Sunday, April 18, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 20 – Dancing into the Fire III

By ScottDS
In a seventh season episode of The Simpsons, a Hollywood studio comes to Springfield to shoot a movie based on Bart’s favorite comic book character, Radioactive Man. Bart’s friend Milhouse gets the role of Radioactive Man’s sidekick, Fallout Boy: "Ever since I became a movie star, I've been miserable. I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. just for makeup. I like the way the blush brings out my cheekbones, but it's not worth it. And making movies is so horribly repetitive. I've said ‘jiminy jillickers’ so many times, the words have lost all meaning." At that point, the ponytailed director walks in and says, "We’ve got to do the ‘jiminy jillickers’ scene again!"

The following consists of iChat conversations Mike and I had over the span of three days in February. And yes, I transcribed all of this!

Day 1 at UCF: July 25th, 2004

Scott: "I have to ask: was I the first person to tell you about Jeremy?"

Mike: "No. Phil was the person who called me because I was back home for the little hiatus [we had]. I was in my family room watching TV and I got a call. It was Phil and I was like, ‘Hey’ and he goes, ‘Hey, what's going on?’ He said something else first, then he [asked], ‘Were you good friends with Jeremy?’ I was like, ‘No, not really. I don’t think I talked to him more than once.’ And he told me what happened and it floored me in the sense... like ‘Wow’... [because of] how young he was and it was shocking but not painful because I didn’t know him and I think [that] makes a difference. It did shock me and I did respect what a tragedy it was."

Scott: "The night before day 1... what was the vibe?"

Mike: "Part of me was thinking I wasn’t going to sleep at all. I was just so incredibly geeked. It was like the day before my wedding – which was important at the time; it wasn’t all bad – or something like that. I believe I slept that night... I slept at Paul’s the whole time I was doing In the Nude and it sounds weird but it was because Paul wasn’t sleeping there. I woke up super early, got to school... we made a great plan of who was going to do what and who was gonna come load this and take [that]. So many people were excited because we were doing an entire day using two main locations."

Scott: "The only thing I remember from [that] morning was that everyone carpooled. We carpooled together. I’m not sure who else was in the van. I think James [from the Shooting for the Moon crew] might’ve been there since he was volunteering and we had Bill and a few people from Canadians because they wanted to know what it was like to actually go on a location that wasn’t five feet out the door!"

Mike: "Yeah, but Bill left halfway through the day, like, ‘Yeah, I got it now.’ It was probably the most crowded day of any shoot on any of the films. I think everybody went – just about everyone that I knew was there. People I didn’t even know, people from other classes, like how did they even know we were doing this?"

Scott: "All of our films had a few volunteers from different classes."

Mike: "I recall a conversation at some point with one of the producers [who said something like] this might’ve been one of the biggest location shoots Full Sail had ever done, which made me very proud. [The selection of passengers] in my van was not by chance. We got all the vehicles that were going, we assigned people to vehicles... we coordinated all that ahead of time."

In the Forrest Gump DVD audio commentary, director Robert Zemeckis tells us the difference between a good director of photography and a bad director of photography. A bad DP will simply show up on the day and ask, "So, are we shooting for day or night?" A good DP will go on the location scouts with a GPS unit and will say things like, "Well, if we’re shooting this on a morning in mid-July, we should probably move the set three feet to the right so we don’t get shadows." Of course, if the film crew consists of sleep-deprived students, you might get shadows!

Mike: "They say [you should] scout the location at the exact time you’re gonna be shooting. And we didn’t because none of us could make it up that early unless we had class! We did scout the location but, unfortunately, because we didn’t scout it at the same time we were [going to be] shooting it, we didn’t account for shadows. We all thought that the student union building was going to [cast] a shadow over the area we were shooting. But it didn’t, and since the 360 shot was going all around the actors, you would’ve seen the shadows of the crew and the camera on the actors’ faces once we passed in front of the sun. The 360 shot was supposed to be the first shot of the day so I made the decision to switch it around and shoot all of our close-ups first even though it might not match perfectly... hopefully at a certain point, the sun would be at a steep enough angle so when the dolly [passes] next to the actors, it wouldn’t cast a shadow. We ran into an issue with the student union building not being open early enough and that’s where our bathrooms were and all that stuff. It was a little hotter that day than we would’ve liked but we tried to keep our actors in the shade. There was a crane shot that I wanted but I ditched it because, time-wise, it wouldn’t work out. I turned it into a slow tilt but [even] that didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. We had originally wanted Chris to [create] a CG bird that would fly into the side of the building but we just ran out of time."

