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American Cinematographer: An Angry Young Man
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Tsotsi
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Neil Young
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Miriam’s shack features pale blue walls and curtains, and the “butcher’s pink” is created by sunlight coming through a window made of pink glass. “Homes in the townships are made of materials other people have disposed of, so you see lots of corrugated metal and window frames with glass that isn’t the norm,” notes Gewer. “Miriam’s and Tsotsi’s shacks had to suggest that homemade quality. Her shack is warmer and a lot more colorful than his, partly because of the colored-glass mobiles she has made for her baby. For day scenes in her shack we filled in with soft sources and incandescent lamps through the windows, and we placed different colored glass in some of the frames.”

 In Tsotsi’s shack, Weavind limited the color palette to rusts and reds. “Emilia, Lance and I talked quite a bit about how to get into Tsotsi’s mind without using voiceover,” says Hood. “I really wanted to feel every flicker of thought in his head, which meant the audience had to focus on the actor as rapidly as possible in every scene. We chose to strip down the interior [of his shack] and use three or four shades of the same color. Similarly, the only color he wears apart from black is red. Everything is designed to not pull you out of what’s going on in his head.” Lighting Tsotsi’s shack “was about creating another world, a world in which this character lives but loves very little,” says Gewer. “It also had to suggest a haven, a place where he feels safe, secure and in control. It’s the place where he comes to terms with himself, and the lighting changes a lot from scene to scene according to his mood. I feel lighting can be quite imaginary in that sense — it’s sometimes about creating what’s in the mind of the character as well as suggesting reality. We had to get at what each scene was about: is Tsotsi feeling vulnerable or secure?

“In the moodier scenes, the shack is dark except for a single candle on the table that appears to light Tsotsi’s face — I used 150-watt incandescent lamps to re-create that feel — and shafts of light created by several HMIs coming through little holes in the corrugated-metal walls,” continues the cinematographer. “Depending on the time of day, we also used smoke. People in the townships make coal and wood fires every day at about 4 a.m. and then again in the afternoon, thousands and thousands of fires. In winter you can hardly breathe, let alone see more than 30 meters in front of you, because of the smoke these fires create.”

Throughout the shoot, Gewer used a 150-watt Pepper as an eyelight for Chweneyagae, who appears in almost every scene. “If anything was my brief, that was it: we had to see Presley’s eyes at all times. His eyes are the world of the story. We kept the Pepper’s intensity very low. All it had to do was twinkle in his eyes to bring them out.”

Tsotsi was finished with a digital intermediate (DI) at The Video Lab in Johannesburg, but the decision to do a digital grade wasn’t made until after the shoot got underway. “Video Lab was considering bringing in a [Discreet] Lustre, but it didn’t become a certainty until after we’d started shooting,” says Gewer. “When they got the Lustre we ran some tests, and for me it was quite a tossup. Gavin and I both felt the footage that was timed photochemically was technically superior, but we knew what we stood to lose if we didn’t do a DI. We wouldn’t have been able to effect shots the way we did, and we wouldn’t have been able to give the picture the same consistent grade.” Hood adds, “From the producing/delivery point of view, we thought the DI would be helpful in the event Tsotsi sold around the world. We were shooting in widescreen and had to deliver multiple versions, including an HD 16x9 version, a 4x3 version, and subtitled and non-subtitled versions. In all there were about nine versions of the film, and when you can store all nine versions in the digital world, it makes your file delivery that much easier.”

Nevertheless, Gewer embarked on the shoot with a photochemical finish in mind. “We shot the film as though it would be finished on film, and that forced us to be quite disciplined during the shoot,” says the cinematographer. “We achieved the look we wanted [on the negative] and enhanced some scenes, especially in Tsotsi’s shack, during the digital grade.” The DI also enabled Gewer to even out South Africa’s harsh, toppy sunlight on day exteriors. “We often darkened the foreground to achieve greater depth in the image so the eye would travel off into the distance. We didn’t use many filters on the lens.”

Hood notes that the DI was particularly helpful for a tricky exterior that was shot in waning light. In the scene, Tsotsi takes the baby to one of his childhood homes, a set of large, concrete construction pipes on the outskirts of the township. The pipes are inhabited by several young orphans who approach Tsotsi with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. “We had to shoot that scene in a single afternoon, and it’s full of little children who’d never been on camera before,” says Hood. “In fact, some were orphans who actually lived in and around the area. We had to get wide shots, close-ups and reverses, and the sun was going down. It’s the kind of scene you would shoot over two or three days if you had the budget, but we had to get it in about five hours between midday and sunset. Lance was under enormous pressure to maintain the feel of late-afternoon light for the whole scene, and he did a brilliant job. We got the wide shots with great, late-afternoon horizon views that give the scene depth; then, as the sun slowly disappeared, we framed to keep the sky out of some remaining close-ups and Lance kept giving us light, knowing that as long as the scene was well lit and well exposed he would be able to manipulate it [in post]. He filled in with reflectors and then, when the sun was actually gone, with two 18Ks. There’s no doubt the original images would have held up, but the DI was a marvelous tool for bringing lighting continuity to that scene.”

The production’s footage was processed by The Film Lab, The Video Lab’s sister facility, and was subsequently scanned at 2K on a Spirit DataCine. Gewer spent about four weeks in the DI suite with Hood and Brett Manson, a dedicated Lustre colorist, but the team, which was working from a hi-def monitor, had to start from scratch after the initial film-outs revealed inaccuracies in the look-up tables. “We’d had DVD dailies telecined at 2K [by The Video Lab] throughout the shoot, and even though focus wasn’t critical and the color rendition wasn’t accurate, they proved to be a very good reference during the grading process,” says Gewer. “When problematic shots arose in the grade, Gavin and I knew what the negative really looked like because we’d seen the rushes.

“The grade took 12 weeks altogether, and after setting the look with Gavin and Brett, I had to move on to another project,” he continues. “Because of limited storage we couldn’t have all the reels up at one time, but we eventually got to the point where we could do four at a time. It was the first DI carried out on the Lustre in South Africa, and Brett did amazingly well. Seeing the process through from film to the digital domain; integrating all the effects, titles and subtitles; and then recording out to film was a big test.” The color-corrected files were transferred to 35mm with a Kodak Lightning 11 Laser Recorder. Festival prints were made on Kodak Vision Premier 2393, and general-release prints were made on Vision 2383.

 

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