When Italian director Leonardo Dalessandri published Watchtower of Turkey in October 2014, his work created a tidal wave among content creators worldwide. Millions of people watched and applauded this stunning production on Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook and famous Youtubers made breakdown videos to analyze how he created this masterpiece.
FCP.co was the first site to publish an in-depth interview with Leonardo, explaining how his signature style is based on classic cinematic storytelling techniques. If you haven’t read it yet, this is the link to the Watchtower of Turkey breakdown.
Videomakers all over the world have been inspired by Watchtower of Turkey, adopting Leonardo’s technique for their own productions. But the big question everyone asked was: what country will be the subject for his next Watchtower? Seven years later, we have the answer. A few weeks ago, I got a call from Leo to tell me that he had finished Watchtower of China.
The movie was shot in 9 months over a period of 3 years with a crew of 20 people traveling in a mini bus to 72 cities and sites across China. The videographers used a sleuth of lightweight DSLR cameras, sliders, DJI drones, and no less than 40 different lenses to capture the breathtaking beauty and the unique spirit of this extraordinary country and its people.
Hundreds of hours of original footage were viewed, trimmed, tagged, and converted to ProRes 4444XQ. The selected clips were imported and organized in Final Cut Pro, resulting in a 300TB Library with over 24000 clips in the browser, all organized by Keywords and Ratings.
The 4-minute final edit contains no less that 297 video clips and many hundreds of audio clips. There are no transitions in the edit, the entire movie is cuts only. Many of the video clips on the timeline are Compound Clips, each with multiple layers of overlays, masks, color corrections, and de-noise filters. The video has just been released to the public, we hope you enjoy it:
FCP.co: Congratulations on this new Watchtower, Leonardo. Would you say that this is once again an ultimate expression of your unique editing style?
Leo: Thanks, Ronny. Many people think indeed that my style of directing and editing is something that I have invented. But that’s not entirely correct. It’s built on very old techniques that were already established decades ago in so many films. Even movies of the 60s have edit styles that are built around this kind of fluidity, this flow of impressions and images.
And, to be honest, it’s not only about the editing. It’s mainly about developing a directing style that is 100% connected to the edit. You cannot imagine how many private message and emails I get from people who ask me where they can buy my package of transition plugins. There is no such thing. My style is based around creating cinematic cuts that are driven by matching camera movements or matching content between shots.
Creating this feeling of permanent continuity in the edit has actually a lot to do with the way the shots are recorded. In modern video work, nobody pays a lot of attention anymore to the camera work. How should I move the camera during the shoot to achieve the edit I want? It’s very important to think about this during the shoot. If you have to “fix" things it in post, you often lose the power and the natural flow of your edit.
I had already started experimenting with this technique in Watchtower of Morocco. But I didn't know the exact equation yet between shooting and editing. It was a journey to find my own style and to find out what I really like to do. I was doing research, looking at how other directors created their shots, mainly in older feature films. I have adapted this technique to modern ways of visual storytelling. And I have enhanced it with my love for music and timing.
Because my editing style is not video related, it is music related. I feel music, that's the driver of my life. You already saw this in Watchtower of Turkey, and I have taken it to the next level with Watchtower of China. Music is the main inspiration for my work. I want the viewer to perceive my edit as one continuous flow of impressions and movements, playing with time and visual accents on the rhythm of the music, empowered by a carefully crafted sound design.
FCP.co: Since Watchtower of Turkey and even before this, you have traveled around the world directing commercials for clients like Google, Apple, Huawei, Xiaomi, Samsung, Coca Cola, Etisalat, just to name a few. In these videos, we clearly see how your signature style works perfectly for commercials that want to reach large global audiences.
One that I particularly like is “On any given Wednesday”, a commercial for the iPad Pro that you directed in 2017. Watchtower videos take a lot more time and effort to produce and they don’t make you any money. Why do you make these videos?
Leo: A Watchtower video is a learning moment for me, which I will then put at the service of my commercial clients. When you work for a client, you are always constrained to their vision of the final product. Having developed this “unique” way of approaching the shoot and the edit has enabled me to keep my own identity, even with clients, which is very difficult nowadays. It has given me the opportunity to work in full freedom and to just do what I like.
I always want to learn, to improve myself and my style. But when you work on 10 big commercials each year, you don't have much time to watch films, you don't have time to enjoy a good reading or to learn from others. The Internet bombards you with tons of online content but you don't really learn from this. That’s why I use the Watchtower videos to learn, to discover. Each new Watchtower is an upgraded version of me. There are things I do now, that I never would have tried to do years ago.
