Saturday, January 30, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 12 – The Best of Times II

By ScottDS

In his audio commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer remarks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “One works by instinct and intuition. When people ask me why Khan only wears one glove, I tell them, ‘I don’t know. It seemed like the right idea at the time.’” This all leads me to my job as...

Director

There were nine directors on Sanguinity including me. In one of our pre-pro meetings, it was literally a case of, “Whoever wants to direct, raise your hand.” Naturally, mine shot up along with eight others. As I wrote in the comments last week, I sort of missed the forest for the trees and was so hellbent on directing that I missed other learning opportunities that were available. I never worked as a sound tech or camera assistant – two perfectly marketable skills in Hollywood and elsewhere. But to walk in and say you’re a director – “Oh yeah? Prove it!” As a crew, we were allowed two dolly shots (one per day, though I think we broke this rule), 18 shots per day (for a total of 36), eight camera setups a day (16 total). Each day would last for 11 hours with a call time of 7:30 a.m. Each director would only get a certain amount of time in the day in which to work: “time for each director = number of directors divided by 11 hours.” Fair enough.

With these limitations in mind, we all met for a “shot meeting” wherein we would determine how the movie would be filmed. I don’t recall the thought process that went into it but there’s really only one or two ways we could’ve shot the film. There needs to be a natural progression (shot A leads to B and so on) and since we were shooting in such a confined area, we couldn’t get too experimental with the blocking of the actors. Eventually, we divided the script into six scenes: three on the plane, two in the restaurant, and one in Peggy’s apartment. For the apartment scene (which we would see for only a moment in a brief montage), we used the set from another film titled Revenge Again that was shooting right behind us. For the plane, the camera would sit on a dolly track. Actually, I’m pretty sure the camera sat on the dolly track for both days, only being removed to film a shot of the airplane interior for the aforementioned montage.

Claudia (sigh...) was the casting director and she and her people supervised the casting sessions while the rest of us were in a meeting. This gave me butterflies – the thought of working with real actors. The auditions were videotaped and we all gathered at Bill’s apartment one night to watch them. Our wisecracks notwithstanding, there were some good people. Peggy would be played by a nice local actress named Cathi and Carl would be played by a local actor named Craig (who we later spied in some other film shot by Full Sail personnel around the same time). We also cast Peggy’s co-worker (this led to one of the lighting techs having to ask, “How do you light someone who’s, uh, dark-skinned?”) and an “arguing couple” for one of the plane scenes. The actors who played the couple (Ned and Heather) improvised their dialogue – we probably could’ve saved time by having classmates play the roles instead. Claudia also took the actors shopping for wardrobe (I abstained from this part). I made name badges for Peggy and her co-worker (Joanne) and one classmate managed to get some pilot wings during a flight home for spring break. At one point, Dave and I had actually visited a local uniform warehouse for authentic flight attendant outfits but there was no way we’d be able to: a.) get only two, and b.) get them for next to nothing. Thankfully, Claudia was more than up to the task. All of the airplane and restaurant extras would be played by classmates.

We had a table read and rehearsals with the actors. Maybe I was more comfortable because there were nine directors, though I don’t know how the actors felt about that. It was simply a matter of communication – answering their questions, understanding why the characters would perform action A and say line B. During the rehearsals, we’d go through the script in order line by line and each director would step in when it was his/her scene (or shot – some directors only had to film one shot before handing over the reins to the next person). The rehearsals must’ve gone well because we didn’t fire anybody (it’s happened)! I have to say, everyone loved the plane (there’s that ego again) but that sort of thing helps the actors and brings a nice sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings. We rehearsed both in a small room down the hall from the soundstage and on the sets where the actors were able to sit in their chairs, at the table, push the meal cart, etc.

