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Secrets of a prize-winning filmmaking team

Manuel Imboden is co-founder of Rise and Shine Films, where he works as a Producer and Account Manager. He was the producer of “Balloon” and also another mobile-shot short: “Nachtschicht” (“Night Shift”). In the interview that follows, he combines basic information valuable to a novice and insights into advanced filmmaking for those who want to produce works at the professional level.

MMM: Could you tell us something about Rise and Shine Films?

Manuel: We’re a boutique production company with four employees based in Bern, Switzerland.

MMM: How did your team get into filmmaking?

Manuel: None of us have any formal training in filmmaking. Philipp and I started making simple films in our teens, around 2002-2003, a few years before the DSLR revolution started. So when we got access to a Canon 5D MkII in 2009, we already knew the basics and started working on more ambitious projects. Later on we graduated in Media and Communications Studies from University of Fribourg and Film Studies from University of Zürich. We met Sven at Zürich, and Jackie, who directed “Balloon,” at Fribourg, where they were taking the same classes as us, so we all basically have a very similar academic background in Media, Communications and Film Studies. Unfortunately, Film Studies is a purely theoretical discipline: You never get to actually make a film, but you have to watch a lot of them from every decade of the last 120 years. We learned filmmaking by making films and reading and watching stuff on the internet.

MMM: What kinds of films do you make?

Manuel: As a group of passionate filmmakers, we love nothing more than to make narrative, fictional content. But as it’s difficult to make a living off of filmmaking in Switzerland (like it is in most countries, I imagine) we run this client work business, which is the biggest part of our daily operation. We’re a full service production company, meaning that we take a project right from its development in the beginning all the way through production and post production to its finishing and delivery.  Most of our projects are commercials and corporate videos for medium and large companies. So that’s what we do for a living, but whenever time allows we work on our own films, which, up to now, have been micro-projects—like “Balloon.” These take a few days to prepare for and just one or two days of shooting. Of course, we’d love to tackle a larger project, like maybe a somewhat longer short film or a mini series, but our company is a start-up and, as such, running it keeps us quite busy and our financial resources are limited.

MMM: Lack of money is a common problem.

Manuel: We all got into filmmaking with a low-budget, independent approach, and so this is the modus operandi that we are used to. Also, having limited resources keeps you looking for creative ways to solve a problem, which is good. So whenever we have some time on our hands and some uncommitted funds we can put into a project, we set out to make a film.

MMM: Is there an upside to making micro-budget films?

Manuel: Definitely. It’s that we can self-fund them completely, which saves us time looking for funding, which in Switzerland mostly works through public grants. Balloon was one of those passion projects, made for us rather than for a client. I came across the Ikan Fly competition and pitched it to the guys. Then Jackie, who is part of our team, came up with the the idea, so we asked her if she’d like to direct it and so that’s how Balloon came to be her directorial debut. With her background in Media and Communications, she takes care of everything related to PR and Social Media and assists me with marketing. As we all have multiple functions in our start-up company, she also acts as production assistant or B camera operator on our shoots, and is being trained in editing.

[Editor’s Note: You can meet Jackie in the “Balloon: Making of ” video.]

MMM: Have you shot mobile movies before?

Manuel: Balloon is our second mobile short film. The first one is called Nachtschicht (http://bit.ly/NachtschichtShort), which we made for this year’s edition of the Mobile Motion Filmfestival in Zürich (http://momofilmfest.com/), where it won the “Best Swiss Film“ award. “Nachtschicht” was directed by Philipp Andonie, with whom I founded the company. Philipp is our Creative Director. He’s in charge of developing ideas and content, directing most of our client work, and editing. Philipp was awarded just recently with the “Best Director“ award for his work on “Nachtschicht”at the 5th olleh film festival in South Korea.
MMM: Have you found any advantages in shooting with a mobile rather than a traditional camera?
Manuel: From a cinematography standpoint, working with mobile devices is definitely more of a challenge. When you start out, you are limited to one focal length if you don’t want to zoom in digitally and thus lose resolution. This makes it tricky to get the shots you have in mind, because typically we associate different focal lengths with different shot sizes. So you’ll pretty soon find out, that you need to get some lenses to attach to have more options.
MMM: Are you partial to any lenses for your mobile work?
Manuel:  We went with the Moment Lenses (momentlens.co) and were very happy with them. Their optical performance is pretty great. But we still only had three focal lengths. So that’s one thing to consider.  Also, you have to rig your phone somehow if you want to use a matte box (for filters), an external monitor an other accessories. You can get  a pretty detailed look at our setup in the “Making of” video presented above.
MMM: What other difficulties have you encountered?
Manuel: There’s dynamic range and compression: You don’t have much room for errors when exposing your image, because the sensor only has a limited dynamic range and the data gets compressed quite heavily. Because the sensor is so small, the video also tends to get quite noisy in low light. All of this together means one thing: Most of the times you can’t fix it in post if you shoot on a mobile devices. Which is great.
MMM: I hope you’ll explain why.
Manuel: Because you need to really be sure about what you are doing. For me this was a very important experience, which almost reminded me of shooting on Mini-DV tapes in the old days. Nowadays, we tend to maximize bit rate, bit depth, resolution and everything else, so we get as much leeway in post a possible. This lets people sometimes get sloppy when it comes to making a cinematographic decision, because they know it can always be fixed in post. Shooting on a smart phone on the other hand trains you to not rely on post production, but to make the best decision you can make on the spot. For me, as a cinematographer, this limitation is actually the biggest advantage.
MMM: Speaking about cinematographer, is there any gear that you find essential?
Manuel:  Well, as we are used to working with professional camera systems, we like to get our setup as close to that as we can. A tripod is a must (we use our trusted Sachtler ACE L). I have found it invaluable to use an external waveform monitor for judging the exposure accurately. This was extremely important in “Nachtschicht,” where almost all shots were very low key, but we actually threw a lot of light at the sensor, because we wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible in order to get a clean image. We used our Atomos Ninja Blade for as a waveform monitor (connected via a Lightning to HDMI adapter) and had it on a Noga arm, which made actually operating the phone easier as
well. For Balloon we also wanted to use ND filters, so we used one of our old base plates to build a rig that could hold all the accessories. We also talk about that in the making-of video.
MMM: What about sound?
Manuel: We always record audio externally and sync it in post using Red Giant PlurayEyes 3. But maybe the most important piece of gear (if you want to call it that) is the app you use to record. We had excellent results with Filmic Pro (http://filmicpro.com). Right now, we’re giving film (http://filma.kr) a spin, which looks promising.

