|With the help of the P+S Technik, writer/director
Victor Muh was able to bring his fable of The Chinese Shoes to motion picture life.
“But DV is not the professional standard.” “Don’t make your movie on DV—it won’t have a real chance at being taken seriously.”
These were a couple of the unsolicited opinions I was offered in response to my assertion that with a bit of talent, creativity, practical skill and today’s DV technology, virtually anyone can make a quality motion picture. “DV is to moviemaking what the personal computer was to publishing,” I’d insist. Those around me would usually act as if I’d said, “Americans invented cinema,” and change the subject—or else ignore me altogether. But, then, this is in France, and here even the most well-known post-production houses still capture their DV using analog cables.
Well, when it came time to produce and direct my short screenplay, The Chinese Shoes, I decided this was the opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and shoot it with DV. Although that decision was admittedly ego-driven, at least in part, I also felt that it was a suitable format for the story I wanted to tell. DV would also lighten the production budget, the total of which was whatever I had in my bank account at the time.
The idea for The Chinese Shoes came to me when my Parisian Fut Ga Kuen martial arts instructor recounted the only two times he’d ever used his skills to defend himself. “Never wear Chinese shoes,” he told me gravely. “Both times I got into a fight, I was wearing Chinese shoes.”
I was immediately enamored by his story, but when I asked him why he’d chosen to wear Chinese shoes on those fateful days, he replied that they were “trendy” back then. When I inquired if the shoes contributed in any way to his confrontations, he replied that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My instructor was more interested in explaining the technicalities of the fight than in telling an intriguing story, which is fairly disappointing to a moviemaker. However, the coincidence of my martial arts instructor wearing Chinese shoes the only two times he’d ever had to defend himself physically fascinated me. If he wasn’t going to tell me the story I wanted to hear, I was going to tell it myself!
The Chinese Shoes tells the story of Lao, an insecure, Asian youth who loves kung fu films and has a crush on a girl in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s also a bully in the same neighborhood who has his sights set on the same girl—and who takes great pleasure in humiliating Lao in front of her.
In a dusty, old antique shop, Lao discovers a pair of ancient Chinese shoes that he believes will give him the power of a kung fu master. Lao’s happiness is short lived, as he ends up returning the shoes after almost killing the bully and devastating his gang in front of the girl, who is only disgusted by his violence. Power, you see, is worthless without wisdom and discipline.
My first decision was to shoot with the Canon XL1. Having shot with Canon video cameras for a third of my life, I’ve always preferred the issues/50/images they rendered over all other consumer and prosumer cameras. I suppose it’s their lenses, but then again, motion picture imaging is all about how light is captured. Speaking of lenses, the XL1 is the only camera of its class that would allow me to use different lenses. For me, it’s sacrilege to let my shot pass through a wide angle adapter. I also wanted to shoot in the 16:9 ratio, wherein the aspect ratio or shape of the image is significantly wider than it is tall as opposed to a 3:4 image, which has a relatively square shape like most television screens, without having to use an anamorphic adapter (a specially shaped lens that screws onto a camera’s main lens to “squeeze” or horizontally condense a 16:9 image onto a 3:4 CCD, or “charge-coupled device,” essentially an electronic image sensor. My research showed that the XL1 provided the best 16:9 of all the DV cameras with 3:4 CCDs (The shape of the CCD determines the aspect ratio or shape of the image).
|The Mini 35 system is not without its challenges,
but none that can’t be simply resolved,
and the system remains fundamentally solid.
My most important decision (not to mention stroke of luck) was to have Pascale Marin as my director of photography. I had approached Pascale originally to play a character in my short after observing her martial arts skills in the Luxembourg Park in Paris. Much to my surprise, she turned out to be a graduate of France’s renowned Louis Lumière School of Cinema, a French national film school specializing in technical instruction (most notably sound and cinematography).
Together, we checked the locations of the film for lighting during various times of the day so we could be as efficient as possible with the lighting. She showed me how to set the camera’s white balance (since white is made up of all the colors we can see, a video camera decides how it will interpret colors based on a sampling of the color white) using tinted sheets of paper so I could achieve the color temperature I was looking for. Everything was looking good except for one thing: the lenses. The fact that the XL1 could work with a variety of lenses seemed to open a Pandora’s Box. Suddenly, the standard 16X zoom (38 – 620mm 35mm equivalent) was too long. The standard 3X wide angle (24 – 72mm 35mm equivalent) was not bad, but I wanted something wider for a scene in the antique shop.
