NO Relies On 1980s Cameras To Tell A Historic Tale
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : NO Relies On 1980s Cameras To Tell A Historic Tale
When producer Daniel Dreifuss came to Participant Media to ask the company to co-produce NO, about the peaceful overthrow of dictator General Augusto Pinochet, he had a hard sell. "I said, in addition to this being a period movie, in a foreign language and about a political topic, we also want to shoot in U-Matic in 4x3 aspect ratio," he recalls.
Participant Media, which has made its name with socially and politically relevant media, might have blinked, but they said yes to NO, which was loosely based on an unproduced play and brought to the screen by Chilean director Pablo Larrain and producer Juan De Dios Larrain.
The story was irresistible and much more universal than its history might suggest. "This film can be bigger than Chile," Dreifuss had told the Larrains after he met them at the American Film Market and signed on to help find a co-producer. "It will forever belong to Chile, but the idea of using social media to promote social change is also universal and very timely. Then a few months later, the Arab Spring came, and it was clear the film would be bigger than the native audience. Hollywood had to have skin in the game."
Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
NO came with lots of original video that was crucial to the storyline. Pinochet was overthrown in a plebiscite on whether or not he should continue to rule. In the month leading up to the plebiscite, each side had 15 minutes a night of TV time to make their case. The story revolves around savvy adman Rene Saavedra (a composite of two real-life people) who is reluctantly drawn into the campaign against Pinochet. Played by noted Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, Saavedra has the task of convincing fearful and disaffected voters to vote against the strong man, as well as convincing the leaders of the NO vote that his advertising plan -- selling happiness rather than relating horrors of the recent past -- is the right way to go.
The movie depicts how modern advertising turned the NO vote from a defiant but losing campaign into a mass movement that swept Pinochet out of office. The director and producers were lucky enough to have copies of all the original video programming. But the search for verisimilitude had just begun. As Dreifuss points out, this piece of history is still very sensitive in a country and the filmmakers knew they had a big responsibility to tell it properly. "As a result, many of the people in the recreated scenes are the real people," he says. That includes many of the singers and artists who participated in making media, as well as opposition figure Patricio Alwyn, who later became president, and a TV host who "stars" in the NO side's 15 minutes of nightly media. And there are even brief appearances by Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss, who made videotaped appeals to the Chilean people to vote against Pinochet.
Raúl Florcia Alarcón as himself. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Left to right: Pascal Montero as Simon and Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
"The filmmakers did a lot of work talking with those involved in the campaign, as well as tracking down the information," he says. "They also got stills of the original sets and recreated them. That period of research took a long time. There was always the idea of making this as close to the truth as possible."
Making the movie look as close to the truth as possible, concluded director Larrain, would mean to shoot with the same cameras as the original media, so that the footage would be seamless. "Pablo wanted the usage of the original footage in the film to be absolutely seamless," says Dreifuss. "He tested every single format you can think of. He thought the best way to shoot footage that would blend was to use the same camera and have it look as bad as it did back then. It came from a place of storytelling and to immerse people into that world and that time."
But to shoot the entire feature with a 1980s camera in an era of 4K, 3D and High Frame Rate? "To use the same camera was a daring choice," says Dreifuss. "As a producer, when I heard that, I immediately thought it was the right thing to do creatively. Commercially, I wondered for a couple of seconds how we would do this. But I felt that the creative narrative was our first responsibility. We knew it wouldn't look pretty but, as Pablo [Larrain] said, neither was the dictatorship."
Left to right: Gael Garcia Bernal and director Pablo Larrain. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
"Participant's first response was, Why? Why is this a necessary narrative device as opposed to a gimmick," he relates. "Most other studios would have asked the purely commercial question and said, No way. Participant was trying to understand what we were getting at creatively and saw past that."
Next, the challenge was to find working cameras from the 1980s. Dreifuss turned to Broadcast Store, which boasts an extensive catalogue of vintage gear. Company CEO/engineer Lou Claude notes that the production asked for cameras from the 1980s that would be used by professionals in a news environment. "We have the expertise in all video formats," says Claude. "If I recall, we went through 17 cameras, to get them four that were perfect." It wasn't simply a matter of finding the cameras, but of also setting them up and tweaking them to work properly. "The alignment is a big deal, it's very sophisticated," he says. It's like a tune-up. If you can get the engine to sound just right, it can race. That's what we needed to do with the cameras, and tubes fade over time. It's almost impossible to end up with a good camera."
Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Claude sent them four Ikegami HL-79EAL cameras from 1983 that had been tweaked to provide a better signal. "We didn't take the composite output but took the component output," he explains. "Even in those days, you could do that. We went to the home of the guy who designed the adapters back then, and then fine-tuned it. So we ended up with a very good component output." On set, the production ran the output through an AJA Ki Pro and out to SD-SDI to a Blackmagic Design recorder.
Despite the fact that Broadcast Store tweaked the cameras, they still required special handling. "In the 1980s, the user had to align the tubes and do the white balance," says Claude. "As the tubes warm up, the crosses will go out of alignment. It was a lot of feel and touch. The cameraman had to do a lot manually."
But the cinematographer Sergio Armstrong was in Chile, so it was a long-distance learning curve. "We sent little videos to them and we did a lot over the phone," says Claude. "I have to tell you, they learned but they learned the hard way. [To use that camera] was tough for people who haven't had that experience; it's like going back in time. It even felt weird to me and it took me time to get back in the mode. I had to call some old engineers because I was having trouble with some things. We ended up with fantastic cameras, but the credit goes to the cinematographer. These guys were gutsy. To get a message through this way was fantastic."
The production, which shot in November/ December 2011, was huge by Chilean film community standards. "We had a couple of scenes with a lot of extras," Dreifuss says. "And extras in Chile are not professional actors getting points for SAG cards. We couldn't close off the perimeter and keep away people with cell phones taking shots of the crowd. If we could have, we would have closed off all the streets. So it was a daunting production in that it was big and there weren't many of us. But as far as film goes -- and filming is never easy -- it was a great experience made better by the fact that it was an amazing group of people."
Now that the film was done, Dreifuss contemplates the decision to use the 1980s cameras. "If it made sense for the narrative of the film, the storytelling, yes, I'd do it again," he says. "But not as a gimmick or be stylistic. It's hard to find a story where you can justify something like this, which is why it doesn't happen often. NO was a happy case the technology (or lack thereof) in a fundamental part of the identity of the movie and the narrative storytelling."
Just like Saavedra calculated the best way to oust Pinochet, Dreifuss also thought about how to market NO when he was part of making the original technology decisions. "If nothing else, I thought people would talk about it and we'd get word of mouth," he admits. "And we are talking about it. Not everyone will love it, but everyone mentions it or talks about it. It became part of the identity of the film, love it or hate it. The fact that the movie is unique is good as this was a unique moment in history."
Left to right: Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra and Antónia Zegers at Verónica Caravajal. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Dreifuss' calculation seems to have played out, as audiences from Cannes to Telluride have been drawn to this unique film. Although the topic matter might seem ideal for a documentary -- especially with so many of the participants still living -- the filmmakers were right to fictionalize it enough to make it the under-dog story, carried by Bernal's extraordinary acting. NO will be expanding its reach over the next few weeks to many cities in the U.S.; it will also have international distribution. Eventually, Sony Classics will release it as a DVD.
Photo by Diego Rojas, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
All images from "No" are © SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.
Title graphic: Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra. Photo by Tomás Dittburn, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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