MMM: So you’ve turned some negatives into positives. But are there any straight on benefits in shooting with a mobile device?

Manuel: From a production point of view, a major advantage is that you can go by completely unnoticed. A dude with a smart phone draws way less attention than a fully rigged camera with three people operating it. Also you can get very affordable stabilization systems—like the Ikan Fly— because your camera is so light and small. Also you don’t need to buy and lug around a ton of professional batteries; it will run from a USB power bank all day long.
MMM: What about the software side of things?
Manuel: The big strength of smart phones is their capability to run apps. I think when it comes to filmmaking, we are only just scratching the surface here: There’s Filmic Pro, which aims to provide you with the tools and manual controls you’re used to from shooting with a video camera, and also does an amazing job at recording at higher bit rates. Then there are forays into mobile editing like Adobe Premiere Clip, which actually integrates quite nicely with the desktop version of Premiere, our go-to NLE software. These are apps that emulate what we are used to do on full size systems, like notebooks and desktop computers. Another app called Filmmakr does a great job at integrating production and postproduction into one seamless experience, which is probably the next step in mobile filmmaking. But I think that there is much more to discover and develop when it comes to apps for filmmaking, because smartphones can do things that your regular camera can’t.
MMM: For example?
Manuel: they can communicate to one another via wifi or bluetooth, they can have constant internet connection, they all come with a gyroscope, they have a tactile interface, some of them have more that one camera or the possibility to attach a second camera (like the DxO ONE) and their processors become more and more powerful and versatile (the iPad Pro for instance has a faster GPU than the 2015 Retina MacBook Pro—as reported here). So I am certain that these differences in hardware will make for some pretty amazing filmmaking apps in the future, which will play a major part in what is possibly the next evolution of filmmaking, which is virtual reality or enhanced reality and the possibility to broadcast live. But of course, this is just me dreaming about the future.
MMM: Dreaming for sure helps create the future.
Manuel:  When we think on a larger scale, the impact of mobile filmmaking is much more profound. Back in 2009, people started talking about the DSLR revolution and how it’s democratizing filmmaking. I think democratizing is not accurate, because this isn’t about a population making decisions; I’d say, the availability of affordable cameras that could shoot “cinematic“ (as in overly shallow depth of field) video in a “professional“ high definition resolution (by 2009 standards), made filmmaking more accessible for a lot of people. What is happening now with the mobile filmmaking movement is similiar, but on a much larger scale. In the 2nd quarter of 2015 alone, 330 Million smartphones were sold globally (according to Gartner: http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3115517) – that’s a mind-boggling number of people who walk around with a camera in their pocket.
MMM: Of course, most of them won’t try to make narrative films with their mobiles. We think a big part of the revolution will be nonfiction movies such as travelogues, instructional videos, and documentaries.

Manuel: True. But some will try to make comedies, dramas, and other genre productions. And all of those who try will either fail completely or produce something they’re not happy with in one way or another. But what happens next is important: Most will give up, but some will try again. And again. And again. And as FilmRiot’s Ryan Connolly has so eloquently put it: “Write. Shoot. Edit. Repeat.” This is the only way one becomes better at making films. Now you can say that’s cool and all but I still don’t see why this is important. Well, I’d say because of the crazy percentage of people that own or have access to a smartphone, many good storytellers will emerge, of which some eventually will find funding of some kind and be able to make films for the big screen or episodic content or whatever they want to make.

MMM: Do you envision mobile moviemaking becoming more common in the future?
Manuel: If only a tiny fraction of the people with a smartphone give filmmaking a try, and only a tiny fraction of those who try actually persist and improve their skills over time, we end up with a whole bunch of new filmmakers who bring their own unique stories, ideas and voices to the table. Which is very exciting. It’s exactly like an old no-budget filmmaking saying goes: “The best camera for your project is the one you have.”
You see more videos from Rise and Shine Films at: https://vimeo.com/riseandshinefilms. And keep up with their news on Twitter: @riseandshiner
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