Monday, July 09, 2012

Material Gains: South African Cinema gets stitched up, in a good way, but where to from here?

by Nick van der Leek

“I get nervous when I hear that a new ‘South African’ movie is being made,” Cerebra’s CEO Mike Stopforth blogged recently.  “[Y]ears of ‘Mr. Bones’ sequels have left me sceptical about the ability of the SA film industry to produce world class stories.”  In this, Stopforth – a communications and social media strategist – echoes the feelings of the average South African moviegoer. But Material, the film directed by Craig Freimond,  and produced and written by the multi-talented millionaire founder of Internet Solutions Ronnie Apteker,  is different. “From the very first shot,” Stopforth enthuses, “the movie is sincere and absorbing in its attempt to tell an ancient story of the struggle between tradition, culture, religion and modernism.” 

Above: The filmmakers credit Vincent Ebrahim’s (seated right) role in character development and his performance opposite Moosa as crucial to the success of Material.

Johannesburg based journalist Laurice Taitz calls Material “the movie that made Barry Ronge cry” and “a local film with the potential to rival a Leon Schuster blockbuster at the box office.”  In fact, while Material has been on circuit, its box office competitors included Courageous (rated 6.2/10 on the Internet Movie Database),  The Lorax (6.6 on IMDB), Wrath of the Titans (6.6 on IMDB), This Means War (6.7/10), Semi-Soet – another South African film – (7.3/10) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (7.5/10).  With an astonishing 8.7/10 on IMDB (albeit from only a few hundred voters), Material is already trouncing its Hollywood rivals.

When you shoot like this the big issue is data storage and data backup.” – Craig Freimond, Director

A solid, authentic story is without doubt the critical ingredient in Freimond’s flick. “We took a very long time to get the script right,” Freimond says, “[and] we were adamant that we would not make the film if the script was not right. This is the biggest single problem with 99% of films that don't work... [once] the monies [are] in place, [and]the actors are in place etc,” Freimond warns, “people get impatient. But if the script is not right the film will not be right, simple as that.”


According to Apteker, the “long time” Freimond refers to was all of 8 years.  “Material has been an inspired affair... a journey... and the film turned out magical.  Working with Craig, our director/writer partner, has been a great privilege – he is talented, focused, and humble. The rest of the team too was of this mould, which made things worthwhile. And of course, there is Riaad (Moosa, a qualified medical doctor and award-winning comedian) – that guy is just too good to be true!” The message behind Material, that the world will conspire to reward you if you follow what is in your heart, has obviously inspired Apteker and Moosa – both are living proof of this – and their team. 

Describing the technology behind the filmmaking process, Freimond says, “The latest HD cameras are beautiful things, they give you the ease of shooting on digital while getting closer to the look of film. We shot on the Ari Alexa probably the best digital HD camera in the world. It takes 35 mm film camera lenses so you can really get that filmic look, and shoots on very high resolution.”
Echoeing Freimond’s camera love, Apteker praises the Hollywood specification ARRI digital camera, calling its image quality “extraordinary.”  “Soon,” says Apteker, “all movies will be shot on digital.”

Below: On set, shooting Material in Fordsburg, Johannesburg.

According to Freimond his DOP (Director of Photography) Trevor Calverly  also “loved this camera. It was much easier than its predecessor because it shot on digital cards as opposed to tapes.  Film is always the ultimate in terms of look but it is pretty expensive because of all the developing and transfer costs. So I think we are almost there in terms of the digital/ film debate. More big movies are now being shot on HD that would have been shot on film.  When you shoot like this the big issue is data storage and data backup.”

 In modern movies, data backup is a vital but expensive process.  “We have a guy called a DIT (Digital Image Technician) who literally spends all day managing data as you shoot; taking cards, backing them up and erasing them so you can shoot again on them. This is a crucial job in the same ways as a film loader used to be.”  Freimond describes their editing suite – using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software – as “user friendly and pretty nifty.”  Says Freimond, “[I]f you have the data storage facilities you can edit anywhere, even on a laptop. ...[But] one thing I do find interesting about technology is that it does not matter how user friendly and accessible technology gets you still need the content and that is still as hard as ever to get right.”

