy family would give up their child to be raised away from them. Based on this, all themes eventually converge to one - Separation. The child gets distanced from their family in one way or another no matter how close they were in the beginning. Finding out this thematic similarity meant that we could plan how to shoot the past and present.

3. Should there be a style change or technical change? This should be rephrased to being "Should the change be noticeable?" Some movies do the dramatic transition (the cliched fade to white) or have some effect applied to the flashbacks to separate it from the present. We didn't want to change the style because we were already limited in options of what we could shoot the series with. Style changes in this instance would be how the camera behaves - handheld/ static, dollies/jibs or static etc... We decided to introduce some slider motion into the past to keep it more dynamic. Technical changes would be the way it looked - Depth of Field (DoF), Temp, Lighting, Grading etc... This would perhaps be more subtle and this was our dominant approach to filming the backstory. A warmer temp/ grade and a shallower DoF will make the past seem more desirable but also separates the characters from their surroundings. Although theoretically we planned to capture the differences this way, time limitations on set meant that we had to forgo the DoF effects and capture as much as we could and try to use the grade to make it stand out.

A recent movie I watched portrayed flashbacks very differently to anything I ever saw. It was initially confusing but used to great effect. The flashbacks were neither emphasised nor did they try to make it look different. It was inserted within the main storyline as if its the next scene without a transition and only after a couple of confusing scenes did I realise what was happening. They used dialogue to cue what was past and present but visually there was nothing to indicate when this change happened it just did and you would realise that the character was talking about this event previously and now you're watching it. The movie - Manchester by the Sea. 

"13 reasons why" is a TV series that brilliantly shows the technical differences in portraying past and present. The past is depicted in more vibrant tones and colour than the present. The mood shifts between transitions right in front of your eyes to tell you that there is a transition from present to past or vice versa and sometimes the past and present would occur at the same time in the same shot. Transitions are incredibly important when shooting for this type of story and 13 is a perfect example of how to do this in an interesting way.

Nicholson Ren