During the following series of articles I will analyze certain aspects of my Squattertown project. Created as trans-media project, Squattertown was a huge test run and experimental lab for my crew and me. We wanted to see how far we can go. Can we actually pull it off? And what lessons we can take away for the projects to come. In this respect, Squattertown was a full success. The amount of information collected is immense and versatile. However, as a living project over the past 14 months it adopted to its project web channels as those kept changing themselves. I will offer a transparent and honest analysis on every main channel we used. However, I cannot reveal all details as some of my crew members make a living with this sort of internet business.

I will separate my analysis into a number of sub-topics and focus sole on the time period of August 8, 2010 (the day I launched the Indiegogo campaign) to October 11, 2011. If you look at the numbers they won’t be that impressing nor overwhelming compared to other pages or film project. But I think we achieved quite a lot as small indie HK flick within the extreme narrow budget of HK$20K. On top, you most definitely won’t find a more transparent film project analysis within the Greater China region. So here we go:

 

 

Facebook

Facebook was one of the project’s main channels but also the channel that went through the most severe changed during the past 14 months. Primarily, I used the Facebbok page as the central platform to post all updates on the project throughout the entire production period. It was supposed to be a collection of all activities on the web that dealt with Squattertown.

LIKES (or Fans as it was called when we started)

As of October 12, 2011 we got 168 likes. Now the official FB page insights get a bit confusing since they list a total of 177 likes since the beginning. However, as there are 32 people who unliked or better unsubscribed to the project page throughout the course of the project the actual number of people who subscribed to the page was somewhere around 200. That is low compared to my previous UCP (https://www.facebook.com/ucp2009) project back in 2009. We reached a number of 180 likes within just 2 weeks. The peak here was somewhere around 240. Even after 2 years online the page still got 192.

Now, what happened within these 2 years? Back in 2009 FB pages were something new, something different to the groups who were about to start dying. And obviously FB is just about to cut down all open groups with low interactions. (Closed groups seem to remain untouched for now.) So inviting someone to a page and engaging him/her to like it was quite easy and we actually went over 100 within 2 days on the UCP. But during fall 2010 things had changed, FB was flooded with pages, most monetized. People’s notification inboxes were crammed with page and game suggestions from friends one barely knew. So driving someone on your project page and making them engage became a tricky thing.

The like numbers gradually went up, steady but slow. However, there was a significant difference within those likes compared to the UCP. The community that was build with Squattertown was smaller but far more active on the page. The number of interactions was higher. They were actually that high, that I could figure out a posting strategy when and what to post with the maximum impact.

FB on the other hand, since pages became such a great monetary value to them, refined the stats options and analytic tools. This all helped throughout the project tremendously but I ended up changing the strategy every couple of weeks which is quite time consuming.

 

CONNECT


When we now look at the “active users” graph you can clearly see two big peaks. The first one starts mid of November 2010, roughly around the time when my second campaign on MySherpas got off the ground due to the great press work and help by the German team of this crowd-sponsoring platform. The second and far more distinct peak was the premiere event end of July 2011. In all FB insight graphs you will find an enormous peak at this time spot. So let me explain a bit more in detail what happened here:

On July 31, 2011 we had our official (physical) premiere in Hong Kong at the venue of Videotage. For this event we teamed up with a new Austrian start-up company, RealLifeConnect (http://blog.reallifeconnect.com/), that provides RFID card check-in solutions for events. Guests of the premiere received a special Squattertown RFID card with which they were able to check into the event or liking the event. Whenever someone swiped a card at a venue’s scanners it would result in a small message post on his/her FB profile, telling their friends what they are doing right now. A special was our photo booth where guests could take on one of the series’ costumes and by swiping their RFID cards such photos would also be posted to their FB profiles. (photo booth pictures: https://www.facebook.com/Squattertown?sk=app_167168409988996)

Now I cannot go into details on all the numbers and interactions that were aggregated that night since it is RealLifeConnect’s daily bread and butter but the concept has proven most viable and useful for a on-site film promotion. We were able to connect the event with the internet in real time, having friends of guests interacting on our internet channels. The peak you see in the graphs results from people who cycle back from their friends profiles to the project page. However, it does not reflect how many impressions or posts we had due to the check-ins. Those were far higher.

UNLIKES

Now, we did gain a good number of new “followers” to the page on that night as well as during the following days. However, about one month after the premiere a significant change in “like” (fan) numbers started to emerge and still continues. Unlikes are taking place, constantly almost on a daily basis. So here is my theory:

This phenomenon became apparent after the launch of Google+ and FB’s subsequent radical change of key features on its site. For example, the site now offers friend lists (equivalent to the G+ circles) and one can subscribe to a strangers wall without the need of being friend with him. The individual profile sees a tremendous boost, which is correlating with the recent trend of real-identity on the web. G+ is criticized for demanding its members to reveal real profile names, but that is where the money will be in the web of the future. Hence, we will see on FB a significant shift in actual online value from the page toward the profile.

