Digital Cinema Report Interview: Creating Surfaid's Message

Godard said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. So it should go without saying that all you need to make a commercial is two guys and an Epic. Director Michael Lawrence was approached by SurfAid – an Australian non-profit working throughout Indonesia to prevent disease, suffering and death through educational programs and health promotion – to film three 60-second spots for the web highlighting their recent and continued efforts in the wake of the horrific Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.

“I knew I’d only be able to have a small crew,” says Lawrence, who got the go ahead for the project only five days prior to his scheduled flight out of NYC. “It had to be someone that was experienced with travel and able to handle the challenging shooting conditions and rugged terrain of the islands. I knew Dave was the right person to call.”

Director of Photography David Kruta, who recently saw success at Sundance with an independent he shot called Concussion, written and directed by Stacie Passon, met up for beers with his longtime friend and collaborator, Lawrence that evening.

“I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to come to Sumatra with me on Wednesday?’ recalls Lawrence. “Dave laughed and said ‘Yes, I’m free. My feature starts the day we get back.’ He makes such beautiful images and we have a great friendship and working relationship, bringing him on board to this project was crucial to its success.”

With only four days to prep, there were a lot of runs back and forth to B&H and they prepared the shot list on the plane ride to the first location, with four days of travel to get to the islands via a flight to Dubai, then Jakarta, then Padang, another propeller plane to Pagai, then a 12-hour ferry, a couple speed boat rides and finally a drive in a beat-up pickup out to the middle of an island that had no running water and no power.

“We packed the RED Epic, its handheld rig, a small set of batteries, some Canon lenses, and a 5D and 7D,” says Kruta. “We just kept it as minimal as possible without compromising quality and fit everything we could into a couple Pelican cases and backpacks.

“I was surprised to find that the challenges were fewer than I expected,” he continues. “We had Mike’s 5D and my 7D along, almost anticipating that the Epic would fail at some point and we would need a backup, but it performed flawlessly and the main issue was just making sure we had power.”

They were on a tiny island off of Sumatra with a bunch of wooden huts and only a generator to work off of for power. They could use it for three-to-four hours each night, and every day was a gamble to not run out of battery power. Aside from keeping the ND filter dry and making sure the batteries were charged, Kruta feels that everything went really smoothly and they were extremely happy with the footage. 

“We talked about the look we wanted to go for on the plane,” he says. “And we knew that we didn’t want some more doc footage. Everything we saw come out of the region, especially in 2004, was POV camera work and sort of low quality. We wanted to bring a cinematic feel to it – something rich and colorful, using cinema lenses and the slow-motion capabilities of the Epic.”

They achieved three spots with beautiful and touching stories that showed positive images but sadly, with true and terrible facts in voice over. 

“These atrocities exist throughout the world,” relays Lawrence. “The Mentawai's and Nias islands in particular are severely disadvantaged societies when it comes to the most basic of human needs. Some might resort to a shock-value sort of approach, but having spent a great deal of time in Indonesia in the past (I used to live there), I wanted to bring up the topic in a more human light. 

“There is a great deal of beauty there,” he continues, “in both the people and in Mother Nature. This message is perhaps more important than the statistics… this beauty is rare, the place is magical, and we wanted to keep that in sight. It's about the human connection and the fact that these people need help. So we chose to show the people, rather than dwell on the negative statistics. We chose to show the potential for betterment.”

To view the commercials – which will go live within the first two weeks of April – and to find out more about SurfAid, please visit www.surfaid.org.

Read the full article by Valentina I. Valentini on Digital Cinema Report.