Shooting under the blazing hot sun in Ghana’s salt fields isn’t an easy feat.

High temperatures and brutal humidity can affect cameras and gear, and there isn’t exactly a support center nearby if technical assistance was needed.

DP Pietro Villani found himself in a tricky situation when shooting Like Cotton Twines on location in West Africa. With the film taking place in Ghana, it only made sense to shoot there so the country’s scenic beauty could be properly captured. That meant that Villani and his gear had to be prepared for what the shooting conditions would bring.

Like Cotton Twines is an independent feature that follows Micah, an American volunteer who goes to Ghana to teach and experience his mother’s homeland. Micah teaches at a school in a village where he meets Tuigi, a smart 14-year-old student. Tuigi’s fate is changed when her family must atone for an accident committed by her father and, by custom, she must abandon her education and become a Trokosi, a religious sex slave. Directed and written by Ghanian moviemaker Leila Djansi, Like Cotton Twines explores how Micah fights against the tribal culture to try and save Tuigi. The film premiered in June 2016 at the LA Film Festival and has played at other venues on the circuit, such as the Urbanworld Film Festival and Savannah Film Festival this fall.

Villani (left) and Leila (right) on the set of Like Cotton Twines

Pietro Villani (left) and Leila Djansi (right) on set

Hot Under Pressure

The L.A.-based Villani (a previous winner of the International Cinematographer Guild Local 600 Emerging Cinematographer Award) has shot recent features Where Children Play (also by Djansi), Michael Robertson Moore‘s The Sphere and The Labyrinth and Michelle Schumacher‘s I’m Not Here, starring J.K. Simmons and Sebastian Stan.

“I previously worked with Djansi on Where Children Play in 2015, so I was very excited when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to Ghana to shoot Like Cotton Twines,” Villani said. “Since we didn’t have the budget to ship over case after case of equipment, we knew we were going to have to be selective and think small when choosing our gear.”

“We needed something proven and durable, especially with the weather. I’ve been burned before when trying to shoot in the heat. Memories of putting ice bags all over a camera while shooting in the desert still haunt me. We were shooting in remote spots where we knew we were not going to get much if any support should something go wrong. The conditions were hot and very humid—the perfect combination for a digital film camera to overheat and fail.

“We also needed something that would work with the lighting conditions. Our lighting package was small and some of the locations had extreme contrast we needed to pick up. For example, when shooting in the salt mines, we had pure white salt next to the actor’s rich dark skin tones. We needed a camera that had enough latitude to capture both and not lose the details.”


A scene at the salt flats in Like Cotton Twines

Actors carry salt from Ghana’s salt mines in a scene from Like Cotton Twines

Good on the Go

With those perimeters in mind, Villani selected Blackmagic Design’s Production Camera 4K. (The Like Cotton Twines crew used Blackmagic Design’s HDLink Pro technology to put a LUT on a monitor and DaVinci Resolve to color grade dailies.)

“I had used the Production Camera 4K before and I felt it was perfect for what we were looking for: small, durable and good on the go. Djansi and I really felt that the film demanded a 4K image, due to the beauty and texture of the country. When you watch the movie, you can see a lot of the detail, which is exactly what we were going for.

“The camera’s dynamic range made the challenges of shooting extreme lighting conditions a lot more manageable. For the film’s look, we were going for an overall warm film with rich colors and rich blacks, with something that could dig into shadows as well. The camera had great latitude and had a lot of play in post.

“We were on a tight schedule and were planning to do both studio and handheld work, so we purposefully selected a camera that could quickly and easily transition between the two—the Production Camera 4K was built on a custom rail system that let us switch back and forth between handheld and studio mode.”

Cast and crew on the set of Like Cotton Twines

Cast and crew on the set of Like Cotton Twines

All recording was done internally onto SSDs and we decided to shoot 4K ProRes due to budgetary constraints. It ended up taking a little over 10 TB for the whole film,” Villani concluded. MM

Like Cotton Twines recently won the 2016 Savannah Film Festival’s narrative feature jury award.