September, 2002

Tap On The Head

September 30th, 2002 September 30th, 2002
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It’s official. My brain is now full. There’s no room for any more stuff. Sorry.

Today, take back crappy Weston light meter and trade for a more expensive Gossan light meter which works. Visit school which will be police station interior and sketch office area which has gym socks laying on counter and urchins milling around. Finish doing very badly drawn storyboards which will convey impression to cast and crew of what I’m trying to film.

Then work. Incredibly busy two hours followed by… nothing. Zen moment. Quiet. Peace. But brain too full to appreciate it. Resolve to slack off as much as possible later. Try to access internet and the whole system is cuffed up. Pause and reflect on the Zen.

Outside a grey tower block looms concrete and glass skywards. A summation of aspiration which neither dignifies nor inspires. Great views from the inside maybe but from outside, nothing but square-cornered stretched-cube ugly. And the views will all be of a sprawling urban jungle, jostling and bustling, choking a little on its exhalations, yet somehow vibrant and creative.

Full brain can’t even contemplate those things right now. Can’t measure the distinction between needs and wants either, as Zen brain had pondered doing yesterday. Can only pour words out from the top of the head through the overflow valve. Far less appealing than some kind of distilled knowledge flowing, yet maybe tappity-tap something here will give me pause for thought later.

Tap tap. Where do the random socks come from that end up on office desks? Tap tap. Why does everyone try to do a whole days work between three o’clock and five? Tap tap. Life is for living not for working towards a retirement. Tip tap.

Economic axiom: ‘Needs, taken as a whole, can never be satisfied.’ Which inevitably means economics is about treating resources as something scarce. Which inevitably leads to conflict because of that perception. Which is why all modern societies wind up with the same problems–because they’re looking at scarcity rather than opportunity and abundance. Missing the beauty which is real and around. Hmm, tap.

Between the taps.

This Isn’t Mission Difficult…

September 29th, 2002 September 29th, 2002
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…it’s Mission Impossible.

Yeah, right. I’ve spent the evening watching MI2 hoping to get some shots from John Woo that I could rip off. Okay, copy. Okay. Get some kind of inspiration. Thing is, I can’t rip those shots off. John Woo’s style is more than individual shots. It’s about pacing, it’s about action, it’s about the way he puts things together.

Honestly, I urge you, if you haven’t seen it for a while, do watch Mission Impossible 2 again. It really is a great film. The script is by Robert Towne, for gawd’s sake. And the stunts are absolutely superb. I also have a lot of respect for Tom Cruise. Don’t underestimate him. He’s is one of America’s great exports and how we (in the rest of the world) view you guys, image wise. Plus the way he shows women is verrrry sexy. Is it wrong to say that?

There’s actually a great scene where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is trying to convince this woman he needs her help. It takes place on a balcony with a great view over Seville. He says this. She says that. Then he turns his back on her, because he’s so frustrated. And what Woo does, is he lets the silence linger. He keeps varying the camera angles, but the scene unfolds, emotionally, without words. That’s what good moving images are about.

That aside, what I’ve concluded is that John Woo’s main style relies heavily on two things: fantastic dolly grip work and judicious use of slow motion. There are also a few scenes where the actors are composited onto a background which they obviously weren’t part of during shooting. How can I tell this? Only one way–depth of field. The things which are in focus shouldn’t all be in focus in one photographic image–eg. the flamenco sequence.

So, hats off to Mark Meyers, the dolly grip, because he *makes* this film, even though his credit is buried. And I’ve been inspired to use slow motion wherever possible. Which will no doubt hack off my cameraman, Andy, who is coming out at the last minute to work with me again. And I also got some inspiration to use a dutch tilt at the beginning of The Car. Which Woo doesn’t use, but I kind of like it.

There you go.

The F-minus story of the day involves speaking to the audio post production guru regarding mono sound versus DTS, which is apparently an either/or choice, thinking about percussion as the music track (if any is included) and revisiting Sarratt, my village location, to find a place to do reverse angles from the police station (shots) in Pinner. Can do.

Also, I discover my light meter doesn’t work, so have to replace it, talking to the art director, losing my continuity person, almost (but not) getting another camera assistant with tons of experience and thinking about all kinds of things.

One of the things I was thinking about is that we are going to hack off the good people of Sarratt inevitable. As a caring kind of new agey guy, I worry about that. I don’t want people to be upset because of something I’m doing. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got the Andy (cameraman/DP) philosophy which is that the only thing which matters is the image you get on the celluloid. I need to adopt that. Toughen up.

