Enter: The Year of the Dragon – five filmmakers record the spectacular display

By Jonah Kessel

2012: The Year of the Dragon from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

The plan was simple: to one-up ourselves.

One year earlier friends and filmmakers Paul Morris, Kit Gillet and myself decided to make a short video documenting some of the fireworks in Beijing as China celebrated the Lunar New Year.

In fact, I even wrote about the experience on this blog here. Exactly one year later — we decided to do it again. However, this time — we wanted to go bigger. Much bigger.

This is a really interesting experiment: to come back to a video you made exactly one year later and reevaluate its strengths and weaknesses, and then try again. I believe this experience is a good check on your progress as a filmmaker and makes you step back and evaluate everything you do from shooting, to workflow to the art of story telling itself.

2011: The Year of the Rabbit from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

After we screened last year’s video we all agreed — it was kind of a stereotypical DSLR video with no real narrative. Pretty pictures, not enough of a story. There are a lot of these on the web.

This year, we wanted to tell the story of Chun Jie (Chinese New Year). However, we wanted to do it in such a way that would require very little dialogue. We wanted images to tell the story, but still have some voices in the piece — with the goal of keeping our own voices out of it. We wanted it to be cinematic but at the same time — real and unrehearsed. And while last year, we had no imposing deadlines, this year we would need to turn the video over in 36 hours to the New York Times. Now the experiment became — how to tell a story better than we had last year, shoot, process, translate and edit the footage — and transmit on China’s dodgy internet connections in less than 36 hours.

As we planned for the story and began to factor in the chaotic nature of China — we decided to bring in some more friends. Shooters Jim Fields and Keith Bedford would join our team, allowing us to be in multiple locations at once showing a wider variety of images from the celebration. We crafted a schedule, shot list and found an old man who via an interview we would setup as the story teller of Chun Jie, allowing us to dip out from narration.

To help to visually enforce the man as a story-teller and not just some old guy off the street, we put a pretty strong grade on his shots. We added about 15 points of sepia, added a vignette, desaturated, added contrast and sharpened a small bit. The hope was to visually represent the traditions that go along with this holiday for Chinese people by making him a bit more historic looking.

Rolling Shutter
We encountered some of the same difficulties we did last year. The rolling shutter issue being a big and relatively unsolvable issue. While DSLRs are great for many things — for fireworks they are not. We did some tests and while we know we couldn’t stop it from happening, we did find ways to mitigate the effect. We found if fireworks were exploding at a fast enough pace to cause the rolling shutter, it would show up significantly less if the angle of the camera was in a relative perpendicular axes to the exploding object. Pulling further away from the object also helped a lot. However, in general, if you are using a DSLR and information is being recorded across the sensor in a horizontal motion as they do, and your subject happens to be exploding at an extremely high speed — you are simply using the wrong camera.

Nonetheless, we avoided it as much as possible and wrestled with the other innate problems of shooting fireworks such as exposing for something that (a) hasn’t happened yet and (b) you don’t know what will happen when it does explode. Dealing with quickly dying batteries in -15 C weather and trying to be setup in time to capture someone setting off a firework without telling them what to do is also an enormous challenge.

After 13 hours of shooting we all reported back to begin the editing process. We would have 23 hours left before deadline but there was much work ahead. Because of China’s slow web and long transmitting times for files the conversion files to Prores, translating, grading and creating the script would have be done with at least 2 hours to spare. This meant no sleeping, a lot of junk food, fast food and when things became painful, some beer. Days later, I made visual representation of this relatively comical 36 process to get this short film out.

ROLLING SHUTTER: 36 Hours in the Making of The Year of the Dragon from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

When we hit our deadline everyone was sleeping except me. Minutes before I was about to pass out, the video posted — and it posted front and center on the Times’ home page.

It was an amazing bit of timing and in one moment — the pain of the past day in half was gone and for just a brief moment, the world got a glimpse of an ancient Chinese tradition.

Happy New Year — 新年快乐

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing based freelance visual journalist working with the New York Times. Visit his web site here or follow him on Twitter here.

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