ONFILM May 2012
Cinematographer Waka Attewell is always happy to comply, especially when he’s halfway up a mountain.
It’s Vancouver in the mid-1990s and I’m DP on a feature film. We’re in that awkward time between day and night, it’s called “blink”, and I want to get a few wide shots while there’s still light in the sky.
I step onto the roadway to take a light reading, safe in the fact that the roads are closed in all directions for two blocks. Suddenly there’s a guy in my face holding a bright red stop sign, shadowing my every move.
I ask him to stop doing this, explaining that it might look like I’m just taking a light reading but I’m actually thinking through the next three shots. He curtly tells me it’s his job. So I politely suggest he backs off a bit so I can do mine.
“No!” he sneers, “I have to maintain this distance,” adding for good measure, “It’s the rules.”
Oh hell, the masters of compliance have gone crazy. Then again it could be something to do with the Teamsters Union this guy belongs to. I hope location shooting doesn’t get this regulated back in New Zealand.
I point out that we’re on closed roads. “Still my job,” he swaggers with mindless self-righteousness. His stop sign is now shadowing my light meter. I think it’s deliberate.
The Vancouver film and TV business wasn’t yet cursed with the road cone but they had riot type barriers to hold the people back, you know the sort. Cops and SWAT teams use them. Later that night I witnessed the same lollipop-guy fall over one of these barriers while walking backwards “lollipopping” one of the stars onto the set.
Meanwhile back in New Zealand TVC production budgets were plummeting and location shooting felt like it had just become more complicated. There were times over the last few years when I got behind on these ever more erroneous location compliance issues, mainly councils and DOC (Department of Conservation) changing stuff without informing the industry, or just plain inattention from me. To be honest, thinking about compliance wasn’t the first thing on my mind come sunrise. It seemed there was always someone else who needed to know what, when and why. And their need to know mostly involved using your money to do their job.
A big mountain movie hit Queenstown around the same time my cell phone qualified for a free upgrade from the 025 to the 027 network. I happened to be in Auckland meeting with an ad agency, they were talking low budget and had phoned me. I reckoned I could do their job on 35mm film with a small shooting crew. They gave me the gig and I dropped by the Queen Street Telecom shop. The slick haired dude assured me that Queenstown was already 027 savvy. He lied.
In Queenstown my phone only worked in about three spots, but that didn’t really matter because the ad agency in Auckland had a Telstra-Clear PABX system that apparently rejected all incoming 027 calls anyway. Added to that, the motel – in a tourist town – didn’t have an internet connection. If I told you it didn’t have a phone in the room you wouldn’t believe me. But it’s true, it didn’t. It was a cheap and cheerful down-on-the-waterfront motel. I threw my bags on the bed and headed off to town.
After a quick “hello I’m here” meeting with DOC things went downhill. There were three bits of brand new compliance and I wondered if the big Hollywood movie had anything to do with the extra bureaucratic ructions. Whatever, I saw two weeks of my precious time dissolve and now all I had to do was find 200 feet of vertical ice.
In a cyber café I did a tweak (more like a complete rewrite) of the script and redid the storyboard from scratch. I sent it via fax to the agency and the agency writer got back to me quickly via email.
“Wow buddy, this is great stuff and that storyboard is perfect, just what we’re looking for.”
He then put his name on both bits of paper and published them on the agency letterhead. Situation normal. I slept easy in the fact that it was now something I could achieve.
The idea of being a one man band means you can move really quickly. Finding the vertical ice face was the key to getting this gig focused. In a local café I was advised that I should get a location manager.
“I’m a climber, I know how to find ice,” I said.
“No,” they replied, “not for the location scouting – round here these days you’ll need a location manager just to do the paperwork!”
I laughed into my latte, confident that I knew which way was up.
My knowledge of the mountains told me that ice forms on the shady side of the valley, i.e. south facing. Northern is better for photography, though warmer. Dilemma ensues.
The script involved real climbers and CGI penguins. Obviously the penguins were no trouble, but warm breathing climbers who can act a little, that’s another story.
Looking up a couple of local climbers from a previous life, we jumped into a helicopter (don’t mind the paperwork we’ll sort that later, said the helicopter company) and flew straight up above the airport, into the valley behind The Remarkables and Wye Creek, and onto the cold side. A couple of frozen waterfalls were perfect but access was difficult. For me to make any profit, this job could only involve a one-day shoot. We settled on a location with a good landing site and reasonably easy walking access. I took a stills montage and sent the cut-and-paste to the agency. Perfect, now to get the paperwork sorted.
Working suspended over a frozen waterfall is dangerous work, and getting a heavy 35mm camera onto a ledge that is yet to be cut into the ice is another thing altogether. The plan was to have the climbers on separate radios and on a separate climbing line. I had two sets of radios – for the climbers on my left hip, film safety climbers and helicopter pilot on the right. This way I could coordinate the shoot.
My intention was to put a lot of time and money into safety. But when I received the newly introduced paperwork for the safety plan, none of it seemed to be relevant to what I was doing.
We were required to be in radio contact with the helicopter at all times. Unfortunately in the Wye Creek region radio transmission was fine from ground to air but not back to base. The safety plan said “in case of accident climb to the ridge top and use a radio to call for help”, a climb I estimated would take from 1.5 to two hours. We got around this small issue when I mentioned I had the new 027 phone from Telecom and that did the trick. This fact was hand-written on the paperwork. The fact that it still didn’t work in Queenstown wasn’t relevant… I rest my case.
The last thing I wanted was to rewrite the safety manual for DOC. I did what everyone else with limited time and budget did and filled out what was required and had it approved by an authorised mountain guide. All he did was remove the previous production company’s name off the front page and fax it through to DOC. It took all of five minutes and he invoiced me $600. Apparently it was the third permit he’d done that week. If there’s a secret handshake I didn’t detect it.
I paid for the helicopter permit and photocopied the relevant A4 page for the callsheet, which encouraged my crew of only one other not to walk into the rotor blades.
The location fee was standard fare, though exponentially higher than the previous time. My work was finally done, compliance complete. Two weeks had been added to the shoot and at least $15k of unbudgeted time and costs incurred.
The morning of the shoot (after a few days delayed by weather) dawned fine, but I hadn’t factored in the new knee-deep snow so late in the season. Climbing up to the location was impossible to achieve in the time I’d allocated – bugger!
I opted for the Hughes 500 helicopter, with short rotor blades, to do the walking for us. We stepped off the skids onto a ledge 150 feet up the waterfall and set up the camera – the five hours of unbudgeted helicopter time was never recovered from the agency.
Suffice to say we got it in the can. The double radio system worked a treat (as it transpired I’d forgotten to take my useless 027 phone anyway) – all safety aspects worked, the pilot and climbers were brilliantly efficient and able. The only mishap was me falling out of the chopper after it landed at the second location. I broke my little finger. Ouch. I gaffer-taped it to the next finger and carried on.
The next day I flew to Auckland with the rushes and handed them to the agency. Their in-house editor looked at me like I’d crawled out from under a rock then never made eye contact again as he explained he wasn’t used to directors turning up for the edit… eh? The CGI was out-sourced to Australia and I’ve produced one commercial since, with similar compliance issues and similar non-profitable results.
After accommodation, catering, crew, safety climbers and extra helicopter times were paid up I still owed the bank more than $8k.
Today I’m moving cows around my farm as I remember the good old days when the film and TV business was worth something more than just merely revenue collection. And Telecom has just done another free upgrade, I’ve been given a smart phone. Only problem is the smart phone doesn’t work on the farm!