Since the war of believes emerged when G+ launched (Google fans against FB fans) a huge number of Facebookers are starting to update and clean out their profile pages. This is indeed a necessary step as their profiles will eventually be openly accessible blogs. Let’s face it. FB’s original principles of being exclusive, establishing and communicating with your own circle of friends only, are long gone. The site will open up your data step by step, no matter what privacy settings you tick.

Hence, during all those profile clean-ups small projects like Squattertown get kicked out by people. I experienced this behavior quite a lot among my own FB-friends. The day they unlike the page, they added their old school, past working employments and what not. Most unlikes are indeed people from Hong Kong. G+ does not play a big role in this city, but FB became like a business card, a second me. And you better keep that neat and tidy!

So what I am currently experiencing is a shift in fans. Since the start Hong Kong fans were dominant. Now they begin to drop. New likes coming primarily from Western countries. And there is actually a slight trend towards South America.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Since we started off the project under the objective to create a niche sub-genre within the Western it was clear female fans would be rather scarce. When we look  at the 14 months graph we got 31% female and 68% male fans, by having the strongest audience between 25-34. The latter one was a success as we specifically targeted this group with our trans-media concept and online presence. However, most the time during the project, as well as on other channel’s stats we had a female-male ration of 25% to 75%. At the beginning of the project even higher, around 15% to 85%. So I would say we were able to get more female fans into the project than expected, even though I was hoping for a number around 40%.

The four top countries are no actual surprise as those were the ones we conducted our fund-raising campaign at. Ultimately a FB page is a good tool to connect to a very international fan base in a short time. But by having fans from different countries and cultures raises the question of language. In which language should updates be posted? Should there be a bilingual or even multiple translation on each information/content? How do you engage a great number of fans to interact with your content via certain languages?

The Squattertown page fans come from 20 different countries and I usually posted updates in English, occasionally in German. There have been a couple of Portuguese comments but interactions were mostly in English. Recently, FB implemented a Bing translation tool,but I still got no viable answers to my questions above.

I think there could have been more interactions when I would have posted all updates in English and Chinese simultaneously, considering our main target was Hong Kong. Thus, I believe a more specifically narrowed targeting on one country alone can give you higher interaction rate and maybe even more fans. But ultimately Squattertown was supposed to be international and I was constantly trying to figure out where our limitations were.

Cycling back to the unlike-issue, to a greater extend I believe the abandoning of this quite local HK project by local people is also rooted within the language issue. Looking at other film related local FB pages it becomes evident that those with big like numbers and interactions are sole in Chinese. So I do believe to a certain degree I focused not enough on the project’s local aspects, needs and potential. there was a lot left on the table…

ACTIVITY & MEDIA CONSUMPTION

I think the graphs are self-explanatory here. Page views were relatively constant. Usually one can say each peak was one project update. During the fund-raising period views were always between 100-200. during the production and post-production it went down a bit as I was more focusing on the actual project rather than writing updates. So the lesson her would be, employ someone who gives updates and maintains the page. But then again, I wanted people to know when there is an update that they could rely on it came from me, personally.

Now again, the premiere event blows the chart out of proportion. But I think more important are referrals here. Since the project had a broad presence on the web it was a bit hard to determine who or what drives views/clicks/people from where to where. But you will see my personal web page was significant in terms of driving people to the page, as was Google/YouTube. there are also other project channels linking here as well as several blogs and pages I teamed up with during the production period.

However, don’t underestimate the impact a simple link in your email signature can have, still, after all those years and social media! However, driving people to the FB page was just the strategy for the first couple of months, during fund-raising. By December 2010/January 2011 I started primarily driving clicks to the main project page http://squattertown.com (from which all project channels are being linked with) as well as the YouTube channel. Now, one of my biggest mistakes here was not to track the URL links I sent out or simply limit to a set of links. Thus, I cannot provide further detail on this issue.

When it comes to media consumption, one thing is for certain, biggest interaction driver are photos. Videos are only relevant when they are short and one can tag a large number of people in them. Un-tagged videos have a far lesser chance of being watched. We do not have any audio items on the page so there is no analysis on this aspect. In my previous experience with UCP, audio was quite a hassle as one needs to apply for the app to be activated on the page by FB. Last time this took about 3 months or so as they are checking for potential copyright infringements.

 

YouTube

For the analysis of the YouTube channels as one of our three video platforms I will mainly focus on the teaser since view numbers and stats for the four webisodes are still rising steady. I suspect to evaluate an online video run would need about 6-9 months until there is enough material for a thorough evaluation.

