Sunday, April 25, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 21 – Dancing into the Fire IV

By ScottDS
When the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was awarded the D.W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award by the Director's Guild of America in 1998, he, naturally, didn't fly to the United States to accept it. Instead, he sent them a videotaped message with his acceptance speech. In it, he said this: "Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling." My friend Mike is proof that this is still true.

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!

The Cone of Silence: Post-Production and GradFest

We had a wrap party for In the Nude at Uptown. It was karaoke night so a bunch of us drunkenly retuned "Piano Man" and Steve and Mike performed "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." There was also a party at Justin's place (I missed it) where Tony broke out his acoustic guitar and Arnie downed a dozen beers without appearing to get drunk at all. "He had some kind of Mexican alcohol gene or something," Mike told me.

Scott: "Let's talk about the opening montage, which was shot in the photo lab after we wrapped."

Mike: "Obviously, it came into my head after I realized Chris was involved. I realized we probably weren't gonna be able to shoot it during [principal photography] so we'd have to shoot it on 24p and make it match. And it looks fine. So we went to Rob and we asked for permission to do it. We got Disco to kind of babysit us where he said, 'I'm not gonna be there. You can do it yourself but [if you have] any problems, you come right to me. And you have a certain amount of time to do it.' And we got Steve, Chris, Laz, [classmate] Debbie... Justin... I invited Ryan #2 but at that point, it didn't matter but I did invite him to participate. Chris and I had blocked it and storyboarded it so we knew what shots we needed to get but after that, we started doing other things. The tough part was that Chris was switching to another medication so he had been off his meds for a week and was in full-blown ADD mode so it took us several more hours than it should have. We borrowed Kit's Panasonic DVX100A [video camera] and Chris was opposed to shooting with it because he said 24p would mess with his After Effects program. In the end, it did but only on one shot. But we got it off, cleaned up the photo lab, and we also shot [the background images] for the poster."

Scott: "I remember two things from that day, even though I only stuck around for a little while. At one point, we talked about using Claudia's risqué photo for the poster. The photo guys had hung it on the wall [with her permission] and I tried to sneak it out of the room so I could scan it but Rob caught me and implied [in front of everyone] that I had less than pure intentions. The other thing was you sent me to McDonald's but apparently, they had discontinued your favorite combo meal or something!"

Post-production went relatively smoothly. Mike, Steve, Chris, and I went to UCF one night to shoot an establishing shot of the building, though Mike wishes he were able to bring the actors along. Mike and Chris also had a difficult time repairing the film's audio track and, even after they were able to salvage it, thanks to the lab "specialists" who produced the class DVD, their efforts turned out to be futile.

Mike: "[The editing lab groups] were randomly assigned and they put me, Paul, Ryan #2, and Mike #2 in one group and I immediately went up in class and said, 'No, we're switching that around' because I knew I was going to edit with Chris. So it was me, Chris, Steve [and a few others who didn't contribute as much, if at all]. We did have to sync our audio [unlike in 16mm when it was synced for us]. I just remember the first day looking at our dailies and thinking, 'Wow, it looks great.' I always look at editing in the beginning like, 'Ahh!' When I see a big group of [objects] all out of order, my first thought is always panic. Slowly, we started to work it out. I remember bonding with Chris. And Chris, being a much more experienced editor than I was… Chris and I had a lot in common and I think that, throughout the process, he kind of gained respect for me, not just as a person but as an artist, too, because a lot of my editing choices [consisted of] getting around certain little issues that we had and Chris' response was very positive. I don't know if it's because he thought I wasn't any good before or what. Once we had our scenes buttoned down, [the next step] was our f---ing audio problem. Chris edited the whole montage at his house and added all the effects and stuff. Then he brought it in and uploaded it to the Avid's server. But we spent a ton of time boosting the audio levels and what we'd do is repeat audio tracks. We'd copy them and repeat them and if you layer several audio tracks one above the other, they start to get a little more volume without any kind of artificial gain or background noise. This seemed to be the best process to make it work."

Scott: "I remember stepping in once while we were busy with Canadians. I just have this image in my head of the Avid timeline with all those audio tracks and wondering, 'What the hell are you guys up to?'"

Mike: "That's what it was. We couldn't figure out what music to [use]. We did an establishing shot of a UCF building but in retrospect, I don't like that we did it because it [looks like something from an old sitcom]. It works fine [but today] I would've done it a little bit differently. For the music, we got lucky. Someone had uploaded to the server the scores from Cowboy Bebop. One of the cool things about that show was it had this funky, jazz-style music and Chris didn't know [the show] but he really responded well to it. So that was a blessing. "My Angel is a Centerfold" which plays over the opening montage... when Chris heard the song, he said, 'It's perfect!' So it all worked till the final moment when we were finishing up and you begrudgingly typed up the credits and I was getting all the company logos (Avid, Chapman-Leonard, etc.). We didn't have more advanced audio tools. There are other advanced audio [programs] that might've helped but we didn't have access to that. To have a film that you knew was great ruined by poor sound was a tough pill to swallow. We also spent a lot of time trying to fix the 360 shot because Tony dipped the camera at one point and you could see the dolly track so we had to reframe the shot, frame by frame."

Mike #2 had put together a closing montage of outtakes and set it to Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" from the James Bond film of the same name. Ironically, when I showed this movie to some co-workers at MGM (Bond is their cash cow) during my days as a temp file clerk, the boss walked by and asked, "Did you guys pay for that?!"

Mike: "The Avid was on a network so we had access to everyone else's edits. I just wanted to do one more gag at the end and Mike #2, in his boredom, had done a montage of outtakes with credits on them. I thought it would be funny [but if] I had to do it over again, I would've taken the credits out of it and just shown the montage with music as a goofy bonus thing. I didn't tell Mike #2 that [we included it in our edit]. Chris [also] thought it was funny. We wasted so much time on the audio and it made what happened after even more disheartening. We did our final mixdown. We did everything right. We get to GradFest where we premiere the film and [...] apparently, whoever handled the DVD transfer f---ed it up and almost all the work we had done to correct the audio wasn't there. It's like he took it and rendered it only using the first audio track and completely ignored [everything else]. I was very upset and right away, I noticed it. I was proud of the film and I was listening to the laughs but there were some places people didn't laugh because they couldn't hear it. It was very, very disheartening and [we] trusted that these idiots would get it right. It taught me [yet another] lesson at Full Sail: never trust anyone with your stuff. I probably should've asked to see the final [copy] before they put it on the DVD. We were [just] so exhausted at that point so it's not a big surprise."

Scott: "The two biggest problems I remember from GradFest were: a.) Taste of the Past (16mm film) wouldn't even play. It froze up! And b.) Shooting for the Moon had that weird distortion at the beginning (it's technical). I felt bad for Paul who wrote that film. The unit production managers introduced the 16mm films but writers and directors introduced the 35mm films. Since I co-wrote one and co-directed another, I was the only student who got to speak twice. Do you remember what you said?"

Mike: "I remember the strangest thing happening. I got up to the podium and I kind of froze up. I'd been on stage before but I [ended up] saying this generic 'It was great working on this movie. Thank-you all!' [speech]. I just remember it wasn't what I wanted to say, which is weird since I'm not one to hold back my words. I remember Ryan #2 talking right after me: 'I think this is funny so if you don't, then that's your problem.' It was a good day. I was very proud of what I'd done. I remember when we were in the theater lobby afterwards, Zeb and [yet another Scott], the two 'intellectuals' of the class, they walked up to me and told me how happy they were with what we'd done. [I told them about the audio and other issues] but they were like, 'But you can tell you guys did something real and it looked like you really tried and cared.' So that was great."

We were able to invite our family and friends. My mom and dad drove up, as did some of Mike's family. I had already shown my parents a rough cut of Canadians and, needless to say, other than seeing my name in the credits, they were less than impressed!

Mike: "I remember seeing Derek and all of his little brothers and thinking, 'Oh, there's kids here?!'"

Scott: "Other than a couple of light profanities, none of the films are really that objectionable. And Full Sail wouldn't have let us do anything higher than a PG-13 anyway. I remember at FSU seeing a student film that featured a scene with a topless woman. It wasn't a sex scene, it wasn't meant to be titillating... but I could never imagine doing anything like that at Full Sail."

Mike: "I could've pushed In the Nude further but it didn't need to be."

The Special Edition...?

Scott: "Anything you'd do differently today, in terms of post-production? And any parting thoughts?"

Mike: "I would change some stuff in the middle. When we went to UCF for that night shot [of the building], I probably would've tried to get the actors back to do a couple of things outside. I had this idea of them running up to the building but hiding behind things. Other than that, I guess… no. My parting thoughts are, for me, it was the best experience of my life. I would do it again a thousand times if I had to. There are some improvements [they should make to] the program as far as education and I think they're doable: an audio post class, film music, and maybe a little more on theory, which is always important to learn in any film program. I made lasting friendships that I'll probably have for the rest of my life."

Scott: "Sucker!"

Mike: "For better and for worse, it's still the best thing I've ever done."

A few years ago, Mike and I seriously considered re-editing the film. During post-production at Full Sail, Steve had made a personal copy for himself on digital videotape but we would've preferred getting access to the original film elements. Unfortunately, no one knows if they even exist anymore. Mike was prepared to dub Kit's voice himself to compensate for the shoddy recording quality and we would've enlisted Chris and Justin for help as well. But it's not happening anytime soon. All that survives is the class DVD. Mike and I also talked briefly about writing a feature-length version of In the Nude – the idea being anything we write at first will be crap so we might as well get it out of our system – but that fell by the wayside.

To view the "final" DVD edit of In the Nude, please click here. Mike has adjusted the contrast in certain scenes to improve picture quality. The audio is sourced from Steve's DV copy so what you will hear is actually superior to the version that played at GradFest. And it should be noted, much of the film's, uh, "stupid humor" was added after I left to work on Canadians.

Next week: graduation!


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I see that you had more creative shots in this one than the last, which is definitely a step up. Why the change?

