What A 94-Year-Old Dancing Granny Taught Me About Filmmaking

“So… Plans changed. Instead of doing pre-pro, we’re shooting all day tomorrow!”

Varina, our co-director, told me this, with what I believe was earnest excitement, but I wasn’t as thrilled.

I had never used the camera before. I had never been to Japan before. I hadn’t even met our 94-year-old subject yet, Tomi-san.

There was no way I was ready for this.

TODAY'S STORY IS WRITTEN BY JORD CHRISTOPHER, DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY FOR TEAM OKINAWA IN MUSE FILM SCHOOL COHORT 1.

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Our film school cohort had decided on telling Tomi-san’s story, a 94-year-old woman whose laughter and smile had hooked us from the first Skype call. We arrived on the exotic Kohama Island in the far south of Japan’s Okinawa archipelago a full day early for the explicit reason of having extra time for pre-production to make sure our team knew the gear and we were aligned with our story. Now I was finding out that I wouldn’t get any!

I blinked and suddenly we were filming at Tomi-san’s house. It was my first time on the RED Scarlet-W and let’s just say I was clumsy at the controls.

Our goal was to capture the part Tomi-san’s story where she stayed in her house for three whole years after her son died. We didn’t want to ask her to re-enact anything, so we decided to follow Tomi-san’s normal daily routine with minimal interference and direction from our part. Not fully knowing her daily schedule (because we gave up our pre-production day!), we had to be ready for anything.

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I stood by the doorway of her room, fumbling with controls. Little Tomi-san, whose head when standing up only reaches my hip, was slowly getting out of bed. I looked down for one second to adjust the lens, and when I looked back up she had already shuffled right past me! How did I miss that!?

Seriously? A nonagenarian was too speedy for us?

I moved into her kitchen to film her walking by, but the shot was slightly out of focus because I hadn’t moved fast enough.

This woman is 94!

The rest of the day felt like we were chasing around a 94-year-old from her house to her garden and back, never quite sure if we got the shot. We had no direction with camera movement and were simply popping on lens when we thought we needed them.

By that night, we were exhausted, both from jetlag and from the 14-hour production day.  

Collapsing on the bamboo-matted dining room floor, we decided to watch a cut of our shots from the day.

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The critiques shot out like arrows. “We shot too much. Shoot less.” “You missed focus.” “That composition is not good in this shot.” “Think about using a different lens in this situation next time.”

Dang.

For a brief moment, I let myself believe that I was letting down my team, who had sacrificed so much to be here at this exact, dog-tired moment. But then I remembered what we all came here for: to learn and grow.

We sat in a large circle around the room. Patrick went around and asked each of us why we had come here, why had we done Muse Film School, what did we want to get out of this experience?

Everyone gave a variation of the same answer: Excellence. We all wanted to grow as storytellers and as filmmakers.

We all agreed we wanted to learn. And that meant stop doing what we’d always done in production and learn a new approach to filmmaking and to storytelling. So together, as a unified team, we decided to slow down, think before we shoot, be more proactive and less reactive. Predict where our granny is going before she makes the move!

This was the turning point of the project, and of our team.

 Varina, myself, and Tomi-san riding the ferry to Kohama. 

Varina, myself, and Tomi-san riding the ferry to Kohama. 

With the resolve to be more proactive, the next day we gave constant verbal feedback to whoever was operating camera. We knew that only the best of the best shots would even stand a chance to make it into the final edit, so if it was sub-par, we weren’t even going to shoot it.

We also constantly analyzed our story and the keywords guiding our story to see if the shot was even needed. And if it was, we predicted the action in the scene so we could place ourselves in a position to nail the shot.

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Finally, the day rolled around to film all the dancing grannies perform their hit song. Now was our moment of truth.

Days before, we would have just rushed in, hit record, and tried to film every aspect of the dance. But this time, our co-directors Stephan and Varina and myself, met before and asked ourselves what were we trying to communicate with this last scene, the final dance. We went back and forth between real time or slow motion, Ronan or monopod. Finally, we looked at story. We’re filming grannies, this is moment that should make the audience connect, smile, and feel the hope these women have found by coming together to support each other in their old age.

We went with a higher frame rate and decided to pushed in with one camera on the Ronan, and the second camera ready on the monopod. We were ready.

The ladies arrived with walkers, canes, and motorized scooters dressed up in their yellow kimonos.. One of the grannies placed a boom box on a nearby chair.

We had one shot at this and we couldn’t screw it up. These were elderly ladies and the sun was blazing down on them. Water and folding chairs were in short supply, so they’d only do their dance once. Missing focus was not an option.

The music started. Canes and walkers were pushed aside and the grannies sprang to life! Hands were clapping and waving and the grannies rocked side to side.

We went to work! I moved forward with the camera, filming our planned shots while our two directors watched from a monitor. Part way through, I realized it all seemed a bit bright. I stepped back for a second, instead of rushing to the other side of the dancing line.

I knew what we needed.

Quickly, I called over our second camera operator, who was faster at nailing focus. “Samo, get in there and get this shot!” I said as I handed him the RED. He willingly ran right into the chaos like a storm chaser toward a funnel cloud. From my newly liberated vantage point, I grabbed what we needed: an 8x8 diffuser to help shade the dancers from the sun so the camera could see their faces. As a team, we moved back and forth over the grannies as they laughed and danced in their routine.

By the end of it, our whole team was high fiving and hugging the grannies. We knew we’d nailed it.

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Our obligation was to ensure that Tomi-san’s story was captured and conveyed in a way that honored her life and inspired others. We knew that Tomi-san’s story, which brought us great personal joy, would do the same for anyone privileged to watch it unfold.

We thought we knew how to do that, but slowing down, being humble, and learning a new approach saved our story.

 

WATCH JORD AND TEAM OKINAWA'S FILM IN SEASON 2 OF THE REMARKABLE ONES! 

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OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION:

On the island of Okinawa, many women live well into their 100s – and Tomi-San is no exception.

But when her son & husband both passed away, Tomi-San found herself in a deep depression. This is the story of how she rediscovered her place on the island…and became a beloved international media sensation in the process.

Produced by a global team of filmmakers as part of Muse Film School (musefilmschool.org) for the original web-series The Remarkable Ones (theremarkableones.org).

OFFICIAL CREDITS:

A FILM BY MUSE STORYTELLING AND TOMI MENAKA

CO-DIRECTOR VARINA SHAUGHNESSY

CO-DIRECTOR STEPHAN BOEKER

PRODUCER JOSH WHITEMAN

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY JORD CHRISTOPHER

SECOND CAMERA SAMO ZEAL

AUDIO ANDY STAVER

CO-EDITOR VARINA SHAUGHNESSY

CO-EDITOR STEPHAN BOEKER

MUSIC BY MICHAEL VIGNOLA

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER ALEX WIDMER

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER PATRICK MOREAU

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER KATHRYN GIROUX