TEASER

The teaser was launched on March 19th, 2011. Primarily spread throughout the project’s social media channels, it was then further shared by fans and friends. As you can see on the graph, there were 2 minor spikes in April and May. Views were mainly driven by the YouTube channel or embedded views which, to a great extend, involved Facebook, my own website and other fan/crew pages/blogs. Then there is this immense spike in beginning of June. This is when CNNgo published an article on Squattertown and embedded the teaser to the top of the page. You can also see how diversified the view sources became. Other pages and blogs started to link to the teaser. The aftershock of the article went on for about 2-3 weeks until end of July, when the premiere event took place. You will also recognize, that the CNNgo article turned the majority of the view sources from YouTube to embedded views. After the premiere, YouTube views became almost redundant, leaving only the actual channel views inside the stats.

This showed me how important actual press work is to a project. One cannot just rely on social media. Most young filmmakers believe social media is a great promotion tool for their film but in the end it is what it always was, conversation and networking. Promotion and advertising are killing those two characteristics. Hence, one has to find methods and ways to create a conversation online that eventually leads to your project. Pointing with the finger at something will alienate most.

 

TEASER HOT SPOTS


YouTube offers a so called Hot Spots tool within its stats. It basically tells which parts of the video are attractive to viewers and subsequently how “hot” it is. This tool won’t be available for videos below 1K view numbers, apparently because there is not enough data. I checked this graph a number of times and it keeps indeed changing quite a lot. I have seen this green graph starting high and having a deep valley toward the end.

For a filmmaker this tool is questionable. Somehow nonetheless, I hold it quite interesting as it links up (presumable) audience attention/interest directly with the images. That way one can check if certain shots have the intended reaction on the viewers. However, this should be taken as reference only and not as absolute.

Btw, YouTube recently published a site manual in which they argue content creators should focus on the first 15secs to make them as enticing  and engaging as possible. Apparently, according to this graph the teaser fails in this respect, at least for now.

 

DEMOGRAPHICS

Even though it is too early for an in-depth look on the YouTube numbers I believe there is already a lesson to learn when we compare the demographics between teaser and webisode #1 as this will correspond to the FB analysis above.

First, gender and age. The teaser got a ratio of 15% female and 85% male viewers. That is a much heavier imbalance to the Facebook numbers. Webisode #1 is just a tiny bit deviating, 13% to 87%. Now what strikes me is the huge difference in age. While webisode #1 shows a similar sectioning in age as the FB fans, with 25-34 year olds as major group, the teaser is surprisingly even all the way through from 25 to 64 year olds.

Now, of course, this numbers can change but it basically tells me that there are two different viewer groups active. This definitely is a result of changing my promotion strategy during the web launch in August. I took the lessons learned from the teaser and targeted the series more specifically to niche web channels. Hence, I would argue “traditional” web press channels, like e.g. CNNgo with a vast regular reader base give you a great broad platform but barely real interactions nor sustainable push within other project channels. This is simply because the trans-media aspects are not utilized by their older demographics. This might also apply to print media, but I did not test them on this particular project. However, I must say the CNNgo article brought other advantages and talents to the project. I met a number of new people who then started contributing to Squattertown and are still working with me on new projects.

When we now look at the world maps to see which country got the most views it is clear that all the aimed markets have been reacting to the project as planned. Primary targets were US, Germany, Hong Kong, Austria and Portugal. That Asia got a quite even number of views is surprising. But you have to consider one mistake within the YouTube stats: China as a whole should not be marked. There have been no Chinese views. Also, I can’t say much on the views among the various US states. California seems a steady hot spot, but that’s rather usual I would say.

 

In the next post I will analyze: VIMEO , GOOGLE+, EGGUP and our biggest mistake!

 

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

Day 7

The seventh and last day of principal photography was more than a week after our Tai Kok Tsui adventure and a rather spontaneous set-up. The only scene still open from the script was the Mahjong game sequence in webisode #2. Originally planned to take place at the Tai Kok Tsui location too, I decided to settle for a less risky choice due to the amount of cast, crew and props involved. Also the sequence turned out being a bit more complex than expected and needed some more preparation on my side. Hence, the final location choice fell on a small fisher village named Lei Yue Mun. Almost matching the squatter roof landscape perfectly this village offered a variety of different spots suitable for this project. However, none was really on a rooftop.

[natural lighting test on designated location – day before shoot]

A couple of days after the previous shooting I went over to the village to check out which spot would be best. I knew the village from previous projects. We shot our first Dim Sum Western attempt Due Parole, Tre Bugie (http://vimeo.com/7887640) here, along the village’s coastline back in fall 2009. Now, however, I was looking for something more hidden, something that can easily cover as rooftop setting. The day before the actual shooting I visited the village again, together with my DoP Diogo and ShelB, one of our production assistants. We narrowed down the spots I had chooses before and finally settled for a small canopied intersection of  two back alleys within the village’s backside. Residents used it as a place to dry their laundry and it actually seemed to be the front yard of a house entrance that had been blocked for years. We tried to get permission from the residents, but couldn’t find the man to whom this place belonged to. In hope he would approve we left a note.

[location at back alley intersection]

On  arrival at the next day, the man was at home and first did not wanted to talk to us. He actually did not care much about the whole situation. We brought some fruits as token of our appreciation, but he did not care about that either. Eventually he came out, grabbed his drying laundry, cleared the place and left. We took that as approval. To set up the scenery we found a bunch of old, rotten stools and borrowed a small table from another neighbor.

[set set-up & choreographing the “attack” scene with actors]

One thing we learned from previous projects was that the actor’s faces, costumes and props had to look not only dirty but also used and worn out. Our special squatter make-up this time was charcoal and  incense ashes. Every actor and every piece of clothes got a short rub-over with it. As we wrapped this short 4hrs shooting day principal photography was completed. Now post-production began from end of January 2011 till end of May 2011.  Several minor shoots for empty shots, pick-ups and ground material for the visual effects works all over the city took place during that time, but none with actors anymore.

Along this post-production period sound was probably the most important aspect, simply due to the fact that we had little on-set sound recording. Since we were shooting with DSRL cameras external sound recording was necessary. However, the locations usually had all kinds of sounds that were not suitable for the story. Sounds like car noises, construction sites, people talking on the streets and so on. All those would destroy the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of what was intended. So we recorded only the dialogs directly on the set, trying to get them as clean as possible. All other sounds were specifically mixed, separately recorded and tailored during the 7-8 weeks of sound editing. Between April and May we did a series of on-location foley recordings. For the most important of these sessions we had to return to this very village.

[narrow back alleys of Lei Yue Mun]

During the editing process I realized none of the sound libraries we had access to was holding sufficient sounds on footsteps. I needed gritty squatter footsteps and most material I had at hand was simply too conventional. Hence, I ended up reenacting all footstep sounds of SQUATTERTOWN. Mark, our sound recordist was following me with a mic through the back alleys of Li Yue Mun for about 3hrs. Biggest problem we faced that day were cicadas. Back in January there were none whatsoever. Now in May their sounds were penetrating, all over. Additionally, barking dogs, crying babies and taking residents gave us a hard time getting clean footstep sounds. But why were we recording at this troubled place. Simply because it was a place that matched the conditions of rooftop floors. The grounds and stairs were of concrete with gravel and occasional plants. The alleys had perfect reverbs and there were no car noises due to the remote location of the village. Especially the latter one is hard to find within Hong Kong.

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

Day 6

The sixth day was a tough one and we had quite some trouble during pre-production and even location scouting. Our designated shooting location was an old housing block in Tai Kok Tsui. One of those houses who are about to be removed due to the prestigious and scandal shaken high speed train railway between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

However, the block itself gained quite some popularity as one of the landmark squatter roof villages within Hong Kong. The book Portraits From Above by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham (http://peperoni-books.de/portraits_from_above_en.html) as well as the short documentary Once Upon A Rooftop by Sybil Wendler (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY7LeNOhCHk) both visited this very location when the residential community still was intact. The time we started our project only about three families were still living in this block. Everyone else had moved out already. We had a hard time actually locating the exact spot and were trying to get photos from a higher angle on top of surrounding buildings. On our first visit it was not possible to get access to the building as all doors were closed, which is very unusual for this kind of building. Usually there were no problems gaining access to other houses next door.

[Tai Kok Tsui roof location]

But we were lucky. Our location assistant Amy went to the location a couple of days later and met one of the remaining residents. He told us that he is not constantly living in this house anymore, it has become too dangerous. We set a meeting date with him so he could give us access to the house. The morning we arrived he was not available however and seemed not to be in the house at all. With slight frustration we walked around the block and tried again every door. By accident one of the doors was unlocked and we stepped inside. On the way up we encountered two floors with completely openly accessible apartments. All apartments were empty and abandoned but most had still furniture, clothes, CDs and loads of other things inside. It looked like residents had to flee their apartments in a rush and left everything behind they couldn’t carry away. The scenery was quite scary, it felt like a war zone.

