documentary

Project Hua Tat // Empowering Vietnam - A filmmaker's perspective

Project Hua Tat is a overseas community service project (OCSP) jointly organized by Students of Singapore Management University and Actxplorer.

Situated over 800 metres above sea level on the Moc Chau Plateau in Northern Vietnam, Hua Tat Village is Home to 150 families of the Hmong people of Vietnam. Actxplorer recognizes the potential for tourism at Hua Tat and has jointly worked with Singapore Management University (SMU) students to design skills and infrastructural upgrades to help Hua Tat reach it’s full potential.
— Actxplorer
The Project Hua Tat team

The Project Hua Tat team

It isn’t often we get to escape from the confines of our everyday lives, and it’s even less often we get to truly break free from the bonds of society, and to really experience life in its purest form. This April, I was extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to provide media coverage for Project Hua Tat II, an overseas community service project (OCSP) aimed at providing economic empowerment to the residents of Hua Tat Village, Vietnam.

Upon arrival at Hua Tat Village, we were instantly invigorated by the freshness of the air and cool climate. Situated 800 meters above sea level, it was a far cry from the sweltering heat and crowd one would normally associate with Hanoi. The alluring mountainscapes flanking the village and the wispy stratus clouds kissing the mountain peaks, paint a picturesque image of serenity and tranquility. Within moments, it was as if all our problems had disappeared, left far behind in bustling Hanoi.

Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by our host, and village home-stay owner, Trang A Long. It was a breath of fresh air witnessing, first hand, the warmness and sincerity of the locals. For our first dinner at A Chu Homestay in Hua Tat, we were presented with a lavish spread of assorted meats and freshly grown vegetables. Going in with minimal expectations, we were pleasantly surprised with the quality and variety of the food served to us.

A mother teaching her daughter embroidery

A mother teaching her daughter embroidery

// Sights and Sounds //

Upon daybreak, the team set off on their respective tasks. Camera in hand, I was promptly overwhelmed with the sheer exquisiteness of the landscape. Every angle presented beautiful frames for photography. It seemed impossible to take a dull photo here. The affectionate and cordial villagers were also intrigued by technology and were eager to have their photos taken, enthusiastically posing whenever a camera was pointed vaguely in their direction. It really was a photographer’s paradise.

The sheer exuberance and genuine joy the locals displayed was infectious, and it was difficult not to feel energized.

As the sun slowly disappeared below the horizon, the surrounding mountains lit up imposingly under the glorious evening rays and wafting clouds. It was truly a sight to behold. To do justice to the scene, I opted to fly my drone towards to sunset, allowing me to obtain some incredible imagery of the valley and grassy basin.

Mountains at sunset

// The Climb //

The following day, we embarked on a trek up the surrounding hills. The cool breeze, together with the crisp mountain air, filled our lungs with virility. After a rather challenging hike, we slowly approached the crest and were greeted with an awe-inspiring view overlooking the village and the neighboring basin.

It was truly breathtaking.

Overlooking Hua Tat Village

Overlooking Hua Tat Village

While we struggled to scale the rocky inclines and deep ridges, the locals seemingly had no issues and were, both figuratively and literally, running circles around us. Even the children, bare feet exposed and armed with heavy rucksacks, had no difficulty navigating the onerous paths. It was mortifying just how unfit and sedentary our lifestyles back home was.

Kid with goat

// The Locals //

Despite the jaw dropping sights and sounds, the highlight of the trip was, without doubt, the people. As social creatures, we crave human interaction and the camaraderie of people. The locals were some of the warmest, most affectionate people I’ve met. From the moment we arrived in their quaint little world, to the day we left teary-eyed, these people showed us nothing but unrestrained warmness and unyielding hospitality. Despite not having much, their willingness to share everything they had, and their unwavering graciousness was heart warming.

