Observational Filming: National Film & TV School, UK Short Course

The Media Development Authority has recently re-started a Talent Assistance Scheme where media practitioners can apply for partial funding to attend media courses. Where the course is not taught in Singapore, funding can be sought for overseas courses conducted up to a limit of SGD15000/person/year. I applied for and received funding to attend the Observational Filming Short Course (5 days) at the National Film & TV School, UK (NFTS), I felt I needed a refresher for the Cinema Verite or fly-on-the-wall style of shooting that is the backbone of many indie documentaries. I found the quality of teaching and professionalism at NFTS very high. My course itself, conducted about 1-2 times a year and taught by Zillah Bowes is highly recommended.

Here is some information about the NFTS short courses offered. The wonderful thing is the range. There are industry focused courses like courses on focus pulling, there are also DIY shoot-from-the-hip kind of courses like “filmmaking on a microbudget”. The Australian Film, Television and Radio School, modeled on the NFTS also offers a similar range of short courses which are just as rigourous. Sydney is of course nearer to Singapore and less of trial to get to. The Singapore equivalent is the Singapore Media Academy. Some of the courses here are well conducted but course selection is less deep and wide-ranging.

I am reproducing my MDA Trip Report. Its detailed and let’s on what the syllabus covers.

“This course was very useful for those who are interested in the telling stories using the “verite”, “observational” or “fly on the wall” style of documentary filmmaking. It is the kind of documentary where the actions and speech of the protagonists is a main feature of the documentary, a style which relies less on voiceovers to make dramatic points.

The five-day course focused on:
-How to construct a scene, in terms of what shots to take, what audio to record, what questions to ask during action.
-How to mic up the speaker
-How the camera should follow dialogue in a scene, where to place the camera
-How to pan correctly
-How to move the camera seamlessly so the edit is seamless
-How to shoot for editing

Every day we had to shoot exercises that built up towards the final project. The exercises included: how to shoot “continuous action” which is something repetitive and unchanging, say a chef kneading dough, and how to shoot an unpredictable exchange between two people. The final exercise was shooting a scene with people interacting, set in a locale of our choosing.

What I learnt
Watching our exercises which we also had to edit ourselves (a good pedagogical tool to teach shooting I found! Nothing like having to edit around one’s mistakes), I felt that most of my classmates including myself don’t hold shots long enough for dramatic effect, we usually feel impatient and zoom in or cut too early. Shooting time and watching time feel different, so most people need to make a deliberate and counter-intuitive act to hold a shot longer than we normally would.

Also, when following someone, it is important to let them leave the shot, so that that can be a cut point. This is obvious, but it is easily forgotten. In a conversation, we need to shoot cut away reactions of people, so that there are edit points for dialogue. The trick is to let the audio recording continue even while we are adjusting a shot so that the audio conversation is still usable.

Other stuff covered
1 Panning/Tilting: start with the end position so we don’t have to contort ourselves
2 How to balance the camera’s weight: keep knees bent, strengthen core through yoga (!)
3 How to walk and shoot: keeping footsteps in phase with protagonists
4 Focus on faces, less on actions.
5 Heavier cameras are more stable.
6 The need to familiarise ourselves with the camera so that we know which direction to turn the rings if we want to close the aperture/zoom in or out, these should be second nature and mastered.

One of the strong points about this course is that it historicises this style of shooting. We were shown examples from the pioneers, Maysles like Don’t Look Now, Primary and Salesmen. Kim Longinotto’s Sisters-in-Law and Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go were used as current gold standard examples.

News cameraperson or cameraperson or directors wanting to shoot more verite-styled documentaries will find this course useful because of the emphasis on story-telling through the drama within the scenes. The cameraperson has to pay particular attention to what is said and direct the camera accordingly. Also it focuses on the shots needed to set up a scene.

The quality of the NFTS’ teaching is very high. Class size was small, six. The tutors were very experienced and thought carefully how to structure the course for it to make sense to us. Equipment, facilities as well as the library are also very comprehensive. At GBP700, it is very good value. Though it touches on some basics, there is enough for an experience cameraperson/director to take something away from the course too.

A demonstration on how to climb stairs smoothly while shooting

Using the eyepiece to steady the camera while shooting handheld

Critiquing each other’s work after shooting exercise

Editing our own work for the final exercise

Screening our final projects in widescreen!

Pink Paddlers, Sunday 7.30pm, Channel News Asia

Pink Paddlers gave me an idea of what it was like to suffer from breast cancer. No it wasn’t an hour long documentary about the travails of chemotherapy. I shrink from that kind of documentary. Instead, it took me to many places, the dragon boat competition and a dance class. The one trip that was most memorable was when I went along to a shopping trip with one of the protagonists to buy a wig to hide her baldness caused by chemotherapy. As she tried out different ones it was alternately funny (she looked like Cleopatra), poignant and educational (where to get good wigs) all at the same time. The whole documentary is delicately balanced like that. Jasmine Ng its all too humble director did a great job. I recommend everyone watch it because it gives you an idea what your wife, sister, mother may have to go through.

