Saturday, March 6, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 17 – The Worst of Times V

By ScottDS
"Entering a working stage building is like entering a cocoon. There are no windows, sound is muffled, and the high ceilings disappear into dark shadows. Once you’ve moved into the stage’s labyrinthine interior, away from the outside doors, there is nothing that provides any cue as to what time it might be. Like a casino, the environment is the same whether you’re there at ten in the morning, five in the afternoon, or three the next morning." – excerpt from The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

"I love it when a plan comes together."

Principal photography on Canadians took place between Tuesday, July 13th and Friday, July 16th. A couple weeks earlier, we (Ryan, Jerrod, and myself) had decided that we’d each take a day, with Ryan getting an extra day. Jerrod would shoot on day 1, Ryan on days 2 and 3, and I would shoot on day 4. All of Jerrod’s scenes would take place on the office floor, including two dialogue scenes with our guys and the scene where the female employee runs out of the bathroom and yells, "Fire!" Ryan’s scenes would include a couple of bathroom scenes, along with the scenes in Stanley’s office and the "location shoot" featuring the employees driving up to the building (which, in actuality, would be the back of Full Sail’s main building). My scenes included the remainder of the bathroom scenes along with the scenes involving the janitorial closet. (I’m sure there’s some symbolism there but it’s lost on me.)

At the request of my parents, I spent most of day 1 driving around looking for a hospital or walk-in clinic that could give me a bacterial meningitis shot. For whatever reason, I was unsuccessful and ended up driving back to school later in the day. As a result, I wasn’t able to witness filming and the final film features some awkwardly-framed shots (too much negative space) and in one shot, one of the actors is looking ninety degrees in the wrong direction (we flipped it in post-production). I don’t recall giving too much feedback to either Ryan or Jerrod and I don’t think we had any major arguments during this phase of production. I did, however, notice that they were shooting too many takes - either due to actors flubbing their lines or faulty equipment. The last scene of the film takes place "two months later" (as indicated by an on-screen title card) after the office has been remodeled so we actually had to repaint two walls after all of the other office scenes were filmed. For a scene in which the office mysteriously goes dark, one of the electricians had to figure out which cables were connected to which lights since we also had lights outside the windows (simulating ambient daylight) and those couldn’t be turned off. (Rob, our 35mm instructor, was the one to remind us of this. We were ready to flick the switch but then all the lights would’ve went off.)

For our so-called "location shoot" on day 3, we gathered behind the main Full Sail building. The scene called for the actors to drive up to the building, get out of their cars, and walk inside. The camera crew was finally able to use one of the toys – in this case, the jib. A jib is a counterweighted arm with the camera mounted on one end and weights and camera controls on the other end. While Dennis and I were out getting water and ice, dark clouds began to form and by the time we got back to the school, filming had been cancelled for the day. To add insult to injury, we were very close to shooting and as soon as we left, the clouds parted and the sun reappeared. It was quickly decided that Ryan would shoot the actors in the parking lot adjacent to the soundstage on day 4 and, during setups outside, I would shoot the actors inside on the bathroom/closet sets. The crew would split in half – Ryan and I would each get smaller camera crews and I would get the sound crew since the exterior shots were to be filmed MOS (without sound). If I recall, the actors actually drove students’ vehicles and we had Nick (a volunteer) posted on the far end of the lot to give the actors the signal once Ryan yelled "Action!" When we screened our footage in class, the resulting jib shot was greeted with a round of applause!

And then there was me. At one point, Chris (who, sadly, was now our lone 1st A.D.) came up to me and said I had to cut a couple of shots – just inserts that we didn’t need anyway. I had the least amount of film stock to work with and one of my shots would need to be carefully choreographed. After the female co-worker yells "Fire!" the guys rush into the bathroom. They crowd in front of the stall – with a toilet that’s on fire – and Steven tries to put it out with Michael’s cup of water, only to throw it on the floor when he finds out it’s empty. Steven finally runs to the closet, gets a fire extinguisher, runs back to the stall, and puts the fire out. The actors would have to run from A to B, then Steven from B to C and back to B, then all the actors from B to C. We didn’t have an actual fire but we did have a smoke machine, lights connected to a flicker box (to simulate flames), and our lead actor would be required to fire a working extinguisher right at the camera! We were required to wear masks and, in between takes, one of the production assistants would crank up a large fan to clear the smoke.