FCP.co: Let’s talk about how Watchtower of China has started. When did you decide that China was going to be the subject of your next Watchtower?
Leo: I already had the idea for Watchtower of China in 2015. I had traveled to China before for my commercial work, and I really wanted to see much more of this country. But before starting any planning, I absolutely wanted to find the right music for my new film first.
I have always been a fan of Ezio Bosso. He was a famous musician in Italy who passed away two years ago. He was only 48. He had a bad illness that made him spend the last two years of his life in a wheelchair. And in his music, I really feel the struggle and he passion from a person that loves life and creativity.
I knew two songs by him that perfectly represent the Chinese vibes. One is “Rain in your Black Eyes” and another one is “Thunders and Lightnings” which is a very long composition. It took me a week to figure out the best equation to merge these two tracks into one single soundtrack that made sense to me.
So, I built this 4-minute track and then I put in my iPhone. And I started to walk around in Turkey and in Italy, listening to this music and trying to imagine pictures of China. I felt this music would be great for my new Watchtower.
PRODUCTION AND CREW
Leo: Watchtower of Turkey was something I did entirely on my own. But for China, I had a big team to help me. I met a Chinese producer, Polo Zhao, who heard that my next Watchtower would be shot in China. He proposed to help me with the production. They put a message on their blog, saying “The director of Watchtower of Turkey is looking for assistants to make Watchtower of China”. Many students and film lovers reacted to the message and proposed to help us for free, just for the pleasure to learn and as a gift to their country.
The shooting took 3 years, spread over 3 months each year. On average, we had a team of 20 people on each shoot. We started in Hong Kong in 2015 and visited no less than 72 locations, traveling with a minivan across this huge country. Although the team changed over the years, we always had 3-4 five people shooting, one recording ambient sound, and others who helped us with administration, organization, planning, etc. We also had people who just took care of all the equipment.
I had two Assistant Directors: Jolien from Amsterdam and Ricky from Hong Kong. Ricky was one of the girls who responded to the blog post. They did the production planning, they handled the day-to-day challenges, they helped with shooting beautiful footage, and they took care of getting all the releases signed from everyone we filmed. We filmed more than 5500 people over the 3 years. Jolien and Ricky are amazing. They still work with me today on my commercial projects.
Leo: You cannot shoot a project like this with a big Alexa. We knew we were going to have to travel across mountains and forests and we would need to carry all or gear in shoulder bags. So, we wanted to travel very light. Furthermore, the whole idea of Watchtower is to capture these very special moments that you can only get when you rely on the unexpected. You have to be very aware and flexible during the shoot.
We had a few Sony A7 DSLRs that we got as a loan for this project. Sony A7 II and III cameras, and an RX-100. Some of the team members also brought their personal gear. We had 40 lenses and some Edelkrone stabilizers and sliders. We always had 3, 4 people to carry the camera gear.
I had discovered a Chinese brand that makes premium quality lenses called Dulens. They are prime lenses, and their quality is amazing. They have this cinematic feel, not overly sharp but more like vintage lenses. The most important thing is that they are mini primes, even smaller than the size of a regular DSLR lens. So, they are very easy to travel with. Duo is a big player in the market, and you get these lenses for a fraction of the price of the big prime lens brands.
After 2015, we used cameras from Z-Cam. These cameras are great for professional shoots and they record in ProRes. The color science behind the Z-Cam is amazing. They have no internal fans, which also makes them great for audio recording. And because of their compact size, you can use Z-Cams as very high-quality travel cameras. That was exactly what I needed.
Finally, I used drones for the first time for this Watchtower. We had a few DJI FPV combos. We were able to create some incredible shots with these, like flying through the Great Wall or around the skyscrapers. I could make a dozen travel videos of China, only using the drone footage we shot. We also lost like 3 drones during different shoots. We once lost 2 in a week in the mountains, having lost the signal, and I remember this guy struggling to get a new one because we were too far away and DHL could not deliver a spare one.
Leo: We had a lot of challenges. But there were also a lot of very special moments. To start with, it’s not easy to get a visa for China. When I lived in Italy, we could travel to Hong Kong and easily get a visa from there. But as I live in Turkey now, things were a little more complicated. Nevertheless, we managed to get our visa every time we went for another shoot. Once in China, we didn’t have too many problems with authorities since most of our crew were Chinese.
We did have some difficulties getting into certain places like Tibet. One day, the police stopped us. We couldn't enter a city because me and my assistant Jolien were foreigners. After a few hours of calls by our Chinese friends, we were allowed in. But the next day, the police took all our equipment because they had seen us flying a drone over the city. They asked us to leave. But we had been able to collect a few very nice images by then. So, we were happy.
