I like to Mōvi it

In 2013 Freefly Cinema introduced the Mōvi camera stabilizer to the world. I must have not been alone in drooling over the introduction videos. They had my curiosity, but when they promised it would work with the Red Epic, they had my attention. If you don’t know what the Mōvi is, you should find out – it’s an incredibly useful piece of kit, with it’s own quirks and deficiencies. But in a few words; it’s a stabilizing rig based on the technology camera helicopter rigs use to balance out the shakes and vibrations of the copters. They just apply the technology to the shakes and vibrations of human operating, thus creating (theoretically) a handheld camera rig that produces steady shots like a dolly/steadicam would.

In my mind the film we were going to make that summer would be one of nearly constant camera motion, with very few “obviously handheld” moments. It was going to be steadicam, but what always bothered me about the good ol’ steadi was its limited ability to move up and down. The Mōvi promised to move exactly where the operator would move it. It would be possible to transfer it from one operator to the next, and stabilization would even out the bumps along the way. This seemed to solve quite a few problems, and open up the possibility to do the kind of shots you could basically only do with a Technocrane and loads of time (though nobody would do them on a Technocrane, because to do simple character tracking shots with gear that costs thousands a day is the kind of insane reserved for Peter Jackson only).

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So we booked the Mōvi for the majority of our summer shooting days. Because of delivery delays, we were pretty much the first production to use it in any major scale in Finland. Our test day revealed quite a few problems. We were going to shoot with the Cooke S4 lenses, but they were too heavy for Mōvi’s gyros. So we had to subrent S4 Mini primes. Lens changes would be difficult (take time), but not as difficult as calibrating the Mōvi every time it would be taken off the gimbal and then returned to it. So a decision was made to have two Red Epic camera bodies with us all the time, and when we used the Mōvi, one body would stay on it the entire day. These complications meant additional costs, but not significant ones. It was affordable, and in my mind, the get was worth it. So we designed the shots for the Mōvi, with no real backup plan. Here’s a plan for a succession of three scenes (one song), most of it being done in three Mōvi movements:

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The camera was operated by Peter Salovaara, who is probably now the foremost Mōvi operator in the country. He operated the 19 shooting days we used the gimbal, and then was the cinematographer-operator on a music video for me, again with the Mōvi. The first thing we discovered was that the rig we had had built was not a light one. It weighed around seven to eight kilograms with all the batteries, video transmitters, lens control servos and receivers, and matteboxes. That much weight becomes pretty hard to hold at arms length for any extended periods of time. The camera crew experimented with the Easyrig support system, but it sort of undid the whole idea of using the Mōvi, as it once again limited the up-and-down axis.

So it was up to Peter’s arm and back muscles to do the job (luckily, those were some impressive muscles). He ran with our actors, did loops around them, started shots crouching down and ended them standing on platforms, and this continued day in day out. We also did some shots with “handoffs”, where Peter would execute most of the choreography, then hand off the rig to our DP Joonas who would finish it. Peter had the camera on a descending construction crane, then handed it down to Joonas waiting below, who then followed the actors. Or they’d hand it over a bar counter and then pan it back to the direction where the camera came from, revealing what would have in any other situation been a dolly track, but this time just scripted action (and one camera op crouching below frame).

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The result I can’t yet show you, but it has a beautiful feel to the motion that I don’t recognize. The camera does things it’s not “supposed” to do. A professional viewer will probably stop to ponder the shots, but the uninitiated will simply watch a movie that will feel different, that has a freshness in its visual quality they can’t quite put their finger on. At least that’s my goal. And if you don’t understand why what Peter did is impressive, try carrying around an 8 kg kettlebell at arms length for hours and hours, executing precise moves.

