Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It's lunch break, and the Three Musketeers, aka Iris, Esther and Soly, are enjoying the time off in pink bathrobes. Barbecue sauce and ice cream have a habit of ending up on costumes. Wardrobe thinks of everything!

Meanwhile, Martin Hamer stands on the road outside Chanda’s house:

Martin is a little bit crazy. Well, a lot crazy. If he weren’t so tall he’d be an elf. If he weren’t so young he’d be Gandulf. The lunatic gleam in his eye is because he’s the line producer. That means he’s responsible for budgeting; in other words, he’s guy who tells the director what he can and can’t afford to do. He negotiates salaries (“If you pay actor X this salary, you can’t afford to hire Y”); has a say in script development (“No we can’t fly a plane into a volcano”); and is involved with assessing the costs of various locations. If you ever want to lose weight be a line producer: The job is a guaranteed stress diet.

BTW, see the empty road Martin is standing in? Well this road looks almost exactly the same as the road immediately behind Chanda’s house where the makeup and wardrobe tents and trucks, drivers cars, and dressing rooms all hang out. Notice a difference?

And here are the back neighbours' yards, rented to production:

Lost in this city of trucks is the catering tent. I’m standing behind Mr. Nylo the ragpicker (Vusimuzi Nyathi). Note the zombie look on Mr. Lesole (Tshepo Monyanye) to my left. “Eat. Must eat.”

Here’s one of the coolest and funniest guys on the production: Donovan Roberts-Baxter, the unit production manager. The production manager is in charge of organizing calls, locations, cast and equipment, and fixing screwups. He’s a combination Enforcer and Den Mother.

You may have noticed Donovan’s left arm: it’s the leg of a massive dragon that goes over his shoulder and across his chest. He also has a major tattoo of his name across his stomach. Presumably this is in case he forgets it after a late night party. (He’s from Cape Town, after all.) He won’t flash the stomach tattoo at the moment -- unless he’s done a hundred sit-ups first -- on account of “all the excellent catering that’s been going on.”

Donovan says his current tattoos are just the beginning: he plans to have his ENTIRE body tattooed. “Your ENTIRE body?” “Yeah.” (Hmm. I wondered about that too.) He’s leaving his hands and face, though, so his mother will recognize him. If anyone can carry off a full-body tattoo, he can. All the same -- Shout-out to Donovan: So maybe your plan’s not a crime against nature, like spray painting graffiti on a Michaelangelo. But if I looked like you I wouldn’t want people focussed on my tattoos! (Do I have a seconder? :))

Back to the tour. There’s a crowd of extras gathering in front of Chanda’s front door. This scene took eight hours to shoot and is unbelievably moving. I’m talking tears for days. Between takes, one of the catering guys was always around with sandwiches.

Director Oliver Schmitz has a bite while the crew set up for a tracking shot on Chanda’s porch.

Take a close look at this photo. In the background, Chanda’s makeup is touched up. In the foreground, the director of photography, Bernhard Jasper, sits on the track; the camera will move parallel Chanda as she walks out of the house. You’ll also notice Blid Alsbirk from the neck down -- she’s the stills photographer from the distributor, Bavarian International. And to the left are some of the extras who will confront Chanda.

Continuity is one of the most important jobs in any film. The fantastic continuity and script supervisor is Lorna Bennet. She’s responsible for making sure everyone, especially the extras, are in the exact same position, with the same accessories, in every take. Some scenes can have up to seventeen shots with five to seven takes per shot. Making sure everything matches in the editing room is critical.

(Behind Lorna is producer Oliver Stoltz’s assistant, Daniela Ramin. I want to do an entire post on Oliver, who is the reason this movie is being made. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from a nasty stomach problem which has laid him up in Germany. But he'll soon be good to go and joining the shoot.)

What makes Lorna’s continuity work so challenging is that the script is being shot in the language of Pedi (or northern Sotho) -- a world first. So being able to match word and image is incredibly hard. There are two translators on set. Each shot has quick file subtitles that go to the editors in Germany. Unlike movie-house subtitles which pare down the dialogue, these must include every word, frame by frame, so the editors don't cut dialogue in mid word or sentence. Lorna is astonishing for knowing when the actors leave out dialogue or fluff lines. She also uses a digital camera and monitor to double check crowd positions between takes.

Here’s an example of the kind of book Lorna creates, shot by shot, take by take, for the editors; it includes which takes had sound, line or other problems, which were ideal, and which have sections that can be salvaged with a cross cut.

Lorna and others need to sit away from the action. Here she and Freddy are posted at the back of Chanda’s house, observing a scene at Mrs. Tafa’s place on a monitor.

And here’s the audio mixer, Ivan Milborrow, with a take about to begin, fretting about cars, kids, drums, roosters and airplanes -- any outside sound that can wreck a take.

It’s never ending. Sixty crew plus catering security and cast. And I haven’t even mentioned the casting director, transport managers, set captains, drivers, camera assistants, production director, art director, set decorators, wardrobe, makeup and props personel, stunt co-ordinators, editors, or post-production, much less the producers! Even organizing a shoot for an intimate family drama like Chanda’s Secrets is staggering in its complexity.

So staggering, I think we all need a break. Next post, let’s go on safari!

Till then,


UPDATE: The film adaptation of CHANDA'S SECRETS is called LIFE, ABOVE ALL and will premiere as an Official Selection at the 2010 Cannes International Film Festival.


  1. What great pictures. This must be so exciting!

  2. Allan, I am LOVING all of this! It's fascinating to see how it's all done. And I covet Blid Alsbirk's camera (and her name).

  3. I love this post. All the posts. I'm going to do a post on my blog about this, soon. Keep writing!! :)

  4. Wow! Amazing. Funny post, like it. I'm totally adding this to next weeks Caught in Print.

  5. Great behind the scenes info, and lots of great pictures, very interesting

  6. Wow! You guys are so kind! when I started writing this I had no idea if anyone would read it. I thought, oh well, it'll be nice to have as a journal when I'm old and grey and losing my mind. You make it all worthwhile! Don't worry, there's lots more coming: Two safari posts, the first of Friday; a Christmas in south Africa piece; a piece of safer sex billboards in Elandsdoorn and practical responses to a lot of questions about the pandemic; plus more on-set pics and tales, and a piece on producer Oliver Stoltz, a guy who has literally risked his life filming in Uganda and elsewhere.

  7. I really enjoyed seeing the pictures on your blog, amused me much!