Bill gave me the first two shots for day 1 and I was the only director (or possibly one of only two) allowed to shoot using two camera setups. Both of my shots were dolly shots (there would also be two dolly shots for the restaurant scene on day 2). The first shot starts with a passenger in the last seat of the airplane: he gets up, grabs his bag out of the overhead bin, and walks to the front of the plane where Peggy and Joanne are saying their good-byes to everyone. After the passenger deplanes, Peggy walks over to one of the overheads, closes it, and sits down. Joanne follows, sits down in the next seat, and they have a little chat about Carl. From looking at Steve’s notes, I shot four takes – on the first three, the camera operator accidentally got the stage wall in the shot. The final shot isn’t perfect – it features a jerky movement that shouldn’t be there – but such is life. We had to have the actors sit on apple boxes (wooden boxes used for just about anything) because they were too low in the seats and we couldn’t see their whole faces. We also had to weigh down the seats because every time an actor would sit down, the seat would jostle a little bit, exactly the way real airplane seats wouldn’t! This was all discovered on the first day of shooting – the kinds of things that don’t occur to you until after they happen.

Four takes later and I yelled, “Cut! Print!” The printed takes are circled on the paperwork and used for editing. We were shooting on Super 16mm film but, unlike our 35mm films, we weren’t limited in how much we could use. To give you an idea of how much film we might’ve used, eleven minutes equals roughly 400 feet of film in Super 16 format. We shot the film using an ARRI SR-3 16mm camera mounted on a Sachtler fluid head which itself was mounted on a Chapman-Leonard Super PeeWee dolly. To view the scene, I would simply stand at the monitor that was connected to the camera and mounted on a “beaver board” (basically a 1/8 apple box with a metal “baby plate” light mount attached to it), which was affixed to a C-stand. C-stands are all-purpose metal stands that can be seen on any film set. They are used to mount gels, flags, reflectors... anything a grip can think of. I’m not well-versed in lighting (which is why I skipped that particular blog entry) but most of the interior airplane lighting was provided by two Kino Flo fixtures. Kinos are fluorescent lights and very easy to set up. What was problematic was the lighting outside the plane. In still photos, it looks very good, with the windows properly blown out. Not so much in the finished film. The windows were lined with special material to diffuse the light but I guess they didn’t use enough.

For my second shot – a dolly shot starting from the front of the plane featuring Peggy and Joanne handing out snacks from the meal cart and passing by the bickering couple – I figured it would be easier but, after looking at Steve’s paperwork, I shot five (!) takes: two were good, an actress flubbed a line on one, both actresses started before I yelled “Action!” on another, and the camera was having gate trouble on yet another. I met the bickering couple just five minutes before shooting. I simply told them: “You’re having an argument. It’s serious but you’re in public so don’t make a scene. Improvise!” The script didn’t include any dialogue for them but they performed admirably. As for Peggy and Joanne, they had to push the meal cart from A to B and finish their lines before we ran out of dolly track. One thing we didn’t realize until it was time to shoot: they needed snacks to give out to the passengers! Someone rushed to the craft services table and brought back a bunch of water bottles, soda, and peanuts. Our airline serves Costco–brand water and Albertsons-brand soda! And no one thought to spray some WD-40 on the cart’s wheels so a couple guys had to lay down a blanket to absorb some of the noise.

My shots were filmed between 9:00 and 11:00 and 11:00 and 12:30, respectively, on May 5th, 2004. After lunch (Bill and Dave had taken care of that – catering by Roadhouse Grill!), classmate Ryan was up next – he shot the actress’ close-ups during their initial dialogue scene. He also added a shot at the last minute: Peggy closing the overhead bin from another angle. Bill was annoyed – we had a ticking clock and it would set a bad precedent. And I didn’t think it was necessary. I served as his first assistant director and had no idea what I was doing. I basically had to make sure everyone was where they needed to be and to help Ryan with anything he needed. The order is as follows: 1st A.D.: “Quiet, everyone!” and then “Roll sound!” Sound mixer: “Sound speed!” 1st A.D.: “Roll camera!” Camera operator: “Speed!” Camera assistant with clapper: “Marker!” 1st A.D.: “Background action!” Director: “Action!” and eventually “Cut!” Chris was up after Ryan and shot Peggy performing her routine tasks aboard the plane. Working independently, he produced an interesting sequence, blending four separate shots together, one dissolving into another, while artificially panning right and dissolving into the shot of Peggy in her apartment, sitting in a chair, eyeing her answering machine. Chris produced this on Adobe After Effects and even added in a blinking light for the machine.

Post-Production

For editing, we paired off. Steve and I (along with everyone else) edited the film on the Avid Xpress non-linear digital editing system. One reason why many films today seem so frenetic is that, in the old days, filmmakers manipulated actual film with their hands and had to be very judicious in their editing decisions. Today, one mouse click and you’re done. (I exaggerate, slightly.) Amazingly, Steven Spielberg and his long-time editor Michael Kahn still edit the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed machine with actual film. Our films were developed locally at Continental Film using the cheapest process available. At one point in class, we watched rough VHS edits of all four films. I’m proud to say our film received the least amount of laughter – I almost had a heart attack laughing at some of the other material!

Steve and I still think our edit is the best one, despite accidentally omitting an entire section of Peggy’s dialogue during the final restaurant scene! Very often, it was a matter of saying, “Cut the last two frames.” And it would work. (24 frames = one second.) Much of this is simply instinctual. Steve and I would take turns at the keyboard and I think the final edit is a pretty good reflection of our sensibilities (such as they are). We didn’t use any scoring, though I’m sure we could’ve paid some local musician to come up with something. For the restaurant scenes, we used Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” (how original) and “Eh Cumpari” by Julius La Rosa. Steve contributed some soft rock for the opening titles and montage but I can’t recall what it was. For the end credits (which I typed up on the Avid), we used “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin. A year later, I was browsing the CD selection at Barnes & Noble and realized, “Shit, we should’ve used Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly with Me’!” I also would’ve been partial to “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling” which was used for the end credits of Executive Decision, one of my guilty pleasures. We also added ambient airplane and restaurant sound effects from a pre-existing effects library.

For the opening credits, Chris dug up some home movie footage of New York and put together (on his own time) a nice title sequence. I was very close to driving up to New York City with Chris and few others in tow. My plan was to shoot some random street scenes and an Italian restaurant exterior – literally spend a few hours in Manhattan and then leave. We’d be the first Full Sail film to shoot out of state! But this didn’t happen, though I was totally game. In fact, during pre-pro we had discussed the idea of shooting the opening plane scene with bluescreen behind the windows, then getting background plates from Orlando Airport and compositing that footage into the scene, so you would actually see the runway and ground crew in the shot. This didn’t happen either.

Epilogue

Our informal wrap party was held at a bar called Uptown just a few blocks from the school. We drank, even though many of us were under age (I had turned 21 just four months earlier). Steve even brought along his didgeridoo and a good time was had by all. Bill and Dave’s edit was selected for the class DVD and shown at our graduation film festival at the AMC Cineplex 20 at Universal CityWalk in Orlando. I enjoyed working on the film, despite being oblivious to the damage my ego was doing.

To briefly touch on the other films: Revenge Again was a black comedy about two sisters who avenge the death of their parents at the hands of one grouchy Nazi, Taste of the Past was a post-apocalyptic tale (to the extent that Full Sail could afford it), and Die Todes Groupe was the WW2 movie about ghost soldiers which was later re-shot on a weekend because some students were dissatisfied with the final product. The student who re-shot the film saw it as a metaphor for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and added some opening text to explain his point of view. I have no issue with his interpretation but I feel adding the text cheapened the work and would only invalidate anyone else’s idea of what the film might’ve represented.

For the plane set, I received the Course Director’s Award for Achievement in Set Design – surely proof that the Peter Principle exists! After the graduation ceremony, I told Chris that he deserved it, not just for his set design work in 35mm but for all of his computer-generated legerdemain. Part of me wonders if Chris, as a Christian, simply didn’t feel the need to brag about his accomplishments, unlike me. I saw him a few months ago (first time since 2004) and I told him I still refer to him as a genius. All he could do was shrug and thank me for mentioning him at all. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Sadly, a few months later we found out that another classmate of ours didn’t have a future at all...

20 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Very informative. Thanks for the set-details.

It's interesting how much goes into just filming something so simple. It seems like you would just unload the camera, insert the film and get started, but it sounds like there is a ton of work going on.

By the way, where did you find the real actors?

ScottDS said...

They came in and auditioned. Claudia was our casting director and, if I recall, the directors were not allowed to sit in on casting sessions. She might've posted some notices around town and online but I was so tied up with the plane that I didn't pay any attention.

