With the release of the film, Fikri Jermadi finally closes with the third and final part of this series that has been five years in the making.
This write up comes live to you from the present.
Recently I saw ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’. Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed Seth MacFarlane’s previous works, but the film was more than a little crass for our liking. It has its laughs, but that’s not really the reason I’m writing about it.
There’s a scene, somewhere near the middle of the film, when the main character stumbled upon an old man, looking every inch the mad scientist he is, working on a shabby old car in a shed. There’ll be plenty who probably don’t know much about that, but for those who do, the giveaway is the DeLorean car itself.
I’m writing about it because it situated the film’s context to be identical to the one in the third ‘Back to the Future’ film. The mad scientist is none other than Christopher Lloyd himself, bringing back to life the iconic Doc Brown character. It’s a lovely little pop down memory lane for many, including me.
This post will be something like that. I never did got around to finishing off the final part of the trilogy of write ups I had promised regarding the making of my film, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. The film was recently released on Viddsee, in conjunction with my brother’s 34th birthday. It was, after all, a film dedicated in his honour, and I could think of no better way to celebrate that fact (on a mass scale, at least).
This, then, is a write up written five years after the fact. I’m relying on a lot of my memory powers to jot down some of the most important facts with regards to the making of my most important film. It’s important because it has dramatised at least a part of the struggle I had gone through in the relationship I have with my brother. Perhaps it is because of that that I feel like some moments, even now, felt like they occurred yesterday.
Great Scott indeed.
Back then, though, yesterday seemed like when all my troubles were far away. We had finished the shoot on an emotional evening (at least for me), and having packed all of our stuff, we headed back to the dormitory. We had a coach prepared for us, so everyone was on board. You’d think that the end of a film would herald a massive party on board, but the truth was we were all pretty shot at that moment.
That’s not to say that there was no party. When we reached the university and left all of the filming equipment in the storage room, we gathered back at the dormitory and decided to head out again for a post-production meal. At least, that was the idea. A large number of everyone else decided not to come (like I said, it was quite a physical ordeal for many), but the majority of the key production people were all for it. After all, we did deserve it.
It was with such reckless abandon that we hit the town near the other university, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Our university, Korea National University of Arts (K’ARTS), was fairly close, but the area surrounding it was fairly dead. That’s definitely not the case for Hankuk, though, so we made our way there to enjoy our meal.
I say meal, though I hasten to add that anytime you go out with a bunch of Koreans in Korea, you must always prepare yourself for the chance that dinner will be an all-nighter. It will consist of the dinner session itself, followed by coffee in a coffee shop somewhere. Karaoke will follow swiftly after, and the post-karaoke beer and chicken session is also a crucial moment of reflection (or in some cases, searing honesty of affections; remember that by now everyone would have been drunk out of their minds).
That’s pretty much what we did, with the exception of the karaoke. I remembered that I didn’t have enough money to pay for everyone. That was embarrassing, but I had totally forgotten to budget for the post-production knees up, so my producer Won-jang scrounged for some money (it was after midnight, and that particularly restaurant didn’t accept credit cards at that hour) and paid for it.
Where would I be without Won-jang? I often feel like he is an older brother in a film sense: supportive when he needs to be, but firm when the whip needs cracking. He couldn’t quite crack that whip at that moment, because his face was as red as the bottle of Chinese wine he had somehow procured somewhere on the way back from his car (looking for money to pay for dinner). It was much to the delight of Tony, whose face got similarly red after a few rounds.
He got almost totally wasted after dinner, though. I remember him leaning over the side of a mini mart, almost by the side alley as we left the restaurant. Everyone else made their way to the chicken and beer place down the road (we decided to skip coffee, but no one skips beer on a Korean night out, apparently). I stayed behind, helping him get it all out of his system.
Tony turned to me. “You’ve got a great film,” he slurred, before he corrected himself a bit. “We’ve got a great film.” That we did, and I thanked him for it. “It’s been a long journey my friend,” I added.
It’s not over yet, though.
When you shoot on film, there are plenty of positives to be gained. The main thing is that the quality of the footage will almost be guaranteed. The difference will lie in the type of film we have, and how the scene is lit, but even with no artificial lighting you’re guaranteed a proper…well, film look.
In our case, we were incredibly lucky as well. We decided to shoot on 16mm films, partly because the looks suits the story (35mm would be bigger and have more definition, but it would be a little too well-defined; Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, released about a year prior to our film, was also shot on 16mm for the same reason). On a more practical level, though, we’d have more time to play with: 400 feet of 16mm film yields around 10 minutes worth of screen time, double that of a similarly-lengthed 35mm film.
