A few days ago Brother Studios – a Finland-based production company specializing in cinematic visual media – released a short movie titled “Unto Us – The Nativity Story Set In 2013”. I was very impressed with the video, especially the great cinematography and grading, and thus took a moment to talk with Samu Amunet who directed the piece. We talked about the production, and all the challenges that they faced during the process, and Samu kindly agreed to write up an exclusive behind-the-scenes article about the whole project. You’ll be able to read everything about this amazing project right after the jump – but before that, make sure to check out the video.
– Lauri –
Earlier this fall, Imraz Khan, a good friend of mine from London, got in touch with me about a nativity story short film he was helping produce for UK-based charity Christian Vision UK. Without a defined role or knowledge about exact script, locations or shooting schedules, I jumped on board as soon as I heard the concept: to set the nativity story in 2013. Me and my brother Janne Amunét (director of photography) were excited by the concept and felt that this would be a good opportunity for us to create our style of content.
The initial style suggestions OK’d by the client included O Night Divine by Eliot Rausch (https://www.vimeo.com/33635713) and Mementos by Nuno Rocha (https://vimeo.com/17896628), and their keywords were cinematic, emotion-stirring, universal and different. The deliverable was to be three 90-second films from the viewpoints of Mary & Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi. I proposed unifying the stories into a single 5-minute piece but the client was fixed on three shorter films (a decision they later regretted), so the 5-minute version became the director’s cut.
FINDING THE STORY
The client was looking for a fresh angle on an extremely well-known story, which for a storyteller is a very exciting thing to hear. We began throwing around some ideas with executive producer Adam James, knowing that due to restraints in time and budget we’d have to keep it simple and stick to the core of the story, packing as much punch into those core scenes as possible.
The client wished to break out of the rigid mold of the classic account of the nativity story and implement certain changes to stay truer to the biblical account (which, when looked at more closely, is actually quite different to the common retelling) whilst translating those changes into the modern age. One of these ideas was the proposition that the Magi didn’t show up on the night of Jesus’ birth, but a year or two later at Mary and Joseph’s home. We knew that this change alone would pose a major challenge for us in making the now-independent storyline feel a part of the story of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.
The green light came extremely late, leaving us with just a couple weeks’ time to find our actors, locations, vehicles, props, wardrobe, gear and crew. To assist in the hunt, we brought on board associate producer Pusu Piispanen, who proved to be worth her weight in gold in acquiring whatever we needed.
We signed on Ville Tolvanen as key grip and Timo Peltokangas from production company Cinepic (www.cinepic.fi) as 2nd AC/grip. Knowing that we were in for a grueling 3-day shoot and that our budget would not allow for a larger crew, we needed every member of the core crew to be able to perform different tasks on set if needed, whether that be jumping on the field recorder or run around the set with smoke flares before a take. Fortunately for us, Imraz is also a talented art director and production designer, meaning that I could trust him to judge elements such as set dressing, make-up and wardrobe when I was too busy instructing talent or going through the scene with Janne. We were fortunate to be able to pull of major favors from friends to acquire vehicles and locations, and that we were able to book other necessary crew such as award-winning make-up artist, Emma Räsänen (www.emmarasanen.com) on such short notice.
Samu and Laura in a preproduction meeting on the morning of the first day.
Our producer & art director Imraz, who also found himself as a part of the cast and every other imaginable job on set.
Due to the extra mile that we wanted to go in making the best films possible, the shoot was very rushed with 25-30 setups on all three days. In addition to this, we were still in pre-production all the way up until the morning of the last day due to the extremely short prep period. Add to these the fact that in Helsinki the sun sets around 4:30PM in November, giving us a pretty small window of daylight.
It’s shoots like this which really stretch the flexibility of your gear, and shooting on our RED Epic was a vital part of the process. The entire film was shot in 5K to allow for cropping shots and therefore allowing us to get more shot sizes within the tight time constraints, as well as stabilizing the many driving shots which were all done handheld out of the window, trunk or back of a pickup.