The actors were fine though the guy who played Carl was a bit of a goon and wouldn't say his lines the same way twice. Sometimes that's a benefit but not for us on our shoestring budget and schedule! And Rosonia, who played Joanne (Peggy's co-worker) blinked... a lot. In editing, we finally noticed it during her close-ups: she blinked much more than normal people do! For the final edit, Steve and I had trouble cutting around her but Bill and Dave didn't which I guess is why their edit is on the class DVD. :-)

Next week begins the sad story of our 35mm film. There won't be any set details for a while... I have a lot of pre-production ground to cover.

LawHawkSF said...

Scott: I all seems so simple when we laymen walk into a theater. I don't want to think of the number of times I said that I could do this or that better. I won't do that again. Amazing detail.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, So these weren't professional actors so much as people the school hired? In other words, it's not like you raided a movie set to get these people, they could have been anyone off the street?

I can imagine that on a shoestring budget you would need to be careful to keep it all more efficient.

Do you think his inability to repeat his lines was the result of (1) he just wasn't very good, or (2) he was trying to do different things like I assume actors will do or (3) something else? And isn't it the job of the director to tell the actors, "this is what I want. . . do it"?

ScottDS said...

LawHawk - if it's any comfort, I still occasionally say "I could've done X or Y better." :-) But the trick is, when given the opportunity, to shoot for perfection, not simply "crap plus 1."

http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp06.Crap-plus-One.html

ScottDS said...

Andrew - perhaps I misspoke.

These were professional actors but since I wasn't able (or allowed) to attend the casting session, I can't promise that a few folks didn't just walk in off the street. In 35mm, we actually had a student audition for us but he wouldn't have been available because of class (the moron!).

All of our actors came with resumes and headshots and I assume Claudia was smart enough to tell the real actors from the wannabes. (At the end of the year, I was able to keep our wrap book of paperwork but not the actor's headshots so I couldn't tell you what else they had been in.)

And we were the ones to select the actors, not the school (thankfully).

ScottDS said...

And re: the actor, I don't know. I mean, he was okay; I just don't think he was aware of what he was doing. We only shot his scenes on day 2, when we had five different directors - some more forceful than others. As script sup that day, I probably should've said something but I either was too intimidated or figured we'd just fix it in editing! :-)

Directing, like politics, is often the art of the possible. Some actors (even ones who do student films) may not react too well to "Do it like this!"

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's all about confidence! LOL!

Do you think you'd be better with actors today?

ScottDS said...

I'll go out on a limb and say yes, especially since I've been on more sets and able to see actors in action (from my lowly POV as a PA or extra).

But if you reunited all of us to make the same movie today, we'd probably encounter a new set of problems in place of the old ones!

Writer X said...

Love the cliffhanger! Would you say your film was more plot-driven or character-driven? Did the final product turn out to be what you envisioned initially?

Hurry up and post what happens next! :-)

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

Thanks! I get to post once a week, per the boss. :-) So you'll have to wait till next Saturday.

The film was written by a student who worked on another 16mm film and I didn't know him so I couldn't say whether or not we were true to HIS vision. As for what I may have envisioned, yeah... it turned out alright. :-)

I still kinda wish they put the edit Steve and I worked on on the DVD but it survives on a VHS tape which is somewhere under my bed.

I'd say it was more character-driven than plot-driven but it's really just a small slice of life story. I think it stands apart because it was so unlike the other Full Sail films we had seen up to that point (dark, violent, etc. - not that there's anything wrong with that).

Tennessee Jed said...

well Scott, I must say I truly have enjoyed this series. Although I never really seriously considered a career in fil making, I have always been facinated by trying to understand the process. Who knows, maybe it started seeing all those terms in the credit scrawl such as gaffer, best boy, etc.

Your comments on wanting to direct made me think of baseball. A coach once said, if you want to make it to the major leagues, become a catcher. The point, of course, is everybody wants to direct. I don't know if I ever consciously said "I could do it better" while viewing a scene, but I have often criticized a scene. Usually, that happens when a director such as Michael Moore throws a bunch of perfectly framed mood shots and lingers past the point where you start to say "come on, move it along."

Anyway, it sounds like a very worthwhile experience. Thanks!

Tennessee Jed said...

