STORYTELLING: REALISM, MOTION, AND LIGHTING IN EVERY MOMENT COUNTS
A Conversation with Preston Kanak
re·al·ism – ˈrēəˌlizəm/ – Noun
1. The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.
2. The quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life.
Life is a series of moments. Storytelling, at its most basic, is an effort to capture these moments and effectively convey a message. When a filmmaker undertakes a project with a deadline they are walking into a finite series of moments. From pre-production, through shooting and on to post-production, one has to make the most of every second. Talent and preparation meet opportunity and a lifetime of effort and experience is funneled down into a brief series of moments in which to effectively capture and convey a story for a client.
Recently, Preston Kanak, Brent Foster, Michael Pavlovsky and the Cinescapes Collective were approached by Nikon Canada to see if they’d be interested in shooting a project using the new D810. They happily accepted and immediately started preparation.
“For shoots like this, pre-production and gear prep are critical. We started this prep two weeks before production to make sure we had all the pieces we needed for the production. When shooting away from your home base, it is critical that you have a game plan before you head out to your shoot. There are a few different approaches to how prepared you are regarding shot lists and storyboarding but at the least, it is critical to at least lay out the specialty shots you are wanting to capture to ensure you have all the gear with you that you will need for the production.”
Cinescapes Collective is a Saskatchewan-based production group that was formed in October of 2013, as Kanak explains, “out of the desire to bring talented professionals together to work with forward thinking companies that were willing to take risks.” Their work to date epitomizes what the constant technological development in the digital film industry strives for: Realism. By embracing new technology but never relinquishing the fundamental techniques of cinematography (storytelling, characterization, motion, lighting, etc.) Cinescapes have created myriad films that transport you directly into the world and the moments they capture.
The focus of this piece, Manny, is a man of his place and a man of his time. A singular embodiment of regional tradition and the voice of an era that is slowly passing into the realm of history. It is the purpose of filmmaking to capture these moments and it would be impossible to tell Manny’s story, to convey the essence of his being, without adequately showcasing the setting that helped to shape his character. From experience, and never having visited Nova Scotia, the Cinescapes crew knew the importance of imbibing the spirit of Nova Scotian life.
“When we first arrived, we were all drawn to the landscape and culture immediately and this played a huge role in how we captured the film. We spent the first four days scouting and really getting to know the province. We quickly saw how the pace was much slower than larger metropolitan areas and we knew it was critical to capture this aspect of Nova Scotia. We worked long days to craft the story and visuals and feel that because of these long hours and commitment to seeing a vast part of the province, that we were able to capture at least a slice of what Nova Scotia has to offer.”
Environment informs the understanding of a character. Manny’s story is directly tied into his experience at sea and to adequately convey his life experience Kanak embraced the landscape as an integral part of the piece.
“The landscape played a huge role in this piece, especially the sea. We wanted to find a way to not only showcase the landscape but also create a character out of it and we did this through the hook and the rising action / climax by showing the power and then the strength of the sea. Unless you have spent time on the ocean, or talked to someone who has spent time out there, it is truly tough to grasp the magnitude and strength of it.”
Deftly using camera movement is the hallmark of a professional. To compliment the features of any HD camera work, reliable support equipment is essential. For this project, Kanak “relied heavily on the Kessler Cineslider and Parallax combo.” The crew also used the Pocket Jib Traveler, Pocket Jib, Shuttle Pod Mini and Cinedrive motion control system. All of which helped achieve the subtleties of movement that are pulled off with effortless aplomb.
Motion is a tool, a weapon in the arsenal of a filmmaker, that can be used to accentuate a piece and draw in the viewer. It can also be hugely distracting when overused or blatantly emphasized.
“Motion played a huge role in this piece. We wanted to use it to help push our story forward but also didn’t want to take the focus away from the story so it was key to find a way to do these shots in a way that looked smooth and organic, yet were powerful because of their simplicity.”
Smooth slides, with a subtle pan, that soak in the churning Atlantic along a rocky beach, a subtle push shot as Manny looks out the window, a slow backwards pull as Manny emerges from his workshop into the light of day, all work to draw the viewer into the world of the film. It must be remembered that, in addition to the story of the piece, at the end of the day the Cinescapes team had a client, Nikon, and their goal was to showcase the D810. The project’s purpose was not lost in the maelstrom of the intensive shoot as Kanak explained, “When crafting the shots, we knew what aspects of the camera we wanted to showcase and then worked backwards to craft a story around these shots that we wanted to capture.” The piece showcases not only new features of the Nikon D810, but also the features that any user would need on a daily basis, regardless of the type of shoot they’re on.
A striving for realism, despite all the features of the new D810, must be grounded in the fundamentals of cinema. Lighting, like motion, is a subtle tool of storytelling that when used skillfully can help elicit emotion, conjure a desired atmosphere, set the tone, and help guide the viewer’s eye as they soak in the film
“Our goal with all the lighting was to make it feel as natural as possible. We wanted to find a way to do it so it didn’t look ‘lit’, rather, just accentuated certain aspects within the frame. We did this be looking at how the light naturally poured into the room and worked to increase the intensity of the light from each of these sources. We found that the key for this film was to make sure the light flooding in was extremely diffused.”
From the moment when Manny is revealed [1:03] light pours in from the window and he is immediately juxtaposed with the warm, cozy feeling of his house and it’s as if we are a guest in his home. The understated, well composed lighting not only looks beautiful, but also contrasts perfectly with the external environment of the Nova Scotian coast and life at sea. This brings us back home to the intention of the piece, telling Manny’s story. This attention to detail helps us understand who Manny is: a gracious, experienced man who refuses to let the perils of existence squeeze the best out of him.
“We had two different lighting setups in the house. We had the early morning light pouring in the windows when we were getting introduced to our character. As we move closer to Manny and sit in on him eating breakfast and watching some old home movies, we wanted to create a more inviting feeling and make the viewer feel as if they were sitting next to Manny in the room. We did this by using more practicals in the room and creating more of a ‘moody’ feeling.”
“For the first setup, we used a harder light pouring in through the windows and used a smoke machine to create the beams of light. We used this smoke machine on a lot of the sequences to create that atmosphere. As for the second setup, we used a softer light and diffused our lights so it cast a wider and softer light into our scene.”
Kanak, Foster and company have exemplified what anyone hoping to break into filmmaking strives for. They have mastered the balancing act between business and art that has forever eluded students of cinema. Respect will get you everywhere in filmmaking. Respect for the client, the medium, the gear, the subjects of the feature, and most of all: respect for the process. There are no short cuts to success, no sure path to stardom and no cheat-sheets for conveying an effective story. Let the words of Manny echo in your head the next time you’re muttering under your breath as a production starts to slip away from you or a shoot gets bogged down in a mire of factors beyond your control:
“All through life, I have a lot of ups and downs, ins and outs, always tried to make the best of what I had to work with and to make sure that every moment counts…
… Make sure every moment counts.”