Thursday, March 30, 2006

Iraq In Fragments - James Longley Interview - Pt. 5 - Technical Questions

Q: If one thinks of a film camera as being like a paint brush and a roll of film as being like paint, then a video camera is, in a way, both paint and brush, the character of the video image being largely determined by the choice of the camera. How do you feel about the Panasonic DVX-100 and 100A's that you used? What particular characteristics of those cameras made them particularly amenable to your project?

A: There are three main reasons why using a camera like this is actually better than using a camera like the one I used in The Gaza Strip. In The Gaza Strip I used the Sony DSR-500, which is a $15,000, on-the-shoulder, DV camera with a big broadcast lens on it and it has its advantages, the main one being that people see you with this big camera and they give you access to things that you might not normally get. On the other hand, cameras like the Panasonic are cheaper. You can buy two or three and have redundancy. If the camera breaks down during two years of shooting in Iraq well, you can just pull out another camera and start working again. They're light, you can film all day and not get tired and a lot of times I was filming all day. You can run with the camera. They're not so expensive that you're afraid to get them dirty, that you're afraid to use them as a tool, that you're afraid to put them down on the ground and film from the ground, which I did quite a bit, like filming those big meetings of people in the second chapter where you would see these close ups of people's faces. Most of the time I'm lying on the ground with the camera resting on the ground and resting the front end of it on the edge of my hand. I never used any tripods. But the third and most important reason is these cameras will film at cinema speed, at 24 frames per second and they'll do it in progressive scan images, so there's no interlaced artifacts. When things move you don't have this comb pattern on the edges of objects and there's such a difference in that. You compare The Gaza Strip, which was filmed in interlaced NTSC video and blown up to 35mm. You compare that 35mm print with the 35mm print of Iraq In Fragments and Iraq In Fragments will look phenomenally better, even though it's a much less expensive camera. But the fact that one frame of video equals one frame of film and it's not an interlaced frame, where you have two fields a 60th of a second apart, but it's as if you've taken this photograph, albeit a low resolution photograph, makes it feel so much more cinematic and so much more fluid in its motion that the result is really orders of magnitude better. So, this is key. If I had to continue shooting movies in standard definition, as long as I was able to do it at cinema frame rate with progressive scan images I would be able to accept it, because if you can do that you're basically working within the same kind of visual parameters as your basic 16mm reversal stock or whatever. It gives you the ability shoot in a cinematic way. The way I grew up watching movies, I didn't have a television. My parents didn't let me have a television and then as I grew older I never developed the desire to buy one and I still don't have one. I have always just gone to the movie theater to watch movies and experience television at friends' houses, so I've always been really attracted to the cinema look. And when I'm filming, I'm thinking about how is this image, how are these frames going to appear on a forty foot screen in a movie theater? I'm not thinking how are they going to look on TV. I'm filming from the very beginning for projection on the big screen. And if I can get that right, well, the television will follow. But I think it's a completely different mindset you have to have if you're filming for the cinema than if you're filming for TV.

