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The Astronaut Farmer Week 8


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 12:11 AM

The last week of production. 37 first unit shooting days plus one day of shooting during pre-production.

To get all the bits and pieces, because of the complexity and number of scenes in this script, we had to bring in a third Panaflex (GII) and crew so that we could keep shooting with two cameras while we had a full-time 2nd Unit shooting off-set. And on the last day, somewhat reluctantly, I had to split us up three ways and have our second camera off shooting as a third unit, doing inserts mostly. I say reluctantly because they really didn't have a third DP to supervise them; I had to trust an unknown camera operator with a light meter to get shots I described to him. Not that the guy wasn't really experienced; it's just that he hadn't been there for the whole shoot to know my shooting style or what to match to.

It all got a bit surreal. On Thursday & Friday, I had pieces of previous sets scattered across the ranch property. We had a hatch from a Mercury capsule on c-stands to shoot a close-up of Virginia Madsen opening it outdoors after she finds it crashed; we had the dance floor of the county fair recreated to shoot shots of the main children dancing, complete with a full square dancing troop brought back in; we had a Ferris Wheel brought to the ranch to shoot a scene where the teenaged boy in the family is talking to a girl (that was a scene originally to be shot on the county fair night but after spending all this time rigging a Panaflex to a Ferris Wheel bucket, we were told that the rig was too heavy to be safe. So we bagged the scene and later decided to shoot it with the Ferris Wheel stopped and the camera mounted in a Condor crane, back at the ranch.) I had the Mercury capsule, a bedroom wall, a tabletop for shooting inserts, and an interior set of mission control inside of an airstream trailer all around the catering tent on the last night to shoot inserts and pick-ups.

Tuesday was the last day we had Billy Bob Thornton and it lasted 18 hours. Mainly shot more scenes inside the Mercury capsule, a set smaller than the front seat of a Volkswagon bug. I had to cut a hole in the back of it just to shoot his POV's of the console and window. Tiniest set I've ever worked in probably, not much bigger than an airliner's bathroom actually. Used a Panatate to rotate the camera 360 degrees for spinning shots inside the capsule (camera looking through the hatch door for a side-angle.) It's like a gear head, although not the smoothest way to rotate a heavy Panaflex. In fact, we learned that the viewfinder of the Millenium would not fit when the camera was in the Panatate, so we used the GII instead. But it worked.

I had an idea from watching "The Color Purple" for how to shoot a porch scene at sunset -- I guessed that they built a partial set of the porch facing a sunset so they could shoot with telephoto lenses to get a big sunball behind the actors, which logically you can't get shooting on a real porch only five feet deep from rail to house wall. We already shot the porch scene a few weeks ago, but still owed this wide master of them silhouette standing at the porch railing against a sunset. So we rushed down the road one late afternoon to a partial porch set built on a high hilltop. I shot it with two cameras, one with the Primo zoom at 550mm and the other with a 180mm lens with a 1.4X extender -- basically my two longest lenses other than a 800mm that was too long. Was lucky (again) and not only managed to set-up the two cameras and get the actors there just before the sun set, but got a nice sunball effect. Not a huge sunball, maybe one-third the frame height, but nice. Used Fuji F-64D with an ND.60 shooting at f/22, which shows you how bright the sunball was. It's always hard to meter such shots -- I sort of read the sky right next to the sunball with a spot meter and exposed for that. The reverse angle on the actors that we had already shot was faked for sunset -- the effect is not as perfect as I wanted because in order to really recreate the effect of looking into a setting sun, I was planning on shining a tungsten Dino at them. But one of our actors was always complaining about looking into bright lights, so I had to cheat the Dino way off to one side, practically backlighting the actor who couldn't look into bright lights -- even though logically the sun is setting right in their eyes. So we'll see how it all cuts together.

We also got to blow stuff up this week, which is sort of fun if scary. Had four cameras running (three Panaflexes plus my operator Theo Pingarelli's personal Arri-2C). Hid the Arri-2C, covered in furniture blankets, up close to an exploding door to a barn. The other cameras were scattered around the ranch, sort of hidden from each other's view. Have become a real fan of the Arri-2C...

We worked 15 hours on the last day of the shoot on Friday. I got back to my apartment at 3AM, woke up at 7AM, packed, cleaned up, drove myself an hour south to Albuquerque, and flew home to Los Angeles on Saturday before noon.

I would like to thank several people for this shoot: my amazing Gaffer Steve Litecky and Key Grip Brad Heiner, and their crews; my camera crew -- especially the very talented B-camera operator and 2nd Unit DP Phil Pfeiffer, a real artist, plus my 1st AC's Keith Eisberg and Marcus Lopez, the 2nd AC's (Charlie and Beau) plus the extra crew that came in at the end, my main operator Theo Pingarelli, the quietest man in the film industry and the only crew person with whom I can have long (but quiet) conversations about "Space: 1999".