We shot this using two cameras: one at the end of the bathroom set (camera "A") to capture a wide shot of the action and another on the ground (camera "B") looking up from the toilet’s POV. The grips mounted a piece of Plexiglas in front of the "B" camera so the lens wouldn’t get damaged. It also never occurred to us that our lead actor had never used a fire extinguisher before so one of the lab assistants had to take him outside for a brief tutorial. I believe the lab assistant also told us to hurry up in case the fire marshal paid us a visit! I walked the actors through their actions a few times but I don’t recall telling Michael, Nathan, or St. Pierre what to do while they were standing in front of the stall as Steven went for the fire extinguisher. They surprised me – in the final film, Nathan is just exasperated, Michael tries blowing on the fire, and St. Pierre asks, "Why would I want to put out such a nice fire?" like he’s roasting s’mores! I almost had it in one take but the actor playing Steven kicked the door so hard, it simply bounced shut and you couldn’t see the actors from the "B" camera. For the second (and last) take, we had a P.A. on a ladder who grabbed onto the door and held it open for the duration of the take.

For the scenes involving the closet, we shot first from the point of view within the closet itself. Framing all four actors (and later five when Stanley walks in) inside the narrow doorway proved to be difficult but we pulled it off. For the reverse angle looking into the closet, we moved a few feet over to the other closet set and shot from over the actors’ shoulders. One of my favorite shots is when Stanley appears and all we see is the top of his head enter the frame. We also went handheld for a shot when Stanley lunges at Nathan who cowers in the back of the closet and holds up a toilet brush in self-defense.

July 18th, 2004. We’re done. Done, I tell you, done! Shooting went smoothly. A little stressful and hectic but no more or less than any other movie. Like Rob said, we all dealt with Jeremy’s passing in a professional manner. The actors quickly became friends. They were quite a rowdy bunch. For what it was, the set looked fine through the viewfinder. People were coming up to us (like Sandro, who volunteered to help us) and complimented us on our shots. Rob said what I had been saying all along. "Comedies should be shot wide!" We used a 16mm lens for the stall shots and they looked great! The acting was very good. Gema mentioned how these guys improved tremendously from the first rehearsal up to this week. She’s right, as usual. Props to Will for [craft services]. We had pulled pork, tacos, sandwiches, and fried chicken.

I really don’t know what else to say. We got a great group photo. Dennis said we should feel vindicated. People might actually get this movie. The actors came up with all sorts of funny stuff. The fire extinguisher gag (last shot in the film) was on my watch. Lance took Jonathan (Steven) outside to test it. We all had to wear surgical masks. It was great! I was hoping to knock it out in one take (utilizing A/B camera) but when Steven opens the stall door, he banged it too hard and it closed. We couldn’t see anything. So we did it again. We also just barely ran out of film. Gema told me yesterday we were allowed an extra 1000 feet. Wow! We didn’t get our location work done due to the threat of inclement weather. Naturally, once we had packed up, the sun came out shining again. Damn! So while I was directing in the bathroom set, Ryan was outside doing parking lot shots guerilla-style. I think we all emerged victorious. Everything will be okay.
Bringing Order to Chaos
[Date unknown.] Editing went a lot smoother than everyone thought it would. The crew splits into pairs, each pair works on a [rough] edit, then three sets of pairs get together and do a final edit on the Avid Symphony. I edited the film with Ryan [and] I was still paranoid. I would be the first one there and the last one out. I thought there was still a chance that things would get f---ed up and I wasn’t about to sit idly by and watch it happen again. All in all, I did about 80% of the work including [the end] credits. It’s a miracle the film held up at all.

Music was a joy to do. I have a nice collection of film scores and I was particularly proud to use Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton march for the entrance of Officer St. Pierre. Goldsmith had actually passed away after we wrapped and […] I promised myself, as a tribute, that I would use some of his music in the film and it worked. Derek [produced] his own title sequence in After Effects and we used it. Nothing fancy but it definitely got the point across. For that, I used Elmer Bernstein’s theme to The Magnificent Seven. (Bernstein had also passed away around this time.) We used "Blame Canada" from the South Park film, and two versions of the Canadian anthem: orchestral and a cappella which has to be heard to be believed.

When we got to the Symphony, it was Ryan, Bill, Will, Chris, Jerrod, and myself. Chris spent much of the time on his laptop editing his own short film [which was, in fact, funnier than our movie!]. Bill and I did most of the work, combining parts of the edit he and Chris worked on with ours. I like ours better. Bill and Co. also put in two things despite heated objections from Ryan and myself: gross sound effects for one of the bathroom scenes (to this day, I cover my ears during that scene when I show the film to friends and family), and when Stanley mentions his dearly departed dog, Derek and Dave had inserted black and white home movie footage of a dog, accompanied by the sound of screeching tires. I was overruled on that one, too, but it was the only thing that got a laugh at GradFest. (I was the one who suggested the idea of Stanley having a dog.) I lost the a cappella anthem, Bernstein, and "Blame Canada" but I got to keep Goldsmith.
So there you have it. Ryan fell asleep half the time (many of our editing labs took place in the wee hours of the morning) but he would instinctively open one eye and comment if he didn’t like what I had done. We had to alter two shots: in one shot we could see the actors’ marks (colored pieces of tape on the floor) and in one of my bathroom shots, we could see the reflection of the Plexiglas. Since we shot full-frame and would later matte the film to a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, we simply shifted the image up and the audience was none the wiser. For the end credits, I added two public service messages: "For more information about Canada, please visit your local library" and "No Canadians were harmed (or used) during the making of this film." No one else thought they were funny. Too bad!

Regarding music… for the opening, I used the "Main Title" from The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein. It worked with Derek’s animated title sequence and I liked juxtaposing this classic piece of Americana against a film about Canada. Ryan later asked, "Why are we using music from a salad dressing commercial?" For much of the office scenes, I used James Venable’s score for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Much to our delight, it was a perfect fit for the material and required only a minimal amount of editing. It’s not the best score in the world – though one online critic compared it to the music of Carl Stalling – but it seemed to work for our little opus. For the scene where the power goes out and our heroes head to the bathroom to investigate, I used a cue from Danny Elfman’s underrated Mission: Impossible score. Just like Venable’s music, this piece seemed to sync up with the on-screen action and didn’t require any adjustments, except for an early fade out at the end.

In the second stage of editing, about 90% of our edit remained untouched. The others insisted on taking out The Magnificent Seven theme and replacing it with the Canadian national anthem ("O Canada"), which I had used for the pre-credits sequence (the actors driving up to the building). For this sequence, we ended up using "Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones. For the scene following the credits in which we find Stanley in his office listening to the anthem, I had used an a cappella version which I thought was hilarious. This was nixed and the traditional anthem was used instead, continuing from the title sequence. For the end credits, I had used "Blame Canada" from the South Park movie (which was performed at the Oscars by Robin Williams). This was deemed "too obvious" and was replaced by "Oh, Canada" by Five Iron Frenzy. For the dog footage, we used "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas.

Unlike the other two 35mm films, the audio on our film didn’t require a lot of work. Derek, Josh, and Andrea – our sound team – did a very good job on the set, which made our lives a lot easier during post-production. (Ironically, Andrea had hearing problems!) All of the dialogue was clear though there’s one line where we had to use the actor’s dialogue from a different take and it’s just slightly out of sync in the final film, but only for a second. For sound effects, we added ambient office sounds – mostly typing and an interoffice intercom voice. We also tweaked the sound of Stanley’s office door and added a pretty cool "whoosh" sound for the fire extinguisher. I regret that we never found a suitable sound for the "power shut down" scene – in the final film, there’s an odd click and the sound of an A/C powering down. When the power comes back, we simply used the same sound effect in reverse. I’m not happy with it but we ran out of time.

None of the films are what you’d call completed. As seen on the class DVD, all three 35mm projects suffer from poor sound mixes (the instructors who assembled the DVD are mostly to blame) and Shooting for the Moon exhibits an odd visual distortion for the first few minutes. To add insult to injury, the instructors also messed with my music! For some reason, the Patton fanfare goes on for three seconds too long, drowning out the dialogue. And the Mission: Impossible cue ends three seconds too early.
[Date unknown.] To top it all off, the DVD transfer is subpar. Whoever did it messed around with the audio levels (and we made sure they didn’t peak) and the films, as they exist on DVD today, are not indicative of what we wanted. You can even hear Ryan say "Closer!" to one of the actors during the film! GradFest was okay. It was held at the Universal Cineplex. The film didn’t get many laughs but I didn’t care. Jerrod didn’t show up. Dennis spoke about Jeremy. Ryan said he enjoyed making the film, warts and all. I didn’t want to be dragged [away] so I politely thanked Chris for doing such a great 1st A.D. job under some rather difficult circumstances and the sound crew for doing such great recording: "If we knew the sound crew would do such a great job, we would’ve written better dialogue!" I think Ryan was a little taken aback but I adlibbed the line just to let the nattering nabobs know, "Yeah, we f---ed up but it’s all ancient history." I spent the day afterwards with my parents at one of the outlet malls and I just moped. "I hate leaving Full Sail knowing that I could have done a better job." My mom said it was over and done with.