Q: Aside from the 24p Advanced capability, were there other aspects of the camera you liked, such as the tonal range or color rendition? The camera has a reputation for having these cine-like gamma settings.
A: Right. There are deficiencies of the DV format itself being 25-megabits per second, it's not that much information, they're really squeezing as much as they can into this thin pipe. The chroma, for example. If you have an object which is pure red, it has less resolution than a green object or something like that, because that's just the way the camera is recording color and it will appear a little bit blocky around the edges. Thankfully, in the 35mm blowup you actually don't see that. You can see it on the DVD, but if you watch this film on 35mm, you won't see that blockiness. It kind of fades out, it's dissipated and you don't notice these hard, blocky edges to red objects, like the fire in the third chapter. If you look at the people who are illuminated by this red light it's kind of like this blocky low resolution look, but in 35mm you don't see that.
Q: How did you correct for that in the blowup?
A: The transition from DV standard definition size to high definition size is just done through the proprietary blowup process at Modern Digital. They export the film as a sequence of tiff's, every frame is a frame, every frame is a tiff file and they're all numbered 000001 to a 132,000 or whatever, about a 130,000 tiff files and then they're all in a single folder and you bring them over on a hard drive to Modern Digital and they take the tiff files and import them into their own system and basically blow it up to a high definition size and correct a little bit for the aspect ratio, because it's not perfect. If you look at the tiff file it's a little bit wider than it needs to be, like a circular object would be a little bit oval, so they correct for that and do the framing up to a high definition 16:9 frame, because it was shot letterboxed instead of anamorphic.
Q: I was curious if you did the aspect ratio electronically or with an anamorphic lens.
A: It was done electronically. I shot letter boxed to get the 16:9 aspect ratio instead of an anamorphic lens, because the anamorphic lens, which I think is made by Century Optics,AeP I looked at one, my friend Andrew Berends who came to Iraq and also made some films had one. It's very heavy, it throws off the balance of the camera, it becomes very forward weighted, which is difficult if you're doing everything handheld and you want to have that kind of balance. The camera is very well balanced by itself, but once you put that big chunk of glass on the front it throws it off. But the main reason is you're losing a little bit of your optical clarity by having this anamorphic lens on the front of the camera and you lose your ability to focus on objects up close. With these cameras you can focus right up to the lens and a lot of the time when I'm filming, you see it especially a lot in the first chapter, I'm very close to people, I'm right behind the ear of the kid, I'm filming over his shoulder and I want him to be in focus in the foreground. This kind of shot would be impossible with an anamorphic front on the camera, because it pushes your minimum focus distance way out, maybe two or three feet and this is completely unacceptable for my style of shooting where I need to be in close quarters with people and right next to someone, filming them and still have the background. So, it's really for this reason. The principal at work if you're shooting in letterbox, instead of an anamorphic front on the camera, is the same principal at work if you're a cinematographer working in 35mm and you decide to shoot in Super 35 instead of with anamorphic optics. That is, you're using the normal spherical optics of the camera and you're simply cutting off the top and bottom of the frame to get this aspect ratio of cinemascope and so you lose some of the film resolution that you would otherwise have, the vertical resolution of the film, but you're gaining in having a sharper picture, sharper optics, more depth-of-field which is important in 35mm, less important in video, because usually you have too much depth-of-field in video and also your ability to focus on objects close up is much better. So, a lot of movies now are shooting in Super 35mm. There's many examples, everything from Speed and True Lies to Walk The Line and on an on, these are all Super 35mm films that are then blown up to anamorphic with an inter-positive. In my case, there's no inter-positive, there's this high definition version of the film, which we color correct then transfer onto 35mm, but prior to that it's never on film so,AeP I'm actually looking forward to working in high definition with the Panasonic HVX200, because it's going to allow me,AeP it already has a 16:9 chip-set, so if you letterbox that a little bit, then you're at anamorphic, you're at cinemascope, you're at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so what this camera is essentially going to let someone like me do is go back to where I was as a university student shooting in Cinemascope, but do it on inexpensive video where I can letterbox this high definition image a little bit and come out with Cinemascope.
Q: For sound did you go with the mic on the camera or did you strap a shotgun on?
A: I never used the actual microphone that's built into the camera. I always used a Sony short shotgun microphone, it's the same kind if microphone they use a lot on the DSR500 and the sound is good from that and on top of that it has the foam wind cover and on top of the wind cover I'd put a Rycote Softie, this kind of furry wind cover. The big issue with that was the fur, the strands of fur from this wind cover would get into the top of the frame and you wouldn't see it necessarily when you were filming, but when you looked at it later you'd see these little fluffy things, especially when the wind is blowing, coming down into the top right hand corner of the frame and so eventually I just took a pair of scissors and gave give this Rycote Softie a little haircut on the front and sort of changed the angle at which it could work. It probably cut down on its effectiveness a little, but it also got it out of the frame. In addition to that microphone I used a Tram lavalier, it's like a $400 clip-on that's wired, not wireless. It has an 8-10ft. cable that comes out of it and also an XLR plug and it has very good sound. The reason I picked up that microphone is that for something in the $300 range, B&H sold me on the quality of this microphone and that's how I recorded all the interviews with the kids and people that are voice-over in the film.