As part of my get tough on me policy, I’ve decided that my director self needs to divorce my producer self. I hope this works out okay and we get joint custody of the film, our baby. Otherwise I’ll have to kick my butt. But I’m not sure if it will be about my career or my caring for the community. As long as it’s not for compromising too early in that negotiation, the film should grow up healthy and strong. What more can you ask?

F minus 6

September 28th, 2002 September 28th, 2002
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When will these F-countdown blogs end?

When I have a film in the can, of course. Meanwhile, today’s news: Jon the camera assistant definitely won’t be available. However, we still plan to borrow the equipment from the same facility company that trusts him and he trusts me to look after it. I’ll also have this big insurance deal going. Big for me, anyway.

What I don’t have at the moment is a light meter. I need to phone around and dig one up as Jon is a bit loathe to part with his when he’s working. Understandable really. No, really. Okay, it’s not. Gimme gimme–I neeeeeed it. Okay, yes, it is understandable and it’s time to make six million more phone calls until the meter on my line glows red hot and then melts.

Finally, I *do* have a police station interior location confirmed because I got through to the school caretaker (aka. site manager) and arranged a time to do a recce and a time for the crew to arrive next Saturday. I also arranged for the art director to call and visit to check the place out.

Yes, Lionel (the art director) finally got back in touch via email. He’s been completing every freelance writing assignment he had for the forthcoming two weeks to free himself up for next weekend. And his phone had started glowing red hot before burning his ear and exploding. Allegedly. Whatever. He’s on the case.

Now, equipment. Equipment equipment equipment. Strangely, repeating words for dramatic effect doesn’t help. The thing is, I won’t know for sure if I have a camera–a free camera–until Tuesday. Is it any wonder I can’t get to sleep at night? Actually, saying that, I slept thirteen hours on Thursday night. Tonight, though, four. Go figure.

I are a cinematographer

Not quite. But I do have a light meter–49 from the secondhand camera shop in St Albans. A very nice Weston Master V, as used by good stills photographers.

The camera shop also had a 16mm camera in the window going for 250. I was sorely tempted. Checking revealed it will run at speeds from 6fps to 32fps including the standard 24fps of cinema motion pictures. However, it only takes standard 16mm stock (ie. double perforated). Kodak still appear to make this, although I’ve been buying from Fuji (substantially better discount, 40% versus 10%). It might also be possible to have the camera converted to super16 (single perf). It would also need checking to see if it’s light-tight…

Hmmm…

F minus 7

September 27th, 2002 September 27th, 2002
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Art Department

Major Credits: Production Designer, Art Director(s)
Responsible for: props, wardrobe, graphics.
Provision to date: props and wardrobe.

Discovery: Fiona has turned up with a good selection of what’s needed. She’s today’s star.
Reaction: profound thanks for Fiona. Irritation at the half of the art dept looking after the graphics because they’ve yet to be seen.

Banging head on wall exercise: phoning four days in a row and leaving messages which aren’t returned. And this is to Lionel, one of the writers. Does he want this made or not? Maybe, though, maybe his phone’s not working.
Director’s comment: It’s good here, isn’t it?

Film Lab

Major Credits: Processing by, Grading by
Responsible for: processing raw stock, telecine transfer to video, grading and printing final print for theatrical distribution.
Provision to date: quote. And a few film cans and report sheets.

Discovery: printing 35mm from digital video will cost more or less the same as getting a blow-up from a super16 negative–ie. 3,500 plus tax. Let’s call it 4,500, shall we? On the other hand, printing standard 16mm from a standard 16mm negative will cost around 500 plus tax. Let’s call it 600.
Reaction: guess what we choose? Abject poverty or commonsense?

Banging head on wall exercise: standard 16 will only give me a poor quality (reduced bass and treble) soundtrack while 35mm can give a full range Dolby SR surround soundtrack.
Director’s comment: 4k for decent sound?

F minus 8

September 26th, 2002 September 26th, 2002
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Camera assistant/focus puller – check. Someone who knows what they’re doing and has some experience, knows what consumables they need (eg. compressed air for cleaning, various tapes for sticking things together) and comes equipped with Maglight and Leatherman (a multipurpose tool like a high-tech Swiss Army knife, nothing kinky, sorry). So, I have a new camera assistant.

I also seem to have nearly twenty crew. How the freak did that happen? A touch too mob-handed methinks. Moreover, what I don’t have is (a) equipment–except provisionally–or (b) a light meter (retail cost, approx 700, I’m told. Time to check ebay).

