Donny Duncan NZCS, hands-on with lighting - Photo credit: Raphael Bonatto
A short film collaboration with the Media Design School students in Auckland and director Peter McCully has picked up the Best Cinematography award for Donald Duncan NZCS against hundreds of global entries, at the prestigious One-Reeler short film competition in Los Angeles.
“Kino Ratten” (Cinema Rats) is a live-action with CGI animation short film, set in a pre-war German cinema. In a defiant act of sabotage, the rats of the cinema disrupt the screening of a Nazi propaganda film, replacing it with a shadow play cabaret performance – starring themselves.
After shooting wrapped in 2018, around 30 MDS students worked for many months on the visual effects components under the watchful tutelage of visual effects supervisor Ryan Mullany and CG supervisor Kris Slagter.
Donald Duncan’s notes on the cinematography:
I was inspired by Peter McCully’s visionary script and the challenge of pulling off this project with a very modest budget, a mostly student technical crew, and a handful of great local actors. The idea of a 1938 pre-war period piece was very attractive to me, and the chance to collaborate with Ashley Turner on production design and Hannah Woods on costume design sealed the deal.
German street scene 1938
Upon viewing the completed film, I was most impressed by the transformation in the VSFX world – especially the 3D realism of the animated rats. Scenes shot with actors and foreground elements against green-screens in cold, grey warehouses were magically transformed into lushly enhanced city street scenes in pre-war Germany.
Rigging exterior green-screen set-up - Photo credit: Raphael Bonatto
While debating the visual style for the film, we decided the technical approach would involve using a small mirrorless DSLR camera – a Panasonic GH5 in 4K mode – and shooting hand-held with the excellent in-built stabilisation or gimbal stabiliser where appropriate.
To capture the 1938 period look, we lit scenes hard and contrasty and used old-school White Promist filters on the camera, to bring the softness back into the image by halating the highlights and bleeding them into the dark areas. The colour grading was then used to crush and restore the blacks, which tend to get milked out by the filter package, and then desaturate the image to move it in the monochrome direction. The colour palette was chosen to contrast blue/green night exterior tones with straw/orange practical lamp sources.
Animated rats play 78rpm record
Our cinema projection booth was an actual location, in the Crystal Palace theatre, in Mt Eden, although we had costed out a plan of building a set to make it easier to work in. The space was tight and cramped with very limited opportunity to hide additional lighting, so most of it was lit by practical sources. The DSLR camera was certainly an advantage for the tight space and several shots were taken with the camera remoted through a phone app, as there was no way to get anywhere near it for viewing.
John Leigh as projectionist Hermann Winkler
It was satisfying to make this film work using a very modest camera kit and a couple of fast prime lenses, but relying on strong lighting, bold compositions and camera moves that enhanced the story telling. The best feedback on this approach has come from contemporaries who were most surprised to find that it wasn’t shot on a RED or Alexa with an expensive lens package.
Peter McCully also picked up Best Director for Kino Ratten in the One-Reeler competition. We’ve since collaborated on another project with the MDS students, titled “Killing the Parson Bird”, which is still deep in VFX world, but will be released in the not too distant future.