Q: The fast and slow motion effects. Were those all done in post?
A: Well, the things like the train, which is speeded up and I think that's the only speeded up thing in the film, is done in post. Slow motion, you can't do it in the camera, but there weren't that many slow motion shots in the film, but they are there and they are all done in post. They actually look nicer than normal video, because you're taking solid frames,AeP when I would do a slow motion shot I was always taking even divisions. I would say, okay, for making things faster, instead of it being 24 frames per second, I want it to be 12 or instead of 24 I want it to be 48. So I would say 200% instead of 100% in terms of the speed. I would never try to be like 78% or something, so it always wound up being a situation where the frames were simply being duplicated, which is something I had done before in my 35mm documentary, there are a couple of scenes where we didn't have enough light to film, so we filmed it 12 frames per second to increase the exposure by a factor of two and then we optically printed the material out back to 24, which is an interesting effect and I'd like to try it in the future as well.
Q: You shot 300 hours of footage. Did you go to Iraq with 300 tapes?
A: No, I went with maybe 100 tapes and then as I filmed and started to get near the end I would just buy more and more boxes of tape and people brought in tapes for me from outside. I would go on-line and transfer money from my bank account to somebody's else's bank account who was coming into the country and they would generously bring in tapes.
Q: Did you keep everything with you the entire time you were there or would you periodically send things home?
A: I kept things with me. You know, it was a big worry on my mind, what's going to happen. I didn't have any copies of these tapes. I still don't have duplicate copies of my original tapes. I was digitizing material onto hard-drives. These big LaCie 500 gigabyte hard-drives. I had four of them in the country, plus some smaller 250 gig drives. So that allowed me to digitize probably 200 hours of material that I was translating, because the translations were all done off the laptop from digitized material, because I had to go back and forth, back and forth, over and over and be able to stop, frame-accurately and that was much easier to do in the computer than it would have been using the camera, it would have destroyed the cameras to do translations off the tapes. It would have also destroyed the tapes. So, when I had important material, I would digitize it and then do the translations off of that. I had a backup on the hard-drive of most of the material, especially the translated material, but not of everything and in the end I left Iraq with these six boxes, each with 50 tapes in them, in a backpack and also a great deal of baggage. I had to pay extra baggage dues going from Diyarbakir in Turkey flying into Istanbul then, once in Istanbul, I went to DHL and packed up all of my hard-drives with bubble wrap and sent them to Seattle.
Q: How many camera batteries did you travel with?
A: I had probably five different batteries of the large Panasonic variety. Some of them actually were these Empire batteries, which I don't recommend. The life of them is actually very low by comparison. Anyone going out on this kind of trip, I would recommend you get the Panasonic batteries or the Sony batteries or whatever they're using for their camera and not go with these kind of secondary companies.
Q: Was the availability of electricity ever a problem?
A: Oh, all the time. You'd be in Baghdad and you're editing and the power would go out. You have all these hard-drives connected to your computer. The first thing that you have to do in this kind of situation is buy a bunch of UPS systems, so when the power goes off there's still power going to the hard-drives and it doesn't kill them, because it would kill them otherwise. You know they're spinning at 5200 rpm or 7200 rpm or whatever it is and suddenly the power goes off, you know the heads are reading and writing and there's no way to replace these hard-drives, I mean in the country you can't buy them, so you have to protect them and the only way to do that is to buy these UPS system, plug everything into the UPS and run everything through these battery powered backup power sources. They would also help to regulate the current. And so that's how I worked. Luckily, those kinds of things were readily available in the country, because everyone had their computers and they had to deal with these problems themselves. So it was very easy to buy a UPS system in the country. Also, the temperature would skyrocket inside the rooms because there's no air-conditioning, no fans, there's no electricity, so even if you're working on your laptop and say the national power goes out, then the hotel might kick in electricity to the power outlets and the lights, but they wouldn't kick electricity to the air-conditioners, because they were running off a generator and they can't generate enough power to cool the building. So suddenly you're working inside this room where the ambient temperature is going past a 100-)()( and the speed of your laptop starts to decrease, because the computer loses its ability to exchange heat. The ambient temperature of the room is just as hot as the temperature of the computer, so its not losing any heat. It just keeps on getting hotter and hotter,AeP laughs. And the effective speed of the processor decreases. It was a big problem and very uncomfortable, plus it's very hard to work like that. In Northern Iraq, because I was there for about nine months and I was doing all this translation work while I was there, we ran a cable from an adjoining city block, down the street and ran it into my hotel room so that when the power went out in the hotel I would flip a switch down on the wall and get power going to my computer system again. It was a three hours on, three hours off type of situation and if you have a guy driving to another part of the city to work on translations he can't really work for three hours and then break for three hours and then work for three hours and then break for three hours, you know, you have other things to do,AeP laughs,AeP besides wait for the power to come back. They were supplying 50% electricity. It wasn't as if the city was half-on, half the time and half-off, half the time. They were simply supplying 50% of the power instead of 100%, so they would do it by neighborhood and they would give X, Y, Z neighborhoods power in this three hour block and then they'd give A, B and C neighborhoods for the other three-hour block. So, if you had a cable running from one neighborhood to another neighborhood you could basically switch off and that's the way a lot of people did it.