The enthusiastic and spirited kids never fail to bring us laughter and joy. Watching their playful banter and beady, innocent eyes was truly a moment for somber reflection… These children didn’t need fanciful toys or iPads to have fun, unlike the children back home. It was life in its simplest, most primal form, and it was a breath of fresh air and a welcomed change of pace. While I have never been overtly fond of kids, it was difficult not to grow fond of these children.

Without exposure to technology, these kids were eager to have their pictures taken, and would hastily swarm around the camera whenever I steadied my arms to take a shot. Their blissful laughter and unburdened happiness led to some incredible footage and photos.

high five

Getting to know the locals and their culture showed such a stark contrast to what we’ve grown accustomed to in hectic Singapore, with everyone out for themselves and keeping to themselves. While we were only there for two weeks, it felt as if we had made friends for life.

Completing the project and leaving the village was bittersweet, and I would give anything to have the chance to meet these people again.

Smiling kid hua tat village

// Final thoughts //

Embarking on this trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the ensuing journey had left me truly humbled. The gorgeous scenes, the camaraderie, and the people all coming together like a beautiful pas de deux, seducing you into wanting to stay.

This trip was a somber reminder of the importance of human connection. Having all the luxuries in the world doesn’t necessarily buy you happiness, as eloquently displayed by the locals of Hua Tat, who find a way to enjoy life to its fullest with minimal luxuries. Its also a reminder that all we need is the people we surround ourselves with, and an open mind.


Campus PSY - Supporting a friend in need #SupportaFriendinNeed

Campus PSY

As part of Campus PSY's movement, "Supporting a friend in need", we were involved in producing a short film documenting mental health Advocate, Xun An's experience dealing with depression, and how he has managed to cope it with the help of close friend, Damien. 

Campus PSY was started by a group of youth volunteers from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), who are united by a mutual desire to help others. Inspired by support from our family and friends, they want to pay it forward by reaching out to other youths-in-distress, with the aim of creating resilient, and empowered, communities in the tertiary institutions. 

Visit them at:
https://www.facebook.com/campuspsy/

Campus PSY supporting a friend in need 1

#SupportaFriendinNeed

We were very fortunate to have both Xun An and Damien volunteer to share their stories for the film. Opening up publicly about mental illness is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and it takes courage to do it. Xun An is currently a mental health advocate, who has written about his experiences dealing with major depression and borderline personality disorder. 

The video largely follows Xun An's story, as well as how he was able to cope with the illness with the help and support of close friend, Damien Tan. Major depression is nothing to be taken lightly, and significantly affects your functionality and life. Xun An was incredibly lucky to have the support of friends and family to not only cope with it, but benefit others by being a mental health advocate.

Listening to them open up very intimately about their stories was incredibly inspiring, and we certainly hope that friends and family of mental illness sufferers give them the same support they deserve.

Production wrap!

Production wrap!


A journey through sand - SAND Co watches (part 2 | Behind the scenes)

"SAND Co is a startup aiming to produce exquisitely unique handmade watches with the following outrageous premise - No two watches identical. As crazy as it sounds, they've actually managed to pull it off, with a unique paint dipping process to create a unique watch every single time, on every single dial." - Part I of A journey through Sand

OVERVIEW

Right from the beginning and conceptualization of the film, we knew we wanted the film to be as organic, even dreamlike, as possible. Being a 100% handmade watch from beginning to end is a unique selling point few watches are able to claim, and as such, we wanted that to reflect in the video. This called for a organic style of filming, as well as very careful framing and composition. 

 

EQUIPMENT

Shooting at sunset with the Sony FS5

Shooting at sunset with the Sony FS5

Due to the organic and artisanal nature of the product and film, we opted to shoot the film as minimally as possible. The last thing we wanted was for the video to seem overproduced and sterile, with daylight filling lighting and overly produced camera moves. 

Our primary camera of choice was the amazing Sony FS5, it was a no-brainer, really. We needed a camera which was capable of high speed slow-motion recording, good low light performance and good dynamic range. The FS5 ticked all our boxes. Paired with the FS5 was a collection of Canon 'L' lenses. (16-35, 24-105, 100, 50). 