[inside abandoned apartment]

[a calendar on the wall indicates when apartment was abandoned]

Arrived on the roof we faced the same situation. Everything was abandoned, apartment walls ripped apart, toilets shattered. During my research I saw a number of photos from this squatter roof. It looked like a small village with an intact infrastructure and community. What we saw now was rather the leftover of something that was swept away by a typhoon. To our surprise two families were still living on this very roof. One told us about incidents of accidental fires in staircases and how burglaries have increased in the past months. Of course none of this can be traced back to the property developer who wants the residents to sell their apartments asap. However the huge red propaganda banners outside on the opposite building’s facades indicate their intentions clearly and belong to the company’s public campaign to “drive residents out”. Christopher DeWolf just recently wrote a very good article on this issue: http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2010/10/20/say-goodbye-to-old-hong-kong/

[red banner of property developer across the street]

As depressing and dangerous this location was, it was most perfect for SQUATTERTOWN. It was simply the essence of what I had envisioned and there was no way around, we had to shoot here. But I had to be careful and choose wisely what kind of scene and for how long. After all, at the time, we still had to deal with the patrol guards. Applying the same strategy as in Kwun Tong, a precise timetable was set. Everything went well till the Friday, six days before our scheduled shoot. We got the news that a big fire had stricken the very building. A metal workshop located on the ground floor had caught fire and the blaze was so strong that it jumped up onto the roof. Most shocking aspect, one man who lived inside the workshop died during this incident. (Some links to news articles from the incident can be found at the end of this post)

[before/after picture]

After long discussions with the team I decided to visit the location again to see what the actual situation was like. So close to the shooting dates there was no way we could find an alternative location. After all I planned three major scenes in and on this building. We might could have managed finding another roof but definitely not another house with abandoned and free accessible apartments. I expected we encounter investigating police and more security guards now. However, as we arrived the building was even more empty than before. The property developer withdrew all patrol guards one day before the fire incident and police already wrapped investigation after 24hrs, labeling it as accident. Half the roof was now tinted black and the rest looked even more devastated than before as the fire men had pulled out every single wall. It was also obvious that the remaining residents still don’t want to leave and adapted to the situation by taking measures into their own hands. All over the roof we could find big buckets filled with water, a simple safety precaution.

[water buckets]

The risk was still high, even though we seemed to have no disturbance at all for our shoot. After even more discussions and a bunch of grey hair on my head we settled for giving it a shot, trying to shoot as much as we could with an even more reduced crew. Only remaining issue now was how we can enter the building on shooting day morning. We made a deal with the resident who let us enter before, but since he was not always available and reliable it was still a gamble. Also we were told not to wait with the entire team in from of the house, or even enter in large numbers. Word was, neighbors across the street were watching the house and reporting every suspicious situation to the police.

[team during location scouting]

So I arrived at 6:45am at the location with some of the equipment and two crew members. We waited till 7am when our contact came out of the building, on his way to work. The plan worked perfectly. Once we were in others could follow in single file. First, our cameraman Diogo set up some LED light panels inside the apartments to start shooting with the “ghost” shots that you can see in webisode #2. Our second cameraman that day was Mark, who was straight going up to the roof doing some empty and atmosphere shots. As the actors arrived we could finish all planned scenes smoothly and without problems. As we climbed the fragile, decayed tin roofs, getting the last shots of sunbathing cats, the atmosphere on this roof was extremely peaceful and quiet. I enjoyed being here, but time was running out and we had to wrap, moving equipment and team over to Kwun Tong again.

[shooting in roof courtyard ]

After lunch we set up camp at a new roof location that was located at the far end of the housing block we shot at two days before. It was an idyllic corner residence with four shanty huts, a small garden like area and a courtyard in the middle. The residence belonged to a family who lived here since the 1960s and was into the business of sub-renting apartment space. Christoper DeWolfe also wrote an article about this family here: http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2010/04/23/hong-kong-rooftops-condemned/. This setting was our “Church” scene that occupies most of webisode #3. As we came to this location the first time during our scouting period three members of the family where still living here. The time we came for the shooting three months later only one remained. When we revisited the residence two months after the shoot everything was evicted and cleared out. The family had left entirely.

[before/after images – left: residence in October 2010 / right: residence in March 2011]

In previous posts I was explaining the situation we had to deal with concerning location shooting permits and how we went in circles from gov authority to property developer to residents to gov authority and so on. While we shot on this roof that afternoon, a team from the very authority visited the remaining resident. They were doing their weekly check-in with the remaining occupants, persuading them to leave. The authority team saw us when they arrived, a bit of an awkward situation. Then they moved inside one of the huts with the resident. We could hear from outside how a heated discussion broke loose.

 

Link collection on Tai Kok Tsui:

1) on the fire incident:

2) documentary video from roof:

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

Day 5

The second day of principal photography started early again. There was only sufficient daylight from 8:30am to 5pm and we had 3 different locations to cover that day. First up, an industrial building roof in To Kwa Wan. I was told one of the INFERNAL AFFAIRS films had been shot on that roof too, so it seems quite prominent. The building is actually not very high, compared to the other locations but got a stunning view on the old Kai Tak Airport area as well as the skyline of East Kowloon. However, as great as this setting looks in the camera it created particular light changes difficulties for the cameramen. We had to balance everything from a sunrise to a foggy morning. Hence, I was trying to shoot all scenes as chronological as possible. This roof also got another stunning visual aspect, a huge advertising billboard standing right in the middle. Somehow the setting evoked memories of the legendary billboard fight showdown in HIGHLANDER.