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The material is not without problems. There will be post-production stabilization needed for pretty much all of it, thought it is simpler than stabilizing basic handheld material, as the Mōvi pretty much eliminates tilt and roll, and those are the things that cause warping and artifacts in stabilized shots. Also, because we opted to use a single-operator mode for the rig (it allows for a second operator to precision-guide it via remote control), the compositions were not always ideal or exact. The rig would stop pans where it would please, and there was really not a lot to be done, except to feel things out and learn how the gyros work. Peter did this with admirable dedication, and the later shooting days have much more precise compositions. We were however prepared for this: shooting full-frame 5K for a 2.39:1 cinemascope finish, we framed the shots with 10% extra on the sides and quite a bit more on the top and the bottom. Now that we’re in the offline stage, we are constantly recomposing shots, zooming in, zooming out, moving them in all three axis, keyframing the motions where necessary.

I actually really like this workflow and the ability to recompose shots. We will probably end up with over 50 percent of shots adjusted for composition, and I think the storytelling will benefit. We won’t need to cut as much, we can carry out more extended shots because instead of hiding deficiencies, we can correct them.

10532368_10152257084012169_4275176292179014305_nOur camera crew: First assistant Mika Tervonen, camera operator Peter Salovaara, second assistant Antti Hänninen. The Mōvi posing in front

Would I recommend the Mōvi for all camera movement? Absolutely not: first of all, it is pretty much solely a device for wider lenses. The gyro movement becomes too accentuated, too visible with longer focal lengths. Second, the difficulties in calibrating the rig and movement rehearsals required to execute complex coreographies need to be treated as special cases in scheduling. So if you just need a simple push-in, use a mini dolly (we did, constantly). But to the reserve of camera motion devices it is a welcome addition. It does things you can’t do with a dolly, a steadicam or a crane. And there are lots of things you can do with those that the Mōvi can’t do. This should be obvious, but I think it needs to be stated. It is a new tool, not a replacement for old ones.

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A few weeks after our summer shoot ended I directed a music video for Elias Kaskinen ja Päivän sankarit. Maybe it was because our entire summer had been filled with musical numbers executed with complex camera moves, but when I heard the song I immediately had the idea of doing it in one shot, revealing the elements one by one. This was the shot I designed:

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And this is the finished music video:

There are differences between the designed shot and the final one, and you can see stabilization artifacts if you look for them (I did the stabilization myself in After Effects), but Peter’s camera operation is impeccable and for the level of difficulty coupled with a ridiculously tight schedule (six hours to light, rehearse, shoot, and wrap), I’m very proud of what we accomplished. The compositions have been heavily adjusted in post, and most of the lensflares have been added as well. But there are no cheat cuts, this really is one take in its entirety.

We continue shooting Vapaita in about a month, and I’m looking forward to meeting Mr. Mōvi again. I have a feeling we have some exciting adventures ahead.

Thanks to Antti Hänninen and Mika Tervonen for the photos!

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Welhofilmi turns 25 years

I am trying to write screenplay pages, but since none seem to be coming out of me, I might as well update the blog.

This spring I turned 30. I had been looking forward to it for quite a while. It was, at times, tiresome to be the “young gun” director in town. As late as last year I got comments on how I “have lots of time” and how I’m “so young” on projects that were delayed or cancelled. So now I’m 30, and happy about it (and will probably hear entirely new excuses for projects not progressing).

My filmmaking career on the other hand turns 25. It’s a bit crazy, yes. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll give you: A History of Welhofilmi, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Make As Many Films As Possible!

What is Welhofilmi? It is the company through which I do my work as a director, writer and editor, and also a small rental house that rents and sub-rents to bigger rental houses a Red Epic-X camera package. But that’s been true for only six years now. The history of the name goes quite a bit further.

The summerhouse frequented by my mother’s side of family is situated by a lake called Velhon vesi (Warlock’s Water). This has led to the summerhouse being called just Velho, instead of “the summerhouse” or anything else. It’s where I spent quite a bit of my childhood summers, and it’s where we started filmmaking. In 1989 my father, myself, my brother and my uncle Janne (back then a teenager, currently more known for being a musician and the lead singer of Phoenix Effect) wrote and filmed in two days an adventure short film called The Treasure of Robinson Crusoe (did I mention the bookshelves of the summerhouse were filled with adventure books from my mother’s youth?). Back home we edited the film from camera tapes to VHS, and held a premiere. The end titles were, for the first time, concluded with the words “A Welhofilmi Production”.

