The Plastic House

Selected for this year’s New York Film Festival, Allison Chhorn‘s documentary The Plastic House carefully observes seasons changing and life moving – interview by James Cunningham


A scene from ‘The Plastic House’ – DOP Allison Chhorn

How did you first get involved on The Plastic House?

I had lived and worked on the farm that you see in the film for a number of years. It was only until I learnt about filmmaking that I had the idea to make The Plastic House. I wanted to capture the location and atmosphere of the farming area, many of them owned by other Cambodians or Asian migrant families in the Northern Suburbs of South Australia. In reality, the farm was really modest and practical; the greenhouse was built on beams of wood, steel and plastic sheeting and it was normal for my parents and I to work with and close to the earth. But I also wanted to transform it into an otherworldly place of memory in the film.

Before coming to filmmaking, I had studied visual arts at university where I was already taking inspiration from the farm. I was taking photos of the silhouettes of the leaves and the architecture of the green house, and making translucent paintings with obscured nature underneath, mimicking the visual effect of the plastic sheeting. Without realising, I had built visual references for the film in other mediums.

What were your initial thoughts in terms of how the project should look?

Initially, I had specific images in mind, such as the view of the greenhouse roof from inside and the leaves filling the space, but I really only found the motif images of the film while working in the greenhouse and through the process of filming. There was very minimal production design and intervention, since everything was already set in real life.

I knew it would have documentary qualities to it, since I didn’t have a budget. At the same time, I wanted it to be cinematic and poetic as well; utilising long takes and blurred imagery. The latter was informed by the translucency of the plastic sheeting and the humidity created in the greenhouse.

I was greatly influenced by the sensibility of Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose films have a meditative quality. They also aren’t afraid to linger in an image or scene and trust the duration to accumulate more meaning and feeling. I adapted their techniques of long takes and building an atmosphere into the location of the greenhouse and my do-it-yourself minimalist approach to filmmaking.

What factors did you take into consideration when choosing what cameras and lenses to shoot The Plastic House?

I used what was available to me, which was an entry level DSLR camera, a Canon T3i, with a 18-55mm stock lens I had bought for still photography a few years prior. Although I wasn’t shooting in RAW, I made sure the settings were as flat as possible to give more flexibility in the grade. I thought it was more important to capture the atmosphere through framing and sound rather than the quality of the lens.

A scene from ‘The Plastic House’ – DOP Allison Chhorn

Did you operate the camera yourself?

I operated the camera myself, which was a bit tricky. Since I had to be in front of the camera as well, I used a tripod most of the time. I didn’t have a separate monitor but would just check the playback after every take. It was very free working alone in this way. Although I didn’t have the technical skills or experience, I allowed myself to make mistakes and do as many takes until I thought it was alright. The only pressure I had was determined by the weather and available light.

One of the most difficult scenes to film was the last shot. I wanted to capture the fog so it was early in the morning and quite cold. I did several takes walking back and forth about two-hundred meters each way. It was frustrating filming blind in this way, since I’d be walking slightly off-centre or something else wasn’t quite right. I also had to film quickly and adjust the exposure each time since the sun was coming up and the fog would dissipate. I adjusted my performance to get the shot in the end.

Can you explain your approach to choosing your shots of the plants and the greenhouse?

For me, framing was determined by the architecture of the space and the green house itself. I would try to square the frame in line with the beams of the green house or simply square to an aisle. In terms of coverage, it was easier for me to do one setup per scene, leaving the camera while I moved my body within the frame creating the mise-en-scène. I also approached the framing like a painting, as if the leaves were an overall texture covering the image or canvas and through this dense cover you would see parts of a figure.

One of the few moving shots of the film is a slow pan from the ground moving up to the leaves and then up to the sky through the roof. I thought this was a simple but effective way to combine all the elements of nature.

Were you involved with the post-production, and what was your intention going into the grade? Who was your colourist?

My editing process took a long time, since I was working on other projects. But the time allowed me to find the rhythm and structure of the film. I would also shoot pickup shots according to the last edit, record and add sound, and continued to build the film bit by bit. Since the images were fairly minimal and static, I did a lot with the sound design to suggest more movement offscreen and to make the image more tactile, such as the sound of the plastic fluttering in the wind or the dripping of water.

My colourist was Nicholas Hower (Strange Colours), who really helped bring out colours that I didn’t even know were in the footage. Only in working through post-production did I realise I wanted the colours of the seasons to come out; murky yellow for the dried harvest, lush deep greens for full growth and an overall blue-ish hue for the winter. There is also a warm orange colour in the bedroom which contrasts with the blues and greens of the film. It’s as if each location in the film has its own colour and feel.

Do you have a favourite shot from The Plastic House? Why?

My favourite shot might be in the greenhouse where the fog gradually becomes translucent, blurring the image. This wasn’t intentional but something I utilised after it happened. The temperature and humidity would change in the greenhouse, defogging the cold lens, which I then reversed in post. This translucent, obscured image is a motif that recurs in variations throughout the film.

With the benefit of hindsight, what would you go back and do differently?

There are many little technical things I would have liked to do differently, even just framing something slightly better or doing another take. But looking back on it, it’s a film that captured a certain moment in time, of the weather and location, and how much I achieved with minimal means.


Allison Chhorn is a filmmaker and multi-disciplinary artist incorporating video, installation, photography, painting and music composition.

James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

 

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