The slight downside of that is that very few people would shoot on 16mm film. The tail end of 2009 is when the RED cameras started to rise in its popularity. It was the first digital film camera that began to truly challenge the traditional film cameras for their film look aesthetic, quality and detail. Our school, in fact, had purchased a few units of that, which became hot property amongst all the students, but those who had wanted to use it had to plan for it some time beforehand. Bou-jeong, who helped me on my film, shot hers using the RED ONE camera later that year, but she had had to book it almost a whole calendar year in advance.
As a result of the scarcity of 16mm film, we had the stock number of cans provided for us by the university, but decided it wasn’t enough. We wanted to purchase more, specifically the Kodak 500T Expression, which captures image under low lighting conditions better. You can watch the film now, and note how we had a number of night time scenes lined up. With the exception of the opening scene in the main character’s office, all of them were shot using that film stock. Given that that was the first scene we had shot, we didn’t know how much film to budget for it, so we decided to save it all for the night scenes in the house. You can see a clear difference in tone between the two.
Two is also the magic number: it’s the number of cans left of the 500T stock in the whole of Korea (possibly inclusive of the North as well). I know because after exhausting all our options through all our contacts, we eventually went straight to Kodak’s main office in central Seoul. Won-jang and I walked in feeling less than hopeful and walked out clutching the film cans like gold dust. They even threw in a free clapper board as well.
Less easy was the post-production process itself. If you shoot on a DSLR camera nowadays, the process is relatively straight forward: backup the memory card and convert the footage to the appropriate editing codec and off you go.
On film, there are a few more steps before we even sat down in front of our Mac computers. The film must first be developed before a lower grade version is scanned for our editing purposes. When we edit, it is this version (along with the time code seen at the top and bottom of each frame) that we will work with. We then edit to our heart’s content, and by the end of that, once the visual cut is fixed, we’d note down the time code for the start and end of each single cut. This time code is what the film cutter will then use to literally ‘cut’ only the frames we want to use, before a full grade scan is done.
This way, the film is edited in the most economical manner, financially speaking. Bear in mind that every single step here costs money. The longer the footage, the bigger the amount. Every single cut made in the film, for example, costs 4,000 won (roughly equivalent to $4 around that time). Look at how many cuts there were in the film, multiply it by four, and that’s the amount I paid just for that stage of the process. I had by this stage exhausted all the money I gained from FINAS, and turned back to doing part time work, and cutting back on spending my scholarship living expenses (we were given a stipend of around $500 every month).
My part-time work was creating English language test questions for an English education company by way of my ex-girlfriend’s best friend; I couldn’t teach people the language because of my nationality and the darker colour of my skin (true story), but I could construct the tests others would use to teach that very language. For the sake of my film, humble pie must be eaten.
After the film frames we wanted were cut and then pasted together, only then would the full-grade scan be done. I remember I had to leave my external hard disk at the scanning company, and that a courier service was hired by Won-jang later to bring the hard disk back to our school. Once we received it, my editor Hyun-jun put together the pieces of the visual jigsaw and we duplicated the film unto his hard disk as well. Another key partner in my film, Hyun-jun was an editor I was very lucky to have for several reasons. Though I have edited a film shot on film before, Hyun-jun was infinitely more experienced in that regard.
That’s of no surprise. I had commenced the master’s programme at the age of 23, which just about the average age someone would finish their first degrees in Korea (inclusive of the mandatory two year military service every male has to serve). As such, those involved in the master’s programme were far more experienced, with the next youngest in my batch being a few years shy of 30, if I recall correctly. That experienced gained in the real world made their work all the more accomplished, and it is a reminder that rushing through academia (as is the wont for many Malaysians I know) without paying proper due can have its downsides.
I was also lucky in that he was keen to hear my editing voice as well. We duplicated the time code version of our film, so I was able to edit my version as well. The end result is a combination of both our editing choices, which is a far better output than it would have been otherwise. He understood what the story required, and I am glad to still count him as a friend until today.
The above may sound complex (and it was), but at least the stages were fairly well-defined. The sound, though, was infinitely more complex for a number of different reasons. I had initially wanted a friend of mine from my batch, So-hyeon, to work on it. She assisted on my previous films before, and our good working relationship and friendship would have honoured me with its presence on my film. Unfortunately, by the time the dye was cast on the schedule, she was no longer able to take part in the production as the lead sound designer.