The name stuck for quite a few years, and as me and my brother got older, we were permitted to use the camera equipment without supervision and started to do our own little films (usually lo-fi versions of films we had seen, Star Wars etc.). Still, we used Welhofilmi as the “company name”, even though our father was rarely involved.

In junior high school I attended a video course and from like-minded people interested in filmmaking, I founded a group called Alppilan yläasteen elokuvataiteen erityisryhmä (“The Alppila Junior High School’s Special Team of Film Art” – yes, I know). We went by the abbreviation AYEE, and made short films for two years. After junior high school, all of us going to different schools, the name needed to be changed. So we changed it to Welhofilmi. This is where serious filmmaking started on my part.

The Welhofilmi group made films from 2000 to 2006, when I was accepted to study film directing in University of Art and Design. The ten films we made in those years were shown at festivals and in our schools, but most importantly, they were a film school in their own right. Every film taught us something new. Every film made us better. We borrowed and rented equipment, recruited actors from amateur theaters, we had call sheets, budgets and did surround sound mixes, visual effects and color grades.

So in 2006 I started film school and Welhofilmi was put on hiatus. I had enough work in school and becoming an assistant to Aku Louhimies. I learned a lot, working with him, including the fact that a director can be only as good as he or she has power over the final result of the film. I knew I wanted to have as much power over the result of my films as I could possibly have, so I started thinking about ways to achieve that.

One way was to own equipment. If I had my own cameras I could always shoot something, and never have to ask permission to do it. Also, it seemed to me, back in 2007, that the Finnish film industry was going about digitalization totally wrong. We were going to make films on our laptops in 4K quality in a matter of a few years, I thought, and people are still investing in HDCAM cameras and huge post-production machines specialized in just one thing! It seemed crazy to me. The production of my first school short, In Between, was the final straw. We shot 16mm film, transferred it in a soviet-age transfer unit to Digibeta  and DVCAM tapes, then ingested the DVCAM tapes to Avids and edited the offline, then assembled the online edit from the Digibeta, and color corrected it to another Digibeta tape. I could not understand how it was possible that this was what we were taught how to do, when it seemed obvious that this technology would be done with in a matter of years, maybe months.

The Red camera was the online sensation at that time. Vaporware, people called it, when Red couldn’t deliver the first cameras in the spring of 2007. I asked about it from one camera equipment specialist in Finland. The answer was absolute: it will never be a professional tool, it will never be used for feature films, and surely it won’t be seen in the lineups of professional rental houses. I disagreed.

So in the fall of 2007 Welhofilmi was reborn as a company. It was, at that time, a measure of necessity; we were going to invest in the Red One camera, and needed a company that would own it and rent it out. We received our camera the last day of March, 2008. It was rented out the rest of the spring. Everybody wanted to shoot with the Red, and there were only three or four cameras in Finland. I didn’t really see the camera for the next months, but the money coming in was nice – after all, even though Red One was substantially cheaper than HDCAM cameras or other professional digital “filmmaking” tools, it was an investment of several tens of thousands of euros for the whole equipment needed to use it efficiently.

We were trying to get funding for a novella film called Enemies Within that spring, but failed. I was deemed “not experienced enough”. We licked our wounds for a couple of weeks, but then came an idea; if I now have the necessary equipment, and we have a cast and crew of young people who would rather do something and not get paid (immediately) than not do something and not get paid (at all), why do we need funding? So Enemies Within became an “indie” production (produced by Welhofilmi, the production company of the novella film First Floor Productions, and Aku Louhimies), and we shot it that August with the much-appreciated help of rental houses, that provided us with lenses, lights and vehicles for a minimal cost. In October we showed the rought cut to financiers, and it was swiftly bought to television, and received a nice grant from the Finnish Film Foundation for finishing costs. I draw a direct line from those events to the fact that I was able to make my feature debut just two years later, at 26 years old.

