Film is first and foremost a visual medium, and when moviemakers accept and embrace this truth, a greater opportunity for a transcendent experience exists. This is especially true of documentaries, in which too often moviemakers rest on the laurels of an interesting true story, favoring canonized techniques over formal innovation.
Enter moviemaker Viktor Jakovleski, who is hesitant of the term “documentary” due to all of the stuffy aforementioned connotations it inspires, preferring instead “nonfiction,” which allows for more forward-thinking experimentation. His new film Brimstone & Glory is a visual spectacle almost exclusively worth seeing in a theater with a crowd. Following the National Pyrotechnics Festival over the course of three years in Tultepec, Mexico, Jakovleski recognized an almost spiritual connection between the residents of this small town dancing in the sparks of fireworks shooting haphazardly out of paper-mâché bulls, with the raves Viktor enjoys in Berlin. Filmmaking (particularly “nonfiction” filmmaking) is all about making these spiritual connections between cultures, between filmmaker and subject, and then mining them for depth over the course of a feature. I spoke with Viktor as he stood on a platform in Iowa City waiting for a train to Emeryville, CA (and then ultimately to LA) about responsibility with representation as an outsider filmmaker as well as the rigorous technical processes employed by his small team that helped bring this feature to life.
Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is one of those experiential films that begs to be seen in a theater, but obviously when you make a movie these days you have to expect that it will be viewed on laptops and smaller screens.
Viktor Jakovleski (VJ): My nightmare is for people to watch it on small screens [laughs].
MM: You shot this over the course of a few years. How did that work with getting the footage you needed from year-to-year, later molding it into one film where an audience member might think all the footage was one year at the festival?
VJ: When I first heard about the town, the firework making capital of Mexico and their crazy festival, I bounced the idea off Behn Zeitlin who is my closest collaborator and producer (and the one who scored the film). He’s a huge firework lover and gave the film the biggest push in the beginning.
We didn’t really know what the film would be the first year we filmed. It was more of an experiment where we started embedding ourselves in this little town, walking the streets, asking people for tips on where to go and who to talk to. We also had the sponsorship from Phantom, so we had the Phantom [High Speed] Camera for ten days. We were experimenting with that camera at the beginning since we didn’t know what to do with it. I was so overwhelmed that I had it for free because I had never shot with it directly. We experimented with the gear as well. Everything was one big experiment, and we tried to capture everything that happened to us. We also did a lot of interviews in the beginning that got cut, but we still did it to get as close as possible to the subject matter. We got back to New Orleans which is where we were operating and started looking at the footage, discussing what we had. When I showed my producers the Phantom footage for the first time, the extreme slow-motion shots, they freaked out. One producer got very emotional saying we captured something very special—maybe something that had never been seen on the big screen.
We didn’t know at first we were making a feature-length documentary; it was made with the intention of making a short film. After reviewing the footage we realized the potential for an unconventional feature-length documentary. After long talks, we decided that we would go back for another round of shooting but would need characters to follow through the town to give the film some perspectives we could take on. The second year it was about finding these characters: The firework maker or the kid. We found nine or ten characters to follow. We felt the need for someone local on our crew and hired a wonderful Mexican camera operator who had never worked with a gimbal DJI Ronin before, but he just nailed it. That device is like a Steadicam rig but instead of holding it on your body you hold it with two hands. It allows you to stabilize the camera with a multi-access system. Almost all of the tracking shots you see in the film were shot with that gimbal. Having that equipment along with the Mexican operator in the second year was important.
We looked at the footage from the second year and started editing it together, building a rhythm. Our focus became clear, and we tried to portion it so no two events would get too much attention to avoid having a climax too early; we had to be careful with the momentum. The music came in, and we used a temp track to help build into the cut. We would send that cut to our composer, and they would then score a whole new track. After editing for a whole year, we realized we needed a few more shots, so we went back to do pick up shots. We wanted to spend some more time with the boy participating in the festival.
MM: How did the drone shots come into play?
VJ: The first year we had a cheap one-man drone with a GoPro. The second year was the main year with the drone. We had two great guys working it: one was the pilot and the other was the camera operator. They had a huge drone with a Panasonic GH4.
MM: Did part of the funding process involve securing a better drone in the second year? How did the funding process work?
