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Junkyard Filmmaking

Exclusive Podcast

Michel Gondry on Be Kind, Rewind

Using an old radiator fan, a hacksaw, and a skateboard, Director Michel Gondry and DP Ellen Kuras custom-built a camera rig to meet Be Kind, Rewind‘s unique aesthetic requirements. Photos: © 2006 Junkyard Productions LLC.

Director Michel Gondry certainly maintained his reputation for offbeat filmmaking with Be Kind, Rewind, which recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. But the film is quirky and fantastical in a much different way than Gondry’s critically acclaimed 2004 effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although Gondry teamed with Cinematographer Ellen Kuras on both films, the pair and their collaborators labored strategically to place Be Kind, Rewind‘s daydreaming, goofball characters into a more realistic world.

“The story line is a little bit absurd,” Gondry says, “but I wanted to carry it in a very grounded context. I wanted to feel as if these people existed in the real world.”

The people Gondry refers to are members of a small ensemble cast led by Jack Black and Mos Def, as Jerry and Mike, respectively. Following a bizarre accident that causes Jerry to accidentally erase every single VHS movie in a run-down video store in New Jersey, the duo decides to remake each of those films according to their own unusual interpretations, and relying on nonexistent skills and resources.

The idea was to film the whole thing in an urban, real-world location — a real junkyard and surrounding buildings in Passaic, N.J. — and comment on the art of filmmaking itself. Therefore, the characters produce “remakes” of well-known movies such as Back to the Future,The Lion King, Robocop, Ghostbusters, and Driving Miss Daisy by paying good-natured homage to the world of seat-of-your-pants, experimental filmmaking.

With their custom-built camera rig intact, Gondry and Kuras stuck to their characters” visually inventive, low-budget ethos when shooting.

Shooting VHS

Kuras says that concept drove the decision to shoot in the anamorphic format (onto Fujifilm F-64D 8522 35mm stock and Reala 500D and Eterna 500 tungsten stocks) for the main narrative, while shooting the series of little movies-within-the-movie onto — of all formats — simple VHS videotape, using old VHS camcorders and a variety of low-end photographic tricks and effects.

“Overall, for the basic palette, we wanted to put the movie into the world of cyan, with shallow depth of field,” Kuras says. “But we didn’t want to stylize it too much or do anything to take it out of looking real — we wanted this to feel like it was New Jersey. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be too washed out or depressing. That is not what this story was about. So we decided to give it color and keep it in the cyan range. The Fuji stocks were great for that. We shot everything in the New York area, and sent film to [Modern VideoFilm, Los Angeles] to spin the dailies. Their dailies colorist did an amazing job, and we were all very confident in what we were getting.”

“[The decision to shoot anamorphic] changed things a bit — my directing,” Gondry says. “Because generally, you always have at least two people in the frame, so that changed the way I used the cameras. I just wanted it to be realistic. This movie was different from Eternal Sunshine in that way. On that one, all the shots were handheld. On this one, it was done in a more traditional way. With the letterbox format, that dictates the position of the camera on the actor. In both movies, though, we shot with two cameras and a lot of improvisation, so that we could cut within the same take, and let people do something different with each take.”

But shooting the movie’s remakes with two VHS cameras (RCA and Panasonic) posed far different challenges. The first challenge was making the decision to shoot the scenes on VHS to begin with. Kuras, who shot feature material in the MiniDV format for 2002’s Personal Velocity, says she felt strongly about the choice.

“It was quite bold for Michel to say he liked VHS,” Kuras says. “We talked about whether it should be MiniDV or Hi8 or VHS, since these guys were obviously [amateur filmmakers]. We decided we liked the quality of the VHS because it was more organic. It had a more round feel to it. It was more about the feeling that these characters would use VHS — a medium anybody could pick up and use to make a film at their level. But, for me, of course, it was a challenge to work with an actual VHS camera. In the movie, you see the actors shooting with the RCA VHS camera, but what you actually see on the screen [in the fake film clips] was shot by our crew using the Panasonic VHS camera that had the focus and shutter control that we needed.”

“We had to make it all look old,” Gondry says. “The characters were shooting with their equipment in the story. The fact that we used VHS started out as a joke. But we did tests with Ellen Kuras, and the VHS camera gave us this sort of diffusion that gave it a more filmic look that was interesting — something that is lost in the newer, higher-end digital cameras. I felt we had to make it a video shoot, but where they try to make it look like something else — like film. For some of the stuff [such as a mock vintage documentary about jazz legend Fats Waller], it’s supposed to be very old film, so we looked for ways to create flicker in the camera, to do different things to achieve that feeling of 24fps. The way we did it was a very minimalist concept.”