But most of all I have to thank the Polish Brothers and the visual imagination in their scripts, plus their commitment to getting good photography & lighting into their movies. I just wish the schedule had not been so insane so that I could have exercised more control over all the elements in the movie.

Now I can get some sleep...
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#2 Luke Prendergast

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 01:23 AM

Thank you David for letting us inside your shoot. Entertaining and educational.
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#3 Max Jacoby

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 04:38 AM

David

With all the overtime you've been doing, if the production had only shot 12 hour days (11 hours work plus one our lunch) and not done overtime, how many days would they have had to add to the existing schedule do you reckon?

To be honest, I do find 18 hour days appalling, because it is simply not safe anymore. Even if they pay overtime it is still dangerous. Only once in my life have I done a 16 hour day on a feature and afterwards I nearly fell aslepp behind the wheel. Especially on a feature where you work 5 or 6 day weeks for at least 7 weeks, the accumulated fatigue effects of doing overtime day in day out just make you lose more time than you gain by doing overtime in the first place.
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 12:42 PM

Certainly it would have been possible to shoot this in 12-hour days, if we only got basic coverage and didn't push for certain weather for scenes, didn't pick such difficult locations -- i.e. didn't care as much about how the movie looked.

But one thing you also learn on these movies is that if you have a smaller budget, tighter schedule, and yet bigger-name actors, there are simply limits to how much or far you can push around these actors to get through make-up or out of their trailers or even to show-up on time for work, or push them through blocking & rehearsal -- you have to accommodate the speed at which they want to work. So you can come up with an airtight schedule planned down to the minute that works on paper, but it depends on factors you can't control, besides the weather, the human factor. There were days where no matter how fast I worked, I then waited 30 minutes for actors to come out of their trailers and be driven from base camp to set, which is one reason why I often had to block with stand-ins and shoot the rehearsals when the actors walked on set finally. It didn't help even to call the actors to set and THEN start setting up for the next shot because if they walked in and I wasn't done, they'd go back to their trailers and I'd lose another half-hour trying to get them back.

People tell me that it's something I just have to get used to on bigger shows, the actors setting the pace of production. But it's not always particularly efficient, time-wise. Some days I'd have to light three set-ups simultaneously just so I could shoot the actors in three shots in a row rather than have them leave set and lose the time it took to get them back.

To be fair to the actors, we also had many other things conspiring to slow us down, from freak sandstorms and other exteme weather conditions, malfunctioning equipment, rough terrain, injured crew & actors, etc.

We had a ridiculously complicated and overly-optimistic schedule. I remember after the production meeting, when we all went through the schedule, I sounded like Gene Hackman in "A Bridge Too Far" after he hears the plan for Operation Market Garden and says something like "It's a great plan and if it works, I'll be estatic." In other words, I'm not an optimist. I don't believe in planning for best-case scenarios. I believe in planning for worst-case scenarios. But we had a schedule of a certain number of days, and shortening the script to accommodate that was not an option, so we had to make a good faith effort to shoot the movie for those number of days using a plan that worked on paper only, figuring we'd make it all work somehow. But it's one of the reasons I feel that I wasn't as in control over the whole movie, shot by shot, as I was on "Northfork". It's probably more like a typical bug-budget movie is anyway, with multiple units and multiple cameras, but I'm starting to understand why Roger Deakins likes to avoid those types of shoots. You can't claim the same degree of authorship over the image.

I agree that long days are dangerous. But when you still have scenes to shoot with an actor and they literally have to jump on a plane the next morning for their next movie, you don't have much choice but to shoot them out no matter how long the day is.
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#5 Matt Lazzarini

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 01:57 PM

Some days I'd have to light three set-ups simultaneously


I find that amazing. I usually have enough trouble lighting one!

How detailed do you get when giving out instructions to your lighting/grip teams for lighting each setup at the same time? Do you tell them in terms like 'soft light in this area, dark here, hard light through this window but only on this wall, etc' or do you get more specific by specifying what lights to use so that you have absolute control over each set by knowing exactly what's doing what and where?

I couldn't imagine having to pull stunts like that. I think I'd nitpick too much over one setup to be able to properly light another one, let alone two other ones. Though maybe it's an experience thing.
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#6 Max Jacoby

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 02:20 PM

But one thing you also learn on these movies is that if you have a smaller budget, tighter schedule, and yet bigger-name actors, there are simply limits to how much or far you can push around these actors to get through make-up or out of their trailers or even to show-up on time for work, or push them through blocking & rehearsal -- you have to accommodate the speed at which they want to work.

