HOTSHOT#4 Takeyuki ONISHI (DP) / Kohki HASEI (Director)
“BLANKA” (produced in 2015, Japanese theatrical release: July 29, 2017) was filmed on location in the Philippines and was funded through the Venice International Film Festival and Biennale College initiative. The production took place in Italy and the film was shot in its entirety in the Philippines. The cast is mostly first-time actors, and everyone in the film speaks Tagalog. Post production, which includes color grading and sound, was in Korea. This international production was headed by a Japanese Director, Kohki HASEI, and Director of Photography, Takeyuki ONISHI. The film made its debut at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival in 2015 and won both the Lanterna Magica (CGS) and the Sorriso Diverso awards. It has also won awards at various other film festivals, including the Kolkata International Film Festival and the Fribourg International Film Festival. The movie was filmed with the newly released Panasonic VARICAM 35. We spoke with Mr. ONISHI and Mr. HASEI, who told us what it was like to work with an international staff behind the scenes and on location, and their unique approach to shooting this film.
Profile: Kohki HASEI
Born in Okayama. Film director and Photographer. Still Photographer for “MONGOL,” directed by Sergei Bodrov (production: Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia; nominated for the American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year). The short film, “GODOG” (released in 2008), which was born from HASEI’s first encounter with Filipino street children, was awarded the Grand Prix (Golden Egg) in 2009 at the Kustendorf International Film and Music Festival, organized by film director Emir Kusturica. Afterwards, HASEI moved his base of operations to Serbia and produced short films in Europe and the Philippines. “BLANKA” is his feature-length directing debut. He is currently based in Tokyo.
Profile: Takeyuki ONISHI
Born in Tokyo. Director of Photography. After graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, he moved to the Philippines in 2006. He has been filming TV commercials, feature movies, music videos and documentaries in Asia.
The how & why behind the production
ONISHI: For the past few years, the Biennale College – Cinema, through the Italian Biennale di Venezia, has been endorsing projects to support new directors and hosting an annual cinema workshop where three projects are selected from among the international submissions. Each of the three winning teams has 150,000 Euros at their disposal. In September of 2014 (for 2015), three projects were chosen from three different countries: Japan (dir. HASEI), Poland, and the US, and these films were presented at the Venice International Film Festival. After the announcement, the producer contacted me in mid-September. Because we had a tough time casting during the pre production process, we started filming later than the other teams. In the end, we shot everything over 21 days, from April 2015 to early May, and we had to submit it to the Biennale by August, so we had a tight schedule where we had roughly two months to complete post production.
Post production in Korea
ONISHI: The Biennale College – Cinema has a partnership with the Busan International Film Festival, and with the understanding that the films would be screened at Busan, Busan funded our post production expenses (color grading and sound), so the work was done in Korea. We worked from morning to night in order to finish the color grading within about a week. And then the director stayed behind to work on sound editing.
Why the VARICAM 35?
ONISHI: We wanted the movie to have cinematic quality at the same time as we took a documentary approach, depicting the Philippines in a realistic way. However, there were constraints of lighting budget and its setup time, so we solved the problems by the camera’s sensitivity. Firstly, we tried using other cameras that allowed for more beautiful color gradations by lots of color information, but in the end, when we wanted something more cinematic, we decided to go with the VARICAM 35. Its ability to shoot at ISO5000 was a big advantage.
Compared to Japan, it gets really dark at night in Manila, so ISO becomes an issue. With the VARICAM, the noise level in the dark area wasn’t distracting at all, and blacks looked natural. The actors in this movie were not professionals, so we couldn’t expect the usual. Because of this, I closed the aperture as much as I could and tried to focus the actors’ performance. The leading actor was a child, so we knew she couldn’t do the same action. This is why I initially wanted to use a dual-camera setup, but the director said he wanted to go with just one.
Well, we couldn’t close off the streets, and this is a nation of people who love movies, and so locals would come over to watch us film, and a crowd would start to form. That made things difficult, so in the afternoon we tended to shoot wide open so that the crowds would be out of focus, or else to shoot with hiding the camera (laughs). As for shooting, in order to increase the camera’s mobility, I shot hand-held. But because the camera was heavier than I expected, I had assumed the announcement would say that it would be possible to separate the camera head from the recording module; however, it didn’t make it in time for shooting, so I had to carry the camera around for all the scenes (laughs).
