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Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

Film-maker Tania Esteban explains the ideas and processes behind her new film about Japan. Making a difference is what drives her, she tells Damien Demolder

When you watch Tania Esteban’s 15min film about the Japanese concept of Ikigai it’s almost impossible to appreciate how much work has gone into planning, shooting and post-production to make this short movie look and sound as glorious as it does. Working in temperatures as low as -17°C Tania shot the whole film herself over the course of three weeks, after over a year’s worth of careful planning, storyboarding and creating a tight shot list. The result is a fascinating piece of creative work that examines the relationship between Japanese people and the natural world, and one that gives Tania’s Lumix S1H a workout it will probably never forget.
Lumix ambassador Tania is a natural history film maker, assistant producer and researcher who has worked on projects such as the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 and Planet Earth 2. She also creates her own projects, and before starting her latest film released a documentary called The Last Mahout that she shot using the Lumix GH5.

Early days

‘From about the age of ten I was clear about what I want to do for a living. I had toyed with becoming an archaeologist or animator for Disney, but I also spent a lot of time watching those ‘making-of’ programs about how wildlife films were put together. I was able to see my absolute heroes Sophie Darlington and Justine Evans in behind-the-scenes footage being camera women, and I thought “Wow, that’s what I want to do. I want to become a camera woman”. I grew-up in a part of Spain that’s an important migratory corridor for birds, and I had a real passion for bird watching and bird photography. I struggled with a terrible compact camera for a while but then progressed to a DSLR with a longer lens. And that’s where it all started. I moved to the UK to study zoology at university and then did an MA in wildlife film making at Bristol – which really does have the best course for the subject.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘Although I now work in editorial as an assistant producer I stand behind the camera and shoot as often as I can. I can’t shoot all the time, but love it when I get the chance. In my role I mainly organise and arrange shoots for the team. Sometimes a shoot can take nine months to prepare but then occupy only about five minutes on-screen. All the money, time and effort for that one sequence of this animal doing some behavioural display – but it’s usually worth it. I always get to shoot the ‘making-of’ footage that is shown that the end of each show, and everyone prefers that to the main program anyway!’

Finding your Ikigai

‘I’ve been fascinated by Japanese culture for a long time, and noticed that the Japanese have quite a distinct relationship with the natural world. I think it’s because of those intermittent periods in history during which the country was isolated from the rest of the world. I read this incredible book by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret To A Long And Happy Life. It’s a really interesting concept that looks at what your passion and purpose is in life, how you can make a living with it and how you can make a difference with it. A lot of people in our industry have their Ikigai sorted out as we get up in the morning wanting to create, share and tell stories. I wanted to tell a story around this, and when I met a Tai Chi artist called Yoko who lives in Tokyo, and who performs these amazing routines, things started to fall into place. She seemed the ideal subject as she’s completely passionate about her drive and purpose in life, and how this connects to the natural world.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘The film tied nicely into the Olympics too, which obviously were held in Japan – and Panasonic is a major sponsor of them. People are fascinated by Japan, and every time I mention that I’ve made a film about the country people tell me how much they’d like to go there. I think people are also now having this realisation that we need nature and they want to get back to a more natural way of life.
‘I spent a year planning the film and took three weeks off work to do the filming. I had a very specific shot list of sequences I wanted to capture from spiritual and creative elements such as the Tai Chi, to the natural world and wildlife from the snow monkeys to the red-crowned cranes. I then wanted to contrast all this in the metropolis of 38m people that is Tokyo.
‘I stuck to the shot-list quite tightly as I also had a rough script and an idea of the chapters before I went, so it was all carefully planned out. I shot the dancing cranes first and then showed them to Yoko and we found Tai Chi moves that reflected the movements of the birds. I also wanted to incorporate those sorts of travel shots you see from Tokyo - time lapse sequences and showing the movement of the crowds - but I didn’t want these to be too flashy. They also needed to flow with the rest of the film so they couldn’t be too short and they had to fit with the context and story line of the film. I had to remain flexible while on location of course, and so I did shoot some extra sequences that cropped up as I went along.’

