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Friday, June 17, 2011

Day One Looms.

So, we are a week from shooting. It's been the usual non-stop pre-production hustle. I'm finishing the last of the props. Have just one VHS cover I need to design and print. I will be meeting some of the actors this weekend to hit up thrift stores and the like for their costumes.

Mike and I went around a few nights ago and ran some test footage on the Canon 7D. Here's a picture of the camera above. My landlord was none-too-happy about us shooting things around the apartment complex, so I had to reassure her we weren't spying into anyone's apartments, taking dirty pictures.  Frankly, most of the tenants at my apartment complex spend too much time on their couches eating frozen dinners and fried fast food, so honestly don't I think anyone would want to see them naked.

And as to be expected, we lost an actor playing one of our minor characters but we are on the hunt for the new one. I think we might have found him but will know this weekend.

We secured all of our locations as of yesterday. A car repair garage down in South Austin, with two horses on the lot, and lots and lots of cars.  Even an old vehicle from the 1930s with wood spokes on the wheels and an amazing interior in relatively in good shape. As I stared into the windows, I wondered who used to ride in this old car and what they wore, what was going on in their world when they were my age.

One of my actors, Joe Cheatham, had his hand molded by Meredith Johns and Jenny Lin, both very talented Makeup and Special Effects Artists here in Austin. Meredith has worked on a ton of big productions here in Austin.  Joe's picture is above.

With three producers on this project, one producing this film from out of town, it has been a true challenge to keep up communication.  Pre-production is never an easy time, and my least favorite part of filmmaking. Production is only slightly less stressful but more physically exhausting, but then follows the reward: editing. This is my favorite part of the whole process, where I and sometimes another Editor get to sit quietly in a slightly dark room playing with the images we have all worked so hard to capture, finding the nuances in performances, discovering connections, molding scenes and the pacing, and truly shaping the story into something we had never predicted while in development. 

Every time I am pre-producing a project and trying to get all the elements together in order to make the project happen, I always tell myself I want to make narratively simpler films, remove all the fluff and make things more sparse.  Partially to make this process less daunting, but also just to see what I have in a story when you get rid of the excess, cut the fat from the bone. 

One problem with this DIY/tiny crew approach is that I always spend about 90 percent of my film time towards producing, and about 10 percent of it actually thinking through the creative process as a director.  I've never really had the luxury of just being able to focus only on directing. It is just an amazing amount of work to be having to gather costumes, find props, create the props I can't find, make contracts, schedules, agreements, location hunting, testing equipment, that at the end of the day, my job as a director gets little love and affection.  I hope to shower it with kisses on set.

And being on set is where I really have to challenge the actors to push themselves, allow them to trust their instincts, give the DP some "dance" time as well, meaning let him follow his instincts too, becoming a "ghost dancer" around the actors.  The Canon 7D is small enough to allow him that mobility.  I don't think keeping the camera on sticks is going to work for the majority of this film, and we really have to do some bold things for coverage.  

The next six weeks will be interesting, shooting this film while working a full-time job in addition to my one-night a week part-time job (which will be B-Roll nights). Austin is blazing hot right now as well.  Windy.  They cancelled fireworks on the 4th and that was going to be a night where I got footage of the actors watching fireworks.  So...sigh...must think through this.  It's probably time for me to pull out Werner Herzog's journals about shooting Fitzcarraldo, his book Conquest of the Useless, to remind me this is not that difficult of a shoot at all. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"What's the Use?" film update: Old Ladies, Fake Blood, and Near-Death Experiences

Last night, Mike, the DP of the film, wanted to show me two potential locations to shoot for the feature film project this summer: What's the Use?  We've been dealing with what to do about one character's house.  The "antagonist," Shy, a sorta sleezy car repair shop owner, lives with his suicidal mom.  The house we are probably going to use is probably not the best visual fit for him, as it looks like a bunch of 30 year-olds live there, but it's what we have.  Mike, the DP, thought he could show me another place. 

He called up a friend of his and off we went to check out the house.  Poor old lady was in the middle of watching her basketball game in a completely dark livingroom.  One wall was nothing but mirrors, which is interesting.  Had lots of ceramic statues, soft thick carpet. But the thought of having to put this poor woman out for five days while we had scenes involving the removal of a man's finger, a gun being fired, Shy looking up an Asian porn site, and a 14 year-old seducing a man just gave me the chills. Not to mention the fake blood we'll have to pour over the rug.  Even if we use a cheap craig's list rug, that crap will soak through.  No matter how hard one tries, fake blood will get everywhere.

So nix that.

The scariest part was yet to come.

