Hayden J Weal’s “love, sex and time travel of the brain” indie feature Chronesthesia has its world premiere on Friday in Wellington as part of the NZIFF. Weal acts as well as directs, alongside Michelle Ny, who’s also appearing elsewhere in the NZIFF in Alison Maclean’s just-premiered The Rehearsal.
Ahead of Chronesthesia’s premiere, we’re pleased to get a Q&A with DOP, sound and VFX whiz Simeon Duncombe. A self taught Computer Graphics Artist, Duncombe grew up near Brisbane and began his film career at Warner Brothers studios on the Gold Coast. He moved to New Zealand in 2003 to join Weta Digital and has worked on King Kong, Avatar and The Hobbit trilogy.
Last year, while finishing post-production on his own short film, Trick Meter, he came on board longtime collaborator Weal’s Chronesthesia. The film is produced by Kelly Kilgour (Cub) and Steve Barr (Born to Dance, Timeslow).
Chronesthesia’s world premiere on Friday (29 July) is already sold out, as is the second screening. Tickets are still available for the final NZIFF screening in Wellington on 3 August.
Simeon, how did you become involved and what experience had you had prior?
Simeon Duncombe: Well, this was a given. Hayden (Weal) and I had already been working together on numerous projects and we’d thrown around the idea of making a feature in the past. It was really motivated by the idea that if we could shoot a short in a weekend, how long would it take us to shoot our first feature? A few things had to fall in place for the timing to be right, but once Hayden had a script, it was basically – “Let’s do it!”
Did you have any reservations about shooting with no budget for your first feature?
SD: Not really, as there was never any pressure involved to begin with – there wasn’t years of development and money at stake. It’s more an exercise for the two of us – something we could stuff up and learn from without any external pressures. Obviously we wanted to give it a good crack and make something cool, but this isn’t our opus. We just set out to start learning the process of making a feature film, however we could.
What was the filming process? What prep did you have and how long did filming take?
SD: Pre-production was as simple as it gets. Once the script revisions were done and the time was ripe for shooting (the peak of summer), we built a shoot schedule around cast availability and ran with it. Shooting was mainly scheduled for weekends, so we began a weekly routine of sorting locations, locking in shooting times with cast and preparing any props or wardrobe required. Hayden and I would try and catch up prior to each shoot day and spin some ideas on staging, etc. But it mostly came down to improvising on the day.
There was always last minute issues we had to roll with, so the art of improvisation became part of the norm. It really helped us make the most of a given situation, rather than try and shoehorn an idea into a scenario that didn’t accommodate it. All up shooting took about 3 months. Not every weekend was fully booked and sometimes we couldn’t shoot at all, but we just rolled with it and kept chipping away at that schedule however we could.
What camera did you shoot on and why? Advantages and disadvantages?
SD: We shot on the Sony FS7. It’s a very versatile camera with a great range of features useful for our style of shooting. It’s a particularly amazing camera for handling the full gamut of lighting conditions. It has incredible low light sensitivity and with built in ND filters for those brighter conditions, I could always have full control over exposure and DOF without the need of a cumbersome matte box. This was really key, as we only shot with natural light and practicals.
Its form factor was also great for jumping between set-ups from hand held, tripod or the gimbal stabiliser. Some more dynamic range might have been nice, as we ended up shooting in some ridiculously low light at high frame rates, but overall, we’re really stoked with the footage.
In what way were you pleased or disappointed with the results?
SD: After seeing the first cut, I was incredibly pleased to see that technically, there wasn’t any showstopper mistakes in the shooting. Considering the circumstances we shot in, I was so relieved with the result. After that had settled in, the smaller mistakes began to emerge… Sometimes a focus pull would miss its mark, framing was slightly lost or a shot would’ve been better on sticks instead of hand-held or vice-versa. More coverage would’ve been nice, but we shot at such a high ratio and speed, we just had to keep to the bare essentials.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I can’t be too disappointed. We have a film and that was the main goal. Secondly, I’ve learnt an enormous amount and that was really the point of doing this project.
What was the size of your camera and lighting crew?
SD: This probably maxed out at two most of the time. A friend of ours, Abby Damen (who plays Imogen in the film), was my helping hand for a lot of the shoot days. If she wasn’t around, the workload was just split between myself and Hayden (who is the lead actor in the film). Hayden and I would approach a scene with whatever was on hand and just improvised. It honestly made it fun and challenging. A dedicated cam assist would’ve been awesome, but thankfully we managed.
With such a limited crew, how did you achieve capturing sound?
SD: This is another role that would’ve been awesome to have help with, but that became my responsibility. Sound isn’t really my forte, so I just made sure I had the right gear and tried to take the right precautions during setup. Looking after sound, while also doing picture was hard for me to monitor. I’d be thinking about framing and focus, while also trying to listen for any sound issues. Needless to say, I prioritised for the image, so this is really the one area that the results aren’t the best and required some significant post-production help, unfortunately.
How did you find the time to shoot Chronesthesia on the weekends?
SD: Tackling a project like this means you have to forego a lot of things that weekends would otherwise fulfill, but it was worth it. It was physically and mentally challenging and I didn’t bounce back to the office refreshed on Mondays, but we kept the shooting as efficient as possible while also keeping things light and fun.
You’re an Animation Supervisor at Weta Digital. What drew you to becoming a DOP?
SD: I’m not necessarily interested in becoming a DOP, I’m just drawn to the visual side of story telling and that role is obviously a key component to that. I really just want to improve as a filmmaker, so taking on challenges like this really contributes to my work as an Animation Supervisor and vice-versa. I think this is also why Hayden and I work well together, as his strength is with words and mine is with pictures.
Does the film require any animation or CGI?
SD: No, not in the pure sense of the word. There are plenty of VFX, but these are all live action based composites. We have some flashy stylised visuals to contend with, but this doesn’t require anything more than an interesting use of similar functions you’d find in Photoshop.