One of my favourite films at HotDocs 2011 was “Position Among the Stars”, an astonishingly intimate portrait of an Indonesian family of three generations that struggles with globalization. Director and cinematographer Leonard Retel Helmrich traces their lives in the slums of Jakarta for 14 months making use of very inventive DIY equipment and his own revolutionary filming style.
Leonard Retel Helmrich with his SteadyWings at HotDocs 2011
“Position Among the Stars” (Stand van de Sterren) is the concluding film in a trilogy after “The Eye of the Day” (2001) and “Shape of the Moon” (2004). Earlier this year the film took home the Best Feature-length Documentary at IDFA and a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.
Helmrich has been following the same family since the mid-nineties, just observing their lives and trying not to influence them very much. Like a fly on the wall he spent shooting for 14 months in the Jakarta slums with only one assistant acquiring a massive amount of raw footage.
Official Trailer “Position among the Stars”
[youtube width=”720″ height=”405″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqzsgmHU0Uw&hd=1[/youtube]
From my own experiences (shooting “Making the World a Smaller place“) I know that it can be quite tough to plan what you will get when shooting an observational documentary. The trick is patience! Helmrich was able to spent many months with the family every day, so during the editing he has a lot of scenes to choose from and that is where he starts directing for real.
I was very impressed by the camera movements in the film which made me decide to follow up with Leonard Retel Helmrich himself. After all I was at a film festival and the best thing about that is that for most screening the directors will be there to present their films. And different from the big film festivals in town like TIFF, with HotDocs it is still very intimate. So I chatted with Helmrich after he was on the panel “Making in Beautiful” which talked about documentary cinematography and that is where I first heard of his “Single-Shot-Cinema”.
SINGLE SHOT CINEMA
“Single-Shot-Cinema is a technique of filming that enables you to shoot an event from the inside. You can do this by making use of camera movements to express your personal feeling about the event you are filming. The reason to move the camera should always be inside the frame. Therefore camera movements like panning between two points of interests are not done. Instead of panning you use orbital camera movements around a point of interest in order to change from one point of interest to the next in one flow.” ~ Leonard Retel Helmrich
Single-Shot-Cinema example from “Position Among the stars”
[youtube width=”720″ height=”405″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OULvfVkIWsM[/youtube]
By using the Single-Shot-Cinema technique the event will be filmed from your emotional point of view instead of your physical point of view. Helmrich says that “when this technique is used in a documentary and done by intuition, the camera movements feel natural. This is a huge benefit for telling intimate stories.”
After hearing about this method I was inspired to try it out myself. So for a verite style documentary I was shooting our character buying a hat in a hat store and I tried to wait for a moment in the frame which triggered camera movement, like the owner of the shop handing a hat to our character. Instead of panning from the owner to the character I “orbited” with the camera around the hat until the character came into the frame naturally.
It was a great effect when watching the scene back, but the camera movement was anything else than smooth. Also I was shooting on a small, lightweight DSLR camera without any stabilizing system. I was thinking that the Single-Shot-Cinema would work best with a steadicam to get very smooth movements, but Helmrich says that it will only take away your flexibility if you’re attached to a big device, so he developed a special camera rig called the SteadyWings with the help of Willem Doevendans.
“The Steadywings is a camera mount, specially developed to shoot in the very flexible way that is so typical for Single Shot Cinema, but also very useful in any other style.” ~ Leonard Retel Helmrich
Here is a behind-the-scenes example of a very complicated Single-Shot-Cinema movement that uses SteadyWings and the help of several cameramen:
[youtube width=”720″ height=”405″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TL2GUHi6W3c[/youtube]
There are a lot of camera stabilizing devices on the market and the principle of the SteadyWings is nothing special. All it does is give you more stability just by separating your hands away from the camera. It works similar than the Manfrotto fig rig (http://services.manfrotto.com/figrig/), but what makes the SteadyWings stand out for me is the very quick setup, it folds very small for traveling and you can even fold it to a more narrow position while you are still shooting.
It will never give you the look of a real SteadyCam or GlideCam and many critics complained about scenes with camera instability. Helmrich says that on the other hand, the gain made in (emotional) information transport may be far more important.
“I use cameras like a painter uses brushes.”
I was very amazed when Leonard Retel Helmrich talked about his approach to camera choices. He uses an array of relatively cheap consumer cameras that are all specialized in certain things.
“I use them like a painter would use a brush. So I can say that in this situation, this camera would be best.” ~ Leonard Retel Helmrich
In “Position Among the Stars” he used 5 different cameras from a small consumer camcorder that does amazing macro shots, like the opening shot of the dew on the grass to very small, lightweight and robust cameras that he attaches to a self-built bamboo crane.
There is a scene in the film where the little boy of the family is running through Jakarta’s alleys after he had stolen some clothes where Helmrich is just running after him and he ran away. By spending so much time with the family and in their surroundings luckily Helmrich knew where the little boy would go, he knew his labyrinth by then.
Running scene from “Position Among the Stars”
“So when I had a number of my shots and I thought if I want to make my story round I should do something extra – I should do with the camera what he wanted to do himself. The boy wanted to fly. So I took the little camera and put it on a bamboo stick and lifted it up to get a kind of a crane shot.” ~ Leonard Retel Helmrich
And I have to say that the shot is amazing. It starts with the camera going up just a few meters, still easy to do by just lifting the camera up over your head, but then it just keeps going up and up, until your above a two-story building. After the film I did some research and was able to locate a clip of the DIY crane that Helmrich built out of bamboo and recycled garbage:
I was very impressed by all the creativity that Helmrich had while shooting his films. It takes a lot of determination, patience and persistence to make a film like that, but if you have a chance to see it, you will know why it is worth doing! The film is a great glimpse of live in Indonesia and a great story about one family. Helmrich always looks for a microcosm that reflects what is happening in the macrocosm. In “Position Among the Stars” the focus is on religion, which is reflected by Grandmother Rumidjah, the Christian matriarch who lives in a small village, who struggles with her sons Bakti and Dwi, who have both converted to Islam.
Helmrich said he doesn’t plan to film a fourth installment of the series, but if something were to happen in the family that was important with respect to Indonesia, then “I’m ready.”
Official Website of the film: