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The Astronaut Farmer Wk. 1


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 September 2005 - 04:23 PM

We shot one day before production officially began down in White Sands, New Mexico. We had that material printed and we projected it at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque the night before our first day of main shooting in that city.

The projector had a bulb problem causing a pronounced flicker throughout the screening. Since it also occurred even during the clear leader on the print, I wasn't concerned that it was in the original (plus some people had already seen the DVD dailies of the same footage and there was no flicker.)

I had the print timed on the warm side by shooting the gray scale through an 82B filter (a 1/2-stop density, like a 1/4 CTB gel). However, the DVD transfer was nearly neutral in color balance, so if the colorist seems to keep on ignoring the gray scale and color notes, I'll have to talk to him. For now, I want to see how he deals with my gray scale for lit scenes, etc.

The White Sands footage looked pretty good even though for half the day we had hazy overcast conditions, which makes white sand dunes look pretty flat. But near sunset, we had some nice clouds and low sun streaming through them. I was using my incident meter all day on the dunes when suddenly the light started dropping into sunset and I thought I better double-check with my spot meter. But when we retrieved it off of the truck, my battery was dead. So I just made a guess, reading the direct light and then underexposing two stops when shooting into the sunset sky. It turned out to look about right in dailies, although I may print it down a little more later.

Fuji F-64D rated at 40 ASA mainly.

Week One just consisted of two days in Albuquerque. We shot at a roadside diner and at an old two-story brick schoolhouse that were across town from each other. Because of actor scheduling issues, we had to company move from the school to the diner in the middle of Day One and then company move back to the school at the end of Day Two, which was something of a time waster.

I am using a light smoke on the day interiors. I had asked for a hazemaker but now it turns out that the efx person only owns smoke machines that put out clouds like a Rosco fogger. This is taking up more set time as I have to work harder at smoking between each shot and in a long take, the smoke level is already lower than at the head of the take. And every shot has to be matched by eye after we pump in a cloud of smoke and wave it around. What I really need is a hazemaker like the ones at Special Effects Unlimited in Los Angeles.

The school leaked smoke like a sieve but luckily the diner was more airless and draft-free.

Most of the lighting was from two 18K HMI's streaming in through the big windows in the locations. Because of the smoke, I didn't need to use much fill light. It was all F-250D stock rated at 160 ASA; most of the time I was shooting at an f/4 at the school and an f/5.6 at the diner.

On Day Two we already got a report that one of our mags was lightly scratching film, even though we had scratch-tested the mag in prep. We only shot one roll on that mag that day and we were covered by B-camera angles on all the shots except for one close-up of Billy Bob Thornton, which might be saveable with liquid-gate printing or be a minor digital paint job to erase the faint scratch (which is not through his face.) Perhaps we used that mag in White Sands and it somehow picked-up something, I don't know.

When we moved back to the school at the end of Day Two for some exteriors, the light was dropping like a rock so unfortunately in each of our four set-ups the light levels were different, the last one being shot at late dusk. Luckily it was a reverse-angle looking at a bunch of reporters & their lights, so the flaring may hide how dark it was actually.

But this is one reason why I don't like a schedule that ends us outside unless we are trying to get a sunset shot or a scene that only needs two angles or something. I had planned on using two cameras to get through the scene faster, but because we were also behind on a few shots at the diner, I had to leave the B-camera crew behind to get some missing shots, so I did not have them there at sunset when I also needed them. It just reminded me of how overly-crammed our schedule is. It's a shame to be so rushed all the time on scenes when I supposed to somehow also make them look good and NOT rushed-looking, yet here I am at the end of Day Two already shooting wide-open on the lenses and pushing film stock, which is a low-budget moviemaking style... I just hope that with all the lens flares from the media lights, etc. that I will look like a genius instead of a guy doing something in the simplest manner possible.

Our actor in the scene, J.K. Simmons, said "boy, you guys really work fast!" to which I replied "it's not like I have any choice..."

Then I still had one scene left to shoot that now became a night exterior instead of a day exterior; to work quickly, I lit it with the same little lights standing around for the media scene -- the biggest units were a 2K open-faced and a 800watt HMI Joker. I pushed the F-500T by one-stop and shot it wide-open. I was tempted to trot out the bigger lights, but because the scene sort of turned into a vigil of people outside of a hospital at night instead of day, I figured that if I lit it to a really low-level, the candles they were holding would read better. But then just as we were about to shoot, heavy winds and some light rain kicked in and most of the candles went out. So it's not a scene that I'm particularly looking forward to seeing in dailies.