The final 360-degree dolly shot is very good, but not perfect.

Mike: "I just remember Tony saying, ‘Don’t take this away from me.’ It was never a problem but I was hinting that I wanted to get it done myself because I was a little worried about certain things. In the end, I kicked myself for not doing one take myself [operating the camera] and I should’ve because once he had two cracks at it, I should’ve just gone ahead and [shot] one."

Scott: "And after we wrapped at the union, we all packed up and moved to the Visual Arts Building."

Mike: "We [needed] to split up and that’s when I put my 2nd A.D.s in charge of setting up the hallway. When we did the 360 shot on the deck [in the union], I think Seth was [still] there but Phil was in charge of setting up the building and having it ready so when we got there, it was time to rock."

Scott: "Was it Seth and Phil who wrangled all those extras? I’m not talking about classmates but other people who happened to be there."

Mike: "Yeah, Seth and Phil. I don’t particularly know that they were responsible for every extra but they wrangled a lot of them and just threw everyone in there because, if we were shooting a period film, it wouldn’t have worked but we were all that age so any one of us could just jump in there."

Scott: "If I recall the hallway shoot, it’s a handheld shot of the three guys, then we hear Anna yell, ‘Oh s---!’ when she realizes her photos are back in the lab, then we cut to the handheld shot of the girls."

Mike: "You had Ed with the camera (Tony was too tall to get the angle Mike wanted), me with my hand on his back, and [my other hand holding] the VTR monitor. He actually did very well on that shot. He did very poorly on a shot later during Ryan #2’s day but that wasn’t his fault. The shot worked... it was handheld but it wasn’t too jittery. At first, the idea was [to use a] Steadicam there but I thought the handheld look was going to be better. I thought it was a great reveal." (The camera stays on the girls until they exit frame, which is when we find the guys who have stepped out into a small nook.)

Scott: "Any major problems on the first day?"

Mike: "Once we were in the hallway shooting all that stuff, there were some additional shots [we had to cut for time]. [Classmate] Debbie had a make-up meltdown because Laz had found this ex-KGB, Soviet expatriate make-up lady. She was Ukrainian or something and there was a bit of a communications gap. Laz tried to describe the character Debbie was playing, like she was ‘the flirty one,’ but he didn’t have to do that because nothing mattered with those characters. [The make-up lady] understood ‘prostitute’ so when I got there Debbie was kind of freaking out and I told her, ‘Just go to the bathroom and take it off.’ [Another little crisis] was when Phil and I were just standing there and this UCF faculty member who was walking through the building… we had black cloths but they were open, nothing was blocked... but this woman walked by – she walked in from the outside – and Phil and I are standing there talking. She looks at what's going on… mind you, she just walked in, it’s not like she ran into a problem and got upset... she walked up to me and Phil and said, ‘If that hallway is blocked, I’m going to call the police.’ And then she kept walking. Phil and I looked at each other like, ‘How can you go from zero to so incredibly negative so fast?!’ Other than that, it was one of the best days ever."

Days 2, 3, & 4 at Full Sail: July 26th – 28th, 2004

Mike: "I actually did a shot the very next day – the shot where Scooter is reaching into his bag [which was shot from a POV inside the bag] – in the parking lot while Ryan #2 was setting up his stuff inside. But we were scheduled for that. It’s a tiny little shot but it was important. The main thing to take away from that day was... Ryan #2 was just out of his league trying to do this and he was screwing some things up and I was pointing them out to him. What I should’ve done was take him aside but at a certain point... I was saying it to him but I wasn’t pulling him aside and I think it upset him but [...] his personality is to not tell anyone anything until he’s ready to explode, then he spews all his venom and he did that at a certain point and it pissed me off. Then I decided not to tell him a thing for the rest of the day. I’d just fix any mistakes of his [the next day]. So the next day (day 3), I got there early and ran through the VTR from the day before. A couple things I couldn’t fix. There was a terrible shot that Ed did on the crane because he was using the cranks to tilt up and down [when] he should’ve just moved the camera on his own. Ryan #2’s angle on those shots was poor. It was just dead on, totally tight. It was supposed to be at a little bit of an angle. But nothing I could do. I was steaming because I was totally open with him the whole time and obviously he wasn’t being open and I kinda saw his true colors."

