Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shooting the Movie...The Dark Side

Okay, so it's not really a dark side, but I don't want to paint a bunch of roses. We did have our difficulties.

The very first day of the shoot, my scene was to be shot at night. This is never a good plan. We didn't have our rhythm yet, didn't know what we were doing, and I should have allowed myself more time to prepare.

"How did you really feel, Chris?"

I had mentally prepared myself as best I could to step out of the producer role and into the acting state of mind, but it couldn't be done completely. We shot till about 1AM when we filled the audio recorder. Because it was the dumb, expensive one, it required a cable...that the rental company forgot to pack. Nobody had one, so I had to drive home, grab a spare firewire I had laying around, and come back to set. We didn't wrap till about 2:30, which was far later than we wanted to go. Robert was a real sport about it, though, and he hung in for it.

Fortunately, most other days didn't go that late. We were usually packed and out by about 1:00...except for that one, fateful day.

The day we were shooting the final scene was the day we, for some reason, put the two hardest scenes on the same freaking day. We were a little lagged, second to last day of the shoot, and a couple people couldn't make it that day. I was running a camera, taking notes for some of it, doing the producer thing, etc. For some reason, we scrapped our plan for the final shot of the film and did something way more complex that took a long time to set up and execute. It also didn't really work and we never got the thing we originally planned to do. That scene ran late and we were all feeling kinda bummed on it.

The second scene was the one that takes place in the kitchen. We had our biggest name, Aris Alvarado, on set that day, so we were hoping to be super professional and impress him...but that sure didn't happen. It took us forever to figure out the totally new lighting conditions of the kitchen (lots of metal everywhere does NOT make for a fun shooting environment).

The's not going ANYWHERE it needs to!

After that fiasco, we got to shooting the most complicated scene of the movie in there (the one with the most blocking), and it was going okay, but then we wanted some shots of Aris cooking. Unfortunately, the pilot somehow went out. No one had a lighter (seriously, film set, no one was smoking?), so I had to go to 7-11 and buy one at like 2AM. The gas, it seemed, wasn't on at all, so we couldn't do it and we were pretty sure we broke something. We got the actors out by like 3:00 and Toshi and I left at nearly 4. It was pretty crushing.

I got really sick from the stress/lack of sleep this day. I was also getting up pretty early to prepare all the on set food, making last minute calls and preparations for the shoot, so I didn't really get any rest. The last day, I just sorta stepped back, begged my full crew to come so I could take a little break, and did all the paperwork I should have been doing all the other days (whoops). That last day, we really hit our stride on how to run our set. It was sort of a perfect close to it.

Ultimately, there was nothing to worry about. The film totally works with what we got, and the stuff we missed we likely would have cut anyway.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oh Yeah, We Actually Shot A Movie

So all that prep work is crap we have to get through for what, to me, is the real joy of the process: actually shooting the movie.

And unlike past projects, here is the evidence that it actually happened.

We'd usually show up at around 3 and wait for the last customers to leave. We'd unload gear and figure out what we were going to do until Mike gave us the go ahead to move our stuff in, at which point we moved all the stuff around to suit our purposes. We tried really hard to keep everything super orderly so it all went back in the same places, and we mostly did an okay job at this.


I managed to do the whole shoot's craft services table for about 150 bucks at Costco, and it was a pretty sweet spread. Except for the fact that I bought the two largest jars of peanut butter in the world, ignoring Toshi's horrible, horrible peanut allergy.

We'd shoot two scenes a day, except for our one half day when we only did one, and our strategy was this: Shoot one scene against the windows until 7 when the sun went down, then flip around and shoot a second scene somewhere else in the restaurant with lights to fake daylight.

This worked pretty well, as I mentioned before the Wall-o light actually sold daylight better than the real thing.

Actual daylight

Middle of the night

The worst part was actually the day when we shot our final scene. It was against the windows, so we had to be done by the time it got dark out, but numerous delays, some prolonged discussions about shots, and a short handed crew led to us pushing this VERY close. Some of the last few things we got were way too clearly night and therefore unusable, but luckily the scene came together anyway.

