China Diary

Day 143: Shoot The Moon


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Once I’ve finished Iron Sky The Coming Race and Iron Sky: The Ark, I bet I can apply for Guinness Book Of Records, becoming the film director who shot the biggest amount of fiction films set on the Far Side of the Moon. All these three films take the characters to the Moon sooner or later, and shooting at the Moon conditions can be quite a challenge indeed.

I’ve spoken about the costume issues, the spacesuits and so forth, but there’s more than that to it. Gravity, for example, is always a big challenge. Watching the NASA astronauts bouncing around the Moon looks weirdly fake, and simultaneously, it’s irreplaceably realistic. Moon gravity, being one sixth of what we have on Earth, affects on everything, but shows only on a falling or accelerating motion, but anything to do with muscle power, that’s when things get tricky.

For an actor, it’s easy to remember that you fall down slowly, because there’s a wire assisting you: the question is just to find the right counterweight and you’re all set, but wires only balance your body, not your legs or arms, which you need to control yourself. Hands are pretty easy, but legs are the hard part. Falling down wire-assisted is easy, and controlling your hand motion is possible, but legs tend to be the really big issue, they usually reveal the fake effort you’re trying to do.

Just like with the first Iron Sky, we have a lot of wireworks ahead of us. Our action director mr. Liu has been rehearsing with the main cast for months to get the basics of the movement into their backbone, but really, when you have to first do the movements, wire-assisted, then remember your lines, then try to be natural and creative as an actor and finally fumble in front of few hundred people, it’s not a surprise it takes a while to get the right kind of weightless motion working.

The other issue is, of course, that today we’ve seen such amazing displays of weightlessness in films, like the namesake picture Gravity, and many others, plus news footage and Youtube are full of clips from ISS where astronauts float around singing Space Oddity and whatnot, so people expect quite a good display of correct weightlessness.

Not only that, but we also have fight scenes coming up in 1/6 g gravity. That’s going to be quite a big scene, a fight scene we shoot for good five days.

The other thing is the vacuum. Obviously, vacuum is an unpressurized space which works funny way on humans. First, although it’s nearly impossibly cold for human to exist in the vacuum of space for a long time, it also has some surprising effects on human body. There are very few people who have actually experienced vacuum in the world, and much of the effects we see in movies are usually pretty far out there (like, Total Recall – nope, your eyes won’t burst out in space…). In practical terms, the moisture on your tongue would start to boil, your eyes would soon freeze over and of course, you would lose consciousness. Interestingly enough, also the gasses released from your stomach would probably lead to a simultaneous defecation, urination and vomiting. The latter hasn’t been portrayed in the movies before (and I intend not to be the first one).

Nevertheless, following some of these facts creates a fun playing field, but complicated to explain to the actors, and to act out in addition for the troubles of trying to look like you’re weightless.

Having said that, the actors seemed to enjoy their time, hanging around in the wires and following my instructions on getting the movements and actions right. At least it’s something different!

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China Diary

Day 142: Artistic Integrity


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I was dead tired after a really nice hotel room Christmas day with Iiris and Mika (we had some Finnish delicacies Iiris had brought from Finland with her, watched It’s A Wonderful Life and enjoyed the day off), but for some reason I couldn’t catch the sleep. I tossed and turned around until three am, and then Annika popped online and we had a long talk about our kids until way too late. It was not before 5am until I finally hanged up and fell asleep, only to be awakened in mere three hours time.

Not surprisingly, the day went in a zombieland. I was staggering through the first half until lunch, as we were doing some stunt action shots, and after lunch everything just jammed: the actors didn’t come to makeup, the costumes were (again) broken and needed a lot of adjustments, the wireworks needed rehearsals… It was already five pm when we managed to really get the first thing we needed to do done. A day nearly wasted.

Well, not wasted, we did have some good shots with everyone, especially with Rhydian, with whom we’ve struck quite a good companionship off-screen. We probably share a bit of a same taste in music and sense of humour so we seem to find ourselves having good chats while waiting for the light or camera to set up.