Since we were shooting the showdown scene of webisode #4 a great deal of practical blood effects as well as a jumping/running stunts had to be managed in time. Ken Law, the actor of the BAD is a professional martial artist and stunt man. He created a complex stunt scene of the jump on the spot as what I had in mind turn out looking boring on camera. The scene was the first confrontation of the GOOD and the BAD. The GOOD was supposed to advance with his knife, trying to stab the BAD. The BAD dodges and jumps over his knife. Now this sounds simple and I thought it would be, but it was not. We ended up shooting Ken jumping from a 2m high position of the giant billboard onto the hard concrete floor with a roll. I had loads of concerns at that moment, fearing Ken would injure himself. This whole situation felt so Hong Kong film like: tough stunts by the actor himself, no safety, no double, no special effect. Eventually Ken jumped four times and the footage looked very good. It actually reminded me of the flying swordsman jumps in the old Shaw Brother films.

Next scene before lunch was the back alley setting, which was about one block from our morning location. Here, the script also demanded for a short fighting scene. A scene that again sounded simple but required specific choreography. Once more, Ken came up with a quick solution that would give good physical action as well as suitable angles for the cameras to capture it. However, this back alley location was on street level and we were not shooting in secret on some roof anymore. After all we were about to shoot a scene were two guys try to stab, kick and hit each other. So that draws certain attention and I knew that there were a couple of policemen patrolling the street leading to this alley. Hence, we set up a lookout post with one from the team who would signal us whenever someone comes along.

Everything turned out well without any disturbance, only we overran our schedule, for the first time. The alley scenes turned out more time consuming than I expected. After a quick lunch in one of the nearby restaurants we drove to the last location of the day, the 3 housing blocks in Shek Kip Mei we went before on Day 1 back in December 2010. This day was an extremely windy one, giving us a hard time with ever changing light situations. We had times of full bright sun light as well as dark cloudy spots. This situation is most apparent during the GARDENER scene in webisode #4. Due to logistic and personal schedules of the actors we could not shoot chronological in Shek Kip Mei. Hence you will clearly see a big difference from shot to shot within this scene.

As we started setting up the GARDENER scene that involved the longest dialog scene within all four webisodes the two owners of the roof garden we wanted to shoot at showed up. First we feared they shoo us away and we needed to improvise but it turned out they were extremely friendly and excited about our project. While we went on shooting they even brought up from their apartment a plate with fruits and nuts, just for us. It was amazing. As we wrapped this shooting day it was close to 5pm. Another resident came up on the roof and brought his Husky dog out to play. Some crew member fell in love with it ;)

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

Day 4

The 4th shooting day was the official start of principal photography and involved seven crew members and three actors. Plan was to shoot on three roofs and one staircase, all together five full scenes.  Location was, once again, the Kwun Tong Town Center roofs. Since we collected a great deal of intel during our previous expeditions within those locations we had a strict time schedule to follow and could not allow falling behind. Each scene had a specific spot on the roof to a specific time that would hopefully dodge the patrolling security guards.

[Kwun Tong Town Center area]

We met early in the morning outside the first building and waited until we saw the morning beat guards exiting the building. Then, we went up the roof in small groups of three, not to raise any attention by residing vendors who had their street shops within the house’s entrances. One team started setting up the “Laundry Forest” set on that same roof while I went over to the next roof, together with two actors and both cameramen to shoot the short Tower scene.

In Webisode #1 during this Tower scene you might actually recognize the actors breath and some rain. In fact that day was one of the coldest in this year’s Hong Kong winter and the rain just wouldn’t stop. It was quite a tough situation for cast/crew as well as for the camera equipment. Both held up pretty well ;)

[shooting in freezing rain]

The clock was running and we had to keep going despite the harsh weather. After finishing the Tower scene on schedule we went into one of the stairwells to shoot the Prison scene. This was a bit tricky as it was right the very staircase the mean guard that shooed us away came from the other day. As we set up the scene’s lighting with a couple of LED light panels our line producer set post two floors down, alarming us in case someone would come along. Hence, this situation meant we had to be prepared to flee set with all equipment and props at hand at any times. Luckily we finished this scenes without any disturbance as well, even 30 minutes earlier than planned.

The shooting team returned to the other roof where the set design team almost finished their set-up. As the time was close to the next expected security patrol we wrapped all equipment and left the roof, except our line producer who kept roaming around the building, checking the situation for us. Rest of the team set up a temporary post inside a McDonald’s that was located in the first floor of the very same building. We waited until we got word from our “roof spy” that everything was clear. While waiting one of the production assistants mixed the fake blood for the next scene and I went through the script with the actors.