Scott: "So... day 3 in the dark tank with Kit."

Mike: "This was a little different because I knew going into the day, I knew I needed to do everything really fast [to give us time] to [re-shoot some of Ryan #2’s] shots later. I remember going to [producer] Debbie and she said, ‘Well, you better do everything fast.’ But I think that was a real fun day for everybody because we built the camera rig using the car mount on the wall and a lot of people had fun with that. We were moving the crane within a shot... that had a lot of people psyched. [We] probably shouldn’t have put the [biggest] guy in the class on the crane when we were doing that shot because that caused it to bounce. (You can also see the shadow of the camera crane for a second in the film.) The shot didn’t work the way I wanted it to because we couldn’t move the crane fast enough and it bounced but I didn’t account for that. It was fun... [much of that day was spent] on the ground with the viewfinder trying to pick the best angles for the shots."

When the guys reach the dark tank, Scooter attempts to climb down from the vent but loses his grip and falls. When he rises from below the frame, there’s a picture of a horse’s ass stuck to his face. (And I don’t care what Mike says – that was my idea!)

Mike: "I was nervous about how the fall was gonna play out. When we did it, I don’t think I could’ve screamed more. I was like, ‘Yes!!’ I was so excited because it looked fantastic and we looked at it on the VTR and it looked great. We had Derek under the table in the dark tank who tossed up a developing tray filled with water [after Kit falls below frame] and that was a fun moment. Unfortunately, while we were at the VTR, the camera guys said there was an issue with the camera... a little hiccup (not a technical term). I was devastated, mainly because the shot was so good but because I’d have to ask Kit to fall again and he wasn’t 100% keen on doing it. So we did it again and of course in hindsight, our first take was fine. There was no issue with it and that’s the one we used. That was the day [Ryan from Canadians who was volunteering] burned his arm on a light. [35mm instructor] Rob came to visit that day – the only time he came to visit. I don’t think he [offered any suggestions]. He was really happy with what we were doing."

Mike had to shoot some close-ups to fill in some gaps from the previous day. Not everyone was happy about this.

Mike: "We were done with our shots but then we had to re-shoot some scenes from day 2 that weren’t done properly. There wasn’t enough coverage and I didn’t even discuss it with Ryan #2. At this point, I was directing my thing and Ryan #2 was directing his so I didn’t consult with him on anything. He completely stayed away from me that day. It was probably to prove a point, like, ‘See, I can leave you alone.’ So we set that up and there was an issue with Justin who didn’t… there was something he didn’t agree with. It could’ve been the way the light was set up or it could’ve been the fact we were doing the shots, period. The shots themselves... he didn’t feel like they were going to work the way I had set them up. He didn’t feel we had time for them and that they were unnecessary. I don’t know [what happened] but he challenged me in front of the crew and I basically said, ‘We’re gonna do them anyway.’ It worked out and those shots saved everything and I got big praise at the end of the day from [one of the camera lab assistants]. He thought we’d done a good job of making up for our prior mistakes."

Scott: "It was footage of them crawling in the ducts, right?"

Mike: "Yeah, it was coverage of them have a conversation... there were no shots of them having this conversation... no close-ups, no anything, so it was a big problem. We had to shoot them from the side at an angle. The lighting wasn’t exactly a match to what we had done the day before but we didn’t have time because there were lights inside the ducts that we couldn’t put back. For what we needed, it worked and I understood Justin’s concern but we needed the shots. It didn’t matter, as long as they were lit."

Scott: "And day 4? The only thing I remember was Carlo [a sound tech who did a terrible job and left during shooting to go to McDonald’s!] telling the catering guy some weird story. There might’ve been voodoo involved. I don’t know."