Seriously do not miss it, this Sunday, Channel News Asia, Documentary of the Week, 7.30pm


Breast Cancer Foundation members and Jasmine , Director (in green) at the Premiere of Pink Paddlers


Just received this email from Emily, the marketing manager for the Substation. They police have at the last minute cancelled the Burma Peace concert. These cancellations seem less and less tenable more so because they always do it at the last minute, when everything is already organised. The recent Tunnel Party (civil society gathering, with stalls and music) had the rug pulled at the last minute too. Cancelled at the 11th hour, just when you think you got it in the bag – just cos they can, just to break you.

Dear supporters of The Substation & Timbr, The Peace Concert for Burma that we were planning to present tomorrow will need to be postponed. The police informed us today that we cannot hold the concert outdoors, because it is “cause” related.

We are in the process of re-scheduling the event for sometime in November, and with a change in venue to an indoor location, namely The Substation Theatre.

We’ll keep you posted on the details once we have the required approvals.

Thanks for your understanding and support, and well be in touch soon.

From The Substation and Timbr.

Invisible invited to Berlin 2008

Invisible City has been invited to premiere at Berlin 2008! Christoph the programmer saw it and contacted me. I am still recovering from shock. It will screen at the Forum section of the festival, which was set up to counterpoint the Competition section. Meanwhile, even more good news: Liew Seng Tat, “Flower in my Pocket”, a lovely film from Malaysia, together with Thai Aditya Assarat’s (Juke) “Wonderful Town” tied for the top prize in the Pusan’s New Currents Section. Singaporeans will know them well, they are regulars at Substation’s Asian Film Symposium. Great films, so happy for them.

MACAU with bifocals

bede in macau1.jpg

In Macau, I spent my one free day on a walkabout with Bede Cheng (above). He had hoped over from Hong Kong (by jetfoil, one hour). Bede used to work at the Hong Kong Film Archive and he was keen to explore the nooks and crannies of Macau with me. He was literally a walking film encyclopedia. At random street corners, he would say, “Does this house not remind you of the house in xxyy”, or “Do you remember the 60’s Japanese gangster film xx, well the fight scene took place right here” or “This is the location where much of “Days of Being Wild” was filmed”. I enjoyed his running commentary tremendously. I was looking at the city with bifocals, switching between what was before me and what existed in the filmic world that I hadn’t seen and could only imagine.

Invisible City Tee Shirts

tee shirt .jpg
Tee shirts are a great promotional and fundraiser tool. Tip: Do order women’s cut tees too if you want women to buy it ….and wear it. Most women went directly for the smaller more fitting cut rather than the boxy men’s cut.
pix: Jasmine Ng is seen here purveying quality Invisible City tees to my Mum’s cousin



I was in Macau recently to give a workshop and while I was there, they also screened Singapore GaGa and Moving House. This was an an invitation by CUT, the Macau Film Society. It was my first time in Macau, and I am surprised by how much I liked it. The people, my kind hosts had much to do with it. I expected Macau to be a mini Hong Kong. It is, sort of, but so different, more homey, more laid back. More pictures soon!

This poster pamplet is designed by Lorence Chen, Japanese design inspired he told me. He also designed the other screening posters for CUT, see their website

A blogger’s review of the screening (Traditional Chinese)

Invisible city’s run ends

Invisible City opened on 19 July and ended on 19 August. We sold out screenings. Thank you everyone, the crew, the people featured, the publicity and marketing team, the supporters, the press, the bloggers, my family, my friends. Thank you. Thank you.
What my life now without you?

Invisible to Premiere at pusan

Great news. Invisible City has been accepted to International Premiere at Pusan International Film Festival in October. Last year, PIFF provided finanicial support for Invisible City based on a 3 min trailer and a treatment. Now they are presenting the completed film to the world so this is a homecoming for them and for me.
Opus blogs about Pusan 06

For myself, international festivals are an opportunity to test Invisible City, to see if its internal scaffolding can traverse cultures, if this work that was made for a Singapore audience can survive and thrive out there, and if it does, in what form.

Taken by Yuni Hadi at PIFF last year on the Hyundae (sp?) Beach where the festival is set (very Cannes-like, real sand). We country bumpkin Singaporeans saw the expansive ocean and decided to go for an early morning ocean plunge. The locals we were aghast, it was past the swimming season, the water was very chilly. I promptly caught a cold

Question & Answer

Image019 TJC.jpg

Of the many Q&As that I have given at screenings of Invisible City, it must be more than 12 now, the best questions came from students at Temasek Junior College where Invisible City screened on 20 July. About 500 students watched it.
Do you make films because you have a message you want to spread, or just because you have a passion for film?