As a p.s. I think it would be cool if you discussed the term "producer" as it relates to the film industry. There is "producer" "executive producer" and a shit load of associate producers. I have heard of production companies. The industry, no doubt has changed since the days of the big studeos.

I have this notion that somebody (perhaps the executive producer?) buys rights to a novel or screenplay. The producer is responsible for turning it into a movie. Getting a screenplay written, hiring a director or actors, etc. He or she may assign functional tasks to assistant producers?

Anyway, I have no idea what I am talking about and I suspect you know quite a bit about this.

ScottDS said...

Tennessee - Thanks! I'm not done yet though - the best (and worst) is yet to come. When I told my job placement rep that I wanted to direct, she put her hands to her ears and told me, "Don't say that! That's what everyone says!" Ya know, I don't think she was very good. :-)

Re: producers, you're in the ballpark. The producer would be the one to option material, hire crewmembers, etc. The executive producer is often involved strictly on the financial and legal side of things (not creative). Producers would delegate tasks to associate producers.

There are also co-producers (I'm not 100% sure of the difference between these and associate producers) and line producers who are more involved in the day to day operations: scheduling, budgeting, etc. Sometimes writers are promised an EP or AP credit and I'm sure nepotism and other connections (agents, money, etc.) can play a part as well.

I'm not that well-versed in it. These titles didn't mean much on our student films. Each film had a faculty producer (or producers) but we made all of the technical and creative decisions, usually under the direction of the unit production manager (in real life, the UPM doesn't have that much creative input).

In the next few blogs, I'll be talking about our 35mm film and the conflicts that came up between our UPM, faculty producer, and directors (including me).

StanH said...

“And a good time had by all.” It all sounds like a blast Scott. I’ll be looking for your feature film one day!

ScottDS said...

Stan - thanks! It'll be a while though. I was saving this for the last blog but I've kinda switched gears and I plan on pursuing improv comedy (think Whose Line...).

So I may not have a film in theaters for a while. On the other hand, I'm sure I'll somehow make it back to filmmaking, one way or another.

As for good times, yeah, that'll be changing for the next few blogs. :-)

Individualist said...

SottDS,

I guess this is a stpid question but exactly how much work is there in a realm outside of Hollywood. I mean I know there are commercials and videos but those would probably be sateliites tied very closely to the Hollywood Gas Giant.

Is there work in documentaries tied to schools and colleges or perhaps church groups wishing to have religious movies and is the competition as intense there. I guess working on a commercial for a regional auto dealer or barbeque restaurant is not the glamour of Hollywood but it would still involve all the knowledge you adroitly display in your post and at the very least it would provide references for a resume that you can do the work and give you the experience of doing it. Even if it is only sporadic.

Perhaps though there are not that many other oppotunities I don't know the industry but there are avenues that you can pursue at least anyway. It sounds like you have talent.

LawHawkSF said...

Out of the clear blue, I remembered a [very] old joke. "Why are Michael Jackson and the Boston Red Sox alike?" Because they both wear one glove, for no apparent reason. Might explain Khan.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Individualist! And it's not a stupid question at all.

Many of my classmates returned to their respective home states and have made a decent living working with local production companies on commercials, industrial videos, etc. One student won a regional Emmy (!) for a no-smoking PSA he worked on in Wisconsin. My co-editor Steve worked for a couple years as a video editor at Lockheed-Martin.

For people who don't live in Hollywood (or even NY), I advise them to contact their local film commissions. They will be able to tell you what's shooting around town and will have lists of vendors (camera rental companies, etc.) that may or may not be hiring.

As for schools and colleges, I would contact their film and/or communications departments and see what's going on. In my experience, free help is always appreciated. Church groups... I don't know. It's not really my scene but it's always worth asking. I assume if a church is trying to make a film, they would have an advertisement in their newsletter or something.

The competition can be intense but even I was able to get a few freelance PA gigs in LA from perusing the Craig's List ads - even with next to no experience, my resume looked good and I was enthusiastic (less so today :-)). Even work on local ads is better than nothing and it all looks good on a resume.

ScottDS said...

LawHawk - Ha! If I ever see Nick Meyer at a Star Trek convention, I'll have to ask. :-)

His point, of course, was that it's sometimes difficult to justify certain choices: why was scene A shot like this instead of that? It seemed right at the time.

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