[mixing “blood” at McDonald’s]

After a 45 minutes break part of the team went back up, only taking the equipment necessary for shoot. During pre-production I prepared a large number of bags for props and equipment. Each SQUATTERTOWN character had a designated bag with his costume, tools, props and accessories. Same for the departments camera and sound. Which means every morning I usually just grabbed the very bags that were labeled and packed for the very day. This system made us very mobile and flexible, there was no unnecessary equipment on the roofs. This thorough planning, of course, also holds the danger that you cannot change or deviate much from your original plan. Improvisation and extensive experiments were not possible. However, the system turned out to be so efficient that we usually had a couple of minutes on each scene where the cameramen could try out some different shots apart from what I had envisioned.

Despite some practical special effects work we were able to wrap the Laundry Forest scene on time and started moving to the next building across the street. In fact we were running quite ahead in schedule and decided to postpone lunch to finish the last two scenes. However, this last location change was also the most risky one of the day. Our line producer and me had visited the building a couple of days before the shoot, trying to find out whether we can get a shooting permission from the residents as most the building is still occupied. As we attempted to go up to the roof we were stopped in the staircase. An unfriendly barber threatened us with calling the police if we not leave immediately. So, we went out, around the building and back into another entrance. Like in most of Hong Kong’s old residential buildings the ground floor is always used by commercial shops. In this building small shops were even located directly inside the entrance areas for staircases. After talking to several shop owners, no one was willing to help us. Finally we found an entrance that was less observed and was leading up directly to the roof. We discovered, that there was an ideal access to the roof away from angry protective shop owners. Only problem, a locked door from the staircase leading to the roof.

So we came up with a tactical strategy. One of us would go through the shops, up the staircase and opens the door of the other staircase from the roof side. That way we could bring up all crew and equipment without anyone ever realizing we were actually up there. The strategy worked and we finished all two remaining scenes. Finally we wrapped our first big shooting day way ahead of schedule. The months long preparations had paid off. No one got hurt, no equipment damaged. It was an exhausting day but a good one. A day that gave me confidence and strength for the two days to come that would be much more demanding.

Just a little note on why we actually were sneaking on all those roofs without shooting permission: During location scouting and pre-production we got in contact with Hong Kong authorities, property developers, residents and even a professional location scout. Usually residents living directly on the roof were all very helpful and open towards our project. We even could shoot in one resident’s yards and his self-build house. Kwun Tong Town Center is supposed to be the biggest urban renewal project in Hong Kong and will change an entire city quarter. The development process already began last year and is actually quite simple. A large number of old building blocks and streets will be demolished to make room for a bunch of shiny tall skyscrapers with large shopping malls. Most the old buildings here already belong to the governmental authority agency. This authority is responsible for moving residents out of their homes, provide compensations and all kinds of related issues. As we started asking the agency for a shooting permission we were told that they have no authority on this issue as there are still residents living in the respective buildings. This message was most surprising since there are barely people left still living on those houses and every door holds an official eviction poster. The residents then told us to contact the property developer. So I pulled quite some strings to get in touch with someone high up at the property company. Their answer was simple: Ask the gov authority! So we went in circles for weeks without a solid result. The relationship between authority agency and property developer is quite complex and hard to define. But fact is, the security guards are paid by the property company. So you can image the bureaucratic mess we found ourselves in. Eventually we followed the advice of the professional location scout: Just go there and shoot, don’t ask for permission.

[official eviction note]

Kwun Tong link collection:

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

 

Day 2

The following Saturday afternoon we climbed one of the roofs within the Kwun Tong Town Center to shoot the opening sequence of Webisode #1 were the BUM faces an unfortunate incident. Set as a three hours shoot without any permission, once again, but with an even smaller crew, just the cameraman and our sound recordist, this shoot should involve a large number of props and some costumes for myself as I was going to play the very BUM. At the time, I hadn’t shaved for three weeks and didn’t had a hair cut ever since the fundraising campaign for SQUATTERTOWN started, only to have the right squatter look for this scene. Also, during the past 7 days I prepared the costumes and applied a variety of dirt layers as well as cut/ripped all kinds of holes in them. The white shirt I am wearing in that scene was given a thorough treatment of oyster sauce, vinegar and soy sauce. The smell was accordingly and it took six weeks hanging outside my apartment window to get off that harsh fragrant.

During our location scouting and research process we know the buildings where we shot at are under regular surveillance by safety guards. Each staircase holds a registration point with a small book in which the guards have to sign and track their beats. According to the data we were able to detect the time window in which we could sneak upon the roof, shoot and wrap before the next guard comes along. We went into the front block as it got a free access to its roof from the street. No doors, nothing. Everything seemed clear and the patrol book said we had 4 hours till the next beat. Through a hole in the fence between both building roofs we climbed over to the next block and set up the first scene.