Looking back on the people I worked with... Bill, I wish I could have worked with under better circumstances. He is a good production manager; he just has a tendency to nitpick. Chris, Derek, Geraud, Robert, [the other] Scott ... wonderful people. I would work with any of them in a heartbeat. Sandro, Nick, and the volunteers... same deal. I forgot to thank them at GradFest. Josh, best boom op ever. Dan: idiot. In fact, I blame him for [almost] everything that happened. He was the one who took the script to Bill’s in the first place without telling us. Billy, I felt bad for him and I sincerely hope he gets to use all the equipment he wants in the future. Will, the most level-headed one in the group. I don’t think he knew how much we (at least, I) appreciated his work in securing a location which, it turns out, was all for naught. Kit... [...] I think he lost interest after the first week when it became clear the way things were going. Personally, I think he wanted to direct but, if he did, why didn’t he go out for director? He’s one smart, arrogant [guy]. Gema, a great friend, one of the best. Dave, I don’t know what happened. After our collaboration in 16mm, I didn’t get [anything] from him this time around. Jerrod... good guy, just not the greatest director but who is? Ryan... kick-ass photographer. He has a bright future ahead of him.
In terms of the finished film, there are things I’d do differently today. I would’ve insisted on supervising the DVD transfer with Ryan and/or Matt. (In the real world, filmmakers are allowed to supervise the video transfers of their films, per DGA rules.) I really don’t know what happened with the audio but at one point during our graduation screening, I almost yelled out, "What the f--- was that?!" As for sound effects, I’m sure we could’ve found something for the "power shut down" scene – I was the last one in the editing room but the next group had to use it. All I could do was click "Save" and walk away. I’m happy with the music but today I’d be inclined to use Elmer Bernstein’s Stripes score, which was only released for the first time in 2005. We could definitely cut the film down – at the time, I was obsessed with not cutting too fast, thinking that’s what everyone else was doing. In comedy, very often we laugh at the reaction, not the action, so I insisted on lingering on certain reaction shots. Today, not so much.

In the last paragraph of my journal, I describe the making of this film as "Hell on Earth." But today, five and a half years later, I can live with it.

To view the "final" DVD edit of Natural Born Canadians, please click here. To put it mildly, it’s a stupid little movie and don’t take any of it seriously! The "free healthcare" line was not my idea.

To view the rough edit that Ryan and I put together, please click here. It was sourced from a VHS tape that had been rotting under my bed since 2004 so please excuse the quality.

Next month, we’ll go "dancing into the fire" with the making of In the Nude, starring Mike, Mike #2, Steve, Chris (the genius), and featuring music by Duran Duran!


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I just checked out Natural Born Canadians. Hmm. I'm not entirely sure what to say???

It was better than I expected. In fact, it felt kind of like the level of quality that you get with sitcoms (or maybe the movie "Office Space", both in terms of the acting and the technical aspects. Indeed, technically speaking, you guys seemed to pull this off quite nicely (I'm assuming the jerkiness is the result of the uploading?).

In terms of content, I think you described it correctly as not the brightest.

All in all though, it's pretty impressive that a group of students put this together. Nice work!

Anonymous said...

The jerkiness... hmm. Could be the net connection. It doesn't look too jerky on my end. The opening shot isn't the smoothest in the world and we did shoot some stuff handheld but the film should look smooth.

Better, huh? Thanks! Office Space was an inspiration as was The Office (the UK version since the US version wasn't out yet). I felt we didn't go far enough with some of that stuff. I remember suggesting we shoot the entire film handheld (like The Office) but this idea was rejected.

It just kills me that we never had enough time to make the script really funny. If you laughed at anything in the film, it wasn't written - Stanley's dog, some of the acting choices... 99% of what's funny in the film wasn't in the script!

Later on, check out the original rough cut. It's mostly the same, save for some editing choices and music. (No rush!) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Just checked out Sanguinity. You guys did a great job on the sets -- very believable. This one was a little more "soap" quality. Love the Bullwinkle toy!

P.S. I had the same jerkiness problem, maybe it's the connection?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I would say the scripts on both could definitely use polishing, but for a school project the films themselves were pretty impressive.

I looks like you and your class did learn quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's the connection. Mine's pretty good here (cable). Thanks for the compliments re: Sanguinity. I was very proud of those sets, I only wish I hadn't let it go to my head. I also wish we pulled the camera back further since the restaurant walls had a TON of stuff on them.

And it was more soapy. I don't know if anything's changed but every other student film we had seen up to that point was some dark, depressing, tortured artist story. Even though I didn't write it, it was nice to work on something lighter. The "voice" of Bullwinkle was provided by our directing teacher. In the final edit, they forgot to filter the voice so he sounds as if he's right there.

