Movie-making, Azeri style

by Thomas

I was fortunate to have Elmir working for me as the camera operator. Certainly one of Azerbaijan's best.

First shot of the day. Three months of endless overcast, and on the day of the shoot we have clear skies. How did I not see this coming?

I recently shot a few scenes for an Azeri director who I have gotten to know quite well here over the past few months. The shoot was a great opportunity for me to meet local crew, develop a working relationship with Pyunhan (the director), and generally get a feel for how film production works in Azerbaijan.

What surprised me most about the experience was how similar it was to shooting a short film in the States. From the perspective of the cinematographer, the biggest challenges were identical: insufficient leadership on set (e.g., the lack of an experienced assistant director), inadequate prep (lack of storyboards), and an overambitious schedule. These have been the biggest challenges on every I short film I have ever worked on.

All in all the shoot was a very positive experience for me and I learned a ton. As the “big-time Hollywood cinematographer” (they all think I shot Titanic), expectations were very high among the crew members, and I hope that I was able to show them that, regardless of experience, we are all human. Some interesting notes on Azeri film production:

  1. The words for roll camera, camera speed, and action are all the same in the Soviet system of film production. So when you shoot, you hear the word motor repeated three times.
  2. We shot dialogue scenes all day without a slate or any other means of marking the footage so that sound can later be synchronized. There was nothing to tell the editor what scene or take he was working with, much less what the name of the movie is. Everyone said this was normal. Yikes.
  3. As is common in the States, Azeri DPs and lighting technicians love fill light. The idea of having a face modeled with shadow is out of the question. As someone who tries to embrace darkness and shadow in my photography, I found myself continually asking them to turn off lights. They were respectful, but I could tell there was a lot of head shaking happening behind the scenes.

Side note: two weeks ago my Azerbaijani language teacher taught be the phrase “beh beh beh,” which is something you say under your breath when you’re sitting at the table and the food is delicious. It’s analogous to the English “mmmmm.” At one point during the production we were shooting a close-up of an actress as she walked around the room. On one of the takes she traveled beyond the edge of the set and behind a forest of light stands. This was immediately apparent to all of us watching the monitor, and at that moment I heard Elchin, the gaffer, mutter under his breath, beh beh beh. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

State of the Caspian: cloudy, with high wind.