You are screening this film at a school, do you really believe that film is the best way to reach young people today?


Invisible City Opens!

The tickets for all the 7.30pm Invisible City screenings are sold out for this week. There are tickets left for the later 9pm screenings. Thank you for your word of mouth support, it has been invaluable. Meanwhile, book your tickets now to avoid disappointment. The Arts House Box office Tel 63326919.


NUS Centre for the Arts World Premiere Q&A 19th July. Pix by ampulets

Ode to the HDB point block

When will a design magazine/book anoint the HDB point block as a design icon? Its the most graceful, elegant and self-evident design object. Logically flowing rooms, well ventilated, well lit and it packs into a very small space. 100% utlitarian and gorgeous because of it. Will the PWD architect who came up with this amazing troupe please stand up. You deserve the cultural medallion, a Pritzker award. I have so many questions for you.

Normanton Exterior 2_jpg.jpg


The Grand Cathay hosted the premiere of Pink Paddlers at the Grand Cathay last night. All the 500 charity tickets ($30,$50) in aid of UNIFEM/Breast Cancer Foundation were sold out. It is a 62 min documentary, directed by Jasmine Ng about breast cancer survivors of all ages who dragon boat race. Through the device of the race, I learnt alot about what going through this cancer entailed. The characters spoke for themselves, simply and clearly. Kudos to the filmmaker and the producer. I hope they show it on TV very soon. It is a must watch. I wish I had my father along to see it.

Short courses

Continuing on from film school confidential, if you are looking for short film courses, apart from those conducted by DMA, Objectifs‘, look to the plethora of short film/video courses conducted by Australian Film and TV School . I attended the course by Rob Marchand on directing using Mike Leigh’s method of improvisation, it is highly recommended. He was able to articulate the craft very well. NFTRS (UK) has a similar short course programme. Singaporeans/PRs can apply for MDA’s Capability Development Scheme for partial funding.

Ubuweb: Youtube of the Avant Garde

I was looking for Farocki’s Inextinguisable Fire (1969) and lamenting that it would be impossible to find it in Singapore when I stumbled upon an amazing trove ubuweb.com. It hosts works by Robert Frank, Peter Forgacs, audio of Om Kawara reading One Million Years amongst many others. With this site, one peeps into film from a parallel universe. Link

rain dogs (????opens tomorrow

rain dogs poster.jpgI have been following Ho Yuhang’s career from across the causeway ever since I saw his first feature Min in 2002 at SIFF. Min, a bare bones DV feature is a quiet film about a Malay bred young woman’s search for her Chinese biological mother. It was an assured first feature and I wondered what he could produce with more resources. Two years ago, Hong Kong company Focus Films, also the sales agent for Singapore GaGa, produced his third feature Rain Dogs. I saw it at Pusan International Film Festival in a cramped video booth and I am still in admiration. Book now, am afraid that it will disappear from GV cinemas without a blip. Rise of Malaysian Chinese Cinema

Email from Italy 15 Dec

Lorenzo Codelli wrote me an email to tell me “Don’t miss the December 15 only screening, with live Indian music, of the following very rare and beautiful silent Indian classic KALIYA MARDAN (that we did screen years ago at our Pordenone Silent Festival). Tickets will sell out soon”. This is part of the Singapore National Museum Opening festival. Kaliya was made in 1912, my favourite silent film period because the command of the film language was very naive then, directors felt they were uncovering a new syntax, a process often filled with joy and magic. This still says it all.


Look Ma, no hands

One unforgettable weekend 24-26 Nov

For five hours, they watched in rapt attention. It was the longest screening anyone had ever attended. They watched 45 videos back to back, videos they had produced for themselves that very weekend, videos made by some as young as 15 and as old as 50. Many of them did not get any sleep the night before, still they stayed and they watched, eyes bright with excitement.

Sign up for the Fourth Fly By Night Video Challenge. Closing date 23 November.
nutshell review

Photo by Chia Yan Wei



Designed by the glorious folks at mindwasabi. I asked if they could design a website that would encapsulate the spirit of The Fly by Night Video Challenge, an event where anyone could sign up and make a video in one weekend that would be screened for all and sundry the same weekend. An event that was simple, yet challenging and fun at the same time. In this age of over designed sites, their brevity hits the mark. You will notice that all the info you will need is on the front page and there is only one link – used to download an application, so the act of downloading seals the act of participation. This site will be up for a few days before the new one takes over so gawk all you can now.
Oh yes, Yuni Hadi is organising it again this year, November, the fourth edition. Look out for more info over the next few days in this site.