Jeans may be a near-universal garment, worn worldwide by everyone from manual labourers to celebrities, but after watching Jack Flynn and Nick David's stylish new short film about the making of artisan denim in Japan, you'll realise that not all jeans are created equal.
While you can pick up mass-produced jeans cheaply in supermarkets, high-end pairs that have taken skilled artisans many months to make can cost up to €2,000. The very best denim is made in Japan, where hand-riveted, hand-dyed jeans have been produced in the same way for the past 70 years. A respect for craft and traditional methods makes Japanese denim a fabric with a global reputation, much loved by fashion brands for its unique quality. The artisans are not only trained in the art of making cloth, but they also know how to maintain the old-fashioned looms – skills that have often been passed down from one generation to the next. Although much slower than modern machines, the vintage shuttle looms give the denim its distinctive character.
"The Japanese have taken denim to a different level, and they take it really seriously," Nick explains. "For many, Okayama is the place where some of the best jeans in the world are made."
Jack and Nick's film, Made in Japan (a clip of which you can watch above) was shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II Cinema EOS camera with Canon EF prime lenses. It stylishly showcases the people, places and processes behind this artisan craft. It follows the success of The Big Cloth, the pair's five-minute film about the production of Harris Tweed in Scotland, which was watched more than two million times, is showcased on the National Geographic channel, and has been on a European film tour with the British Council to highlight sustainability in the fashion industry.
The pair discovered amazing parallels between the making of Japanese denim and the age-old methods used for producing Harris Tweed. "They use similar techniques, and we thought it would be cool to go and witness it," says Jack.
Nick adds: "Although Japanese denim is hugely important, there haven't been that many films made on the subject. We anticipated there might be interest in a short film shot in a cinematic way."
However, shooting a film in Japan on a limited budget and in a tight time frame was a different prospect to shooting in the UK. Both films focus on interviews with the artisans, so the language barrier was a challenge. It can be difficult to put subjects at ease and coax responses out of them when talking through translators, and many of the subjects weren't used to being interviewed on camera.
"The people were initially quite guarded and reserved about being filmed," says Nick. "The key was to get closer to them. We didn't want to just film how you make a piece of cloth, we wanted to get some sort of human connection and a bit of emotion. Our approach is fairly relaxed, which helps to put people at ease."
With a tight shooting schedule, a skeleton crew and no off-camera lighting, choosing the right equipment was vital. The cameras and lenses had to perform in tricky lighting and be versatile, yet offer enough resolution to show off the fine details of the denim. The filmmakers also wanted their footage to have a distinct, high-grade look.
The compact Canon EOS C300 Mark II fitted the bill perfectly. To shoot some stills, Jack also took his Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and Nick the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which both use the same Canon EF lenses as the cine camera.
The busy filmmakers needed to record background noise at the factory as well as interviews with the artisans, so a shotgun mic was used on the Canon EOS C300 Mark II to record the factory in action, while a wireless mic with a Zoom H4n Handy Recorder was used for the interviews.
One of the key shots used throughout both films is a quiet, contemplative portrait of many of the key characters, shot head-on in a contemporary, editorial style with very shallow depth of field, made possible by the wide aperture of the fast Canon prime lenses.
"It's something we've done in quite a few films, and it goes back to photography," says Jack. "Nick and I both had an interest in a similar sort of documentary photography, and we quite like those portraits. They add a lot to the film: when we can see the person, we connect with them."
With only five days to film everything, the pair had to work fast to make sure they had enough material from each location, as well as footage of their travel between factories.
"We did a lot of slow-motion shooting of the machines and the hands of the craftsmen," says Jack. "The film is actually reportage – we take the viewer on a similar journey to the one that we went on, showing off a bit of Japan."
The light weight and versatility of the Canon EOS C300 Mark II enabled the team to work quickly. For many of the shots, they fitted the camera to a motorised gimbal. "Using tripods doesn't really lend itself to our work," says Nick. "You can be much more flexible if you can just look into the situation and not have to take too much time to set things up."
Jack adds: "The handheld look reflects the human element that you're trying to capture. It's as if the viewer is there witnessing what's going on."
To maximise dynamic range in such a variety of lighting conditions, the pair used the Canon EOS C300 Mark II's flat Canon Log setting. They chose to record the whole movie in HD, despite the camera being capable of shooting in 4K: "HD was the best choice, because we shot everything at 50fps so we had the option to slow it down in post," explains Nick, who loved the quality and the versatility of the cinema camera's XF-AVC codec.
"The biggest bonus of the camera for us is its incredible autofocus," says Jack. While many traditional filmmakers still use manual focus for most work, Jack and Nick used the camera's Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which is ideal for fast-moving documentaries. "It's really handy, especially when you're shooting documentary, often with only a few seconds to get the shot," says Jack. "You know you don't need a focus puller as the camera can look after the focus itself."
The filmmakers favoured the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, a wide-angle lens with a natural perspective. "Like the rest of the lenses, it gives great colours," says Nick. For strikingly sharp close-ups, they turned to the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. "Close-ups give you a different shot in the film – a way of getting something you wouldn't normally see with the human eye," says Nick.
Using Canon's fast EF prime lenses meant the pair could keep the camera's ISO down to 800 for most shots, using ISO1600 only in particularly dark places. "The factory situations were a lot darker than I was hoping for but the noise in the footage is really low," says Jack. "There is a little bit of noise throughout the film, but I think it adds to the aesthetic."
The film has a cinematic look, with a stylish palette reminiscent of a high-end Hollywood colour house. In fact, the filmmakers did very little post-production, just playing with curves and colour correction, and brightening a few shots. "I do it myself in Adobe Premiere Pro," says Jack. "That way we can see it all the way through and retain creative control."
Appropriately for a film celebrating traditional crafts, Nick and Jack have produced a film that looks like a big-budget movie, made with no special effects and minimal work post-production. Perhaps the money they saved could go towards a pair of Japanese denim jeans...