DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: STEVEN ESTEB - 'DIRTY POLITICS'
BATON ROUGE, LA — Doesn't it feel like the 2008 presidential campaign has been going on forever? So who will it be? Obama or McCain? Well, after audiences get a look at Steven Esteb's Dirty Politics, they might swing their vote to Jimmy Breaux, the painfully and hilariously politically incorrect candidate featured in this satirical indie offering.
The film, shot entirely in Louisiana and mostly in Baton Rouge, features a candidate with a problem: while having sex with a woman not his wife, she, well... dies. While his handlers and his understandably ticked-off better half try to figure out what to do, craziness ensues. It's all very funny, and I recommend checking out the film's site (www.dirtypoliticsthemovie.com) as well as YouTube for the "political ads" featuring Jimmy and his wife. My personal favorite is "Jimmy and Rita on the War in Iraq," but you won't be disappointed with any of them.
GOING HIGH DEF
Working with a limited budget, the filmmakers opted to shoot in high def, via JVC GYHD250U HDV cameras, instead of film. "We were trying to shoot HD on the highest HD we could afford," explains writer/director Esteb. "My partner, producer and DP John McDougall, is a big proponent of JVC." Because much of the film was going to be shot handheld, they needed cameras that were lightweight.
"Being that Steve and myself are traditional filmmakers and have worked with 35mm the majority of our careers, we were concerned about delivering a look that did not shout 'video,'" explains McDougall, who had previously worked with the JVC GYHD250U cameras on some commercial shoots as well as a small feature. "Our greatest restriction was budget. We simply could not shoot film, plus we had a rather aggressive production schedule to meet. So shooting on a cost effective but strong HD camera platform made the most sense for this production."
In order to achieve the frenetic and spontaneous look they were after for Dirty Politics (www.dirtypolitics2008.com), Esteb and McDougall had two cameras going at all times. "We wanted to give a sense of pace and action and energy to a movie where basically people are just talking to each other," says Esteb, who calls working in HD for the first time "a leap of faith."
But his leap paid off because not only was he happy with the quality and flexibility of the format, he actually enjoyed the process, including being able to shoot more footage. "On film, when the shot is blown, you say cut, you stop, you reset and you reshoot. With HD we basically pause, go back to your previous mark and keep the tape rolling because it's cheap."
Another difference in shooting HD rather than film is in how you light your scenes. "Because we were shooting with two cameras — mostly in the presidential suite of a hotel, a set built on a stage in Baton Rouge — we lit the hell out of it, making sure every nook and cranny of the stage was lit so there was always light, no matter where the cameras spun around or where the actors took us. If I was shooting film I definitely would not have done that. Film requires more delicate lighting."
In order to achieve a more filmic look, McDougall equipped the JVC cameras as he would a film camera, which ended up weighing them down a bit, but they were still lighter than a film camera he says. "Our needs with Dirty Politics did require equipping the cameras with full matte box systems with follow focus wheels and filtration. We ran Tiffen Antique Suedes in combination with me dialing down the color somewhat within the camera set-up menus. We also used the JVC PL mount adapter [HZ-CA13U] and ran a full set of Zeiss super-speed primes in combination of with the Fuji Th13x3x.513BRMU wide-angle zoom lens. Two timecode synced 250Us were used in the majority of the scenes, and both were also equipped with the DR-HD100 camera hard drives."
It was those DR-H100 hard drives that helped make it easy to get into post. "It was far simpler than I expected," says Esteb, who has an editing credit on the film along with Blake Palmintier. "On this we edited everything on Apple Final Cut Pro, and it was so easy. Being a person who wasn't really an editor to speak of, I was able to pick up on it quickly and got really good on it."
Esteb had McDougall shoot in what he calls a "crazy, helter-skelter way, which takes you out of your basic editing style," he explains. "When you edit a movie that's shot in the traditional way it is pretty much edited for you. You know what your shots are going to be; you know what it's going to look like. It was exciting every day to find shots you didn't know were there, and that's a tribute to HD because we would never have gotten those shots if we had shot it as a traditional 35mm film shoot."
He also liked being able to stay in the native resolution and well as creating some effects within the system. "We resized everything, did a lot of interesting push-ins, blowing the pixels out, split screening and isolation screening. All these things were to bring about pace to essentially a talking-heads comedy. From that point they exported uncompressed HD files and sent them to LA's Efilm for a da Vinci color correct.
"We shot in a lot of low-light situations, and I had been told that HD cameras are really hungry for light, but that's not exactly true," describes Esteb. "I think lighting is just as important in the HD world as it is in the film world, just in a different way. When we got on the da Vinci at Efilm they were able to solve every low-light issue we had." (At press time, the filmmakers were awaiting a distributor, so the DI was on hold.)
Audio post was handled by John Vogl of Apex Sound, based in Louisiana and Los Angeles. "We had the audio running through both cameras and captured sound that way," says Esteb. "That is the low-budget way; we probably should have had a deck, but the sound was fine, no problem." But some outdoor scenes shot on the Mississippi River did require ADR.
NO GOING BACK?
If Esteb's next film had a larger budget, would he stick with HD? "I'd seriously consider it," he says, pointing to the format's flexibility.
"When you shoot on HD and have two or three cameras going at once, you end up shooting shots you would never have shot before — and getting a more live look because the camera is a participant in the process," he says. "Instead of action happening in front of the camera, the camera can seek the action."
Esteb was also happy if the camera was a little bit late to the action. "It made it feel like it was alive and you were a witness to something rather than watching a performance, and it really gives the movie an organic feeling. I imagine you can do it with film cameras but it would be a lot more difficult."
Esteb was also able to fix a two-second close-up shot that had been bugging him since after production shut down. "We already finished the edit and finished post. I got that JVC camera and shot a little pickup shot in the parking lot outside my edit suite, dropped it right in the system and the entire solution to the problem took 30 minutes." Now, he says, it looks like something that was planned and part of the original shoot.
Esteb admits that he was ready not to like HDV. "I'm a film snob and thought I would be the last guy to shoot on this stuff, but it was a really fun experience."