Supposedly a SAG rep was going to come check out the set and make sure that everything was up to code, but that never happened. I think we were too far away and too small of a player for that to ever happen, but they did call and pretend like they were going to.

Since they didn't, this set was pretty much a dream. It was me, my friends, and the select few I'd personally chosen to all be there, hanging out, making a movie. A couple friends stopped by here and there to check things out, it was all very relaxed, and a generally great time. Of course, me being me, I'll have things to bitch about in the next entry...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SAG: The Second Nightmare

Beyond the WEEKS of my time spent doing the bidding of my union overlords, there was an exceptional amount of financial cost associated with what they wanted me to do. Keeping in mind that I was the only one doing any of this work (and I sure wasn't getting paid for it), the total costs due to SAG and their requirements ended up being HALF of the film's budget.

"I'm from the union, and I'm here to help you!"

Because I had to hire all of these people as employees I had to, pay employer tax, pension and health, and numerous other fees. I noticed that $130 came out of my bank account for every $80 check the actors would walk away with (their actual wages were $100/day on our ultra low budget shoot). This is before factoring in the cost of having the payroll company do this service for me, issue my W2s, etc. With a rough estimate of including those costs, I paid around $160 for every $80 my employees got at the end of the day.

Most of my actors would have worked for free. Or cheaper. And certainly as contract labor, for which they'd be responsible for reporting their own taxes on. Unfortunately, all of these more efficient solutions would defy union regulations.

A number not included in the final tally but should be recognized by new filmmakers is the Producer's Deposit. This is a handy little thing that SAG does where they require a filmmaker, depending on the length of their shoot, to pay 100% of the amount they must pay actors, taxes, and pension and health to the union to hold in case the business side falls through.

This is something I can get behind and I understand where it comes from. I'm sure there are a lot of shady producers shafting people out of their hard earned money. I get it. This ensures that proper financing is in place, at least for the actors, before production begins. In a further intelligent move, SAG requires that all payroll checks go through them so that they can verify they are for the right amounts before giving the production the okay.

Yes, he looks smart now, but you keep watching because you know that in a moment he'll do something unspeakably dumb.

Unfortunately, they don't allow this fund to have money come out until everyone, including themselves, is paid out of a separate account. That's right, you need to have enough money to pay everybody TWICE in order to make a film with the Screen Actor's Guild.

...and there it is.

Of course, the more efficient solution would be for them to act as the payroll company, charging a small fee for their service, and disseminating the checks themselves. Or at least pay themselves from that fund. Or they could forgo a fee as they would have access to that money for investments, essentially making it an interest free loan to SAG. Or to avoid doing any more work themselves, they could require that the payroll company secure these funds and send them notification that it has been done.

But then, of course, there'd be less paperwork. This would make SAG very angry.

At the end of the day, SAG is only one of the many things you'll throw your money at that has nothing to do with actually making a good film. Equipment and talent are relatively cheap compared to unions, lawyers, publicity...

Toshi and I had a saying on set that our entire project was held together with enthusiasm and duct tape. Off set, though, it was a checkbook and a pen.

SAG: The First Nightmare

Once I had my cast, crew, location, and equipment all set, I got to begin the real fun: dealing with all the legal hurdles between me and making a movie!

More appropriately, these would be labeled "SAG," "Finance," "Publicity," "Contracts..."

The Screen Actors' Guild (SAG for short) is the union that represents actors. If you wish to use a single SAG member in your film (and not have them banned for life from all other union productions), you must make the whole production a union piece. As Schoen and Ben were both members, this was something I'd have to do.

What this means is paying every actor, member or not, as though they were one. As an employee. Through your legally established company with an Employer ID number from the IRS. Through its own bank account. Tied to a payroll company. So after you've spent a week running around to all the banks and payroll companies and filling out the right paperwork, you're rewarded with even larger stacks of paperwork from all of these places.

