Local filmmakers are becoming truly resourceful in the digital age. Andrew Worsdale pays a visit to the set of Lullaby - the new Darrell Roodt film, and discovers how digital allows filmmakers to capture real urban grit with ease.

Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi is an exception to the rule of South African cinema. Not because it won the Oscar, but because it was a local film that cost over R20 million to make. Most local producers would make two or three films for that amount or maybe more with the whole-hearted embrace of digital filmmaking. South African filmmakers are becoming truly resourceful in the digital age. Since Jason Xenopolous’s Promised Land in 2002, several if not most local films have been made in the format. In the past year alone Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, Bunny Chow, Running Riot and Faith Like Potatoes were rendered on digital and not film.

Director Darrell Roodt shot three features last year on HD – Zimbabwe, a harrowing docu-drama about illegal immigrants, Meisie, an Afrikaans feature about a gifted child and Lullaby, a gritty thriller set in downtown Joburg. The director has found a new freedom, not only in financing his films, but in shooting them as well. With digital there’s no more cumbersome equipment or bulky production units that take over entire city blocks. Instead smaller crews and the ability to shoot from the hip has transformed the way that movies are being made.

Written by Ivan Milborrow and produced by Anton Ernst, Roodt’s latest film, Lullaby, is about a working-class woman who travels to Johannesburg to save her son from the clutches of a drug-dealer. Milborrow’s script was inspired by an episode of actuality TV program, Carte Blanche, that featured mothers who had gone to the ends of the earth to save their kids from the horrors of crack addiction.

Even though the film is low budget, an overseas star was needed to raise the finance.  Roodt, Milborrow and Ernst were lucky to get Melissa Leo to play the lead. The powerful actress, who is best known as Benicio Del Toro’s wife in Alejandro Innaritu’s 21 Grams and as Detective Kelly in Homicide, brings gravitas and realism to the film. Her presence elevates the project above that of a B-movie; instead it is being played as a rigorous fish out of water docu-thriller.

Co-Producer Kerry Gregg says, “The movie doesn’t preach to you about drugs, it’s not political. It’s a tense, gritty character based running-out-of-time thriller. The difference here is that the lead is in a completely alien environment…downtown Johannesburg.”

When I pay the set a visit, base camp is the Baptist Church parking lot directly opposite the Woza Hair Salon on frenzied Claim Street near Joubert Park in Jozi’s browbeaten city centre. The Church sign reading “God’s Heartbeat Is You” faces Buckingham Court, a nine-floor block of flats, which is one of the film’s central locations. The grimily ideal find will be the drug-dealer’s hideout.

It’s 7.20am and the first scene has Leo pulling up outside the building in her battered rental Mazda 323. A curious throng has gathered but there’s no need for crowd control, the small-scale of production doesn’t disturb the community. Sure there are portable toilets, and generators and caravans to service the base, but shooting on digital makes it more like making a home-movie.

The grime outside is matched by the grunge of Buckingham Court’s once splendidly luxurious 50s interior. Cameraman Jamie Ramsay enthuses as he takes me on a tour, “There’s no way that we could create this in a studio, it’s like some amazing production design, as if the building’s bleeding or dying, like there’s thirty years of history peeling off.”

Ramsay, a recent AFDA graduate, says, “The story is realistic and the environment dictates how we shoot the locations, but because of the format we’re able to shoot a lot of angles and effectively deal with the fore, middle and background. So we’re doing things like shooting through furniture and using the buildings as this formidable background texture so there’s this creepy feel that all around, everyone’s watching”

By nine o’clock they have completed two unit moves and twenty-one set-ups, all due to the slimmed down ease and mobility of shooting on digital.  The rest of the morning involves car shots on the hectic Hillbrow streets and when Roodt, Gregg and their skeleton crew return about forty-five minutes later, they’re bursting with adrenalin. “I had Darrell hanging out of a kombi at 80kms an hour, the Metro cops behind us and Darrell’s eight inches off the ground with his camera!” Kerry beams as he sits down, “Now imagine trying to do that on 35mm without a harness!”

He reckons that Roodt, always known for his infectiousness of spirit, has really gone back to being a movie-mad kiddie again given the guerilla freedom of shooting on digital. “We’re shooting on two Sony HDV V1E cameras and we’ve seen the digital blow-ups and they’re amazing,” he says emphasizing that local digital suppliers and labs have gone out of their way to help them.

There would be no way that a big production unit could capture downtown Jozi as they’ve been able to. With a format that allows for maximum coverage with ease, director Roodt is behind the second camera most of the time, “I just love shooting and directing because you’re really in there and not in some tent watching it on a video feed with all these other people around you.

‘Tsotsi’ cost over R20 million to make, it was shot on 35mm and recreated urban grit much like a studio movie. Lullaby was shot on the streets, and in buildings where there probably is a crack-dealer next door to the shoot. That’s the magic of digital. ”