Saturday, January 23, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 11 – The Best of Times

By ScottDS

March, 2004. Since Full Sail’s film program at the time was roughly thirteen months long, we were about halfway done. Our previous class (concurrent with directing but pre-16mm) was Media and Society and the only thing anyone remembers about that class was our hot Moroccan teacher. Her name was Khadra and I still wonder how her tight pants managed to stay on without ripping at the seams.

The class itself was self-explanatory: media viewing habits, the impact of media on the culture, a viewing of Bowling for Columbine (I had seen it before) followed by an amazingly even-handed discussion (the politics of my classmates ran the gamut from left to right and beyond), and some boring lectures, including one that drove our teacher to tears for some reason. After Panic, we all needed a break and our behavior in this class was downright disgusting.

This was, however, merely a prelude to our 16mm productions. After thinking I’d be working on the cool World War II film, I was assigned to the crew of The Napkin. A rarity among Full Sail films, The Napkin (which was later retitled Sanguinity after the lone napkin scene was cut from a revised draft) was not a horror film, didn’t contain an ounce of blood or a gun or a psychopathic protagonist, and actually featured a happy ending. I later described the film as a “bittersweet romantic comedy.” In short, it tells the story of Peggy, a lonely flight attendant hovering just south of the big 4-0. She’s met a nice guy (and recovering alcoholic) named Carl but is afraid of being disappointed again. In the end, they have dinner at a nice Italian restaurant and Carl, who had been out of town, presents Peggy with a stuffed Bullwinkle doll (she had one when she was a little kid). Peggy, who had assumed the worst, smiles for possibly the first time in many years. We pull back from this lovely tableau, cue the music, and roll credits.

A romantic comedy? I wanted to make a war movie, damnit!! We had our first pre-production meeting with Jason, one of the 16mm lab specialists who I believe is now head of the Full Sail film department. (Jason had also served in the Army but I don’t remember what he did. He also co-owns a comic book shop just a few blocks from the school.) We all introduced ourselves and it was nice and awkward. By this time, many of us had experience working together, but not all of us. To this day, there are classmates to whom I never said two words. It was our understanding that there would be two types of jobs on the 16mm films: locked down positions and rotating positions. The locked down positions were: two lighting supervisors, two script supervisors, 2 VTR/playback operators, and one casting director. The rotating positions included director, 1st and 2nd assistant directors, camera operator, 1st and 2nd camera assistants, sound mixer, boom operator, dolly and key grips, grips, and production assistants. There would also be a catering team (a film crew travels on its stomach), a wardrobe/make-up team, and an art team. We ended up not having a make-up team but instead anyone who gave a damn could be on the “shot team.”

Script Supervisor

My friend Steve and I were both made script supervisors. The script supervisor’s job is to keep track of continuity and timing, along with taking photos for reference. When you watch your favorite movie and the actor is holding a gun in his right hand and in the next shot, he’s holding it in his left hand, that means the script supervisor wasn’t paying attention. Since half the film took place in a restaurant, we’d have to keep track of every sip from every glass, every movement of every piece of silverware. . . you get the idea. After every “Cut!” we’d have to reset everything. I remember having a water bottle nearby to refill the actors’ glasses for every take. As a member of the now defunct fan group The Nitpickers Guild, I wasn’t about to make a mistake! It would also be our job to keep a daily log with the timing, description, and focal length of every shot, along with whichever take was printed (hint: the good ones). This would assist us later during editing. We would also have to maintain a chart indicating every variation: if an actor picked up the glass before saying the line on take one but after saying the line on take two. The actress who played Peggy was spot on but the actor playing Carl was a bit of a doofus and never did the same thing twice.

The leader of our motley crew was Bill, a fellow student who served as unit production manager. Bill was a nice guy but I found him imposing at times and I still think of him as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Assisting him was Dave, another student who served as production coordinator. I enjoyed working with Dave very much though things sort of soured by the time we shot our 35mm films. Bill and Dave also served in the same capacity on Panic but I don’t recall blaming them for our troubles during that debacle of a production (I’m sure I did but I just don’t remember). From a cursory glance at my paperwork, Steve and I also had to line the script once it was determined how the film would be shot. Each individual shot would get lined in the script and storyboarded. Another student named Mike (not the same one I’ve mentioned before) went to work on Poser and, following my instructions, rendered every shot. These were exported as jpeg images and I assembled a nice PowerPoint presentation to show the crew during one of our meetings. The lab specialists (who were ten times better than their DC counterparts) were quite impressed. I also had to break down the script and color-code each individual production category: violet for props, red for speaking parts, a circle for special wardrobe, etc. I have no idea if professional feature films do this but to us it was “busy work” and we never referred to it again.