[patrol books]

As opening shot I planned to have a cockroach running through the image and the BAD stepping on it while walking into frame. My initial thinking was that a real, live cockroach would bring the best effect and it would be no big deal to get a bunch of them since we are in Hong Kong, hometown to each cockroach in South China. One of our production assistants advised me to build a simple trap: an open bottle filled with honey. This would catch the cockroach but keep it alive which was the prior objective. I build two of those traps and set them out on places of my apartment building where I knew those fellas will definitely show up. As I checked the next day, the only thing the trap caught was a bunch of brown ants. I tried to set out new traps on new place for the entire week before the shoot but failed. Supposedly the “cold” winter climate was working against me. We ended up visiting the bird market in Mong Kok right before the shoot, hoping they offer cockroaches as food supply for bird lovers. As none of the vendors had anything else than crickets or worms we decided on large white worms that looked like maggots.

[bottle trap]

[maggot shoot]

After 90min we got half the shots, incl the maggots and were perfectly within schedule as suddenly the door to the staircase opens. The small guard wanted us to leave the roof asap. We tried to stall and discussed several options and strategies how we can deal with him. Eventually he would not let us shoot anything else and would not leave until we left. He radioed someone and one minute later another guard showed up on the roof next door. We felt surrounded, gave up and wrapped our equipment in disappointment. The shots we got were just half of what was planed, sometimes even just half of a movement, missing the reverse shot. And we all know whenever we come back to this roof weather and light will not be the same, thus creating a huge continuity problem.

[stubborn guard]

However, we had to go. The stubborn guard was making sure we really left the building and were back on the street. On the way we still discussed whether it makes sense giving it another shot, sneaking back in another entrance, but time was running out. During December and without additional external lighting we always had to finish by 5pm, latest. After 5 the loss of light was too apparent and could not be compensated by the camera. It would have taken us too long to re-set up so we called it a day. What bothered me personally on this whole situation was, additionally to the extra preparation of another shooting day, the fact that I needed to continue with my BUM appearance for another couple of weeks, all the way through Christmas.

Day 3

Of course, we learned from this incident and eventually never had to halt production again till SQUATTERTOWN wrapped. About three weeks later, just Diogo and me sneaked back on to the roof during a cloak-and-dagger operation at 7am in the morning. We were lucky, light and weather were almost matching the previous shoot and we completed all shots without being detected by any guards. As you may have figured out by now, there was only one actor for the opening sequence. So, basically, I was playing both roles, the BUM and the BAD. The angle where the BAD stands right behind me was played by Diogo and the camera was running on its own.

Another small production secret: the first pictures of Webisode #1 are a shot of a PA system. This was the last shot we took within the entire production, made in beginning of June 2011. Thus, it is not included within the preview versions. We felt the propaganda sounds in the background needed a physical link to make sense. Only problem was, old horn shaped PA loudspeakers were extremely hard to find in Hong Kong. Finally we took those cylinder shaped ones as they seem to be more common around here.

The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!

Day 1

The beginning of our SQUATTERTOWN shoot was rather a stealth start and actually supposed to test if concept, crew, preparations and the production itself were up to the real life situation and could handle all big shooting days to come. On mid December 2010 I set out with a small crew, Diogo (DoP), Seth (2nd camera) and Marc (sound recordist) to the designated Shek Kip Mei location. Within 3 hours during this cloudy Saturday afternoon we were shooting a large number of empty and atmosphere shots from three residential building roofs. Also, Marc was supposed to pick up as much typical roof sounds as possible. Whatever he found and heard on the roofs as well as in the back alleys he recorded. That included also on-set foleys like rubbing an abandoned bamboo mat on the floor or clanking empty gas cans.

The Shek Kip Mei locations is unlike the other squatter housing locations. The three housing blocks from the 1950s are home to a large number of Indian/Pakistani residents and shops. Most apartments are evicted and empty already. The roof is primarily not used as regular apartment space. Hence, there are no informal structures on the roof. Most residents dry laundry, use it as storage room or simply as dump for rubbish. However, some people have build themselves a little private garden with all kinds of plants and even a seating area with sofa. One resident is using his part of the roof as playground for her Husky dog.

You can find a short video giving some more visual insight on the Shek Kip Mei location here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7H2uswWgs4

While we were shooting, one of the residents came onto the roof. First we thought she might want us to stop and leave, as we got no shooting permission whatsoever, but it turned out she was quite interested in what we were doing. She also started telling us that all the three housing block are being bought up currently and will be demolished soon.

All shots we took that day can be found in Webisode #4 during the dialog scene between the BAD and GARDENER. Also the shots locking up a metal door with a chain in the beginning of Webisode #2 were made that day.

 

 

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