How color and lighting differ from the Japanese style
ONISHI: (In Japan) the quality of exposure compensation is the first priority in camera department, and making natural-looking light without any color cast is essential in lighting department. That is, of course, very important, but I think when you are filming a heart-wrenching scene, it’s okay if the quality isn’t perfect. For example, if you are shooting in a home with a dirty bulb, I think as long as the lighting in the film successfully evokes the scene’s emotional atmosphere, it’s okay. In Japan, it’s common for people to want to do things “by the book,” but on Filipino productions, people are more interested in evoking emotion using lighting, and they try dynamic movements and different approaches because they aren’t worrying about making mistakes. I think their passionate feelings influence color and camera movements. Japanese people don’t appear to be so concerned with how emotions are expressed through lighting and shadow, but it was my impression that Filipinos were interested in that.
The film’s message: A celebration of the human spirit
ONISHI: Even today, there are little people working at ‘Hobbit House,’ where we filmed the scenes of live performance. Everyone including people who live in slum is so cheerful. Of course, their lives must be tough, but the whole place is filled with buoyancy, a certain kind of energy. And I think it affected the director and carried over into this film. When you have a developing nation as your backdrop, it is easy to elicit feelings of pity, but we didn’t do that; we wanted to show that things may be tough, but people are strong and resilient. We wanted to present a celebration of the human spirit (in this film). Even during difficult times, people try to do their best to get through lives, and even there is humor in their daily lives. This is why the director didn’t want to use famous actors in these roles; we felt that by hiring regular people we could capture the true ‘essence’ of their expressions and emotions.
How they met
ONISHI: The director, HASEI, was originally shooting documentaries and stills. Then I heard that he had been working with the director, Emir KUSTURICA, in Serbia for several years. I met him about three years before we started shooting this film, when he had come to the Philippines to work on pre production for a short film. In 2010 he happened to see a trailer for a feature-length film that I had worked on as the Director of Photography, and that’s when he learned that there was a Japanese crew member working in the Philippines. He subsequently got in touch with me, and that’s when we worked together for the first time.
On-set excitement appears on-screen
HASEI: It was a really good set and crew. Aside from ONISHI’s team, it was the first time working, but we spent a lot of time together during filming, and just as Blanka discovers the people who become her family, the crew became like family. So on the last day, we were shooting the final scene (where Blanka is smiling with tears in her eyes). But no matter what we did, she couldn’t produce a genuine smile. It couldn’t be helped. Cydel CABUTERO (Blanka) is an eleven-year-old, and so there was no way she would be able to give me the kind of performance I was hoping for. I was chatting with my AD, saying “So what should we do?” and he said, “Leave it to me.” So the AD turned to Cydel and said in Tagalog, “It’s our last day of shooting today. We had such a good time, didn’t we? I already missed it.” It was Cydel’s first film production, and she gave it her all. I think all those emotions came rushing to the surface. Then, from behind her, one of the crew began to sing. The camera was still rolling. The other crew began singing, too, and some of them started to dance. And all this time, the AD is saying to Cydel over and over, “Thank you.” Then someone cracked a joke. Everyone started laughing and Cydel smiled too, and that’s where her smile came from. I was so comfortable on that set – almost too comfortable. Cydel was smiling through her tears, the crew was singing and dancing, and I kept thinking we were all so happy. That’s why it was so hard to call “Cut” (laughs). But it dragged on to the point where it was obvious that we didn’t need to keep filming, and when I said, “Cut!” everyone started applauding. I thought it was so nice to have that kind of great atmosphere on set. And that atmosphere translates itself to the screen as well. Even when you filter it through a camera. Which is why the type of camera you choose is so important in capturing this mood.
The difference between documentary and fiction
HASEI: These days, there’s no clear distinction between documentary and fiction to me. Once you start editing a documentary, it enters the realm of fiction. Recently I was on a television talk show, and when I caught a glimpse of the interview on air, it had been edited quite a bit. They had taken something I’d said earlier and inserted it somewhere else. At that point it is no longer a documentary. I don’t think there is even a need for the word “documentary.” Even when you are shooting a fictional movie, it’s also a kind of documentary. How would you even define “documentary” vs. “fiction”? Is it “something that is made up” vs. “something that isn’t made up”? But everyone in it is performing, to a degree. Even a police officer, when he gets dressed in his uniform, is “performing.” I don’t think we should ask the question “Is it fiction or a documentary?” anymore. I don’t really get it, and I don’t think we need to do it. When you are creating something, those kinds of questions do come up. In fact, I want someone to tell me what they mean. I want someone to explain to me, “this is fiction, and this is a documentary” (laughs).
The Hobbit House restaurant has been in operation in Manila since the 1970s. The restaurant’s theme is taken from The Lord of the Rings series, and was built to help the local Little People (who are of short stature) find work. It is well-known that the famous Filipino singer, Freddie Aguilar, also performed regularly at the restaurant to support the project. The wait-staff and performers provide excellent and cheerful service.
Official Website: http://www.transformer.co.jp/m/blanka/
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