 

In other news, we have decided to go back and tweak one scene, which will add one additional day to our shooting schedule. This scene, an opening of the male lead character, is a challenging one for me, because it’s a very traditional Chinese, to be more specific Beijingese, and more specifically Hutongese scene circling around a very local setting – one, which I have of course no idea of.

I directed the scene the way I interpreted it from the script, but now as we’ve started to look at the scenes put together, Max pointed out that there’s nothing wrong with the scene, only that it’s not finding the right tone in this style which is very typical in Chinese films, the same way as if a Chinese director would come to Finland to direct a scene set in Kallio… I just don’t know all the subtleties of such a setting.

We decided, quite drastically, to reapproach the scene and reshoot few bits of it to find some more Chinese undertones to it. This is by no means a small task, we have to rebuild the set and make it match the original one, but we’ve done it already once so no problem doing it again. The bigger issue is to really try to perk up the scene to make it more accessible for the Chinese audience – but still, I’m a Helsinki-born Finn who only spent six months in China so far… I really don’t know where to go with it.

But we agreed with Max and Lei that they’ll be there to consult me, so we try to dig out the small details that make the scene alive, details only a Chinese can find in a setting like this. At first, I was a bit against the idea, first and foremost I’m pretty happy with the scene as it is, plus I really am not looking forward extending the shoot any more, but at the same time… There’s a point in it. For the Chinese audience, to whom we make this movie for, we have to make it believable. Much of the movie takes place in crazy settings, on the Moon and secret military bases and what not, and those locations are already by definition so far out that we get to set the rules the way we want, but with a very local scene like the one in question, there is few hundred years of traditions to follow, and we are expected to hit those marks.

So, one more day of production added to the shooting days. As long as it results in a better movie, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to do.

China Diary

Day 141: Christmas Mourning


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Wake up, it’s Christmas mourn
Those loved have long since gone
The stockings are hung but who cares
Preserved for those no longer there
Six feet beneath me sleep
Black lights hang from the tree
Accents of dead holly
Whoa mistletoe
(It’s growing cold)
I’m seeing ghosts
(I’m drinking old)
Red water
Red water

Red water chase them away
My tables been set for but seven
Just last year I dined with eleven
Goddamn ye merry gentlemen
Whoa mistletoe
(It’s growing cold)
I’m seeing ghosts
(I’m drinking old)
Red water
Red water
Red water chase them away.

– Type O Negative / Red Water (Christmas Mourning)

China Diary

Day 140: Christmas Eve


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Well, the fact is that while everyone else is enjoying the warmth of their families around the world, we keep on shooting. On the Christmas eve, we continued the scene we had started the yesterday, and went on to shoot until over 6 pm. Then, we had to wrap, because the production had planned a big banquet for the whole film crew, which was a great little Christmas gift from them. We hadn’t had the halfway-through -party because it’s really not a tradition in Finland, but this time the production decided they wanted to have a chance to thank the hard-working crew and invited everyone for a beautiful dinner held at the La Meridien hotel, just across the street from ours.

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Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 1.25.01Chinese parties are different from the Western ones, I’ve learned. Where as the halfway parties in Europe are mostly about getting wasted and having a bit of food, staying up late and doing things you regret the rest of the production, the Chinese style is much more civilized: everyone gathers into a big room, there’s food, there’s drink, there’s speeches, people go between tables thanking everyone for the work they’ve had and then they go home. It was not even 10pm when we Finn found out we were the last ones in the room still filling up our glasses and having a laugh.

But it was so nice to have a chance to see the crew in a merry non-work-related situation, and great to have a chance to talk with many people I didn’t know too well at all, and to thank so many important people who easily get forgotten amidst all the chaos of a shooting day. We shared so many glasses of white wine with many great people and had a great time, and then, well, back to the hotel (they did suggest we should go to a KTV, but I decided against it, I wanted to have a rest).

We had few more drinks with Mika and Iiris at their hotel room, which Iiris had set up beautifully with lights and Christmas music. But the truth was, I was missing Annika, my son, my sister and my parents more than any other day before. Being thousands of kilometers away on such a great family holiday felt like a sting, and even calling them to say Christmas greetings was hard. It made it so clear that I was here all alone while everyone else gets to be with their families. I always thought I’m not much of a Christmas person, but the further away you are from your loved ones, the more important the day starts to feel.