Anonymous said...

I didn't direct it! :-) I can't speak for Mike and Ryan #2 but a few theories come to mind:

-two directors instead of three probably made it easier, in terms of agreeing on certain things
-a camera crew that was actually enthusiastic about the material and didn't go behind the directors' backs to change the script
-the locations and sets lent themselves to more creative camerawork (the long hallway at UCF, the red lighting in the photo lab, etc.)
-an idea of mine that was lost on Canadians was that, since it took place in a boring office, the look of the film should reflect that, which meant NO fancy camerawork
-since they didn't have the script problems we did, I imagine they were able to spend more time on planning shots, whereas we spent an inordinate amount of time on the script and other issues

Any other thoughts? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Other thoughts. Hmm.

I think it's better than Canadians. It feels like a more complete film for some reason, though I can't quite put my finger on it. Somehow it just feels more together. Canadians felt a lot like sketch comedy without the laugh track. This is more like a movie.

I do think, however, your extras served your directors poorly -- they look like a gang of zombies in the hallyway shot and rarely looked natural. I always watch the extras. It's funny how often you see the same people pass in front of a store window, even in big budget films.

Writer X said...


I just watched IN THE NUDE and I really liked it! I especially loved the teaser beginning, with the girl disappearing, and the 80's music selection set against the contemporary feel. It had an AMERICAN PIE vibe going.

Anonymous said...

It is better than Canadians. We knew that when we were making it. Mike and I wrote this film and we worked hard to make it like a "real movie" with a plot and character motivations, etc. With Canadians, I always felt it was an interesting idea but we never had enough time to flesh everything out.

As a once and future extra, I can only say, "Ha!" :-) I worked as an extra in LA (and for a couple days here) and I never noticed extras before that, unless they were really bad. Now even my parents notice extras.

And very often, you do see the same ones passing by the camera more than once. Depending on the size of the production and the skill of the assistant directors, usually someone'll say, "Okay, when they yell 'Background action!' you'll move from here to there and back here." If the take is long, they might cycle the same extras back and forth.

Of course, we were students, not extras (even though you don't need experience to be an extra). I guess Mike's guys could've said something but I doubt anyone was paying attention. And the shot was handheld without the camera plugged into the monitor so I couldn't replay anything after the fact.

Anonymous said...

X - I've missed your comments! :-)

Thanks! The 360 shot at the beginning was all Mike's idea. If you read the last blog, you'll learn that Mike wishes he could've manned the camera for one take and that the camera operator dipped the camera at one point so you could see the dolly track. This required the guys to adjust the shot frame by frame during editing. (1 frame = 1/24th of a second.)

But the shot was planned and done to the best of everyone's ability. I have the paperwork with the rough drawings, camera diagrams, etc.

As for the music, the only stuff I don't like is the cheesy romantic music at the beginning. I felt it was too "on the nose" and not really appropriate. I do, however, love the songs and the jazzy stuff they used for the duct scenes. It came from an anime program called Cowboy Bebop. If I had been editing this movie instead of Canadians, I'm not sure what I would've used.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I like paying attention to all aspects of the production, from the writing itself to the direction choices, to sets, wardrobe, continuity, and the extras.

A lot of sitcoms often use three extras, sending two across together, one in the other direction, then one of the two back, and then the new set of two together -- often with one of them removing a hat or jacket.

One film where the extras really bothered me for some reason was Deathproof. When Tarantino did the circular shot in the diner (a rip off of his own much more brilliant shot in Resevoir Dogs -- In The Nude does something similar at the beginning). In Deathproof, I kept being distracted by the extras in the background who were over acting. They should go basically unnoticed, but these people were doing too much (fake arguments and the such) that just drew my attention to them repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

Andrew - nice to know some folks are paying attention. :-)

I would imagine that if an extra was misbehaving or "overdoing it" then the director would have his/her A.D. remove said extra or switch a few people around.

I can think of extras I've seen in movies that were funny-looking (to the point of distraction) but I can't recall a specific time where I thought, "Hey, what's up with that guy?"

I have listened to many DVD audio commentaries where the filmmakers talk about the extras. Jason Lee points out one freaky-looking guy in the Mallrats commentary and on the Naked Gun commentary, David Zucker mentions that all the extras watching the baseball game are older than 18 so they wouldn't have to worry about the time restrictions for minors.

There's a science to all of this! :-)

Writer X said...

Scott, never discount cheesy romantic music. One man's cheesy romantic music is another girl's...well, don't quite know how to end that one. But I liked the music.

I also liked the contrasting settings, the dark with the light. The reds and oranges. Who'd have thought watching guys crawl through an air conditioning vent would be entertaining? I thought it was clever.

Anonymous said...

X - Thanks. And I suppose you're right. :-)

As for the settings, that's simply what the script called for. At least in the writing phase, we weren't thinking in terms of light vs. dark, etc.

However, I took a lot of still photos on the sets during production and at one point I remember thinking, "I love these photo lab shots. Lots of shadows and deep reds!" I always referred to it as Hunt for Red October lighting.

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