We also had some difficulties because many of the places we wanted to see were totally outside any regions where tourists usually come. You can't imagine the number of times I got sick with fever. And there were times we didn't even have a bed to sleep in. Like when we visited the bamboo forest. There was no hotel anywhere around. But we found a young family who had a big house that was still partially under construction. They invited us in for a couple of days and we slept on a sofa, in a chair, or on the ground. Remember, we were 20 people.
We struggled at times. But it also was an invaluable lesson in personal relations. Living together with a team of 20 people for 3 months in a year, traveling with a little bus for days across this vast country, is not always easy. After awhile, you feel like you are in a Big Brother show. Things don’t always go as expected, you have to deal with smaller and bigger problems on a daily basis, and sometimes people just get annoyed with each other. But we always found a way to get things sorted, both on the professional and on the personal level.
After awhile, your crew becomes your family. And you feel this in the way they care about you and about your project. During one of our trips, we spent a few nights in the mountains. We had been hiking all day and were very tired. When I woke up early in the morning, the crew was already hard at work. Someone surprised me with a time lapse he had shot a few hours before, and another one showed me some interesting spots he had found where we could take beautiful pictures.
It’s at times like these that you realize how dedicated these people are when they have a common goal to pursue. I feel a deep love and respect for everyone I have worked with on this project.
Everywhere we came, people were kind and helpful. Like when we went to the Shaolin Temple. It’s an amazing place that sits on top of a very high mountain. To reach the top, you have to climb hundreds of stairs on a narrow path along the flank of the mountain. Inside the temple, there are several schools where children go very early in their life to study as Shaolin monks. We arrived there on a morning, and it was raining very hard. We saw students training in the rain and I told my assistant Ricky I really would love to film a few of them. She went into the school to talk with the director, and he invited us in.
I showed him my previous Watchtower and asked if we could film a few students while they were training. Ricky translated and he asked, “How many”? I said, “Maybe 10 or 15 if that’s possible”. Before Ricky could translate my reply, he said “Would 4000 or 5000 be enough”?
10 minutes later, he started to gather different teachers outside, talking through a megaphone from his window. Hundreds of students lined up in front of us: men, women, children, all wearing different colors. And all of them started doing this beautiful martial arts choreography in the rain, in perfect harmony, and with such a passion that it made you shiver inside. It’s a moment I will never forget. And there have been many beautiful moments like this during the making of Watchtower of China.
ORGANIZING THE FOOTAGE
FCP.co: Over all these years, you shot many thousands of clips. How did you process all that footage in order to be able to find the right clips during your edit?
Leo: After every 3 months of shooting, I spent two weeks with a few of my assistants viewing our footage. We used good old QuickTime 7 Pro on an older Mac to do this. We watched every clip, set Ins and Outs to trim each clip to the essential parts we wanted to keep, and we exported the trimmed clips in ProRes 4444XQ.
As we had been using small DSLRs that record heavily compressed codecs and we didn’t have any lighting setups on the locations, I knew we would have to do quite a lot of post processing to correct colors and get rid of noise and artifacts on these shots. Converting the selects to ProRes 4444XQ enabled me to preserve the best possible detail when doing this.
When exporting, we gave every clip a distinct name and we added metadata tags to describe things like content and camera movements. Then we put all the exported clip in folders, organized by shooting dates and locations. We did the same for every sound bite we recorded, for the hyperlapses, the drone footage, for everything we had. This meticulous precision in the organization of our footage has saved my life during the edit.
We then imported the folders from the external drive into my Final Cut Pro Library. Final Cut Pro absolutely shines when it comes to organization. When you import footage from folders, FCP automatically assigns Keywords based on the name of every folder, and the FCP Browser shows the structure of your organization exactly as you see it in Finder.
When you have over 24000 clips to work with, you absolutely need to be well organized. I created a separate Event for every shooting year, clips for every year were automatically organized into Keywords based on the folder structure on the external media drive, and I further sorted out the clips by adding tags, descriptions, and ranges.
FCP.co: But you did not start with the final edit of Watchtower of China until 2020, correct?
Leo: That’s correct. We went to China in 2015, 2016 and 2018 to shoot the Watchtower footage. And I went back in 2019 to shoot some extra clips with my Z-cam in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai while I was doing commercial jobs. I had already started to do some basic editing on this project but had not had the time yet to fully concentrate on it. Then came the pandemic.