 

China Diary

Day 139: Wrapping The Lead


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Well, Lin Feng and Da Fei are gone – for now. On Saturday, we finished off the work with these two talented, young actors who joined the production very early on and made a terrific job creating two unique roles, best friends on screen and hopefully off-screen as well! There’s very little to say after such an adventure that wouldn’t feel somewhat inadequate, and handing them the flowers from the production and sending them off their merry ways felt sad but of course, very positive at the same time. It means we’re getting closer to the actual wrap, but at the same time, there’s still a lot of very challenging days ahead of us. Also, they are actually not really wrapped yet, we will call them back for one more day of reshoots – but the principal photography for them is done!

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Da Fei (Wang Liang) and Lin Feng (Ling Yi)

Changing to a new set takes always a long time, and after wrapping the two guys we went to the next studio and started prepping that one. It took forever to get started, the moonbase set was complicated, very technical with loads of green screen, complicated wireworks on the roof, opening and closing electronic doors and whatnot, but the set is beautiful. A big rotunda and separate, very scifi-like high-tech rooms just make a great set for us to use. The set department led by mr. Wang had been working hard on every set, but this was their masterpiece.

We did manage to get everything together as the evening grew older, and shot some nice opening shots for the scene. Shooting stuff in such a fantastic location does lift the story to the air, and finally everything starts to fit together. One thing for sure with this film is that there’s quite a lot to look at in it.

Also, today was the day before the Christmas eve, so the atmosphere was giddy. All in all, a fun shooting day! Oh, and Iiris arrived to the city, so there’s one more Finn in town now!

China Diary

Day 138: Dumplings, dumplings everywhere!


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There’s no place like home! Even if it’s someone else’s home, and especially home of a character in a movie! Friday, our journey took us to the other side of the town, to a small studio we had been shooting before a hospital scene, and now came back for few scenes taking place in the home of our main character, Fang Qing, played by Vivienne Tien.

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Änänäs! A Chinese set-building trick: to get rid of the fumes and the smells of construction, they chop few pineapples and spread them on black plastic bags around the set, and no more nasty paint or gas smells anywhere!

The scene included preparing dumplings, and it was actually very tightly devised in conjunction with mr. Duan Yihong, actor of Fang Mingtao, the father of Fang Qing. He had been very insistent on the importance of the preparation of dumplings through all of our discussions, and I had always been wondering why are they so important; but as I saw him playing the character preparing dumplings – the most everyday thing to do – in his home for his daughter, I understood what he meant. Through dumpling cooking, he was able to bring many layers to the characters, their relationships with other characters and make the scenes alive and feel real.

Surprisingly, it turned out the day was also in China the national Dumpling-Eating Day, something to do with the coming of the winter and eating the dumplings, so what better scene to shoot then! The whole day was very low-key, character-oriented and actor-driven, so it was relatively relaxing experience. It also was the last day of our wonderful steadycam guy Ants, who went back home in Estonia after the shoot. For the martini shot for him, we decided to do the last scene of the day with one single steadycam shot, and it was beautiful – and very complicated. Follow the character as she enters through the door, go to her side, the lower down on the level of the table to find the bowl of dumplings and message from the dad on a ipad, pick up the pad, the camera rises on an over-the-shoulder-shot, we read the message, then travel around the character to get her face on the shot, the back up to let her walk few steps and make a phone call. All in one shot, very dynamic, very film-like. A great sendoff for the man!

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DOP Mika Orasmaa, steadicam operator Ants Martin Vahur and well, the hairy giant alias me.

Poor mr. Duan, though: he had to eat at least five to six huge plates of dumplings for us to get the scene, so by the time we were almost done he informed he can’t physically fit one more dumpling in him – his side of the action was done. That was all fine for me, so we moved on.

And yeah, for dinner we had some dumplings.