Focusing was going to be a nightmare because there were no marks on the barrel, and even worse, they were servo-controlled (motors inside the lens activated by input from the camera operator), with endlessly-spinning focus and zoom rings (rings encircling the lens activating the servos that focus and zoom the lens). I wanted a shallow depth of field to get away from the flat feel of video, but despite Pascale’s efforts, I still wasn’t satisfied with the results. She opened the aperture to its maximum. She tried taking the 16X zoom lens and zooming in on the subject, which achieved acceptable results, but would make many of the shots I wanted very difficult (if not impossible) to execute. She told me to forget rack focusing, or shifting focus from one object to another.
We toyed with the idea of using Canon’s manual lenses, where all lens functions are controlled directly, as well as their EF lens adapter. Although the manual lenses would be much easier to work with, they wouldn’t solve the problem of depth of field and none were wide angles. Canon’s EF lens adapter system seemed promising. With it, we could use the full array of Canon’s EOS photographic lenses. There was just one drawback: the adapter also magnified the image 7.2 times, because they were designed for 35mm still cameras, whereas the XL1’s image plane (the area where the image is captured, in this case the size of the CCD) is only 1/3″ in size. On top of that, I was still stuck with the same depth of field problem.
|Cinematographer Pascale Marin used a Canon XL-1 fitted with a Mini 35 lens adapter and Cooke lenses on Victor Muh’s short film, The Chinese Shoes.|
Pascale reassured me that she would do her best to create a shallow depth of field during production. To make me feel better, she even offered to try rack focusing the shots I’d asked for, even though we both knew that with so much depth of field it was pointless. Nevertheless, we’d now be working with Canon’s standard lenses, their manual lenses and even their photographic lenses without yielding the results I truly desired.
Confident in Pascale’s skills as a DP, but still the stubborn Aries that I am, I turned to the Internet to see if it didn’t offer anything I’d overlooked. I came across information on the Mini 35 Digital lens adapter by P+S Technik while browsing the discussion forum of Chris Hurd’s XL1 Watchdog, a Website devoted to the XL1 (www.dvinfo.net/canon).
The Mini 35 seemed too good to be true. It was purported to enable the XL1 to not only use some of the best optics the industry has to offer, but it would keep those lenses’ intended 35mm film characteristics without any quality loss. In fact, depending on the choice of lenses, some moviemakers were claiming an increase in quality! The Mini 35 could also be used with the Sony VX2000 or PD-150. But that didn’t interest me, as I’d have to shoot through the camera’s non-removable lens, contaminating (in my opinion) the image captured by the fine optics one could attach to the Mini 35.
I immediately contacted P+S Technik to find out where to get my hands on one in Paris. It turns out that EMIT, a film and video rental house in Paris, France, the dealer of Cooke Optics in France, was their distributor. Pascale and I rushed to EMIT where we discovered, for once, that reality was better than the rumors. Not only did the Mini 35 preserve the focal length, depth of field and angle of view of the 35mm film format, it had a sort of iris that worked like an ND filter (“neutral density filter,” which reduces the amount of light entering the lens), adjusting the exposure of the image without changing the depth of field. The system also enabled us to attach a follow focus (a device connected to the lens that facilitates focusing in order to maintain a sharp and clear image when there is a change in distance between the camera and the action). Convinced that this was the solution to my dilemma, I immediately reserved the Mini 35, along with a set of Cooke S4 Optics. It was hard to tell who was more excited at the prospect of working with our rig, me or Pascale. I could have sworn I saw her drooling on the Cookes.
Unfortunately, having solved what I thought was my greatest concern only left me with more time and energy to concentrate on greater problems, notably nature: Mother Nature and human nature. More than half of The Chinese Shoes was to be filmed outdoors, during Paris’ wettest August in years. The exterior shots had to wait almost a month to be completed. The talent was no less fickle than the weather.
While my crew couldn’t have been more dependable, some of the actors were late for their calls. One actor did not even bother to show up, forcing me to scour the neighborhood—and my phone book—for a replacement, or risk losing an entire day of shooting. Believe it or not, I found my “Antique Shop Owner” running an Asian art gallery just two blocks away from where we were shooting. It didn’t take long to convince him to act in my film; he even closed his gallery for the day.
The Mini 35 rig worked like a charm. The Cooke S4 optics gave me issues/50/images I would never have imagined possible with DV. I was able to rack focus, follow focus and dolly in and out to my heart’s delight (and my focus puller’s dismay). The Mini 35 system is not without its challenges, but none that can’t be simply resolved, and the system remains fundamentally solid. It allowed me to take the story I had written and imagined, and turn it into the film I imagined it should be. It allowed me to use a format easily accessible to the public, yet gave me the same quality as if I’d shot with film for a fraction of the price. It allowed me to prove to the moviemaking elitists, in France at least, that DV can be professional and you can make a “serious” movie with the format. Above all, it helped me prove that it’s not the format that makes a moviemaker, it’s the moviemaker. MM
The Chinese Shoes will be entering the film festival circuit soon. For more information on screenings, and to view the trailer, visit www.thechineseshoes.com.