By Vijaya Cherian
In a touching attempt to bring special needs children into international focus, five people teamed up in Dubai last month to do a documentary titled Mommy says I'm special. Shot on the Sony HD camera, the documentary covers the lives and stories of a cross section of special needs children and their families in Dubai. Digital Studio asks the team about the artistic and technical challenges they faced while making such a film.
I|~|loca1.jpg|~|Director Umesh Shetty (seated), DOP Langhoff at the camera and audio specialist Ron Bagnulo with the boom at Dubai’s BurJuman Shopping Centre, where a part of the documentary was shot. |~|In many ways, filming a documentary poses many more artistic challenges than a feature film. Where a film maker can possibly be successful if he is given a good story, great actors and a skilled film crew, a documentary maker must rely on a rough outline and take his cue from the situations and the people he is out to film. The need to remain alert to the environment so as to capture anything extraordinary on film makes exceptional demands on the camera person. If the moment and the incident have passed, the director cannot call for a retake.
This becomes even more significant and challenging when filming a group of special needs children. This is what a motley crew comprising an Indian director, a German Director of Photography, an American sound recordist, a Lebanese first assistant and a Filipino production controller set out to do last month in Dubai in a documentary dubbed Mommy says I’m special. They were fully aware of the artistic and corresponding technical challenges that they were likely to encounter but they were determined to make a documentary that they could take to international film festivals.
“We have come to realise that the only way to get noticed on home ground is to get some recognition globally and international film festivals are really great to promote a film,” says Umesh Shetty, film director and managing director of Focus Direct, a Dubai-based advertising agency. “If any project is given international recognition, when it is brought back home, there’s more appreciation for it, and then perhaps broadcasters here will be willing to air it.”
Convoluted as the route sounds, it is based on the age-old assumption that a person and his works are more valued outside his hometown. To also ensure that the film could make it to the big screen, Shetty and DOP Volker Langhoff had planned two years ago — when they first conceived the project — that they’d shoot on film but were unable to get the funding to implement it. Looking for an alternative, the duo approached Sony Business Middle East, which loaned them a high definition camera and edit suite free-of-charge for the project. ||**||II|~|loc2.jpg|~|Volker Langhoff at the shoot.|~|“We couldn’t have asked for a better camera,” says Langhoff, a freelance DOP from Germany who came down to Dubai to shoot for this project. “I have had a chance to test shoot this camera a few times and I was convinced that this HD camera would serve our interests best,” he adds.
There are many reasons why Shetty and Langhoff felt they will have a poignant story to tell the world. For one, unlike the West or Europe, where most special needs children are taken care of with public funding, families with such children in Dubai rely very heavily on their private network for moral and financial support. Government funds and amenities for these children are still limited here, and the paucity of special schools has denied many of them schooling even if their parents can afford it.
One group that has taken all such children under its wing is the Special Families Support Group, run primarily by one dedicated woman — psychologist Ayesha Saeed Husaini — who has been instrumental in bringing over 100 such families together so that they can gather for monthly meetings, socially integrating events, entertainment and have medical and psychological support as well.
“This is a very different environment from the one I’m used to seeing in Germany,” says Langhoff, “and I’m amazed to see how these families bond with each other because of their children, and it is all done by a private network. This kind of commitment and dedication is amazing,” he says.
The film documents the stories of these children in Dubai and their families. The team was aware that they couldn’t repeat any situation and couldn’t influence any either. “Nothing could be planned or staged,” says Langhoff. As a result, it was a blessing, says Langhoff, to have the Sony HDcam primarily because it gives the best quality that tape can offer and also, the generic concept of the camera is the same as the Betacam.
“If you have experience using the Betacam SP or digital Betacam, it is easy for you to adjust to the HDcam because all the buttons are in the same place and the design is the same so you are not uncomfortable using it,” he says. As a result, he could concentrate on the environment instead of fiddling with the settings on the camera all the time. ||**||III|~||~||~|“That would have been very frustrating,” he says,” especially since there were already many other issues to address. For one, it was important to use compact, light weight and as little equipment as possible because most of the filming was being done indoors — in the homes of these children so that they would be comfortable. However, each home has different lighting conditions and in one case, a family kept its home low-lit because their child was photo-sensitive, says Langhoff. “This meant that we couldn’t use film lights either here. Instead, I used a fluorescent light from Cobalt because it emits very soft light and is cool as well.”
