Around four months ago, amidst a harsh lockdown here in South Africa, I moved from the big city to a small coastal town, Betty's Bay, nestled between the Overberg mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. There was no work coming in, and there was no budget to rent additional gear for any shoots. It was worrying, but on the upside, I had to do something to occupy my mind and pass the time, and luckily, I had my camera to shoot while I wait. What followed was two months of intense filming and editing for my first narrative short film.
The film's original idea started off as a time-lapse-only film, showcasing the mountain's shadow moving across the landscape spliced with detailed shots of the fauna and flora surrounding the area. Only parts of this region receive a few hours of sunlight every day, so it felt like the perfect fit to showcase how life thrives in these harsh winter months of limited light, constant rain, and icy temperatures.
While holidaying here during my childhood, I discovered my love for photography in Betty's Bay and got to know all the right spots to get the best landscape and seascape photos. With this in mind, I wanted to find some way to pay homage to this beautiful little town that's become my home away from home.
Winter is the time of year when you see nature at its most turbulent state in this part of South Africa. Wind speeds reach up to 50 knots around the mountain peaks, colossal ocean swells chipping away the rocky shore, and icy temperatures sweeping down from the northern snow-covered interior and traveling down to the coast. It meets up with the freezing winds from the Atlantic. While that could be reason enough for most people to stay indoors, this is usually the time you'll get the best shots. So, I charged up the batteries, loaded my kit bag, and embraced the cold.
As I didn't have a budget for this film, I had to shoot with what I had in my gear bag, the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, and Canon 100mm f/2.8, Canon 50mm f/1.8, and a Tamron 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. The lenses were all adapted via a Metabones EF-M43 adaptor. The camera was powered via IndiPro's Universal Powergrip, giving me extra stability and up to six hours of battery life. Recording in raw was made possible via a Samsung T5 SSD 1TB mounted on the Tilta Basic Cage. Unfortunately, no budget meant that I couldn't rent any additional gear, such as filters, sliders, or gimbals. This meant every camera movement I had planned had to be done by hand. I could find the best workaround filming most of the scenes at 2.6K raw at 120 fps and repeating the same camera movement until I got the results I wanted. Afterward, I'd add a tiny bit of stabilization in Da Vinci Resolve to just iron out any kinks. On the camera itself, raw compression was set to "Constant Quality Q0" and dynamic range set to "Film" at all times. The time-lapses were all shot on 4K24 raw, using the camera's built-in timelapse mode (except for the evening time-lapses, which was shot on my Canon 5D Mark II). The audio was captured via external Rode Videomic Pro Plus, sometimes attached directly to the camera or a Zoom H1 field recorder. The voice-over was recorded in my car using the Rode Videomic Pro Plus wedged into the steering wheel and recording it via the Zoom H1.
For this project alone, over 3 terabytes of raw footage was shot and stored on WD RED drives inside a Synology NAS DS416, while working files were stored on an internal Lacie Rugged drive.
For final delivery, I chose an HD timeline in Da Vinci Resolve over 4K. My workstation can't quite handle editing and grading Blackmagic 4K raw, something I'll look at upgrading in the future, but for now, I'm perfectly happy with HD and being able to scale down and reframe 4K where needed.
For aesthetic purposes, I opted for a timeline resolution of 1920 x 816 (2:35:1 aspect ratio). This workflow is, of course, personal preference and doesn't mean it's the only way of doing it. Grading was all done inside Da Vinci Resolve as well. Grading raw files allowed me to push the latitude to the edge and still preserve details where I needed it. For any noise, the built-in noise reduction tool in Resolve's Studio version is incredibly powerful and efficient while retaining detail. Lastly was the audio, and for this, I used Da Vinci Resolve's built-in Fairlight page. I really wanted to immerse the viewer and make them feel like they were experiencing the sights and sounds like they were there for the first time. This meant layering, more layering, and even more layering of sounds until it finally sounded right. Finding the right music took around two weeks (as I'm sure any editor would know, this is the most time-consuming process) of browsing through Epidemic Sound's catalog, but finally came down to the two composers, Johannes Bornlöf and August Wilhelmsson. Their musical style and genre felt like a perfect fit to accompany the natural beauty of the town and its surroundings.
Once the project was finalized, I could simply relink original files stored on the NAS and clear the SSD for future projects. Working in Da Vinci Resolve 16.3 (beta) was quick and efficient. It was challenging to find any fault with it. However, the one small issue I found was a persistent "GPU Memory Full" error. My poor Nvidia Geforce GTX 1050 Ti kept spiking above its dedicated GPU memory usage limit of 4 GB at one specific point during the final export, and the resulting footage would glitch. The cause? Two clips crossfading each other. To be fair, they weren't just any clips. Besides the crossfade, the 2.6K raw clips had extensive grading, and a slight bit of noise reduction applied, which seemed to push my system over the edge. The fix, luckily for me, was found in clearing the render cache and deleting optimized media. After a quick restart, the error never returned.
The more I visited old familiar spots and found myself drifting down memory lane, the more the narrative of the film changed. I rediscovered old paths leading toward the ocean I frequented in my childhood, came face to face with massive baboons while hiking up the mountains, and bruised my knees and hands more than I can remember. But in the end, it was all worth it.
Battling against the elements while waiting for the right light, I finally managed to find the shots I had been looking for. By this stage, the narrative has evolved quite substantially, and I needed to adapt and figure out my way forward. Showing shadows moving a landscape was not going to cut it. YouTube and Vimeo are saturated with time-lapse films as it is. But at that moment, when the light hit the clouds above the mountain in just the right spot, everything fell into place. I knew right there what story I wanted to tell.
As the country's lockdown eased, I managed to get access to more spots previously closed off to any visitors and thus managed to tick off every shot I wanted in the beginning. Never has a shoot been this fulfilling. No bosses to please. No one looking over my shoulder or rushing me in the edit. I could finally concentrate on what I wanted to do, learn from any mistakes I had made, and refine it as many times as possible.
While the national lockdown separated me from my family and put our plans on hold, it afforded me the chance to take a time-out and reminisce about shooting my first landscapes here many years ago. I finally had the chance to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my career as a photographer and filmmaker. Shooting for myself was a great way to keep creative and learn new tricks as well as learn from my mistakes. It's given me a renewed passion for what I do and made me feel like I've achieved something I can be proud of.
Decades ago I was an advertising photograht pher with both regional and national accounts. My work was to execute on the vision of the art director or the creative director instead of my own vision. It was a challenge that I enjoyed for about a decade until a serious auto accident brought that career to a sudden stop. I spent a couple of years in rehab and went to law school. I never lost my love of photography. When digital images started to emerge and I bought a Nikon D1 I rediscovered my love. By that time I was computer adept and creating and patenting systems for managing digital information. Since the D1 I have created well over a million digital images. For my whole time with digital photography I have been able to shoot for myself from creation through execution. It is an entirely different experience than shooting from someone else's creation. Both are very rewarding. I find that I'm a much tougher "client" to shoot for than any of my commercial clients were!!!
John, that's an incredible story! Thank you so much for sharing that—some very genuine and inspiring words. I can't believe you shot that much on the D1, that camera sounds like it's built like a tank - incredible!
I wore out the D1. But it is the total on a number of digital Nikon bodies. I now have a sum total of about 125,000 actuations on my D850 and two D500s.
An absolutely staggering amount. Real workhorses!
Your love for photography shows in your work. I just love your black/white photos.