China Diary

Day 137: Roof Came Down


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We’ve been lucky to not to have had any serious accidents on the set, but on Thursday it was very close to get someone really hurt. The set – a spaceship interior – was built in a way that it had the roof that was almost like a cap on top of a kettle. This cap was easily removable to get our cameras in, and something we could then either take out or put back on whenever needed.

Me and Lei were talking with mr. Duan in his trailer, discussing the scene of the day, while rest of the guys were were working on the set. As we arrived to the set, I saw there was something wrong: the whole roof structure had snapped off from the ropes that hung it in the air, and it had crashed down on the set, while there were eight people in. Somehow luckily everyone had managed to duck down and nobody got hurt, but that was something of a major accident if someone had been there sitting in the chairs… It was pretty scary.

All in all, the day was plagued with problems after problems. After finishing the scenes upstairs with one of our actors, Jang Yi, whom we also wrapped, it was time for the spacesuits again. Now we learned that yeah, one can’t wear the helmet and breath at the same time. We tried running the scene whatever way we could, but always when it was time to go for the closeups, the faces were all foggy and nobody could see anything.

I was frustrated. I told the costume team that next time they come up with a special costume, they need to test it in practice; and I had warned about the issues beforehand, since I’ve had my share of working with spacesuits of different kind on film before, but guess you have to learn it again and again… Anyway, we really didn’t finis the day; not even close. At one point, I decided it’s time to stop this stupid game and decided to call the shoot off for the day. No reason to put the actors through these troubles, better find another time to come back and do the scene with costumes that are actually working…

Sometimes, it can be like that. Nothing goes as planned, and no matter how hard you bang your head against the brick wall, you’ll never get through, so better luck next time.

China Diary

Day 136: On spacesuits


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Spacesuits are every scifi filmmaker’s headache. The first truth is that real spacesuits are hard to come by, just because they cost so much (around twelve million dollars for a proper, working flight suit) and nobody really likes renting them out. The other reason is that they are always quite old ones: the ones we are used to see astronauts, the ones in our collective understanding of the word “astronaut” are actually from the 80’s. Nowadays spacesuits are of course vastly different, and even harder to come by. So it’s not a surprise you end up creating your own spacesuits instead.

But the trick is, when you create a suit of your own, you’ll end up in quite a ditch. In first Iron Sky, we made a spacesuit, but to be honest, it wasn’t that amazing. It was made out of foam and some specifically designed parts, but the whole thing looks just a bit funny. We also had another spacesuit for Washington, which was closer to “modern” spacesuit design – at least proposed design, but that, too was quite hard to operate: stiff and clumsy.

For Iron Sky 2, we didn’t luckily need a spacesuit, and for one advertisement I did we made a spacesuit out of kind of paper cloth, which turned out to look quite passable. But for Iron Sky: The Ark, I wanted to have a proper, real spacesuit instead. So that’s what we ordered from a special factory.

The plans were already in motion few months ago, and I already saw the first, rough version of the spacesuit before we started to shoot in Beijing, but only on Wednesday they finally managed to finish the actual spacesuits. And yeah, they were beautiful, but also, very complicated to shoot with.

In order to make it wearable for a human, there needs to be an elaborate ventilation system inside the suit. Dressing up takes around half an hour, and the first thing they showed me about the spacesuits was that they were completely clean, spanking new, without any patina on it. Although the suits are supposed to be new for the astronauts, having an unpatinated clothes on screen just looks wrong.

So in addition to the half-an-hour dressing up, I asked them to make it look good on the screen, and that took another three four hours. Luckily Mika was ahead of his game, grabbed the camera an instead of us sitting there with thumbs up our asses, we went to another studio to shoot some missing pickups, small splinter scenes and so forth, so by the time the suits were finally made and finished and ready to wear, we actually had shot quite a lot of our required stuff of the latter part of the day. The team was a bit confused when we were running with cameras between studios, grabbing a shot here, another there, but finally as we were able to set up the scene, we were really happy with the end result. The suit looks great. The only problem is, you can’t wear the helmet. There is a small air ventilator on it, but truth is, you put it on and start breathing, the visor gets foggy in minutes. Taking it off and cleaning it takes forever.