Q: Of all the credits in the film the one that I found the most surprising and impressive was that you did the music, which was quite good. Do you have a musical background?
A: No.
Q: How did you go about doing the score?
A: Well, there are three kinds of music in the film. There's music which is just playing on location on a radio or something like that and I'm there with my microphone, I record it and it winds up on the background of the scene. Then there's music that I recorded in Iraq, that's performed by people who are actually in the film. Like, for example, the kid singing during the raid scene is the kid that you see saying 'Allah akbar' into the microphone. I said, 'look, you have a good voice, let's record one of these Shiite religious songs' and he said 'okay' and he came in and did it in one take and it's a great performance to which I then added percussion and other kinds of sounds and made the soundtrack for that scene and there are other things like it in the Kurdish chapter. I recorded hours of Kurdish folk music with people from that area and from other areas and then used it. Sometimes I would use it straight like, for example, there's a scene where Suleiman Mahmoud is walking with his sheep and you hear this song that he sings, this Kurdish folk song and again it's a case of me sitting down with him the first day that I met him and saying 'do you know any Kurdish songs' and he sang four, five songs and that was just the nicest one. So, there's that kind of music and the music during the snowball fight scene, this kind of singing and drumbeat, that's just the neighbors of Suleiman in their living room and I'm taping with two different microphones, the camera microphone and the Tram microphone simultaneously. There's that, which I then mixed together on the Macintosh and added my own different effects to, in some cases, and then there is music which is entirely constructed by me, all kinds of ambient tracks and drones and things that used to be ordinary sounds, maybe that I recorded that I then made into sounds that are completely unrecognizable. In the beginning of the first chapter of the film, for example, you actually hear a completely filtered version of Suleiman's voice from the third chapter in film, as one of the drones during one of the scenes. I think in the scene where the boss is beating Mohammed. It actually gives a kind of disturbing sort of feel. So there's a great deal of sound that's made like that. The orchestral sounding transitional music during the train sequence, that's made in Logic Pro. I don't have a midi keyboard or anything. I just used the qwerty, typewriter keyboard and from that program, if you have the caps lock on, you can use the keyboard as a piano and all of that music is made like that and that soundtrack is basically like chopsticks, I mean there's nothing to it.
Q: Well, it sounds a lot like Philip Glass.
A: But Philip Glass also sounds like chopsticks. So, that kind of stuff was easy to do. You know, I like Philip Glass and that kind of minimalist style for films. I think it's very effective and so there's that influence. And also, particularly in the train sequence, I was listening to music like, Different Trains by Steve Reich, which is based on the different train whistles from Europe and the United States. It's a great piece of music. I was definitely inspired by that when I was making the train transition music and that became the transition soundtrack for all of the chapters in the film.
Q: How about the ambient music. Some of it reminded me of British industrial ambient stuff like Nurse With Wound,AeP
A: Haven't heard that.
Q: ,AePor SPK
A: No.
Q: ,AePor Eno.
A: Oh, like Music For Airports.
Q: Not necessarily that, but maybe something like,AeP
A: Well, Music For Airports I've actually heard.
Q: But something more like the darker, dronier sort of things like,AeP I was wondering if there was some particular kind of thing,AeP
A: No, in terms of that stuff, I haven't,AeP I don't have a big collection of drony music.
Q: Laughs.
A: ,AePbut that kind of ambient music is easy to make synthetically and it happens often to be appropriate. It has a good use in this kind of film where it sets a kind of a mood that's fairly subliminal and doesn't attract attention to itself, but it's kind of there. So, during the political meeting in the second chapter, where everything starts to fall apart and unravel, you definitely hear this kind of droning sound or deep rumbles in the soundtrack. It's more noticeable in the movie theater where everything is separated out by channels and you get that kind of effect and it kind of lends to this sort of growing feeling of uncertainty and breakdown of the social fabric.
Q: Well, it was very good, you were very effective at it.


  1. great info.
    am making movies.
    very helpful.

  2. "Iraq in Fragments" was just nominated for an Academy Award. Other notable nominees: Ryan Gosling ("Half Nelson") and Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children"). Other notes: Leonardo DiCaprio nominated for "Blood Diamond" rather than "The Departed" (though Mark Wahlberg got a well deserved nod). I'm sorry to report that Laura Dern ("Inland Empire") was not nominated, despite David Lynch's best efforts.

  3. Nice job! What is the name of that song in the trailer? Sounded very good!