Steve and I made sure to filter the voice so it sounded like it was coming from the doll itself.

Anonymous said...

I didn't go too much into detail on this for my screenwriting blog entry but...

Students could either write a script or, if they didn't want to, they could write a report on a movie. (I felt everyone should've written a script.)

Those of us who wrote scripts would periodically meet with screenwriting teachers for critique. I know on In the Nude, Mike and I worked on it and worked on it, making several revisions along the way. (You'll find out more about this film next month.)

I can't say what process was involved with the script for Sanguinity. At one point, it was titled The Napkin but this was changed when the lone napkin scene was cut. And for Canadians, you know that story.

Anonymous said...

Cool, thanks for posting the videos. I'll watch them when I get back to a faster connection at work.

Anonymous said...

Anon -

No problem. But believe me, it's no rush!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It sounds like it would make the most sense to require everyone to try everything in the film making process, so that they understand the entire process -- especially given the trade school nature of the program. But that's not how schools work these days.

In fact, that's a common problem with colleges everywhere -- they let too many people graduate without taking course that you would assume would be required.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I agree. I don't know how many people declined to write scripts, or what the alternative assignment was. I'm pretty sure it involved doing a report on a film of the teacher's choosing but who can say at this point?

I would like to mention something. For 16mm when we were confined to shooting on the stage, the teachers chose scripts that would've been better off shooting on location.

For 35mm when we could go on location, the teachers did the opposite. In the Nude benefitted from location work but Canadians, Shooting for the Moon, and Stepfather (which was rejected) wouldn't necessarily benefit from going on location. I still have no idea what the teachers were thinking.

"Yeah, they can go on location so we'll choose Shooting for the Moon, which takes place mainly inside a bedroom (which could be built)." :-)

Individualist said...

Hey Scott,

This was a really good job especially considering you had a script that required a toilet's POV.

As I watched the film I did not see anything that appeared out of place or notice the errors that you spoke of in filming so I guess that if a lay person like me does not notice it that it could not have mattered that much.

I will say one thing if using a fire extingisher requires anyone to have a course in it beforehand that it is probably too complicated and someone needs to reengineer its design.

The dialog was fine however there were three instances where the words and timing appeared out of place or unreal so I am gussing this is what you meant about it needing to be reworked but on the whole it seemed good. The interaction between the mounty and the assistant manager seemed to be the best. But I am not an expert on it.

MegaTroll said...

I like the opening to Sanguinity. I'm impressed. Watching these, it really seems like it's as good qualitywise as anything I see on the ScyFy Channel late at night. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Indi -

Thanks! And plenty of other movies have had the camera mounted in weird spots for some POV shot! Camera placement and movement are not indicated in screenplays - the director, in collaboration with the director of photography, decides on that. In our case, it seemed like a given.

I wouldn't say the actor required a "course" in operating the fire extinguisher - he might've had a question so the lab assistant showed him outside, and since they hold a limited amount of chemical, we needed to get it right the first time.

I appreciate the compliments. I know of one instance where the dialogue is slightly off but not the other two. Hmm...

Anonymous said...

Mega -

Thanks! Though I must confess, some friends of mine might consider the comparison to a SyFy Channel film an insult, but I don't. :-)

The opening to Sanguinity was a last-minute thing. I was tempted to drive up to New York over a weekend to grab some footage but Chris the Genius (who did not work on Canadians) found some old home movie footage of his and added the "old film" effects and credits.

You'll read more about Chris' stuff (and see more) next month when I talk about the making of In the Nude.

StanH said...

Cool flick! All in all well done.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stan! It is what it is. I think you'll enjoy In the Nude but those blogs will have to wait till next month.

Anonymous said...

Just testing. I opened a new GMail account... just making sure Blogger recognizes it.

AndrewPrice said...

Did it work Scott?

Anonymous said...

Yes. I bought an HTC Hero phone and, to download apps, I needed to open a GMail account. GMail and Blogger are related so when I replied to Stan, it was my new account - Scott instead of ScottDS. I'm fuzzy on some of the details.

Oh, who am I kidding. It works, I'm ScottDS again, and now with my phone I can surf Commentarama from the comfort of, well, anywhere!

Tennessee Jed said...

As always, I enjoyed this installment, Scott. Very interesting work. I enjoyed your point about shooting wide in 16mm.

Anonymous said...

TN -

In case you read this... Thanks!! And it's something I really had to impress upon my fellow directors... comedies work best in wide shots, not close-ups. Thankfully they understood and the proof is in the pudding (such as it is).

I'll still be here but the blogs will return next month.

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