So, the only solution is to go CGI. That means, every shot with the actor wearing the helmet, we need to do a CGI visor for it. It’s going to be quite a big job I can tell you that much…

Once we started shooting the main scene of the day, things did roll quite nicely. We fished some beautiful shots, good moments with our actors and finished the day as a winner, after all the hardships. The costume troubles wouldn’t be over, but at least we got that one scene done!

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Wang Liang (alias Da Fei)
China Diary

Day 135: For my brother.


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My brother died a year ago, on 19th of December in 2016.

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Ville Oskari Vuorensola (1983-2016)

The day was the worst of my life. We were driving with Annika and Pekka to a ski center in Helsinki. The mood was giddy, we were listening to some 90’s snowboard punk, I was rather nervous because it was to be my first time snowboarding, but Annika and Pekka promised me I’d learn to love the sport. (Later on, it turned out, they were wrong.)

The phonecall was just a regular one, my dad. He sounded slightly distant, but I couldn’t read between the lines that something had happened. I answered my typical way, happy to hear of him.

Then: “I have bad news. Ville has died.”

The feeling was strange: a dark cloud engulfed my head in mere seconds. Everything outside faded into darkness and it was just myself, and my father on the other end, and the knowledge that one of the most loved persons in our lives would be no more.

And the worst was, he had died thousands of kilometers away from home, in Nigeria, where he had gone to meet his children. He had been expecting the trip so much, but from the beginning I had the feeling something wasn’t right with the trip. Starting with the way he got his flight tickets was dubious to say the least: the father of the mother of his children had purchased the tickets to ask him to help them with the house, but as soon as they got there, the family had ended up in some kind of a row and they had to move out. A lot of strange things were going on around that time and I was afraid there would be some bigger troubles lined up, but I didn’t expect this. Nobody did.

After my father’s phonecall, all hell broke loose. I had no time to even realize what had happened – and I didn’t know, all I knew was that he was dead – before I had to start dealing with the Nigerian hospital staff, discussing things like autopsy, how much the hospital bill would be and how to transport the body to Finland. My family around me was breaking apart and I was thousands of kilometers away from anywhere where I could be of any help, talking in phone with people I had no idea who they were asking me thousands of dollars immediately, talking with an English accent I just couldn’t understand (the Nigerians have a very peculiar way to speak English).

I still have only a faint understanding of what transpired on the evening and night of my brother’s death, but the bottom line is that he had been complaining about being slightly sick – and then, even more sick – to his friends in Finland. I know he didn’t tell about this to us because he didn’t want us to worry, the ones who worried about him anyway quite a lot. I bet he didn’t have any idea how ill he actually was.

He had no idea he would not wake up the next morning.

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It’s interesting to see how many strings and nerve ends we create around ourselves. We may find ourselves in a place where we think we’re very alone, but in reality, we are hubs emanating memories, history, future, expectations, stories, longing and love, nerve connections that pulsate through the whole society constantly. If a hub gets cut out, it hurts so many people. The closer and the more connections, the harder it hurts, but the ripples can be felt far away. We are never alone.

We still don’t know for sure what took him.

First, it was suspected to be malaria, but just few weeks ago as I got the autopsy reports, it turned out it was something else: an unindentified hemorragic fever. These fevers are rather rare, but can be transferred to a human by something as small as a mosquito bite.

So, just bad luck.

Nevertheless, he’s gone. There’s one fewer of us, the sons and daughters of Juurikatu. He is missed not only by his family, but also his friends in Tampere and all over the world. He was known as Pee-Pee in the Finnish rap circles, he recorded an EP few years back. His plan was to write new music while in Nigeria. He had two kids – twins.

He was not without flaws, but the most important thing about him was that he had a kind, loving heart and crooked sense of humour. We shared with him a very specific kind of dry comedic view on life. He was a fighter, and although life wasn’t too kind for him, he soldiered through it. I consider he died a happy man: he was where he wanted to be, with his kids, in a country he loved, with a bright future ahead of him. Sadly, he never got there. I miss him daily.