Meanwhile…

Fort Lauderdale finally confirm that they want the Fate & Fortune print on October 23rd and Los Angeles will be screening it on October 19th. That’s a Saturday, so assume shipping on Monday 21st means two days to get to Florida. Ack. LA don’t pay forward shipping, just to complicate that nice tight turnaround (suits you, sir). Sorry, that’s complicate, not complement. Confusion and work–the diametrically opposing forces of the universe–continue to rule.

Discovery of the day: CD-ROM business cards. Way cool.

F minus 9

September 25th, 2002 September 25th, 2002
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Today I’m a location manager

We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen. Pinner. Pinner is a village masquerading as a town which is really a London suburb. Pinner has the perfect village police station, with photogenic flowers outside and baskets hanging around the door. This, with some cheated camera angles, will do perfectly.

Several minutes were spent drawing a detailed sketch of the building to decide exactly what can be shot there–the entrance and the front–and what can’t–anything across the road where there’s a pub on one side and a row of shops on the other with a line of bottle recycling bins in front of them.

Pinner police station is actually on the corner of a fairly busy junction so I need to get all the reverse angles, looking back at the parked car (the Westfield) and the old lady driving off in it while we’re in the village on Friday. Then when those are cut together with the police station exteriors from Sunday, it will all look like two views of the one small location. Ah, the magic of cinema.

Back home, I call the Metropolitan Police operations room in Harrow (another London suburb) and am told to fax through details of my plans to one Inspector Yoxall, head of operations. It’s done. I’ve actually gone one step further, anticipating their next question, and checked that my union (Bectu) membership gives me public liability insurance cover for filming on the streets. It does.

One problem solved. Now I’m just waiting to see if I can do a bit better on the calibre of candidates who’ve responded so far to my requests for a camera assistant/focus puller.

====

That all sounded too easy, didn’t it. Well, it was. I mean, it wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t *something* to slow the whole production process down. Today it’s that I can’t get access to the school location–my police station interior–until next week because the school caretaker has gone sick. Of course, I’m working next week. So planning lighting and shots there is going to be, um… interesting.

F minus 10

September 24th, 2002 September 24th, 2002
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Nothing could possibly go wrong could it? Unless you’re camera assistant suddenly finds he has to work on another project the weekend of the shoot. That’s the camera assistant who is providing (i) the essential help you need in order to DP and direct, and is also providing (ii) the contact with the facilities company who are loaning you equipment without a hire charge. He’ll know by the end of the week. Uh oh.

It would be sensible to give up wouldn’t it. Really. It would. Commonsense says knock it on the head. Walk away. Relax. Spend the money on something else. It’s not like you have the money anyway, after all.

Commonsense has nothing to do with film making.

Think laterally

This is what a producer really does. Problem solving.

Problem #1: no camera assistant.

Solution: place advert on Guild of Television Cameramen mailing list; place advert on Shooting People mailing list; phone Mike (lead actor) who has just appeared in low budget feature and see if he has any contacts; phone Ruth (person stills photographer met in pub) who has just appeared in low budget film and made a pop video and see if she has any contacts; phone Andy (a DoP) and see if he might be interested in getting involved/advising at this stage.

Sit back and wait for phone to ring/email to fill up.

Problem #2: no police station exterior.

Solution: phone local newspaper and see if news editor knows anywhere using their encyclopaedic knowledge; phone county police HQ and ask for press officer; mention to absolutely everyone you know or talk to that you are looking for this location.

Follow up any leads this throws up.

Come up with a dozen more possible solutions as the week progresses until problems are solved.

F minus 11

September 23rd, 2002 September 23rd, 2002
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I now have:

* 4,000 feet of 250ASA daylight Fuji stock in my fridge in 10x400ft rolls (cost 658 including tax). This means I’m official over the top. They threw in a grey scale and colour swatch card (at my request) which will get photographed in every shot (on the clapperboard) and should make the lab result better.

* Forty percent discount in a deal with a lab (Colour Film Services) for developing and transferring to video including a technical grade (25p/foot, giving a total of 1,175 including tax to finish on Digital Betacam). A Deal With The Lab sounds like a title all on its own. Kind of shady.

* Six extra crew members (if I want them all) including a runner with his own car, a runner with no car and two sound recordists (one of whom can’t do the Friday). I’m now turning people away.

* No police station exterior–Herts Film Link (now part of Screen East) didn’t have anything suitable and emailed me a picture of what looks suspiciously like a town house.

* No food in the house. I finished the second tub of ice cream five minutes ago.

