Filming What Lies That Way
The approach, logistics and technical challenges of shooting a low budget documentary in an
isolated Papua New Guinean community
By Luke Frater
In January 2015, director Paul Wolffram and I set forth on a small motorised banana boat from Kokopo on the East New Britain province of PNG. Our boat, loaded with camera gear, food and supplies for six weeks made the eight-hour journey past the Duke of York Islands and to the shores of Siar Village in the South-east region of New Ireland. As a former ethnographer, Paul had spent a number of years living with the Siar community on three separate occasions and had filmed the documentary Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors Tales (2011) in the process. This was my first trip to Papua New Guinea. The intention was that I act as a “fly on the wall” to document both Paul’s return to Siar, and also his journey to initiate into the secretive Buai sorcery cult that is part of the men’s culture in the region.
I was lucky enough to have worked with Paul before on his documentary Voices of the Land: Nga Reo O Te Whenua (2014), alongside the great Alun Bollinger MNZM. This was a more traditional documentary shoot. Paul was director, Alun and I were camera operators, and the crew was rounded out by a sound recordist and a PA. I learned an immeasurable amount from Alun and filming with him - his technique, method, craft, and mostly his easy-going demeanor which was a constant source of enthusiasm. I still remember being in the Fiordland bush with him. He asked me if I got a shot in the river. I responded I had a wide of the river and a close up on the shores. He said “great!”, took off his shoes off marched straight into the middle of this knee-high current of the freezing cold river to get his shot just above the water level.
Alun Bollinger and I, during filming of Voices of the Land (2012)
Photo Cred: Leigh Minirapa
I also spent time in the edit suite with the wonderful Annie Collins. Annie was gracious enough to guide me in long-form documentary style. She also helped me refine my shooting style, which until that stage had been geared more towards corporate/promotional work, music videos and short films. My familiar approach was to rush into a situation to quickly bang out the coverage without always thinking about the story that was playing out in front of me. Annie got me to think more about scenes and situations and letting the action unfold more.
I have known Paul for almost ten years, dating back to my final year at Victoria University.I was completing an Honours Degree in Film and Paul was the technical advisor at the time. In the second half of 2014, during our one of our regular catch-ups, Paul brought up that he was heading back to Papua New Guinea that Summer and floated the idea that I join him to help film his documentary. My initial reaction was one of hesitation. Being a city boy I had not spent a huge amount of time living in the outdoors and had not spent much time overseas either - certainly nowhere near as “off the map” as we would be in PNG. Adding to my hesitation were Paul’s horror stories of the way of life and challenges in Papua New Guinea, and his multiple malaria tales. My friend Horst Sarubin had accompanied Paul on his previous filming trip in 2010 and had contracted malaria. While he recovered, he had to cut his time in PNG short as the long recovery process and exhaustion was not conducive to filming day in and day out.. After a week of thinking things over I committed to joining Paul I knew that the opportunity was a once in a lifetime deal, and that the only thing stopping me was a fear of leaving my comfort zone. That didn’t seem like a real reason at all. .
Two weeks prior to leaving New Zealand, Paul and I met in his office to discuss the approach to filming, some basic Tok Pisin (the local pidgin language), tribal customs, and the gear package that we would take with us. I was more used to using Super 35mm video cameras such as the Sony FS700 and Canon C300. But our need to travel light meant that smaller DSLR or mirrorless cameras would serve us, and the story, better. Paul had access to the new Panasonic GH4, and the images that came straight out of the camera were wonderfully sharp and punchy. We figured that this would really capture the lush landscapes of the rainforest jungle that surrounded Siar. I had also just purchased a Sony A7S and, with it’s low light capabilities, it seemed like a perfect fit for the shoot as well. My go to lens for the shoot was a Canon 24-105mm f4. This was perfect as it had a great zoom range, was (somewhat) weather sealed, and had IS which would help for all the handheld. Although later in the shoot the IS begun failing due to the humidity, so i turned it off.