Pace and frame-rates

‘To produce different atmospheres and contrasts in the chapters I changed the pace between the city scenes, the wildlife and the Tai Chi sequences. You can have too much over-cranking and effects, so I wanted to keep that to a minimum and used it only where a change of speed would add something to the story. Choosing the right frame rate is really important. The red-crowned cranes I shot at 60p, true Cinema 4K and in glorious 10bit with the S1H to emphasis those beautiful graceful movements. I’d discussed the music and sound with Richard Collins, who scored the soundtrack, well before I went and knew that the slowed motion of the cranes would work well for the tone and mood we had planned. The music makes people feel emotional, so I matched the movements of the cranes to those beats.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘I shot Yoko off-speed too, again to emphasise that synchronicity in her movements. And in Tokyo there’s B-roll in between to show how frenetic and chaotic life can be in the city. There’s no narration in these clips, just the music, as I wanted the emphasis to be on the action and the imagery. I grew up in the countryside so to me Tokyo was the most explosive city, filled with overwhelming senses. It’s an incredible, crazy, neon-lit place. The grade had to reflect that but also the speed of the clips. And in these clips I tried to include snippets of nature, such as the people crammed into the train where you get glimpses of Mount Fuji out of the tiny window –sometimes that’s all people get to see of nature in their day. I didn’t want a montage of flashy hyperlapses - this had to deliberately show the different textures of the city and to show that it is actually a very much lived-in place where people go about their lives.’

Technical decisions

‘I sometimes use the Atomos Ninja V to monitor and shoot in RAW. At the time I came to shoot this project the firmware hadn’t arrived, but anyway I needed to shoot in as stripped-down a way as possible. I was going to be on my own and wouldn’t be able to carry loads of equipment. I was already taking a whole suite of five fast Sigma Art lenses, including the 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3, so all that was heavy enough in my backpack and I didn’t want to load myself even more. All the shots for the film were recorded internally to the memory card, which really wasn’t a sacrifice as the S1H offers extraordinary codecs anyway - you can shoot C4K 60p 4:2: 10bit or 4K 30p 4:2:2 10 bit without an external recorder. I used the Panasonic V90 SD cards so I knew I wasn’t going to have any problems with data rates. If I’d had an assistant I would have used the Ninja V so I could have recorded proxies as well, and shooting RAW makes a difference when it comes to the grade. Actually though I had enough colour gamut and detail, and the dynamic range was more than wide enough. Also the EVF on the S1H is fantastic – which isn’t always the case, some brands produce terrible viewfinders. So because of the quality of the internal codecs I didn’t have to use an external recorder, and because the camera’s own EVF is excellent I didn’t need an additional monitor.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘I shot C4K most of the time, and when shooting on-speed I recorded at 24fps. A lot of the shots in Tokyo were shot in 5.9K and full frame because I wanted to capture as much detail as possible and I didn’t need to over- or under-crank the shutter. These sequences really show off the resolution of the S1H and in low light the dual native ISO really came into its own.
‘As I was shooting internally and to a memory card I had to make decisions as I went along about the recording settings I would use. For shots in 24p I could have 10bit and 4:2:2 colour, but other times I needed a higher frame rate and would need to drop to 8bit and/or 4:2:0 colour resolution. I also needed to be mindful of the amount of space I had left on my memory cards, as obviously the highest quality settings reduce the amount of time I have to record - it’s always better to drop down a bit to get the shot rather than to run out of space before you have recorded everything you want to record. I’ve found too that if I expose well and am careful about how a scene is lit I can get away with 8bit recordings and then the colour resolution isn’t so important either. For interviews I prioritised resolution, and in scenes that I wanted to create slow motion I prioritised the frame rates - so on each occasion I needed to have in mind what the most important element would be.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘I took two Lacie 2TB drives with me for backup and had to buy another while I was in Japan as I’d underestimated how much space I would need. I came home with 6TB of data. While that sounds a lot, a regular shoot for the natural history programs I work on would use about 22TB – so this was quite tame. The hardest thing though is the thought of all the footage that didn’t make it into the final film. It was tough enough for me to make the 27-minute rough cut, but then I worked with an editor to reduce it down to 15 minutes – which was really painful. We get precious over our shots as we know what went into getting them, and sometimes a sequence that took a whole day to record gets cut out completely. I had to really question myself about how relevant each shot is and what it adds to the story, and then see footage, and lines from my script, removed from the film. But it has to be done.’