F minus 12

September 22nd, 2002 September 22nd, 2002
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The irrelevance of answering machines

Keep phoning the actor playing the Police Sergeant–a character with fifty percent of the dialogue–to check he is coming to rehearsal at 2.30pm on Sunday–a time he has requested to fit in with another production he’s appearing in. Make calls on Saturday evening, Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon. Keep getting answering machine. No messages returned. Drink low-stress peppermint tea, eat half packet of chocolate biscuits, go to rehearsal anyway and keep fingers crossed.

Do this after returning the sixth and seventh messages from guilt-tripping producer wannabe. Returned calls reveal that this person does not accept calls where the caller’s number is withheld–which eliminates calling from BBC and incidentally explains why she hasn’t worked for nearly a year. Eventually leave (relieved) message on her answer machine.

Method meets madness

Despite previous indications to the contrary, all four actors *do* turn up for the rehearsal. And on time too. However, the school caretaker where we’re rehearsing doesn’t and I have to go to his house where I catch him.

“Oh, you’re not in The Book,” he says, referring to some quasi-mystical tome which absolves him of guilt. Okay, he means the bookings diary but I’m making a drama remember. “I was here the other week. I spoke to you,” I say. “We arranged the use of a classroom. You showed me where to go.” “Yes,” he says, “Yes, I remember but if it’s not in The Book, I don’t think of it.” Sigh. For some caretaking is clearly a religion. He comes and unlocks the door anyway.

Okay, so we’re in. We move undersized school furniture out of the way and sit in a circle on small chairs to read through the script. Then we discuss the characters and how they develop, or not as the case may be, before I start blocking out the action. This turns into a slow process as people without lines are wont to improvise and I have to keep going through correcting them. Also, they don’t know the script by heart so everyone is carrying these sheets of paper around with them.

Nevertheless, after about two hours, we’ve developed the police sargeant as a jolly pervert called Arthur Cobbett and the lost woman as Emma, a confused marketing executive with a heaving cleavage which Arthur can’t take his eyes off. Charlie is still Charlie but an old granny winds up stealing his car and flipping him the bird. Ace. I’ve got something I can work with and after another hour, we’re done.

“Can you come back again during the week to do it without the script?” I ask. “Oh, we’re fine.” “We don’t need to do it until the day,” say the actors confidently. Then we find none of them can do the same day next week for another rehearsal anyway so I shrug and we head for home. In all, it’s been an extremely useful afternoon as I now have a feel for the flow of the main two scenes and we’ve saved hours of timewasting on location.

Madness meets method

Back home, the main thing on my mind is the lack of a clapper loader for the shoot. Joyce, my assistant director, was telling me the other day she’d love to learn to be a clapper loader. “I’m going to do some work experience with Panavision soon,” she happened to mention in passing. For re-al! Yes, it looks like the problem is solving itself, doesn’t it, dear reader?

Sandhya (my original clapper person) calls me and tells me she can only help out on Friday. “I’ll have to leave by three,” she says. I am unperturbed as my mood is upbeat and positive thanks to today’s rehearsal. “Could you teach Joyce to load the camera?” I ask. “Yes, I should think so,” she says. Haha! Bingo. Problem solved.

Now I’m down one assistant director. I call Craig who helped as 2nd AD on Last Train. “Good to hear from you,” he says. “Thanks for thinking of me,” he says. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “I’ll confirm tomorrow.” Maybe *this* is the week to buy a lottery ticket?

Finally, The Car needs a car. The Westfield has been promised but I’m nervous that the owner might suddenly change his mind. I call him to arrange stills next Sunday because Charlie needs to pull out a wallet full of these for the police station scene. Nope, he can’t do next Sunday although the filming dates are no problemo–even when I mention a 7am start. During the week should be fine for stills, though, he says, and I pass his number on to Pete, the photographer.

Phew. Game over, man. Game freaking over. Not quite. Tomorrow: call Herts Film Link–the wannabe location service for this fair county–and get *them* to solve the problem of finding a police station.

F minus 13

September 21st, 2002 September 21st, 2002
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Sarratt

Location recces are among the most creative parts of the film making process. You go out to visit the location with a member/members of the crew and start deciding what the actual shots will be. Today I went to visit the village green in Sarratt with Joyce, one of my assistant directors.

First stop, the village shop. I know the shot I want to open the film–car winds up the road, parks outside the shop, driver goes in, pan/jib down to reveal title written on poster, pan/jib up as driver exits shop, pan to reveal car has vanished. Then there’s two or three more close ups to get.

We go into the shop and I ask if they have any objections to us filming the front of the shop while an actor walks in and out. No, they haven’t. But they warn us that it gets extremely busy outside because there is a school at the end of the lane and also a toddlers group so parents block the road with cars for much of the day. This means the optimal time for getting the sequence is 9am-12noon. Once again, talking to people pays dividends.