It just sucks to end two decent days on shooting on a low note like that. And I've got more insane days like this on the schedule to get through. Basically the problem is that this is a 40-day schedule collapsed into 33 days with a slightly longish script (121 pages) and a lot of speaking parts to cover, plus visual effects elements to shoot. And I get the feeling that there will also be pressure to keep us to 12-hour days to accomplish all of this (unlike the 14-hour to 16-hour days we often had on "Northfork" to shoot that in 24 days.)

My AD convinced me reluctantly to shoot one dialogue scene with opposing cameras shooting both directions at once. It was something of an acceptable compromise in the lighting (I side-lit both actors but couldn't get the light to wrap around the second eye, so if someone complains that both eyes weren't fully lit, all I can say is that I was trying to be accommodating to the schedule.)

My crew has been doing excellent work through all of this. I'm very happy to have my Key Grip Brad Heiner our here and the local gaffer, Steve Litecky, is incredibly experienced. I'm also covered by Phil Pfeiffer doing the splinter-unit / B-camera shots.
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#2 Chris Cooke

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Posted 10 September 2005 - 09:53 PM

Wow, sounds like you're gonna be busy this month. I find it amazing that you still make time to let us know what's going on. Thank-you.
You probably won't be able to post any stills untill after the film's been released eh?
I find that odd that your colorist is ignoring your gray scale and color notes. That's not a very common problem is it?
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#3 Saul Pincus

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Posted 10 September 2005 - 09:57 PM

Thanks again for posting your heart out, David. :)

Incidentally, what stock were you printing your dailies on?

Saul
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 12:16 AM

The stuff that was printed used Fuji 3513 D.I., which is what I'm hoping to use, if not Vision Premier or Fuji's upcoming XD stock. But there are a lot of studio deals regarding print stock that may determine how the movie is printed.

For a DP, it's sort of nutsy policy: I'm told that Warner Bros. releases 75% on Kodak (almost all regular Vision 2383) and 25% on Fuji, so depending on when your film is released, you may end up being one or the other. So not only can I not pick the print stock for the movie, they can't even assure me what print stock will be used -- other than odds are high that it will be Vision 2383. So at release print time, we may have to fight for a partial release on the print stock we actually want to use.

While I understand the financial reasons for these deals that the studio makes between Kodak and Fuji, it sort of shuts the filmmakers out of the equation because it's all about number-crunching. It doesn't even matter that using Vision Premier only adds about $100 to the cost of each print, or even that it wouldn't cost any more to use Fuji if you wanted to, because it's not about the price per foot of the stock, it's about the volume of stock they promise to buy each year in order to get a deal.

It's just a little Kafka-esque because when I asked if I could shoot the movie on Fuji, I was told that I could only do that for a compelling artistic reason, not because of trying to save money. Great philosophy. So why is the reason for picking a print stock now financial and not creative? It makes no sense from a photographic point of view to say that the choice of negative matters creatively but the choice of print stock has no effect on the image creatively!
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#5 Saul Pincus

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 12:38 AM

It's just a little Kafka-esque because when I asked if I could shoot the movie on Fuji, I was told that I could only do that for a compelling artistic reason, not because of trying to save money.  Great philosophy. So why is the reason for picking a print stock now financial and not creative? It makes no sense from a photographic point of view to say that the choice of negative matters creatively but the choice of print stock has no effect on the image creatively!

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

So in a sense, you might be better off knowing you're only going to project digitally (not an option at this point in time, of course) so that you could aim and optimize for that one DI-like master element, and that's it. Naturally, you wouldn't have the richness of a pure film finish. And in a hypothetical world of universal digital projection, you might end up fighting the studio over your *medium* of origination, let alone which stock. Catch 22! :o

Saul

Edited by Saul Pincus, 11 September 2005 - 12:41 AM.

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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 12:41 AM

To focus on the positive for a moment:

I'm working with a great director who pushes me to do my best work photographically. I've got some great actors to photograph (Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen in the leads, and a host of really good actors doing small parts). The producers are committed to making this a quality project. I'm working with a talented Production Designer (Clark Hunter) and I am in some interesting locations in New Mexico. The script has some wonderful visual touches.

