The idea for The Oasis came first and foremost from its producer and co-director, Ian Darling. He had had a long association with the Oasis Youth Support Network and it's Director, Captain Paul Moulds. Ian felt there was a great story to be told about Paul's work at this inner-city refuge in Sydney and about the homeless kids who either slept at, or hung around Oasis, often for an extended period of time. We did not want to make 'just another homeless doco' but to really get to know Paul Moulds intimately and what drove him to do the work he did. We also wanted to meet some of the kids in his care and to try and understand what it was in their lives and family history that had led them to a place like Oasis.
After many meetings with Paul we realised that the only way to try and give a 'true' and in-depth account of the lives of those kids who frequent Oasis, and of the work that goes on there, would be to film over an extended period of time. For the documentary to be different from the type of current affairs films that have been made about youth homelessness and its causes, we felt that it would take a special commitment of both time and resources. We wanted to be able to commit to at least a year of filming. Such a commitment would, we hoped, allow us to get to know some of the kids well and thereby to gain their trust. In doing so we hoped they would feel able to be more honest and open about the story of their lives.
We realised that such a film could not be shot and directed in a more traditional documentary way i.e. organising a shoot for a particular day and going in and 'covering' a story. We felt that we would need to find someone who was not only capable of both shooting and directing but also someone whom the kids would relate to, and ultimately let in to their private worlds. We realised that the ideal would be as small a crew as possible - preferably a one-man crew - and that this person would need to spend a lot of time at Oasis with Paul and the kids, both day and night. They would effectively become both principal photographer and co-director of the film.
Ian and I had both seen and loved Sascha Ettinger Epstein's previous film Painting with Light in a Dark World - about the street photographer Peter Darren Moyle, and we began to speak to her about the project. Ian took Sascha along to meet Paul and some of the kids at Oasis and she soon understood that there were many great stories to be told.
Sascha was also able to commit the time that we all felt was necessary for the project and over the two years or so of filming she did indeed gain the trust of many of her subjects. Ian had a second camera and shot when two situations needed to be filmed at the same time or where we felt two cameras at one event would be useful. We shot on HDV.
With such a long-form doco there is no 'right' time to start so Sascha began as soon as she was ready.
Filming for The Oasis began in December 2005 at which time I was still finishing off another documentary. I was lucky to have a fabulous assistant, Hilary Balmond, who digitised (the process of getting the 'rushes' - raw unedited footage - into the computer) and carefully logged all of the footage for me. In total we had around 250 hours of footage for The Oasis - 200 tapes on the principal camera and about 50 shot on the second unit camera.
Because of the volume of footage that would come in, and because of the overlap of two films (as well as the fact that Hilary and I are both working mums), the cutting room ran 'non-stop' for a while. I would work my available hours and then Hilary would step into the hot seat. This proved a very efficient and flexible way of keeping on top of all the material. The footage was logged both in the computer's editing program and there was also a paper log which summarised the contents of each tape - a very useful quick reference library for Ian and Sascha.
The great thing about working on a feature-length observational documentary shot over one or two years is that the film slowly emerges. Sascha obviously made crucial initial choices about which characters to follow and, necessarily, some characters followed by the cameraperson will change - their stories will prove interesting or dull, some will move away - but eventually the film's story and main characters are 'found' and 'shaped' in the footage that comes back into the cutting room.
Hilary and I started very early on to create character sequences/selects within the project. This meant that once digitised, Hilary or I would look through every frame of rushes and begin to sort into individual character time lines so that anything featuring Owen or Emma or Haley, for example, or any of the other characters that we had begun to follow, would be sorted into their own sequence. Over the course of the edit we identified 40 main characters that were distinguishable from all of the other kids at Oasis and who had their 'own' sequence/selects. These initial sequences/selects ranged in length from 6 minutes to 9 hours (for Emma & Trent).
At this stage we were not making any 'creative' decisions, as such. Early on in such a long editing process it is hard to know what shots or storylines will ultimately be relevant, so we were essentially just starting by throwing away the out of focus/unusable footage. As the sequences/selects built up it was also a guide for us as to which characters were emerging as 'important' characters - the content of their rough sequences/selects would not only be longer than others, but would contain more dramatic moments than other rough sequences, more emotional highs and lows etc.
Sorting in this way also meant that if they wanted, both Sascha and Ian could review these sequence/selects much more efficiently than trawling through all of the rushes, and themselves get a sense of more powerful or less powerful characters as they manifested on screen.
As well as character selects we also began to organise the rushes according to geographic location. A lot of the documentary was shot at the Oasis site itself so we had sequences/selects called for example: Oasis foyer, Oasis day, Oasis night, Schoolroom, Radio station.
We also had other 'geographic' selects: Streetlevel church, Streetlevel café, Streetscapes day, Streetscapes night.