As such, I cast my net and found Na-yun, who was also actually very good. She was my junior, coming in earlier that very year. Her skill, though, was not something that shone through for a number of different reasons. The main thing was that in that same semester, she was also designing the sound for three other films, if I am not mistaken (if I am, then it was three films including mine). This is a flaw in the school’s recruitment policy. For some reason, there is always an overflux of directing majors above and beyond many of the more technical ones like sound design and editing. As a result of that, the sound designers and editors are always overworked come the end of the semester, and Na-yun was a victim of this to a certain extent.
Again, the work she did was very good. She roped in another friend to help with some basic foley work. The footsteps on the beach at the start? Someone did that inside the university recording studio. It was not particularly big, but it did have a small and sufficient foley recording studio. I have to say that it’s a bit disconcerting to see some of my friends throw themselves on the floor just to get the right sound (another film had a scene in which the main character fell off a ladder, so they had to simulate that sound), but they seemed to enjoy literally throw themselves around for the sake of art.
That being said, they must have enjoyed not only the lighter load that is the drama of my film, but also the very good work done on set by Sophea, my Cambodian sound recordist. Sophea actually looked like a very small person in terms of stature, but give him a boom mic and sound mixer, and he’s off to the races. He once edited the sound to a previous film I co-directed, ‘Victim’. It was supposed to be Vicky’s directorial work, but he himself wanted to concentrate only on the cinematography. We left him with the final cut of the visual, and came back some hours later seeing Sophea still inside the big multicomputer editing room at probably around two o’clock in the morning. “Sophea,” we asked, “did you even go to the toilet?” “No,” came the answer. Truly a designer who loves sound, and for a director there is no sweeter music than that.
The point I’m making here is that he brought the same attention to detail on set as he was recording the sound for my film. Many things were repeated after the visual take, such as the throwing of the pillow in an early scene, to get the right clarity. That certainly helped, and I learned a lot from that.
Beyond the schedule, the most challenging aspect of the sound design process is the additional dialogue recording, or dubbing. We had a good copy from the shoot, but it was always my intention to re-record everything in post-production as well. If I can point to arguably the most valuable thing, it is the attention to detail required for dialogue sound, and I have done the same thing for all the films I did since. To paraphrase Walter Murch (although apparently George Lucas said it as well), sound is half the image, and I was keen to get it right.
Getting the actors back in the studio was tricky. Their schedules didn’t all match, so we ended up recording their parts separately. Of course, the film didn’t really have that many conversations that required a matching of their presence (half of the lead actors basically wailed his part through), but there is also a requirement to match the emotion of the scene. The climactic scene between the two brothers, therefore, was very difficult for Jeremy to record. It didn’t help that he had the flu and a sore throat. This was, after all, in the middle of the Korean winter by now; in between the recording takes he wrapped his throat with some fairly thick scarves.
Sound wise, at least. Music, though something settled on much earlier, was more difficult than I envisaged. At the time of editing, we worked with the score ‘Admiral and Commander’, composed by Bear McCreary for Battlestar Galactica. It’s an evocative piece, and one that was incredibly moving in its own right. Imagine if you will: Celtic music for a post-apocalyptic science fiction TV series.
There is a slight danger in doing that. You become wedded to the music. You edit the scene in accordance with that music. The end result is something that becomes united in its artistic expression. The worst case of this I went through was actually for ‘Following’. Shot in 2012, we edited key scenes in the film to ‘Epilogue’ by Lee Byung-woo, scored for the film ‘A Bittersweet Life’. Diaz Hernawan, my cinematographer for that film, and I edited the scene down to a tee before Muz, our producer, popped by.
Suddenly I had to take a phone call, and went into Diaz’s room to talk in private. I emerged more than an hour later to Muz and Diaz playing that scene over and over again. It was probably the greatest unity of music and visual image I had concocted by then, and also the saddest: we knew we wouldn’t be able to use it in the final film (it was, after all, copyrighted stuff), and eventually compromised by including it in the trailer instead. Though it wasn’t quite as dire, it was no less difficult for ‘Fly Me to the Moon’. Hyun-jun and I became wedded enough to the reference music to see how difficult it is to replicate the same feeling with a new one.
That is not meant as a slight in any way to both Onusa and Stanislav, the composer and performer respectively. They worked up something close enough to what I had in mind, and it ended up being wonderful in its own right. Trying to get Stanislav to record the music, though, was tricky. We couldn’t just bring a piano in the recording studio, after all, so I eventually settled on a handycam (I think; my memory fails me a bit here) placed on top of the piano in Stanislav’s practice room at his campus (K’ARTS have two different campuses; the music department was situated at the heart of town).