For camera supports, we utilized Vinten/Manfrotto tripods, a Glidecam HD2000 and Kessler's "Not-So-Pocketable" Pocket Dolly slider. As for lights, well....We decided to use the brightest light available to us - The sun. Natural light, in our opinion, felt the most natural and fitted the mood of the film best. 

FILMING

Filming of the piece took place over the course of 1 month, due to the busy schedules of both us and the talents, as well as the many setups at difference locations. Logistically, it was a nightmare. Eventually, though, we pulled it off, with picture wrap in the early part of June. 

Filming was very deliberate and considered, even bordering on obsessive, with every single shot repeated to perfection. 

In a way, this was also the first time I really had the opportunity to push the FS5 to its capabilities since upgrading from the 5DMK3. Many shots involved pushing the camera to its limits, especially the low light slow motion shots. I had always known the FS5 was a capable camera, but its performance through this production surprised me thoroughly. Its ability to handle itself in challenging lighting conditions and detail retention in very high contrast situations (such as the sunset scene) was superb. Paired with Canon 'L' lenses, it really was a killer combo for a very reasonable price.

FS5 behind the scenes

EDITING

Premiere timeline donald ong visuals

The next step after picture wrap is, arguably, where the magic happens. It is where a mess of over 200GB of uncut footage culminates together into one coherent piece. For this, we used Adobe's Premiere Pro CC.

Once the film is put together, it's time for colour correction and grading. This is especially crucial as we shot the entire film in S-LOG, a flat picture profile which maximizes latitude and dynamic range with very flat, dull colours, giving us the most flexibility in post

S-LOG straight out of camera

S-LOG straight out of camera

S-LOG after grading. Way better.

S-LOG after grading. Way better.

Premiere timeline

For the structure of the video, we wanted the first 3 minutes to be an introduction of the brand, with beautiful close up B-roll shots of the watch as well as interviews with the founder, Jun Hong. The last 1 minute of the film is made up of lifestyle shots filmed and edited to resemble a flashback sequence or dream, with dynamic camera moves and time ramps to capture the fleeting nature of a flashback or memory.

With the footage cut together, the audio normalized and the film colour graded, the editing process is concluded.

Stay tuned for part III, where we'll release the final film alongside the official kick-starter campaign release of SAND CO's watches. In the mean time, do watch the behind the scenes video of the filming process below!

EDIT: Part 3 live now!


A journey through sand - SAND Co watches (part I)

sand watches intro

Every once in a while, a project comes along that challenges and pushes you outside of your comfort zone - In our case it was directing & producing a 4 minute documentary-style promotional feature for SAND Co watches' kickstarter campaign.

SAND Co is a startup aiming to produce exquisitely unique handmade watches with the following outrageous premise - No two watches identical. As crazy as it sounds, they've actually managed to pull it off, with a unique paint dipping process to create a unique watch every single time, on every single dial.

blue face sand watch

When Jun Hong, the founder of SAND Co watches pitched to me the idea of creating a short documentary style promotional film for its kickstarter campaign, I was thrilled... and also challenged. Product shoots and fashion shoots aren't exactly my forte. However, not being one to back down from a challenge, I agreed - and thus began a 3-months long process, from conceiving the premise for the film, all the way to pre-production and finally post production.

As with any good film, it starts with ideation - forming the basis of the film and story-boarding. Scripting for the film proved to be a challenging endeavor due to the nature of the watch - Completely personal and individually unique. Nevertheless, after many rounds of discussions, we agreed on a finalized concept, a concept and script that would carry us through the project. 

The next step, and possibly the most crucial step, is casting. Poor casting choices can completely break an otherwise well produced film. The choice of actors can completely change the mood of the film. We decided, in the end, to cast the lovely @sunnmaomao and @boonkaewnaree to portray the couple in the film - A decision which proved to be the correct one.

cast and crew

Stay tuned for part II of the story, where I'll talk about behind the scenes of the filming and editing process, as well as the final film.

-Donald