The actual production took place over the span of two 11-hour days. I was assigned the first two shots to direct on day one so that’s when Steve served as script supervisor. I served on day two. I was armed with my trusty mechanical pencil, a stopwatch, a ruler, and a binder with blank forms. Sitting next to me at the table adjacent to the set was Brent, the VTR operator for day 2. The camera was connected to a TV and VCR and every shot was recorded onto VHS so a rough edit could be assembled (I don’t know if anyone actually took the time to do this). If a director needed to review a shot, all they had to do was rewind the tape. On “Action!” I’d start the stopwatch and try my best to jot down any variation between takes. In between takes, I would line the script, making a mark at the start point, and drawing a straight line down, making another mark at the stop point. I would also write down a brief description of each shot (“OTS MCU Peggy” = over the shoulder medium close-up of Peggy). I’d also have to write down whether or not the shot was any good and if there were any problems (ambient noise, camera jamming, etc.) Each scene was numbered – we had six scenes in total – and each shot was lettered. Scene 6 took place in the restaurant: shot 6A was the master shot, 6B started on Carl’s crossword puzzle (in which he spells “sanguinity”) and tilted up to Peggy’s medium shot, 6E was a profile shot of Peggy, 6H was a dolly shot starting close at the table and slowly pulling back, and so on and so forth. All of this had to be cross-referenced and filed away for later.

Production Designer

The production designer is, in the words of longtime Star Trek production designer Herman Zimmerman, “responsible for everything you see on-screen except for the actors.” I did not seek this position; I had this position thrust upon me. Ironically, it was another student named Scott who volunteered for the job, if only because no one else could be bothered to raise a hand. I did however ask to be on the art team. There were nine of us and we’d meet in our spare time to ask the important question: “How the hell are we gonna build a plane on the soundstage?” We couldn’t shoot on location and even if we could, I doubt Orlando International Airport would simply let us hang out for a day shooting aboard a passenger airliner. From looking at Dave’s rough transcript of our first art meeting, we were quite a rowdy bunch. Once we settled down, we mostly talked about the mood and tone we wanted to create. A plane is a plane and, if we were going to make one from scratch, I thought authenticity would be paramount. The other set was the New York City Italian restaurant set and we talked about what we wanted to see in terms of romantic lighting, décor, etc. Again, authenticity was important. We also discussed the characters’ backstories but, as I learned on our 35mm film, most of this was useless.

I immediately set about researching both planes and upscale NYC Italian eateries. I was both amazed and horrified by the amount of detailed information I could find about passenger airliners: blueprints, schematics, measurements down the last centimeter, etc. This was obviously post-9/11 and I might’ve joked about DHS tracking my Internet use at the time. We probably could’ve built our own plane if given the time and budget. Since we could use only a quarter of the soundstage, we had to economize. The school kept some old airplane seats in storage and we took a look at them. Some people started carving window panels out of Styrofoam and we weren’t sure what to do about overhead bins. We couldn’t pull the camera back too far so there would be a chance we wouldn’t see them anyway. What to do, what to do. . .