With only two carry-on bags and three check-in bags between us, space was at an absolute premium. We each had a personal pack with clothes and living items, medical supplies for two months of living well away from any large towns. This was a key concern. Should anything go wrong medically, we knew that a trip to a third world hospital in Kavieng was at least two days away via banana boat and then a truck on a dirt road. And if things were even more serious, a full medevac to Cairns or Brisbane would be an extra day or two on top of that. So it was important for us to have all of the supplies we would need to stay healthy and treat ourselves medically in the case of something going wrong.
The remaining check-in bag was a 1610 Pelican hard case. This held a DJI Phantom 2 Vision + Drone, a MacBook Air, a GoPro Hero 4 Kit, a few Tascam DR-40’s and our Goal Zero Solar Panel Kit and battery. I had to strongly insist to Paul that we bring a large fluid head tripod along for the trip, whereas Paul was initially more keen on a smaller stills camera tripod. I decided on a small set of Manfrotto legs and a 701 HDV Head, just for some smoother pan and tilts. This was ratchet strapped to the side of Paul’s personal luggage to comply with the checked baggage limit. While the plan was to film the majority of the film handheld on a shoulder rig, I believed a tripod would be useful for any long exposure photography and timelapse work. It would also later help me in framing a number of scenic shots introducing areas and landscapes. I think this helps with the pace of the film, and gives the audience a chance to breathe in between character interactions and the story.
On January 3rd 2015 we touched down in Port Moresby and spent a couple of days acclimatising, and getting our bearings. We then headed North to spend a week exploring the Sepik River. We hired a local boat crew, and visited villages along the river. This period was helpful as it gave me a chance to gather a sense of the environment, the culture and the people without the pressure of having to film and think about what was important to capture. Even though Paul was unfamiliar with this region, he was incredibly comfortable conversing with the locals and making our way around despite it feeling like another world to me. This eased my mind, especially knowing we would soon travel to an area in the Lak region where he was known and part of the clan.
We flew into Kokopo to gather final supplies (tinned fish, rice, fuel for the boat trips etcetera) before hiring a banana boat and captain to take us across to New Ireland. To put this in perspective, it is like crossing Cook Strait in a large motorized dinghy, even if the channel didn’t have quite the treacherous reputation that Cook Strait has. In fact, the crossing was the calmest Paul had ever experienced. This was for the best as our boat was well overloaded with rice, fuel drums and multiple villagers who happened to be in port!
Although I had been told that there was no such thing as life jackets in Papua New Guinea, the thought of a long water crossing in a small boat without one seemed ludicrous. So I told Paul I was going to the store to have a look for one. He asked me to buy one for him as well if I did manage to find any.That didn’t exactly fill me with confidence! I rummaged through a store and amazingly found two well used lifejackets with Chinese writing all over them, I assumed they had come off a local freighter. Still, at NZ$10 each they were a bargain and well the worth the price for my piece of mind. The boat crawled along the crossing at a slow pace. It took eight hours - about twice as long as normal - due to our heavy cargo load. But we made it across with no issues and landed on the beach of Siar in the mid morning. The process of documenting Paul’s journey had really begun.
When we arrived on the beach, I jumped out first and filmed everything. The village had received word that Paul was returning, and people began making their way down the hill and out of the jungle to the beach to say hello.
Our boat arrives on the shores of Siar, and Paul is greeted by the villagers.
The first week in Siar was undoubtedly my most difficult part of the whole experience. Adjusting to the language and the customs of the village took a bit of time and a lot of getting used to. During the first few days I just filmed everything I could and didn’t think too much about how it might fit the story. We were also now eating in a more rationed mode. Our calories were about half of what I was used to and our energy levels were bottoming out. It’s hard to explain the lethargic feeling that comes over in your in that environment. I remember asking Paul before we started if 60 days was really needed to film the documentary, but I quickly discovered this was because you could only really manage one two to three hour block of filming a day. The temperatures were always in the mid thirties and the humidity was always 95 to 100 percent, so it was an incredibly exhausting environment. We would film in the mid morning and finish up just before midday to avoid the hottest part of the day.
