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'The Swell Season': Three Filmmakers Create a Poetic and Stylized Documentary

Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard

Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard

The 2006 indie feature Once charmed the cinema world with its low-tech telling of a simple love story between two musically-inclined residents of Dublin. Directed by John Carney and shot very simply on Mini DV, this fictional story about that couple (the Irish Glen Hansard and Czech Markéta Irglová) became an international festival favorite, and the lead song, "Falling Slowly," went on to win an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Hansard and Irglová, romantically linked in real life, grew a following for their real-life musical performances under the name The Swell Season.

The Swell Season trailer

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When filmmakers Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Nick August-Perna and Chris Dapkins decided to make the documentary The Swell Season, they didn't know they'd be capturing the dramatic whirlwind of professional, personal and artistic issues that would buffet the singers, but that's exactly what happened, and now this behind-the-scenes documentary has become a critical success, too.

The three filmmakers (all shared directing responsibilities, Dapkins shot and August-Perna edited) did know from the outset that they wanted their film to have a very different look and feel than Once. While Once used small, handheld cameras to create a vérité feel, the makers of The Swell Season wanted their film to have more of a traditional—almost retro—narrative feel. "We wanted to shoot Super 16," Dapkins recalls, "but we didn't have the budget for that. But we still wanted to give it the feel of classic narrative."

Dapkins used two Panasonic AG-HVX200 camcorders for the shoot. One camera was used with the kit lens, primarily to cover concert footage and act as a B-camera, while the primary camera was outfitted with a P+S Technik PL-mount adapter so Dapkins could work with Zeiss primes (a 50mm and 85mm) to get more of a "filmic" look. "It was completely impractical," Dapkins admits. "It was this giant beast of a camera by the time we had the adapter and lens and mattebox."

The fixed focal length made it challenging to keep people in frame, he adds, although the shooting style was designed with this as a stylistic factor. "If we were shooting backstage in a dressing room, we would set up and wait for people to enter the room and roll until they would exit the room. We never wanted to chase them around in some frenetic, reality TV style."

The filmmakers also decided early on that their film would be black and white, for both aesthetic and practical reasons. "It gave us a means to compress time," August-Perna explains. "We'd be shooting over a long period of time and the black and white helped us create a cohesive emotional experience out of the different hair lengths, beard lengths, clothes and everything else. Black and white has a timeless quality that takes you out of the social circumstances of the day and transports you to other states we want the audience to be in."

Dapkins and Mirabella-Davis worked out some rudimentary lighting techniques to cover the action without becoming too obtrusive. "Those cameras are not all that light-sensitive, and the adapter cost an extra stop," Dapkins says. "If we were shooting in circumstances like a dimly-lit backstage room, Carlo would walk around holding two battery-powered Litepanels Micro LED units to give people some edging or backlight, and I had a third fixed to the top of the camera for fill."

It wasn't until several months into the production and the European leg of the tour that the documentary's dramatic thrust declared itself. After spending some time filming with Hansard and his family in Ireland and capturing the interpersonal tension between the singers, the directors realized that this was the core of their film.

August-Perna spent a couple of years, on and off, on Apple Final Cut Pro 6 and then 7, editing the nearly 150 hours of material down to a workable length. Hansard and Irglová, August-Perna reports, were very pleased with what they saw but asked to do some additional interviews, which the filmmakers subsequently shot in New York.

The filmmakers credit Company 3 New York and colorist Tom Poole for the finishing work he did in the DI suite to give their material the cohesive and cinematic look they were after.

"They wanted to achieve a kind of 'printy' black and white negative or reversal film look," Poole recounts. "The material was very well shot to begin with, but with all digital footage you can get harsh whites. Typically for this kind of documentary you would probably color linearly, but we ran it through a film LUT to help give it that look they were after."

"He did an amazing job of bringing it that last step," says August-Perna. "As soon as we spoke, he was looking through old black-and-white photographs, and we could really tell he was thinking through the best way to give us the right aesthetic."

The film has received praise for its unique look and dramatic approach to handling the couple's emotional journey. Dapkins notes that they committed to the "look" part very early on, but the drama unfolded on its own.