Then a funny thing happened. Scott had to excuse himself from the class for an undetermined amount of time. One day during set construction, Bill called my name and asked if I wanted to be production designer since I had shown so much enthusiasm during the meetings, not to mention an almost unhealthy talent for research and fact-finding. I said “Sure” and that was it. What no one knew was that, despite our set design class, I was deathly afraid of the tools (the electric ones, anyway) and I knew nothing of architecture, building materials, etc. What I could do was find us an airplane. How? Well, we happened to have a week-long spring break right in the middle of pre-production. During that time, there was a convention of plane and boat interior manufacturers going on in Ft. Lauderdale. I couldn’t attend but I pulled up the vendor list and I didn’t stop calling until I found a company willing to give us some old plane parts. After a couple of false leads and a few sleepless nights, I located such a company: Interior Marketing in Hialeah, four hours south of Full Sail. I had it all planned: I’d rent a truck, drive down there, load her up with seats and bins and anything else I could think of, and drive back to school and surprise everybody! That didn’t happen. Armed with a wishlist and a wad of the school’s money, Bill, Dave, and I drove down to Hialeah one weekday morning. After renting the truck, we carpooled to the company and spoke to a nice guy whose name I now forget. We loaded up the truck with seats, overhead bins, a meal cart, a galley wall, window panels, and anything else we could manage. We forked over $200 and the guy seemed okay with it (sucker!). We drove back (yep, eight hours in one day – a school day no less) and everyone was floored by what we had accomplished. I was also able to obtain some authentic airplane interior decals from a company called Aero Decals in Palm Bay. I also forgot to send them their check but they never asked a second time! The decals we didn’t use are still in a box in my bedroom closet.

Sadly, I seem to subscribe to the Mel Brooks Theory of Business, which states: “If you got it, flaunt it!” And flaunt, I did. I let my ego run amuck and I pretty much alienated almost everyone on the crew and even some folks who were working on other films. I took credit where none was due, telling people I built the plane when I had in fact built bupkes. What I did wasn’t even production design – it was more like producing. I am so ashamed of myself. Some crewmembers had built a wooden frame and the overhead bins and window panels were simply snapped in and tied down. It looked very nice and I recall the head of the film department stopping by. Of course, I made myself available for questions and comments. Besides, they paid for it – this was an investment on the school’s part and before the day was out, some girl asked if her group could use the seats after we were finished with them. But my ego… A couple years after graduation, one of my friends said something to the effect of, “You don’t know how many people were sick of your bullshit.” This took a while to get over. I just wanted to have a nice set – I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’ve since learned my lesson – today, I take credit for nothing! (smile) But at the time, it hurt. And I had been oblivious to all of it.

The Italian restaurant turned out beautifully. Like most film sets, the walls were simply flats. Our team actually stole all the ready-made ones, leaving the other crews to make their own from scratch. Whoops! We had tables (actually wooden benches constructed for a previous class’ film), rented seats from the restaurant supply warehouse five minutes away on State Road 50, nice tablecloths (doing the math to calculate the total area might’ve been my hardest job!), pictures on the walls (inkjet printouts in cheap frames from Big Lots), and assorted tchotchkes from storage. One student – a genius named Chris (he’s the one who did the nice montage for Panic) – brought in a mandolin and mounted it on the wall. Chris had also generated beautiful 3-D renderings of the restaurant for reference. We had decorative molding made out of foam and painted to look like wood. We had fake brick paneling which the crew painted (brick by brick) while we were out obtaining the plane parts. All of the glassware and silverware were purchased from (and later returned to) Big Lots. Since it took place in Manhattan, I bought a copy of the New York Times for Carl’s crossword puzzle. Someone was able to get a plush Bullwinkle doll (the voice was added later) and another student even made spaghetti (which the actors didn’t eat because they would’ve had to eat it on every take).

Sadly, most of this was for naught. Since we could never pull the camera back far enough, you never see anything above the actors’ heads! No pictures, no paintings, no mandolin. Live and learn. It would seem that this blog has grown beyond my expectations. Next week, I’ll discuss directing, working with the actors, editing, music, and titles.

To Be Continued. . .


AndrewPrice said...

Nice article Scott. I'm glad that you learned something out of film school! LOL!

It's funny that you never think of all the work that goes on besides simply framing the shot and shouting go. In fact, the amount of information that you talk about recording sounds like a real candidate for information overload.

Unknown said...

Scott: It sounds like you may have enjoyed yourself, despite the byzantine twists and turns of the courses.

It's nice to know that even at film school, there was discussion about Bowling For Columbine. I guess I'm used to the Hollywood crowd that would universally praise its brilliance.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks Scott - interesting as always, particularly the duties of production designer

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Thanks, as always (Florida Panthers won the game; I just got home!).

Most people don't think of all the work that goes on (I wish the BH folks would write more about the various behind the scenes technicians and what they do - they're the unsung heroes of the biz). When I lived in LA, I worked as a non-union extra for a month. Now my parents pay attention to the background actors when they watch TV, knowing how much effort goes into that sort of thing.