His death left a gaping hole in me. It’s now been a year, and I still feel the cloud of grief washing over me when I look at his photos, listen to his Whatsapp messages. He was only person whom I had known for all of his life. The older we get, the more important these kind of long-running connections are. Friends fade in and out, family stays; now, there’s one fewer of us. All the things he missed, seeing his children grow, all the people he would meet… It kills me to think of all this.

Annika was there for me, when it all went down, and she was there through it all. She saw me on my darkest moments, she saw our family going through a tragedy of such magnitude. She held my hand, wept with me, sat next to me at the small, simple chapel where he lied in a simple casket. She walked with me through the icy graveyard, just as the sun crept out from behind the clouds to greet him on his final journey, as I carried his urn of ashes down to his final resting place. The last time I held him. Thank you for that, Annika.

And thank you, Ville. So much was lost when you left us, but that’s because you brought so much more into our lives.

Rest in peace, brother.

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Henna, me and Ville; the sons and daughters of Juurikatu.

This here is a personal account on things I wanted to put in writing to my diary, which has helped me through the loneliness in China and I would’ve neglected my brother’s memory if I hadn’t spoke about him here. Nevertheless, I sincerely ask no entity quotes it, writes articles based on it or attempts to create a story out of it.  

China Diary

Day 134: Lost In Translation, Part 3


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Working with a bilingual script has it’s perils. Sometimes things that seem completely negligible might turn around to be the huge problems. This week, we’ve had our share of translation issues that have required us to reshoot quite some bits indeed.

On Monday, after the day off we came back to work and started to put together a new scene. Getting things in shape was quite complicated, since we had shot the first part of the scene the earlier week with Andy, and then on Friday we had a stunt unit shooting one specific shot for the scene, as we were on location elsewhere working with the main cast, and now we would come back to finish the scene.

The scene itself had a direct connection to another scene which would take place some 40 scenes later, that’s around 30 minutes on the final film, and the translation problem which affected the current scene started actually there, in a scene which would take place much later in the movie, but one we had already shot.

See, shooting a film very rarely happens chronologically. It would be ideal for the actors, and also for continuity and directing, as well, but in reality, there are many other things that are playing a big part there: cast availability, location / set availability, set building restrictions and plain old scheduling and money. Thus, the schedule needs to be broken down into days that are easiest to achieve, and that means the days get all messed up. I personally hate to shoot the last scenes on the beginning of the shoot, because then the characters are not quite there yet, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.

Nevertheless, the said scene had one sentence in English which suggested something else than the Chinese original version, but since I don’t really speak Chinese, I relied on the English translation, and shot the scene the wrong way, in a way that wouldn’t make sense for the scene that would happen earlier in the movie. Yeah, complicated. And add few broken phones in between and you get into a real mess indeed.

The continuity issue was spotted by our youngest actor Ling Yi, and as we looked into it, it started to snowball bigger and bigger until we had quite a conundrum to solve indeed. Solving things on the set of this scale is usually quite chaotic, and when the producer heard of this he started calling Lei and things got even more desperate. The only solution we could do at this point was to reschedule a reshoot for the scene we had already shot – which, given our ridiculously tight schedule – is already nearly impossible.

After solving the issue, we had the next issue in our hands: four pages of script to shoot, plus a full-fletched action scene whom nobody had choreographed. So, 45 minutes remaining of the day, we started to set up a shootout without any idea what to do. Luckily, that’s when my brain seems to usually kickstart the most effective way, and I gained control of the situation through a very clear and precise set of instructions I came up on the fly, and acted like I knew exactly what I was doing. It’s one of the director tricks: if things get desperate, act like you know exactly what you are doing. This gets the team stop thinking, wondering and questioning and just blindly following your lead. If it leads to a bad result, at least you gave it a try – but usually, the energy of such situations create value of its’ own, and you’ll get a completely passable scene done anyhow.

In the end, we got (almost) everything we needed, and although few days later we recognized because of yet another translation error that actually there was one more shot to be done, I walked home pretty happy about the day’s results.