Mike: "I remember the caterer. He had a beard but he looked like he was twelve years old, like a kid who put on a fake beard. I remember spending a lot of time in the photography instructor’s office. You were in there [with the VTR equipment], Claudia was in there... I remember a lot of goofy stuff in there."

Scott: (sigh) "Not really."

Mike: "I remember watching the VTR and going to Steve a couple of times saying that Ryan #2 was screwing something up. Steve [would act as an] intermediary, going to Paul and Ryan #2, saying, ‘This isn’t covered properly.’ I was an extra in a shot with Jon [when the students evacuate], like, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be funny if we were having sex or something [in the dark tank when the fire alarm goes off]?’ You can barely see it in the frame but he’s putting his shirt back on and I’m zipping up. And I remember going and shooting the photos for the poster. We lit the false wall that we built and I shot the actors for that in between takes. And getting up on the twenty-foot ladder to shoot those photos was pretty interesting. The main thing I remember is the final shot of the movie... I wasn’t happy with how Ryan #2 had shot it. I was in the room and I remember saying, ‘F--- this’ and I went and told the actors to do it a different way. They did and it worked perfectly. I looked at Debbie and she’s like, ‘It’s your movie. If you want it done differently, go ahead and tell him.’ I was like, ‘Thank-you’ and basically took over the last shot and it worked out. The dolly was on a quarter turn. It starts behind Kit, and goes around him where he makes the decision not to look at the photos. Arnie comes up behind him and scares him. Then he goes, ‘Come on, dude. Let’s go!’ And he takes the photos. Kit says, ‘No, wait! Stop!’ And he slips and hilarity ensues. The way Ryan #2 had shot it was terrible. And that was a wrap. And everyone started hugging each other."

Scott: "Except me and Claudia! Just kidding."

Next week: post-production, an attempt to salvage the audio, drunken karaoke, and our aborted plans for In the Nude: Special Edition.

To Be Continued...


7 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It sounds like you finally hit the point where film making turned into work.

ScottDS said...

Sucks, doesn't it? :-)

It is work, there's no doubt about that but I have to imagine the vast majority of people who do it do so because they enjoy it. And every day brings some new challenge.

Of course, as you'll find out in two weeks, when you're a production assistant in LA, the last thing you want are new challenges.

ScottDS said...

Last week, I just worked as an extra on a TV pilot called Reagan's Law - it's Tom Selleck's return to TV and hopefully it'll get picked up in the fall.

I got to stand ten feet away from him (!) but, being a former film student, I could only admire the professionalism of the crew (and the cast). We were outside Madison Square Garden in the cold and these men and women just did there thing, though I think the PAs were a bit frazzled. It's not easy to organize 100 extras.

AndrewPrice said...

How were they compared to your crew?

ScottDS said...

Well, they were professionals and I imagine they didn't need to ask how or when to do something, they just knew to do it. And unlike our films, the chain of command was respected.

Now re: the PAs... there were 100 extras, with many young people playing NYPD academy graduates and the rest of us playing journalists and family members. There was one 1st assistant director and two 2nd assistant directors. The 2nd ADs were female and could barely be heard above the street noise.

The production assistants were also young women (most likely film school grads like me) and it was clear that they needed more help. I remember someone asked, "You have all these extras dressed up like on-air news talent but you don't have any dressed down extras to play camera and sound guys." This was also the fault of the casting people but this poor PA had to think and make adjustments on the fly: "Okay, you change clothes - you'll be a camera guy" and so on.

And it's amazing they manage to crank out new TV episodes every week considering how long it took to do this one scene.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, When they filmed the congressional scenes in "Contact" they asked people to come downtown and act as extras. They specifically said to wear black, blue and brown. They were looking for a winter-crowd sort of look.

I understand they tossed out anyone who didn't follow those instructions.

ScottDS said...

From what I recall, red and white clothes are frowned upon - better to wear Earth tones. And when I did extra work in LA, whenever there was a call for an extra with a car, it was always "No white cars!"

Extras have to show up "camera ready" with alternate outfits, usually "wear one, bring one."

In the future, I might have to write a blog that explores this more in detail.

Contact... good movie! I'd kill to be an extra on a Robert Zemeckis film, but now that he has his new motion capture/animation toys, I don't see him shooting any live-action movies for a while.

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