The beauty of cinematography is that the DP applies the techniques and knowledge he has learned from other cinematographers to his own craft. Sometimes it isn’t a lighting gag, or an optical trick. Sometimes its just having a unique experience. Case in point, my friend, teacher and incredible Cinematographer Tim Naylor. Last week, he traveled to the city of He Yang, China to shoot a feature film. He took the time to write an exquisite account of his experiences so far. Here they are, verbatim. (with permission)
“Dear friends and family
We just finished our first week of shooting. We’re getting amazing footage but I wish things could move faster. While the technical crew are some of the fastest and most efficient I’ve ever worked with, in a land of no real labor law or overtime, the scheduling/planning has a bit o be desired. When you have overtime, like in America, production ideally plans not to waste a minute or pay for it in overages and meal penalties. Here, things work a little differently, you shoot until finished. When I asked my gaffer about traffic cones and rubber matting for safety, he gave me a quizzical look and then told my translator, “such things don’t exist on film sets.”
Being a school teacher film, we cast many children from 6 to 12 years old. Yesterday, we had a full class of kids putting in a 12 hour day right alongside the crew. Not single one, whined or weeped. They seemed to be actually having a ball as there were loads of dirt mounds, piles of corn husks, walls to pee on, puddles and sand for diversion.. Being virtually all village/farm kids, I’ve a feeling they’ve worked much harder. Our ex Red Army drill sargent now assistant director, corralled the “Hai Ze” all day. When he yells, they fall in line, immediately. When waiting off set, they are entertained by our “good cop” Zhong Lee, the 2nd AD. To my relief, unlike America, there were no “stage mothers” present. The parents dropped them off at the hotel in the morning and we returned them in the evening, conveniently exhausted. The “new age” parenting so prevalent in the West, full of praise and nuggets of self esteem to chew on, is an alien and offensive concept here. When a child extra misses their mark, even if it is his first film, they’re scolded and immediately ordered to do better or simply replaced by another. No one, including the youngins, find this odd. During a wardrobe fitting at the hotel, one of our principal actors was mucking about and quickly found himself having a timeout and having to face a wall for ten minutes. The other parents didn’t bat an eye, but seemed to find this the right way.
Other things that tickle me is the Chinese culture of rank and protocol. I have a hard time trying to open my own door to the production bus and no one (except the director) will exit the bus before me. Along those lines, the day before our first day of filming, the production held a “good luck” dinner party at a local banquet hall. Despite mountains of food at each table, no one dared touch so much touch a peanut until our guests of honor arrived. Half an hour late, they arrived – the Village Head and his right hand man and the Regional Minister of Propaganda and his two minions. Needless, to say, I was seated between them at the VIP table, along with the director and the lead actor. Within moments of commencing dinner, our dignitaries proceeded to offer me one mini shot of Chinese rice liquor (followed by a toast) after another. To refuse would be to lose face and bring shame upon my ancestors. To accept would be to toy with losing consciousness. This was no saki but the Chinese version of Everclear. So I complied and soon found myself pressured to appear on stage and belt out my rendition of “Feelings”, much to the amusement of my hosts and to the shame of wedding singers worldwide.
My assistant, Chris, from the US feels he’s spoiled. If I tell him to place the camera, in such and such a position, before he can lift a finger, a crew of “camera grips” descends upon the camera and does it for him. I feel the same with my chief Lighting Technician, Gaffer Lieu Li, a total pro from the big Chinese Xi’An Studios. After I establish the lighting style for a scene, even though his English is a bit worse than my Mandarin, when we set up for additional shots, his crew has the lighting more than 90 % “matched” before I can walk off and grab a cup of tea. At first, he tended to “over light” making some scenes look lit up light a Christmas tree with the soul of a commercial Chinese romance. But as soon as he realized I was lighting more natural, he quickly fell in line and began to execute my ideas while adding his own flavor. His Kung Fu is most strong but no match for my Monkey Style.
Perhaps another interesting note, is that even though we’re shooting in a impoverished village of 2nd/3rd World conditions, unlike other poor conditions I’ve experienced, it’s refreshing to see walls without razor wire or cemented broken glass along the top. My biggest fear walking the streets at night is getting run over by the silent but deadly electric scooters. Doors are often open or latched with a coat hanger or some makeshift minimal security lock. Live stock often roam freely and manage to make it home by dark. My assistant chased a band of piglets walking the lane. In New York, they’d end up on my grill by sundown. But there is a fiber glass lining to this relative crime free existence – the price for larceny is death. At 20,000 plus executions a year, you have to ask, do you feel safe?
Overall, everyone has been most hospitable. My two assistants on their first day were befriended by two co-eds who gave them an all day tour of the City we’re in, He Yang. The curiosity towards we alien foreigners is never ending, and never hostile. During down time one of the six year old extras learned lines from R. Kelly’s “Ignition-Remix” from the lead actor. He ran around all day uttering “Sipping on Coke and Run…give some of that Beep Beep, Toot Toot…”. So far this may be perhaps the most impressionable adventure yet in my some odd years. We’ve three weeks to go and a ton of work.
That’s all for now until next week,
Enjoy the pics.
Our Camera Cart.
Villagers watching themselves on video playback of their first scene.
Village Elders, playing well….Village Elders.
The Boy who would be R. Kelly watching cartoons during lunch.
My Director, Louyi Tang, thrilled about the big scene in which the kids collect enough water for the foreign teacher to take a bath.
Breath the air, check out the charm.
Our Director, Louyi Tang, thrilled about the big scene where the school children collect enough water so American teacher can take a bath.
The man is a story teller.
Please visit his website to see his amazing work. www.timnaylor.com