I only want an opportunity to do my best and not disappoint because the schedule is just too tight for manuevering within.

The AD, Andrew Coffing, also did "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Northfork", and I know he also wants this to turn out great, but his challenge is mainly scheduling and mine is working within that schedule. Of course, it's all a collaboration between him, the director, me, etc. to find something that makes sense creatively, but a lot is also driven by budget and actor availability.

But of course, this is all what the film business is all about so it's nothing new.

I haven't seen any dailies yet of the diner and school, but I've heard that they look pretty good, with a nice mood, so I'm looking forward to getting them (they were Fed-Ex'd to each of us but they weren't supposed to need a signature, but Fed Ex screwed up and only the people home at the time received them. So the producers and director have seen them, but not me! It's just annoying because it's the second time that I was the last person to get dailies. Everyone else got the DVD's of the White Sands shoot two days before I did also, because I was in Albuquerque doing a pre-rig when they arrived in Santa Fe.)
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 12:50 AM

A D.I. is one of the things we are hoping to find the money for in post somehow. Every day on the set you find more reasons for a D.I. When I got news that some shots from Day One had light scratching and some dust speckles, the first thing I thought was what an easy digital fix that would be if we were doing a D.I. anyway. Then we got a bald blue sky when we wanted clouds, and I thought what a simple thing it would be to add a few clouds in post if the shot was a lock-off. And as I'm fighting with this puffy smoke machine -- when I had requested a hazemaker -- to maintain some sort of shot-to-shot consistency, I kept thinking how a D.I. would make it easier to match smoke levels if they are off a little. And I'm only on Day Two and this is running through my mind.

It's doubtful that many people here on this forum have shot as many features as I have for a straight photochemical finish to print, so it's not like I'm lazy or need digital post to save my work, it's just that once you know what can be done to a film image in a digital color-correction suite, shooting everything for straight printing can seem limiting.

But mainly what I like about a D.I. is not seeing my work marred by a bunch of mismatched opticals cut into the negative... like having my favorite shot duped as part of an optical printer dissolve.
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#8 Tim J Durham

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 06:07 AM

I haven't seen any dailies yet of the diner and school, but I've heard that they look pretty good, with a nice mood, so I'm looking forward to getting them (they were Fed-Ex'd to each of us but they weren't supposed to need a signature, but Fed Ex screwed up and only the people home at the time received them. So the producers and director have seen them, but not me!  It's just annoying because it's the second time that I was the last person to get dailies. Everyone else got the DVD's of the White Sands shoot two days before I did also, because I was in Albuquerque doing a pre-rig when they arrived in Santa Fe.)

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

So how much screen time did those first two days of shooting represent, David?
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 10:16 AM

We have to shoot about four pages a day, but they were like seven scenes a day, with a company move in the middle.
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#10 Tim Tyler

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 11:02 AM

David,

Perhaps this isn't the time to talk about this, but at what point do you start caring less about the project when you take into consideration that the studio, production, and art department are not giving you the tools and time you need to do the job right?

I mean, if the AD is stressing as much as you over the tight schedule, and the art dept really wants to give you a hazer but production won't pay for it, and the studio won't commit to you print stock choice, it's likely that this is happening on many levels across the board.

Are you setting the bar too high?
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 11:51 AM

Well, I don't know if there is ever a production that gets everything it wants, even if it is a 100 million dollar film, because as budgets rise, expections rise, so you hit the ceiling budget-wise trying to accomplish what you want to.

Anyway, I always care -- it's my job to care. Besides, the audience doesn't care about these budget issues, so I try and shoot the best picture no matter what.

Some shoots are more about being efficient than doing great cinematography, of course -- the director really sets the priorities about what he wants and what he doesn't care so much about. In this case, I have a director who loves cinematography and wants me to do a great job. No one is working against me, per se -- it's just a matter of occasionally hitting the wall due to a budget constraint.

It's just that everyone is hired to do their job within the time and money allotted. My priorities are different than the line producer's or AD's, but part of their job is to do what they can within limits to support me and I in turn have to do what I can to support them by staying on schedule and budget. So it's give and take.

Unfortunately everyone involved can do almost everything... except make the schedule longer. We all have to make a good faith effort to stay on schedule.

