Saturday, January 9, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 9 – Short Film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

By ScottDS

I decided to skip the lighting class blog for a few reasons: 1.) Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot of what we learned in that class, 2.) What I do remember is extremely technical and math-oriented and we all know how much fun math can be, and 3.) Our class after lighting is when we got our first taste of film production. Needless to say, the class was a disaster, at least one or two students might have threatened legal action, some of our lab assistants were of no help at all, the right hand never knew what the left hand was doing (or that a left hand even existed), and in photos taken after this class, we all look just a little older and a lot more jaded.

This class was Digital Cinematography, or “DC” for short (why is anything with the initials “DC” so dysfunctional?). Our teacher’s name was Rick and he seemed like a nice guy though many in the class would disagree. He later came out of the closet, much to the chagrin of his wife. I barely remember any of the lab assistants, save for one nice guy named Lee who apparently was attached to write a Batman script for Warner Bros. at one point. “Finally, some coattails we can ride!” I remember telling my friend Mike. The class was held inside a soundstage in the main Full Sail building and I remember our class breaks spent outside because we had DC in the middle of winter and Orlando winters can get mighty cold (for Florida, anyway).

At the time, the class worked thusly: the students would split into ten groups. Each group would write, shoot, and edit a short commercial parody. Then all ten groups would combine their efforts and work on a short film. They say filmmaking is like going to war. There is a chain of command and everyone needs to know his or her role. None of this happened during the making of our DC film. Due to a lack of space, I’ll talk about the short film. The script was titled Panic and was selected from the scripts written for screenwriting class a couple months earlier. There is a cliché (I can’t remember if I made this up or not) that scripts written in film school are dark, nihilistic sob stories about tortured artists. Panic was a dark psychological thriller about a tortured Everyman who thinks he hears voices in his head. I’m sure the student who wrote the script has a much better idea of what he was trying to convey but the jury is still out on exactly what Panic was about.

Production took place over the span of five days: eight hour shifts per day with each group working for four hours. In theory, one group would be directing while another would be upstairs editing. Another would be putting the finishing touches on a set to be used the next day while yet another would be doing camera, another on sound, etc. I don’t remember how this was all scheduled but our group managed to do a bit of everything. The upside to this approach was that it allowed students to try their hands at everything: directing, camera, sound, set construction, editing, etc. The downside was that our class had a good handful of slackers who sat back and did absolutely nothing. Sadly, a friend of mine (later a co-worker at MGM) complained that he was stuck outside everyday washing off paintbrushes and didn’t get to witness more than five consecutive minutes of filming.

Ours was a good group. We got the first scene where the hero wakes up from a nightmare and walks over to the fridge (again, this was only a short film so there wasn’t a lot of material to go around). We didn’t work with local actors – instead, some of our braver classmates volunteered to play the roles. If I recall, we had five speaking parts and I never found out if these guys had any acting training but I admit we still like to rag on a couple of them (and not just because of their acting skills). Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of “method” at work. (I know I shouldn’t judge – I’m no actor myself – but it’s still fun to laugh at!)

As for the sets, there wasn’t a lot of construction involved. Most of the sets (and I use that term loosely) were simply there and we had to use what we were given. My friend Mike recalls the teacher constructing a wall as if it were a wall in a real house and not a fake “movie wall” made out of flats. It weighed a ton! There was a living room with the requisite set dressing and decorations (a couch, a TV, a coffee table, etc.). The lead character worked at a local news station so the other set was made up to resemble an office, complete with cubicles and various desk tchotchkes. There was also a hallway with a removable wall. At one point, the lead character (Howard) finds himself dreaming. It quickly turns into a nightmare when the wall starts to cave in. This was hilarious and I wish we still had the footage. Another group was in charge of the nightmare scene and the wall was simply moved by a couple of students. On the first take, it literally looked like the wall was walking, swaying back and forth like a little kid. “Cut!” Eventually, the wall piece was placed on a wheeled cart and moved from point A to point B. The lead actor also had to let out a loud scream several times which I’m sure only annoyed him.

