Life is Sweet

Golden Tripod-winning Tim Barnsley is a young cinematographer from Sydney. A new musical, Life Is Sweet, produced and filmed in Vanuatu and entirely spoken and sung in the language of Bislama, takes Barnsley to the South Pacific.

By Tim Barnsley.

Sonia and her friends are performing at Club Tequila, where the entertainment is not only the girls Tam-are dancing, but the story of Sonia’s relationship with Max, a drunken womaniser. Why does Max think he’s free to do as he wants even though he has a wife and a child? Why did Sonia get involved with Max in the first place? The MC gives Max and Sonia a chance to explain to audience through song. We follow Max and Sonia and their attempts to make the relationship work. Sonia is willing to give up her friends and her one chance to do something in life for a man who’s sure to betray her, but she can’t help loving.

Life is Sweet (Laef i Swit) is a feature film produced in Vanuatu that follows the story of Sonia and Max as they struggle through the difficulties of marriage. The film was shot over eight weeks this year in Port-Vila, the film deals with the place of a woman in a patriarchal society. The film dialogue is in Bislama, the local language of Vanuatu.

Viranda David who plays Sonia in 'Life Is Sweet' - PHOTO Tim Barnsley
Viranda David who plays Sonia in ‘Life Is Sweet’ – PHOTO Tim Barnsley

I had worked with Wan Smolbag Theatre in the preceding two years on their locally produced television series Love Patrol (2007-14), so had spent collectively six months there already working with Peter Walker (the Director) and the crew. Last year Love Patrol was cancelled due to lack of funding so Wan Smolbag decided to produce a film version of their stage play Life Is Sweet. The play had just done a sell-out tour of the northern island of Santo, and the actors involved are familiar faces across local television screens, so they knew that the film version would have a following in the region.

In the beginning, there wasn’t really a discussion about camera format on this production because the production company owned two Canon C-300s and wanted to re-purpose them for the film. I had originally been a part of the purchase of these cameras for Love Patrol, so knew them more or less back to front from. They are great for shooting in low light conditions. Our set had many LED’s fitted in the production design; I was able to shoot at ISO 1600 with a 300-degree shutter. This meant that a lot of the ambient light from the LED’s could be used to light certain parts of the set. We had some trouble with flicker in the LED’s, the production had already installed them when I began testing so I had to find a way to shoot under those conditions, and the 300 degree shutter solved that problem.

Most of the production design elements for our nightclub set had been already decided before I came on board. The main idea was to be true to Pacific Island life. This meant having lots of bamboo structures, and deep browns, reds and greens. Our set had a huge variety of colours splashed around, against black walls, so there were some challenges lighting actors with darker skin tone in that environment. The other challenge related to that was the director wanted to film with two cameras and as many directions as possible.

Etchell William poses for a photo at another Kava Bar location, this was constructed in the grounds of Wan Smolbag - PHOTO Tim Barnsley
Etchell William poses for a photo on location, in the grounds of Wan Smolbag – PHOTO Tim Barnsley

This meant that I needed to do some lighting from overhead. We built a lighting rig out of scaffold and hung a skirted 6k space light off it. That provided top light to the club when it was in day mode. Then we hung par cans, profile spots of various colours, a mirror ball and some black light up there to work various looks for the club scenes. I wanted to have colour themes for the different scenes as the film progresses. I also had construction cut a series of rectangular holes into the set behind the stage, to which we added some white Perspex and shone blondies through it with varying coloured gels depending on the scene. This gave a great motivation for coloured backlight from a sneaky 5k over the set.

In pre-production I tested some Kodak and Fuji LUTs that are built into Davinci Resolve and found myself leaning toward the Fuji one. It had great skin-tone and the colours weren’t too saturated, this look dictated the lighting of the film. For the scenes outside in the settlements and streets, I went through a progression of the look; we start slightly bluer and colder and move warmer as the story progresses. The film Cabaret (1972) was definitely a reference. Peter and I watched it in pre-production and had some discussion about it. It’s use of space came up, we leaned on that knowing we didn’t have a huge budget to work with. Also, the colour in that film, and the feeling of sexiness and fun that comes from the colours, that is something that inspired our work on Life Is Sweet.

