It’s Friday, September 27th, and I’m sitting at the financial center with a cup of coffee, my ipod, and my computer. The Dust Brother’s soundtrack to Fight Club is what I’m listening to at the moment.
I got sleep last night. I rested all day. I played Call of Duty, I got food for dinner, I took a nice walk.
All of this adds up to one thing, and one thing only. Principal photography on Enchantments is done.
If I were a heroin junky I probably would have OD’d this morning.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time. I did. In fact, after just two years of being a self-taught DP, I just shot my first feature. I’m feeling pretty good, albeit the anxiety, nightmares, and general unease have not departed.
Now, that’s not to say that Kelsey wasn’t insane for picking me… truth be told, that remains to be seen. When I have a blog post that simply has a headline with ‘GOODBYE’ in it, you’ll know something’s wronger (?) than usual.
Let’s get back to Day 5. The first party.
At this point we’ve been up for about 4 hours or so, give or take. Frank (our PA) and I have to black out the windows in the apartment because this party takes place at night, and the sun is creeping in. We grab some industrial strength tape, some black garbage bags, and get to work.
Shooting inside of the apartment is kind of a pain. We’ve got 11 actors and 5 crew (including myself) in this tiny space. Luckily, it’s a quick scene. A couple of shots, a couple of foley grabs, not too painful. The problem for me was the lighting.
Kelsey and I went to go check the place out before we shot, but without the opportunity to have, say, 5 hours with the place, at night, and with some actors or ethnic stand-ins… it can kind of be hit or miss.
I say ‘ethnic stand-ins’ because lighting a party that has both white and black people, and shades in between, can sometimes be difficult. If this were a sequel to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, I wouldn’t have fretted so much. But it wasn’t.
I mean, it isn’t. This is not a Nazi exploitation film. It could have been, but Kelsey has her vision.
So, we get there and I’m trying to think ‘mood lighting, John. Mood lighting.’
Well, the cheap 60 watt bulbs I’m putting up with clamp lights are casting shadows that are reminiscent of Hammer films more than anything else.
This is not a Hammer film. It could have been, but…
So, I try another tactic. Available lighting. There’s a pretty heft bulb blazing above us in the room. High ceilings… it’s not looking too shabby. We still get shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin. These happen, but not as drastic as with the clip lights. What it set was a kind of mood, and, with no real time to set up, it’s actually better than I thought it was going to be.
It’s not Nazis or vampires, but it’ll do for now.
I’m gonna take you way back now, for a moment. In September of 1991, before the internet, I went to SVA to become a comic book illustrator. At SVA they make all first years have the same classes together. So, you pick a group, you stick with it for the entire year. I can’t say why they do this, but I think it’s because there are a lot of transplants coming from all over, and it’s easier to make friends that way in the big bad city.
Well, that first year, I met a couple of guys who are still my friends today. Jeff and Thane. Jeff lived on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street, and was the strangest, coolest guy I’d ever met. Thane was a laid back dude from Colorado who is probably loving their pot laws these days. Both are very talented artists.
One day I’m over at Jeff’s place with Thane and this guy John Slater, another SVA student. It’s late. Super late, and Jeff decides to pop in a VHS (yes, this was before DVDs too, jesus christ) of the funniest goddamn thing… Ren and Stimpy.
Now, it’s an east village one bedroom, so it’s small. Jeff’s girlfriend at the time was sleeping in the next room, and had to wake up early, unbeknownst to us. The short Space Madness comes on, and we lose our minds.
I laugh so hard I have to ask him to stop the tape because I can’t breath.
Suddenly, Jeff’s girlfriend comes out of the bedroom, grabs him, drags him into the bathroom, and screams at him.
We leave quietly and not so quietly. Saying “busted” to your friend while his girlfriend has him by the throat is probably not the best way to make an impression.
Now, I can’t remember if this was the first time I’d been at his place or not, but what I remember was, Jeff had these long fluorescent bulbs that had colored gels over them in the corners of his room. He was a big pot smoker, amongst other things, and loved to set the mood for that particular activity.
Those lights have been in a small corner of my brain ever since. They did wonderful things to set the mood of a room, and I’ll be damned if those lights didn’t come into my brain when I saw this guy’s apartment for this shoot.
The problem was, A) we didn’t have any more money to spare. B) I had no idea how it was going to look on camera.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t get a chance to use those lights, but they inspired me to think of something else we might use in the store.
But I’ll get to that.
With the first party finished, we took the bags on the windows down and started cleaning up our host’s roof deck for party #2.
We added 5 actors, had 11 costume changes, and some set direction to do. Luckily it was a nice and sunny day on a roof deck that faced North. I was able to shoot everything on my 24mm 2.8 lens with a nice hard depth of field, so that most things were in focus.
We get to shooting some MOS (without sound) shots, and get into these two tracking (follow) shots of the main character. And, I have to say, they’re looking pretty good.
Let’s take you back a little over a year or so. In March of 2012 I went out in the early morning to try and catch a sunrise on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was very early and I was inspired to try and shoot anything and everything.
I shot a bunch of footage. The sunrise was shit, but I was happy to be out and about.
As the daylight got better, I got some shots of buildings, just in case. Think of it as b-roll I could just have, you know?
When I got home to check it out, something strange happened to shots of brick buildings. A wavy look to the footage, as if the camera could not figure out what it was photographing.
A little bit of research led me to what’s called moire and anti-aliasing.
Moire is essentially a pattern that the camera can not focus on correctly, and shows up as waves. This can happen with inanimate objects and clothing, particularly clothing with a tight knit pattern, like on suits or… a lady’s dress.