In the Process

‘Logging is part and parcel of being an AP (assistant producer), so I make sure I always have detailed notes about each clip. It’s hard to do this when you are on your own, and to make selects in the field so I went through all the clips when I came back to decide which to use. I had a great team to help me with the post-production as I really couldn’t have done it all myself. While it shows great flexibility to be able to edit, grade and do the sound yourself it is always better to have people who specialise in those areas, and who will have creative ideas to enhance the whole production. I need other people to review my work so I can improve it – working collaboratively is really important. It was great too that we were in post-production for the project I was working on for my job too, so I was able to learn things there that I could then apply to my own baby project.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘I shot all my footage in V-Log to get the best detail and latitude for highlights and shadows that the camera can produce, so I could call on that later in the grade. As I was flicking between 8 and 10bit shooting in V-Log allowed me to play with the dynamic range a bit more, and allowed the colourist to pull back the colours in the grading process.
‘I’m used to shooting S35 for my job, and certainly for wildlife I’ll use cropped codecs to punch in to distant subjects when I need to. But when you shoot full frame in high resolution with the S1H you have the option to crop and reframe in post-production. I also used the 1.4x converter for the Sigma 150-600mm to help me get as close as I needed to the cranes.
‘I used Sigma lenses for this project as they brought out 20 new L mount lenses at the end of 2019 which matched very nicely with the S1H, and they agreed to lend me some. The fast maximum apertures really helped in the temples and in low light situations. They have a great range of focal lengths, and work really well with the Lumix cameras. I’m not used to shooting with autofocus as we don’t generally in natural history, so I tend to focus manually and did so for this project too. The flying birds were really hard to shoot manually, and I shot hundreds of clips in which they just weren’t sharp before I got enough good ones. I use the viewfinder and use the magnified view for fine focus. Most of the time I was shooting at f/6.3 on the long Sigma lens and, so long as the bird wasn’t moving too much, the focus would hold. I use the function button to activate the magnified view, rather than a turn of the lens barrel.’

Accessories

‘I used the XLR adapter to record the interviews that I did to go alongside this film, but all the other sound in the film was added afterwards. It’s really hard to record sound and images at the same time, but I did make some clips with the Zoom H5 and recorded scratch audio in-camera. The sounds of the cranes and the wing flaps are all from a library – which is what we almost always do for natural history too. This allows me to concentrate on the visuals, and I took lots of notes in the field about what sounds I was hearing.
‘I used the DJI Ronin-S gimbal and shot handheld in the city, and relied a lot on the camera’s IBIS - which is fantastic. For the wider shots the in-camera stabiliser was more than enough, but with the really long lenses I needed a bit of extra stabilisation in post-production as my tripod wasn’t all that strong.

Japan - The Guardians of Ikigai

‘I took the DJI Mavic Mini drone for the aerial footage. You can see the quality difference in the film as obviously the drone’s camera isn’t as good as the S1H, but hopefully people won’t notice too much. I think people are a bit more forgiving when they know its drone footage, and hopefully they’ll be carried away in the story and won’t mind.
‘I wasn’t able to take lights or reflectors, and all the shots were lit with natural and ambient light. I would have needed an assistant for the shots where I orbited Yoko to avoid getting the lights in the frame, so that just wasn’t possible. And anyway, the dynamic range of the S1H sensor was sufficient to allow me to control shadow and highlight detail afterwards.
‘I went to Japan for this shoot in February and it was -17C in the mornings, so it was really cold while I was shooting. I had to eat a lot of calories to keep warm. It snowed really heavily on the last day, and being stationary all day I was really cold. The cold doesn’t affect me too badly, but it does numb the senses and can be painful. Knowing that these shots were what I had come for, and knowing the cold would end at some point, kept me going.’

Making a difference

‘It really is possible to shoot a short film using a camera as small as the Lumix S1H, but as always it’s the story that will hold people’s attention and what they will remember. Telling stories about wildlife, people and places is my Ikigai, and hopefully inspiring people to make a difference. I’m driven by wanting to make a difference – there are only about 1500 red-crowned cranes left. People do get moved by imagery, and films can inspire them to change.
‘It’s brilliant to think that a single work or thought that comes into your mind can become a visual piece that people can watch, read, listen to, and enjoy. This job takes me miles away from friends and family for months at a time, and I work all the time - but it’s my passion. It’s definitely worth it all if you can make a difference and inspire people to care more about the world.’

Tania’s kit list for this project

  • Lumix S1H
  • Sound XLR for S1H
  • Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
  • Sigma 150-600mm EF mount F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports
  • Sigma Tele-converter TC-1401 X2 extender
  • Sigma MC-21 EF-L Mount Adapter
  • Microphone VMS10
  • Ronin S gimbal + focus wheel + Ronin S gimbal handlebars
  • Variable ND Filters
  • 128GB 400mbs storage cards
  • SD card reader
  • H5 Zoom recorder

To see more of Tania’s work visit her website at treproductions.co.uk

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