Nathaniel Geary on video transfer of On The Corner

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Wed, 06/30/2004 - 16:00

Vancouver, on Canada's West Coast, is a vibrant, multicultural city surrounded by magnificent scenery of mountains and ocean. The city regularly tops those global charts of cities with "Best Quality of Life" for its easy-going and comfortable lifestyle. The flipside to this picture-postcard perfect image is that of Vancouver's downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada and a place ravaged by drugs and decay.

This was the setting for Nathaniel Geary's film On The Corner, a verite style drama about a young aboriginal teenager who leaves the reservation to hook up with his sister, only to find himself dragged into the world of drugs. Much of the film takes place at night, and Geary was also looking for a dark aesthetic to match the tone of the film. Not only was this risky subject matter in terms of the box office potential, but this was Geary's first feature, making the project a natural candidate for a digital film conversion.

As well as being a poignant story in its own right, what impressed me when it was shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October last year was the quality of the transfer from video to 35mm film. In this interview Geary explains the process that he went through in choosing and controlling the look of the film.

iofilm Why did you decide to shoot your film on video?

Nathaniel Geary Originally, I always wanted to shoot on video. At the time I was writing the script, back in the late Nineties, films like The Celebration were coming out, and I really loved the look of film shot on video and transferred to 35 because it was an unusual, very different look. It's neither film, nor video, but a hybrid. And I liked the idea of the portability of video... but it kind of changed along the way. It took me three years to write the script, so ideas that I had at the beginning were quite different by the end. I guess I really wanted to do a cinema verite kind of thing, and I went on I kind of decided to do something a little different and not strictly verite, but also using formal elements. I didn't want a camera whipping around and very few cuts... I wanted to shoot scenes with a more formal aesthetic and combine that with some of the looser more handheld techniques. So it changed, and by the time we were shooting if I had the choice to shoot 35 or video I would probably would have chosen 35. What started as an aesthetic decision really became a budgetry decision. There was no way we could have shot this film on 35 and probably we couldn't even have shot this on Super 16 for the budget.

iofilm What was the shooting ratio?

NG It was probably four or five to one.

iofilm So you didn't really take advantage of the fact that tape is cheap?

NG No, I couldn't - I only had 18 shooting days and I didn't have time to screw around and shoot tapes and tapes worth of stuff. It was exactly like you would shoot on a shoestring 35 budget... I was shooting minimal number of takes, we just had to cover too much material every day, so that is kind of how it went.

iofilm What about the camera choice?

NG We tested a number of different cameras. We tested different formats. We ended up choosing DigiBeta over the other formats. We tested the newer progressive scan - the Panasonic progressive scan camera. We did MiniDV and a few other different formats.

iofilm When you say tested them did you shoot them and take them to the labs?

NG Yes, I think we tested about five formats. We did tests in the neighbourhood with all five cameras.

iofilm How long was each test strip?

NG Thirty or 45 seconds or so. With each format we shot some night stuff and some day stuff.

The DigiBeta held the black. The other formats, especially the Panasonic progressive scan got really muddy. The DigiBeta was just true black and really it looked as if it could have been shot on 35. So there wasn't even a discussion about it. Everybody - the producers, the DoP and myself - were: "Okay: DigiBeta."

iofilm How did the MiniDV look when you did your tests?

NG The MiniDV looked surprisingly good, although it just has limitations. When you put it up against the DigiBeta it was definitely the weaker.

iofilm What was the MiniDV camera you tested?

NG I can't remember... it might have been the PD150 or the Canon XL1. We also shot DVCam and that was disappointing to me, because that was the format that I thought we were to end up going go with.

iofilm What was wrong with that?

NG It was just issues like a subject standing in front of a bright window, there would be tons of artefacting on the window frame for example. It just couldn't hold the contrast whereas the DigiBeta held up a lot better.

iofilm It was a news camera wasn't it?

NG Yeah, it was the old warhorse DigiBeta cam. It's the camera that's been around for a long time...

iofilm Do you think that contributed to the verite style?

NG I don't think so. People don't know if it's one camera or another.

iofilm Did you negotiate a deal for the tests separately with the post-production house or did you negotiate a deal for the whole process...?

NG We knew that we were blowing up to 35 and we knew that we were going with Digital Film Group here in Vancouver, so we just set it up with them and they had a relationship with the lab so it was just part of the deal that we had.

iofilm So once you made the decision to go with DigiBeta, how do you optimise that format?

NG Well, really it was down to my cinematographer Brian Johnson. He has done a lot of shooting, he knows all the formats and that was just in his hands. He and I had spoken a lot about the look of the film and what we wanted and we were pretty in synch as far as that went. He's a very good lighting cameraman and he knew the look we were after... I wanted really dark black and I didn't mind if the subject fell into shadow... we decided when we were doing the drawings and storyboards and stuff, we would use a combination of handheld stuff, with a jib bar which is a tool that he's very familiar with using and very good at using. You have that marriage of the handheld movement and the jib, which is more fluid.

iofilm Were there any problems specific to shooting with video?

NG Brian knew the limitations of the format and if there was an exterior light problem he would just gel the window or whatever. So that's just regular problems that present themselves to DoPs no matter what format you are working with.

iofilm Were there any films that influenced you in your decisions?

NG There were some films, in terms of visuals: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by Cassavetes, which is a very dark movie. Again, there are really large areas of shadow. Stylistically and in terms of content there were a number of influences: the Dardenne brothers who did Rosetta and La Promesse were also influences for sure. I really liked Harmony Korine's stuff - I liked Kids a lot and julien donkey-boy. Then, obviously, The Celebration (Festen), which is very much using the video as video and shooting MiniDV. But they really do have an aesthetic and perhaps they were a bit more influential for me earlier. Then I started looking at other things it became a little bit more formal, but still they were really in my head when I was shooting the film.

iofilm How were you checking that the video you shot would work when it was blown up?

NG We were looking at dailies... we were getting our dubs back, taking a look at them... We always had in mind that we were going to film and we always knew that the colour correction was going to be a major step in the process. We were all really happy with what we were seeing along the way, and we just knew that it was going to get better, because what you see is what you get. That's video.

We knew that we could manipulate the process even more and create exactly the look that we wanted. We went through the colour correct scene by scene. We desaturated the whole thing and we added some green and then that was basically the template that Digital Film Group worked from and created the 35mm print.

We cut it on an Avid and then we did the colour correct with the post house and that was the master that DFG worked from to do the print.

iofilm Did it turn out as you expected?

NG Pretty much. I was really very happily surprised by the look of it. If you are sitting at the back of the theatre then you need to be a film professional and probably a technician to know that it is shot on video. If you are sitting at the front of the cinema and you know what you are looking for then you can tell it was shot on video. But I've had other filmmakers say, "Wow! That looks great I didn't know you shot on 35mm..." And I say, "Well we didn't." But that is just a huge compliment, to both Brian, the shooter, and the Digital Film Group.

iofilm You went with NTSC?

NG Yup.

iofilm Did you ever think about going with PAL?

NG We did think about it, but we were dissuaded from doing it by almost everybody we talked to. They said it's fraught with too many potential problems, and NTSC has been done a lot in North America, and it looks good and it will be a lot smoother for you guys. I'm actually really glad we went with NTSC because the whole PAL thing is still a little bit unknown, you know...

If we had been in Europe there may have been no question, but all the post houses here, they really havn't dealt a lot with PAL. It's kind of unknown still here.