Then again, the DOP preferred not to use film lights if possible owing to the hot weather. “Shooting in this climate has been very demanding. It’s very hot and in some cases, the air condition (AC) had to be switched off to ensure that we got good, clear sound. But if you turn off the AC, the room heats up very quickly because there is sunlight coming in, there are lights inside and six people sitting in the room. A half-hour interview can become a very sweaty affair and it won’t look good on camera,” says Langhoff.
The solution was to use cool light sources when necessary so that they wouldn’t heat the room up so much or use ‘available’ lighting, which meant more exposure. “Once I knew that we were shooting in homes, I returned all the tungsten lights that we were loaned and only kept the 1200W HMI from Arri. It gives daylight quality and a very high output and does not generate as much heat as the others,” explains Langhoff.
Secondly, getting the smallest accessories to support HD equipment was difficult. This, of course, is a clear indication that the market is still a long way off from adopting HD unlike Europe. “Most of the places here don’t have HD equipment,” he says. But he also discovered to his joy, that a Betacam accessory might work just as well with the HDcam.
After failing to hunt down a remote zoom control for the HDcam, he tried a Fujinon remote zoom control that comes with a Betacam. “It worked just fine,” he says. “Here, companies do have Betacam packages but you can only rent the whole package; not just the accessory you need,” he explains.
This team has also wanted to retain the natural look of each environment in the documentary. “Most people like very vibrant colours but I prefer the natural look on the HDcam. Earlier, the reds used to look quite bad but now there seems to be no problem. We have a small 9” Sony monitor with us to do a basic viewing. I have not had the chance to view most of the rushes. From what I can see on the small monitor, this camera handles contrasts very well. Also, because we have kept our equipment to the basics, it’s easier to handle and discuss with the director easily,” explains Langhoff. ||**||IV|~||~||~|To simplify things further at the production stage, Langhoff also retained the standard settings on the camera most of the time although the camera does have the option to create different special effects. “You can always create the look you want in the post phase with time and good equipment. But if you have not had much time to test the camera and don’t know what to expect, I wouldn’t recommend changing the look in the camera because if you do, you may not be able to fix it in post. Instead, it is better to work with standard settings because I don’t know what I can expect on a documentary and I want to be very flexible for post production. If you want to change exposure later on for luminance or colour, you can always change them in both directions. If you expose at the lower end of the curve, later on in the lab, you don’t have the chance to change things much so while you can create a good look, you can also mess things up.”
The DOP himself has, however, undertaken a few risks during production to try and get the film look as much as possible “because even if this camera is the closest you can get to film, it’s still not film,” he says. “I have exposed very low, and tried to apply mostly long focal lens and shallow depth of field to give the documentary a film look. Working with a shallow depth of field is very risky because you could be out of focus very quickly but you have to take that risk if you want a special look. If you always stick to the regular setting, you will only get the regular look.”
Langhoff’s attempts to create the film look will not end at production, where he has used smooth and slow movements. In post, he will again work with filters and colour grading to achieve this. “Once we do the colour grading, we will have a HD master and from there, we can down convert it to Betacam so that most TV stations here can show it because most of them don’t have HD yet. And in case we have the funding, we would also like to go on 35 mm film. Tape to film transfer is more possible now and is usually done on the Arri Laser but it’s very expensive. We are talking about US $25-30,000 for just 60 minutes,” explains Langhoff.
In the meantime, the rushes have not yet been viewed but the team is confident that they have something special. More importantly, they agree that they will cherish this shoot like none other. “Once you have spoken to these families, you begin to appreciate and value life more,” says director Shetty. “We have tried to capture the essence of these children’s lives, their courage and their spirit on camera. We hope it will help us appreciate these families more and also bring them more support,” he adds.||**||