I was shooting a commercial in Bangkok when it started, and we had to end that project because two cases of COVID were discovered. I went back to Istanbul. I couldn’t do any filming anymore and I decided to move forward with the Watchtower project. One day, I was watching an Italian TV channel and suddenly, I heard the music of my film on TV with the news that Ezio Bosso had passed away. I was in tears. I had spent the past 5 years with that music in my head and I had hoped to send Watchtower of China to him as a tribute to his work. Seeing the news of his death made me sad. But it also gave me a huge push to finish the movie.
Leo: I prefer a simple setup that allows me to focus on the final image. I used to work with a 16” Intel MacBook Pro. But that could not handle this huge Library. Later, I had a fully specced iMac Pro and it still struggled. I remember calling you a few times over the years asking how I could get better performance with this project. My current setup consists of a Macbook Pro M1and I was able to finish the Watchtower edit using this Mac.
I use an Eizo Coloredge CG319X as my video reference monitor. I have tried many others but this one really stands out. I could not work comfortably not being able to rely on the accuracy of the picture and the colors I see on my screen. A professional video monitor is expensive, but it is the best investment for your edit room.
Audio monitoring is also extremely important to me. Especially since Watchtower heavily relies on music and sound design. That’s why I work with high precision studio monitors from Adam. I have 4 of them and they have been invaluable for this project as I did all the audio mixing and the sound design entirely in Final Cut Pro. My neighbors were not always happy with my audio setup, especially every time I turned up the volume to hear the soundscape in all its glory (laughs).
FCP.co: Just like with your previous Watchtower movies, you have used Final Cut Pro to edit Watchtower of China. Is FCP your NLE of choice?
Leo: For my commercial films, I work with many different editors who use FCP, Avid, Premiere, or Resolve. I have edited with all these NLEs myself. But nothing beats Final Cut Pro for a complex project like this.
The organizing, searching, and skimming tools in FCP are extremely powerful, which is a must when you need to search through tens of thousands of clips that have been recorded over multiple years. The FCP user interface is also very intuitive and uncluttered. This makes it easier for me to focus on the edit and the image. Furthermore, no other NLE can touch the retiming tools of Final Cut Pro. This is very important for me as I constantly play with time in all my work. And finally, I think FCP simply offers the best overall editing experience for creative editors.
I spent a lot of time on this Watchtower edit. I am a director in the first place. I like to fine tune things as they are progressing. I need to see exactly how every clip I put on the timeline works with the following and the preceding clips so I can create this constant flow of images that seem to transition into each other. That's why I like to add the correct timing, color, and sound design for every clip as soon as I add it to the timeline.
As I told you, we had shot some of the footage with small DSLR cameras. So, I needed to do a lot of processing on every clip to make it look great. First, I used Neat Video to eliminate noise. Neat puts a lot of stress on the processing power of your workstation. Playing back a timeline with unrendered 4K clips with Neat Video applied can easily crash your system. So, you have to render each clip. But when you render the clips processed with Neat, you close FCP and you re-open the project, your renders often get lost.
The only solution I had was to export each de-noised clip as an independent file and re-import it again. I wish FCP had a de-noise filter as good as Neat but that does not hit your performance so hard and that doesn’t lose its renders.
I am also very meticulous when it comes to the overall look of an image. Often, I will mask out regions of a clip to apply fixes or selective color corrections to parts of the shot. As I use a lot of camera moves, this often requires rotoscoping. I had multiple layers of corrections with animated masks on many clips. I used Mocha for shots that required more complex keyframing and tracking, I exported the different mattes as independent clips, and I also added these on top of the original clip on the FCP timeline.
Finally, I always like to add some flares, distortion or diffusion to certain clips to accentuate the dynamic feeling. For this, I used overlay VFX clips from a company called Lens Distortions. They have a wide choice of glass effects, lens flares, etc. that you composite with a blending mode on top of the clip on the timeline.
Because of all the pre-comps I made, many shots on the Watchtower of China timeline are in fact Compound Clips that consist of a multitude of composited layers. I often exported different versions of the grades and compositions for a clip and added them to the Compound Clip on the timeline to be able to compare them. This process takes a lot of preparation and time before you can use a clip in the edit. And if you feel that there is one clip in the sequence that brings the flow or the color palette in a direction that you don't like, you must leave that clip out even if it’s a shot you particularly like.
FCP.co: It's a golden rule in editing: Kill Your Darlings.
Leo: Exactly. Everything is a compromise, and this can be frustrating at times. You work for many days on a sequence of clips, and you are kind of happy with all the work you have done. The next day, you watch your edit again and you feel that there’s something that simply does not work. As every clip relates to the clips around it, this means you sometimes must delete multiple seconds of the edit on which you have perhaps worked for a week, and start over again.