We storyboarded our scene using a computer program called Poser to render lifelike figures and sets. The camera would start out high, then, as Howard bolts up from his nightmare, the camera would swoop down to eye level. We used a device called a jib: basically a counterweighted arm with the camera mounted on one end and weights and camera controls on the other end. A student from another group served as jib operator and this was an incredibly difficult exercise. The actor had to get up at the right time (he’s supposed to be sleeping so he couldn’t even see the camera), the jib arm had to be at the right height, and the camera itself had to be in focus and also in the right position – nothing too fast or too slow. We must’ve shot at least half a dozen takes and I remember one lab assistant asking, “Why does the shot have to look like this?” Thanks for the encouragement, pal.

For the shots of Howard walking to the fridge, the camera was mounted on a Glidecam. Similar to the famous Steadicam, the Glidecam is a lightweight, camera-stabilizing harness worn by the operator. I tried it once during one of our labs and, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy to wear it and stand upright for longer than thirty seconds. The camera itself was a JVC GY-DV5000, which shot on the MiniDV tape format. To explain the various advantages and disadvantages of digital video over film would take too long but, for our purposes, it allowed us to shoot multiple takes without reloading, it allowed us to see what the final product would look like without developing, and it was/is cheaper. When it was our group’s turn to man the camera, I served as 2nd AC (second assistant camera) and was in charge of maintaining the clapperboard. You’ve seen these before: a wooden slate with the scene and take written on it in marker, along with a hinged stick which is clapped in order to assist with sound sync in post-production. Another group member would serve as 1st AC (setting focus), another as camera operator, and yet another would set the actors’ marks. The director “blocks” the shot, telling the actors to move from A to B to C and so on. Each position is marked and the distances are measured to the camera to account for focus.

Anyway, the shooting of Panic was less than smooth sailing. While I wasn’t privy to every annoying thing that happened, there was definitely a vibe of “What did I sign up for?” in the air. The instructors stressed that the groups had to keep the lines of communication open. For example, if my group was shooting in the living room set, we should coordinate with any other group that happened to be shooting on the same set. That way, we could discuss set decorations, continuity issues, etc. I remember spending ten minutes figuring out where a lamp should go. No more than thirty seconds after I placed the lamp where I wanted it, someone strolled by and took the lamp away! Not the end of the world but multiply that by fifty and you’ll get a good idea of the brains behind this film. I also remember Rick sending me to get some picture frames. An hour (and several gallons of gas) later, I got back with some good frames. They ended up in the hallway, filled not with pictures but with colored gels. I never quite understood what the point of that was. Gels are frequently used on lights for color correction but these would actually be seen in the film. What purpose did they serve? Maybe we’ll find out in the sequel.

Post-production took place during all hours of the night. Since different groups were editing on Final Cut Pro at different times on different workstations with other groups’ footage (yeah, this went smoothly), sometimes we’d sit down only to find out that all the footage had been assembled already. Sometimes there’d be a take missing. More often than not, the footage would suffer from subpar audio. Since the instructors would only produce one class DVD, there was no guarantee your edit would ever be seen by anyone! A nice guy (and genius) named Chris assembled a montage to be used in the middle of the film, complete with superimposed calendar dates and a brief excerpt from James Horner’s A Beautiful Mind score. Some students even fudged around with this montage and in the final film, you can tell that it was tampered with and cut together with something else.

My one regret was that they didn’t use our version of the end credits. My good friend Steve included a song by Eric Idle titled “That’s Death.” At the end of the film, Howard thinks he smells gas, sits back on the couch, flicks open a lighter, BOOM! – cut to black, roll credits! A couple months later during the casting sessions for our 16mm films, someone walked in with the class DVD. I’d kill for an audio recording of our collective reactions. Between the commercials (one of which was accidentally omitted and replaced with another class’ commercial) and the film, what followed was twenty minutes of uproarious laughter, mouths agape, bug eyes, and the phrases I heard most frequently were “What the f--- was that?!?” and “Huh?” I don’t remember whose final edit ended up on the DVD but it was a glorious mess (and that’s when the dialogue was actually audible) full of bad edits and nonsensical events. Even some of the names in the credits were misspelled (and anyone who knows me knows I’m a stickler for that sort of thing).