Welcome to the production office. Make yourself comfy behind the W-2s.

Now, all of the companies you have to work with are fairly efficient. It's annoying that they all want the same information, but at least they only each want it once. Also, most of their stuff is on digital forms, so copy and paste become your best friends.

SAG likes to take this nightmare to a whole new level. They give you copies of scans of faxes that are off center, frequently cut off, and almost wholly illegible, and they explicitly demand that they be filled out BY HAND. I tested the limits on a lot of this by using Photoshop to type stuff in, but creating my own cells and rotating things to fit these horribly set boxes took forever.

Now, a lot of the things they ask you for are good for you to have planned anyway (a specific shooting schedule, what actors you'll use on what days, etc), but in their effort to never cross reference any of your other papers, they require EXTENSIVE amounts of duplicated information on every page.

This is astonishingly good practice for being a producer.

This was only the beginning of the SAG nightmare, though. Stay tuned for the rest of the saga.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gear Log - For the Nerds - Part 3: DIY Dolly

So we've all been suckered at one point by DIY camera gear that sucks. The $14 steadicam, the PVC ring mount, or the Sega Genesis Menacer light gun handle trick.

What, no one else ripped the handle off this thing and rubber banded their camera to it as a shoulder stock? Nobody?

We avoided most of these, but here's a trick we used that actually worked pretty well.

We knew we wanted a few dolly shots, but getting those super nice dollies with track was expensive and difficult to work with, so instead, we rented the cheapest dolly they had. It was basically a furniture dolly with a handle on it, so DIYers out there, feel free to steal something from the garage and give it a handle add on till it looks like this:

This one, cleverly, has steering capabilities, but your shot will probabloy be straight so you needn't bother with that.

Then we went to Home Depot and picked up one 4' x 8' particle board sheet.

It's perfectly smooth on one side, and the other is rough and grippy, which is perfect. Then we had the guy in the store cut them down to four separate one foot strips, and voila, you have 16 feet of track.

You line up one track under each wheel, then you stick another on the end of it and cover the seam with tape, and it works awfully well! The more weight you have on it and the tripod, the smoother it will be.

I don't want to oversell it, it's not the PERFECT dolly, and it's certainly no match for some of those ball bearings rigs, but if you need a length of track that's fairly decent and super cheap, I recommend this method.

As a side note, I actually rented something that was basically exactly like the Menacer shoulder stock except that it cost $100 for a week's rental. Boo.

Gear Log - For the Nerds - Part 2: Lights and Sounds

When I discussed this movie with DP extraordinaire Ryan Chambers, he gravitated towards wanting to use mostly Kino Flo lights for everything.

Meet your new master.

The reason for this was that we didn't want to spend a lot of time setting up a million hot lights in this small space when one daylight balanced Kino could achieve this easily. We would be shooting a lot in the evening and needed to fake mid day sun, so these were perfect.

Our main sun faking instrument was this bad boy:

The Kino Flo Wallo light: have the brightness equivalent of a nuclear fission blast on your own film set.

This light is 10 separate 4 foot long Kino tubes and puts out the equivalent of a 2.5k fresnel light. In layman's terms: it's massive. We'd only kick this guy on once the sun had actually gone down and we had to fake it, but now our night shots look more believable for mid day than our day shots! It's absolutely insane.

We also rented a couple of standard hot lights, but I think we used them all of twice. They were only like $15 for a week though, so whatever.

As for sound, we made a stupid expense mistake. We rented a decent mic and boom and some audio recording kit that I don't remember the name of. Remember, kids, your DSLRs have crappy sound cards, so don't try to go direct with your microphone! Not that the D90 has an XLR port on it, but some others do. Just don't use them.

So anyway, the kit worked just fine and all, but the recording unit alone cost $300 for the week. Why was this dumb? Well, when we needed to do post sound, we had the option of renting something like that again...or we could just freaking BUY a Zoom H4N for the same price.

