July 3, 2015

This Incredible Short Doc Captures a Surreal Tradition Involving 100,000 Rockets

Rocket Wars Aerial Shot
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.

Rocket Wars BTS
Still Frame from Rocket Wars

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.”

Rocket Wars BTS
Rocket Wars BTS Post Production

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.     

Your Comment

8 Comments

That was simply stunning. It's a doco that feels like the trailer to a brilliant blockbuster feature film, but still holds together as a self contained story. Love it!

One thing, the clickbait titles lately have been making it hard to differentiate between what truly is "mesmerising" and what's just hyperbole designed to draw views. Compare this to the "best short film you'll see this year", and I'd already consider this the best short film I've seen this year. I think it's worth toning down some of the enthusiasm in headlines, or you run the risk of becoming "the headline that cried wolf - and you won't believe what happened next!" ;)

Thanks for sharing!

July 4, 2015 at 12:06AM, Edited July 4, 12:07AM

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Ben Howling
Writer / Director
593

Whenever I use a headline like that (and honestly, I don't think this is one of them), I make sure that the content on the other side of that link is well worth your time. I will never trick you into reading subpar content.

July 4, 2015 at 12:36PM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
4789

That's true... I've still enjoyed all the content on the other side, just at varying degrees relative to the expectation set by the headline.

In all honesty, I'd read most articles on here anyway, regardless of title. I already trust that the NFS team have a well balanced quality filter. I'd imagine most of the other avid readers feel the same way.

Not trying to be a comment section whiner, either. I love this site, it's a daily reader for me.

July 4, 2015 at 9:25PM

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Ben Howling
Writer / Director
593

The guys at Variable are going to go far, they're so freaking talented - and truly inspiring.

July 4, 2015 at 2:37AM, Edited July 4, 2:37AM

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Olof Ljunggren
Student
199

WOW!

July 4, 2015 at 7:40AM, Edited July 4, 7:40AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1062

I'd like to know if they were shooting with anamorphics or some kind of adapter, some of the flares in the church but also the headlights of the car and some other moements are really beautiful and of the kind I haven't seen from spherical lens

July 4, 2015 at 6:15PM

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They used Lomo Square Front anamorphic lenses. They explain it in a comment reply on Vimeo.

July 5, 2015 at 12:54AM, Edited July 5, 12:54AM

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Haroun Souirji
Director / DP and Producer
373

What's up with the constant flickering? Is that vimeo acting up or was it cut that way, it's unwatchable?

July 16, 2015 at 8:55AM, Edited July 16, 8:54AM

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JAY T
220