Mike took me out to a narrow bridge over Mopac, one of the major north-south routes through Austin, to a set of train tracks.  We walked over the railroad ties, the fat rocks sliding under my thin shoes as we walked over the bridge.  This was not a pedestrian bridge, and was meant only for the trains that pass.  It was very dark but the way Highway 183 rose over the tracks and how Mopac traffic rushed below was really interesting as far as framing goes.  How we would light it was another issue.  We started to head back and are on the thin bridge over Mopac. It brought to mind the scene from Stand by Me where the kids are running over a bridge to get to the other side just in time before the train could have hit them.  Just as I am about to mention this scene, Mike calls:


I turn to see a series of bright lights pummeling towards us. Where did this thing come from? We didn't hear it!  We quickly jump off the tracks to the side of the rails on this thin bridge while the horn blares at us angrily.  I grip the side of a waist-high bar and lean as far away from the train as I can, staring down at Mopac below me.  Mike, with the death wish he seems to have, enjoys the thrill of having a train pass four feet from his face at over 70 MPH while I just hope that there isn't some item projecting from the side of the train that is going to hit us or decapitate us.  My grandfather worked for the trains and an accident to his head from a train is what killed him.  The wind from this moving beast of iron and steel is pulsating around us and my heart is absolutely racing. It is probably no more than five feet from us and the only place to go involves walking beside it to get on one side of the bridge we are stuck on. I wait in true terror and as the cars' wheels click over the rails, and when I can get my breath back, I ask Mike to move so I can get past him and get away from this damn train.  I go hide in a bush.  Mike stays there watching this thing move like a snake.

Well, let's just say I felt sick.  Mike thought it was exhilarating. Yes it was.  But not in a cool way for me.  There are some risks I'll take in life, but I won't risk my life. 

Strange. Pre-production seems to be a period of danger for me I've noticed.  Last time, I was in my apartment going to get some coffee started before rehearsing with the actors.  As I was walking into the kitchen, I rammed my toe into a mirror and sliced off the toe nail.  That was a trip to the emergency room.  Funny thing is...we rehearsed the scenes in the emergency room.

Anyhow,  so I'm putting some photos up of some of the props I created for the film.  I think they are really funny.  The guide books I had particular fun with.  None of these books or cards are real!  So don't get any ideas...  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Catma" project 2011: Finding the Gear for the New Feature Film

So, the story we are shooting is being called What's the Use for now. Jorge and I have bought some of the essentials we need for creating another film. This has been a challenge as neither of us make a lot of money, and by following the goals of "Catma," are trying to be resourceful with the small sum we have.

HARD DRIVE:  As this is a digital project, not to be shot on film (although I'd love to try this someday), we have to have a place to store the footage.  I refuse to skimp on the working drive because if this baby blows, there goes all the work. I've had great luck with CalDigit.  They were really supportive of us back in 2008 when we went to Puerto Rico to shoot In the Shadow, and arranged a very nice protracted payment plan for the drive. As our villas were without air conditioning, and the editing "suite" was a corner near the bathroom in one of the villas, the drive had to endure a lot.  The 8TB HDOne endured the heat, salty sea air, humidity, being on 24 hours a day for 6 weeks, plus traveling from the US, to a tiny Caribbean island, then back to the US. It's a tough hardworking drive.  I've also always found their support staff great to work with.  So, I went with CalDigit again and purchased a 6TB VR drive.

The space on this MIGHT be a bit of overkill after the DP and I did the math, but as this is largely an improv-based project, I know my shooting ratio is going to be higher than normal.  I usually average around 5:1 shooting ratio.

SOUND:  We had to get some good but essential sound recording equipment as we had none. This has been the hardest aspect of gear selection for Jorge and I.  After asking a lot of sound recordists out there, we chose to go with a Zoom H4n from Sweetwater Sound. Learning about lavalier microphones has been a bit of a mind boggler.  If we had all the money in the world, we'd obviously buy the absolute best.  But we don't.  So we purchased a Sennheiser ME4.  As we are trying to keep the crew small, Jorge and the writer, Jason Tremblay, will be taking a crash course in location sound recording from Martin Pedersen who did sound for my first feature, In the Shadow.  

Because it is cheaper than buying, we will be renting a boom pole (with Zeppelin/deadcat/etc) and a Rode NTG-3 shotgun mic instead of buying them.  Note that buying the Zoom was cheaper for us than renting.

CAMERA: Since one of the primary drawbacks for poor filmmakers out there is accessing equipment, we've structured "Catma" to encourage filmmakers to use whatever camera they have free access to. As I mentioned in a previous post, we were toying with the Canon Vixia which is just a consumer HD camera, or a Canon 7D, a far superior unit. These were the units we had access to. Of course, when one chooses a better camera, one has to think through other requirements needed. Better camera = larger file sizes for footage = larger hard drive = more back ups = more cash spent.  When it comes down to this, we had to just look at the far superior film we would have using the Canon 7D and accept the relatively small amount of extra cash we would have to fork out for this.

So, Michael Pugliese, the DP, will be using this Canon 7D, which he just purchased a "cage" for.  I have never used this camera and we'll be doing lots of tests at locations as I scout about Austin the next few weeks.  We also will be needing to acquire a shoulder mount for this.