WEEK ONE of Principal Photography
Peter, myself, my 2nd AC, our 1st AD, and our Co-Producer went to Barstow two days before the shoot for a day of 2nd Unit shooting. We should have really shot the whole movie up there, but it just wasn't feasible for our budget; Barstow has a real character that I think is impossible to recreate or capture anywhere else.
We got a bit of a late start because we had to bring two full camera packages up with us and getting it all packed into the two vehicles was a bit like watching clowns pile into tiny cars. We shot a lot of drive-by stuff once we got up there, mostly from the back of a moving vehicle; I lived on the zoom lens all day to be able to make quick adjustments to things we saw ? we'd done 2 scouts up there already so we knew what we wanted, but we found a lot of great things we'd never planned for. A number of crucial shots were very time dependent, so from around 6pm ? 7pm there was a mad dash to get all of our shots. Peter fell in love with doing high speed for most of these, so I unexpectedly found myself doing handheld shots with an Arri 35-III. We shot some really beautiful magic hour slow-motion stuff of our lead character getting good news; our lead actor (Kevin Sheridan) is wonderfully subtle with his performance, so it was a real treat to see so much about a character conveyed with so little effort. Since I was shooting on 5274 at high speed at magic hour, nearly all of these scenes were shot at a T2/2.8 or wider, and they were done on an 85mm lens, so focus was tricky but "finding" focus is part of the visual vernacular, so we actually made a point of letting many things play soft and then pulling the action into focus.
Where I got really thrown on this day was for our night exterior work ? we'd scouted at night about a week before and since I'm shooting 5279 rated at 800 asa, I agreed to shooting drive-bys and such in available light with the understanding that it was a hit-or-miss scenario in terms of what we'd get because there's not a lot of available light up there. Once we got started, Peter asked me to shoot a lot of it at 48fps. There was nothing on the meter in many cases, but I trust him and shooting we went; I was surprised by just how much information showed up! We printed a few of these dailies (since a print is the end-goal, the Producers have allotted a small amount of film to be printed every week) and they looked really fantastic ? even at 800 asa the 5279 still holds up very well. Everything has more saturation than I'd like, but it's not intolerable.
Day One was shot entirely on a public bus with available light. I had to re-train myself to start seeing the world very differently- Peter and I talked about everything being done on long lenses and we immediately found ourselves gravitating towards the 85mm as our wide lens and a 135mm as our medium close up lens; we used a 50mm for 2 shots where we just couldn't get the space to use a longer lens, but for the most part I had a few hours of head scratching at rethinking where to place the camera when I'm use to seeing things in terms of 32mm, 40mm, etc. It was a challenge to find interesting ways to block and shoot scenes on a moving bus all day, but I'm very pleased in how we did it. We shot one very important scene as a wide shot from the back of the bus at sunset (doubling for sunrise in the story) that was really beautiful I thought ? the first 2 takes were over-the-top because of the sun blasting down the lens, but the third take with just the burning sky was quite nice. We did one night scene where we just turned on the cheap fluorscenets on the bus and my grips paper taped one side off ? shooting at a T2/2.8 also let me make use of available light through the bus windows and the scene was simple and looked good.
Days 2 ? 4 were spent at a High School in Acton; it's essentially a giant open court yard with a circle of glorified portables. On day one we discovered that once you roll a dolly and a crew into many of the classrooms, the flooring was old and poorly done, so there was a constant creaking noise for our dolly moves that was driving all of us a little nuts. The first ½ of day two went slowly for this reason, but we quickly got out of the offending room and moved to another. Peter and I talked a lot during prep about lighting environments and not not specific shots ? partially as an aesthetic approach, but also because of our short schedule and Peter's desire to change things and react in a spontaneous manner. This has lead to a very interesting work approach ? Peter will work out the general blocking with the actors and myself and we'll talk about ways to shoot it; this is important to note because it means we come into every day without a shotlist and are essentially making it up as we go along. We have some very generic ideas, but for the most part it's a little like shooting jazz music ? things come and go and we just roll with it. As our camera positions become more clear, we'll start adding in moves; perhaps we'll dolly across someone's shoulder and make our wide shot and OTS, or maybe we'll pan off of one action and find ourselves in another shot altogether. From that, I'm devising a lighting plan with my Chief Lighting Technician that's first based one where units can go and how many different angles can that one light accommodate. In the case of our main classroom, we placed an 18K HMI Fresnel relatively far away coming low and hard through a window as a direct side-light; closer to the window I put a 6K HMI Par through a 6x6 frame of hi-light to boost the ambient skylight coming through the window. The electric crew swapped out all of the fluorescent units in the ceiling with daylight balanced tubes (each bank took 4 tubes but we only put up 2 in each one of them). At an asa of 500 (800 with an 85B) I was getting a T2.8 from just the fluorescents, from the 18K a T8/11 at the deepest part of the room (where our lead was sitting) and a T16/22 on the extras closest to the window, and a T4/5.6 on the teacher's desk near the window from the ambient light; I used an ND3 all day to shoot at a T2.8 1/3 and keep the general room just a little dim. What was good about this set-up is that we could pound through our 5 ½ pages of dialogue very fast and be able to remain flexible to whatever Peter wanted; I generally hate saying no to my director (As in "No, I can't do that for you.") so as tough as it sometimes is to know I could finesse something to be better with just a few minutes, it's satisfying to be able to see my director so happy every day. Day 3 was spent shooting available light exteriors; we didn't get nearly enough extras (often the case), but with our long lens approach and some clever blocking by the AD department and multiple wardrobe choices from our Costume Designer, you'd never guess our "full" school ground has only a handful of people. We had one very long dolly shot this day (we laid down about 120' of track) but the shot was changed and we ended up only needing about 50'; I always feel bad about having my crew do unnecessary work, but we've been making our days at 12 hours, so it could be worse. Day 4 was a handful of available light day exteriors against a white wall ? I actually liked the overpowering bleakness of the sun pounding down on the white wall (it was late in the day and very frontal lighting) and Peter and I selected compositions and blocking to emphasize this. At lunch we had a company move to shoot our final scene of the movie as a night exterior at a bus station (our lead character leaves town via a greyhound bus) ? there was virtually no available light at all and we had a pre-rigging crew there who did a great job based on our original plan. However, once there Peter threw a shot at me that he really wanted that made the whole lighting plan invalid, so there was a rapid scramble to first re-think the whole approach but also to set it up. We ended up flying a 12x12 ultra-bounce off the 20' roof of the building and bouncing a maxi-brute into it. As single mighty served as a motivation for our key light (in the wideshot it's a hard, bright source shooting down from the roof, but in close-ups I flagged it off of the actors and used a 4x8 beadbaord to bounce it as a very soft side light on them), and a 5K and 2 other mighty's helped pick out architectural elements that I felt would be important. At 800 asa we shot the entire scene at a T2. The other wild card was that we had to shoot a short, but vital, scene on the bus as our lead is driving out of town; our original plan had been to rig a small genny under the bus and use kinos as ambient light and dedo lights to mimic reading lights, but Peter wanted to carry the bus interior as part of the exterior scene as well, so we had to rig the bus in such a way that we couldn't see any lights and we had used up all of our kinos under an awning for the exterior. We went about an hour over schedule this night, which I wasn't thrilled about, but it's not the end of the world.
Days 5 and 6 were spent shooting day interiors in a bookstore; because of the location, Day 5 was an overnight and Day 6 was during the day. Day 5 we shot our smaller scenes in hallways and storage rooms; we used a 6K Par through a window with tracing paper to serve as our general ambient light and the one window we saw had an 8x8 Ultrabounce outside with a 4K HMI and a gelled Maxi-Brute blasting into it; I needed to make the window glow as though it was very overexposed outside, but I always think traced windows look fake, plus I wanted to bring some hardlight into the room, so the overexposed frame gave me what I wanted while still allowing me to use a 1200 Par with a narrow lens into the room as a splash of sunlight. Day 6 was a collection of 18K's down to 400 Jokers through all of our windows; we swapped out about 60 8' fluorescenet tubes overhead and I again used an ND 3 to maintain a shooting stop of T2.8/4. We shot one of my favorite scenes today with our lead and Steven Culp (from Desperate Housewives and The West Wing) ? working with really great actors (both Kevin and Steven were really amazing in this scene together) gets me energized and the performances were really stunning ? I think it was some of my most dynamic work in this scene and Peter and I did some exciting blocking with the camera, starting people in wide-shots, bringing them into very dirty OTS's, and then further bringing them into extreme close ups with a lot of energy created in camera. Our approach to everything has been to shoot as much of the scene as possible in one continuous take but to create different shots within each set-up; one shot usually contains 3-5 different types of perspectives, so while we may only shoot a scene with 3 set-ups, we're getting between 9-12 "shots" in each scene. I was a little skeptical of how well this would work, but I recently got to see a rough cut of our classroom scenes and it feels like we had more cameras and time than we actually did. We ended day 6 with a skeleton company move for a sunset scene that ran much longer than expected; by the end of the scene I had pulled out every filter and was barely reading anything on the meter; I could have switched to 5279 and maybe got another take or 2 off, but the jump between 74 and 79 would have been wildly jarring.
My crew has been great; Emily Topper (my CLT) has been one of the best creative collaborators I've ever had and I hope I can work with her on everything I do after this ? she challenges me in a non-challenging manner and has a not only a great eye but also a keen sense of when to push for something and when to let the unimportant things slide. Peter is by far one of the best experiences I've had with any director ? there's complete trust and a real sense of us both owning the film we're creating together. While it's not the prettiest work I've done in terms of pure aesthic pleasure (ie, conventionally beautiful photography), it's completely in line with everything we talked about wanting to do and it's fresh and exciting for me because it's work that I've never done before. I may sound like I'm gushing a bit, but I feel like every day I get to fall in love with filmmaking and cinematography all over again.
This has been a long posting, so my apologies for being so long winded; we switch into nights next week, so we get almost 2 days off to make that switch. I hope my future postings won't be nearly as rambling and wordy. As soon as I can get permission, I'll try posting some stills from the shoot.
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