After our class, the film school people got together and completely retooled the DC curriculum. Six years later, I have no idea what it’s like. I tend to divide the time at Full Sail between pre-DC (when we were all gung-ho and enthusiastic) and post-DC (when the egos took over and the age lines began to show). Another friend of mine recently expressed an interest in re-cutting (and, in theory, improving) the film. I said to him the same thing David Fincher once said about fixing Alien 3: “Better to burn it and start over!” Good times but the best and worst were yet to come…

Recommended Reading and Watching:

Kaufman, Lloyd. Make Your Own Damn Movie!. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Lumet, Sidney. Making Movies. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

The Making of Alien 3. Dir. Charles De Lauzirika (as Fredrick Garvin). Perf. Sigourney Weaver, et al. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2003. DVD.

Rodriguez, Robert. Rebel Without a Crew. New York: Plume, 1996.

Underdahl, Keith. Digital Video for Dummies.New York: Wiley, 2003.


AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like total chaos. Did you at least get sense of how everything gets done or wasn't there time?

Also, did you get a copy of the video or does that belong to someone else?

Unknown said...

Even Gone with the Wind had the high point of burning down an entire city, so there must be some fun. It just seems that burning Atlanta digitally wouldn't be nearly as exciting. Sounds like you had quite an experience.

ScottDS said...

I have a DVD copy - everyone got one. It was put together by the lab guys and includes Panic along with all ten commercials - except one of them is a commercial done by the previous class, not ours. That pissed a lot of people off.

(Oddly enough, I can't remember where the DVD is and my old laptop would freeze when I tried to play it!)

I'd say I got a sense of how things were done (at least in terms of the tech) but this was no way to make a movie. Instead of one large crew, we were basically ten smaller crews with our own vision of how the film should look.

The 16mm and 35mm productions were a little closer to how real films are made.

ScottDS said...

LawHawk -

It was quite an experience. If I recall, the teacher selected one student to be production manager and this person would, in theory, help coordinate between the different groups but it was still chaos.

As for burning down cities, none of our films attempted anything remotely like that. I was always disappointed that we didn't get to blow up model buildings (one film did) or do fancy prosthetic make-up FX.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - fascinating. I really enjoy this series. At least there is writing if the film thing doesn't work out. Listening to you talk about glidecam reminded me of the fact I grew up down the street from Garrett Brown, inventor of thesteadicam. He wal older, and back then I remembered him as being half of a really neat folk duo Brown and Dana.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Tennessee!

Yeah, I know about Garrett Brown. You can hear him on the audio commentary on The Shining 2-Disc DVD set. Steadicam operators can make good money but, as I indicated in the blog, I could barely stand erect while wearing the Glidecam.

Folk duo, huh? What a world... :-)

Writer X said...

Scott, welcome back!

How many students to a group? PANIC sounds a little like ERASERHEAD, only funnier.

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

Thanks! Our group had 8 students, including myself but it varied.

Of course, with all the different personalities involved, you could have a group of 10 with only 3 hard-working folks or a group of 4 where everyone's an alpha.

I've never seen Eraserhead but I was talking to a friend on iChat when I saw your comment. I told him and he laughed. (The only David Lynch movie I've seen is The Elephant Man which I thought was excellent.)

StanH said...

Welcome back Scott! It sounds like you guys had a lot of fun. You should post the DVD on You Tube?

I think lighting would be a cool read as it relates to stage sets and positioning, agreed with the math however.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Stan!

I'll talk a little more about lighting as it relates to our 16mm and 35mm films.

As for the movie, I probably could post it on YouTube but I can definitely think of one or two people who might have a problem with that. And since Full Sail paid for it and presumably still "owns" it, I'm not even sure I'd be able to post it without their permission.

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