I realized that without Welhofilmi and without owning the essential equipment, this would have never happened. And since then my doctrine of filmmaking has been to always do what I feel is necessary, and ask permission later. Welhofilmi has evolved since 2008, we have optioned material for development, broadened and updated our rental equipment and, just this year, became a customer company for the Finnish Film Foundation, so we can apply for development and production support. Will we be a full-fledged production company one day? I hope so. Currently we have produced mostly music videos and other small projects ourselves, and worked as contractors in anything bigger. Welhofilmi turns 25 years with a colorful history, but it is the next 25 years that I find inspiring and interesting. What will we do? Where will the company go?

I don’t know. But meanwhile enjoy a showreel of the stuff we’ve been involved with (if it resembles my director’s showreels, there’s a good reason for that). It only includes movies from the last 14 years, as the ones made previous to that are situated on tapes that no players any longer support. But perhaps that is better.

Post scriptum: I would like to write an entire post of it’s own on our adventures with the Red cameras. So look out for it.

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Truth will cut together

We are about to begin editing the film on Monday.

What film? A little background: this summer we filmed most of my second feature film. We will have one week of shooting in November, but I’d say about 85 to 90 percent of the film has been shot. It’s called Vapaita, with the English title being, at least for now, Urban Family. Theme of the film is family, in its many forms. The story focuses on a woman who, as a teenager, gave birth to a son and gave him away for adoption. Now, sixteen years later, the woman is in her early thirties and the son is a teenager. She’s struggling with becoming an adult, starting a family, and he’s struggling with becoming independent from his (adoptive) parents and finding a direction in his life. They meet again, and make a mess of each others’ lives. It’s written by Tua Harno and is being produced by Pohjola-filmi.

The moment between filming and editing is a peculiar one. For the director it can be filled with desperation, because you can no longer shoot anything, but you still haven’t seen what it is that you actually shot. After all, shooting is mostly covering bases, making sure you have what you need to tell the story. Whether you actually do, you find out in editing. As I’ve said before, the editing room is the place where the director comes face to face with all of his/her mistakes.

You can tinker with the material, of course. I used to do that with my previous projects. I cut things to show at the wrap party, to show financiers, and at the same time familiarized myself with the material. This time I’ve opted not to do that. First of all, there’s no need. We have a sufficient budget to actually have people do these wrap party/financier clips for me. But second, and most important of all, I want this editing process to be pure. To have the editor lead it, and me actually directing and not dictating. Being open to new ideas is perhaps the hardest task this late in the filmmaking process. So many avenues have already been closed with shooting choices, you need to be open to every possible choice still available. I of course have seen the scenes in my head, I have shot them according to these ideas, but now that I have, the material needs to tell me and the editor what it wants to become. For the editor (I am once again working with the brilliant Antti Reikko, who has edited August, Our Little Brother and Male Behavior for me, in addition to many, more successful films) this is an easier process, since he is not burdened with memories and associations from the shoot. For me, I need to cleanse myself of preconceptions, and be open.

Easier said than done.

Here’s a clip I cut for our financiers at the end of filming for my debut feature film, August. We shot the film pretty much on the road, and they had not seen anything, so understandably they wanted to see something right away to know what we were doing with their money. So this is what we showed them. They were happy.

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Screen violations

The name of the blog was maybe the hardest thing to figure out. I ended up with one of my favorite pro-lingo phrases; “screen violations”. What is it?

It is a situation that can occur when in stereoscopic 3D films an object comes into the negative space of the Z axis (the space between the screen and the audience) – or, in other terms, something comes out at you from the screen. As the object is not actually three dimensional, but an illusion, it still must abide by the size of the screen. If the sides of the screen cut off any part of the object in a manner that is disturbing and brings you as a viewer out of the movie, that’s called a screen violation.

3D movies are out of fashion, almost as quickly as they became fashion. Or rather; they’ve assumed their place as one type of film entertainment, reserved for big-budget action and kids’ films.

I’d love to make a serious 3D drama one day. If they’d let me.

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Startup

Just set up WordPress. I’ve been looking forward to having a blog ever since I gave up my LiveJournal.

I’m going to be writing on subjects mostly to do with filmmaking, my thoughts and experiences will play a large part. I hope there’s a conversation to be had.

Language will be mostly English, with some Finnish thrown in here and there. I suspect most readers will be from Finland, but hopefully not everyone!

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