It wasn’t ready by the end of the editing process. The last night of the deadline, Na-yun had to ‘bounce’ (export) the sound file for the film to be included in our film. Bouncing takes place in real time, and exporting the final film file from Final Cut Pro itself takes even longer. As a result (and this is where Malaysians and Koreans can seek solace together), the teacher’s assistant had to extend the midnight deadline until the next day, simply because there wasn’t enough sound designers working in enough sound design studios. There was a huge influx of other students also working on their final film files. The deadline was set in place for the graduation film festival (where all of our films would be screened at Lotte Cinema in Hongdae, one of the hippest parts of Seoul).
So you read that right: during the first of my two film screenings, it had no music in the end credits. I did that because I wanted to save time, and figured that the music file can be included later on an auxiliary input. That didn’t prove to be the case, though, so while the teacher’s assistant was amenable to me submitting my film later that the deadline, he didn’t allow for me to include that music file as a part of the experience, nor was I allowed to re-submit a newer version with a rebounced sound file.
That first screening, therefore, was an incredible high and low both at the same time: to see a film I had worked on for so many years being screened on the big screen was a wondrous dream come true, but the lack of that final music, a simple part of the elements, made it all crash down; I could feel the impatience of the audience, wondering whether there was something wrong with the audio system. It reaffirmed for a need for stronger planning and sticking to original schedules.
The teacher’s assistant felt the same. “Fikri,” he came up to me after the screening, “I think maybe we can try to do something about that for the second screening.” And do that we did: I provided the sound file that was played at the same time as that final scene, and felt relieved, for it was the culmination of a dream come true. I felt much of the same when I had screened my first official short film, ‘Goldfish’, after we had finally completed it. It was the old Communications Lab at Monash University (before we moved to the new campus), and the wave of sensation that overwhelmed me confirmed how this is my calling.
Even if others could not attain the same level of satisfaction, this is what I wanted to do for myself for the rest of my life. That was what I felt at that screening. Seeing the hard work of so many of my friends and fellow professionals who helped to realise this dream was a humbling experience, for even as I scaled the highest heights of my career, I realised that from now on, the only way is down.
In that regard, that was what it has been like ever since. Many of my cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things. Tony, for example, was involved in the film ‘The Warring States’. The cinematographer for that film was Kim Hyung-gu, not only one of Korea’s leading cinematographers but also his lecturer at our university. He specifically requested for Tony’s presence, but had to leave when the production ran over time, above and beyond his specific work visa requirements.
Thus he left early, leaving Tony behind with all the toys one could ever hope for from a Chinese period film. “We set up the lights for the whole arena,” he told me excitedly. Won-jang himself ended up producing ‘Hype Nation’, which he had wanted me on board for as well. I turned it down for other opportunities, and in a way, it was a blessing in some disguise; I asked him about the experience of making the Korea-United States co-production, and he told me not to ask him about it.
I turned that down to be involved with a film production back home, but it didn’t work out, and I spent the next few months kicking my heels. One day, I decided that I have to do something with my life. Figuring that my master’s has got to be worth something for a stable enough job, I prepared my CV with my father’s help, and peppered random universities and colleges in Malaysia with them. That’s how I ended up teaching at Monash University, Sunway University, Universiti Teknologi Mara and Universiti Malaya (and at one point, at all four places in the same semester), and now I am firmly entrenched in the ivory towers, enjoying myself more than I thought I ever would.
I didn’t give up filmmaking entirely, but the films I have made since were all for different purposes, designed to challenge myself as well as my cast and crew members. What became something of a hallmark was how my students were involved in them. What they lack in experience they more than make up in enthusiasm, but the end result was I spent a lot of my time trying to guide them as well as myself. The actual objective, the burning desire to tell a story I had crafted, wasn’t quite as present, though my pride at the results were never at any point dimmed by that lack.
Never, though, I have been as proud of the work and effort my cast and crew members put in. I was incredibly humbled by the charity of my friends who gave me more time, effort and encouragement than I deserved. I tried my best to repay them in any way I could; I also assisted on Bou-jeong’s film, for example, but I am forever indebted to those who helped me along the way, including my friends and family members who have sacrificed so much for me to achieve my dream.
To reach the mountain tops, to tell truly what the heart strongly desires above all else, a story spent years and years in development, occurring organically by way of the regular (and irregular) happenstances of life, hoping that it will equally affect others in some small shape or form.
That’s what making art is all about, isn’t it?