Many, many hours were spent filming with Captain Paul Moulds, so again his rushes were sorted into different sequences/selects: Paul in office, Paul seated interviews, Paul in car, Paul at night, Paul with groups of kids.
We also had a whole series of stand alone sequences/selects. For example: Kids in park at night, Kids beg outside Oasis, Centennial Park camping, Chris Nock funeral, Wally wake-up calls, Terry & Dean night fight, Xmas.
The advantage of organising material in this way was not only that it gave you a very rough sense of a character's journey from start to finish but also allowed us efficiently to review footage relevant to a particular scene and to 'find' particular shots, moments, phrases etc during the course of a long edit. If 18 months into filming and 4 months into editing you were trying to remember where that shot of Tommy was in the park with Matty when Tommy was wearing the yellow jacket, you just had to go back to his sequence/selects and spin through. It would be in there somewhere.
Hilary and I continued to sort and absorb the material in this way in the initial stages of filming.
When editing started in earnest, Sascha, Ian and I were able to look at the (sometimes very) long sequences/selects and begin to cut them down. We would discuss the 'nuggets' of each story. We 'knew' the characters by then, and were able to make initial choices about those we thought would become major characters in the doco and those we thought would play a more minor role. As we began to refine and therefore shorten each character's story, we ALWAYS kept copies of the long sequences but having duplicated them were able to begin the much slower process of cutting, shaping and ultimately fine cutting. We would take individual character moments, for example 'Emma's birthday' or 'Owen at his uncle's house' and fine cut these as separate sequences.
The edit was unusual in that it is rare to have two directors working on one project. When there is just one director and the editor in the cutting room you may often have quite heated discussions about the film but these are inevitably one-on-one. There were moments of tension because with three people's input there were times when if two people agreed and one differed, it just felt as if two were 'ganging up' on someone else. What we all tried to do, and in fact achieved brilliantly during the edit I think, was to be as open and honest and upfront with our opinions, agreements and disagreements as possible and to argue things out in the cutting room itself. The beauty of having two directors and one editor is that we were constantly challenging one another about the 'whys and wherefores' of keeping a particular scene or character in the story.
One decision that was relatively easy for us was 'how' to tell the story in the sense that we always knew and wanted the film to be chronological, so that over the course of a 75 minute film we could get a real sense of how much the kids themselves and their situations changed (during the one to two years spent filming), and what a year or two in the life of someone like Paul would be like.
One thing we did not know at the beginning of filming or editing was how much of the story would be Paul's story and how much would be the stories of the kids themselves. We also did not know how many of the kids' individual stories would ultimately make it into the final cut. Whilst in a sense it was always the kids' stories that were of most importance, Paul emerged as the 'glue' for all of the other characters.
Because of the observational nature of the film and because we wanted the kids' voices above all to be heard, we decided at the outset that we would not use a formal narrator. We are often TOLD about the lives of homeless kids - in newspaper articles and more current affairs type TV programming - but we wanted the kids to TELL their stories themselves and if we needed an anchor or guide than we would use the one person whom they all trusted and who often knew them better than members of their own family. That person was Paul Moulds. We firmly believed that we could tell our story without an outside narrator's voice and in a sense that is what Paul's voice becomes. Paul's own story and that of his family and faith was vital, but he was also the figure that would guide us through the lives of those kids whose stories we featured.
Where certain factual elements were missing we chose to use text on screen but always tried to edit this to the absolute minimum so as not to take the audience 'out' of the story.
Once Sascha, Ian and myself felt that we had 'processed' all of the material up to a point within the distinct sequences, there came that scary moment when you have to try and weave all those separate stories together into a coherent story.
What is interesting about editing for film and/or TV is that you know at the outset that the maximum time your film will run (for cinema release) is 120 minutes or 75 minutes (for TV broadcast). There are different reasons for this. The obvious is convention, in that most feature films traditionally run between 90 and 120 minutes and TV slots are rarely longer than 60 minutes. With experience you 'know' that an audience who are new to the material can really only get to know, and hopefully therefore care about, a limited number of characters in any one film.
During both the filming and the editing stage you get an 'inkling' of which characters are most likely to 'make it' into the film, but it is often not until seen in conjunction with the other characters in a very long first-cut that the obvious ones that are most likely to stay emerge. Whilst you 'know' this in the cutting room from the outset you still have to somehow maintain the belief that every character has a chance of making it into the final cut. Hence when you finally decide that you are going to attempt to compile your first rough cut you anticipate that it will be about 6 - 8 hours long.
I have very clear memories of the 'carpet' of cards that we lay on the (large) cutting room floor as we attempted to weave a very rough first assembly of our chosen principal characters. Our very first rough cut was about seven hours long and had fourteen characters. We ended up with six main characters.
