One night a year, two neighboring churches in the Greek village of Vrontados go to war.
In a Holy Saturday tradition that has been observed for well over one hundred years, the parishioners of two Orthodox churches in Vrontados wait until the sun goes down, and then fire upwards of 100,000 homemade rockets at one another. It is a mock battle, of course, and somewhat ironically, it is a symbolic event that is used to signify peace in the region. Historians can't agree on the exact origins of the tradition, although many believe that it dates back to the 19th century when villagers would fake a civil war to ward off any foreign armies inclined to invade over Easter weekend. What is indisputable, however, is that it is a tradition unlike any other, and that a night sky brimming with rockets is truly a sight to behold.
A small team of talented filmmakers from Variable, a creative collective based in New York, travelled to Vrontados this year to capture the event in a way that has never been seen before. Utilizing today's top digital technology, including the 6K Dragon, Phantom Flex4K, and an aerial A7s, director Salomon Ligthelm and the rest of the Variable team crafted one of the most memorable and visually stunning short documentary pieces in recent memory. Take a look:
The team at Variable were kind enough to share some fantastic BTS photos as well as some of the technical details about how they crafted this one-of-a-kind film. Because the "war to keep the peace" only happens one night per year, and the actual firing of the rockets takes place during a short span of a few hours, the filmmakers knew that they wouldn't get any second chances to capture the event. Add to that the technical challenges of shooting in extreme low light (and at high frame rates), and it was clear that they had some serious preparation to do. Rocket Wars cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb talks a bit on one of their camera testing methods:
Instead of assuming we’d have the proper light to shoot the desired frame rates, we shot tests with almost every kind of firework we could get our hands on to know for sure before we got to the location. Since we’d be working with literally no ambient light besides what was coming off the rockets, it was imperative to test all the available options to create ambient light that felt natural without going too far.
The Variable team deployed its camera complement in three ways: the Phantom Flex4K was used for high speed coverage on the night of the event, with one RED Dragon mounted on a Ronin rig and the other fitted with various anamorphic lenses.
The Sony was earmarked for our RC unit, which was provided by Snaproll Media, and it totally lived up to the hype -- No other camera on the market could have filmed the rockets in such extreme low light conditions from the aerial perspective other than the a7S. We shot some of these sequences at up to 20,000 ISO from the sky.”
While Rocket Wars is an absolutely incredible technical achievement, what I'm most impressed with is the visual style, which seamlessly blends a stylized narrative aesthetic with a documentary concept. It's a fantastic testament not only to the skills of the filmmakers involved, but the idea that genre doesn't have to be restrictive when it comes to creating visuals.
If you'd like to check out a whole bunch more BTS photos from the production of Rocket Wars, check out Salomon Ligthelm's website, and if you want to read the press releases, head over to this handy dandy Dropbox folder. Also, be sure to check out the websites and reels for Variable and Snaproll Media. These are two companies who are doing absolutely top-notch work in the world of commercial filmmaking, and there's lots we can learn from their work.