Re: info overload, I assume you're referring to the script supervisor gig. Yeah, lots of info there. Thank God we were doing a small student film. I couldn't imagine being script sup on Lord of the Rings!

ScottDS said...

LawHawk -

I did enjoy myself, only learning later how many people weren't necessarily enjoying my presence at the time. That's life, I guess. (And it gets worse, as you'll find out in a couple of weeks.)

As for Bowling..., yeah, I'm pretty sure we had a good discussion. Many folks I went to school with are anything but the usual "Hollywood crowd." Hell, we had actual church-goers! And this was early 2004, just before election fever. While some people were threatening to leave the country if Bush won, one of my classmates said the same but about Kerry.

ScottDS said...

Tennessee -

Thanks! I remember getting really into the production design part before realizing what I really enjoyed was the research - it's important but production design encompasses so much more. And as I mentioned in the blog, I wasn't a big fan of the heavy tools and I knew nothing of architecture (though I bought a book on the subject after graduation - A Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching).

One of the other films took place in the future and their people built sterile 2001-style corridors and had cool props. I remember almost wishing I had worked on that film. I say "almost" because their crew was very disorganized for the longest time (not that ours was a model of efficiency).

ScottDS said...

Oh, I should mention this. "The Nitpickers Guild" was real. It was started by a MIDI programmer named Phil Farrand. Back before Paramount started cracking down on unauthorized Star Trek books, he wrote one called The Nitpickers Guide for Next Generation Trekkers. He followed it up with a monthly newsletter and books on the original series, DS9, The X-Files, and a TNG volume 2.

For that one, he took member submissions so if you ever find a copy of The Nitpickers Guide for Next Generation Trekkers - Vol. 2, you'll see my name in the fine print at the beginning. :-) I don't know what Mr. Farrand is up to now.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I too would like to see BH make some changes. I'd like to see them offer a little more technical/insiders look at times, and I'd like to see them do more forward looking pieces -- things they'd like to see happen, rather than things they are upset about.

ScottDS said...

I agree (but we've been over all that before).

One thing I haven't mentioned in the blog is that, by focusing on nothing but directing, I inadvertently deprived myself of other learning opportunities. I could've focused on, say for example, audio and worked as a sound tech and/or boom op. Those are marketable skills in Hollywood and elsewhere. But to say "I'm a director." "Oh yeah? Prove it!" :-)

Same goes for jobs like camera assistant, editor, etc. But while I learned this stuff along with everyone else, I was so focused on directing a short film that I sort of missed the forrest for the trees.

Writer X said...

Fun post, Scott. It's cool to read about the behind-the-scenes world-building. Has anyone ever done a film about a film crew making a film? Throw in a romance and possibly a werewolf or vampire and you've got yourself a blockbuster! ;-)

StanH said...

Seems like a lot of fun. It would be tuff however doing everything by committee, it’s seems a bit of pushme-pullme process.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Writer X!

A film about a film crew making a film? It's been done before and a few titles come to mind: Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending, 8 1/2, and a Three Stooges short titled "Movie Maniacs" among others.

After our 35mm films, I realized I should've been the guy doing the making-of documentary. (Full Sail used to have a student serve in that position but not anymore.) You'll find out more in a few weeks but considering some of the calamitous events that happened during the making of our 35mm film, I could've come out of school with an award-worthy documentary on my hands!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's the lament of getting older, if only I'd know then...

There is this company that puts college courses on DVD (great stuff), and their motto is "college is wasted on the young." Very true!

ScottDS said...

Stan -

You are correct. However, not all filmmaking is by committee (the Star Wars prequels seemed to suffer by having no one question Lucas on anything, unlike the originals). Student films are, of course, a different story.

I'll be talking more about this in a couple weeks re: our 35mm films. It all points to a lack of leadership. But when you have the instructor saying one thing, the UPM saying another thing, and the director saying yet another thing, it gets a little confusing. And everyone has an EGO.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - Too true! There is a school of thought that says, "Don't bother with film school. The best way to learn filmmaking is to make one." But at school, you get access to expensive equipment and you meet people. Both ideas have pros and cons.

As for me, my dad recently asked, "Do you regret going to Full Sail?" I'm not making movies anytime soon and I plan on pursuing improv comedy. But I couldn't tell him "no." Like anything else, it certainly built character and it's worth it for the people you meet.

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