I sit down and start looking at a particular shot after we yell cut. One of our actresses, Johanny Mota, who I worked with on Internet Affairs, was wearing a very nice dress that had a nightmare moire issue.
It looked like her dress was made of ants. Here’s a photo (click for a larger one):
You can see the slight banding on the back of her dress. It’s easier to see in video form, but take my word for it. Even on the small viewfinder, it was not something I wanted to see so prominently.
I told Kelsey we had to re-shoot it. I felt bad, but it’s not a pleasant thing to have in your film. It’s distracting, and you don’t want that.
So we did the new shots and the day was saved! The light from outside did not bother us one bit, thank god. No direct sunlight, which is a severe pain in the ass to shoot with.
We got in a nice group photo and wrapped that location without much to-do.
So, we’re gonna move on from the party, and I’m going to give you a general idea of how the rest of the shoot went.
But let’s get back to Christmas lights.
After we did our initial light test in the store, there were two areas that I thought needed some help.
Keep in mind, there are lights EVERYWHERE in this place. For me, that was fantastic news because that meant we weren’t going to have to go nuts renting lights. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have. With a larger budget the lights in the store would never have been much of a factor… maybe. I say that coming from the place of a small child lost in the woods saying ‘we should go this way!’ and following a bunch of bear tracks.
I could be right… maybe?
Lights. Man, we had a bank of 5 and a bank of 4 at the front of the store. A bank of 3 in the middle, and then two standing lamps and two ceiling lights in the back.
But there were two areas that looks like they could use something extra. One was the fragrance oil bottles at the back of the store. The second was the book shelves at the front, which we’d be seeing plenty of over the course of the film.
Here’s a test shot that shows you the kind of atmosphere those tiny lights helped achieve:
It helped add some dimension and, for these shallow depth of field shots, some cool circle light patterns.
We’ll see if it works in the end. Sometimes they were a pain because of lens flare.
This is not a JJ Abrams film.
So! Let me break down what we accomplished over the course of the last 3 weeks or so.
With an AD (Sibyl), a script supervisor (Mark), a PA (Frank), a sound guy (Nick or Jose), our cast, and two people in way over their heads, we shot 91 pages in 10 days, plus one re-shoot day.
Four of those days, including our re-shoot day, were half days.
With an ultra low budget, and the majority of people on set not getting paid, this is one of those recipes for disaster type scenarios where things should have been going wrong left and right.
But they didn’t. Not really, and if they did, we solved the problems without too much difficulty.
We had no suicides, no murders, no assaults… all positives.
It was quite an interesting and positive experience. I learned a ton, as I’m sure most people involved did, too.
I’m thankful for the feelings I had that so much faith was placed in me. That’s a wonderful feeling to have.
Kelsey and I still have to get back to the store to shoot some additional b-roll for the credits and for inserts here and there. Shouldn’t be too much of a pain.
What will be a pai… challenge will be editing this film. I’m not going to get into the particulars, but let’s just say I’ll have no shortage of blog posts over the coming month.
I’ll leave you all with something funny that happened to me this past Monday, the 23rd. For many years I’ve been playing in a pool league. I took a season off earlier this year, joined a new team I didn’t quite fit in with, and found myself on a completely different new team, in a division full of people I am friends with. Great.
On Monday, one of my teammates was talking about a project he was working on. He’s a director/producer something something at Bloomberg News. Cool.
I got to talking about this project, and started sharing some of the issues we were having… but ultimately talked about the good things. Kind of.
He asked me some cinematography questions, including a question about lighting. “What kind of kit are you using?”
Yeah. We’re not. The place is full of fucking lights.
“You’re not using a light kit? No kino-flo’s or nothing?”
Nope. Budget wouldn’t allow for it.
“That’s a mistake.”
TELL ME ABOUT IT, JACK!
“Yeah, I mean, do you even have a ring light?”
A… what the hell is a ring light?
“Are you kidding?”
“A ring light is a light that allows for bouncing off of the eyes. Makes it seem like actors eyes aren’t all black, like a doll’s eyes.”
I hear ‘doll’s eyes’ and all I’m thinking of is:
Ok, ha ha, but shit. I don’t have a fucking ring light. No one ever said anything about a GODDAMNED RING LIGHT.
“So, wait, you’re just using the lights in the store?”
Yeah, man, they’re everywhere.
“But… what about a back light?”
Jesus fucki – what in the hell is a back light?
“Are you serious?”
I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE!
“A backlight is one of the three basic lights in 3-point lighting.”
Do you mean a hair light?
“Well, it’s not just for hair.”
Yeah, man. We have one of those. It’s great. It lights up the hair, the back, the fabric on people’s clothing, it’s awesome. Because the store is full of lights!
Anyway. After that conversation, I raced home and checked the first piece of footage I found that was inside the store. What do I see? Like 7 lights hitting the eyes of one of the characters. There’s light everywhere.
But it’s interesting that he mentioned something (not that interesting because I don’t know all that much) that I didn’t think of before. Never even occurred to me. I’m looking at ten different things while I’m setting up a shot, and I have to learn to create a mental checklist of all the things that I need to remember.
1 – focus
2 – are the lav mic’s visible?
3 – is the boom casting a shadow?
4 – can I see the actor’s faces clear enough?
5 – what’s visible in the background?
6 – am I getting any lens flare, and if I am, where’s it coming from?
7 – what’s happening in the background?
8 – DO THE ACTORS LOOK LIKE DOLLS?
9 – am I going to cast a shadow on anything?
10 – am I going to trip on something?
And so on.
I’m sure there’s more to add to the list, but my brain has decided it’s time to check out at this point.
Thanks so much for reading. The Enchantment’s adventure continues on Monday, when we begin our edit.