We had to make a daily trek to a local spring to collect water for cooking and drinking. This would involve a four kilometre round trip hauling a ten litre water container. Paul and I took turns carrying it back while the female villagers put us to shame, carrying their own water containers effortlessly and often balancing them on their heads with no hands.
Paul on the hunt for a water spring on the outskirts of Siar village.
As the cinematographer and observer I sometimes felt a bit alienated because I had a limited understanding of the language and the conversations that took place around me. But also because my role was to hide behind the camera and capture Paul’s interactions. To Paul’s credit, this would usually only ever last a small amount of time as he would signal when it was alright for me to stop filming and join the group. This helped me a lot, and Paul usually gave me a short summary of what had just transpired. But as a cameraman it's the strangest feeling to be filming endless interviews where you have no idea what is being discussed. My instinct was to pan left and right based mostly on inflection and the body language of the subjects. I still remember asking Paul about the content after each interview "so was that any good?" as i would have generally no idea.
I later came to embrace the idea of alienating myself a bit. It felt like I was getting better footage when I hung back and didn’t get too involved. Despite this, I managed to connect a lot with the younger villagers and children. Most were were probably curious about my awful understanding of Tok Pisin and my fascination with the piglets that roamed around the various hamlets.
After an early review of the footage, I knew that I loved the sharp and punchy look that the GH4 provided straight out of camera. However, the camera really struggled in a few scenes of extreme contrast, mainly when we had interaction between Paul and a villager in the shade. At the time, the GH4 was pre V-LOG, and the dynamic range struggled with the darker skin tones of our Melanesian subjects especially if elements of the frame had strong highlights through them. The majority of our character interactions and scenes took place under tree canopy or in houses with large windows on each wall, so if I exposed for the skintones then any highlights would be substantially blown out. This wasn’t the end of the world, but the A7S filming in the Cine 4 Picture Profile was far more forgiving. The detail in the shadows was great, if a little noisy as a result.
Comparison: The top image is an ungraded GH4 frame, and the bottom image is an ungraded A7S frame, both were taken under similar style tree canopies. While the top image is clearly a worst case scenario, this does illustrate the difference in the way that the two cameras handled the darker skin tones when there was a bright background that needed to be exposed for.
An alternative might have been to shoot more of the dialogue scenes away from tree cover, but this was unpractical because of the heat. It’s also a social norm to avoid sitting under strong sunlight. I discovered this early, when I was lying out in the sun tanning, and many of the villagers asked if I was sick - as only sick people would lie out in the sun intentionally!
I made the decision to switch to the A7S as the A camera, and use the GH4 for any high speed work and timelapses. It was also used by Paul when he underwent his initiation, as I was only allowed limited access to film him during this time. I left him with a small Gorilla Pod tripod, which he used to set up long takes on a wide shot of himself as he killed time during his initiation.
In order to record sound and operate the A7S in a comfortable shoulder mount, I rigged up a combination of Zacuto and Redrock parts to make a lightweight shoulder rig. I then cable tied a Tascam DR40 to the top of the shoulder pad and ran a short XLR cable to a Rode NTG3 on a shock mount. It was a bit of a Frankenstein rig, but it kept the weight down and was easy to manoeuvre . Having to record sync sound was less than ideal, but Paul wanted to have a high quality audio track and not use the inferior pre-amps of the GH4/A7S. Recording sound this way meant that we could set the levels on the Tascam manually with ease and also record a second track at -6db lower as a backup track.
This was the best image I have of the camera rig I used during the shoot. Thank you GoPro still frame.
As mentioned earlier, we took a GoalZero solar panel kit and battery with us to charge our essential gear. The climate was very hot in Siar, but it was often overcast due to it being on the eastern side of the island where clouds built up from the predominant wind currents. On a good day we could get a full charge of the battery in 6-8 hours, but on overcast days it would usually take two or three days until it was fully charged. Once the battery was charged we could use it for 4-5 Sony A7S batteries charges, 2-3 GH4 batteries charges, or a near full charge of the MacBook.