In terms of budget, I'm not unrealistic. I know that if I ask for one more lens or an extra day with a crane, some other department loses something. And that something they lose may come back and haunt me, so I have to be realistic in what I ask for. But obviously we're all working up the edges of what can be afforded, pushing the limits, to do the best work we can.

For example, I try and be honest about how many lights I really need for a location. But if I'm presented with a huge location that needs to be lit, all I can do is tell them what I need to make it happen. If I get less than I need, then something has to give -- maybe the set is darker than I would like, or I'm shooting more wide-open than is a good idea, or maybe the shots get smaller in scope. Then you do your best to make the scene look good anyway and not compromised. But ultimately I can't dictate to the director what he can and can't do -- I can only suggest and tell him my issues.

What's great about Michael Polish is that he loves lighting, so if I point out that the room is best lit from a certain angle, he understands. He doesn't get wedded to some preconceived idea of camera movement or something that will compromize the lighting of the scene. The diner is a good example because the best angles looked out the big row of windows on one side. I've been in similar diners in other movies with other directors who want a certain 180 degree dolly move that can only be accomplished in a space that has the least interesting background or angles for the light to come from. And then later they ask me "hey, why does the diner scenes in the Polish Brothers movies look so much better than what you did for me in my movie???"

Michael loves window light as much as I do, so it's not a problem to stage a scene with that in mind.

In terms of setting the bar too high, if I've succeeded at all as a DP, it's because I try and make a movie look like more than its budget allows. But I think that most DP's are hired to do that anyway so it's nothing new.
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#12 Tim Tyler

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 07:00 PM

Oh - I forgot you are working with one of the Polish brothers on this. That means a lot, and I imagine you guys have enough history together to keep things comfortable and running smooth.

Did that camera intern situation ever pan out?
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 September 2005 - 08:00 PM

I should have guessed this, but it turns out that you cannot legally have someone working for free on a film shoot (or anywhere) due to labor laws; it has to be part of a training program or for school accreditation to be allowed. We do have a paid PA who wants to be assigned to the camera department on days when she's not needed by the AD department, but I have yet to see her.
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#14 John Thomas

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Posted 12 September 2005 - 12:01 PM

"It's just that everyone is hired to do their job within the time and money allotted. My priorities are different than the line producer's or AD's, but part of their job is to do what they can within limits to support me and I in turn have to do what I can to support them by staying on schedule and budget. So it's give and take." DM

I can't stand the Line Producers who have a deal where they get a percentage of any money that is left if they come in under budget. They profit from saying no. Putting something great up on the screen is not in their best interest. Doing a job with one of those guys requires a lot of non photographic work.

David,

Thanks for doing this journal, it's really great!

JT
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#15 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 12:22 AM

how do no-budget productions get by with hirinf crew for free then??? I can understand Labor Laws (minimum wage, etc) and I know how it works, but if this is true, there is an aful lot of productions breaking labor laws right now.
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#16 Brad Grimmett

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 06:02 PM

They're breaking the law. Most of them don't even realize it's illegal to use free labor. But most of those projects are so low profile that no one will ever notice.
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#17 Louis

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Posted 13 September 2005 - 06:32 PM

They're breaking the law.  Most of them don't even realize it's illegal to use free labor.  But most of those projects are so low profile that no one will ever notice.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Also, since a lot of interns do free work for school credit, that makes it legal, as David pointed out. The only feature I ever worked on as an intern, they realized that I didn't need school credit for the movie, and they paid me, probably for the sake of not breaking the law (although they paid me very little). But you're right, a lot of people on less reputable productions do free work for no credit.
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#18 Tim Carroll

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Posted 17 September 2005 - 09:08 PM

David,

Thanks so much for doing this. I have learned so much from reading your production diaries. Things that no film school could teach me.

-Tim Carroll
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#19 Evan Kubota

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Posted 14 October 2005 - 05:02 PM

I agree that these production diaries are a fantastic resource. However, I'm not sure that school credit is required for interns to work for free - I worked on a low budget (~$1 million) production last year as an intern, didn't receive school credit, but wasn't paid either. Was this legal? It was a great experience, regardless.
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#20 gregbpl

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Posted 16 October 2005 - 10:01 AM

David,

Thanx for the updates on your production. I keep my fingers crossed for this project.

Regards,
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