Whilst non-linear editing is the absolute norm now - where all of your media is held on relatively small computer drives - once editing begins in earnest, old-fashioned handwritten cards describing every scene seem to come into their own. Pinning cards up onto the wall allows an easy visual reference 'map' of characters and their principal scenes. The cards can be endlessly shifted around and journeys mapped out and thought about before actually being reordered in a film sequence.
When we began filming, The Oasis did not have a pre-sale with a broadcaster and we were working towards a feature length documentary of around 90 minutes. When the ABC came on board we were aware that their feature length documentaries invariably run at 75 minutes and we worked with the commissioning editor Dasha Ross to deliver the film at the desired length. To all intents and purposes the same stories and characters are in the 75 minute version as were in the longer cut. Stories have been trimmed and the film runs at a slightly quicker pace than previously. It proved necessary to drop only one character altogether for the shorter version of the film.
During the rough cut of the film, name supers and information supers, as well as subtitles, are added in the edit suite. Towards the end of the edit, once their content has been finalised, we brought in our graphic designer, Rachel Dight. Rachel was to design the website, accompanying study guide, the executive summary of the report on homelessness etc and we felt it would be good to have a cohesive 'look' for all of these. She advised us on final typefaces and designed the look of the The Oasis title itself.
Because of the length of time spent filming as well as a generous editing schedule of about 26 weeks, we were able to have a small number of test screenings. These were importantly with different audiences - those whose film/storytelling knowledge we knew and respected, Paul & Robbin Moulds and other committed youth workers and members of the Salvos, and friends who just enjoy a good doco. From the outset we have obviously wanted to highlight the severity of the problem of youth homelessness - hence the accompanying report - but also to try and put a human face or faces on the statistics relating to youth homelessness. We needed to ensure that the audience were not being asked to 'get to know' too many characters, that they were able to empathise with those we had chosen, and above all, that at the end of the film they weren ot left feeling too sad and helpless. We hope that the audience feels that with the correct resources, people, and commitment, young lives can be changed forever.
Once the film is completed or 'locked-off' in the cutting room there are two other processes that need to happen. Most editors will say that it is at this point that they really feel that they can relax as all of their creative choices have essentially been made and the film now goes into the crucial 'finishing' realm. It often feels like putting the icing on the cake.
First of all the film is taken to a colour grader where every single shot is individually colour graded. Sometimes grading is needed to actually correct colour temperature or it is used (as often in TV commercials and feature films) to give a very particular 'look' to a film. More often than not in the documentary world, and in the case of an observational documentary like ours, it is a time when the images are enriched, the colours enhanced, and shots taken from disparate days made to match. We took our film to Annelea Chapple at The Lab with whom we had worked before and were delighted with the results.
Secondly, the film, once graded and once titles have been completed, will be taken to the sound mix. During the course of the edit I will 'lay up' a whole series of sound tracks and will do a rough sound mix throughout the edit. Again, once the film is 'locked-off' in the edit suite all of the sound will be delivered to the sound mixer and their sound editor via OMFI files. We worked with Mike Gissing at Digital City Studios, who has mixed many films for us previously, and as usual he did a fantastic job. The sound editor may spend one or two weeks cleaning up the sound, adding foley, adding sound FX from sound libraries etc in preparation for the mixer to do a pre and final mix. The composer Felicity Fox delivered her final music cues to Mike and spent a day with him getting them in place.
We knew that music would be very important in the film. We approached Felicity Fox, with whom I had worked before, even before we started editing. Felicity was due to take sabbatical leave in Europe for 6 months but would be back in time to work on music for us if we were able to use temp music whilst editing. Whilst she was away we kept in contact and sent Felicity some samples of the temp music that we were using. Felicity returned from Europe in mid September 2007 (when our 'cut' was still four hours long) and came into the cutting room to view the film with us and to talk about the different characters journeys. We went to Felicity's studio several times as she worked on composing the tracks, to hear first drafts and to comment and discuss mood, tone, instrumentation etc and she delivered 144 music cues at the end of December. We were absolutely delighted with her work.
Because the accompanying website is such a large part of this film's 'afterlife' there was also a lot of web content that had to be prepared. Hilary Balmond, our assistant, did much of this. She cut short films of those who did not actually make it into the documentary, as well as editing Paul's interview. She also prepared 'deleted' scenes for the web and other films about Oasis services etc and edited extended interviews with Paul and Ken.
I always joke that every film I work on has approximately 21 cuts/versions before I reach what I consider to be 'rough' and then 'fine' cuts. The Oasis probably had about 30 cuts.
We hope that the audience will be entertained, that they will empathise with the kids and understand their lives a little better, that they will be disturbed by the stories they see, and perhaps moved to do something to help. If that is the case then we will have succeeded.