Finally, Paul had brought a DJI Phantom 2 with him for the trip. Drones were really coming into their own as a filmmaking tool during this time and the Phantom gave us a unique perspective of the environment. It was a great way to introduce an area but it also represented the idea of flying - visual motif that would be important during the initiation story. Paul piloted all of the drone shots as he had far more flight experience and he was the only one daring enough to launch and land it off a boat.The Phantom was a must have for every new area we visited. And the “robotic eagle”also scared a lot of children!
At the end of each shooting day, I would offload our footage onto two separate hard drives via our MacBook Pro and check the occasional bit of footage for quality and content This was done sparingly as a sweeping check rather than methodical clip by clip viewing. Charging the MacBook was a very power hungry process and we couldn’t charge our camera batteries if we depleted the GoalZero battery completely. I would then log our footage onto the camera log sheets and detail the file names and the content in case we needed to track any footage down in post-production.
My camera log collection on the left, and our GoalZero solar array and battery kit on the right.
One of the benefits of being immersed in a culture for 60 days in a row was that I was able to really think about how best to capture the story. I spent a lot of my time thinking about how to film the events and surroundings in the best way, considering both what I was curious about and things that were visually interesting.
Paul and I talked a lot about how record his interactions and events. When we first began filming, Paul did several pieces to camera as he traveled through the bush or sat in the forest. He used these pieces as a sort of visual journal to record his interactions and feelings. While none of these were used in the final film, I think they were still important for Paul and I to get our heads around the idea that we were making a documentary and that he was a character in it. The final cut of What Lies That Way is only told through Paul’s conversations with the villagers and shamans, some of whom were filmed by Paul and Horst during their visit in 2010.
I made a list of all of the things that we had shot. This included interactions, landscapes, events, cultural tasks, areas and people. This helped me catalouge what parts of the story we had covered so that I could collect as much useful footage for the edit as possible. As we approached the second half of the shoot, I started making a list of things we needed to capture before we left. These would help fill in elements of the story that I thought were missing. We did the same with sounds and Paul used the Tascam DR-40 and a Rode NTG3 to record sounds of the environment to fill out the edit.
At the midway point of our time in Siar, Paul undertook his four day initiation into the Buai Sorcery Cult. We traveled down the coast to find Elson, the local shaman who was to initiate Paul. Ideally I would have stayed with Paul during this period, but in order to keep the process as authentic as possible I had limited access to him. Instead, I stayed in the village, and was guided down to the initiation area in the south when daily. The journey south was a two hour trek or a twenty minute boat ride and we alternated between both. I was allowed to visit for one hour on each of the four days, quickly grabbing some B-roll and then a piece to camera. Paul was fasting and not having any fluids during this time, so his energy levels were completely shot after two days and he wasn’t saying much. There was a lot of footage of Paul sitting down looking gaunt and staring into space.
Elson Toaniti, who initiated Paul in the Buai Sorcery Cult
During this time, I spent my mornings wandering around the village capturing scenic shots. This was harder to do when Paul was around because he naturally wanted to get as much interactions with himself and the villagers as possible. Some of the shots I got in these few days make up the opening sequence of the film. I was aiming for a wide vista type shot - leaving the camera stationary, perhaps with a slight pan, and letting villagers walk through shot. This would usually involve me leaving the camera setup for ten minutes or more until people forget I was there. Then I would hit record just before someone entered frame. It was time consuming, but it was an excellent way to capture a natural view of the environment. And after walking in the sun for a long time, sitting down is fantastic!
While Paul was in the midst of his initiation i spent my downtime roaming the jungle for scenic shots.
By the end of my time in Siar as I became more familiar and my Tok Pisin was better, this technique stopped working as well. I would sit down and soon have a couple of villagers coming for a chat, asking to see photos of New Zealand, or just wanting to listen to music on my iphone. ‘Intro’ by The XX was the most well received.
