A still from Poacher
A still from the five-minute second-year Afda student movie Poacher.

Andy Stead

Shooting a movie is tough even for the most professional production company. Shooting on film – as opposed to digital – is tougher yet, and shooting wildlife can be the toughest of all. Despite this Maricia Pieterse, now a second-year student at Afda, chose shooting a movie on rhino poaching on location in the Kloofendal Nature reserve in Gauteng as her option for her student production.

Afda, the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, is a film school with campuses in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, and Observatory, Cape Town. It’s the only South African school to be a full member of the International Association of Film and Television Schools, so all Afda degrees are internationally recognised.

“I heard of Afda through friends who were students there,” says Pieterse. “I went to the open day with my parents and was really enthralled by the establishment and the courses they offered and the fact that practical was just as important as theory. I enrolled to do producing, VFX, CMS [costume, makeup and styling] as well as production design.”

In the first year students do four subjects, in the second year two and in the third year they focus on one. In all three years students do “core course”, five subjects of theory that teaches them a little about every course with detail in the art of filmmaking.

“We learn about ‘control’, which is in effect producing, and we are taught to work with money and contracts,” says Pieterse. “Performance tuition is to do with acting and characters as well as psyche and the human mind. Narrative is storytelling and how to write a successful movie. Medium teaches us how to bring image and sound together to tell a story. Aesthetics is about colour and visual design and how to interpret them and apply them to film making. We have to do essays on each subject.

“The combination of these courses gives us a degree in Motion Picture instead of a diploma. It also makes us better filmmakers as we learn a lot of detail about film.

“We learn to shoot on film as well as digital. My last production was called Poacher and I was the producer. In the last term we are given crews who are known as ‘challenge crews’ meaning that the good are mixed with bad and they really try to push us to work with new and difficult people.

“We shot on 16mm film which is extremely challenging as more time and attention to detail is required in order to make sure the film looks good and does not end up as a blank screen due to over- or underexposure.”

For the project the students did not do any casting, and the challenge was writing around the actors they were given. Marcia met the director who pitched his concepts. Pieterse told him she wanted to do a film that was not only entertaining but relevant and educational as well.

“He came back to me with the concept of a female rhino poacher who has to poach to get a South African ID [identity document],” says Pieterse. “He also wanted to shed light on the subject that some of the ‘good’ guys are actually behind this epidemic. I approved the storyline and he started writing. It was an ambitious concept for only five minutes of final material but we thought it could work.”

The directors pitch the storyline to the lecturers and then take it forward from there. The treatments have to be written for each subject, and include how the student is going to make this production happen and how they are going to apply what has been learned to the film. It requires significant research and many hours of hard work – a mini thesis, if you like.

“Later on in the process we as a crew have to pitch to the lecturers and each department advises what we have to do to make the film a success,” says Pieterse. “The lecturers give feedback and then give us a green, orange or red light. Green means you can shoot, orange is usually if documents such as location signoffs or contracts are missing, and red means you have to change your script and pitch at a later stage.

“We as a crew did a lot of research into rhino poaching. It was and still is a very relevant topic. We learned that there are quite a few different reasons to why people poach. We also learned that the poachers are often just used and actually get paid very little and that it is the people up the line who actually make large sums of money from this awful practice.

“We needed quite a few props and costumes to make this film work so our budget was important. We calculated that about R3 000 was required to pay for all our expenses. This included food, research, airtime, printing, prop guns, ranger clothing and so on. We went on a fundraising drive, and the crew had to pay a fee towards the budget.

“The biggest challenge was finding a location within a radius of 20 kilometres from Afda that looked like a game reserve. The decision was made to only use one location as this helped with time and set up, and to complete the shoot between sunrise and sunset. We went location scouting, and Kloofendal Nature Reserve close to my house was perfect. It has large open spaces, it looked like rhinos could live there, and was within the radius allowed.”

Kloofendal Nature Reserve was founded on the site of the first payable gold mining operation of 1884, before Johannesburg’s main reefs were discovered. The old shafts have been restored and are national monuments, open to view. The wildlife is generally of the smaller variety; the main attraction is the reserve’s pristine vegetation.