Indeed, Kuras says that the movie features, among other things, a working prop that clearly illustrates that minimalist concept. Her team, along with the art and prop departments, created a camera rig for the RCA camera out of parts from the real junkyard. That rig was sometimes used by the characters on-camera while making their faux movies. Kuras used the rig as well to film sequences that appear projected in the video store in the final scene of the movie.

“We used an old radiator fan from a truck or car and built a whole rig based on junk that the production designer [Dan Leigh] and I found in the actual junkyard,” she says. “The hand grip was the grip from a hacksaw; the camera was mounted on a skateboard that we attached a little plate to so it so it could be quick-released so that we could easily change out the camera — from the one seen in the movie to the real VHS camcorder we used for those scenes. When these guys were shooting their movies at night, we tried very hard not to use film lights for portions of the shots. We ended up using tungsten halogen work lights that workers would use at night — the type of lights you could find in any junkyard. After all, these characters themselves would not have access to film lights — they would use what they had at hand. My gaffer, John Nadeau, would bring in these work lights and turn them on and just point them at the subject. They were seen within the shot as working practical lights, as we call them. They did not illuminate the entire scene we were filming — just the part of the scene they would be lighting themselves.

“I talked a great deal with Michel about how such guys might really shoot a movie. For the night scenes, Michel came up with an innovative idea of how to shoot a night scene during the day by emulating a camera negative. First, we changed the VHS camera into ‘negative’ mode. Then, the characters made huge Xerox copies of [shots of cars] in negative mode so that when the VHS camera [in negative mode itself] would shoot these cars in the frame, they would be positive to the eye. A lot of people don’t realize that a blue sky shot during the day on a negative looks actually black because it renders white on a print. So Michel and I played with these concepts in the film by mimicking that with this Xerox idea. These things helped these little movies take on a certain aura. It was very organic, and Michel is a filmmaker who likes to be organic and go out and experiment.”

Robocop is one of the fake movies-within-a-movie that the film”s characters shoot themselves on VHS. In order to make it look convincing, Gondry and Kuras actually used a Panasonic VHS camcorder (although the characters use a prop RCA VHS camcorder in the film).

Effects

Thus, according to both Gondry and Kuras, very little about the fake movie clips was altered during the digital intermediate process handled by EFilm, Hollywood. To accommodate Kuras’ schedule — as she wrapped Be Kind, Rewind in the New York area, she immediately transitioned into shooting footage for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light (as one of several prominent DPs who participated in that project) and working on her own documentary film Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) — EFilm set up a mobile DI unit that mimicked its Hollywood configuration to let colorist Natasha Leonnet work closely with Gondry and Kuras at Post Factory, the New York-based facility that handled the film’s editorial work.

The 35mm anamorphic footage was scanned in at 2K, while VHS material was up-rezzed to HD for editing and color correction during the DI and was later transferred to film at Deluxe Laboratories, Hollywood.

“I used the DI to establish certain looks,” Kuras says. “The VHS material remained, as much as possible, in the spirit of the VHS look, but the anamorphic film elements — this look was determined in the DI in terms of color palette and basic contrast and the overall look. Michel and I liked the ability to go into secondary color correction and use the DI to change the character of the blacks and the highlights in ways we couldn’t do with a photochemical process. We don’t use the DI to fix things as much as to create a certain look. As much as possible, we created the effects that you see in the [remake movies] in-camera.”

Indeed, while the film has a handful of CG shots (created at BUF Paris) early on — such as the opening helicopter shot and shots that explain how Black’s character became magnetized and destroyed the video store’s entire inventory — virtually all the jitters, scratches, and tweaks seen in the bizarre movie clips shot on VHS were created on set. That included such tricks as shooting through a whirling radiator fan to fake the look of scratches on the film from the fake Fats Waller documentary.

“It was a weird kind of rig — a fan we built to emulate the shutter of old movies,” Kuras says. “Again, it was all made from parts from the junkyard. We had wires hanging in front of the VHS rig on the skateboard to simulate scratches on the film, and we shot through the turning fan, which came from a radiator and operated with a 12V motor that we took from a little hand drill to emulate the blinking of a film shutter.”

Material shot this way was cut together into a movie clip that is screened inside the video store near the end of the movie. Kuras also filmed the climactic sequence, showing a neighborhood audience viewing the characters’ movie through digital projection, on location in a practical way. The team screened the video movie for an audience of extras using a Christie LX25 XGA 2500-lumen projector, although a prop projector was used for shots where the projector is seen in the frame. For shots of the audience watching intently, Kuras projected the beam of the projection onto shiny boards, reflecting the projection back onto the faces of the characters to highlight their reactions.

“I really liked how we filmed [that sequence],” Gondry says. “That was how we got the joy in the eyes of the people in the scene. They were watching their own work, their own participation, and we showed [in that scene] how these people felt about what they had done.”

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