I cannot tell you how many times I have walked through my room in the dark, listening to the music and trying to imagine what images would work best with the feelings I want to convey.
That’s the real problem with my technique: I cannot teach it to anyone. Because every edit is different and there are no established rules to create it. It's all about finding the right equation, the right flow of the moment that makes you feel that a sequence is beautiful and stunning. Sometimes, you end up with something that you never thought about and it works. And it takes a lot of time, trial and error, and the combination of experience and luck, to create something like this.
Most of the shots in the edit have been time remapped to make their movement match the tempo of the music. I simply couldn’t have done this video without the brilliant speed ramping system in Final Cut Pro, which is the fastest and most intuitive way of doing smooth speed ramps. For very complex retiming, I used Twixtor from RE:Vision Effects.
Because I always respect the music as my story driver, also in my commercial work. It must be used in a way that it can be the right partner to your vision. Building the music track, I had to pay attention where I wanted the crescendo to happen and where I wanted something with more sound design. These are the challenges you have when you want to deliver a narrative message in a film that is basically not narrative.
For the sound, I started from the idea of doing something can comes to you from the ground. That’s why I used real voices to build the primary sound bed in this film, captured during the shoot. Girls talking in their phones; a martial arts master telling his student how to stretch his hand; the voice of a mum telling her children not to worry; a man saying “Oh, Italy” when I told him where I was born...
You can hear people whispering, talking, singing under the music. We had great location sound for every image we shot. Besides this, I used many hundreds of audio effects to support the content, the movements, the changes in the rhythm of the edit. I got these AFX clips from Lens Distortions, the same company where I got my VFX overlays.
I did the entire sound design and the primary audio mix in Final Cut Pro. Then, I sent the audio stems to Marc-George Andersen, a Danish composer who has made sound tracks for famous series such as “Sex and the City” or for Disney’s “Pollen". He added some new layers as well as some percussions to the music bed to add specific accents based on the video content, and he mixed the final soundtrack.
Tommaso Bosso, a close family member of Ezio Bosso whose music I used for this film, helped me with clearing the music rights. I sent him the Watchtower of China video as soon as it was ready. He told me he liked it very much and he felt this movie would be a great tribute to Ezio. This made me incredibly proud, the circle was round.
FCP.co: I have watched this video many, many times now. And every time, I discover new images that I had not noticed before. What would you expect someone to feel when they watch Watchtower of China?
Leo: I would say what Bruce Lee said: Be like water. Watch the movie with an open mind and without prejudice. Adjust to what you see, and you shall find a way around it. This film is not a statement to China. I'd like it to be a personal vision of a foreigner about their country.
Because when you go to China as a tourist, you get bombarded by the shops, by the chaotic life, by the many people around you and by all the things that you are curious to see. You can find literally everything you want in China, from the most extreme to the most basic, poetic, and cultural things. But when you get to know this country a little bit, you start to feel its real spirit.
It took me a few months to get in this mindset, to find the right pace and quiet. It's a big place full of people that are connected through energy. And you feel this in how they live, in how seriously they take their work, in their dignity, in their honesty, in how they do yoga, Tai Chi, ballet, in how they make music, in how they prepare food. I'm talking about the people that I met along my journey. I'm talking about the real Chinese. I'm not talking about political things.
Originally, I wanted to show more of the modern China in this movie: the skyscrapers, the industry, the city life. I also have tons of footage of beautiful landscapes and incredible places that I could have used in the edit. And I could make a dozen travel videos only with the beautiful drone footage we have shot. But Watchtower of China is not a documentary, it’s not a classic travel video. This film has been done for the pure love for China, just like the previous one was done for the honest love for Turkey.
China is a mixture of age-old traditions and cultures in a modern country that has become one of the most powerful economies in the world. I have tried to convey this in the edit by constantly changing the rhythm in the movie, mixing fast-paced images and city sounds with moments of calm, of reflection, of human interaction. Everything that has been shot has been decided by what was happening in front of us at that specific time.
That’s why I have mainly focused on the people when making this Watchtower. Showing their eyes, their smiles, their passion in everything that they do. And I hope that everyone who sees the movie also feels the passion that I put in this work. The craftsmanship in making this.
That's the message of this film. This is not commercial. It’s a constant flow of impressions and images that convey everything I felt when traveling through this beautiful country. The video has also been released in China now, and I already got tons of very positive and overwhelming reactions to it. If my new Watchtower can make you so intrigued by what you see and feel that you want to learn more about China and its people, I will consider this a success.