The Letus35 MCS rig served us extremely well on the shoot, allowing us to go from a bell-and-whistles shoulder rig to a bare-bones tight-space setup within a number of minutes while maintaining usability. Since the shoot we’ve gone further to make every element of our rig attach by quick-release. Getting to spend those extra 2-minutes to tweak lights before a take will add up quickly to getting off more shots on a 3-day shoot like this.
Janne prepping the RED with Letus MCS and DP6 EVF for an exterior scene.
Another simple but valuable piece of gear for these run-and-gun situations was the Ikan camera cradle, which is essentially like a duffel bag filled with micro-beads. Sounds simple, but makes a surprisingly big difference in camera stabilization when having to cradle the camera in extremely tight spaces! It also served as a way for Janne to attach safety clips to the rig when hanging halfway out of a car window to get the necessary angle.
Going into the shoot, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to light scenes as much as we’d like, so we had to change our approach. We decided to use available light and practicals as much as possible and shape that light first before adding only the required extra lighting necessary to tell the story as opposed to achieving a specific light level.
Setting up for our very first shot.
We used small LED panels for the car interiors and a mix of Kino Flos and red-heads for some interior scenes to give us quick control over color without excessive gelling. There were certain scenes where we knew we would be needing more light, so we went with an Arri 5K Fresnel which gave us a good level of light while being easy to set up.
On set with the Arri 5K.
We like to use a degree of smoke or haze in our films to add a little extra magic to some shots. Using hazers or smoke machines on this shoot wasn’t an option due to our major needs for mobility and the scale of some shots that we needed it for, so we went with using Enola Gaye smoke flares. I think we went through roughly 60-80 flares during the shoot.
Running smokes into the back of the shot for a little extra effect.
Going into a production like this where we’re way in over our heads and haven’t been able to prep as well as we’d like, we have to stay ready for things to go horribly wrong and to improvise on the spot. It’s essential to know when to let go of your brilliant plans and do whatever you need to do in order to tell the story. Sometimes this takes the form of knowing how to prioritize certain elements and moments in the story. Things don’t always go as planned, so it’s important for you to know beforehand what you want vs. what you need, such as when we had just 45 minutes to be in and out of the location for the interiors with the Magi.
It was a very quick tear-down as you might imagine.
Just like the shoot itself, our post production period was mad hectic in order to deliver in time for the holiday season. We worked simultaneously on two laptops with external monitors side by side while our composers Ben Winwood and Michael Lumb in Wales worked on updated versions of the soundtrack. We had to set up a temporary post spot as we were away from home for our editing period which made things a little, well, interesting…
We edited the director’s cut once the deliverables were done. Our composers made a new version of the music while we worked on blending the three storylines together.
We decided to be a little bolder when it came to the grade of the director’s cut. Throughout the production we were looking for ways to make the production feel as big and epic as possible, and with the absence of dialogue and with a really strong soundtrack, we felt the image had to really speak for itself. The orange and teal is commonly associated with big budget features so we felt like it was an appropriate method for us to increase the sense of scale on the films, and we feel like it worked pretty good!
We had great fun on this project, despite how grueling it was. From the get-go it was something that we felt passionate about, and we were happy to dramatically reduce our rates and go the extra mile at every corner to make it the best we could. Is it the perfect way to tell this story? No, of course not; there’s no right or wrong way, and we did make mistakes. It’s important to do things right, but it’s equally important to learn from the things you do wrong.
The constraints of budget and time felt crippling at times, but every obstacle is an opportunity to learn. We believe that your skill and ability as a professional is not measured when conditions are perfect, but when everything seems to be going wrong. These situations will test you in how you react to crisis, and this is where we and the rest of our crew excelled on this shoot: no matter the situation, nobody complained, nobody pointed the blame, nobody whined, nobody sought their personal gain. I spent 15 minutes on wrap night listening to first-time collaborators tell me how incredible it was to be on a set run by people that remained calm and kept the atmosphere positive in the worst of circumstances. Be that guy, and not only will you attract amazing people, but you’ll find yourself enjoying the process more while you’re at it.
Prepping for one of our final scenes.
I’m proud of the way everyone pulled their weight and then some, and of the stellar performances by our cast, most of whom made their film debut on this shoot. Considering the circumstances, we’re quite happy with the finished film, and we hope you enjoy it too.