Having achieved this small piece of research, the shopkeeper also mentions that a film crew was there recently and closed off the road, disrupting the whole place. We won’t be disruptive will we? Hmm. Well, we don’t plan on it. But film crews are *always* disruptive. It’s how it is. I tell the nice lady we don’t plan on doing anything complex and won’t be closing roads or blocking access ways, so it should be very straightforward. It probably won’t be though. It never is.

Discovering problems

Also in the village, I need four other locations. The first one we find by walking up the road to a nearby phone box, an old red one. Perfect. Behind it is the church. I can start a shot on the church, have the actor walk into shot, pull focus to him as he approaches the phone box, stops and looks around. At that point his stolen car will pass behind him, unseen except by the audience.

Problems–once the car has passed, the actor swears in frustration apropos of nothing and an old lady appears. My problems are: why does he swear? How do I make this appear reasonable? And why didn’t he see the old lady who is suddenly shocked by his swearing? I need to block this through with the actors in rehearsal to figure out a way to make the shots and script work.

I make a few sketches then Joyce and I move on to discover a lovely photogenic wooden bus shelter and an even more photogenic petrol station. These are perfect for the scenes where the actor is asking people in the village if they’ve seen his car. The garage owner doesn’t have any objections as I don’t plan to be on his forecourt but will film from across the road.

Then there’s a nice village hall where we can film Charlie finding his lost car and we go through the shots we should get there. Jib up from shiny headlamp to Charlie approaching from behind hall, then dolly/jib to side as he approaches car. It all looks very very good. Sarratt is great. We head for Bushey.

Bushey

Bushey is where we have permission to film the outside of the local police station. We arrive to discover it’s on a busy road with no parking except opposite in a pub car park. There’s nowhere to put an equipment van or crew cars and barely anywhere to leave the star car overnight for my timelapse sequence. I snap some shots on my webcam but can’t see any way to make this location work, so we leave.

London Colney

This is another small village, not to be confused with London, which is a big city and metropolitan area. London Colney has an ideally located police station, set back from the road, with parking outside where we could leave the car for a night and plenty of angles to shoot from. The trouble is, London Colney Police Station is criminally ugly. A seventies pre-fab throwback, it is not an attractive building in any way shape or form.

Bottom line: we need a new police station, somewhere photogenic with parking outside and nearby which can feature our actors going in and out of the door. We have less than two weeks to find it.

====

Sisyphus’ snowball

So far, so good, I think. Return home and call the actors to confirm tomorrow’s rehearsal then call some of the crew.

Dave should be Best Boy and it’s weeks since I spoke to him. The best boy is first assistant to the chief electrician (the gaffer). Dave tells me a tale of woe and marital strife. It doesn’t sound like he’s the best boy at home which means he doesn’t think he can be best boy on set. Swear word. I remain calm and jolly and say if he can make the Sunday, that’s when I really could use him, so he says okay, he’ll try. He’ll let me know.

Then I call Sandhya, my clapper loader who’s worked on the other two Ascalon Films productions. Her role is crucial as she loads the film magazines, effectively blindfold using a changing bag to stop the film becoming exposed. She marks each shot with the clapperboard (“Slate one, take one!”) providing a sync point for sound during editing and she fills in the lab reports to make sure the film is processed correctly. Sandhya (pronounced ‘Sandy’) is sweet and hardworking and good to have around.

“I was going to call you,” says Sandhya. Uh oh, I think. “I might actually be working on those dates you gave me…” Uh oh! “…I definitely can’t do the Friday.” That’s not so good. Uh oh uh oh uh… well, you get the idea. So Sandhya will call me back tomorrow evening when she’ll be able to confirm if she can make it for the Saturday and Sunday. I figure if she can do that, Jon could load up three magazines for Friday on Thursday evening and we’ll be ahead.

Finally, I call the stills photographer, Pete, who was also supposed to be working elsewhere on the shooting dates. Good news: he’s got all three days off as leave. So it’s not all bad. I do a quick trip to the supermarket and buy some staples–ice cream, chocolate biscuits and merlot. On the way back it hits me that I’m actually going to make another film and I’m completely crazy given the number of obstacles which crop up. It’s insane. I laugh out loud.

To round off the day, I join the shootingpeople list and advertise for a sound recordist. Another day, another set of problems and solutions. I keep pushing the snowball up the hill and the sun keeps blasting away at it. Bits drop off but then I roll it through some fresh snow and we’re away again. The point of no return may already have passed but the crest of the hill will really be when I spend hard cash on film stock. That will be next week.