Barriers and Benefits

Coming back to Fordsburg, Material’s urban setting within Johannesburg, producer and writer Ronnie Apteker weighs in on the power of the internet to streamline the filmmaking process. “Technology played a very big role on the Material shoot and edit, as well as in the research and scripting. For starters,” says Apteker, “we could email drafts and notes of the script between Riaad in Cape Town, Vincent (Ebrahim, who plays a domineering father to Riaad Moosa’s Cassim) in London, and Craig and I in Johannesburg, at the click of a mouse. A decade ago the norm was to courier these things around, which takes time, and costs money.”
Apteker believes “ barriers to entry are definitely coming down  because of all this digital technology – anyone can make a film with even the smallest amount of money … but, that doesn’t mean it will be a good film – the script, the actors, the director, the music, etc., all need to be great !”
Above: Oscar-winning SA director Gavin Hood directing Hugh Jackman in Wolverine.

While the main benefit technology seems to have brought to filmmaking is lower cost, what has not changed is what South Africa’s Oscar winning director, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition, Wolverine) calls “the universal language of emotion.” Capturing this in a story takes time.  While cameras may be better at capturing imagined scenes, the effort of conjuring up authentic stories is still a painstaking one.  Freimond offers a useful tip in this regard: “I think what I've learnt from this is you have to take as many people along with you as possible in terms of accessibility of story.” 

 “Anyone can make a film with even the smallest amount of money.” – Ronnie Apteker, Writer and Producer
“I totally believe we are on the right track,” says Apteker.  “The industry is growing every year, there are great government incentives for films, we are making a greater diversity of film and hopefully we are all getting better at what we do.” 

Going forward, Apteker is looking to release Material “in a mainstream country, like the UK, or France, or India. If we achieve that, then we have pushed the envelope – the last time a South African film did this was back in 1980 with The Gods Must be Crazy. Ultimately,” Apteker concludes,” film making is a serious team effort, and the team was a dream team – like the team at IS – this bunch of people in Material were totally aligned, inspired, committed, and humble. That is what made all the difference.”

Top 5 International Hits filmed in South Africa

1.    District 9 (2009)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Budget $30 million (Gross $115 million)
IMDB rating: 8.1/10

2.    Blood Diamond (2006)
Directed by Edward Zwick
Budget $100 million
IMDB Rating: 8/10

3.    Invictus (2009)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Budget $60 million (USA gross: $37 million)
IMDB Rating: 7.3/10

4.    Safe House
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Budget $85 million (Gross $122 million)
IMDB Rating 7.3/10

5.    Sarafina
Directed by Darrell Roodt
Gross $7.3 million (Budget unknown)
IMDB Rating: 5.7/10

Top 5 Misses

1.    Footskating 101 (2007) 3.4/10
2.    Mr. Bones (2001) 3.7/10
3.    Mr Bones 2 (2008) 3.8/10
4.    Hansie  (2008) 4.4/10
5.    Night Drive (2010) 4.4/10

South Africa’s 10 highest rated films made since 1992

1.Eternal Enemies (1992 Documentary Series)
Produced and written by Dereck and Beverley Joubert for National Geographic 
Viewership: 1 Billion
IMDB Rating: 9.3/10

2.Material (2012)
Directed by Craig Freimond
Budget $2 million
IMDB Rating: 8.7/10

3.Jerusalema (2008)
Directed by Ralph Ziman
IMDB Rating: 7.5/10

4.Tsotsi  (2005)
 Directed by Gavin Hood
IMDB Rating: 7.3/10
Budget: $3 million (Gross: $9.8 million)
Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

5.Stander (2003)
Directed by Bronwyn Hughes
IMDB Rating: 7.3/10

6.Gums and Noses (2004)
Directed by Craig Freimond
Budget: R1.2 million
IMDB Rating: 7.2/10

7.Skeem (2011)
Directed by Tim Greene
Budget: R2.8 million
IMDB Rating: 6.6/10

8.Disgrace (2008)
Directed by Steve Jacobs
Budget: $10 million
IMDB Rating: 6.6/10

9.Spud (2010)
Directed by Donovan Marsh
Budget: $4 million
IMDB Rating: 6.3/10

10.Faith Like Potatoes (2006)
Directed by Regardt van den Bergh
IMDB Rating: 6.3/10 

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