Some 110 hectares in size, Kloofendal has typical Highveld/ Bankenveld rocky ridges, shale hill sides and river systems. It is managed by Johannesburg City Parks, with facilities that include a dam, bird hide, picnic areas and well-maintained paths.

“I called Johannesburg City Parks and received an application for use,” says Pieterse. “I was eventually granted permission to shoot. I then had to approach a props company as I needed a gun a poacher would use as well as one a ranger would use. I also took extra props like a hand gun, a revolver belt and a machete that the poacher would use. The props man was a great source of information and helped me a lot with the character styling and just extra information that we used for our treatments.”

Pieterse was only given 16 hours to shoot a five minute film. “This is reasonable for a digital shoot,” she says “but since we were shooting on film you can only shoot either day or night because we are given one can of film which contains 10 minutes of one type of film stock. Shooting on film is a challenge but I personally believe if you can shoot on film you can only then call yourself a true filmmaker as anyone can pick up a digital camera and shoot something and call it a movie.

“The director changed the script a few times and we ended up with a completely different story that I did not really approve but we had no time to change it again as we were approaching our day of shoot. On the day of shoot there were also script changes that were made without consulting me. This is not the ideal situation as you want a final script that the whole crew approves and feels strongly about, as it produces a better film in the end.

“As a crew we had quite a big challenge on the day of shoot. We were rained out and I had to get permission to pull the set from the lecturers and we were given a day later in the week to shoot again. The day of contingency we started shooting early, but not far into shoot it started to drizzle. As we shot the climax and as it grew the rain got harder.

“The crew had to stand in the rain with no protection as we had to use everything to protect the equipment. It was harsh and we had to rush. The rain became so hard that we could not shoot our chosen ending so again the script had to change to accommodate the rain. The conditions were horrible and this had a large effect on our film and the final product.”

Poacher turned out to be a story of a girl who is the poacher. A game ranger sees that a rhino has been killed and he is looking for the poacher. He finds her passed out and tortures her so that she gives him the horn which he could sell and make a profit. She actually manages to escape with the horn but drops the other horn that a tourist picks up in the end.

The original concept was meant to be about a woman poacher who is on the run from two rangers, says Pieterse. “When they catch her, the female ranger is scared and lets the poacher escape. The male ranger is furious and goes back on the hunt for the poacher. Then we see the female ranger meet with the poacher and they exchange the horns for a South African ID document. This was meant to show how Africans are pulled into poaching for little reward and the rangers are actually the ones that make the large profits.”

The postproduction team was allowed three days. The film was then presented to fellow students and lecturers. They marked and give feedback on the film as a whole, and questioned the crew about what happened on set. The lecturers were aware of the problems Pieterse and crew had faced so they commended them for at least having a film of five minutes duration. The only comments they made was that the film was action-packed but lacked audience engagement with the character. They felt that the character arch did not build and thus the audience could not sympathise with the character. They were also told that the concept was too large for five minutes and would have better suited a third year level, where the movies are 12 minutes.

“I hope to graduate with a degree in motion pictures at the end of 2011,” says Maricia. “I intend to work in the South African film industry for about two years, preferably under someone from whom I can learn all about producing. I also want to do an extra make-up course. I plan to work on my own productions with friends – we would like to do an Afrikaans series aimed at young adults as well as a few films we can send to international film festivals.

“I would also like to work on adverts and music videos, but most preferably on feature films. It’s a tough industry and even with a degree you have to start from the bottom. After that I would like to do an honours in film production at the Chaplin University Dodge College in Los Angeles. Then hopefully get a job in the States and work there for a bit. I would then return and work here in South Africa with my own production company which will give young students a chance to gain experience.”

Pieterse’s movie Poacher could be shown on the Mzanzi Magic movie channel if it is broadcast-ready and fulfils the requirements for bubblegum movies – a South African film term for low-budget short films – so keep a look out!