Our last two weeks in Siar were spent ticking off footage from our lists and collecting sound effects and atmos from the village and jungle. We said our goodbyes and made the slow journey up the coast through some neighboring villages and up to Kavieng where we flew out and made our way back to Wellington.
When we were back in Wellington, I collated all of the folders on hard drives and uniquely renamed all of the files to include the camera, date, and number. Then Paul had the unenviable job of ingesting all of the footage into the Avid and syncing up the sound. I had kept some basic camera logs for each day’s footage and this helped with managing any missing files.. We had a few disappointing sound recordings that had crackles through them due to a faulty XLR cable and had been missed in our broad sweep of audio playback testing.
Paul worked on the edit for a good year, with Annie Collins overseeing his work once it had approached a rough cut stage with subtitles. Victor Naveira was then brought on to do a colour grade of the footage in Resolve, which was no easy feat given the mixture of footage formats and colour profiles we used. The contrast between the glossy GH4 footage, the slightly log A7S footage, and the oversharpened and low dynamic range Phantom 2 footage was immense. Victor did a great job balancing all three and making all of the images pop!
Paul emerges from his initiation.
While writing this blog I wondered if I would approach this shoot differently now,both from a technical standpoint, and also from a personal approach. Looking at gear, I believe the small mirrorless cameras we used were the right choice. Their size made it a lot easier to move around in the humid heat and they did not weigh us down. The inconspicuous nature of the cameras also made it a lot easier in order to be discrete. Although as outsiders and the only white skinned people in the region we generally caught more than enough attention anyway. You never forget the sight of children bursting into tears as you walk into their village and they lay eyes on a white person for the first time.
Probably the only area where I wished I had an actual video camera would have been in the audio recording department.As Paul had to sync all of the footage and audio together on Avid, I think he would agree. A video camera such as the Canon C300 or the Sony FS7 (the latter of which wasn’t quite available as we were prepping for this shoot), would have allowed us to record straight in through the XLR’s and bypassed the Tascam dual sound system. A small change, but after more than forty days of footage, all of that syncing time builds up. We also had a few occasions when the Tascam batteries died mid-interview and we were left without our primary sound feed.
Funnily enough, the most basic piece of kit that I wish I had taken was a simple 5-in-1 reflector. Despite being a bit unwieldy to carry about, it would have helped greatly in a few of our interview scenarios to provide a subtle bit of fill light. Of course, this would be dependent on the close proximity of a tree or rock to lean it against and this was rarely the case. However, , it might have helped on a few occasions.
Finally, the technology in the drone world has changed dramatically since we shot this film. With something like the DJI Mavic Pro (Paul and I each own one now - he has recently shot on his in PNG) we could have achieved longer flight times, a superior image, and had a drone that took up one-fifth of the luggage space. Still, while it would have been nice, it wouldn’t have hugely altered the films final story or look.
I don’t think I would change much about the content or aesthetic.After counting the footage at 25-30 hours, my initial reaction was that we didn’t shoot enough. This was perhaps a byproduct of our everyday exhaustion. When you’re only able to shoot for a few hours a day (compared to a normal ten-hour shooting day) you tend to feel like you’re underachieving. But Paul later reassured me that we had more than enough to cover our bases.
Reflecting back on the whole experience, both personally and as a cinematographer, it still feels like a bit of a dream. I find myself having difficulty putting it into words when speaking to people. The term surreal is overused, but it does feel appropriate here. It really was a once in a lifetime chance to become part of another culture, and it was fantastic to think about how best to capture their way of life and . assist Paul in editing this journey into an 80-minute film. Viewing a test DCP on a screen at the Roxy Theatre a few months back was fantastic. Of course this was also the first time i had seen the film with subtitles, i could finally understand what all the characters were actually talking about! The images out of the A7S held up really well, and I can’t wait to share it with an audience at the Wellington premiere.
Crew Photo: Paul (Director) and Luke (Cinematographer)
What Lies That Way Trailer. Showing in the NZ International Film Festival from August 1st