The handiest little audio recorder on the planet

So that's what we ended up doing. And I could have saved $300 by doing it earlier.

That little guy can take in two XLRs, has two of its own built in mics, and can record in just about any format and bitrate you can dream of. Records to a standard SD card, so if you have a couple, you'll never need to break to dump sound.

One of the problems we had with our giant, stupid, expensive sound box was that it used some sort of non standard card, so dumping required a firewire cable. Of course, the rental house forgot to pack one, so I got to make a 1AM trip back to my house to find one in the middle of shooting the scene I was in. Awesome.

Gear Log - For the Nerds - Part 1: Cameras

A lot of people ask me about the gear we used to make this movie, so here is the definitive cheap ass movie gear log.

Two of these, Nikon D90s

Our schedule was going to be really short and the entire movie was conversation based. For those reasons, I had a strong inclination to shoot with two cameras. Not only would it speed up our coverage, but it'd provide us with more natural cuts that would match perfectly when we put them together.

I also wanted to make this movie on a DSLR of some sort. Big cameras actually made for movies are cumbersome, difficult to use in small spaces, and usually your friends won't have one, which means renting instead of borrowing. Even if you do manage to find someone who will let you borrow it, you'll likely have only one lens to work with.

Photographers, however, always have a bevy of lenses. The advantage to shooting on a Nikon D90 or a Canon Mark II 5D or some other similar camera is that you can use all of the still photo Nikon or Canon lenses, and you probably know someone with a few of those.

After taking inventory, we found that our friends had a lot better models of cameras for this (The 5D and the Nikon 3000S, for example), but the only one of which we had a matching pair was the D90, so we went for it.

The D90 was one of the first DSLRs to do HD Video very seriously at all, so it has some issues. Overall, it's a great experience and worth doing, but in the interest of fairness, here are the worst things you'll deal with:

1) There is a maximum clip length of 5 minutes before it cuts automatically. This is not something that can be overridden, at least in any way I can find.

2) The reason for this is that it has an overheating problem. Recording video or using the live view (LCD screen on the back so you can see what you're shooting) causes the camera to heat up, and it will automatically shut off to prevent itself from getting fried internally. This is a nice feature in terms of not wanting your equipment to die, but it is frustrating when a combination of a long scene and hot lights cause it to cut in the middle of a shot.

3) Perhaps its worst flaw is that it only remembers its settings as long as the live view is on. So let's say the camera guys painstakingly set up the shot, get the colors and apertures all set, and then the director wants to talk through the scene with the actors. Unfortunately, you're going to want to click off the live view to prevent overheating later. When you click it back on, you'll find that it has forgotten everything you set up before. This meant setting and resetting the settings (wow, say "settings" much?) many times through the course of a scene.

4) This flaw is actually kind of a bonus as well, but the D90 shoots in only 720p. While that's no 1080p, it's actually way easier to edit. You don't have to render out a low res version to cut with, and it'll play a lot smoother on a decent computer system. Also nice is that Nikon's codec rules. I edited on Adobe Premiere, and with one simple free codec that I installed (PC only, Mac users, you're on your own), it was an absolute breeze. In my experience, Canon's files are a lot bigger in size and much more difficult to edit with. To give you an idea of how efficient these files are, all of the footage for my entire final runtime of 75 minutes movie is about 100 gigs. We shot HOURS of footage with a relatively small digital footprint.

I haven't yet tried it, but I understand the Nikon D3000s has fixed these problems. I'm pretty sure every DSLR has a little overheating trouble an a max clip length because of it, but the times have gotten longer than 5 minutes now.

So before you make your movie, or dump a bunch of money on some expensive P2 rig (or God forbid anything that shoots to tape, eww, gross), look around to see what DSLRs your friends have. You may be able to borrow or buy one that's MUCH cheaper than those bigger rigs and will provide you with way more flexibility.

These little bastards are the source of my nightmares