VJ: The better drone company charged the same as the one for the first year—they just really wanted to be a part of the film. Money was not the issue. The first year we were privately funded by a Turkish business friend of mine who just loved the idea and wanted to help. He wrote us a check for that first year. We didn’t really know what the budget was going to be. After the first year, we showed the footage to Cinereach, and they asked us what our plans were—we had a long creative discussion about how we wanted to make an immersive film. They first gave us a grant to help with the second shoot and then came onboard to support the film fully to completion.
MM: I know that getting initial footage cut together to show producers and institutes or non-profits is important with getting funding and grants for documentaries.
VJ: For sure. We were turned down by Tribeca [The TFI Documentary Fund]. We never pitched the movie as a documentary with social issues. It was always a cinematic experience, and we were very lucky to be funded privately by a friend and then by Cinereach. That was lucky.
MM: What are your ideas on extractive filmmaking and the ability of a filmmaker being able to come into an area and have an objective point of view. How do you feel about your role as an outsider making this movie? Does it come with certain responsibilities?
VJ: It is bizarre. I’m born in Germany, with Macedonian parents and I’m making a movie with my American producers in Mexico—it doesn’t make any sense. When I had the idea, I went through a process where I realized that some things have no boundaries. The spiritual connections are so much stronger than any boundaries you were raised with. I’m a rave person; I like techno raves. That’s one of my sources for inspiration. When people go out to a rave, it’s a different place, different feel, different form, but the essence is the same. You are liberating yourself with dancing. Ironically, they are like dancing with the bulls; it is the same thing. That combined with realizations after I read Octavio Paz, a Nobel Prize-winning Mexican author, who wrote in the 50’s The Labyrinth of Solitude which details the way of Mexican celebration: “What is special about it? What is the mentality of it, and why the celebrated so much?” By that point, I had never been to Mexico, but I felt I understood the mentality. I felt connected to them. When I arrived, everything was kind of confirmed. It is funny when the movie would screen in Mexico: there were some Mexicans that were mesmerized that I could make a film like that—they were asking as an audience, “Why can’t we as Mexicans make this type of film?”
I think sometimes it is a real privilege to be an outsider and have fresh eyes for everything. Sometimes when you are too close to something, you don’t see how special it is. For me, this was all new and fresh. It was beautiful and interesting: How they built fireworks and incorporated them into their day-to-day lives and how it is a big part of the community—I found it all so interesting. I guess it was a combination of the spiritual connection I found with the fresh outside look on everything.
MM: Can you give me more details on the Phantom High-Speed Camera and exactly how it works?
VJ: That camera is mysterious. It is very difficult to handle because it doesn’t work like a regular camera. We filmed in a mode where the camera is constantly running and constantly recording into the internal cache. Then as soon as you hit the button you have the last 2.8 seconds that you saw. What this enables you to do is to first see what you want to film and then capture it afterward which is very different than traditional filming. If you master this system, you have an advantage knowing what you shot before you shoot it. That was interesting. The frames per second would determine how long the shot actually is. The end product of this camera is always a minute and a half or two minutes. But if you use the highest frame rate which I believe is 1500, then the next time you film is 2.8 seconds. So it is all this giant mathematical equation between frame rate, and exposure based off of how much light you need. The more frames you film, the more light you need. Then you have to factor in how many seconds you have to take a shot.
MM: Is this happening in real time while you are in there with the bulls, or is this while filming the fireworks in a planned shoot?
VJ: We started experimenting with the camera in the backyard we were renting. We were shooting off small kid’s fireworks, the ones you can buy all year round. Those ones are actually the most epic ones in the film, and you could never tell those are kid’s fireworks. That’s where we learned how to use the camera. Since I operated it and worked with it most of the time, I found that the best way to operate it was with a monopod. I could have stability and not have to move the camera. I could hold the pod with one hand and then with the other hand expose and focus.
When all of the fireworks are flying at you, you want to stay safe, but you also want to get the shot. Getting each shot was a huge deal because the exposure, focus, and timing have to be right. Once you’ve got the shot, transferring the shot from the internal cache memory onto the flash drive of the camera takes several minutes just to copy one shot, because every shot is 20 gigabytes. You get one shot, review it to see if you like it, and copy it to the flash drive which takes several more minutes. Only then can you shoot again. It takes ages and can get a bit ridiculous. But you have to work hard and be attentive, and you feel so satisfied in the end. It was a magical tool. It makes things visible that are invisible to the naked eye. When you see these explosions, there is a cosmic ballet of sparks that you just couldn’t see. I liked that it was difficult because if it was easy it wouldn’t have any meaning I feel.