Walker’s vision was to create a local story, for local audiences within Vanuatu and for broader Pacific Island audiences. Also, his vision was to create a night club kind of atmosphere, reflective of films like Cabaret, we even included an entertaining, androgynous MC character (played by Ritchie Toka), who drives the story through many of the scenes. The film is very much self-reflexive, it contains a play within a nightclub setting within the film, and actors break the fourth wall and refer to the film audience as if they were the theatre audience. Peter and I worked to have these moments shine as points in the film where the action stops and theatrical light would play on the scene, to give the film audience an entrance into the play.

Director Peter Walker watches Albert Tommy who plays Max - PHOTO
Director Peter Walker watches Albert Tommy who plays Max – PHOTO Supplied

Colour also played a large part. We have weddings, rap videos and high schools scenes all appearing within this world and often within the nightclub setting so we needed shifting colour palettes to separate them for the audience. We used a blue-green for the regular club time, red for our main male character’s (Max) rap scene, blue for school scenes, and orange for when the Chief arrives to adjudicate. All of these scenes contain originally written music that drives the story with a great sense of fun but also important messages.

My favorite sequence in Life Is Sweet would be a scene between our two main characters Sonia and Max. They have a huge argument about marriage at their house and it all takes place in song. The camera takes them into the house, then back out of the house and we rest on them reminiscing on the better times they have had in the past. It is all in song and we do a number of camera moves to bring them in and out, it also shows off the kind of environment they live in.

Life is Sweet is a unique production in the sense that crewmembers may perform multiple roles. My Gaffer, Danny, for example also played two parts in the film and my Best Boy, Andre, played keyboard in the band. I had a fantastic and dedicated camera department for the film. All of the crew are locals and have locally trained. I had two camera operators Francis Wai and Bobby Homu. Francis’s specialty was operating long master shots on the dolly and Bobby was the go to for Glidecam work. I had only one hard working Focus Puller, Robin, who pushed himself to pull focus for both A and B cameras as well as remotely for the Glidecam. I had worked with some of the crew already on seasons seven and eight of Love Patrol. We spent months working in the tropical heat and dust together so have developed a shorthand. The guys knew what I wanted and I knew what they could achieve so communication was smooth.

On location with cast and crew at the Kava Bar location - PHOTO Tim Barnsley
On location with cast and crew at the Kava Bar location – PHOTO Tim Barnsley

The film is currently still in post-production and is scheduled to be finished by April 2016. At the moment to plan is to head into Resolve for the colour grade and apply the Fuji LUT as a starting point. I shot some tests in pre-production with that look in mind and found I could shoot with about a half stop of overexposure and then bring things down in post for a nice saturated look with healthy blacks.

We set out to make a film that represented modern life on a pacific island in an honest way and through the eyes of the local people. We wanted to be faithful to their experience of life, and in the modern world, not in a grass skirt kind of way, so we used the stories that the actors provided, we honed in on what their experiences were, and I think it should translate into a strong and positive message.

Working with Peter Walker and Wan Smolbag Theatre is such a great experience, not only does it involve shooting great stories, and working with a great crew, but it also offers cultural exchange to happen. I get to share some of the filmmaking skills that I have learnt and the cast and crew get to share their culture and community with me, it is very rewarding.

Tim Barnsley is a graduate of the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS). It was there that he shot acclaimed short film ‘Inferno’ (2011), that went on to screen at Camerimage Festival in Poland, and won him both state and national Gold Australian Cinematographers Society Awards. Most recently he picked up the 2014 ACS Golden Tripod for Music Videos for She Rex’s ‘Power’.

Wan Smolbag Theatre is a non-government organisation operating all over the South Pacific. Their core funding is from AustralianAid and the New Zealand Agency for International Development.

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