Working with Al Pacino was similar. Funny how the whole hierarchy between actors becomes obvious. The lesser known ones get called first and once they are in place, the big star comes in. Pacino once refused to redo a take because the Dop wasn't happy with the lighting (the sun came out during the shot). Personally I find that attitude very annoying.

On the other hand I've also worked with some big name actors who hung out on the set between set-ups and who respected the work of the crew.
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#7 Matt Lazzarini

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 02:30 PM

Working with Al Pacino was similar. Funny how the whole hierarchy between actors becomes obvious. The lesser known ones get called first and once they are in place, the big star comes in. Pacino once refused to redo a take because the Dop wasn't happy with the lighting (the sun came out during the shot). Personally I find that attitude very annoying.

On the other hand I've also worked with some big name actors who hung out on the set between set-ups and who respected the work of the crew.


I met the 1st on The Recruit who said that Pacino wouldn't let him set marks so the whole show he had pull without knowing even somewhat where Pacino would be. Egads!
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 02:44 PM

On the set, our actors were, for the most part, very down-to-earth and friendly to the crew and did their scenes (well) in a minimum of takes, which was a great help. While some actor's requests can be annoying, generally if it helps them act better, I'll do what I can to accommodate them -- they certainly have to constantly make accommodations for camera and sound all the time. The problem was just getting them to set on time. Sometimes you'd get into these political discussions about who to cover first in a sequence, not always based on what the most efficient order was.

Certainly we could have never pulled off this movie had the actors not been very cooperative and accommodating. but occasionally they were one of the reasons for the longer days. And there were many other reasons as well, it's true. From an actor's perspective, most of the time of the day is spent by the DP setting up shots, lighting them, etc., which is true. The actors get a narrow window in which to deliver their performance before the DP steps in and sucks up some more production time setting up the next shot. Of course, they aren't aware of some of the photographic problems I'm trying to solve. You try and make it seem very invisible to them so that they can just step on set and act. Try being the operative word.

I'm always very specific to the Gaffer and Key Grip as to what I want, sometimes too specific for some but most appreciate that I know what I want. I'll say things like "I'd like to key the room from the side, soft, maybe a 2K or a 5K through a 6'x'6 Light Grid, a little half-blue moonlight on the blinds back there, nothing big, could be a 575watt HMI, a Kino over camera for fill" and the Gaffer and Key Grip would tell me what they was thinking, ask me some questions ("did you want 1/4 CTS on the 5K like before? Is the fill light warmer too or should be keep it white? How bright do you want the practicals?") and we'd agree on a plan. My Key Grip Brad Heiner has worked for me before so he knows how I like to cut soft lights, flag them, where a lenser flag is needed, what types of diffusion I tend to use (mainly Grid Cloth & 216), etc. He knows I will sometimes grab a c-stand and flag and set-up something myself if things are going too slow, so he warns the crew.

I remember waiting forever for some tripod sticks with a rotating offset from the dolly to be derigged from a condor, and a member of my crew was there trying to figure out how to take off the offset (my 1st and 2nd were moving the gear to the next area of the ranch) and Brad (driving the condor) said to him "don't mess with that R.O. -- just take the whole thing to David before I see David running down here to grab the sticks from you" and next thing you know, they saw me running down the road; I grabbed the sticks from the person, and ran back down the road to set them up. Brad turned to him and said "hey, I warned you..." I mean, when the sun is dying and I have another set-up to get before dark, I'm just not going to wait for people to casually get things done.

Speaking of accommodating actors, we had one person, just before we were about to roll, tell the sound man that he didn't want to see a mic boom and he didn't want to be wired either, because it would throw off his performance (for some reason, a missing set wall and two cameras pointing at him wasn't a distraction, I guess because they didn't move). So the sound man had to hide mics all around the set.

On the other hand, when we were shooting in the Mercury capsule with the real hatch, I nearly pulled a groin and back muscle just stepping in and out of that thing to take meter readings, and Billy Bob Thornton was doing that several times, all day long, in a bulky spacesuit and never complained. He also broke his thumb doing one scene, and a few minutes later, had a thrown plate hit and injure his elbow -- enough to make anyone cranky, yet he was generally in good spirits.
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#9 Travis Cline

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 04:58 PM

David

How expensive do Xenons usually run compared to other lights, big HMI's and whatnot?

Also, are there plans to shoot more stuff once the film is edited, insterts and 2nd unit type shots? I have not shot a feature yet where that has not happened, but I wonder how common it is on bigger films.

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#10 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 06:38 PM

I won?t answer for David,

But Xenon?s tend to be slightly pricier than HMI fresnels and slightly less pricey than HMI PARs.

