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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: