The making of “Flight of the Fisherman”

documentary, lian morrison
Shooting some b-roll! Note: the waters here are muddy due to the rain season.

“Flight of the Fisherman” was the first documentary I ever shot. There is a lot to making a documentary that I have never experienced in film or shooting any sort of video so making this film taught me a lot. I’m looking forward to the next documentary that I’m shooting with my good friend and film buddy Lauren Mills this year (more on that in my next post). But before I move on to what I’m working on now I want to tell you a bit about the time I made a film in good ol’ communist China! Here we go.

Before going to China: Before I went to China, I had to pick a topic that I wanted to make a documentary on. I had some good ideas (funeral practices, grandparents/elderly and how they are treated) but every topic I came up with was rejected by the company paying for me to go over. Becuause of this, there was a bit of back and fourth and I ended up going on my flight without knowing what I was going to shoot. I usually like to prepare more so it wasn’t super ideal but it was part of the experience. Also, because I live in Newfoundland my flight was cancelled due to high winds (of course) so I was a day late and missed the opening ceremonies. The Prague Film School (where I went to school in 2012 & 2013) was a sponsor of this event so an official Czech Ambassador was there but unfortunately I missed it. Apparently it was really cool.

Arrival: I arrived in Beijing and met up with some old classmates from Prague who are great and I hadn’t seen them in 3 years at that point. We went to Yangshuo, a very beautiful city with really interesting landscape that almost looks like it’s from a Dahli painting. I met my production assistant/translator/volunteer, Feng, and found out we had to talk to each other mostly on a translator ap (thank you Google Translate). She was really sweet but communication was really difficult (hint: this is foreshadowing).

Working over translations with my volunteer & P.A. Feng!

While we were there we were scheduled to go on different outings and they had photographers and videographers follow us around. We met up with another team of filmmakers from India who were doing the same thing as us and we went to meeting about our documentaries. I finally picked a topic that they let me do and it was on cormorant fishermen, however, it was their offseason so they weren’t allowed to get in their boats and actually fish. I was just happy that they finally agreed to something I wanted to shoot.

Shooting prep: Now all I needed was my fisherman….for my shoot that was starting tomorrow. Feng was supposed to line one up for me and I didn’t have time to interview different people and pick my favourite due to the time restraint. Eventually Feng had someone in mind, Huang Yuechuang, but he wasn’t answering his phone so we decided to rent a tuk-tuk to go to his village to find him to ask him in person. This was going really well, until it went horribly wrong, unfortunately we ran into some bumps along the way. Literally. See video below:

….so what happened was that we were maybe going a little fast and then we hit a bump in the road that sent the tuk-tuk down the hill and over the riverbank. Myself and Feng actually jumped out as soon as it went off the road and landed on broken glass and Spring (the other volunteer) stayed in the cart. She ended up on my side squat between the cart and a tree (she was fine after, thank god, I have no idea how though). So after we found that we were okay except for some small cuts and bruises we had to call the rental company that we rented the cart from and that’s when shit really went down.

They got mad (understandably) and said we would have to pay for the cart out of my film budget. Then the guys that worked there showed up and everyone got in heated arguments in Mandarin and then a person from the organization that paid for my film showed up. There was yelling and crying, I tried to step in and see if I could help/give input or ask what was going on but each time I was waved off. I told the girls everything would be fine in a little while and the main thing was that we were not hurt. The arguments went on and off for a while (about 3 hours) and eventually I was allowed to go. I wanted the girls to come with me but they wouldn’t/couldn’t and I was told I needed to get things ready for my shoot the next day. Incase you were wondering, I still never had my fisherman to interview.

Later on that night, the girls didn’t get back to the hotel until 11pm and they looked emotionally/physically exhausted and I felt really bad for them. I was told the cart had to be pulled out of the riverbank with a crane and that would be coming out of my film budget. That night we went to sleep and decided to try again tomorrow.

My shoot was off to a GREAT start already as you can see. Don’t worry it gets worse.

documentary filmmaking
Seeing the beautiful Li River on one of Looking China’s organized cultural tours. (I actually had no idea China looked like this).

The day after the crash we got up early and took a taxi, a bus and then a boat to where the fisherman lived. He was home and after speaking to him for a few minutes he agreed to talk on camera …as long as we paid him. He wasn’t cheap and after factoring in the cost of the ruined tuk-tuk our funds were pretty low. I didn’t care though, I was just happy to have someone to be in my interview after yesterday’s fiasco. That day I chatted with him and his family as they took photos of us and their kids. I asked him a few mock questions just to get an idea of what he would be like and I found out he didn’t like talking infront of the camera. We’ll see how this goes I thought naively to myself.

The Shoot: I decided to start shooting the following day so I spent the rest of my afternoon/evening coming up with a story and some questions to prompt my fisherman with. What I wanted to do was to show my audience how this man is fighting a losing battle to keep his traditional way of life alive. Mr. Yuechuang is a cormorant fisherman so he fishes with birds that dive into the water, catch a fish and then he retrieves it from their mouths. This isn’t as efficient as commercial fishing so many fisherman have turned to bigger boats and nets to meet quotas and make money.

On the first day of the shoot, we took the hour and a half trip to get to him by taking a taxi, bus and a boat. When we got there I took a look around his house and property and found a bare room with decent lighting to interview him in. The downstairs of the house was where his kitchen and bedroom where and the rooms upstairs were bare other than one that had one bed and a nightstand. I set up to shoot and went to close the windows because of the construction and loud ceremony bombs going off but he didn’t want me to because he said he wanted the air circulating. Feng managed to convince him to let me close them for about 10 minutes after which we would reopen them to air the rooms out.

cormorant fisherman huang
My fisherman, Mr. Yuechuang getting ready for his interview.

Shooting the interview was a bit problematic from the start. When I asked Mr. Yuechuang questions, he did not answer them in his seat. He got up and walked off camera and over to my translator, Feng. I told her to tell him he needed to stay in his seat to answer the questions but he insisted he gave his answers to Feng off camera first and then he would go back down and answer them in his seat. Because of this the interview took double the amount of time it normally would have. Not only that but he would give a very long answer to relatively short questions such as telling me about where he was from. This wouldn’t be such a big deal normally but I was speaking to someone thorough a translator ap who would ask him the questions so the back and fourth was slow. Also, I was trying to plan things out because I knew I would have to get everything translated before I edited so I kind of needed to know ahead of time what he was saying to make sure it was usable.

After shooting for a few hours and with a few more “air circulation” breaks we finished the interview and I began to follow him around with my camera. B-roll is my favourite to shoot, I was able to visually explore his life whereas the interview is mostly technical (I had all the questions translated and preplanned ahead of time so I basically was just there to record).

I loved exploring his village, it was a very calm and quiet place which is the opposite of what people think of when they think of China. After we were down shooting for the day we made the trek back to the hotel and repeated the same thing again until I had everything I needed. Then we left Yangshuo to another city where I met up with the other filmmakers and we stared to edit!

china film
Our first “day off” and also the last night to see everyone :(.

Post-Production: Editing. I love and hate it, more often it seems to be the latter but it’s kind of the second phase of directing so it really does make all the difference in a film. You can shoot something beautiful that visually tells a compelling story but if you’re editing is not in sync with that story (or it’s just rushed/bad) the whole thing can be a bust. On the other hand, editing can also sometimes save a bad shoot ..with a lot of skill and a little luck.

As I said before, I’m not fluent in Mandarin, in fact I don’t even speak it so editing an interview heavy documentary was less than a walk in the park. The way it worked was that I would listen to my voice state the question off camera so I knew at least what that section of the interview was about. After I transcoded my footage I imported and organized everything into categories of what Mr. Yuechuang was talking about. I had sections for his family, fishing life, his past, philosophies, thoughts about the future and so on. The next step was to sit down with a translator and put subtitles on every section in English and Mandarin so we could tell what he was saying and then I could rearrange and remove what I needed to. That’s when it happened.

As it turns out, the language barrier was a worse than I thought. None of my questions I asked were answered. When I asked questions such as “why do you think it’s important to keep your traditional way of fishing alive in Chinese culture?” he was asked “how many fish you catch each day” and then there was a 5 minute rambling response about the number of fish he caught. It was like this for almost every question except for him saying his name and talking about his family. I didn’t know what to do honestly. My full story was not there, what I had was a mess of rambling sentences about fishing that had no direction or story whatsoever. Also this was going to be screened in front of 500 people in 4 days. That’s when all my frustrations caught up to me and I had a meltdown. I mean I actually cried. I’m not a yeller when I am frustrated, I’m a cryer so it was more out of frustration than anything. I think it was mostly because I was doing everything myself and I had nobody to help in any way and I was helpless without speaking Mandarin. It’s a weird situation to be in when you can’t communicate and I found it very hard because I’m usually really good at communication so I think most everything came back to the language barrier and just plain bad luck as you will see later.

china town
This was in the quiet town outside of Mr. Yuechuang’s village.

Sometimes you just cry at the most inconvenient times because within 2 minutes of doing that someone came up to me and asked me to talk on camera about my shoot in China. I told them I couldn’t right now because I needed to deal with my disaster of a shoot. I went to the organizer of the group that sponsered me in and he could tell by my face that I was after crying and he was really nice about it and we made a plan. I got a new translator that I could speak face to face with and we decided to go back to the fisherman the next day for another interview. I felt better instantly because I felt like I was back in control of my documentary again, however, this did mean I would lose a full day of editing. Not super great but I didn’t really have any other choice.

I don’t remember what we were doing here. Note that I am the only one wearing shorts and dying from the heat while everyone is wearing pants and founding it half chilly. Newfies.

That night I worked on my questions with my new translator and the next day we went back to Mr. Yuechuang who was thankfully available. We were gone about 16 hours and I came back late that night and slept like the dead.

I got up early the next day ready to edit. Things went really smooth and I was enjoying finally putting my story together. Me and the people from my Prague Film School class had a really good setup for editing and we would take breaks for food only (and a beer to cap off the night). I really loved working by them and we would watch each other’s films and give feedback and have “Beer-me” awards for different things that Robert (the instructor would give out). Note: He deservedly gave himself a “Beer-me” award for putting up with us for a month, nobody disagreed haha.

So things were going well for me at that point minus the fact I was 2 days behind everyone. That’s when my final shoot disaster happened. We were sharing USBs with credit info and logos on them and as I plugged one into my computer it just shut off. That was weird I thought, so I turned my computer back on and started up my editor and that’s when I saw that all of my files were gone, including my documentary.

My first thought was “you’re f****** kidding me” because everything was due tomorrow for the screening Sunday night. I felt like someone was playing a joke on me. I didn’t panic. I think this was because I got everything out of my system the day I had my meltdown (4 days before). I went to the techy guys and my post production supervisor and they were at a loss for what I should do. No matter, I will google this. Oh wait, Google is banned in China so I have to use Bing…. of all search engines. Some may argue having to use Bing is probably the worst thing that happened to me on my shoot, I may not disagree.

prague film school china
The Prague Film School “Editing Suite”. I miss these people.

The internet was not loading (of course) so I decided to call Apple (they make Final Cut Pro X) and I was put through to their software pros and spoke to an angel named Kyle who helped me find a weird backup file I didn’t see by doing these things I will never remember. He must have heard the desperation in my voice when I explained to him that I was in China and just lost my documentary that is getting screened tomorrow. He even said “don’t worry, I will help you through it”. I swear if he asked me to marry him over the phone I would not have been able to say no. I left out a lot but this troubleshooting took about 4-5 hours and Kyle even gave me his contact to reach him incase I ever run into problems again before the screening. I still think about him to this day. I’m joking. Kinda.

The final product: After all that happened, I did end up finishing my documentary. Who would have thought, right? We had the screening the next day and my documentary was well received. It has since it has been accepted into 3 different screenings in Canada AND I won an award for “Emerging Filmmaker” from the Nickel Film Festival, yayyyyy!!!

It sounds like I am complaining when I talk about shooting my documentary because I can have a dry sense of humour but I really loved my experience in China. Filmmaking always has its ups and downs and my shoot was no exception. I would do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, my dream job would be to do that kind of thing for a living, just travel and make documentaries all the time. With each shoot I get better and I learn so much that I can apply to the next shoot. People only see what’s on the screen, they have no idea of all the setbacks and hoops you have to jump through to get some shots that look so simple. One of my instructors (Igor Farback) at PFS said to our class once “it’s okay to make mistakes, just make sure you don’t make the same one more than once.” Essentially, learn from you mistakes.

china documentary
Me being all kinds of awkward with the flag.

Things I learned from this shoot experience: 

  • Don’t be a people pleaser. Speaking to the ladies here, a lot of us are bad for this. Studies show that women are known to apologize a lot more than men. I knew my translator wasn’t working but I really liked her and didn’t want to be demanding or difficult or get her in trouble. In reality when I went to there organizer at first about my communication problems I should have said that I needed someone that I can speak freely to versus just saying “I think it might be better if…” I really should have put my foot down on that one and I didn’t which caused me to have to reshoot and lose a day of editing.
  • Trust your gut, then actually do what it says. This kind of goes with what is above but there is a big difference in knowing something is wrong and then actually acting on it. Always follow through as well.
  • Don’t expect help from anyone. This might sound pessimistic but in reality it’s nice to have help but do not expect others to help you, even if they genuinely want to. Sometimes you’re just on your own and you will be the only person to help yourself.
  • Simplify things. Things will always go wrong so it’s best if you can simplify things so you can roll with the punches easier.
  • Hope for the best but plan for the worst. It’s cliche but it’s true. I usually shoot alone so I don’t have anyone to do anything for me when things go wrong so I always need to bring extra equipment for everything and plan for the weather and think of everything that can go wrong and do things to prevent it or give myself tools to deal with it.
  • Prepare as much as you can, then prepare some more. This comes down to a lot of planning and then also reflecting on past lessons to apply them to future predictions. Over prepare if you must, you’ll be more confident in yourself and your shoot if you do.
  • Stay true to your vision but know that it may need to adapt and change. This sentence contradicts itself, I know. What I mean is that it’s your story and it’s your job to tell it, however let it be fluid to the things that happen, sometimes it can even work for the better. Unless you are a giant hollywood director and have everything you need at your fingertips and people to do things for you, you’ll have to be creative and change things from time to time.

THE END. Oh my god this was a long post.


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