For example a 4k fresnel rents for around $225 /day a Xenon is about $325 / day and a PAR is about $400 /day.

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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 31 October 2005 - 09:20 PM

I just know that they aren't cheap and it's harder to get deals on them. They also can bounce & jiggle easily on a condor or in the wind, just like a mirror board can.

Next time I may try a MoleBeam projector instead.
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#12 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 01 November 2005 - 06:59 AM

Billy Bob Thornton was doing that several times, all day long, in a bulky spacesuit and never complained.


David,

You mentioned last week that shallow focus was a bigger problem when you have famous actors on the set because it is harder to ask them to repeat their performances. I would like to know if working with an actor who also is a director tends to make your life easier when technical issues appear on his scenes. I mean in general, not only with Billy Bob.

Thank you.
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 November 2005 - 11:53 AM

You mentioned last week that shallow focus was a bigger problem when you have famous actors on the set because it is harder to ask them to repeat their performances. I would like to know if working with an actor who also is a director tends to make your life easier when technical issues appear on his scenes. I mean in general, not only with Billy Bob.

Thank you.


No, not really. I mean, an actor who has directed may be more sympathetic to production problems, but for the most part, they just concentrate on the acting when they are in front of the camera -- as they should.

Now some actors pride themselves more on being able to easily juggle the technical constraints of their profession (like hitting marks) and still deliver a great performance, while other actors simply want the whole filmmaking apparatus to be invisible when they step in front of the camera. Sometimes with some big name actors, you worry that they will be very standoff-ish and won't want to deal with any technical problems, but actually some of them are such old-timer pros that they have no problems with that. I remember the first words Nick Nolte said to me on the set of "Northfork" (we were shooting his POV of James Woods and a group of men): "Do you want me to stand closer to the lens for their eyelines?"

We had a couple of actors on the set who had directed features before, and none of them really started making directorial suggestions, other than the typical minor ones.
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#14 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 01 November 2005 - 11:57 AM

To be honest, I do find 18 hour days appalling, because it is simply not safe anymore. Even if they pay overtime it is still dangerous. Only once in my life have I done a 16 hour day on a feature and afterwards I nearly fell aslepp behind the wheel. Especially on a feature where you work 5 or 6 day weeks for at least 7 weeks, the accumulated fatigue effects of doing overtime day in day out just make you lose more time than you gain by doing overtime in the first place.


You've done a 16 hour day only once on a feature? Sounds like a charmed career! Sad to say, but David's shoot is so typical of a lowish budget shoot ... The last days are always crazy; you often wonder when then call-sheet is going to be published in paperback form! I just worked on day one of one of these films: by the time the last shot rolled around our (Oscar winning) DP said "We're in sprint mode, guys." To me, "sprint mode" means someone's going to whacked in the head w/ a C-Stand.
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#15 Charles Haine

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Posted 01 November 2005 - 12:50 PM

Is your operator's IIC Panavised, or did you do that shot with another lens?
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#16 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 November 2005 - 01:29 PM

Is your operator's IIC Panavised, or did you do that shot with another lens?


He has switchable PL and Panavision mounts for his camera -- don't know if he does the switching or he has it done at a camera house to check the flange depth each time. It doesn't shoot Super-35 though.
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#17 NBC Shooter

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 06:32 AM

Holy crap, David! What a terrific journal! That was the most entertaining and informative DP journal I've ever seen (well, it's the only DP journal I've ever seen). That's equivalent to a film school graduate class in only 8 posts! I loved how you were candid about your indecision on some of your exposure calls. I like the "meter near the sun" trick--I've heard other DPs using that method also. It was really great to share so much of your technique, and so specifically--very generous of you. I also like how you can't resist grabbing a C-stand or sticks if things aren't moving fast enough.

It was also interesting to hear about your crew dynamics and how those DP/manager kind of decisions can really affect both your crew morale and work product. I sometimes try to explain to people how that dynamic works (or doesn't) in production environments to those who have never worked in production--they have no idea. I liked your foamcore-magically-appeared-for-the-bathroom-window anecdote. That's how a tight grip/electric crew should be--all thinking on the same page, solving the same problems. A great journal--also, I enjoyed your "famous DP" and other aesthetic references when describing your looks. All in all, it looks like you did a terrific job! Well done, David!
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#18 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 12:28 PM

Thank you, Ralph!
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#19 Landon D. Parks

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Posted 24 December 2005 - 05:43 PM

Can't wait to see this film David!
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#20 Paul Bruening

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Posted 26 December 2005 - 08:40 AM

Hey David,

What about that Virginia Madsen. Yummy! I met her on Heart of Dixie which we affectionately called, Fart of Dixie.
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